When Judi Britt first got into the wine business in 1980, it was largely a man's world. But her gender actually was an asset.

"All the wholesalers back then were hiring women to call on restaurants only," she said.

Why? "Because they knew they had to start hiring women," she said, referring to an era of gender-equity pressure, "and they thought that would be a nicer, cleaner place to be, and that restaurateurs would be more amiable, kinder and gentler to women as opposed to the retailers."

Now the wine business is not a man's world. "I don't feel in the last many, many years that I get treated differently," said Britt.

As WineFest, one of the year's biggest wine events, gets set to honor "Women in Wine" in a week, it seemed a good time to cite some females who have had a big impact on the local wine scene.

After an informal poll of several industry types, we settled on one in each of four fields: supplier, wholesaler, retailer and restaurateur. All of them -- one past, three present -- have contributed mightily to how and what Twins Cities wine consumers drink. And none of them, it's safe to say, has had any expectation of "kinder and gentler" treatment from anyone.

Retail: Fritzi Haskell

In 1934, Benny and Fritzi Haskell opened their namesake store at 23 S. 7th St. in downtown Minneapolis. She was listed as the owner because Benny, a boxer turned bootlegger, encountered a few problems with the police during Prohibition. Benny handled the booze side and his Russian immigrant wife (given name: Alexandria) the wine.

In 1935, Haskell's became the first U.S. retailer to import a container of wine from France. Fritzi Haskell often travelled to the Old World to find the best stuff. "In 1936 when the rest of the country was drinking gin fizzes, she was scouting the great vineyards of Europe to get people accustomed to drinking wine," said Jack Farrell, current owner of Haskell's, in Fritzi's 1979 Minneapolis Tribune obituary.

Her influence continued for decades.

In 1967, Haskell became the first woman to address the Wine and Spirits Guild of America. Not long after that, a young wine aficionado named Tom Gill, now a senior sales rep at New France Wine, became a habitué at her store.

"I was already fascinated with the mysterious alchemy that produced intricate flavor variations among wines of neighboring estates," Gill said, "and Fritzi's 'curriculum' included an endless supply of classified growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy from the 1959 and 1961 vintages in the $6 to $12 price range."

Restaurant: Lucia Watson

Long before the fresh/local/seasonal food movement took hold, Lucia Watson was practicing that approach in her Uptown Minneapolis restaurant. And from its opening in 1985, Lucia's treated wine the same way.

"The wine philosophy completely coincides with the food philosophy," said Victoria Norvell, Lucia's wine buyer for the past 14 years. "We try to keep the list seasonal, and we try to cover all the bases: something crisp and austere and something fatty for big chardonnay lovers.

"We also try to keep it boutique-y, with wineries that are mainly family businesses like the farms that we try to support."

In the process, Watson has introduced Twin Cities consumers to a raft of marvelous wines, especially from France, where she has a second home. Except that the home is in Brittany, which is cider and not wine country. Norvell seeks out bargain wines from other parts of France, and Watson unearths some gems in a nearby store.

Wholesale: Annette Peters

After stints at iconic restaurants (Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale) and stores (Surdyk's), Annette Peters moved to the distributor side. She has worked with several wholesalers and is now import director for World Class Wines.

Peters' focus throughout has been on Europe. Her tireless buying trips and superb palate have brought hundreds of wines to the Twin Cities that otherwise never would have gotten here.

"She is particularly expert on French and Spanish wines, but also Italy, as well," said David Anderson, partner at France 44. "The Twin Cities wine selection would not be what it is without the leadership and tenacity Annette has demonstrated for many years."

Anissa Gurstel, who is making quite an impact herself with the cafe-wine shop amalgam Pairings in Minnetonka, noted: "If it's esoteric, and Annette brings it in, it's bound to be excellent."

Winery: Judi Britt

Judi Britt was a local wholesale rep for the better part of two decades, beginning in 1980. She was the first, and for a few years the only, employee of World Class Wines.

In 2002 she moved to the supplier side and worked for several companies before becoming Midwest brand manager for Duckhorn in 2008. (Winery owner Margaret Duckhorn will be at WineFest.)

She also has been a mentor to countless other women in the biz. "Judi is funny, witty, has a killer palate, and is most of all extremely approachable when it comes to all things wine," said Gurstel.

Sara Craft, a wholesale wine rep with Paustis & Sons, added, "She is respected by all. She's super-involved. I adore her to the moon and back. Real deal."

Just like the other women cited here.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643