Stories / Interviews

Winemaker Heidi Bridenhagen on the Leadership and Creativity of Her Craft

Yasmin Hariri

March 26, 2024


Heidi Bridenhagen in Nightwing Vineyard

In honor of Women’s History Month, we sat down with a leader in the field of winemaking: Heidi Bridenhagen of Distinguished Vineyards, proud partner of the James Beard Foundation (JBF) advocacy and sustainability programs and Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP). As head winemaker of MacRostie Winery and Dough Wines, JBF’s first collaborative wine brand created in partnership with Distinguished Vineyards, Bridenhagen is an inspiring embodiment of innovation, teamwork, and leadership. Read on to learn more about Bridenhagen’s path to becoming a head winemaker, her approach to honing her craft, and her advice to women pursuing a career in winemaking.

James Beard Foundation: Where does your story in wine begin? What steps along the way led you to becoming a winemaker at just 29?

Heidi Bridenhagen: Before joining MacRostie and Distinguished Vineyards and helping to establish Dough, my approach to winemaking was shaped by a unique background, which includes earning a degree in biochemistry and traveling throughout the wine regions of France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. I also worked in the cellar at Oyster Bay in New Zealand and honed my craft alongside winemakers Mick Schroeter and Cara Morrison at Sonoma-Cutrer. Prior to being named the winemaker for MacRostie, I spent two years as assistant winemaker, where I worked side-by-side with founder Steve MacRostie, who I consider both a friend and a mentor.

JBF: What brought you to MacRostie Winery? What aspects of their mission and winemaking spoke to you?

HB: At MacRostie, I’ve found a winemaking home that embraces my desire to innovate. I am constantly running numerous small-lot trials in areas that include extraction levels, whole clusters, tannin management, cold soak durations, yeast strains, barrel versus tank fermentation, and more. Carrying on the traditions of an iconic winery like MacRostie, while helping to chart the course for its future, is an undertaking that requires respect and thoughtfulness.

When I was named winemaker, I embraced the opportunity both to learn and lead. Like Steve MacRostie, I strive to bring inquisitiveness and an absolute attention to the details that are essential for great winemaking. I also appreciate the fact that MacRostie is deeply committed to making vineyard-driven wines and has given me great flexibility in choosing vineyards I am excited to work with. Over the past decade, I believe we have built an incredibly diverse and impressive vineyard program, including our own estate vineyards, and that shines through in our wines.

JBF: How have you cultivated your own unique approach to winemaking? What values have guided your approach?

HB: From a technical sense, I think I bring the rigor of a scientist to my work, especially as it applies to running trials and experiments with the goal of continually elevating quality. I also have an appreciation of what it takes to grow world-class grapes, and for the craft and artistry of winemaking. Sustainability is incredibly important to me, and I currently serve on the Joint Council for Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) certification where we work with industry leaders to keep the program’s sustainability criteria relevant and current.

I also believe in the importance of advocating for a diverse, inclusive, and equitable wine and hospitality industry, so I strive to be a collaborative leader committed to opening doors for the next generation of women industry leaders. With this in mind, a few years back I joined the Bâtonnage Women in Wine Mentorship Program, which supports individuals who have traditionally been overlooked to achieve equal opportunities and especially equal leadership positions within the wine industry. I am involved as both a Level 1 and Level 2 Mentor, which means I mentor young women wine professionals in groups and one-on-one. Having a safe space to share ideas and be vulnerable can go a long way in fueling someone’s success.

MacRostie's estate Nightwing Vineyard

JBF: Dough Wines is the James Beard Foundation’s first-ever collaborative wine brand, launched with Distinguished Vineyards under your leadership as Dough’s head winemaker. What have been your proudest moments with Dough Wines since its 2020 launch?

HB: One of the things I am proudest about at Dough is the collaborative spirit that drives the winemaking and the winery’s mission. That collaboration has been key since the beginning, from the way we partnered with the amazing JBF team to the way we worked with chefs Lee Ann Wong and Bill Telepan to make our debut wines.

As part of Distinguished Vineyards, Dough also allows me to collaborate with the other great winemakers in our company to bring their expertise and insight into making Dough’s wines. I also love working with our Dough Ambassadors—Joanna James, Greg Wade, and Ayesha Nurdjaja—to spread the word about our mission to promote equality in the kitchen, food sustainability, and restaurant recovery and education. Real change requires a collective effort, and I believe that with the support of JBF and our friends in the wine and hospitality industries we are helping to move the needle.

By the end of this year, Dough will have donated and invested more than $890,000 to support and build awareness for JBF programs and other philanthropic organizations. When we reach $1 million, that will be a very special moment. I’m also proud that we make wines that really align with the hospitality industry that we are committed to supporting. Because we collaborate with chefs to define the Dough style, our wines pair incredibly well with a range of diverse cuisines, so they really have the potential to bring people together and inspire conversation over a meal.

Bridenhagen and Dough Wines (photo: Dawn Heumann)

JBF: In what ways has being a woman been a strength in honing your craft?

HB: While I don’t think there are absolutes in terms of differences between male and female winemakers, personally speaking I think I bring empathy to my role leading our winemaking team, and I believe in collaboration. If you build a great team around you, and then you build them up, they in turn will build you up and make you better. These qualities nurture and foster great wine. So does being open to different ways of doing things. Winemaking culture can have a lot of ego and a lot of gatekeepers, and that is not always ideal for women or for having a diverse and inclusive culture. It is a rigid way of thinking. My approach is to work with a lot of great people, taste a lot of wines, and ask a lot of questions. When you do that, you will make something amazing.

JBF: As a leader in an industry that is still largely male-dominated, what advice would you give to other women eager to pursue a career in winemaking?

HB: The first thing I would say is don’t be intimidated. Go for it! Winemaking is an awesome career. I love what I do. I would also emphasize the importance of networking and finding a mentor. From there, find your confidence and plan your path, and then check in with yourself every once in a while to make sure you’re following that path and the goals you have established for yourself. If you are being held back or feel like you are making too many compromises, you need to be aware of that and adjust your plan to overcome the obstacles in your way.

For more Women's History Month stories from the Foundation, follow along on our channels through the month of March!


Yasmin Hariri is branded content manager at the James Beard Foundation.