Priyanka French is known for her role as the lead winemaker at Signorello Estate in Napa Valley, Calif. However, not as many are aware that she is passionate about social change and mentorship, specifically of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and women in the wine industry.
French decided to pursue a career in winemaking while still living in her native home of Mumbai, India, during her undergraduate studies at the Institute of Chemical Technology at the University of Mumbai. After a field visit to a winery (Sula Vineyards, India’s industry-leading winery) sparked her curiosity, she planted and began to cultivate the seeds that would grow into her career. She completed her undergraduate studies in Food Science and Technology in 2009.
By 2011, French had become the first Indian national to complete her master’s degree in viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis (U.C. Davis). While studying there, she decided to boost her education even further with internships, working harvests in Napa, New Zealand, and France.
Stepping into her role at Signorello Estate in 2019, it’s safe to say French had a lot on her plate. It was during a transitional period of rebuilding — the winery was destroyed by wildfire in 2017 — that preceded more challenges to come. But her plans to elevate the estate by upgrading the facilities and streamlining operations are only part of what’s fueling her today.
French has an overall vision for herself and her contribution to the world that goes beyond winemaking. She operates as if viewing the world in wide screen: Not content with merely hoisting the winery from ashes to splendor, a project already well underway, she also has ambitions to open doors for other wine industry hopefuls so they may one day do the same.
Today, French is creating the change she wished for herself as a BIPOC woman coming into the “old boy” wine industry in Napa Valley. By partnering with Bâtonnage and Wine Unify’s mentoring programs, she is a driving force of positive change.
Here, the trailblazing mentor shares her story and shows the blueprints for paving the way for more Indian, women, and BIPOC winemakers to come.
1. You seem like someone who is very ambitious. Now that you have achieved your first goal of becoming a winemaker, have you decided upon a new goal?
I definitely have a lot of ambition when it comes to Signorello Estates and where the winery is right now, and post-fire on the continuation of the rebuild of the estate.The short-term goal is simply to rebuild the property and really produce wines that are expressive at the site.My long-term goal is to go back to my roots and have something to do with bringing the Indian wine industry to a more global level. How that will happen, I have yet to figure out — but it’s definitely something in the back of my mind.
2. As you mentioned previously, India is not really well known for winemaking globally. What was the wine culture like growing up in India for you?
I would say growing up, there was no wine culture for me. I did not grow up with my parents drinking wine; there was no wine at the dinner table. My dad was a beer and whiskey drinker which are still the primary alcohols of choice in India.
It’s definitely a growing culture, but I think in order to really establish it as a beverage of choice in India, there needs to be more focused education for the Indian consumer in general.
3. Did anyone question your choice to pursue your career as a winemaker?
Oh, yes, definitely. When I told my parents, they laughed. It took them a few weeks to realize that I was serious about it. It’s not that they weren’t supportive, they were just very apprehensive. Wine really wasn’t a big industry in India at that time.
I remember the first serious question my dad asked me was, “Do women even do this?” I was really upset when he asked me that question, but I think, in retrospect, by asking me that question, I started my career by looking for women winemakers. One of the ways I convinced my parents of my decision was to make a presentation about women winemakers in the world — coincidentally, one of them was Sylvia Welch, who is now my consulting winemaker.
Ultimately, when they [my parents] saw me getting accepted to all these universities, and when I got a scholarship to come to Davis, they understood that I was trying to pursue this as a career in a very educational fashion. Since then, they have never questioned my decision; and I think their wine knowledge has grown. They went from rolling their eyes at my profession to now having a deeper appreciation for the beverage.
4. Is there anything about your cultural background that influences your winemaking choices?
Actually, yes. I would honestly say: integration of flavors and textures and the balance between them. When I entered this industry, a huge part of my effort toward educating myself was put toward gaining a Eurocentric vocabulary in wine. That was probably one of my biggest challenges — accurately and confidently describing wine in a “traditional” way. I held back on using descriptive language that was more familiar in my cultural upbringing, despite having clearly noticed it in wine. I was young, and feeling less confident; today I say, “I grew up eating foods with cumin and I know what cumin smells like.”
If you think about it, even the most basic Indian cuisine — it’s usually a balance between five specific spices. There are many layers, textures, colors, and spice profiles. I think that growing up with that spectrum of flavors and textures in general has been the most exciting discovery about myself in the way I taste wine.
5. Did you have a mentor in the wine space?
Initially, it was my uncle; he was really the one who helped motivate me to pursue my education in wine. I tasted my first wine with him.
When I came to Davis, professor Linda Bisson, Ph.D, my thesis master’s advisor, quickly became my mentor. I could walk into her office and talk to her about anything — not just my thesis project but any class that I took or wine that I tasted. She was instrumental in helping me to actually get field experiences.
Most recently, Naoko Dalla Valle has been someone I really looked up to. I worked with her for five and a half years and she’s just incredible. She is a woman of color who has been owning and operating Dalla Valle Vineyards for so many years and continuing the legacy of the brand with such passion.
6. Did you ever experience any type of difficulties in the wine industry because of your cultural identity, or discrimination based on the color of your skin?
Yes. I think I had to work a lot harder than others to be taken seriously, whether in the cellar or in a tasting room.
Having said that, I like to focus on the people who have supported me; the ones that have opened doors or extra bottles for me and let me taste with them. For the people that didn’t support me, that was also a motivator because in the back of my head I was thinking, “Your loss, I’ll show you.”
When I started in my master’s program at Davis, I was the only Indian person there doing it at that time. My grandma always said that, “When you are the first to walk down the path, your job is also to clear it for people that are yet to come.” I believe in that, and I hope that more will follow. There are more Indians in the industry already, and I believe that there are more to come. I have been very fortunate.
[It’s] not just luck, Priyanka! Certainly, your educational background brings you a lot of power. There is authority in your credentials.
I agree with that. My mom always said, “Nobody can take your education away.” I grew up with a very strong focus on academics and being thoughtful about my choices in pursuing a new industry. Anytime I did anything new, my parents would say, “You have to give it your best.” “Go big, or go home!” basically, but the Indian version of it.
With Wine Unify, my contribution is toward making sure that people who can’t afford the education, or maybe don’t have the life choices to take two years off to go study or work a harvest abroad, can apply for scholarships to get started on their educational path. Through these programs, my hope is that those wanting to can still meet the right people who are willing to support them in their journey.
7. What is your advice to new winemakers aspiring to learn through experiences similar to yours, at prestigious vineyards and in world-renowned locations, but who may have limited access due to their circumstances or other limiting factors?
That is a question that I have been ruminating over for a few years, and what pushed me towards partnering with the Bâtonnage and Wine Unify mentorship programs. Once I had a platform and opportunity to help establish something like that, I didn’t waste any time doing it. I think that networking is a huge part of this industry, and you never know what opportunities you will end up with through talking to someone; so, I want to open those doors for people.
8. Can you describe how the Wine Unify and Bâtonnage programs work?
Sure. The Wine Unify program focuses on granting access through scholarships toward WSET [Wine and Spirits Education Trust] courses. The intention behind it is essentially to create a system for our first POC master of wine, or whichever direction they choose to go with. As you mentioned, sometimes your education is what helps propel you toward pursuing your passion. All of our mentors are also POC. I think this helps to foster confidence in the mentees, especially when starting out; it’s important for them to feel that they are welcomed to speak and feel comfortable to do so. Big shout out to: Mary Margaret, Martin Reyes, and Dlynn Proctor; they did a great job with the mission statement as the original founders of the program.
The Bâtonnage program is really about mentorship, networking, and experience. The way I define mentorship, there are a couple of different ways: First there’s vertical mentorship, where a mentee is looking up to a mentor, asking them questions, and wanting to know their path. Next there is horizontal mentorship, where sometimes both mentor and mentee are in the same spot, and just talking to each other gives them both the confidence and excitement to keep moving.
I work with the original founders, Stevie Stacionis and Sarah Bray, and the current managers Katie [Canfield] and Rebecca [Johnson] to put forward a plan for a more curated mentorship structure.
First, we established five different areas within the industry to focus on: There are sales and marketing; cellar production; viticulture; retail; and hospitality. Each category has their program head and within those areas of focus there are three different levels of mentorship.
Next, we structured the program into three levels:
Level one is like a networking opportunity. At this level, the candidate does not have to have a specific demonstrated interest in any field, but may be that person who thinks, “I want to enter this field, but I don’t know what to do or how to do it.” The mentors usually have experience in more than one area, so that they can talk about their own path and what led them in one direction over another. The initial program was very well received. We had 135 mentees paired with 15 mentors across the country.
Level two is currently underway. We have five individual mentor-mentee pairings across five industry areas of focus. At this level, the candidate spends an extended amount of time one-on-one; there’s a lot of focus on résumé building and writing skills.
Level three will convert into an actual work experience. We are pretty excited about which experiences level three end up providing.
9. Your background is incredibly diverse. Is there anything that you would have done differently looking back at your journey — anything that you would’ve spent less or more time on?
I don’t think so. Looking back, every experience that I had was so helpful. Each experience helped me build from one philosophy to the other.
If anything, I always thought that I would be working with Pinot Noir. That was the variety that I wanted to pursue. But ultimately, looking back now, I realize that all my skills and experiences point me down the path of creating high-end Napa Valley Cabernet. Maybe one day, I will go back to Pinot at some point.