Women of Washington Wine: Kathy Johanson of O Wines

By Kori ~ July 27th, 2009.

Today’s post is part of a series featuring the Women of Washington Wine. In an industry once dominated by men, more and more women are joining the ranks as winery owners, vineyard owners, and winemakers. Being a woman myself, I am fascinated by these women and what they have done and continue to do. Through this series, I hope to introduce you to some of the brightest female faces in the Washington wine industry.

Stacy Lill (left) and Kathy Johanson (right) of O WinesKathy Johanson and Stacy Lill founded O Wines in 2006. Located in Woodinville, Washington, O Wines currently produces one wine, a Chardonnay. They are just on their second vintage but seem to be going strong. Their goal is to offer quality wines at reasonable prices while contributing a portion of their proceeds to fund scholarships for underprivileged and at-risk girls in Washington State. In addition to owning and running O Wines, Kathy is a manager for The Boeing Company.

I had the pleasure to meet Kathy Johanson at the Women of the Big W Club (University of Washington Letterwinners Association) Wine Tasting Event in May. Recently, Kathy was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for me and our Wine Peeps readers.

Highlights from Q&A with Kathy Johanson:

How did you first get involved in the wine business?
My business partner Stacy and I have been friends for nearly 20 years. Neither of us could have predicted we would be in business together–let alone “The Wine Business”. It was Stacy’s “union” with Greg Lill, co-owner of DeLille Cellars in Woodinville, which made the wine-thing possible for both of us!

On October 31st, 2006, Stacy and Greg invited my husband Bob Johanson and me to the famous “Body Exhibit” in downtown Seattle and, after, dinner at Barolo, a new restaurant at the time. Quite fitting for a fun Halloween adventure!

At dinner Stacy and I sat across from our wine husbands (my husband Bob had been a distributor 20 years ago), they were talking about the technical characteristics of the wine we were sampling in an “engaging” conversation–or at least they thought so. Meanwhile across the table, Stacy and I jabbed that we were going to start our own charity wine for women, with women in mind! We were going to change the world forever through our charitable contributions!

What were the steps that led to where you are now?
I’d have to say the culmination of many interesting work and social experiences, education, mentoring and personal growth. I started with The Boeing Company in 1986 and am still a full-time Boeing manager, and also, a full-time charitable winery owner.

Boeing, over the years, has allowed me the privilege of higher education–they have graciously paid for my Master of Science and PhD while allowing me to maintain full time employment!

Mentoring has been a joy–a few years back a research group from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation approached female executives at The Boeing Company looking for women with a background in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). I signed up about 8 years ago and have been mentoring 11-13 year old public school girls ever since. I was also teaching part time for City University in their Master of Science department after Boeing hours and on weekends. Another element of my past that has greatly helped was the establishment of a couple of different businesses.

The culmination of these activities have opened my eyes to the educational needs which seem to grow every day and especially with the cutbacks realized by all of our school systems.

Has being a woman been an advantage or a disadvantage in your wine journey? Please explain.
Being a woman has been a definite advantage! There are so few women in the wine business that when Stacy and I walk in the room we tend to get a bit of attention simply because we’re women. Once the other winery owners hear us talk with passion and enthusiasm about our goals with our wine and scholarships–I believe we have been able to create a stir–sometimes simply curiosity for how we’ve been able to see so much success so soon. Women also have a few physiological advantages over men, one being that women can transfer data between the right and left hemisphere of the brain faster than men. Also, women have a more acute sense of smell, too, making us better at interpreting a wine’s aroma.

Do you believe a woman has certain built-in traits than can make her a better winery owner than a man? If so, please explain.
The female brain gets 15% more blood flow than the male’s, and women also have more speech centers in their brain than men do, making it easier for women to verbalize. The winery business seems to be pre-disposed for the female’s innate ability to socialize. A lot of what we do is in influencing our suppliers, customers and patrons through our ability to communicate our dreams, goals and aspirations; this along with the better sense of smell place women in a pretty good place to work in the wine industry. Obvious physical strength differences between men and women have ended up being a deterrent for women–lugging boxes of wine can really be tiring. Weight lifting is a must in this business.

O Wines ChardonnayDo you use the fact that you are a woman to promote your wines? If so, how?
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of what we do is social, so having the ability to easily interact with a variety of people on a daily basis has made being a woman in this business a definite plus!

What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today?
Research the business. Volunteer at a winery–hands on is always a great way to learn. It’s also a great idea to interview men and women in the wine business to find out the real scoop about what it takes, their experiences, do’s and don’ts. The wine business appears so glamorous when you’re looking at it from the outside in. It’s a lot of work and can be exhausting. It’s also a lot of fun, too.

You played collegiate tennis at the University of Washington. Has your experience as an athlete helped you at all in your career in the wine industry? If so, how?
Competitive team and individual sports–tennis, soccer, and baseball–have been an absolute advantage in the wine business and with every endeavor I have taken on. Competitive athletes have common inherent attributes and qualities the average person doesn’t appear to actively possess. We are disciplined, focused, detail-oriented, team players, goal-oriented, and of course–fiercely competitive.

What are your thoughts about the Washington wine industry, in general?
I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the willingness of folks in the wine industry here in Washington to support and guide others. It feels more like a very small community of people wanting to make sure everyone survives. It may simply be because we all get to drink on the job. It’s been a wonderful experience.

In recent years the Washington wine industry has grown at a rapid rate. Do you expect that trend to continue?
Even within our small company, we’ve seen dramatic increase in our success. Wine is “in” right now and appears to be gaining momentum around the world and especially here locally. The number of new wineries has increased at an incredible rate over the last 5+ years. Hopefully this trend will continue–we believe it will!

I understand that the “O” in O Wines stands for Opportunity and that your mission is to fund scholarships for underprivileged young girls. Could you share a little bit about that program and your motivation for starting it?
“O” does stand for Opportunity! In fact, we have established the “Opportunity for Success Scholarship” through the College Success Program. Both of us have mentored young girls throughout the years–I have been a mentor for TECHReach for the last 8 years. Through this and many other experiences involving education the idea to help motivated kids was a no brainer.

What is your vision for the future of O Wines?
Our goal is to fund 1 million scholarships in our lifetime and would eventually like to establish academies for learning. We are also attempting to sell our wine in every state with the goal of funding scholarships to each state’s local colleges.

Giving back to our community has been the most important message we have been able to pass along to children and adults alike. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me about an idea they’ve had to help others but didn’t really think it would make a big difference or it would be too hard. My message back is always the same: it doesn’t matter if it’s a big difference or as simple as recycling, everything we do to make the world a better place is doing something, so JUST DO IT!

Many thanks to Kathy for sharing her story and thoughts with us. I wish her and Stacy all the best and will be following their work and O Wines with great interest, and I hope that you will too.

(Photos from O Wines)

Filed under: American Wine, Interview, Washington State Wine, Women of Washington Wine

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