Washington State has seen explosive growth over the last 15 years, ballooning from 200 wineries to more than 940 today. With this growth has come an influx of talented winemakers, all with their own ideas about what Washington wine is and how it should be made.
Though young, many of them have diversified the style and increased overall quality statewide. The five winemakers chronicled here are among those having an outsized impact on Washington’s wines.
Palencia Wines/Monarca Wines
“My upbringing was in the vineyards,” says Victor Palencia.
Born in Mexico, Palencia came to eastern Washington with his family when he was two. His father began working in the state’s vineyards and, once he was 13, Palencia would join him after school. “It was very labor-intensive,” he says.
Come high school, he shifted to working at his neighbor’s winery, Willow Crest. “I fell in love with [winemaking]. By the time I was a senior, I had my mind set that this was fully what I wanted to do.”
Palencia was granted a scholarship for Walla Walla Community College’s viticulture and enology program. Though still underage, he was allowed to participate in the program—provided he didn’t taste. “That was a bit of a handicap early on,” says Palencia.
He interned at local wineries during the program and, upon finishing at 20 years old, became winemaker at Willow Crest.
Since then, Palencia has moved up the ranks in the state’s wine industry. He currently works as director of winemaking at a custom-crush facility that oversees production of more than one million cases of wine, making it one of the largest facilities in the state.
“A lot of people think big production is an assembly line, but there’s really a lot of art,” he says. “Whether the fermenter is 1.5 tons or 100 tons, the amount of attention it needs is very similar.”
“I took a leap of faith,” he says. “The wineries are a celebration of my dreams and doing something I thought that I would never be able to do.” One of only two Latino winemakers in a state of over 940 wineries, Palenia says, “The dream is possible. There’s a lot of opportunity.”
Palencia, now 33, already has 13 years of winemaking under his belt. “It’s really humbling that people think of me as one of the veterans now,” he says. “I say, ‘No, no, no. I’m just getting warmed up!’”
Kerry Shiels made her first wine in middle school. It was part of a science project.
“I don’t even remember what it was,” she says. “It was red. It was awful.”
“Like anyone who’s 17, I wanted to leave home and go experience a bigger world,” Shiels says.
So she opted to study mechanical engineering in college, then went on to join the car company Fiat in Turin, Italy, working on prototypes. After transitioning to more of a business role, Shiels decided it was time for a change.
“Washington is one of the coolest places in the world to make wine right now.”—Kerry Shiels, winemaker, Côte Bonneville
“I was making spreadsheets and Powerpoints. I decided that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
Instead, she decided to turn her focus to winemaking. “I like to make things,” Shiels says. “If you like to make things, wine is pretty cool.”
After working harvest at Joseph Phelps Vineyards and then a stint in Australia, Shiels entered the University of California, Davis wine program, working crush and interning at Folio Fine Wine Partners while studying. “I went to school three days a week and then spent another four days a week commuting to Carneros,” she says. “I was running myself pretty ragged.”
Upon graduation, she worked harvest in Argentina before finally returning home to join her family’s winery as winemaker. “I wanted to earn my position at the winery,” she says. “I didn’t want to come into it just because it was my family.”
Shiels, now 39, is a firm believer in Washington wine. She points to the state’s ability to successfully grow a range of varieties. “In our vineyard, we have Riesling and Cabernet, and they grow right next to each other,” she says. “You can’t do that in Napa. You can’t do that in Bordeaux. You can’t do that in Germany. It’s something that’s very Washington.”
Mark Ryan Winery & Manu Propria Winery
“One of my earliest memories is sitting on a bench with my great-grandmother, watching her ferment cucumbers and cabbages,” says Mike Macmorran of Mark Ryan and Manu Propria wineries in Woodinville. “She just loved fermenting things. It sparked my interest.”
Macmorran’s fascination with fermentation led him to study science and pursue a medical degree in Seattle. At the end of his second year of school, his wife posed a question that would change his life.
“She asked me what I wanted to do when I was done being a physician,” Macmorran says. “I told her I wanted to open a small winery. She said, ‘So you’re going to medical school to someday have a winery? Why don’t you just cut out 30 years of the process?’”
“One of my earliest memories is sitting on a bench with my great-grandmother, watching her ferment cucumbers and cabbages.”—Mike Macmorran, winemaker, Mark Ryan Winery & Manu Propria Winery
Putting his medical career on hold, Macmorran, now 40, began to volunteer at DeLille Cellars in Woodinville in 2005. In 2006, he was hired full-time as a cellar worker and, from there, worked his way up to assistant winemaker. He joined Mark Ryan Winery in 2008, becoming winemaker the following year.
“I try to stay true to Mark McNeilly’s style from when he started the winery in 1999,” Macmorran says of his approach. “The wines are bigger and more broad-shouldered, with a full-fruited profile.”
This stands in contrast to his own brand, Manu Propria. Its focus is on producing Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Willow Vineyard, planted in 1972 by Mike Sauer.
“[With] Red Willow wines, the fruit is there, but it’s wrapped in these non-fruit elements that are reminiscent to me of a slightly cooler climate,” he says.
Ultimately, Macmorran’s intention with Manu Propria is larger than the wine itself.
“I think it’s important to recognize the people who have contributed so much to this industry,” he says. “That’s really what Manu Propria is about—honoring Mike Sauer and his family and what they have done for this industry.”
Andrew Latta was just 13 years old when his interest in wine was first piqued.“One of my dad’s friends explained to me how to spot a counterfeit Chianti,” Latta says. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s more to this than just some stuff that I don’t think tastes very good!’”
While attending college in northern Kentucky, Latta waited tables to pay the bills, learning all he could about wine. He studied to become a sommelier and spent a year as a wine director at a five-star resort in Phuket, Thailand, then moved to Walla Walla to study viticulture and enology.
“I saw a lot of potential in Washington and in Walla Walla,” he says.
Latta started out working at Dunham Cellars and, in 2006, he interviewed with winemaker Charles Smith (K Vintners, Wines of Substance, Sixto, ViNO, CasaSmith), whose star was quickly rising. It did not go well.
“I saw a lot of potential in Washington and in Walla Walla.”—Andrew Latta, winemaker, Latta Wines
“We had the most contentious interview I’ve ever had in my life,” Latta says. Smith grilled him about grapes, producers and wines. “He would ask me what the five first growths were, and then while I was answering, would start mentioning super seconds to throw me off.”
And then, Smith offered Latta a job.
He worked as winemaker for Smith from 2006–2014, overseeing a program that grew to include more than 750,000 cases of wine across six different brands.
“Charles gave me tremendous responsibility, trust and leeway,” Latta says. “I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
In 2011, Latta started Latta Wines as a side project. He left Charles Smith Wines in 2014 to make it a fulltime endeavor.
“I’m just trying to make the wines that Washington wants to make,” he says. “You have concentration and richness here, but you also have balance. It’s a great place to be making wine.”
Ryan Crane became interested in wine while waiting tables in college. After briefly selling wine for a distributor and working for an industrial painting company, he moved to Walla Walla in 2005 to study viticulture and enology.
“I took the plunge,” Crane says. “It was honestly nothing more than wanting to try my hand at making wines from Washington State.”
“I wanted to build a portfolio of wines that made you feel something versus just taste something.”—Ryan Crane, winemaker, Kerloo Cellars
“I didn’t have any money,” he says. “I had like 10,000 bucks, so I said, ‘How much fruit can I get for 10,000 bucks?’” Like that, Kerloo Cellars, named after the call of the crane, had begun.
At Kerloo, Crane focuses on wines that come from specific blocks of specific vineyards, each of which are listed on the back label.
“I was tasting a lot of wines that I felt like didn’t have a sense of place,” Crane says. “I wanted to build a portfolio of wines that made you feel something versus just taste something.”
“We’re mostly a Rhône shop, with the rest fun varieties that I think are up-and-coming in Washington,” he says.
Regardless of grape, Crane, 41, focuses on making wines in an old-fashioned style. “We’re really gentle with the fruit,” he says. “We foot-stomp all the Syrah and Grenache. It doesn’t go through any sort of destemmer or anything. I want whole clusters to bring some texture, length and earthy restraint to the wines.”
Ultimately, the emphasis at Kerloo is on creating wines of character.
“For me, every single lot tells a different story,” Crane says. “The goal is to create wines that challenge people’s palates and focus on the rawness of the fruit that we have in Washington.”
“I wanted to build a portfolio of wines that made you feel something versus just taste something.”