How a pioneering woman vintner found better living through chemistry
Were it not for the wine bottles on an antique credenza and the nearby credit-card machine atop a French provincial night table, you'd think you were in a country home rather than Chinook winery's tasting room.
No wine cooler, no bar, no shelves packed with T-shirts and other kitsch.
Just tasteful coziness, the braided-rugs-on-hardwood-floors kind, all complementing the view of green vineyards and orchards sweeping across the Yakima Valley to the summer-tanned grasslands topping the Rattlesnake Hills to the northeast.
"If you make it look like your living room, people think that they're in your home and they're well-behaved," said Kay Simon, the Prosser-area winery's co-owner and winemaker.
Such subtle persuasion masked behind pragmatic purposefulness is characteristic of Simon. She and viticulturist husband Clay Mackey have over two decades turned a former cherry orchard into a boutique winery that markets to top restaurants in the Northwest.
She is one of a dozen female winemakers in Washington and among 55 or so women who are helping shape the state's growing industry as vintners, viticulturists, winery owners, or all three. Like their male peers, they've built their businesses though physical labor, worries about weather, water, pests, markets, bank loans — and a love for what they do.
"It's not gender; it's competence," said Sara Spayd, a Washington State University professor who has spent 22 years heading wine research at the school's Prosser agricultural extension. "Kay has very high standards and she's goal oriented."
Spayd, whose job was first undertaken in the 1960s by horticulturist professor Walter Clore, considered the father of the state's now estimated $2.5 billion varietal wine industry, has seen winemakers and wanna-bes come and go.
"It's not 'Falcon Crest,' " she said, referring to the TV show that portrayed winemakers as the idle rich. "It takes a lot of determination and willingness to work a lot more hours than most people are used to. Like owning a farm, a winery is a high-risk, 365-day-a-year job."
Simon, 49, was introduced to her future craft as a 9-year-old watching her parents Jay and Mary Louise make homemade wine with three other families in a barn at their home in Marin County, Calif.
As a high-school senior in 1971, interested in foods, she worked with the health and nutrition section of her local county's Women, Infants and Children's program. She then decided to study nutrition when she entered the University of California, Davis that fall.
But her interest in becoming a nutritionist waned when she realized the job would be too "clinical and institutional," she said. UC Davis, however, had something else for her — a fermenting science bachelor's degree program that meshed with her interest in German beers but also provided her formal classes in basic winemaking.
"They were fun, and the processes were interesting," she said. "It made all those organic chemistry classes worth it."
When she started at Davis, she was one of three women among a class of 45 to 50 students in the brewing and fermentation program. It was a time when few women pursued degrees in the sciences, but Simon received a lot of encouragement from her mother.
"My mother knew 30 years ago it was important to keep a young girl interested in math and sciences," Simon said. "I've never been raised with the thought that, 'Oh, you're a girl.' "
After a year studying in Germany, Simon returned to Davis and received her degree in 1976. How she would use it — brewing beer or making wine — came down to a matter of timing. A new Anheuser-Busch brewery in California that was six months from completion had offered her a job. But so had a United Vintners operation in the San Joaquin Valley that would open within a week.
Fresh out of college, she chose wine.
The grower cooperative's facility made several brands — T.J. Swan, Annie Greensprings, Inglenook Navalle — that were popular at a time when relatively few Americans knew about or were interested in fine vinifera wines.
As a cellar shift supervisor, Simon wore a hard hat and oversaw a crew of "hose draggers" who would crush 7,000 tons of grapes a day and channel the juice to appropriate tanks for further processing. But she had it better than a lot of women, whom she said "got stuck" in the laboratory.
Her stint at United Vintners lasted about 1-1/2 years, until memories of girlhood vacations at her grandparents' home in the Willamette Valley, trips to the San Juan Islands and an offer in 1977 to be an assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle Vineyards in Woodinville beckoned.
Her friends from Davis were bewildered: Why leave California's wine country to work at some little-known Washington wine company?
"It didn't seem at all like a stretch to me to move to Washington," she said. "My friends were still hose draggers in the cellars, and I was being offered a job as assistant winemaker."
Simon said her years at Ste. Michelle were times of high energy and exuberance. People who would become her Yakima Valley peers — including Cheryl Barber-Jones of Silver Lake, Joy Andersen of Snoqualmie Vineyards, Wade Wolfe of Hogue Cellars and Thurston Wolfe Winery, and Stan Clarke, coordinator of Walla Walla Community College's new grower-vintner program — also were starting their careers at Ste. Michelle. And the winery was well funded, well equipped and planned to expand. It was later to become the flagship operation of the new owner, Stimson Lane Vineyards and Estates.
"We were a bunch of young people who were all gung-ho," Simon said. "It was a lot like it is now (in the state's growing industry), only it was at one company."
Marrying not so rich
After she advanced to red-wine maker at Ste. Michelle's' River Ridge winery, now Columbia Crest near Paterson, she met Clay Mackey in 1979. From the Napa Valley, Mackey grew grapes with his father and left California to become Ste. Michelle's Eastern Washington vineyards manager.
A common saying among vintners goes that to make a small fortune in the wine business you must first start with a large one. Simon and Mackey had neither when they started planning to build Chinook, but they had perseverance and a desire to go it alone without other partners.
"I think both of us felt strongly that we wanted to do the things we wanted to do without being second-guessed," said Mackey, 53.
"We were each other's partner," added Simon, "although we joked that one of us should have married rich."
"I don't think we fully realized how much money it was going to take to do what we wanted to do," she added. "And I don't think we realized how risky it was until we borrowed money for the first time."
What they lacked in money was countered by the synergy of their relationship - — Mackey's skills in the vineyard and Simon's in the wine cellar.
"The parts of the business Clay enjoys and I enjoy are not parts either one of us wants to wrest away from the other," Simon said.
Mackey left Ste. Michelle in 1982 to spend all his time turning their business plan into reality. Simon continued working at Columbia Crest until 1984, the year she and Mackey married, and then as a consulting enologist for other wineries until 1989.
They got lucky, they say, in finding and leasing a seven-acre cherry orchard with a house and barn for $500 a month and an option to buy. But the site required considerable renovation and "scrounging" for used equipment before the pair could begin making their first wines there in 1985. In the interim, they made their 1983 and 1984 vintages in Zillah at the former Quail Run Vintners facility, now leased by Silver Lake.
Work and reward
Throughout this year's harvest, Simon and Mackey will spend 12 to 16 hours a day analyzing the chemistry of the grapes they buy, lifting 40-pound lug boxes into the crusher hopper, filling fermentation tanks with the juice, then washing down the gear to prepare for the next day. On weekends through October, they also will continue tending to tasting-room visitors.
It's hard work, which they say is rewarded by having customers come back to them year after year for wines they created using their own minds and bodies.
"People like Kay and Clay, they have built a market," said WSU's Spayd. "They love it, but they also know it's a business. You can be passionate about making wine, but if the passion leaves it's still a business."
Thomas P. Skeen, regional wine writer: 509-525-3300 or email@example.com .