Women of Washington Wine: Kay Simon of Chinook Wines

By Kori ~ December 27th, 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.

Kay Simon and her husband Clay Mackey founded Chinook Wines in 1983. Kay is a 1976 graduate in enology from the University of California at Davis. She gained valuable winemaking experience working for wineries in California and Washington State. Clay began his career as a vineyard manager in the 1970’s and is a well-respected viticulturist. Kay and Clay met when they both worked at Chateau Ste. Michelle. They have been partners, in business and in marriage, for over 25 years. Located in Prosser, Washington, Chinook is housed in original farm buildings on their property and is surrounded by their estate Cabernet Franc vineyard. All of their fruit is sourced from the Yakima Valley, the AVA in which their winery is located. They strive to produce approachable, food-friendly wines.

Recently, Kay 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 Kay Simon:

How did you first get involved in the wine business?
An interest in Foods and Nutrition took me to U.C. Davis (i.e. University of California at Davis) to study nutrition. Along the way, I discovered the classes in fermentation and ended up with a degree (Bachelor of Science) in Fermentation Science.

What were the steps that led to where you are now?
My first job was as a cellar supervisor trainee at a large San Joaquin Valley (CA) winery; followed by several years as a winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle. That’s where I met my future husband and business partner, Clay Mackey. Clay thought we should go into business for ourselves, which we did in 1983. Our friend, Stan Clarke, was General Manager at Quail Run Winery here in the Yakima Valley. We “borrowed” space for a couple of years and then found our current location for our winery and vineyard in Prosser.

Has being a woman been an advantage or a disadvantage in your wine journey?
Because I started in the business in 1976, women were few and far between in the industry (outside of the laboratory). My first job was actually partially because of a class action sexual discrimination suit filed against the company—so I guess that was an advantage! Otherwise, I’ve often thought that women needed to be every bit as capable as their male co-workers (and maybe better). In years past, I’ve been told directly by male bosses that they didn’t like women; though one actually came up to me years later at a wine industry symposium and said that I did very good work for him.

Are there more opportunities available to women today in the wine business than when you started?
Oh, yes. That’s certainly the case today, and I think the younger women are better able to balance the work and family thing. We needed to be laser-beam focused on our careers. Today, there are more women in the workplace in general, so it’s not as unique to be working in wine production as it was in the 1970’s.

What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today?
Get some education in the field. Get a job in the industry. Work hard. (Same advice for guys!)

What are your thoughts about the Washington wine industry, in general?
It’s been an interesting and very fun journey to be a part of this burgeoning industry. I think the wines are getting the respect that they deserve today for their quality. The strength of our state’s wine industry is really that we offer a great quality product and a good value at all parts of the price spectrum. I think this will stand us in good stead, especially now with a recovering economic situation.

In recent years the Washington wine industry has grown at a rapid rate. Do you expect that trend to continue?
Well, I think you have to look at what the growth actually is—lots of very small wine brands, which may or may not involve an actual “bricks and mortar” winery. I would hope to see more investment in mid- to large-scale wineries and vineyards, which would really solidify our industry’s place in the wine world.

How do you and your husband, Clay, divide the duties at the winery?
When we met, Clay was working as a viticulturist/vineyard manager, and I was working professionally as a winemaker. We’ve kept those roles, though our vineyard is quite small. Clay is the business manager/accounting manager as well. We have always shared the sales and tasting room activity. We find that mutual respect and division of duties based on our personal interests works well.

What is your vision for the future of Chinook Wines?
Interesting that you should ask this question. Our nephew Brian Mackey and his wife Lindsay Mackey have joined us in our business this year. They were looking for a situation where they could work together, and we have been seeking a way to perhaps get some time off! Clay and I aren’t ready to retire anytime soon, but we hope the business will grow to support a larger Chinook Family.

Feel free to share any other thoughts that you believe would be of interest to our readers.
Our winery and our approach have always been about the place where we make wine and live, the Yakima Valley. We hope that folks who seek the real core of what winemaking and winegrowing are all about will always visit and support wineries in wine country.

Many thanks to Kay for sharing her story and thoughts with us. I wish her and Clay all the best and will continue following their work and Chinook Wines 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. Sean Gilbert | December 27th, 2010 at 7:15 am

    I can’t think of anyone more deserving than Kay to be recognized as an influential person in our industry. Nice interview.

  2. Chris | December 27th, 2010 at 8:19 am

    I have had the distinct honor of meeting Kay on a number of occasions and believe she is an absolute treasure of the Yakima Valley and Washington wine industry. Her enthusiasm and teaching mentality are great and it’s exciting that Brian and Lindsey Mackey have joined the Chinook Winery business.

    Another winner in this series, Kori!

  3. Stevie | December 27th, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    This was another wondeful interview. How incredible to read that Kay Simon got her first wine job as the result of a sex discrimination lawsuit! Chinook sounds more like a family winery than a “women’s winery,” if you know what I mean. Do you think the fact that they’re a male-female couple makes the wine and the winery different than if it was all run by Kay?

  4. Kori | December 29th, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Sean and Chris,
    Glad you enjoyed this interview. I agree, Kay is definitely an important figure in the Washington wine industry.

    Obviously, there can be different dynamics in wineries that are run by a couple versus by a woman by herself. However, the purpose of this series is to focus on influential women in the Washington wine industry whether they run a winery by themselves or not. Glad you are enjoying the series.