Women of Washington Wine: Heather Neff of Nefarious Cellars

By Kori ~ September 28th, 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.

Dean and Heather Neff of Nefarious CellarsHeather Neff, along with her husband Dean, founded Nefarious Cellars in 2005. Heather handles the white winemaking duties while Dean is in charge of the reds. Nefarious currently produces about 2,000 cases per year, and the Neffs plan to maintain that level of production. Their winery and estate vineyard is situated on the South Shore of Lake Chelan and boast gorgeous views of the lake. After visiting all 13 wineries in Lake Chelan this summer, I believe that Nefarious is producing the best wines overall in the area. The Neffs have two sons, George and Cooper, and their dog Lucy is often in the parking lot to greet visitors as they arrive at the winery.

Heather’s current white wine releases include Consequence (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Aligote, and Viognier), a Viognier, and a Riesling. All three are really good wines. Both her 2007 and 2008 Defiance Vineyard Viognier have done well in our wine tasting dinners. And I recently tasted her Stone’s Throw Vineyard Riesling which is one of the best Rieslings I’ve ever had.

I had the pleasure to meet Heather Neff when we visited Nefarious Cellars on our trip to Chelan in July. Recently, Heather 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 Heather Neff:

How did you first get involved in the wine business?
My husband, Dean and I planted our first vineyard in 1998 as a test block to gauge what we could successfully grow in the Chelan area. In 2001 we moved to the Willamette Valley, went to school for enology and viticulture at Chemeketa, got jobs working with Pinot Noir, and started our own label: Nonni and Zing.

What were the steps that led to where you are now?
As much as we loved making Pinot, we decided in 2004 that it was a good time to return to Washington and stake our claim on a piece of property in Chelan. We liked what was happening in terms of wine and growth in the area, and we wanted to be a part of that.

Has being a woman been an advantage or a disadvantage in your wine journey? Please explain.
From a professional standpoint, it hasn’t really mattered for me. At the same time, I am not sure that I am one to really weigh in on that. I work for myself, and we have to make what we are work. I am not strong; and I can’t seem to lift anything, yet I am small enough that I can actually get inside a tank. It has been great for us to be able to play off our strengths in that way.

Nefarious Cellars boasts gorgeous views of Lake ChelanDo you believe a woman has certain built-in traits than can make her a better winemaker than a man? If so, please explain.
I have often thought that exceptional winemaking really comes down to something that you just have inside you. That probably sounds a bit cheesy. It is about education and training and knowing what to do when there is a situation, but it is also about having a vision and not letting yourself get in the way of staying on track. I work with my husband in the winery all the time, and we do see things differently and approach winemaking from different angles. I think that you could certainly say that women bring something different to the table, and judging by the women I know in this industry, certainly something amazing.

Do you use the fact that you are a woman to promote your wines? If so, how?
Absolutely! I am really proud to be in this industry and try to mention that I am a winemaker when it works into conversation. I am one of not that many in Washington, and the division of our winemaking program at Nefarious is unique.

What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today?
Take a winemaking class online or at a community college and try to get a job working crush or in a tasting room and give yourself the opportunity to find out if the wine business still interests you after you have had a chance to sample it. This is a field that you can get into and have success with, but it is also a lifestyle, and you have to love it for what it really is.

What are your thoughts about the Washington wine industry, in general?
This is an amazing state to make wine in, and the diversity of varietals is nearly endless. It is an exciting place to work and even more exciting when you hear how much people love Washington wine.

In recent years the Washington wine industry has grown at a rapid rate. Do you expect that trend to continue?
I think that there will be steady growth in the industry for years, but maybe not at the rate we’ve experienced recently. This is an amazing place to be a winemaker; and as educational opportunities become increasingly more accessible, that should help to inspire new winemakers.

I understand that you are the white winemaker while your husband Dean is the red winemaker. Besides the winemaking duties, how do you divide up the other duties associated with owning and running a winery?
Fortunately, we have different talents. Dean makes everything work here, he grows and maintains our beautiful vineyard, keeps the cellar in tip top shape. We joke that he is our handyman, heavy lifter, cellar rat, and disaster averter. I sort of call myself the pretty things department. I run the wine club, am the printing/website/graphic department, and I take a great deal of pleasure in heading up the “light” landscaping projects, like tossing a hydrangea in somewhere.

As the mother of two young boys, how do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
The winery is our life, and I say that in a really good way. We make it fun and the boys participate. During crush, George (the 4 year old) is out there riding on his bike, on busy Sunday afternoons Cooper hangs out in his Baby Bjorn in the tasting room. We have had to figure out a juggling act of how to get the tasting room open each day and get through our list of “to do’s.”

What is your vision for the future of Nefarious Cellars?
I just want us to keep striving to be more successful each year in terms of the wines we produce. There is nothing better than hearing: “I just had your (insert favorite wine) last night and I loved it.” Our vision, really, is to never lose sight of what we started out to create here, which is a friendly, limited release winery that works really hard to make great wine.

Many thanks to Heather for sharing her story and thoughts with us. I wish her and Dean all the best and will be following their work and Nefarious Cellars with great interest, and I hope that you will too.

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

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