It’s hard to imagine just how different the wine world looked when Simon received her degree in enology from the University of California, Davis, in 1976. After a brief stint making wine in California, Simon moved to Washington to become assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1977.
These were the earliest days of the Washington wine industry, with less than two dozen commercial wineries in a state that’s now home to more than 1,000 operations. In 1983, Simon founded Chinook Wines with her husband, Clay Mackey.
While women remain underrepresented in Washington’s winemaking ranks, Simon has honed her craft there for more than 40 years.
Why did you want to become a winemaker?
I originally thought about a career as a nutritionist, and after starting to pursue that degree at UC Davis, it seemed like it might be a bit clinical for my preference.
After learning about German beers on a year abroad in that country, I changed majors at the recommendation of my advisor, the brewing professor, Michael Lewis. Fermentation science, my ultimate major on graduating, combined the science part, which I enjoy, with some creative impacts as well.
“We have enabled Washington women to thrive and achieve employment in these fields, and it does make me very proud.” –Kay Simon
Did you have any role models?
For starters, my mother, Mary Louise Simon, was a science teacher and encouraged pursuit of math and science in my education.
As I became aware of possibilities in the fermentation professions, [other role models included] my professor Ann Noble, sensory scientist at UC Davis, and a couple of pioneering women in winemaking, such as Mary Ann Graf, then at Simi Winery, and Zelma Long, who was then winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery.
What is your proudest achievement?
Together with my fellow members of the Seattle Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, we have endowed seven scholarship funds at Washington colleges and universities in the areas of fine beverage, hospitality and culinary arts.
We have raised approximately $750,000 in 30 years of this endeavor and are about to endow one more in organic and sustainable agriculture at Washington State University. There are two existing scholarships at WSU in the School of Hospitality Business Management and the Viticulture & Enology major.
We have enabled Washington women to thrive and achieve employment in these fields, and it does make me very proud.
What was the most surprising experience or encounter you’ve had as a female winemaker?
Twice in my professional career, I have been the target of gender-based pay inequities. Both times were extremely disheartening as a person who strives to be professional and serious about my winemaking career.
What is your advice to young people interested in entering the wine business?
Study hard, and make sure you take as much organic chemistry, microbiology and math as you can. Try to get an internship with a winemaker or cellarmaster you respect. Stay physically fit.