Working with passion and finesse: Colorado’s women winemakers | SummitDaily.com

Working with passion and finesse: Colorado’s women winemakers

Christina Holbrook
Special to the Daily

Strong women have held their own in Colorado since the pioneer days. So it should come as no surprise that some of the star winemakers in our state are women.

From the early 1970s when Colorado's modern wine industry was just getting started, women winemakers have worked alongside their male colleagues. Today, women winemakers and wine professionals are the creative force inside some of the most established wineries, they are spearheading new educational programs for wine enthusiasts, and leading the successful promotional effort for the state's wine industry.

Here are four women winemakers who are making a difference in Colorado's growing wine scene:

THE NURTURING TOUCH

Padte Turley, Colorado Cellars, East Orchard Mesa, Palisade

Colorado Cellars is arguably the oldest winery in the state, and certainly one of the top producers and award winners. Founded in 1977 as Colorado Mountain Vineyards, the winery was purchased in 1989 by Rick and Padte Turley and renamed Colorado Cellars. Padte Turley has been winemaker since day one.

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Padte Turley is a private person, who leaves the gregarious promoting of the business to her husband Rick, whom she refers to as her "co-conspirator." While her husband is on the road visiting clients, Turley heads out to the vineyards.

"I love being out in the field. I never do the same thing — and I like that," she said. She approaches her work with a personal touch and a kind of tenderness. "You should never try to make things what they are not. You nurture what you have, and I am conscious of how much I am requiring the vines to produce. You have to be careful about everything you do, because we want the vines to last."

A question I posed to all of the winemakers: So, what's different about how women make wine?

"People say our wines have a lot of finesse, that they start the way they end, have character and complexity," Padte Turley said. "Some of the men's styles are heavy-handed. But that may just reflect who they are."

THE WINEMAKER'S DAUGHTER

Julie Balistreri, Balistreri Vineyards, Denver

The Balistreris are an Italian winemaking family, and Julie Balistreri is always quick to defer to her father, John, as the senior winemaker. That being said, on any given day at Balistreri's big operation in Denver, it is clear that the center of the action is wherever Julie Balistreri happens to be.

Julie has her hand in every aspect of the business, from coordinating with the growers in Palisade about exactly when to pick the grapes, to managing the sizeable restaurant and tasting room, to organizing one of the biggest Harvest Festivals in the state, which takes place at their Denver location.

How does the daughter of a wine-family patriarch assert her winemaking style? "My Dad and I have the same taste — which is very convenient for us," she said. "We are very much in line most of the time. We harvest grapes later, we are looking for a little higher brick — higher sugar — and riper grapes. Our wines are 15.5 to 16 percent alcohol and have a more intense fruit flavor."

Another characteristic both father and daughter Balistreri agree on — producing wine without chemicals.

"We choose not to manipulate the grapes," she said. "We want the grape to express itself. We are not trying to make it taste like California, or like last year."

Where they differ? "My Dad doesn't go too far away from what we've always done — I think it's an Italian thing. I'm always out there trying to do something we've never done before."

"It's a hard business," admitted Balistreri, when asked about her advice for those who might be interested in a career in winemaking, "So you have to have passion."

THE CAREER JUMPER

Michelle Cleveland, Creekside Cellars, Evergreen

Michelle Cleveland was director of production and distribution for Dazbog Coffee when, in 2000, she attended the Palisade Wine Festival and heard of a job opening at a winery in Evergreen. Cleveland was familiar with the rolling hills of this Denver suburb, and one day after a hike strolled into Creekside Cellars and sat down with owner Bill Donahue. The allure of winemaking in the lovely setting by Bear Creek stuck; in 2005 she quit her job at Dazbog and began volunteering at the winery.

Cleveland had received a degree in agriculture from the University of Illinois; once settled into Creekside Cellars she followed up by getting a certificate of Enology & Viticulture from University of California Davis. She finished the program in 2007 and was promoted to winemaker.

Like the other women I spoke with, Cleveland referred to the strong support she received from a mentor, in this case Bill Donahue.

"I like to experiment," she said. "A lot of the growers are planting new varietals and I look forward to getting a hold of these. Bill never holds me back from trying something new or different."

As I had with the other winemakers, I asked: Is there anything special or different about the way women approach winemaking? Cleveland made no bones about it. "Women have better palates, right? There is a lot of data that shows that.

"It is still a male-dominated industry and you have to work twice as hard to be recognized," she added. "But if it's something you really want to do you can do it."

Given the number of awards Cleveland has won — her Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon won in the 2015 Governor's Cup — that hard work has paid off.

THE EDUCATOR

Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, lead instructor at Colorado's first Viticulture and Enology Program

After 22 years as winemaker at the award-winning Plum Creek Winery in Palisade, Jenne Baldwin-Eaton has recently begun a new career as an educator. This January, classes will begin at a program she helped develop: Colorado's first two-year associate of applied science in viticulture and enology degree program. Classes will be offered at Western Colorado Community College and Colorado Mesa University in the Grand Valley.

"Winemaking is a great career to get into," noted Baldwin-Eaton. "For we that live out in Colorado and want to work in a place we love to live in, it's a great opportunity. I personally love the art and science combination, I feel as if I am an artist but I also get to use the scientific side of things."

What does it take? "A strong person, because its hard work," she said. "But also someone who doesn't take things too seriously. It's a fun industry, people come to you because they love wine and want to learn more, and most people in the wine business have a pretty good sense of humor."

Christina Holbrook is a writer living in Breckenridge. She and photographer Marc Hoberman are collaborating on a book entitled, "The Winelands of Colorado," to be published this spring by The Hoberman Collection (U.S., UK and South Africa).

THE PROMOTER

Cassidee Shull, Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology

Another influential woman on the Colorado Wine scene is the executive director of the Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology (CAVE), Cassidee Shull. Based in the Grand Valley, CAVE’s mission is to support and promote wineries and cideries throughout the state. Shull organizes the most widely attended wine event in Colorado, the Colorado Winefest. Coming this January, CAVE will be hosting the VinCO Conference, an educational and networking event for experienced wine professionals, as well as newer winemakers and enthusiastic amateurs.

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