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Regular Winetraveler readers may recall our recent Friday Feature showcasing Columbia Crest and the harvest experience in Horse Heaven Hills. One of the first vinifera wineries to put Washington on the map, Columbia Crest opened its doors in 1983 with a passion for sustainable viticulture, quality winemaking, and affordability. As we observed firsthand, the passion and experience of the team is evident from the vineyards to the tasting room and today, we’re excited to introduce you to one of our favorite members of the team, Head Winemaker Katie Nelson.
RELATED: Plan a Trip to Columbia Crest Winery
Although Katie was only recently named Head Winemaker for Columbia Crest this past summer, she is no stranger to winemaking or Columbia Crest. Beginning her career in the wine industry on her 21st birthday at a winery in Healdsburg, California, she learned everything from bottling and packaging to harvest and winemaking. Katie then joined Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington, the parent company of Columbia Crest, in 1999 where she worked for several years in quality assurance before moving on to winemaking with other Washington wineries.
Throughout her career, Katie has worked with Northstar Winery, Snoqualmie Vineyards, K Vintners, Charles Smith Wines and Wines of Substance, becoming one of the most accomplished and respected female winemakers in Washington – if not the United States. She has helped to produce more than 150 90+ scores and nine 95+ scores from publications including Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits Magazine during her career and is now back at the helm for Columbia Crest.
The Family Table
We all know wine is complex, and if we’re being honest, sometimes even highbrow and intimidating. To develop a deep understanding of viticulture, winemaking and the seemingly limitless nuances of wine itself, takes years of education, practice, travel and experience. So, to say that I was nervous to meet one of the industry’s most esteemed winemakers, not to mention a very successful woman in an historically male-dominated field, would be a gross understatement. When Katie was introduced, she gave a brief introduction to winemaking and the wines of Columbia Crest and her vast knowledge was immediately evident, but as we walked through the vast cellars of Columbia Crest sampling wines at various stages of fermentation, Katie’s warmth and approachability instantly put me at ease.
My personal love for wine stems from the way it brings people to a common table, across miles, cultures, languages, histories and time. This metaphorical table is exactly where Katie and I had the opportunity to come together. We instantly fell into an easy small talk: where we’re from, our children, families, travel, and sometimes even wine. Like Columbia Crest wines, she is at once both approachable and profound, and like everyone I met at the winery, she has an infectious passion for what she does. And wouldn’t you know, her interest in wine also began at a table, her family’s table. Growing up in a large family, wine was often a central part of the many gatherings filled with laughter, love, stories and homecooked meals. And for Katie, that’s exactly what wine brings to the table: family, love and great memories.
Now, let’s meet Katie, because we know our fellow Winetravelers will love her as much as we do!
Winetraveler (WT): What made you decide to go into the wine industry? You grew up in California’s wine region, was there a family tie?
Katie Nelson (KN): Aside from having wine around the house and at the table, my family had no connection to the wine industry. My real interest in wine and winemaking began in college. I was a business major at Sonoma State University and to fulfill a chemistry requirement, I took an oenology class. As part of the class we had the opportunity to tour wineries and observe the science in the winemaking labs. I was hooked and ended up changing my major to chemistry and landing my first job in a winery on my 21st birthday.
WT: What drew you to Columbia Crest both initially and this past year?
KN: (Laughing) Well, I knew Columbia Crest from the many corks at my best friend’s house growing up. We’d often sit with her mom making cork crafts and Columbia Crest was prominent in the mix! But in all honesty, what first drew me to Columbia Crest was their location in Washington. I wanted to be a part of a relatively young and growing wine region with an incredible climate, soils and topography for vines and grapes. Then, having had the opportunity early in my career to work with the team at Columbia Crest, I was inspired by the passion demonstrated at each level and in every department. The enthusiasm was contagious. I couldn’t be happier being back.
WT: Throughout your career, did you have any mentors or personal sources of inspiration?
KN: So many. I mean, throughout the years, I was taught to observe, taste, how to think by so many talented people. Marcus Notaro, who’s now the head winemaker at Stag’s Leap taught me a lot, and Joy Anderson the head winemaker at Snoqualmie, one of the first female winemakers in the Washington wine industry was an advocate for me. They’re all amazing. And of course, there’s Juan Muñoz-Oca, now Vice President of Winemaking for Ste. Michelle. I first met Juan in 2001, when he was here as a viticulture intern. He and his wife, Jessica are great friends of ours and winemakers I have admired since day one. Juan really taught me to trust myself.
WT: What’s been your favorite experience at the winery?
KN: Honestly, it’s the winemaking experience overall. I’m thrilled to be working with a winery that devotes extensive resources and time to research and innovation, while remaining rooted in tradition. I get to play with cool climate grapes, warmer climate grapes, concrete vats, oak, stainless, laser optic sorting technology and make everything from table blends to reserve wines. I mean, I get to play with Grüner Veltliner, Malbec, Grenache White and Primitivo just to name a few. It’s exciting. And I’m also very excited about this year’s harvest. It was excellent and I’m looking forward to seeing where we’ll go with these wines.
WT: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as winemaker for Columbia Crest?
KN: I got lost a lot. (Laughing) No seriously. With 85 different vineyards, I got lost a lot this year. But in all seriousness, walking the vineyards is one of my favorite things to do. This is when I make the wines. I observe how the blocks come together, what grapes will blend, which ones will end up in AVA specific reserves. I taste the grapes, chew the seeds and then begin putting the puzzle pieces together. Each year is different which is what makes vintage variation so intriguing. This year, again I’m excited about this harvest, we’ll have 32 varietals. Not all will be bottled as stand-alone wines, but many will through our wine club.
WT: How would you describe your winemaking philosophy?
KN: I really do craft the wines in the vineyard. I create the large blends in my head. I work with the growers and I note all the details: acidity, malic acids – and what shifts we’d see in the malolactic fermentations. I really tune into the vintage and the vineyard to determine what will lend to integration. And I love to showcase the land in the wine – which is what I really love about Washington.
WT: Speaking of vintage variation, what would you say has been the best vintage to-date?
KN: That’s like asking which of your children is your favorite! (Laughing) I do have high hopes for this year. Washington is such a great place to grow grapes. It really is consistent every year and Washington wines are often scoring 90+, in fact, more so than most regions. That said, I’d have to say, one of my favorite years was 2012, for both reds and whites. We had a warm spring and a moderate summer, resulting in well-preserved acidity and lower sugar levels which made for moderate levels of alcohol. The grapes had an extensive hang time and produced wines that were both powerful and elegant.
WT: Any wine recommendations for the holiday season?
KN: We have a fabulous Blanc de Noir. It’s amazing and it’s always helpful to have bubbles on-hand for parties. I’d also say our Grand Estates Chardonnay, H3 Cabernet Sauvignon and our Grenache (available in the online wine shop) would be great for holiday meals and dishes. The Grenache has bright red fruit with floral notes and silky tannins, making it a great holiday wine.
WT: We know your wines are available throughout the U.S., the direct to consumer wine shop on your website and also through your wine club, but do you also offer tastings at the winery in Patterson?
KN: We definitely do! Guests can either make appointments or walk in for a tasting and self-guided tour. We want people to feel connected to our wines and the winemaking process. You don’t need an appointment to walk around the cellars, crush pad or vineyards, or to enjoy a picnic and wine in our courtyard. Our tasting room staff, most of which have been with us for more than 20 years, are wonderful people that are always excited to create personal experiences for our tasters. The tasting is also special because it focuses on our reserve wines, which are only available at the winery or online.
WT: How would you describe Washington wine country to those not familiar, or planning to visit for the first time?
KN: You will love the area – our expansive vistas are practically a step back in time. Everyone in Washington wine country is friendly, so make sure to plan lots of time because we like to talk! And ask the locals for recommendations. We’re a big family here. That’s probably what I love the most. It brings me back to my first memories of wine – family, laughter and love. Wine creates a familial intimacy. Columbia Crest, Ste. Michelle and the entire Washington wine region is like family. When you’re here, you’re a member of the family.
WT: As Winetravelers, we can certainly attest to that which is why it’s one of our favorite regions too. Are you also a Winetraveler?
KN: Absolutely. My family only travels to places making wine and we’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to explore several regions around the world. It’s hard to name a favorite region as they are all beautiful and unique, but the Stellenbosch region of South Africa has always intrigued me. I have a trip planned for this spring. In terms of where I’ve been, Argentina blew me away. It was beautiful, and they are making incredible wine.