In the male chauvanist-dominated society of France, managing a wine-producing vineyard on a large estate has always been considered the proper domain of a man. However, by both sheer talent and a dogged determination to excel, a number of women have reached the top of their professions and are responsible for some of that country's best and most prestigious wines.
Of all France's wine regions, none is more steeped in tradition and male domination than Bordeaux. It was a great shock to many men when, in 1964, the owners of the little respected and largely ignored third growth chateau, called La Lagune, placed a woman, Jeanne Boyrie, in control of winemaking.
Boyrie is a formidable woman. When I first first met her in 1975 she chastised me for being several minutes late for my appointment and then was cricital of my routine practice of tasting out of a half-dozen or more barrels of unreleased wine in an attempt to evaluate its quality.
In 1975, La Lagune was one of the awakening stars of Bordeaux. Ten years later it is now widely regarded as one of the great wines of Bordeaux and considerably better than its official third growth status. Boyrie is the primary reason for that reputation and the demand for La Lagune by the trade and wine consumers today.
Since 1978, I have visited, tasted and discussed the new vintage with Boyrie each March. There are other regisseurs (the French term for manager) in Bordeaux that I respect much, but there are none that I respect more. Her passion for excellence, her professionalism and her fastidious control of every minor detail at La Lagune have earned her respect throughout France.
Bordeaux has several other leading ladies. The famous first growth, Chateau Margaux, is owned and managed by two strong-willed women, Laura Mentzelopoulos and her daughter, Corinne. They may have obtained their current position because of the tragic death of Mentzelopoulos' husband, Andre', in 1980, but the stunning revitalization of both the vineyards and the winemaking at Margaux has been unparalleled in the history of Bordeaux. From an overrated, physically rundown first growth property in 1976, Margaux is now considered by most knowledgeable wine authorities to be making Bordeaux's greatest wine, year in and year out. Both mother and daughter are both actively involved in the day-to-day operations of Chateau Margaux and are totally responsible for the complete rejuvination of this historic and famous property.
If Bordeaux is France's wine region most dominated by men, then Burgundy is a close second. However, there is no more powerful demoiselle du vin in all France than the indefatigable Lalou Bize-Leroy. This woman, while quite diminutive in stature, is the coproprietor of Burgundy's most famous winemaking estate, the Domaine de la Romanee Conti, and the sole owner of one of Burgundy's winemaking firms, the Maison Leroy.
Bize-Leroy has a well-deserved reputation for detesting wine critics (particularly those who find her wines less than perfect, and even worse, too expensive). My relationship with her over the last several years has been as warm as current Soviet/American foreign affairs. Nevertheless, I am a great admirer of her wines, which are among Burgundy's greatest and longest-lived as well as the most intensely flavored and powerfully rich wines made. Since 1978, she and her partner at the famous Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Albert Villine, have managed that famous winemaking estate more tightly than ever before, and the results have been a succession of great wines.
While Bize-Leroy may be Burgundy's best known and most intimidating woman of wine, she is not the only grande dame. In the famous Burgundy commune of Bosne Romanee, Janine Gros runs the estate of Domaine Gros with great care and seriousness. Gros is also an equally talented politician, being the current mayor of the village of Bosne Romanee. No self-respecting Burgundy-lover would pass up the opportunity to taste this woman's magic touch with the pinot noir grape.
Another leading lady of wine in France is Colette Faller, who oversees every detail of what many believe is Alsace's greatest winemaking estate, the Domaine Weinbach in the fairytale town of Kaysersberg. Like most of the women mentioned, Faller's wines are not light, frail examples of their type, but rather rich, intensively flavored, powerful yet gorgeously balanced wines of great character.