Women Blazing the Wine-Making trail in Washington State
BY JEFF “WICK” WICKLUND
It’s generally understood and accepted, particularly for the majority of female and the astute, preservation-minded male populations, that it is indeed women who naturally possess the superior sensory capacity and keen palate for evaluating wine. This statement is not hyperbole. but rather, a science-backed fact based on evolutionary genetics.
Granted, there is a ton (there’s some hyperbole) to unpack with that opening pronouncement including an interesting question, “…naturally women should make great winemakers, right?” The answer is, “Yes! And they do!”
However, the wine industry as a whole has historically been a male-dominated domain but, in no way has it been exclusive. Today, Washington State has over 1,000 wineries with about 8% of them having a woman as either winemaker or assistant winemaker and only fewer than 4% with the title of owner and winemaker. With the successes of the current minority gender, these percentages are destined to level.
Of course, there have been women “trailblazing winemakers” who helped shape the Washington wine industry and propel it to where it is today. Kay Simon of Chinook Yakima Valley Wines is the personification of trailblazing winemaking, regardless of gender. Kay was first introduced to the winemaking process as a child in California where she often assisted in crushing the grapes by stomping them under the watchful eye of her science teacher mom, Mary Louise, who kept tabs on the fermentation. These experiences inspired Kay to chase her passion and eventually get her degree in Enology at the University of California, Davis which led to launching her career working for well-established Vineyards and Wineries in California. The burgeoning Washington State Wine Industry beckoned Kay and she migrated north to take a position at Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM) in 1977 and quickly became the head Red Winemaker in 1978.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea that women naturally posses superior sensory capabilities to wine evaluation. It really has everything to do with experience”, says the ever-humble, experience-laden Kay Simon.
At CSM, Kay crossed paths with a fellow UC, Davis alumni and equally humble and talented, Clay Mackey who was the Eastern Washington Vineyard Manager for CSM from 1979-1982.
Armed with a vast amount of experience, Kay & Clay launched their own winery in 1983 and released their first wine (1983 Chinook Sauvignon Blanc) using exclusively Yakima Valley fruit. Named for the winds of the Pacific Northwest (and possibly the winds of fate). Chinook Wines are approaching four decades of providing exemplary, terroir-driven wines that have consistently punched way above their weight.
There are many other women winemakers in Washington State that are greatly impacting the wine industry on many levels. Granted, some may not have total ownership but, their contributions are compelling. Katie Nelson, VP of winemaking at Chateau Ste. Michelle, is the most obvious example as she is orchestrating the wine production that eclipses nearly all of the other wineries in the state combined.
At Four Feathers Wine Services, some incredible, innovative wine production is happening. At the helm of this hugely impressive operation are some equally impressive women. Rebecca De Kleine is General Manager and Director of Winemaking at a facility that is bringing custom bulk wine production of Estate sourced Washington fruit to clients nationwide.
“Our private label and control label services enable retailers, restaurants and other client partners to leverage our estate vineyards, state-of-the-art production facility and experienced team to create high-quality brands tailored specifically for their customers,” Rebecca said.
At the head of all wine production at Four Feathers is Frederique Vion and Casey Cobble is the lead on all red winemaking initiatives.
On a much smaller scale and a total “hands on” operation, is an impressive (antithesis of “distressed”) woman Owner and Winemaker, Mari Womack of Damsel Cellars. Mari is a classic example of passion- driven inspiration who, after catching the “wine bug,” volunteered at many wineries in Woodinville before becoming Assistant Winemaker at Darby Winery. Damsel Cellars was launched in 2013.
“There has already been great progress in more women joining the wine industry. It will be a good day when the qualifiers can be dismissed, and we can all be simply winemakers.”
I recently asked Mari her take on any genetic advantage women may possess for wine evaluation and where our state’s wine industry is heading in relation to gender.
“While there is evidence that women are the superior tasters, there are so many factors that go into wine tasting and enjoyment. Like a muscle, you can exercise your palate and improve your tasting skills. The viticulture and enology programs in Washington State are now filled almost equally with men and women. There has already been great progress in more women joining the wine industry. It will be a good day when the qualifiers can be dismissed, and we can all be simply winemakers”.