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Women’s role in wine industry strong locally and statewide

  • Written by Shannon Michael Features Writer

Women in WinePhoto by Shannon Michael, Kristin Scheelar is the head winemaker for Robert Ramsay Cellars. The winery is located in the Warehouse District.Quick: Name some of the most influential women who’ve helped make Woodinville a must stop destination for wine lovers.

If you’re like me – a casual fan of many of the wineries dotting the Woodinville area, chances are you didn’t even realize that several women have and continue to be very influential in the history and current production of wines not only in this area but in the state as well.

Go way back to the start of Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM) in the late seventies and early eighties. Two women – Kay Simon and Cheryl Barber Jones – put the winery not only on the state map, but the American and international maps as well.

Simon, who joined CSM in 1977 as an assistant winemaker, became the first winemaker to run the CSM River Ridge facility (now Columbia Crest) in Patterson in 1982. She believes she and Joan Wolverton of Salishan Vineyards in La Center, Wash., were the only women head winemakers during what she calls the beginning of the modern era of winemaking in the state.

"There was a woman who ran a lab post-Prohibition many years ago," she said.

Simon went on to open Chinook Wines with her husband Clay Mackey in 1984 in Prosser. To this day, she finds it a novelty when visitors to the winery are surprised to learn it is she, not her husband, who is the winemaker.

When Jones became head winemaker at CSM in 1984, there were only three other wineries in Woodinville and only 47 in the entire state of Washington.

Under Jones’ direction, the winery was named "Best American Winery" by Tasters Guild and "Best American Winery" by Wine Country Magazine in 1988, and "Best of the Best" wineries by Wine & Spirits Magazine in 1989, according to CSM’s website.

Today, the GoTasteWine.com website states there are 693 wineries operating in Washington state.

According to the Washington Wine Commission, there are more than two dozen women head winemakers, several more assistant winemakers, and many who own their own winery, own their own vineyard, or are vineyard managers, highly sought after winemaking consultants or marketing experts.

At Washington State University, about 30 percent of the certified Viticulture and Enology (study of wine and winemaking) undergraduate students are women, according to Deborah Schwenson, principal assistant for the WSU Viticulture & Enology Program. Those numbers have remained at that level for the past four years.

Many women, such as Jody Elsom of Woodinville’s Elsom Cellars, a 2003 WSU Enology Certificate graduate, are not only a head winemaker, but owner, too.

Being a winemaker is not the glamorous part of the industry. Just ask Kristin Scheelar, head winemaker at Robert Ramsay Cellars in the Warehouse District.

"About 90 percent of my day is spent moving things around and cleaning. The floors. The equipment. The tanks, and even the walls," Scheelar explained, adding, "You have to maintain meticulous cleanliness in a winery."

The other 10 percent of her time is spent using science and math to come up with the perfect formula for great wine.

The physical demands – Scheelar is a petite woman – coupled with her personal fears of being competent in science and math, were her biggest hurdles to overcome.

She gives a lot of credit for her success to mentors John Patterson of Patterson Cellars and his dad Jack Patterson. She and John were in the same enology class at South Seattle Community College. "He saw I was really willing to learn and work hard, so he asked me to intern for him," she said.

While there, Jack Patterson taught Scheelar how to use the forklift, an indispensable piece of equipment at any winery. "He was so patient and never stressed when I made a mistake," she said.

Now, Scheelar pays it forward for other women breaking into the industry by annually hiring two to three paid interns who are women. And, for the second year in a row she heads an all-woman team at Robert Ramsay, thanks to the support of owner Bob Harris.

Meanwhile, both Jones and Erica Orr, a former assistant winemaker at Matthews Cellars, have moved from the daily winemaking business to wine consulting. Orr runs a one-woman wine lab in the Warehouse District, lending her analytical services to local winemakers, while Jones has a lab in her home’s basement.

After leaving CSM in 1990, Jones was encouraged by her husband to start her own consulting business because so many wineries were calling her to come work for them.

She was hired as a consultant at Silver Lake Winery in 1991 when Brian Carter called to ask her to take over his consulting role there. She consulted for them until 2003, and she is a regular consultant today for other wineries.

"The services I provide are: walking the vineyard to determine if the grapes are ready, analyses of grapes and wine, and working with the winemaker to make the best of their wines by blending. I also enjoy making my own wine," Jones wrote in an email interview.

Orr finds the job of wine chemistry very detail-oriented. "It doesn’t have the glamour or macho, but I can make a living on my own," she said.

"In general, people in the wine industry are very interesting people," Orr added as another benefit of choosing this as her career path.

She credits a chance encounter with Aaron Pott, who was head winemaker of Beringer Estates in the Napa Valley at the time, in steering her career towards wine. "He gave me the great advice to work a harvest before deciding to enter the master’s program at UC Davis," she said.

She took his advice and said that experience made the course work more relevant.

Jones began as a lab technician at CSM under head winemaker Joel Klein. "He encouraged me to taste the fining trials that I set up for him. When he left, Pete Bachman promoted me to white wine maker in 1982. To be promoted within the company was something I worked very hard to do," she said.

In general, the women interviewed for this story stated they have experienced many more positives than negatives as a woman in a male-dominated industry.

"Regina Daniel of South Seattle Community College’s program told me, ‘Wine is filled with wonderful people,’" said Scheelar. "People in the wine industry are there because they want to be there, and they love the product that they produce, market and sell."

So, what should women consider before choosing a career in winemaking?

"Take some science courses in chemistry and microbiology, and you need to maintain your physical fitness," suggested Simon.

"Don’t let your fears stop you, don’t let your age stop you, and don’t let inexperience stop you, because you can get all of those things," offered the 50-something Scheelar, who didn’t foray into the wine industry until 2006 when she became a sommelier.

"If winemaking is your passion, then understand that the possibility of making it rich is very small, but I am a firm believer that in a job you should have two out of three  requirements: 1) love your job; 2) love the people you work with; and 3) get great pay. If you have two of those things, it will work. If not, try something else," wrote Jones.

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