Cathy Corison was the first woman winemaker-proprietor in the Napa Valley. She received her B.A. in Biology from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, followed by a master’s degree in Enology from University of California at Davis. Her first winemaking position was at Yverdon Vineyard and Winery on Spring Mountain followed by Chappellet Winery. Later, she held winemaking positions at Staglin Family Winery, Long Meadow Ranch, and York Creek Vineyards. After buying Kronos Vineyard in 1995, Cathy and her husband, William Martin, opened Corison Winery in 1999.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Cathy Corison for WineSpeed in July 2019.
Karen MacNeil: What was your first job in the wine industry?
Cathy Corison: Days after graduating from Pomona College in June 1975, I arrived in the Napa Valley with the vague notion that I wanted to make world-class wine. During that first year, before I went to UC Davis to get my master’s degree in Enology, I worked at the Wine Garden in St. Helena, a wine bar/wine shop that held wonderful tastings for the entire winemaking community. (There were 30 wineries in the valley at that time!) Sadly, it closed soon thereafter, and I went up to Sterling to work in the tasting room. All that year I worked part-time in the Napa Valley and went over the hill to U.C. Davis to clean up the chemistry I had managed to avoid and start on the winemaking classes.
KM: What was the toughest part of your early years?
CC: Making ends meet. Part-time work in the first year kept me fed, and a scholarship plus funded research for my master’s thesis allowed me to subsist in graduate school.
KM: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
CC: Wines and vineyards have always been my mentors, but I was blessed to have a few men who trusted a scrawny twenty-something at critical junctures. Larry Langbehn, the winemaker at Freemark Abbey, hired me as an intern as I left U.C. Davis, although it took him two years to talk the owners into having a woman in their cellar. Late in 1980, Donn Chappellet hired me to make his wines and run his 30,000-case winery when I was at at the tender age of 26.
KM: How old were you when you tasted your first wine and who gave it to you?
CC: I was thirteen. My cousin and I were the eldest in the family and were allowed a glass of wine with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. We felt very mature and choked it down, though neither of us liked it. (My father never spent more than $8 for a bottle of wine.)
“Wines and vineyards have always been my mentors…”
Karen MacNeil: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
Cathy Corison: Sweet, oaky, flabby chardonnay.
KM: Besides Napa Valley, what other wine region inspires you the most and why?
CC: I love, and am inspired by, nebbiolo from Piedmont for its floral perfume and combination of power and elegance.
KM: You are a woman winemaker and you own your own winery. Fewer than 5% of women winemakers go on to found their own winery. Why do you think that is?
CC: That’s a big subject. Regardless of gender, it’s just plain hard for a winemaker of limited means to get a label off the ground. It is very capital-intensive to jump in and found a winery. Corison Winery evolved slowly and organically over more than 3 decades. As a small family winery, we all do upwards of three full-time jobs to keep all the balls in the air. My husband, William Martin, has been integral to operations and planning since soon after the founding of Corison Winery. There would be no Corison Winery as we know it without him.
KM: What is it about wine that moves you?
CC: It’s alive.
KM: Is wine good for a culture, for a society?
CC: As a grocery*, in some senses wine is culture and society. Meals can be civilizing; they slow us down and we generally share them with friends and family.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
CC: Stewardship of the land and of traditions in fine winemaking. (And helping launch two lovely daughters who have so much to give back, which is sort of related.)
*Thank you, Bobby Stuckey