That doesn’t seem to matter to the soft-spoken Conway. He and his wife, Ellena, quietly and skillfully have built Latah Creek into a rock-solid business with 32 years of success, and they are thankful to have daughter Natalie making wine alongside them for the past decade.
“Latah Creek started in 1982, and at that time there were about 35 wineries in the state,” he said. “I actually started making wine in Spokane in 1980, and back then, there were only 18 wineries in the entire state. So yeah, it’s been a reason to celebrate because the wine industry has been a great asset to the state.”
The Air Force veteran didn’t attend University of California-Davis, but his résumé includes E&J Gallo, Franzi and Parducci. In 1980, he moved to Spokane on the recommendation of his friend Jed Steele, who would soon become the founding winemaker for Kendall-Jackson. Steele played basketball for Gonzaga University in the mid-1960s and owned a small vineyard in Spokane’s Green Bluff community that included Lemberger.
“His plan was to move to Spokane and open a winery for Jack Worden, but instead he recommended myself to Jack,” Conway told Great Northwest Wine. “We met and we moved up here in 1980 and opened that winery, and two years later we did our own. It was nothing we ever chose, it just happened. We picked the right road at the right time.”
Worden, a pharmaceutical salesman, invested in apple orchards that were transitioned into vineyards.
“He was told at that time that if he wanted to grow grapes, he’d better find a place to sell them because there weren’t enough wineries in the state to buy all that was available already,” Conway said.
We recently met with the Conways in Spokane at their winery, and the family is featured in this week’s Great Northwest Winecast. Here’s the interview:
From Worden to Hogue to Latah Creek
Prosser brothers Gary and Mike Hogue found themselves in a similar situation and were selling grapes to Conway for the Worden wines, so in 1982, Conway found himself not only launching Latah Creek but also serving as the inaugural winemaker for Hogue Cellars. Within two years, Rob Griffin took over the winemaking at Hogue as the Conways focused their attention on Latah Creek.
“Our biggest competitors were Chateau Ste. Michelle and Hogue,” Conway said. “You didn’t find too many really expensive boutique wines. We had to compete with that market. We just decided from the beginning that we were going to produce wines that people could drink everyday and afford doing it.”
The Old World concept of enjoying food and wine on an everyday basis has been a constant thread for Mike and Ellena, high school sweethearts who were raised in homes where both were celebrated. Their appreciation for food and wine blossomed in Italy, where Mike was stationed for much of his time in the Air Force. Ellena’s series of cookbooks tap into their lifetime of experiences she’s shared with her dishes served as special events at the winery.
“So many of the recipes in the cookbooks are the results of those 45 years of marriage,” she said with smile. “Both of our families cooked, but this is not just strictly about wine. It’s been a love of food from the beginning.”
Career in wine takes flight
A draft number in the single digits during the Vietnam War led Conway to enlist in the Air Force. His service ended in 1972, and he returned home to central California, where he attended California State University-Stanislau.
“I happened to get a job at the very first place that would take my application, and that was Gallo Winery,” Conway said. “I worked nights in the microbiology lab while going to school during the day and finished my degree.”
By 1975, he’d moved on Franzia Brothers Winery to the role of microbiologist before he’d turned 30. Two years later, his next job in Ukiah proved to be life-changing and helped define what Latah Creek would become.
“Parducci is where I actually learned winemaking,” Conway said. “I already knew all the operations involved and the ins and outs, but I didn’t have any of the hands-on experience of making wine. It was perfect because John Parducci was looking for a winemaker he could train in his own style of winemaking rather than a Davis graduate who had a preconceived notion of how to make wine.”
Parducci, who died earlier this year at age 96, believed in making wines for those in Mendocino County and beyond.
“They produced exceptional wines that could be consumed on an everyday basis at a price that was affordable to most people,” Conway said. “When we moved up here, we kind of focused on that.”
Latah Creek keeps focus on everyday wines
Latah Creek’s average production is between 13,000 and 15,000 cases with among about 20 wines, but only their reserve tier reds top the $20 price point.
“If you ask most people what Latah Creek is, they are going to say it’s a white wine winery,” Conway said. “We produced exceptional white wines from the very beginning, and this again goes back to Parducci.
“At that time, they were using refrigerated wine tanks for fermentation in California and that was the skill I learned, so when I moved to the Northwest, I produced white wines in that same style,” he continued. “They were very light and fruity wines with less alcohol and a little bit of residual spritziness, and that’s only managed through refrigerated tanks.”
Those bottlings were primarily from Wahluke Slope fruit — a grape-growing region that Conway was among the first to embrace — also served as the introduction to the world of wine for many in the Inland Northwest.
“There were few, if anybody, in the state producing wines of that style, and we were instantly successful with Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, so that’s been the basis of our production since Day 1,” Conway said. “We’ve been doing a little bit of Merlot since ’86 and some Cabernet. More recently in the last five years, we’ve been branching off into some other varieties.”
The Conways also took a page from the Parducci business model — along Highway 101 — with the location of Latah Creek Wine Cellars. Interstate 90 is beyond their backdoor, and the nearby Spokane Valley Mall, which opened in 1997, also brings traffic to their tasting room.
“The opening of the mall changed our winery completely,” Ellena said. “This was originally a two-lane road that came to a dead end, and then it became a five-lane road that leads to a mall.”
Ellena, who handles the finances, also manages the tasting room and gift shop, which opens daily at 9 a.m. Merchandise accounts for more than 20 percent of Latah Creek’s bottom line.
“We consider ourselves a really small winery, but we’re within the top-50 largest in the state,” Mike said. “To think there are so many wineries who are smaller. to be able to help with the vision.
Next generation steps forward
Natalie Conway-Barnes grew up surrounded by the world of wine, but she didn’t plan to join her parents in the business. Her focus was physical therapy and she was going through Eastern Washington University’s program.
“But my junior year in college they turned the program to a doctorate, which meant more time in school,” she said. “That was too daunting to me, so I continued on with the program and graduated, but I started spending more time at the winery.”
Her epiphany came in the cellar with her dad in 2004, the year before she got her biology degree.
“We took two tanks of Riesling and inoculated them with two types of yeast,” she remembered. “I could taste the difference between the two tanks, and right here that was it. I was hooked.”
And at that point, her apprenticeship began.
“She’s been full-time here for over eight years, and she could take over tomorrow if she needs to,” her dad said.
Natalie’s grown into a role of leadership, recently taking over as president of the Spokane Wineries Association. Her dad is past president of the Washington Wine Institute.
“We want more to get more Spokane people drinking Spokane wine,” Natalie said.
Relationships pay off for Conway
“We’re really keen on Quincy and Ancient Lakes, which we think is without a doubt the best Riesling in the state,” he said. “We’ve been getting fruit from there for five years now.”
His favorite variety — red or white — is Muscat. It’s normally a winter-hardy grape, but not always.
“I tell you how much help the other wineries are willing to give,” Conway way. “Two years ago when there was a devastating freeze, it wiped out a lot of the Muscat and Sangiovese in the state, and Muscat has been one of our main products since ’86.
“We just couldn’t do without it, so I called up my friends at Ste. Michelle and they sold me 10 percent of their Muscat grapes that vintage. That’s unheard of in any other industry. They allowed us to survive and they’ve done the same thing for Leonetti one year when they were hurting. So even though we’re all competing, we’re still helping each other.”
Conways help turn Spokane into wine country
The Conways blazed the trail for wine in Spokane, followed by Arbor Crest Wine Cellars and Townshend Cellar, both of which produce more wine than Latah Creek, and the number continues to grow, especially in the past five years
“The consumer now has about 25 tasting room options in Spokane, so they spend an entire weekend and still not taste them all,” Mike Conway said. “That’s probably the biggest change. This is becoming realized as a destination.”
The recently created Cork District is helping to promote the downtown tasting room scene that’s sprung up around the historic Davenport Hotel. And earlier this month, the Cork District announced a partnership with Alaska Airlines that will allow those traveling the Seattle-based carrier to avoid tasting room fees in Spokane if they show their boarding pass within two days of travel. The promotion is called the Alaska Airlines Wine Pass.
“The Cork District is the brainchild of city Councilman Michael Allen, and the idea is to make this a destination,” he said. “Rather than have people fly into Seattle and drive to Walla Walla, which is a six- to seven-hour drive, we want them to fly to Spokane, visit the wineries here, and then drive to Walla Walla. It’s just two hours away. The goal is to make this known as a wine destination. There are a lot of things happening in Spokane that are going to raise the awareness of wine here.”
Making the swing from winemaking to golf
In the not-too-distant future, Ellena hopes to step away from the books and the gift shop to devote more time to cooking, golfing and enjoying her two granddaughters.
“Natalie is going to have a very daunting task,” Mike said flatly. “This has been a twosome partnership from the beginning, with Ellena and I sharing the responsibilities. When we leave, there will only be one, so I’m not sure what Natalie is going to do. Fortunately or unfortunately, we didn’t have a second child that she could share this with.”
Then again, Mike and Ellena said they expect to always have a small role in Latah Creek.
“The golf course is in my future a little more, but you never retire in this business,” Mike said. “You are always involved in it. We’ll be here to help out, but the day-to-day tasks are something that Natalie is going to have to manage.”
And it will be at least a decade until the Conways will know if Latah Creek Wine Cellars will become a third-generation winery.
“Maybe by the time Natalie’s ready or we’re ready, her kids will be ready to come into the business,” Mike said with a smile.