Lisa Amaroli produces award-winning, certified organic and biodynamic wines at Benziger Winery.
Lisa Amaroli produces award-winning, certified organic and biodynamic wines at Benziger Winery.
Nick Vides

Breaking the glass bottled ceiling

In 1832 Padre Jose Altimira planted several thousand grapevines at Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma. For nearly 200 years, monks, priests and then laymen tended the vines, harvested the grapes and — most importantly — blended and blessed the wine. Every major role was filled by a man.

But due in large part to Santa Rosa Junior College’s viticulture and enology programs, the women of Sonoma County have started to break that glass-bottled ceiling.

Local winemakers Jennifer Higgins of Lambert Bridge Winery, Lisa Amaroli of Benziger Winery and Emma Kudritzki Hall of Mauritson Winery all have roots at SRJC. Higgins and Amaroli both attended the JC before transferring and earning biochemistry degrees. Kudritzki Hall was an SRJC viticulture student and later became an instructor in the college’s enology program.

These three women are part of a growing trend. According to research group Women Winemakers, “Of the 4,200+ wineries in California, approximately 14% of them reported a woman as their lead winemaker in our 2020 study.” Twenty five years earlier, in 1994, that number was less than 10%.

Jennifer Higgins

SRJC Alumna Jennifer Higgins, winemaker at Lambert Bridge Winery, attributes her success to the mentoring she received from the industries’ most iconic female winemakers. (Sean Young)

A first-generation college student, Higgins attended SRJC then transferred to UC Davis, earning a degree in biochemistry. After a few years abroad in Italy, Higgins made her way back to California in search of a job, working first as a tasting room attendant at Simi Winery. Since then, she has been mentored by some of the most iconic women in the wine industry.

Among them are Jill Davis, who held the winemaker role at Lambert Bridge Winery before Higgins herself, and industry icon Zelma Long, who in the early 1970s was one of the first women to graduate with a masters from UC Davis’ viticulture and enology program then later founded and became the first president of the non-profit American Viticulture Foundation.

Throughout her career, Higgins managed to make valuable connections, but she also often found herself in situations that were far less than inclusive.

In a winery, “If I asked a question, because I was pretty inquisitive, and the response was, ‘Why do you need to know that?’ that’s when I knew that wasn’t the right place for me to work,” Higgins said.

It still happens sometimes at trade shows. “It is always surprising when I’m at an event with fellow winemakers, and there’s two women in the room and I’m thinking, ‘Where are all the women?’” she said. “Some people have walked up and asked me if the winemaker is here while looking for the guy behind me. That kind of stuff happens all the time.”

After a series of leaps from Simi Winery to Lancaster Winery and others, Higgins landed at Lambert Bridge Winery in February 2010 and has been the lead winemaker ever since. She is particularly proud of her assistant winemaker, Lisa Bruich, another woman forging a path in the wine world. Higgins oversees production of more than 8,000 cases annually for Lambert Bridge.

Being a woman in winemaking has not been a struggle for Higgins, although there was one bump in the road —managing both winemaking and mothering. “When I first started [in the business] I was looking at all the women winemakers, and very few had children,” Higgins said. “I think the idea in that first wave [of women winemakers] was to be very career focused. I remember somebody saying, ‘Yeah, you can have one — or the other.’”

That idea didn’t sit well with Higgins, who decided she could handle both. “I think my kids are stronger because they got to see and have a mom that loves what she does,” she said.

Lisa Amaroli

Lisa Amaroli followed a similar path into winemaking as Higgins. After attending SRJC, the west county native lived in Europe for five years before returning to Sonoma County. Amaroli then attended Sonoma State, earning a degree in biology and chemistry. “And then I had to decide what to do with it,” she said, “Do I go into genetics? Do I go into meteorology?” Amaroli eventually landed on winemaking and “just didn’t look back, quite honestly.”

Unlike Higgins, Amaroli could only see the family-vs-job dichotomy. “I was under immense pressure from myself to always be at work. I had these thoughts of, ‘Oh, maybe we shouldn’t take that trip’ or ‘Oh, I need to be there for bottling.’ You don’t get to see your significant other a lot during that time so they need to be 100% bought into this career,” she said.

After 16 years of marriage, she and her husband parted ways, childless.

Her laser focus on work paid off. Amaroli is now the top winemaker at Benziger, a formerly family-owned winery now owned by The Wine Group. Amaroli oversees the production of more than 12,000 cases a year of certified organic and biodynamic, direct-to-consumer wine that you can only buy in the tasting room at Benziger Estate.

In addition, Benziger produces and ships 150,000 cases of certified sustainable wine to grocery stores and other commercial outlets.

When Amaroli started in 1999 as a lab tech, men held all the top roles. “I don’t know if [the Benziger Family] ever imagined that they would have a woman running the show for their commercial brand,” she said, looking back at when she first started with them. “They were really welcoming in the lab,” and one of their winemakers took her “under his wing.”

By 2006, Amaroli was pushing for another promotion, telling her bosses, “Hey, you know, I’m not an assistant winemaker anymore. I should be a winemaker.” Mike and Joey Benziger ultimately agreed, and Amaroli took the top spot. “The trust and the freedom they gave me was incredible.”

It is a big job. “They basically leave the whole management of the high-end wines facility to me, and the making of the commercial lines,” she said. “I was proud of that. A male-dominated industry, a male-dominated winery — they totally trusted me to get the job done.”

Emma Kudritzki Hall splits her time as winemaker at Mauritson Winery and Seawolf Wines in Sonoma County. (Nick Vides)

Emma Kudritzki Hall

Marin County native Emma Kudritzki Hall got her start as an intern for a boutique winery in the Mayacamas Mountains. From there, she jumped between a series of wineries, some as far away as New Zealand, before landing in Healdsburg at Mauritson Wines in 2011. She became lead winemaker in 2019. Under her leadership, Mauritson Wines makes on average 12,000 cases a year, while also producing more than 12,000 cases of custom crush per year.

Kudritzki Hall is the middle child of five siblings and was raised by a single mom. “My mother set the standard from day one: you can do anything,” Kudritzki Hall said. “There’s no set limitations.” It’s a mantra Kudritzki Hall has lived by. In addition to being winemaker at Mauritson, she and her husband own and operate Seawolf Wines in Yorkville. Kudritzki Hall was also an instructor at SRJC’s Shone Farm for several years, where she taught spring vineyard practices. On top of all of that, she also has a 7-year-old daughter. 

“A lot of women [students] came up to me, regardless of age, and were impressed that I taught, was a mom and was a winemaker and had a career,” she said. “I think I encouraged or inspired them to realize that you can pretty much do whatever you want. But it doesn’t come without its challenges.”

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About the Contributors
Nick Vides
Nick Vides, Photo-Editor
Nicholas “Nick” Vides (he/him) Is a seasoned breaking news reporter dedicated to making sure every shutter click of his camera captures a moment worth sharing. Nick's itch for chasing fires has kept him busy over the past seven years, covering every major fire event in Northern California from the Paradise Fire to the Caldor Fire. Nick currently splits his time as a photojournalist with The Oak Leaf and as a Contract Photographer with The Press Democrat. He has more than nine years of experience with photography, has been director of photography for multiple short films with the SRJC Media Arts Center, directed numerous student-led broadcasts with his Media 19 class, and interned for The Sarah and Vinnie Show on Alice 97.3. In the little free time left, he works for Highway 12 Winery in Sonoma, California as a Cellar Hand.  
Sean Young
Sean Young, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Sean Young (he/him) is in his ninth semester at SRJC and third semester at The Oak Leaf. He plans on finishing an associate degree in communications and journalism this spring. Sean lives in Sebastopol and spends his free time listening to his vinyl record collection, practicing bass guitar and writing for The Oak Leaf. He hopes to continue to a 4-year college after graduating from SRJC to work towards a bachelor's degree in communications and journalism.

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