Connecticut writer Kristen Harnisch brings a little-known portion of women's history to light in her compelling first novel, The Vintner's Daughter (She Writes Press). Set in 1890s France and America, it follows one woman's relentless quest to become a master winemaker—something that only a handful of real-life women have managed today. In a guest blog post, Harnisch explains the inspiration behind her remarkable heroine.
Women winemaking pioneers of the 19th century
Sara Thibault is my hero. She fights against a rival to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, sails across the Atlantic to bring herself and her sister to safety, and then journeys to Napa, California, determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker. Sara is passionate, principled and self-possessed, and although she leapt from my imagination onto the page, Sara’s spirit was inspired by the women winemaking pioneers of the late 1800s.
Three wine women in particular served as the inspiration for Sara’s character. A Frenchwoman, the Duchesse de Fitz-James, was the first to tout the benefits of replanting French vineyards with American rootstock to combat the devastation wrought in the 1870s by the phylloxera. This pale yellow louse attacked nearly 40% of France’s vineyards, sucking the vines dry of nutrients. The Duchesse’s French neighbors refused to try her idea, but she persisted, citing the recent success she’d had replanting the resistant rootstock in her own vineyard. Although it took years, the French winemakers did eventually replant, saving most of the vineyards that had been affected.
During the 1880s, California women were beginning to trade their kitchen chores for increasingly important roles in their family-owned businesses. The wine men of the region generally ignored their efforts. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the winery they had planned to build on the 26 acres of land they’d purchased along Route 29 in St. Helena. The Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. By 1891, Tyschon had cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. However, when the phylloxera struck in 1893, she lost 10 acres to the bug, and soon sold the winery and vineyard to her foreman, Nels Larson.
Josephine Tyschon’s neighbor, Mrs. J.C. Weinberger, also took over the family winery after her husband’s death. Weinberger’s operation was much larger than Tyschon’s, boasting eighty acres of grape bearing vines and a first-class winery with 90,000 gallons of capacity. Mrs. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this coveted award.
What compelled these amazing women to create such fine wines? Every bottle of wine contains nearly three pounds of grapes and the vulnerability of this fruit is striking: over the last century and a half, grapes have fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew and Prohibition in the United States. Still, with a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, winemakers continue to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.
According to the American Association of Wine Economists, as of 2011, only 12% of winemakers in Sonoma and 12% of winemakers in Napa, were women. In an industry long dominated by men, I raise my glass of Cabernet to these adventurers, and to the wine women of long ago who sparked the inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter.
Author’s Note: William Heintz’s California’s Napa Valley (Stonewall Associates, 1999), and Sherry Monahan’s California Vines, Wines & Pioneers (American Palate, A Division of the History Press, 2013), were particularly helpful in my research of this topic.
Author photo by Alix Martinez Photography.