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Women of the Vine and Kitchen

Who holds the key to understanding how to pair wine and food—women or men?

If you ask Deborah Brenner, she’ll point to women. After authoring the book, “Women of the Vine,” which shared stories of 21 women “who make, taste and enjoy wine,” Brenner decided to join their ranks with her own wine label, “Women of the Vine.”

The vintner calls herself an “assembler.” I call her an “ultra-networker” who brings clarity to wine and food pairing with the help of women in the wine industry.

Brenner doesn’t fool around with theory—she aims for the root of wine and food pairing by producing“Women of the Vine” charity events to benefit Farm Aid, the organization that supports family-owned, sustainably managed farms. Brenner has assembled female Farm Aid members as an ad hoc “Women of the Land” group to showcase their food at Farm to Table events with like-minded vintners, winemakers and sustainably-minded wine growers.

“As I met more women in the wine industry, I saw a connection with food being produced by women farmers. Over 30 percent of U.S. farm operators are women—and they care about where food comes from. Food and wine pairing needs to go back to the vineyard and the farm,” said Brenner.

On International Women’s Day in February, Brenner held a “Women of the Vine” event at the Westin Verasa Hotel in Napa bringing together 30 acclaimed, wine industry women. From Gina Gallo, winemaker at Gallo Signature Series Wines, and Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines in Sonoma to Karen Cakebread of Ziata Wines in St. Helena, these ladies are eager to share ideas about pairing food and wine.

Gina Gallo finds time among her role as mother of two-year-old twins, winemaker for Gallo Signature Series and wife of vintner Jean-Charles Boisset to cook and think about pairing while at home in Napa.  Gallo believes that starting with fresh ingredients makes wine pairing easier.

I asked Gallo what she would cook with her Sonoma 2009 Signature Series Chardonnay Russian River Valley. Based on her joy in growing and picking vegetables from her garden, she quickly conjures up a pairing: “Pan-fry petrale sole with shallots, then simmering in a broth of half wine and half water with herbs. Add some asparagus sautéed quickly in butter and EVO, and you have a delicious pairing with the Chardonnay,” said Gallo.

In Sonoma very few people come to the bucolic, set-in-the-vineyard tasting room at Inman Family Wines without hearing proprietor Kathleen Inman expound on the importance of cooking with sustainably farmed food. Inman became a master gardener in her spare time during her corporate finance job before settling on winemaking in the Russian River area. I’m still drooling over her description of organically grown 2009 Inman Family OGV Estate Pinot Noir with cherry-curry glazed pork chops and seasonal veggies.

Karen Cakebread is a vintner with strong culinary credentials. For 18 years she managed Cakebread Cellars educational and corporate hospitality as well as the winery’s American Harvest Workshop, an annual event that brought together acclaimed chefs and artisan food purveyors to create food and wine pairings, before launching Ziata Wines.

At the Women of the Vine event, Cakebread had recipes at the ready from her website via her iPad. The recipe that attracted my eye, shrimp risotto with Meyer lemon, was developed by her consulting winemaker, Anne Vawter. To pair with the risotto, Vawter recommended the refreshing Ziata Sauvignon Blanc—a classic match with the acid complement to the lightened version of creamy risotto.

Brenner launched another collaboration at the event— the new MORE Uncorked wine club from MORE magazine which offers select wines made by “Women of the Vine” vintners, winemakers and sustainable family grape growers.

Joining Brenner in Napa was wine industry consultant Marian Jansen op de Haar who serves as wine curator for the MORE Uncorked club. With her background as national wine director for Fleming’s Steakhouse and Wine Bar, Jansen op de Haar finds unique, limited production wines from women vintners that are food-friendly.  The wine shipments arrive with food pairing notes from the winemakers.

I asked Jansen op de Haar about pairings with Brenner’s Women of the Vine Pinot Noir. “With a wine such as this fresh and light Pinot Noir, you could pair almost  anything from Italian to Thai food. Why not a tuna burger from Gott’s Roadside diner in Napa? Yes, fish is a good choice with this ‘open texture’ wine, meaning open to pairing and not overpowering food,” said Jansen op de Haar.

Brenner’s previous life as a high-powered marketing executive and consultant, Brenner traveled extensively abroad and dined at the world’s best restaurant. She knows outstanding wine when she tastes it, an affinity that has played out well when she entered the industry. Meanwhile her own palate has broadened as she meets more women winemakers and farmers. Not surprisingly, her winemaker is a woman, Alison Crowe.

Her favorite pairing with her wine? “The crisp, citrusy, un-oaked Women of the Vine Chardonnay would stand up to a creamy sauce with chicken or seafood but would not overwhelm the food with oak and heavy flavors,” added Brenner.

Keep your eye on Brenner. I can envision her partnering with women chefs who own family-owned restaurants that serve sustainably grown food and who, like Brenner, promote those who speak to food and wine pairing in simple terms that anyone can understand.

Gina Gallo at Women of the Vine event

Deborah Brenner with her Women of the Vine wine at the Westin Verasa Napa event

Photo Credit: Christophe Genty

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The opening question is an provacative hook; the answer is BOTH, even though Brenner may think she has a different, definitive answer. Who makes a better parent, doctor, or bus driver for that matter? To make the choice based on gender is silly. I'm not being critical of your reporting, with tacit agreement (it seems,) but rather the position you are reprting on.

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