Cookbook sheds light on female food, wine entrepreneurs in Sonoma County
When Michelle Mandro of St. Helena set out to research and write “Wine Country Women of Sonoma County,” she figured it would take her about a year.
That was how long it took her, from start to release date, to produce “Wine Country Women of Napa Valley,” a similar coffee-table book that hit shelves in October 2017.
Then Armageddon struck in Sonoma County, and one year stretched into three.
“We had two fires, flooding and one of the women passed away (chef Evelyn Cheatham),” she said. “Finally, about a year ago, I decided I had to get this book out. This can’t go on and on and on.”
So Mandro had to be content with showcasing 46 women - she had hoped for a round number of 50 - culled from the vibrant food, wine, spirits, agriculture, art and hospitality worlds of Sonoma County who would inspire others.
“We are so long overdue for recognition,” she said. “This allows us to cast a spotlight not only on Sonoma County but some incredible women who are making a difference.”
The large-format book, being released this month, includes captivating portraits of the women along with family recipes paired with wine, beer or spirits. It’s a unique snapshot of Sonoma County and a go-to guide for both casual and elegant entertaining for readers.
“I like to think that I’m providing a look at Sonoma County through the eyes of an incredible group of women,” Mandro said.
Now that she has documented two of California’s finest wine regions, Mandro has moved on to the third and final region in her trilogy: the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
“I believe those are the three best wine regions our country has to offer,” said Mandro, who moved to the Napa Valley in 2004 to become executive director of the American Institute of Wine and Food, founded by Robert Mondavi and Julia Child in the 1980s.
”Gastronomy was a word they loved a lot,” she said. “They wanted to make food and wine more approachable with social gatherings, and there were chapters across the country.”
The job cemented Mandro’s enthusiasm for wine, and she worked for several family-owned wineries in the Napa Valley before getting a crash course in publishing with her own business, Wine Country Women.
“I love all wine. I truly am a wine woman,” she said. “That position really helped me develop greater appreciation for wine and food.”
For all the books, Mandro takes a deep dive into the region - researching newspaper and magazine articles, following up on referrals and existing contacts - to come up with a dynamic group of women, diverse in their occupations and geographic areas of the wine region.
Some of the accomplished women who made the Sonoma County cut include Katina Connaughton of SingleThread Farm in Healdsburg, Kate MacMurray of MacMurray Ranch in Healdsburg, Alanna Hanson of Hanson Distillery in Sonoma, Erinn Benziger Weiswasser of The Glen Ellen Star in Glen Ellen, Lauren Patz of Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol and artist Sandra Speidel of Petaluma, who served as the cover artist for the limited-edition version of the book.
“I look for the women who have interesting stories that resonate with me,” Mandro said. “And I hope a reader would find them fascinating to read about, too.”
The photo portraits of the women are fun, whimsical and spirited - Chris Hanna, president of Hanna Winery, serene in a yoga pose or Karen Warnelius-Miller of Garden Creek Winery, at the coast with her wetsuit and kitesurf board. Each photo shows a unique aspect of their lives.
“I didn’t want any of the women photographed in the vineyard or barrel room,” Mandro said. “What is something else about the woman that tells us who she is?”
For spring entertaining needs, we chose seasonal recipes from four women in the book that together make a spring menu of wine-and-food pairings, from appetizer to dessert.
Akiko Freeman, co-founder and winemaker of Freeman Winery in Sebastopol, is the first Japanese woman winemaker in the U.S., to Mandro’s best knowledge.
“That alone made her fascinating,” Mandro said. “In her story, we reflected on a childhood memory, when she used the wrong wine for cooking a favorite recipe, and it tasted bad.”
The lesson for Akiko is that the quality of the ingredients - whether in wine or in food - is crucial.
“This is such a spring food, and I try making it every spring when sweet peas and fennel are in season,” Freeman said of the soup. “I make it for our lunch often. It’s very light but satisfying.”
Sweet Pea and Fennel Soup
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped