Women of Washington Wine: Leslie Balsley of William Church Winery

By Kori ~ August 23rd, 2010.

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.

Leslie Balsley and her husband Rod founded William Church Winery in 2005. The winery, located in the warehouse district in Woodinville, Washington, is named after both of their fathers. After years in the high-tech industry, Leslie and Rod are thoroughly enjoying their second careers in the wine industry. With the help of assistant winemaker Marcus Rafanelli, Leslie and Rod are both actively involved in all aspects of the winery. William Church Winery produces 2,000 cases per year.

Recently, Leslie 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 Leslie Balsley:

How did you first get involved in the wine business?
Amazingly, we moved next door to someone named Dick Gidley who had been making really good wine in his garage for over 20 years. He got us started in winemaking as a hobby.  It was Rod (my husband) who wanted to step up to the challenge of making wine for a larger audience. We then decided together that this is something we wanted to do. It was exciting because it was entirely different from our high-tech backgrounds involving agriculture, craftsmanship, and something that would be completely ours.

What were the steps that led to where you are now?
Our first steps were to determine where we wanted to have a winery. We looked in Walla Walla and the Prosser area and then discovered Woodinville had a small but vital wine community. We realized not only did we not have to move since we’re both from Western Washington, but the area had amazing potential.

Has being a woman been an advantage or a disadvantage in your wine journey?
The industry is male-dominated especially when it comes to winemakers and vineyard management but once you establish the relationships with people it becomes less of an issue. Plus, many of the people in the retail and restaurant part of the business are women.

What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today?
My perception is that if you are making excellent wine, it is respected whether you are a man or a woman. So be true to yourself, find the area of the business most exciting to you, develop relationships in the industry, and then be willing to spend time working towards your goal.

What are your thoughts about the Washington wine industry, in general?
I think it is still a young industry that has a lot of opportunity. The growth that happened over the last five years was crazy, but we are extremely fortunate to live where so many excellent wine grapes can be grown. I think we are still learning the optimal places to grow the various varietals, so our wines will only get better.

In recent years the Washington wine industry has grown at a rapid rate. Do you expect that trend to continue?
Maybe not at the same rate it has over the last 5 years, but there will still be growth for sure.

How do you and your husband, Rod, divide the duties at the winery?
Rod manages the day-to-day winemaking operations, and we consult on vineyards, varietals, and wines we want to offer. I manage the marketing and sales aspects of the winery with his input, so it is truly a partnership. We both are involved in blending trials and final wine decisions.

I understand that you spent time in the Rhone Valley of France earlier this year. What did you take away from that experience?
Since we make a Viognier and a Syrah, we really wanted to find out how those wines are done in the Rhone. In general, the Viogniers were much more mineral-driven and acidic in nature, which was interesting. Also, we tasted old vine (50-60 years old) and younger vine wines side by side, which clearly demonstrated the effect an older vine brings to the complexity and depth of the wines. They also don’t always use oak on their red wines, often using concrete instead so you could experience the pure varietal without the influence of oak. It was an amazing trip that I would recommend to anyone.

What is your vision for the future of William Church Winery?
Our vision is to continue to hone our craft. We’ve learned that there are the fundamentals of winemaking but beyond that you have to learn how to work with the different grapes sources, and, of course, the grapes vary from year to year so there is truly a craftsmanship aspect that you have to be dedicated to when creating great wine.

Feel free to share any other thoughts that you believe would be of interest to our readers.
So many of our dreams have come true in the wine business. We wanted to create wines people could enjoy and create lasting memories with, similar to what we did when we first discovered the joy of wine on our honeymoon in Italy. We wanted to create a business in which our friends and family could be involved, and we have. Plus, we’ve met so many new people who have supported us and been a big part of our success. We wanted to be a part of a community of winemakers who support each other, and we have certainly found that in Woodinville. And, we wanted to stay small so we could know our customers and stay focused on making wines with character and balance so those who try our wines would consider them some of the best in the state. Big goals, but worthy of pursuing, I think.

Many thanks to Leslie for sharing her story and thoughts with us. I wish her and Rod all the best and will be following their work and William Church Winery with great interest, and I hope that you will too.

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

Reader's Comments

  1. Weekend Getaway in Woodinville Wine Country | June 5th, 2012 at 11:19 am

    […] really enjoyed our conversation with owner Leslie Balsley, who is a mom and one of the wonderful women of Washington wine. To plan a visit, make sure to check out their events […]