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.
Karen Wade and her husband Mike own and operate Fielding Hills Winery in Wenatchee, which is one of the top wineries in Washington State. They are longtime apple and cherry growers who turned a middle portion of their orchard near Mattawa into a vineyard. Their Riverbend Vineyard, planted in 1997, is in the Wahluke Slope AVA and is their sole source of grapes. Strictly red wine producers, Fielding Hills’ current annual production is 1,400 cases. We have tasted their wines from their inaugural vintage in 2000 through their current 2010 vintage and continue to be impressed. They are so consistent; it is not a question of whether their wines will be good but where they will fall on the quality spectrum between “very good” and “Wow!”
Recently, Karen 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 Karen Wade:
How did you first get involved in the wine business?
I guess I became involved in the wine industry by saying “I do” almost 30 years ago to my visionary husband. As his life partner, I held on tight as he fulfilled his dreams of becoming a first class winemaker. We have been a team on this journey, which began with planting our vineyards in 1997.
What were the steps that led to where you are now?
We are fortunate to have a background in both agriculture and business. Our main business is apples and cherries so many of the first steps to begin a winery were different for us. We had the land and basic things like tractors that can be a real challenge in a startup. Owning and growing our own grapes has been a key to our brand. Our first step is to grow the best grapes possible and then never cut any corners in the process of bringing the wine from the dirt to the table.
Has being a woman been an advantage or a disadvantage in your wine journey?
Mike and I have split the business into two parts. He makes the wine, and I handle the sales, marketing, and the business end. I think the industry as a whole is not gender-biased; however, there is a lot of grunt work in the actual production, and there are many things I cannot do just out of sheer strength during the production.
What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today?
My advice would be the same if I were talking to a man or woman. If you want to be an owner, go to school to learn how to run a business followed by education in the wine industry through apprenticeship or education. There are a lot of career options in the wine industry from working directly with the grapes in the vineyard to managing a retail business and staff in a tasting room. The industry is young enough in Washington that there are many ground entry opportunities.
What are your thoughts about the Washington wine industry, in general?
About 4-5 years ago, I predicted that wineries would start selling or closing, and that is exactly what is happening. It is a labor intensive industry encumbered by unique legislation concerning alcohol. It sounds like a romantic business to sit in your vineyard and sip the fruit of your labor, but I think we are seeing many cases of burnout after 5-10 years of production. Making wine involves a lot of grunt work. The industry exploded about 7 years ago and now it is interesting to see who will stay the course. I think the general wine enthusiastic consumer is a winner here with so many great Washington wines at their fingertips. I’m not sure if we will ever gain the worldwide respect we deserve for Washington wines, though. We have the quality to achieve the respect, but it is a different world now from when Napa first stepped onto the scene.
As a side note, we pulled out Red Delicious apples to plant Riverbend Vineyard, which is the single source of grapes for our wines. The Red Delicious apple market was not doing well 15 years ago so we planted wine grapes to diversify agriculturally and to support Mike’s winemaking plans. Today, if we were wearing our apple hat, we would pull out the grapes and plant some of the fabulous boutique apple varieties that are becoming incredibly popular. Don’t worry; we are not going to pull out the grapes, but you may want to watch and see if that starts happening, as there were a lot of grapes planted 10 years ago in Washington. Vines start producing product sooner than a tree, but with wine grapes, you have to wait 1-3 years before you see a return on investment and with tree fruit, once the tree is producing, you can see a return every year.
I understand that you and Mike recently decided to hold your wines longer before release, releasing them three years from vintage rather than two. What does this mean for your customers?
I have had nothing but positive comments about holding our wines for another year. Mike believes our wines are best when consumed 4-7 years from the vintage date. It has been funny to have people thank me for holding them longer so they are not tempted to open them too early.
What is your vision for the future of Fielding Hills Winery?
Mike and I are currently reviewing plans for a tasting room in Lake Chelan. When the bids are done, we will decide if building a “real” tasting room makes sense for us. Our three daughters have grown up in this business and are now in college and graduate school. There is some interest from them in becoming involved. The immediate future is to just keep doing what we are doing, and the long-term is undecided and evolving.
Feel free to share any other thoughts that you believe would be of interest to our readers.
The wine industry is a fascinating business to me. There are so many business plans from wine hobbyists to huge commercial conglomerates. There are not many industries that have such a variety in size. Then add the product variety from someone like us that focuses on only red wine to wineries that have a wide array of unique varieties including sparkling wines and now distilling. Add to that wineries that have events and serve food, and you can soon see why I think it is a fascinating industry. Every winery has a unique story.
Many thanks to Karen for sharing her story and thoughts with us. I wish her, Mike, and their family all the best and will continue to follow their work and Fielding Hills Winery with great interest, and I hope that you will too.