Today we have a very exciting interview with a rockstar woman in wine. One of the great winemakers in Washington, Kerry Shiels, is the daughter of Kathy and Dr. Hugh Shiels, who founded Côte Bonneville and planted their famed DuBrul Vineyard. Kerry received her Masters degree in Viticulture and Enology from U.C. Davis, then assumed the winemaker title in August, 2009. She has been immersed in DuBrul Vineyard and Côte Bonneville since 2005, under Stan Clarke’s tutelage and Co Dinn’s mentorship.
Kerry is not only a superstar winemaker but she is a downright awesome person to talk wine with. I recently had the chance to sit down with her and talk about her background, as well as her recent great releases. I think you will very much enjoy hearing more about her. Here is my interview with Kerry Shiels, Winemaker of Côte Bonneville.
WWB: How did you first become interested in winemaking? What was it like learning from some of the best wine educators in the world at the UC Davis school of viticulture and enology?
KS: I grew up around the wine industry, knowing growers and winemakers from a young age. When I was looking for a science project in 7th grade, making wine seemed like a fun one! I’ve always been interested in learning how the world works and creating something. I have been lucky to have amazing teachers and mentors from middle school, through college at Northwestern University and grad school at UC Davis, up to today. They have always encouraged me seek out the best education and experiences, and helped me apply what I’ve learned with critical thinking to whatever I’m currently trying to do.
When I changed careers from engineering to winemaking, it was thanks to many of those middle and high school mentors that I knew I needed to go to UC Davis. It was pretty amazing to be in class with professors who helped establish the California wine industry as a quality region. Every single instructor was at the top of his or her field globally. The depth and breadth of knowledge in Davis is phenomenal. I also made a lot of great friends, both fellow students and in the faculty. The people I worked with during my harvest experiences were also wonderful teachers. Each winery has a unique philosophy, which means different ways of doing things, and different reasons for why they do them. It is important to understand distinct decision-making styles, especially when coupled with different vineyards, vintages, and regions (I’ve made wine on 3 continents). The combination of academic understanding and experience is how one learns good judgment. I am excited to see the WSU program growing. It bodes well for our industry to have more trained professionals to continue to improve quality of Washington Wines. Our region is young, and there is so much potential to discover.
WWB: What are some of the challenges with growing a range of varietals in the DuBrul Vineyard, from Riesling to Merlot to Syrah?
KS: We view the diversity as an advantage, not a challenge. When we planted DuBrul, we dug big pits all around the vineyard to study the soils and aspects. We laid out the vineyard to take advantage of the natural variation inherent in the site. The Cabernet, for example, is on the steep south facing slope for the most heat accumulation and rockiest soils. Chardonnay is planted on a north westerly facing aspect, where there is more loess. This block is cooler, and the increased water holding capacity helps the vines develop the canopy needed for this varietal. If the vineyard were uniform, we couldn’t grow the range of grapes all at the high quality point that we do. The hillside Cab planting would be too hot and rocky for Chard, for example. Another great attribute of the diversity of grapes is that it helps us to keep our all female crew working consistently. Timing of work in the vineyard is important. With the different varietals, it ensures that the vines are not all at the same point of development at exactly the same time. So just as we finish work in one block it is time to start work in the next. The ladies can work steadily, not rushed one week and bored the next. It is important to us to take care of the people who work in the vineyard, along with the vines and fruit. In the winery, the fun part of growing all these different grapes is that we get to make such a diverse set of wines. As an estate winery, it is really cool to be able to make Riesling and Syrah. We have something for everyone, and almost every occasion, from refreshing whites to full bodied reds.
WWB: Do you feel that some varietals grow best depending on vintages? What were some of your favorite varietals from the hot vintages of 2014 and 2015?
KS: The Yakima Valley is a moderate growing region. In cool years, we approximate more elegant Bordeaux style wines; in warm years, we tend more towards rich California-esque fruit. I truly believe there is no such thing as a bad vintage in a great site like DuBrul Vineyard, but we do have to adapt to the year we’re given.
This year is the 25th anniversary of DuBrul Vineyard, and we know our vines well. We can use various viticultural and irrigation practices to optimize each vine. This helps us achieve even ripening, no matter what type of season Mother Nature has given us. Our winemakers (not only myself, but all those who source fruit from DuBrul) then have the flexibility to make harvest decisions that best fit their style and goals. I really like the 2014 Chardonnay, which has lovely lemon pie notes. Our 2014 Syrah combines boysenberry and cherry with violets and spice. For the Cabernet blends, I think the 2014s are too young, so they are still waiting in my cellar. Our wines are intended to age, so I’m currently enjoying the 2010 Carriage House or 2007 Côte Bonneville.
WWB: You made one of my favorite Rose wines in Washington, which landed on my Top 100 Wines of North America last year. Can you talk about your special 2015 Rose and the upcoming release of your 2016 Rose?
KS: I love Rosé! Ours is special, in that we grow the grapes specifically for rosé. So much of the viticulture and winemaking around rosé isn’t serious, as producers just don’t spend the time and energy here. Not only are whites and rosé wonderful wines, but attention to detail is so important for quality, flavor, and balance in these wines.
We take the designated rows of Cabernet Franc in the vineyard, and farm for the desired flavors, brightness, and intensity. The grapes are harvested and cared for in the winery to highlight the complexity, aromatics, and elegance that our wines are known for. It’s completely dry, and pairs well with a wide range of food. The pale copper color is gorgeous in the glass. At home, my back patio faces northwest, overlooking the Yakima Valley towards DuBrul Vineyard. My favorite place to enjoy is a glass of rosé is on the patio, watching the sun set behind Mt Rainier. The colors evolve across the evening sky and the desert hills like the flavors in the wine. It’s a perfect way to end a summer day.
WWB: When you are not enjoying your delicious Cote Bonneville wines, what are some of your favorite wines of the world? What is your personal cellar like?
KS: I enjoy wines from all over the world, and believe it’s important to continue to explore what’s out there in the greater world of wine. Call it competitive analysis, or not getting a house palate, but it is part of the job to taste and drink other wines! Having lived in Italy for a few years, Piemontese wines are my enological home away from home. I love Arneis, Barbera, and of course, Nebbiolo. Champagne is always fun, and has become more interesting, with the explosion of grower producers that are focused on a sense of place. Our philosophy is very Burgundian, and I feel a kinship with those wines. I appreciate the meticulous attention to site, farming, and winemaking. And the Chardonnay is amazing. It’s important to continually benchmark Bordeaux blends and Syrah from other areas, so I seek those out from important regions. It’s tough work, but someone has to do it, right? ;) My cellar is divided by variety/ type, but also by ageability. In the section I’m trying to be patient and lay down for a long time, I am really excited about the Rieslings. Aged Riesling is so spectacular, so in 10 or 20 years, that is going to be fun!!