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How a Northern California woman broke winemaker’s glass ceiling

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A black and white photograph tells Mary Ann Graf’s story, a lone woman in a crowd of men.

The photo, which dates back to 1965, captures a pack of students in UC Davis’ Enology and Viticulture program. Graf, in the front row, was the first woman in the program to earn a degree in Fermentation Sciences. In the male dominated field, Graf was unfazed, a dogged scientist intrigued by her colossal laboratory: the world of wine.

Graf’s recent passing has women winemakers reminiscing about the pioneer who inspired them to follow her lead and make a career in wine. After battling pancreatic cancer for nearly three years, Graf died on Jan. 30. She was 76.

The entrepreneur spent most of her career developing Vinquiry, laboratories that offer testing services to winemakers with the company’s headquarters now in Windsor. But her most notable role was winemaker at Healdsburg’s historic Simi Winery from 1973 to 1979.

Zelma Long — the winemaker who succeeded Graf at Simi — said she admired her quiet strength and persistence.

“Mary Ann described herself as ‘shy’ but she was strong and determined, ‘gutsy’ even,” Long said. “I met her on a 1976 trip to Bordeaux and Burgundy led by Louis Martini and accompanied by Andre Tchelistcheff. We were roommates, and hit it off, enamored at the opportunity to visit Paris, many wineries, eat great French food and enjoy wonderful wines. It was an eye opening experience in every way.”

Long said Graf’s instincts were to help others, and this included but wasn’t limited to women.

Merry Edwards, founder of her namesake winery in Sebastopol, considered both Graf and Long as beloved mentors.

“I have always considered Mary Ann and Zelma as my two ‘big sisters’ in the wine industry,” Edwards said.

“They were both already established when I arrived on the scene. I considered myself very fortunate to be part of the pioneering front guard, a trio of women in a very male dominated industry. I looked up to Mary Ann and I’m sad about her passing.”

Encouraging women to forge ahead with courage was just one of Graf’s gifts, according to Julia Iantosca, consulting winemaker of Sonoma’s Lasseter Family Winery.

Iantosca said Graf also inspired women to deeply develop their winemaking prowess.

“Mary Ann really helped me to look at the wine making process as a whole,” Iantosca explained. “She taught me to carefully evaluate the consequences of each decision you make along the path of a wine’s life and be certain to anticipate the results of any choices/changes you might make.”

Winemakers would sometimes launch a new technique without really thinking it through, she said.

All things considered, Iantosca said she was most impressed with Graf’s unstoppable nature.

“The industry really had been a man’s world and she didn’t let that stop her,” Iantosca said.

“She made up her mind to pursue something and then she just kept moving forward. I think all the women that were ‘first’ in their fields helped younger women see that anything they wanted to pursue could be possible.

“Mary Ann really helped create a path for the rest of us.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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