A Woman in Wine: Nan Helgeland’s Out-of-this-World Vineyard

A Woman in Wine: Martian Vineyard, Nan Helgeland
Illustration by NatalieAnn Rich.

The wine industry is often considered a man’s domain. Historically, women have been prevented from harvesting grapes, performing cellar work and even drinking the product. Today, less than a fourth of individuals holding the esteemed title of Master Sommelier are women, and less than 15 percent of lead winemakers in California are female. Yet this landscape seems to be changing as an increasing number of women graduate from viticulture and oenology programs. California, in particular, has set itself apart as a hotspot for the ever-increasing presence of female wine professionals. Among these women is Nan Helgeland, owner of Martian Ranch and Vineyard, who has been challenging the gender divide by successfully managing a large enterprise based on biodynamic farming.

How did you get started with biodynamic farming?

Nan Helgeland: When I bought the property I knew nothing about biodynamic farming. My first winemaker introduced me to Philippe Armenier who is now my consultant and winemaker. I also started taking classes at Allan Hancock College and met the head of the program, Alfredo Koch, whose family owns two biodynamically farmed vineyards in Argentina. My husband and I also have a neighbor in Manhattan whose family farms their chateau biodynamically. All of a sudden I had three people whose opinions I valued. Then I bought every book on the topic, read everything I could get my hands on, all of Rudolf Steiner’s biographies [philosopher and creator of biodynamic farming]. The best biography of Steiner was actually written by a member of the group Blondie, Gary Lachman. The decision to farm biodynamically was also important for me because I live here too, so anything that I spray on my vines also goes into my well.

Tell us more about the name of the property, Martian Ranch and Vineyard.

Nan Helgeland: My two sons are named Martin and Ian and I’ve always called them Martian. So when we bought the property there was no question that I was going to name it Martian Ranch. It can look like I had this amazing marketing plan—I named it Martian Ranch, I farm biodynamically, I happen to be an amateur astronomer—but the truth is I named it after my sons. Everything coalesced organically. The pieces all fit on their own.

 
A couple of months ago I was pouring wine for this man, and he said, “You know you pour rather heavy, you should be careful because you could get fired for that.
 

What is the connection between your winery and astronomy?

Nan Helgeland: The grapes grown in our vineyard mirror the galaxies in our group. Most people don’t know that, but we get a lot of people here from SpaceX at Vandenberg, JPL and United Launch and they look at the names of our wines and they know. Here’s an example, Local Group, our Grenache—some years it’s a standalone Grenache and some vintages it’s a blend, GSM. In a vineyard, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre are grown together. They’re grouped together in the vineyard, they’re grouped together in the blend. Galaxies are also grouped together and groups of galaxies have names. Our group of galaxies is called the Local Group, there’s the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, and many others. So I decided to name our group after the celestial one.

When my friend Dolores and I were driving to the ranch today, she said “Do you think there’s other life out there?” and I said, “There’s absolutely other life out there, whether it looks like us or whether it’s just a single-celled entity, the universe is so vast, not one single person can say what’s out there. And god, I hope we’re not alone.”

Have you ever seen a UFO?

Nan Helgeland: How can you know? You can look up in the sky and see something go by, right? It could be a satellite. A really good friend of mine works at Vandenberg and sends up satellites all the time. You can go on the Starwalk app on your phone and switch to satellite mode and hold it up to the sky and it’ll tell you which satellites are flying over you. Who can say?

Our wine club members from SpaceX often send us stuff. They brought us doormats and all these t-shirts that say “Occupy Mars.” The winery was named after my sons and now I’m the darling of the space industry. I think it’s fantastic. And farming biodynamically is farming to the four lunar cycles. It all syncs up, it’s all meant to be, all kismet.

 
Here was this A) woman, B) blonde, coming up from L.A.—what could she possibly know?
 

That sounds almost spiritual.

Nan Helgeland: Rudolf Steiner firmly believed in Jesus Christ and was quite religious, but it’s totally possible to farm biodynamically without the religious aspect. For me, my religion is mother nature. I have never felt more connected to the earth than since I started farming biodynamically. There are various levels to which you can do this … some people just spray biodynamic preparations on the crops and that’s it. We bury the cow horns, we make our own preps. There is a cow manure prep and a silica prep. One is sprayed on the ground, one is sprayed on the vines themselves. There’s chamomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian, forsyth, those are used when making your own compost, which is what we’re going to be doing and why we’re building our cow herd. These preps are inserted into the compost, they can also be made into teas and concoctions and sprayed on the vines. It’s homeopathic, it’s using nature to control nature, although I don’t necessarily like the word “control.”

 
I was the poster woman for going back to college at the age of 46.
 

How did you overcome being a female professional in what is traditionally considered a man’s field?

Nan Helgeland: I knew what I was doing. My attitude was just “ask me anything.” I like debunking myths, I actually embraced the view of me others had. Here was this A) woman, B) blonde, coming up from L.A.—what could she possibly know? It was motivational. So I decided, you know what, I’m going back to college. I’ll read everything I can get my hands on. I’ll have conversations with everybody and at the end of the day, I’m going to know what you know and I’m going to know more than you know. Which I do. I was the poster woman for going back to college at the age of 46. I was in college again and both of my sons were in college at the same time.

Do you see the industry remaining male dominated or do you see that changing?

Nan Helgeland: We are very lopsided here at the winery. Philippe and Eric are the winemakers, Rodney is the ranch manager, but there are many more women than men here. Certainly, there will be more women in the future. There are more women graduating from all the colleges and universities here in California. I love Philippe and having him on board, but I’d love to have a woman winemaker on the team. There are not that many women who do this, but the number is certainly growing. Another female winemaker I know told me that women in wine in France are decades behind. There are certainly some female winemakers who are taken seriously, but as a larger demographic, not so many.

 
I look at my vineyard as a living entity, my third child. When I’m not here I miss my vineyard as though it were a person.
 

Why do you think that is?

Nan Helgeland: Basically it’s because it’s agriculture, which has always been a man’s world. We’re sitting here amongst all this equipment but the basis, the genesis of this entire industry is a plant. And men generally plant and men grow and harvest the plant.

As for me, I don’t look at it purely as a business, as a man would. I look at my vineyard as a living entity, my third child. When I’m not here I miss my vineyard as though it were a person. Men, women, friends, strangers, are always surprised at my level of energy. I’m aware that I’m energetic and that I have a lot going on, but this is my life.

Michael, a wine shop owner in West Hollywood, says he will only carry wines if he knows the face behind the product. Wineries are … there’s the gamut, of course, but so many wineries are owned by a corporation. I hear that all the time, even in this area, because I work in the tasting room on the weekends, people come in and have no idea that I’m the owner, because owners don’t work on the weekends. I’ll be chatting with people in the tasting room and pouring for them and they have no idea. A couple of months ago I was pouring wine for this man, and he said, “You know you pour rather heavy, you should be careful because you could get fired for that.”

Our business model, which we all live and breathe, is that the business grows one customer at a time. When people come in they get someone’s undivided attention. We don’t advertise, we all wear name tags, our first words are “welcome” and then we ask “how did you find us?” and “where are you visiting us from?” Already, there’s a connection there.

This interview originally appeared in the Future issue. For more inspiring stories dealing with the future, check out Apocalypse Then: The Positive Side of Exploring Dystopia and No Great Women Artists: A Lesson to Be Learned.