While women are underrepresented in the winemaking ranks in Washington, the country’s second-largest wine-producing state, the story is quite different when it comes to its vineyards. Women manage some of Washington’s premier sites, where they oversee the production of grapes that go to hundreds of wineries. Their shared experience and passion for grape growing bind them together.
“There’s definitely a sisterhood in Washington between the ladies who manage different vineyards,” says Lacey Lybeck, vineyard manager at Sagemoor Vineyards in the Columbia Valley. “It’s fun to see [them] all producing phenomenal, premium Washington wines.”
Here are five female vineyard managers who impact the way Washington grapes are grown.
Sadie Drury, North Slope Management
From the time she was young, Sadie Drury wanted to be outdoors. “I really loved being outside and being in the dirt,” she says.
Born and raised in Walla Walla, Drury started out training horses, but a date with a local winemaker took her in another direction.
“As I was walking through the vineyard, I thought, ‘I could do this. I love agriculture. I love being outside.’ ”
After she enrolled in Walla Walla Community College’s Center for Enology and Viticulture, Drury embarked on her first internship at famed Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain, where she would later work for five years.
As she started a family, Drury looked for a position closer to home. She took an assistant vineyard manager position at North Slope Management in Walla Walla. Soon thereafter, she was promoted to vineyard manager, where she oversees eight vineyards across 318 acres.
“One cool thing about my position is that all of the vineyards I work with are in close proximity, so I get to be in those vineyards every day,” says Drury. She manages a stellar collection of sites that includes Seven Hills Vineyard, one of Walla Walla Valley’s most highly regarded vineyards that provides fruit to 55 wineries.
Drury says being a vineyard manager is fun, but it’s also hard work. Long hours and six-day work weeks are common during the growing season.
“That’s really hard, especially with a young family,” she says. The position also requires being in the vineyard before daybreak. “I find myself never quite getting used to waking up at four o’clock in the morning,” says Drury, with a chuckle.
Her favorite time of year is harvest. “There’s only one job,” she says. “For so much of the year, we’re balancing 10 different things at once. Harvest time, you just get to pick grapes.”
Brittany Komm-Sanders, Waterbrook Estate Vineyard and Browne Family Vineyard, Precept Wine
As she grew up in Wenatchee Valley, the self-proclaimed “Apple Capital of the World,” Brittany Komm-Sanders was introduced to agriculture at her grandparents’ orchards.
“Some of my earliest memories are hanging on the tractor with my grandpa and my dad during harvest time,” says Komm-Sanders.
In high school, she saw apple and cherry trees being ripped out and something else planted. “I called them ‘funny plants,’ ” says Komm-Sanders. “They were plants I had never seen before.”
A subsequent research project on these grapevines led her to pursue a horticulture degree at Washington State University, in contrast to the viticulture and enology route many others take.
“Winemaking has never interested me,” says Komm-Sanders. “I want to be outside. I want to be growing.”
After she earned her master’s degree, Komm-Sanders was hired as a viticulturalist by Precept Wine, one Washington’s largest producers. From the beginning, Komm-Sanders had her eye on management.
“I’m not one who likes being told what to do,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to be the one making all of the decisions.”
Komm-Sanders now oversees 160 acres in total as vineyard manager for Precept’s Waterbrook Estate Vineyard and Browne Family Vineyard in Walla Walla Valley. She also serves as senior viticulturist for the winery’s estate sites, which total more than 1,000 acres. When she’s not managing her own vineyard, the job entails frequent travel between company’s other sites.
“I’ve put 79,000 miles on my [work] truck in two years,” says Komm-Sanders. “It looks like a messier version of my apartment.”
In the wine industry, winemakers often get most of the glory. Komm-Sanders says that honor should be shared.
“It all starts in the vineyard,” she says. “The vineyard people are the faces behind the wines. They are the unsung heroes. If the vineyard team and Mother Nature all work in conjunction and do their job right, winemakers already have great wine before they even touch it.”
Lacey Lybeck, Sagemoor Vineyards
“I grew up around agriculture my whole life,” says Lacey Lybeck, vineyard manager at Sagemoor Vineyards, which includes some of the state’s oldest and most storied sites.
Lybeck grew up in La Conner, Washington, part of a family that grew daffodils and seed crops. She was introduced to grape growing while taking an introductory agriculture class at Washington State University.
“I loved that rather than growing a crop for homogeneity, you are really growing a crop to express a place,” she says. From that moment, Lybeck was hooked.
“I jumped into the Washington wine industry with both feet.”
She started out as a viticulture technician for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Washington’s largest wine company, where she worked with as many as 40 different growers across the Columbia Valley.
“I got to really see and experience what happens if you miss watering at a crucial time during fruit set, or if you have too much water and too much canopy growth,” says Lybeck.
After work as a viticulturalist at Wahluke Wine Company, she joined the team at Sagemoor, where she manages five vineyards across the Columbia Valley, approximately 1,100 acres in total.
Last year, Sagemoor sold grapes to 120 producers. Lybeck grows fruit for about one out of every eight wineries in the state.
“I love the partnership we have with winemakers, to express the site as well as their style,” says Lybeck. “It’s amazing how each winemaker’s interpretation is so unique, but you can taste the common thread of the fruit.”
Lybeck says what she enjoys most about being a vineyard manager is to see the results of her work at the end of each year. “Being able to taste our hard work in the glass and seeing people enjoy it is what gives me the most pleasure.”
Brooke Delmas Robertson, SJR Vineyard, Delmas Winery
Though born in California’s Napa Valley, Brooke Delmas Robertson was not always destined to be a grape grower. She even majored in philosophy at Oregon State University. After her family established SJR Vineyard, the estate vineyard for Delmas, she relocated to the valley and enrolled in the local community college’s viticulture and enology program, where she sat right next to her father.
“Having college classes with your dad is always fascinating,” she says. “You can imagine.”
Her first internship took her back to Napa Valley, as she worked at Barbour Vineyard Management, where she fell in love with grape growing.
“There’s just something about being able to be outside all day and getting dirty, but in a fun way,” says Robertson. “You’re sweaty. You’re filthy. You’re exhausted all day, but you feel like you’re actually doing something.”
After a season in Australia’s Barossa Valley, more work in Napa Valley, master’s level classes at Cal Poly and time at Napa Valley Reserve where she grew grapes for the members-only winegrowing estate, Robertson returned to Walla Walla in 2017 to manage the family vineyard.
SJR Vineyard is a 13-acre property in the Rocks District sub-appellation, famous for its cobblestone soils, and also its cold, vine-killing winters. Quickly, Robertson changed the vineyard from a standard trellising system to a goblet style, where the vine head and spurs are close to the ground.
“We can push 18 inches of dirt over the top of these things [in the winter] and fully protect not just a burial cane, but the trunk, the head and the buds,” says Robertson. “That’s a win.” Winter-kill has been reduced.
“It keeps you on your toes,” says Robertson of being a viticulturalist. “You’ve got to deal with Mother Nature. You can’t think, ‘I hope it doesn’t do this today.’ There’s no point in hoping. You have zero control, but if you were in control of everything, that would be incredibly boring.”
Kari Smasne, Canoe Ridge Estate, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
In her youth in Sunnyside, Washington, Kari Smasne was surrounded by fields of alfalfa and asparagus, along with apple and cherry orchards.
“It just made me love the outdoors,” says Smasne.
An online evaluation in high school pointed her toward a career in agriculture. At college, Smasne studied agriculture economics, and she then moved to Seattle to work in a grocery store as an assistant produce manager. There, friends introduced her to wine.
Inspired, Smasne decided to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology, but quickly focused her attention on grape growing.
“I liked making wine, but when I got to the viticulture side, I realized that’s where my passion was, getting to be outside and learn how to grow wine grapes,” she says.
An internship at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates turned into a full-time position as a viticulture technician, the person who collects data for crop estimation and scouts for vineyard pests. After a promotion to viticulturalist, Smasne was then offered the vineyard manager position at Canoe Ridge Estate, one of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s estate vineyards.
Planted in 1991, the 600-acre site overlooks the Columbia River. “I feel really fortunate that I get to manage that vineyard,” says Smasne. “The view is amazing. Sometimes I drive there, and I can’t believe that I get to go there every day.”
Smasne’s position is unique for Washington. She grows fruit almost exclusively for one winery, which also has an on-site winemaking facility.
“I can go taste tanks whenever I want and start planning for next year,” she says.
Smasne’s take on being a vineyard manager? “It’s fun, exciting, and always changing. I like that. I love taking on challenges and trying to do the best whatever the situation brings. You always have a best-laid plan, but it changes quite rapidly sometimes. You have to learn to have a lot of patience.”