St. Francis’s Katie Madigan Sees the Science Behind Wine

Apr. 18, 2018

Katie Madigan

Katie Madigan is a firm believer in living your passion and as a winemaker at St. Francis, she’s pairing two of hers — science and wine.

Her fascination with wine evolved from her parents. They thrived in California wine country and Madigan fondly remembers their frequent day trips to vineyards in the area.

"At a young age, they really taught me the value of good wine,” Madigan said. She recalls her parents coming home “so happy” from Fourth of July parties in Napa.

But Madigan’s first real foray into wine didn’t come until after college. As a “bonafide science geek,” Madigan studied chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but she was uncertain where that path would take her.

I always say that when it stops being fun and interesting, it’s time for me to move on.
- Katie Madigan

“The thought of being locked away at some windowless laboratory kind of scared me,” Madigan said.
She soon followed her retired parents to wine country and honed in on a path that allowed her to explore the science behind wine: an internship with St. Francis. 
Madigan was only 21-years-old at the time, but she’s been with them ever since. She’s now a 16-year wine veteran who genuinely loves what she does and has no plans of stopping any time soon.

“I always say that when it stops being fun and interesting, it’s time for me to move on,” said Madigan. “Of course it’s a business and we have to be successful, but it’s still just really enjoyable to go to work every day.”
That genuine happiness is what makes Madigan so good at what she does. She’s been recognized as Best Woman Winemaker by the International Women’s Wine Competition; and Producer of the Year by the California Zinfandel Championship — twice.

Madigan took a moment to step out of the vineyard and into a conversation with us, where we talked about science, St. Francis and women in wine. 

Does having a science background give you a different perspective on winemaking?

My perception of wine making is definitely different than people who have come into this industry through other avenues. I think my science background…[gives me] a very technical way to look at things. When I first started in the industry, I felt that way where I could look at wine, but also the science inside of wine. I think part of the natural evolution of my career — it's taken me a while — but I'm definitely happier now because I do have enough experience where I do a lot of my wine making by senses now. So, what I'm seeing, what I'm tasting and then I use the numbers to back them up. Whereas, I think in the beginning of my career, it was kind of the reverse.

I wanted to see the numbers to almost justify my wine making, but I don't do that anymore. I think I've seen enough and done enough that I know when I have something good going on and I kind of foresee when things aren't going so well.

What is it about St. Francis wine that's different than other wines?

The thing that's different about St. Francis is that we are a nationally recognized brand, but the way that we make wine is very similar to a lot of tiny boutique wineries. We don't do anything on a “large scale.” We ferment quite small lots of wines and each year we have over 250 lots of wines and then we go through a pretty tedious blending process to create these wines for the national market. You may not see that with other recognizable brands.

What are kind of your biggest takeaways or was there some kind of lesson or experience that you've had while in the industry that really resonates with you?

I'm always so thankful that St. Francis is a very open and willing company to push all people, not just women, but all people, to their limits. If there's a particular part of winemaking that you're interested in, St. Francis has always been behind you and we're one of the only corporations that has women winemakers at all of their [California] wineries.

I think I've seen enough and done enough that I know when I have something good going on.
- Katie Madigan

I can't say that there's one specific incident, but I think that when you look at the culture of America, I think St. Francis just really pushes respect in general and that's something that I will always take away from working with this company.

As a woman, and you've been in this industry your entire career, can you reflect a little bit more on your experience? Do you see any room for improvement, if there is any?

I think that women just have to be strong. When you see a door closed, there's probably another door. That's always what I said. I don't think it should be a deterrent because I think that there are companies that are very accepting of women and that want them to be their best. I think that life works in mysterious ways and if you keep pushing for what you want, you will find it, but sometimes it takes a little bit longer to seek it out.

This interview was condensed and edited for space and clarity.

This story is part of our award-winning “Women in Wine” series, our long-running effort to highlight winemakers, sustainable specialists, executives, and others making a positive impact in the world of wine.


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