Women of Washington Wine: Denise Slattery of Trio Vintners

By Kori ~ June 21st, 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.

Denise Slattery and her husband, Steve Michener, are co-owners and co-winemakers of Trio Vintners in Walla Walla, Washington. Trio Vintners was established in 2006 and focuses on Italian and Rhone varieties. Denise and Steve moved to Walla Walla with their two young sons to pursue their winemaking dream. They both studied at the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. In addition to the numerous hours they put into Trio, Denise has a freelance marketing strategy and writing service business and Steve is a Registered Nurse.

Trio has been located in one of the five almost identical buildings built by the Port of Walla Walla near the regional airport known as “incubator” wineries. The incubator concept was developed with the entrepreneurial spirit in mind. Each incubator winery must be brand new to lease space and at the end of a six-year lease, they must move out to make room for another new winery. As of July 1, Trio will be moving into a new location in downtown Walla Walla.

Recently, Denise 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 Denise Slattery:

How did you first get involved in the wine business?
Coming from San Francisco, I was aware of the emerging wine industry, especially through the 80’s. Napa and Sonoma were a huge draw for me. But it was not until later in my professional life that I was able to connect the dots, to be able to take what I knew about marketing and branding and apply it to something that I had actually crafted myself. At the same time, it was my husband, Steve, who introduced me to wines from around the world, and I was able to focus on wine as a study. Shortly after moving to Walla Walla, I enrolled in the Enology and Viticulture program and was completely impressed with the quality of education I received. I had the great fortune to have the late Stan Clarke as an instructor.  He passed on so much passion and knowledge, especially about viticulture. I fell in love with the process of training a grape plant to make great wines. He was a tremendous influence.

What were the steps that led to where you are now?
We looked at quite a few communities to live in where we could pursue a family-based wine business. We found Walla Walla through some research into the wine business. The community seemed like a great fit for our family and the Enology and Viticulture Center proved to be a great place to get hands-on learning experience.

Has being a woman been an advantage or a disadvantage in your wine journey?
It’s something that I’m aware of but don’t try to bring a lot of attention to. I meet many women who are in the sales and marketing side or run winery business operations but not many women winemakers. I happen to do both and need to multi-task in our daily wine operations. It’s a good trait to have as a winemaker.

There is an old guard (in both vineyards and the cellars) that tends to be dominated by men, and, consequently, there’s a tendency to be taken slightly less seriously. That said, it’s hard to disentangle this from the fact that I really am quite new at this in the scheme of things so I try to give them the benefit of the doubt!

One thing that is clearly different for me is that I am also a mother of two school age boys and this has prevented me from being able to be out and on the road more often. It’s just a fact. I can’t take the road trips or meetings with wholesalers when I also have to be on hand for my kids. Family trumps all. It’s frustrating at times because I can’t get the face time with wine buyers so they know I’m a real part of the winemaking team! But I’m really good on the phone! So call me, ok? ☺

What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today?
For me, since we don’t own our own vineyards, it is very important to be knowledgeable about grape farming. Know the growers, know what kinds of wines are produced from the blocks, and pursue those grower relationships that fit your style of doing business. On the winemaking side of things, do not be intimidated by those that appear to know more. Just keep your head down, work hard, and have a sense of humor. You will not make better wine just because you are a woman, but it’s quite possible that you may have more fun doing it!

What are your thoughts about the Washington wine industry, in general?
My crystal ball says we have a great future ahead! Seriously, I’m excited to be making wine in a state where quality is king and commitment to excellence is the name of the game. I’m proud to call myself a Washington winemaker. But we all have to work hard to keep the quality up and our reputation growing, especially to other parts of the country and abroad.

In recent years the Washington wine industry has grown at a rapid rate. Do you expect that trend to continue?
I think, despite economic pressures, you’ll see small producers continue to get into the business. The industry is a magnet for those who are willing to shoulder debt in order to create their own product and brand, live the dream, etc. We’ll also see some consolidation amongst the larger producers where margins and operations are managed more closely.  But smaller producers will always be more entrepreneurial and able to stretch a little further. As a result, there will be some churn.

This is a very complicated and low margin business to operate no matter where you choose to make wine. Many don’t realize that until they are into it for a few years, so it’s not too surprising that there are people leaving the business. For those who are willing to try and work hard, go for it!

How do you and your husband, Steve, divide the duties at the winery?
Well, I like to say I make just a little bit more wine than Steve, but, truthfully, it’s really a “divide and conquer” operation. We both do whatever must be accomplished in a given week. All the critical winemaking decisions are made between us. We both adhere to a wine making style that’s fairly minimalist, low-oak, using fruit that’s high in acid and low in potential alcohol. We compliment each other. As far as the marketing and sales, I manage the majority of that work. I’m way more plugged into social media than Steve, but on the other hand, he’s the first to pour over numbers.

I understand that Trio is moving out of the “incubator” at the Walla Walla Airport and into a new tasting room downtown on July 1. What led you to making this move now?
Several factors. Establishing ourselves at that location has been great for us, but it’s time to move on. We have a time limit of six years, and we don’t want to leave this critical move to the last minute. On another note, I don’t want to be perceived as “new” or “incubating” any longer. Of course, we are still very young as a wine business, but I think we are growing more solid in terms of our winemaking style, our grower relationships, and a core group of customers who are following us with each release. That’s very satisfying. Finally, as we all know in this business, you have to sell the wine too! So our new location downtown is going to give us a better profile and allow us to further distinguish ourselves from other producers in Walla Walla. That’s a challenge. We want to fit in, yet stand apart. I love my neighbors, but I need my own address.

What is your vision for the future of Trio Vintners?
We will be buying Chateau Ste. Michelle and producing nothing but Mourvedre! Just kidding! We want to grow slowly, in time and at a comfort level that’s in check with the realities of the marketplace. We would love to eventually transition into this being our main source of income (Steve is working full-time as an RN right now) by growing the brand to the point where we can actually make some money. It’s a lot of fun, but we’d be crazy to be doing this if we didn’t want to eventually make a living at it.

Feel free to share any other thoughts that you believe would be of interest to our readers.
My whole life has been about exploring new frontiers and taking on new challenges. That is our underlying philosophy at Trio Vintners. We encourage people to try new types of wines, to expand their palates, and discover new tastes. I love what I’m doing now because it’s pulling together all the skills I’ve spent years honing. Wine is about sharing and bringing together people. This is what I know how to do best.

Many thanks to Denise for sharing her story and thoughts with us. I wish her and Steve all the best and will be following their work and Trio Vintners with great interest, and I hope that you will too.

(Photos from Trio Vintners)

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

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