Meet the women crushing it in Napa Valley

By Emilee Tombs

4 minute read

Maya Dalla Valle wasn’t all that interested in following in the footsteps of her parents when she was younger, despite growing up among the vines at her family’s eponymous winery in Napa Valley. But when the recession hit in the US, she turned to seasonal work on a vineyard to pay the bills – and never looked back. 

Following her reawakening, Dalla Valle took herself off to study viticulture, before working at wineries in France and Argentina, where she honed her craft learning from some of the greatest vintners in the world. At Bodega Rolland in Mendoza, she learned to push wine to its limits, working on large-scale fermentations and becoming hyper-analytical with ripeness data. In Bordeaux, while working at the prestigious wineries Château Petrus, Latour, Canon La Gaffelière and La Mondotte, she learned about the importance of healthy soil and how great wine is made in the vineyard, rather than in the winery. 

She took these learnings back home, where she now heads up the Dalla Valle team alongside her mother Naoko (who aptly named a bottle after her daughter, the ‘Maya’). It’s an attitude that many female winemakers in Napa Valley have adopted, as the desire to create a more sustainable wine ethos increases.  

“I learned a lot during my time in France, particularly during visits to Burgundy where lots of winemakers practice biodynamics,” Dalla Valle tells us. “I love the concept of thinking beyond just the vineyard and the vines and thinking of it as a whole ecosystem. Asking yourself, ‘How do you sustain that ecosystem and keep it alive and healthy?’”. 

What is biodynamic winemaking?

Naoko Maya Dell Valle Credit Jimmy Hayes
Top: Maya Dalla Valle at her family's vineyard in Napa Valley; photography by Leigh-Ann Beverly. Above: Maya's mother Naoko, who heads up the Dalla Valle team alongside her daughter; photography by Jimmy Hayes

What is biodynamic winemaking?

To recap, the theory of biodynamic winemaking was introduced by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Steiner encouraged farmers to plant and harvest according to the lunar cycles, bury cow horns in the dirt to stimulate the soil’s natural fertilisers and many other off-beat ideas. At the heart of biodynamics though, is the process of becoming organic: no pesticides or herbicides are used in the vineyards or winery, while some will go one step further by not filtering or fining their wines. 

Robert Sinskey Vineyards (RSV) are champions of biodynamic farming and sustainability in Napa Valley – they’ve been in the game for 35 years now – and are an operation that Dalla Valle applauds. “Robert Sinskey Vineyards make beautiful, elegant wines,” she says. “Owners Robert and Maria have a really holistic approach to winemaking and business that I admire.”

While Robert Sinskey is responsible for the bulk of the winemaking, his wife Maria, a successful chef and cookbook author from New York, creates the delicious seasonal dishes for the tasting menus offered at RSV, using the organic fruit and vegetables that she grows in the vineyard garden. Look out of the window and you’ll see sheep grazing in the fields that will be used for wool and meat, and bees whose job it is to pollinate the orchards and provide honey to Maria’s kitchen. It’s a full circle operation.

The Napa Valley visionaries

Robertsinskey Journal June21 Pr
Robert Sinskey's Capa Vineyard, champions of biodynamic farming and sustainability in Napa Valley; photography by Robert Sinskey

The Napa Valley visionaries

At Colgin Cellars, founder Ann Colgin has built a reputation as one of the best-known producers of fine Napa Valley wines since 1992. From four vineyards, Colgin creates four distinct styles of wine that are available in super small quantities, and only to customers on their mailing list, or later down the line at auction (Lymited has a few bottles, too). Ann Colgin herself is something of a visionary. A collector of fine art and a philanthropist who approaches winemaking and blending like creating a work of art. 

“We’ve had the opportunity to have technical exchanges with Allison, the winemaker at Colgin Cellars” Dalla Valle says. “She’s extremely talented. I admire their whole team and their dedication to top quality winemaking.” 

They say it takes around three years to notice a difference after introducing biodynamics to a vineyard, but Dalla Valle explains that she noticed it immediately in the lively fermentations. Typically, in the winemaking process, fermentation can get stuck or sluggish, which is when conventional wineries might add sugars or other agents to kick start things. “Since we started practicing biodynamics, we haven’t seen that happen once, and I can’t help but think there’s a tie to biodynamics,” Dalla Valle notes. 

She also noticed that canopy management – the way vine leaves are grown and managed – became easier, as the plants responded positively to a spray that her team made using horn silica.

“We saw some extreme heat in 2020 – having a lot of our vineyards on the western face means that the afternoon sun becomes quite strong, and the vines can get very stressed,” Dalla Valle explains. “Using the spray we created along with a nettle tonic for anti-inflammatory purposes made such a difference. That was the first year that we didn’t see any sunburn on the grapes at all. I mean, wow.”

Making wines (and winemakers) for the future

Shaenikgel Kinsman Credit Deanna Whyte
"We just wanted to make wines that we like to drink," says Shae Kinsman, pictured with her husband Nigel at their Kinsman Eades vineyards; photography by Deanna Whyte

Making wines (and winemakers) for the future

For Shae Kinsman and her husband Nigel, winemaking in Napa Valley is about singular expressions of place. We just wanted to make the wines that we like to drink. Classic, balanced wines like those we’d tasted from Napa from the 1970s,” says Shae, who heads up the business side of Kinsman Eades (and whose wines are coming soon to Lymited). 

“Some of those old Phelps, BV and Sterling wines are just amazing. They speak so eloquently of a specific time and place. We knew those graceful, nuanced wines were not out of reach, so we decided to go for it. We didn’t have a ton of cash to sink into getting started, so we set out to find unsung vineyards that we thought could deliver,” Shae continues.

The Australian pair source grapes from these unsung or unloved sites across Napa Valley, breathing new life into old vines and forgotten land.

Longevity is the buzzword on every winemaker’s lips in Napa Valley. Of course, making wines that can be enjoyed years down the line is important, but ensuring that the land from which these wines are made thrives for generations to come is the goal. The nuances surrounding sustainability are a particularly hot topic at Batonnage, an all-female mentoring programme for women winemakers in Napa Valley, of which Dalla Valle is a part. 

“It’s a wonderful support network and a beautiful way to share information about what works and what doesn’t,” Dalla Valle says. For Dalla Valle and many of her female counterparts in Napa, thinking sustainably is at the heart of everything they are trying to achieve. It’s essential. “I’d love to have old vines someday,” she muses. 

Find wines by Dalla Valle, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Colgin Cellars and more here at Lymited.

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