PROSSER, Wash. – One Yakima Valley winemaker likes harvest so much, she’s heading south to take in another one.
Katie Nelson, head winemaker for O Wines and an assistant winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, is going to New Zealand in a few weeks to work harvest for Villa Maria. Villa Maria, which has been in business for 52 years, has winemaking facilities in Auckland and Marlborough. Since 2010, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has been Villa Maria’s exclusive U.S. importer.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Nelson told Great Northwest Wine. “I started working in the Washington wine industry right after college, got married and had two kids.”
Nelson, 40, is married to Flint Nelson, head winemaker at Kestrel Vintners in Prosser. He went to New Zealand while he was in college for an internship, which was a graduation requirement for him.
“I worked at a farm and did a lot of picking,” he said. “I picked every kind of fruit you could imagine. I didn’t get to work in a winery very much, but it was a great experience.”
A condensed harvest at Villa Maria
Nelson will be in New Zealand for five weeks, beginning around March 15 and returning about April 20.
“It’s a pretty condensed harvest,” she said. “We will work with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. I’m looking forward to gaining a different perspective on Sauvignon Blanc, seeing what kind of techniques I can bring back to Washington.”
Her boss, Doug Gore, executive vice president for winemaking, viticulture and operations, said the exchange program is fairly common within Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
“We do an exchange nearly every year,” he said, “particularly with Villa Maria because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a good opportunity for Katie to go.”
Gore said employees from Villa Maria also come to the Northwest to work at Ste. Michelle’s Washington wineries, as well as Erath in Oregon.
“This builds stronger ties within the partnership,” Gore said.
He said the program always pays dividends.
“You always learn something you can bring back,” he said. “It might be a winemaking technique, or it might be a connection. It’s not always what you expect.”
Ste. Michelle owns wineries in California and also has partnerships in France and Italy, but because they’re in the Northern Hemisphere, an exchange program is next to impossible.
“During harvest, it’s all hands on deck,” he said. “It would be a real hardship to have a winemaker gone during that time.”
Nelson based in Prosser, oversees O Wines
Nelson, who grew up in California and began working for Ste. Michelle in 1999, lives and works in Prosser. She is based at 14 Hands (formerly the Snoqualmie facility), but she also commutes to the company’s Canoe Ridge Estate facility in the Horse Heaven Hills, where Chateau Ste. Michelle’s red wines are made. And she spends time at the Woodinville winery, working on both red and white wines for head winemaker Bob Bertheau.
Her big focus last year became O Wines, a brand purchased by Ste. Michelle in 2012. Since Nelson was put in charge, the brand has grown from 11,600 cases to nearly 100,000 cases and now has national distribution. Revenue from the wine raises scholarships money for low-income, high-potential young women. Each scholarship is $5,000 per year for four years. Last year, Ste. Michelle committed to contributing a minimum of $50,000 to the scholarship fund.
Nelson, whose daughter is 8 and son is 4, said this is good timing for her to take the opportunity to work in New Zealand.
“They’re not so little that they need me all the time,” she said of her children. “I asked my daughter her opinion about me going. She gave me her blessing.”
Her winemaking husband isn’t concerned about being home with the kids for five weeks.
“We’ll have FaceTime every day,” he said. “It will be fine. I’m excited that Katie has the opportunity to do something new. It will be fabulous.”
He also said he has no travel plans for Kestrel this spring.
“It’s a good time for her to go,” he said. “I have some bottling to do, but I told them I won’t be doing anything on the weekend for five weeks.”