Priyanka Dhar French is among a handful of Indian women making a mark in California wine, an industry dominated by men.
Let’s begin with some of her firsts. French is the first Indian woman to have graduated with a master's degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis and the first Indian woman in winemaking at Burgundy’s storied Hospice de Beaune.
Add to this, French’s power-packed resume which reflects not only her experiences in global wine regions but also working alongside such luminaries as enologist Michel Rolland and winemaker Andy Erickson during her five-year tenure as cellar master and viticulturist at Napa’s Dalla Valle Vineyards.
Is it any wonder that she was head-hunted by Napa’s historic Signorello Estate in 2019 where she continues its decades-long legacy as the winery’s third winemaker?
In the devastating 2017 Napa fires, Signorello’s original winery, founded in 1977 along Silverado Trail, was among the few wineries destroyed but, thankfully, the 30-acre estate vineyard was spared. The rebuilding process has started and overseeing construction of the new 28,000 square-foot winery is among French’s responsibilities.
Both French and Signorello, Jr. have been the driving force behind the new and revitalized vision for the 44-year-old family-owned estate. Phase 1 of the caves and fermentation building is under way with completion targeted for the end of 2022, French said.
At Signorello, French is working in collaboration with consulting viticulturist Steve Matthiasson and Celia Welch, consulting director of winemaking. Founded by Ray Signorello Sr., the winery is under the stewardship of his son Ray Jr. who was 25, when he took over and built the brand.
“I’ve always followed the path of estate-driven wines,” said French, who at 34 has amassed a wealth of knowledge interning or working at wineries in France, California and New Zealand (where she met her husband Alex French).
I met French recently on a warm Napa afternoon at Signorello, in an upscale trailer parked near the destroyed winery, it serves as a makeshift office and a small tasting area. French offered a glass of the 2018 Seta, a refreshing blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon and then we set off for a tour of the vineyards as she expertly navigated the golf cart around the vines.
Arriving at the hilltop, an alfresco tasting of wines was lined up under a cool shady canopy. On the 100-acre estate, 30 acres are planted to vineyards ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir and producing 3,000 cases annually.
We tasted the 2018 Hope’s Cuvee Chardonnay, a lyrical wine with waves of orange blossoms on the palate. The 2018 Signori Cabernet Sauvignon showed a lush mouthfeel, anchored with firm tannins and the muscular 2016 Padrone, Cabernet Sauvignon, was multi-layered and cellar-worthy.
A recent addition to the Wines by Ray Signorello portfolio is the release of S, the first new product introduced by French and Ray Signorello Jr. I had the pleasure of savoring the 2019 S Cabernet Sauvignon, which is blended with Merlot and Petit Verdot. Inky dark, rich and luscious, the wine revealed an intense nose of black fruits, with silky tannins leading to a lengthy finish - delicious to drink now and worthy of aging. The fruit is sourced from organic vineyards in Rutherford, St. Helena and Howell Mountain.
“I’m thrilled for the opportunity to work with some great sites across Napa Valley and to bring in a broader perspective for our own wines, extending beyond the Estate,” French wrote in a note.
Due to the current construction process, production is being done off site with few tweaks and changes in vinification. White wine fermentation, for example is done with native yeast, while reds are inoculated. “There is an opportunity for cross contamination, when it’s custom crush off site,” French said. “We’ll get back to our original vilification program once the facility is ready.”
Since bottling is done off site as well, white wines currently are filtered and reds are unfiltered.
In between sips of wine, I got to know the Mumbai-born winemaker who was raised by a family of scientists.
Does her Indian heritage play a role in her profession?
“It’s been a huge part of my profession, the way I approach work,” she said. “We were brought up with sweat equity.” French said her parents emphasized the importance of discipline and education. “My parents were very clear, keep your goals in mind. That has been a cornerstone for me.”
Because of her family’s scientific profession, she knew early on the general direction where she was headed. Perhaps medicine? But that would take too many years, she worried. Chemistry caught her attention, especially food sciences. “It’s an application-based science,” said the pragmatic winemaker, who graduated from Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology.
Her introduction to wine came via one of her college field trips, which included visits to a spice blending company, Amul milk processing, Parle biscuits in Mumbai and Sula winery in Nashik, India’s burgeoning wine region. The last one appealed to her.
“No one told me this was an option,” French recalled of her visit, where she witnessed harvest and the romance of wine at sunset. She recalls saying to herself, “I don’t know this industry, but I could do this.” Luckily, one of her uncles who was in the food industry encouraged her interest. “He pushed me,” she recalled.
Plans to study winemaking abroad didn’t sit well with her parents at first, but they recognized her determination. “They realized I had a plan,” she said.
French was accepted into master's programs in Adelaide, Bordeaux and at UC Davis. She chose the latter in 2009 and graduated with a Master of Science degree in Viticulture & Enology. It was here that French earned internships at Napa’s E & J Gallo and Louis Martini, and later at Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, France.
Of her multiple experiences, French said, “My biggest education has been expanding my own palate. I was looking at wine from a technical aspect.”
In 2011 she was tapped by Tonnellerie Demptos to represent its French oak barrels in India, a stint that lasted one year and gave her a taste of the Indian wine scene. She decided to continue with her travels to New Zealand and then arrived in Napa at Dalla Valle winery.
Among her mentors, French names a couple of women: Linda Bisson, winemaker and professor at UC Davis, who was her master’s thesis advisor and Naoko Dalla Valle, whom she admires as an Asian woman who is at the forefront of wine business.
A powerful woman who approaches life in a wholesome way, is French’s take on the Napa vintner. “She keeps a cool head and looks at long term,” French said. “Hopefully, I have some of that in me.”
The young winemaker’s goal is to take her knowledge back to India’s wine industry. Commenting on the current awareness of biodynamic farming in the US, French insisted: “India has been farming this way for centuries, we never had a term for it.”
For example, she said, “In India we always look at the lunar calendar, even our festivals are done by lunar calendar.” Indian farmers, take a philosophical look at eco-system and animals, she said. “Indian practices have a place in modern culture.”
Yet, she admits that she’s not familiar with India’s tropical climate culture, but she could in the future bring her technical knowledge to the country’s burgeoning wine region. “But now, I know I’m needed here, while they rebuild Signorello."