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Cathy Corison Leads by Example

After four decades, the Napa Valley is finally catching up to this pioneer

Cathy Corison
Photo courtesy of Cathy Corison.

“I pick weeks earlier than most Cabernet producers in Napa Valley, and back in the day, I was the butt of jokes—‘Cathy’s picking. We should go sample for the first time.’”

Cathy Corison, 64, the owner, vintner, and viticulturist at Napa Valley’s Corison Winery, stood behind her crush pad amid the gnarled vines in her eight-acre, organically farmed Kronos Vineyard and ticked off the vines’ merits and shortcomings. “They’re just a gift,” she says. “They don’t produce many grapes. Most people wouldn’t put up with them. They give me one and a quarter tons per acre. I could replant with everything modern and get three to five tons an acre and still make world-class Cabernet. It doesn’t make any financial sense, but the vineyard makes really good wine.”

Planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, Kronos is one of the last of Napa’s old Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. It is 47 years old. Corison has been making wine almost as long, and like Kronos, she hasn’t always made sense to many in the valley. But though they might not have gotten and her ways, says Christie Dufault, a professor of wine and beverage studies at the Culinary Institute of America’s campus in St. Helena, California, “everyone adores her and respects her.”

They adore her for her soft-spoken generosity; they respect her for the decades she’s stuck to her guns. And if time proves the ultimate test of a winemaker’s methods, Cathy Corison has aced the exam. For the style of Cabernet Sauvignon she first envisioned in the 1980s—“The wine in my head that needed to get out,” she calls it—has finally come back into vogue: powerful but elegant, food friendly, age worthy, a balanced wine like the Napa Cabs of the 1960s, like Bordeaux’s aromatic Saint-Julien wines. Corison has been making such Cabernet all along. And she’s done it as a 90-pound woman in a profession dominated by men. (The most recent survey of California winemakers, based on 2011 data, found that only 10 percent of wineries had a woman winemaker at the helm; Napa and Sonoma numbers were a bit higher, at 12 percent.)

All this makes Corison a role model. She’s characteristically humble about it, but she’s lived in a way that few in the corporate-financed world of Napa wine have—by her convictions and her own palate. “There are winemakers that wish they were as courageous,” says Dufault. While the rest of Northern California attempts to catch up to her, Corison leads by example.

Going for It

When I ask Corison about how she became a winemaker, she says, “It doesn’t make any sense.”

A suburban kid from Riverside, California, she was a biology major at Pomona College when she signed up for a wine appreciation class on a whim. The teacher was John Winthrop Haeger, the author of books on wine and then a professor of Asian studies. The subject matter, says Corison, “grabbed me by the neck.” Two years after the class she graduated, and two days after that she was in Napa. It was 1975.

If her interest in wine was inexplicable, so too was her move to Napa. Rural and impoverished, the valley had barely woken up from the torpor of Prohibition. To boot, says Corison, “women didn’t make wine.” Zelma Long was at Mondavi, and Dawnine Dyer was at Inglenook, just about to move to Chandon for its launch. That was about it.

“There had never been a woman in a cellar in Napa Valley,” says Corison, “Ever. I mean hauling hoses around.” She would be the first. “I don’t understand it,” she says, “but I just knew I wanted to make wine.”

Her timing, it turns out, “was incredibly lucky.” Napa was “about to ka-boom,” and though she suffered her share of gender discrimination, being a woman meant she “stuck out like a sore thumb.” Long, Dyer, Corison, Merry Edwards down the coast at Saratoga’s Mount Eden—“What we did, for better or worse, was noticed. That was an advantage.”

Photo courtesy of Cathy Corison.

Corison began her career by accepting a gig at a wine bar and then at Sterling Vineyards’ tasting room. At the same time, she was enrolled at the University of California at Davis, first taking wine classes and chemistry and then in a master’s program in enology. She was busy from the start, but that’s Corison’s way. Says Dufault, “She’s like Wonder Woman.”

Larry Longben might agree. Longben was the winemaker at Freemark Abbey, and Corison remembers following him up the Silverado Trail one evening and cornering him in his driveway. There was an internship at the winery that she wanted. Longben mocked up a racking to see if this “scrawny 23-year-old,” as she puts it, could handle the physical labor.

“It was obvious that it was no problem,” says Corison. “People as small as I am know more about leverage than bigger people will ever know.”

And Corison was determined, as she was at Pomona, where she’d lettered in men’s springboard diving because there was no women’s team. Still, it would take her two years to land that job. The winery’s owners didn’t want a woman working in their cellar.

“I went back to Davis and finished my degree,” Corison recalls. “Meanwhile, the guy [Freemark Abbey] hired made a few really expensive mistakes, and Larry went back to the owners and said, ‘I’m hiring Cathy.’ I was there in ’78.”

She was defying the advice of a professor, the late Cornelius Ough, who told her a woman would never work in Napa. He had Central Valley lab jobs lined up for her instead. “I would have made a real salary,” Corison says, “rather than $4 an hour at Freemark Abbey.” But she was set on carving out her own path.

“To start in the cellar is pretty gutsy,” says her friend Dawnine Dyer. “I started in the lab. That was the easier route. But she took on that male bastion of wine production, and she’s always been very good at it, as I think are most of us that have bested obstacles.”

Passing Down Skills

After that internship, Corison got her first position as a winemaker, at the former Yverdon on Spring Mountain. “The industry was exploding,” says Corison, “and there weren’t enough white guy winemakers to go around. So I was running a winery within eight months of leaving Davis.”

Two years later, Corison moved to Chappellet, whose wines she would make all through the ’80s. Phil Corallo-Titus, Chappellet’s current winemaker, was Corison’s first assistant there. He was the start of a line of notables who learned the ropes from her: Mia Klein, the founder and winemaker of Selene Wines; viticulturist and winemaker Annie Favia of Favia Erickson Winegrowers; Washington State consultant and winemaker Erica Orr of Orr Wines. Jason Drew of Drew Winery did a stint with her; Dirty and Rowdy’s Hardy Wallace manned her tasting room. All of those I spoke with agree with Corallo-Titus. “She was a very good mentor,” he says. “She understood I was hungry for knowledge, and she willingly shared it. She never made it seem like I was asking a stupid question.”

Corison—straight shooting and whip smart, with her nose to the grindstone—taught the nitty-gritty of winemaking. “I learned a lot of technical things from her,” Corallo-Titus recalls. “It’s like learning an instrument. You’re never going to be a creative musician until you learn the instrument, and it’s not as easy as people think. I had to find my own style later on, but I had such a strong foundation from Cathy. I still use some of her notes. We have cheat sheets from Cathy in her handwriting on how to do things correctly in lab or cellar.”

Mia Klein, who interned with Corison and then, in 1985, became her assistant winemaker, concurs: “She was not a behind-the-desk winemaker.” Corison encouraged her staff to be just as immersive. “When I was an intern,” says Klein, “she sent me around to do all the Brix checks every day. She said, ‘Don’t rush it. Take your time and write what you think of all these juices.’ It [revealed] a depth of looking at and understanding things.” And it was not only pedagogical—it was practical. A winemaker who can fix her own equipment saves time. The know-how benefitted both Corison and those she mentored, like Klein, when it came time to launch their own projects. “You know how this crusher works, this dumper works, how it’s getting to the tanks,” Klein says. “Cathy encouraged that.”

It’s not incidental, either, to have learned those skills from a woman. “Cathy was driving the forklift, pulling the pallet truck around,” says Orr, who interned during harvest at Corison’s winery in 1998. “There were men in the cellar,” she says, “but nobody was telling her she couldn’t do something or wasn’t as fast as the guys. She did the physical labor, and that was an inspiration.”

As Annie Favia points out, doing the heavy lifting took extra smarts from a petite woman like Corison. “The barrels are really heavy,” says Favia. “I remember her telling me, ‘You can do anything that anyone else can do in the cellar or vineyard or any other field. You just have to figure out how to do it. You have to use your brain.’”

In addition to teaching technical and physical skills, Corison taught those she mentored a thing or two about being a boss. “She had a nice hierarchy set up,” says Klein. “Winemaking during harvest can be complicated. If you don’t have a good chain of command, things get out of hand. She didn’t do it with an iron fist, but she was clear.”

Orr adds that Corison is even-keeled, even through rough patches. “The year I worked with her was a challenging vintage,” Orr says. “She was very calm. I’ve had other harvests that have been much more high drama.”

Corison is noted too for her kindness, a trait that’s not always a given in Napa’s upper echelons. Says Klein, “She told me, ‘When you’re ready to move, I’ll hook you up, get you networked, help you get your next job.’ She pulled through on all those things.”

For as long as Corison can remember, her husband and business partner, William Martin, has poured her wine to blind-taste at dinner. It helps keep her palate sharp. Orr, who was a greenhorn in 1998 when she interned with Corison, says, “I ate dinner with her family every night, and I remember one wine that I was the first to talk about. Red berries and vanilla—I thought it was merlot. Cathy politely and sensitively told me, ‘This is Cabernet Sauvignon.’ She did it in a way that was very gentle.”

Says sommelier Kelli White, the author of Napa Valley Then & Now, “On a personal level, Cathy’s accessible, down-to-earth, and humble. She is how her wines taste, in a sense: honest and unpretentious and approachable.”

But girding that Zen-like demeanor is Corison’s passion for winemaking, says Corallo-Titus, which is essential to her success and longevity—“She’s had this single-mindedness.”

A Wine of Her Own

If one thing most clearly embodies Corison’s passion, it’s her pursuit of her own wine. “Cabernet’s going to be powerful no matter what you do,” she says, “but it’s way more interesting at the intersection of elegance. That’s what I’ve been chasing all my life.”

She knew what she had to do to make it work. “She understood that you get the blue-chip vineyards,” says Corallo-Titus,  “and she had the connections to do it. Part of that really fine quality [in] her wines is her style, but it’s also that she had the insight to nail down these quality vineyards that others don’t have access to.”

Corison made the first vintage of her Napa Valley Cabernet in 1987, despite not having a winery. When she left Chappellet, at the end of the ’80s, she made her own wine elsewhere—Sinskey; Rombauer; Etude, which she helped finance for Tony Soter, her business partner at the time; Longmeadow Ranch, where she consulted.

Photo courtesy of Cathy Corison.

In 1995 she purchased Kronos, when it was “drowning in irrigation,” according to White. “She brought it back to life.” That vintage brought Napa a bumper crop, and fearing there wouldn’t be crush space for grapes in the future, Corison and Martin did the numbers on a simple Victorian barn they could build at Kronos. Opened in 1999, Corison Winery is as humble as its winemaker. There’s no gift shop, café, or tasting room. The entirety of the 2,500-case production is essentially vinified and aged in one big subdivided space. Any tour that happens is likely to involve Corison herself leading guests out to the vines to marvel at what she refers to as Kronos’s “wildly alive” organic soils.

Still, says Corallo-Titus, it’s amazing that the winery exists at all. “It’s kind of shocking,” he says. “There were no big investors. She did it on her own. She’s one of these people who just did exactly what she said she was going to do, whereas most people fail somewhere along the way.”

There were tough times: September 11, the 2008 financial crisis, what Dyer calls the shifting sands of wine trends. Through it all, Corison remained constant to her vision. “Even five years ago, it wasn’t fashionable to make wines like this,” she says, “but I couldn’t make myself do anything else.”

John Ragan, the senior director of operations for Union Square Hospitality Group, remembers first tasting Corison’s Cabernets in the late 1990s, when he worked at the restaurant at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, California. “We would get a lot of folks looking for big, flashy wines, but we also had Europeans, and I found myself recommending Corison to them. Her wines were not in vogue, but I fell in love with them because they were so different from what was happening at the time.”

Her Time Has Come

Many of us have had a similar experience. I told people I talked with for this profile a story of my own: In 2015, I had yet to have my first sip of a Corison wine. But that year, at a vertical blind tasting of hundreds of Cabernet Sauvignons that preceded the Premiere Napa Valley auction, my top three wines, by a landslide, were three Corison vintages. Amid a sea of massive, jammy Cabernets, her wines—balanced, earthy, Bordeaux-like—jumped right out.

“Everything I learned about Corison over 20 years [was] manifested in your experience,” Dufault responded to my account. “It reinforces the story of who she is and what Corison Winery is. I’m not that surprised.”

Dufault calls Corison a sommelier’s winemaker. “She makes wine for the table,” Dufault says. “She makes wine for food. She makes wines of elegance and grace. She makes wines to age. And she’s not afraid of vintage variability. I believe she’s making wines that represent nature, the vintage, and what her plants provide. She’s not making wine for scores.”

Not incidentally, says James Beard Award–winning sommelier Belinda Chang, “she’s generous enough to offer a library. The financial motivation is to get [a wine] out of cellar as soon as you can, whether it’s ready to drink or not, but Cathy is a smart winemaker who knows her wines need to be drunk at a certain point. They get better and better.”

Indeed, all this has endeared Corison to the sommelier community. Says White, “Even the most heel-in-the-dirt, anti-California somm will make an exception for Corison.”

The winemaker herself credits sommeliers with helping her stay afloat for 30 vintages. “They always admired my wines at at times when the major journalists didn’t,” she says. “That sustained me. As there developed a sommelier culture in the restaurants, I was selling my wine pretty well all the way through.”

California’s most illustrious sommelier, Larry Stone, made his own wine, with Corison’s help, at her winery. He speaks glowingly of “her unwavering dedication to her own vision,” saying that she had the “courage to do what she thought was best, despite any current critical trends opposing her.” Now, as her style has come back into popularity, Stone says, “it’s gratifying to see that she has at last received the recognition she deserves.”

Photo courtesy of Cathy Corison.

Napa today looks to Corison for wisdom. With her deep roots in the valley, Corison gets tapped by Dufault and her colleagues to speak to the Historical Perspectives class at the Culinary Institute of America every year. A highlight for the school’s graduate students is a trip to Corison Winery. “She always breaks out old vintages,” says Dufault. “I can’t even comment on how generous that is, and she’s incredibly generous with her time and knowledge.”

UC Davis professor Andrew Walker has been sending a steady stream of interns to her. “They’re asking if there’s any way they can work with me,” Corison says, “and I wasn’t even aware of that until he told me a few months ago.”

For a woman who was the San Francisco Chronicle’s Winemaker of the Year in 2011 and a James Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional in 2018, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people seek her out.

But such modesty is characteristic of Corison. Indeed, it’s key to what’s made her wines so good all these years. Says Dawnine Dyer, who has been part of Corison’s tasting and wine travel posse for decades, “Cathy has enough ego to do the job well, but she doesn’t have to take first place over her wines—though she does let them speak for her.”

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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