Napa vintner shatters glass ceiling

Julia Hollister/For the Capital Press Sandi Belcher of Saint Helena was one of the first female winemakers in Napa and Sonoma counties. She co-owns Arns Winery and does wine consulting in California and Asia.

Belcher: 'I really loved the wine business'


For the Capital Press

SAINT HELENA, Calif. -- Sandi Belcher, co-owner and winemaker at Arns Vineyard in Saint Helena, admits it's the smallest winery in the Napa Valley. But that belies the fact that years of study and trailblazing work are packed into each bottle.

"I have always been interested in science and agriculture, so after my studies at William & Mary in Virginia I decided to go to California," she said. "California enticed me not just because of its 210 market-order products but because it would be a great place to learn more about agriculture."

She was 21 when she set out, much to the dismay and disappointment of her parents, who wanted her close to home. They asked when she was "coming home" and she replied, "I am home." She never regretted the move.

She found work in Napa Valley wineries -- from labeling to testing the grapes or raking tanks and everything in between -- and found a passion.

"I really loved the wine business and became intrigued by the biology of it," she said. "When I enrolled at University of California-Davis I was actually employed in wine cellars," she said. "Then I traveled to Australia, Italy and France to learn more."

In the late 1970s, Belcher decided to follow that passion and was hired as winemaker at Long Vineyards, east of Rutherford. She confesses that she was driven to make the best quality wine possible that was also food-friendly. She also wanted to duplicate the nuances of French-style white Burgundy in the Napa Valley using barrel fermentation. At that time there were only four female winemakers in Napa and Sonoma counties.

"UC-Davis viticulture project asked me to work trellising techniques at their experimental vineyard in the valley," she said. "I discovered that high trellising is the best for growing high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon grapes."

In the mid-1980s, she and her husband, John, a vineyard consultant, were selling their small production of organically grown Cabernet grapes and decided to take a leap and open their own winery. In reality, she was working two jobs -- winemaker at Long Vineyards and at her own Arns Winery. The 160-acre parcel is 800 feet above the valley floor and the winery produces 600 cases a year.

Today Belcher serves as a consultant to many Napa Valley wineries and continues to travel to Thailand and China to advise winemakers regarding their burgeoning wine businesses.

Looking back over her career, she believes there are subtle differences between male and female winemakers.

"I think women are more sensitive to the nuances of winemaking because of our traditional roles as mothers and caregivers," she said. "There are great male winemakers who have helped me along the way and it's nice to see the contrast.

"That is what makes our industry buzz."

Sandi Belcher

Home: Saint Helena, Calif.

Education: College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va., and degree in chemistry and agriculture from University of California-Davis

Occupation: Winemaker and wine consultant

Family: Husband, John Arns, a married daughter and one granddaughter

Quote: "I have dedicated my life to optimizing the quality of fine wines and vineyards. This goal could possibly take a lifetime. If so, I am going there."


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