Western innovator: Winemaker revels in 'crazy ideas'

of St. Francis Winery Katie Madigan, winemaker at St. Francis Winery in Sonoma County, Calif., says men and women have different styles of winemaking.

'I was caught up in the dynamics and the surprising intricacies of winemaking'


For the Capital Press

SOMONA COUNTY, Calif. -- Katie Madigan hadn't planned to go into winemaking, she just "caught the bug."

"Chemistry was my major at the University of California-Santa Barbara when I moved to Sonoma County," she said. "Harvest was and is a big deal here and I thought working the harvest would be something that went along with my studies."

She was accepted for an internship at St. Francis Winery and put her knowledge of chemistry to work in the in the laboratory. Madigan loved the wide range of behind-the-scenes, nonstop operations in winemaking -- yeasting the tanks, washing barrels and pulling samples for the winemakers.

"I never sat down," she said. "I was caught up in the dynamics and the surprising intricacies of winemaking."

After harvest St. Francis agreed to keep her on as a lab technician but she wanted to become a winemaker. She was accepted in 2003 at UC-Davis, where her winemaking education began and returned to St. Francis as assistant winemaker and then winemaker.

"I was 22 at the time and I think back over the years that there were more difficulties being young rather than being a woman in this field," Madigan said. "Women winemakers had paved the way in the industry and we are accepted in a male-dominated field."

Men and women have different styles of winemaking, she said.

"I don't think women are better winemakers than men. The two have amazingly different styles. Men tend to make wine by feel and women are more analytical and rely more on their senses. Studies have shown we have a better sense of smell."

St. Francis is different from many wineries, she said.

"St. Francis always touts the fact that we are a teaching winery," she said. "They let me be creative and let me try out my crazy ideas and apply them."

One of Madigan's ideas was fermenting Viognier and Zinfandel grapes together. The result was an enhanced Zinfandel. She also adds Viognier to Syrah for color stability and perfumed aromas.

Maureen L. Cottingham, executive director of Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, had praise for Madigan's innovations.

"Katie strives to create wines that are delicious, balanced and memorable," she said. "Most importantly, Katie continues St. Francis' tradition of creating high quality wines from 100 percent hand-picked Sonoma County grapes."

St. Francis Winery was one of the first wineries in Sonoma to cover its roofs with solar panels. The production facility is partially run with solar energy -- the equivalent of 457 kilowatts -- which generates enough energy to power over 400 homes.

"The winery also reduced its use of pesticide," Madigan said. "We replaced the hose nozzles to 'low flow' and reuse wastewater to irrigate."

Madigan believes the biggest challenge facing California vintners and winemakers is the shortage of seasonal workers.

"With the current immigration issues here we have seen a consistent decline in available workers on harvest and this adds a lot of stress on a lot of people," she said. "It (immigration) is an interesting topic that warrants more discussion. I've witnessed the shortage for four years and the situation is getting worse."

She admits harvest is her favorite time of the year.

"It is really organized chaos. I love to be in vineyards for half a day and come back and put creativity to the test in the lab. I love the smell of wine as it ferments and I love the variety of aspects that can control fermentation. The process never gets old."

Western innovator

Katie Madigan

Age: 32

Hometown: Santa Rosa

Family: Single

Occupation: Winemaker

Education: University of California-Santa Barbara and UC-Davis

Quote: "My goal at St. Francis Winery is to grow grapes that create great wine while maintaining the integrity of the land."

More innovation

A collection of 2011's Western innovators is available on Amazon's Kindle. Take a look at "Western Innovators: Profiles of 42 agricultural leaders who shaped the West in 2011" at amzn.to/WesternInnovators

Recommended for you