June 28, 2013
A Tale of Two Kates
One of my favorite things about director Gary Armagnac, besides the fact that he is a lovely human being, is his ability to extract the theme of community in Shakespeare’s works. Gary’s Romeo and Juliet (LSF 2010) focused on the people around the star-crossed lovers: their parents, cousins, friends and clergy. In our production of The Taming of the Shrew, Gary has once again focused his director’s lens on the community within the story, and this time, it is OUR community! LSF’s Shrew is set in Livermore, post WWII in…get this…a vineyard! Our Katherina is a “Rosie the Riveter” type, a woman who worked the vineyards while the boys were away. In true Gary Armagnac fashion, he has weaved in a fascinating bit of Livermore history to this production. Lo and behold, the first professional female winemaker was employed at Concannon Vineyard. And…wait for it…her name was Katherine.
The essay below is from the Concannon Family archives: a piece written by John Concannon, 4th Generation Concannon, a member of Concannon Vineyard’s management and winemaking teams, and a spokesperson on behalf of the winery and the wine industry.
From Ballerina to America’s First Professional Female Winemaker, Katherine Vajda: Winemaker at Concannon Vineyard (1950-1960)
by John Concannon
As we celebrate our 128th consecutive year producing wine under the Concannon family label, I am reminded of the remarkable Katherine Vajda, our winemaker from 1950 to 1960.
Katherine was the first technically-trained, professional woman winemaker in the United States. Highly respected for her knowledge, skill and training, she served as an active participant on the Technical Advisory Board of the California Wine Institute.
Interestingly, Katherine was born in Hungary, where after studying chemistry and dance, she became an accomplished ballerina in Budapest. At the beginning of WWII, however, her dance career abruptly ended as fascism was overtaking Hungary. In 1940, Katherine and her husband, Julius, fled to America, making their way to California where she worked as a lab assistant for Cresta Blanca winery. There, Katherine trained under Professor Edmund Twight, a highly respected wine authority responsible for significant improvements in the overall standards of California winemaking. Two years later, Katherine became winemaker when Dr. Twight retired.
In 1950, while my uncle and father were completing their education and military service, my Grandfather, “Captain Joe” Concannon, hired Katherine to lead the winemaking at Concannon Vineyard. She handled the laboratory analysis, oversaw production, and introduced among other things, a very popular Moselle. She was also my father’s mentor for several years until he became lead winemaker in 1960. Of that time and Katherine’s numerous contributions, my father has said that “working with Katherine was an exceptional opportunity to learn from one of the most talented people in the business.”
From a family that gave America its First Irish Wine Estate, it seems fitting that their winemaker would be America’s first female winemaker as well as one who migrated from Hungary. My father is often fond of saying: “It’s not a matter of nationality; it’s a matter of application.”
Many thanks to John Concannon for the story of this fascinating Katherine and for the photos from the Concannon archives. For the story of Katherina Baptista, come on out to Concannon Vineyard to see our production of The Taming of the Shrew. You’re in for a delightful evening’s entertainment which you can toast with a delightful glass of Concannon wine.