One of the great people in Washington wine, Katie Nelson is the new winemaker at Columbia Crest. She takes over for Juan Munoz-Oca and is very excited at this new challenge. Katie previously worked for K Vintners and was helping make a host of great wines there. She has a background in chemistry and is married to another great winemaker, Flint Nelson. I think you will enjoy hearing her story in wine. Here is my interview with Katie Nelson, winemaker at Columbia Crest.
WWB: Can you talk about your first inspirations in wine?
KN: At a very young age, I witnessed how wine brought people together, with plenty of laughter, around my Italian grandparent’s kitchen table on Sundays.
During college in Sonoma, as a Chemistry major, I toured a winery and saw people doing science in a winery. I knew I had found my calling. I loved the idea of combining art, science and farming and creating something that would bring people together.
I had a job working at Ridge Vineyards on my 21st birthday and loved every minute of it. I was so lucky to be a 21-year-old who drank 1992 Monte Bello on weekends. I loved the rustic nature of Ridge wines and how many were field blends, which I still love today. They weren’t over crafted or over blended. The Monte Bello had wonderful herbal notes, which I was glad they embraced.
Traveling the world, I became passionate about Sauvignon Blanc. France, New Zealand, South Africa, I love them all. I really enjoy red wines with acidity that pair with food. I am inspired by wines that reflect the place.
WWB: How did you decide to come to Charles Smith and work with a host of varietals in Walla Walla?
KN: Brennon Leighton and I worked together at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates for many years. Working with Charles and Brennon at Wines of Substance, Charles Smith Wines, and K Vintners was a challenge I was ready for. I had focused on winemaking up until that point, and was given the opportunity to be a viticulturist as well, which was exciting. They foster a creative, innovative and entrepreneurial culture which is contagious. At K Vintners I learned to work autonomously, push limits, and really examine who I was as a winemaker.
It was a tremendous challenge getting to work with so many growers for the core brands, and at the same time, what an opportunity to work with so many world class vineyards for K.
WWB: What are some advantages of coming back to Chateau Ste. Michelle Estates? What are some challenges with taking over for superstar winemaker Juan Munoz-Oca?
KN: Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is a world leader in experimentation, research and innovation. I love the people, and am thrilled about getting to work with so many growers to bring friendly, accessible wines to so many people worldwide. I can’t think of another place I would want to be at this time in my life, helping to build the momentum for Washington wines and their place on the world stage. Columbia Crest is one of the top brands in Washington’s winemaking history, and I’m looking forward to leading the historic brand into the future.
Juan Munoz-Oca is an extremely talented winemaker and I realize there are big shoes to fill. We have been tasting wines together at work, and socially, for 15 years. I respect his palate immensely and we are very in tune with each other. Juan isn’t going anywhere. I think you’ll see a continuation of what’s been happening there over the last ten years, as a historic winery that is taking some more risks with their winemaking.
I obviously also need to buy some way cooler clothes. Oh, and my name isn’t Juan and what are we going to do about those awesome “Juan & Juan on Wine” videos? I’m sure we will figure something out.
WWB: Columbia Crest is known for producing some of the most consistent wine values not only in Washington but in the United States. I’ve been enchanted by this amazing value lineup since I first started writing about wine in 2002. How do you see this great wine program evolving for the future?
KN: Columbia Crest is home to many of the greatest values in the wine world, which I am excited about. Over the last few decades I have witnessed the winery evolving, while respecting what made it so successful.
My goal is to marry innovation with the historic component, as the consumer moves across the tiers, and vineyard sourcing. Grand Estates is such a consistent value, and the consumer knows what to expect and trusts the quality. The evolution of winemaking through the tiers will align with the vineyard selection. H3 and Single Vineyard Reserve and Club Wines can showcase the site, vintage and innovation aspect a little more. I think the consumer’s palate is always changing and evolving and people are looking to be surprised. I know I am. I want to surprise people and leave them speechless, in a good way.
WWB: Talk about what it is like being married to another talented winemaker, Flint Nelson?
KN: Busy! Really busy! Every harvest, this time of year, we look at each other, and now our kids, and say how are we going to do this again? We seem to make it work. We found each other in Sunnyside, Washington, in a winery lab and the wine talk never stops. We have had a ton of fun traveling the world and love to cook, drink wine and entertain. When we vacation, the kids know for every day at a beach, they get a day at a winery (ok, not always)! Flint is a tremendous winemaker and it is really intuitive to him, even when he was first starting out. That doesn’t happen with young winemakers very often. Flint and I have different palates though, and sometimes I need to remember he may not want my opinion and vice versa. We both say we know we found a wine we love, when it leaves us speechless. We are hardly ever speechless when it comes to wine. I think maybe three times ever. Really.