Germaine Greer once commented that women become invisible in middle age. They stand unnoticed at bus stops in the pouring rain, loaded down with heavy shopping bags, waiters forget to bring their order, taxis drive straight past them. It's hard to imagine any of that happening to Marimar Torres.

Torres, who has turned 50, is a member of Spain's most famous wine making dynasty, the sister of the pioneering Spanish wine maker Miguel A Torres. She is the youngest of three children and with her two brothers Miguel and Juan Maria, and her mother Margarita, is a share-holder in a multi-million pound family business inherited by their father, Miguel Torres, in 1932, when he was just 23. The company has vineyards in Spain, Chile and California, an annual turnover of 10,369 million pesetas (L5 million) and an export market which extends to 85 countries worldwide.

Far from resting on her family's laurels, Torres has made her own dynamic contribution to the business. It was never expected of her. According to the American wine writer, Larry Walker, Torres was brought up to 'play tennis and marry a rich lawyer'. But instead of following the typical route of aristocratic Spanish women, Torres packed her bags in 1975 and headed for California. There she owns a vineyard, The Marimar Torres Estate, in Soooma County, and writes cookery books about Spanish food. She lives in Sausalito, a pretty, waterside town just north of San Francisco, where hippies gathered in house boats in the '60s.

The decision to leave Spain and settle in America was spurred on by a fear of being overshadowed by the forceful personalities of her father and brother, Miguel. 'As long as I lived in Spain, I thought I'd be my father's daughter and my brother's sister,' reveals Torres. 'I had to go to America to be myself'. Meeting Torres at her vineyard in California, where she is entertaining some 20 visitors for a paella lunch and guided tours of the vineyard, it's hard to believe she could ever have questioned her own identity.

The lunch, during which Torres regales us between courses with entertaining anecdotes of her life in Spain, her move to America and her wine, is being held in a dining room decorated in a typical Catalan style, with ceramic tiles and plates on the walls and simple wooden chairs and tables. The most striking feature is a large fireplace over which portraits of Torres' father and mother look down benignly on the guests. The effect of being in a private corner of Spain in California is so seductive, you almost forget the Catalan farmhouse which she built on the estate is a hospitality centre, and that Torres actually lives elsewhere.

Torres is the kind of person whom journalists would describe as 'media friendly'. One could imagine her appearing on television interviews sharing a sofa with Mariella Frostrup or Clive James, promoting her own brand of scent, her latest health book or her exercise video. But her vitality and warmth belie a steely determination. Friends and acquaintances speak of her tough, go-getting personality. 'Like all people with a vision and a goal, she can be very demanding', says Larry Walker, a friend of Torres.

Her vision, not surprisingly, was a vineyard of her own; the goal, to make top quality wine. Without the backing of the Torres millions and the support of her family the project could never have got off the ground. On the advice of her brother, Miguel, Torres enrolled at the University of California at Davis in 1988 to study oenology and viticulture. It's a period of her life she recalls with nostalgia. 'I loved the school system and the tremendous camaraderie,' she says. During this time, she spent two years looking for the perfect site to grow grapes. Eventually, enlisting the support of Miguel, she persuaded the family to invest in a vineyard and brand new winery.

Torres began planting her estate just under ten years ago. Ten miles from the Pacific Ocean, it's located in the beautiful, thickly-wooded hills of Sonoma's Green Valley. Named in honour of her father, Don Miguel, the vineyard is planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, grown on slopes in the traditional Burgundian manner. All the wine is estate bottled and estate grown. Although there is a gleaming, spotless new winery on the estate, Torres glasses over this part of the tour, preferring to guide us among the vines, explaining key elements like clone selection and trellising. 'The grapes make the wine', she says, echoing the words of many of California's vintners, who, fears of accusations of too much dabbling in the winery, constantly talk about 'fruit quality'.

Despite her American training, Torres' approach to wine making owes much to her European roots. It is very much influenced by Miguel, who, despite his commitments in Spain and Chile, acts as a consultant. 'At Davis, the orientation was for maximising production and there was very little emphasis on the vineyard,' says Torres, who on the advice of her brother has opted for high density plantings on single vertical trellises, in order to extract the best possible fruit. Torres argues that low yields give the potential for outstanding wines, but concedes that it also means that production is small and costly. The winery is not yet breaking even, although the forecast is that it will be making money next year. Torres hopes to make a total of 15,000 cases per year by the year 2000.

At the estate there is, says Torres, nobody who responds to the title of wine maker. Is this a refreshingly unhierarchical and egalitarian approach especially in California, where many wine makers enjoy a cult status? Or is it because Torres thinks that employing a wine maker might eclipse her? 'At Davis, the wine maker was seen as a magician, an alchemist, a star,' says Torres. 'I favour a more European approach'. Torres employs a vineyard manager, a long-haired Mexican called Ventura who races round the vineyard in a tractor, sending up clouds of dust, and a young 'oenologist/production manager' called Scott Covingtoo. Torres loves the work. 'The beauty of it is that I'm part of every aspect of the project from choosing the rootstock to selling the wine. In Spain I was just doing the marketing.' Mid-harvest, Torres, who is dressed in expensive-looking safaristyle clothes, confesses she was up at 5am that morning picking the grapes. 'What I really love, she says with surprising vigour, 'is the farming'.

Torres' first release was a 1989 Chardonnay, which her father, who at the time was dying of cancer, apparently pronounced the best white wine he had drunk in his entire life. 'Believe me, my father was a very critical person', says Torres, Her wines have consistently won top awards in wine tastings. Her 1991 Marimar Torres Chardonnay, for example, was awarded a Gold medal in last year's International WINE Challenge, Torres argues that with the right technology, making good wine is no longer difficult. The hard part is making wines with 'personality'. 'Pinot Noir is the greatest challenge of all,' she says, 'but if you get it right it's the holy grail. The cross I bear in life is that I'm a perfectionist'.

Current vintages are the 1992 Marimar Torres Estate Pinot Noir, an elegant, supple wine, with rich black cherry fruit, vanilla and spice and the 1992 Marimar Torres Chardonnay, a rich, intensely fragrant wine, with toasty hints of new oak and butter. It's a Chardonnay with a twist. Torres adds a small amount of the undistinguished Catalan grape variety Parellada to the blend. 'It adds a unique Catalan personality', she says.

Her Catalan roots are also reflected in her interest in cookery, which took off during her marriage to American food and wine writer Robert Finigan. 'My husband was delighted,' says Torres. 'In Spain, it was not OK for a lady to cook, but in America nobody had a maid or cook.' Despite her divorce after four years, the result was a separate career as a cookery writer. In 1986, Torres published The Spanish Table, a guide to regional cooking, and in 1994 she wrote a second book, The Catalan Country Kitchen. The recipes in her latest book include startling combinations such as duck with figs and sherry, prawns with nuts and chocolate. Despite the book's title the recipes owe more to Californian eclecticism than authentic Catalan cooking.

But for all this the grape growing, the promotion of Torres wines, the cookery writing the single most important element in Torres' life is her six-year-old daughter, Cristina. 'I always wanted children and decided to have a child without being married,' says Torres, who refuses to name the father. 'It's the best thing I've done in my life.' At the age of six, Marimar was drinking wine with water on the Torres estate in Catalonia, Will Cristina follow in her mother's footsteps? 'I don't want to push her,' says Torres. 'It'll come.'

Casilda Girgg / Wine magazine

Marimar Torres Estate / 11400 Graton Road / Sebastopol CA  95472 / 707-823-4365

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