WEST RICHLAND, Wash. — Washington winemaker Katy Michaud launched her eponymous brand this summer after a group of angel investors crowdfunded her 5,000-case Riesling project.
As part of her arrangement with Napa-based NakedWines.com, Michaud must interact online with those investors. That’s no problem, and the self-described introvert doesn’t miss traveling to support her wines in the brick-and-mortar market for a conglomerate.
“It’s fun, and for me, I don’t have to get on a plane, put makeup on and get my hair done,” Michaud said. “I’m learning about Naked Wines on the fly, but my job is to show up with good wine and respond to these generous angels who are paying me to do this.”
NakedWines.com, founded by Rowan Gormley, claims support from more than 75,000 customers/investors aka “Naked Angels.” They are charged $40 per month, and their financial support grants them access to wines while funding winemakers of their choice. Michaud’s project is the first outside of California for Naked Wines.
“I wanted to make something that screams ‘Washington state,’ and that’s not hard with Riesling,” Michaud said.
In the case of the Katy Michaud 2014 Columbia Valley Riesling, it comes with an “Angel price” of $9.99. Listed retail price is $16.99. They also are available at Naked Wines’ tasting lounge in Kenwood.
“The angels are, in effect, funding winemakers who get to do what they want, and the angles have a first-line, open communication with those winemakers,” Michaud said. “I’m really enjoying the social media aspect. It’s a very different model than anything I’ve done so far.
“I’ve been at big places with a big following, but when you post something online, people are not necessarily responding,” she continued. “Here, there’s a fluid back-and-forth conversation where you have an opportunity to interact — and I can be on the couch in pajamas with kids running around. It’s pretty awesome.”
Background includes Boony Doon, Covey Run
Michaud, 42, grew up in England, graduated from University of Oregon then skied in Colorado before answering the siren call of winemaking. Her start in the industry began in earnest when she worked two years for Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, Calif. The path led her to such properties as David Bruce and Kim Crawford before moving to Washington state in 2002. She worked five years in Walla Walla for Diageo-owned Canoe Ridge Vineyard and then five years in the Yakima Valley for Covey Run, first for Constellation and then Ascentia Wine Estates.
Production reached beyond 150,000 cases, and at that point, no woman outside of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates made more wine in Washington state than Michaud.
“I think it was true for a moment, and I loved that,” she said.
However, Gallo laid off most of the cellar staff when it purchased Columbia Winery and Covey Run from Ascentia in 2012. Within a few months, Anthony von Mandl, owner of British Columbia’s iconic Mission Hill Family Estate, hired Michaud to set up his new CheckMate project along the Okanagan Valley’s Golden Mile.
“I wish he would call me and tell me he’s opening up a winery in Washington,” Michaud said. “That was such a unique experience — to build a winery.”
Naked Wines’ cadre of winemakers includes former Penfolds red winemaker Daryl Groom, Saint-Émilion garagiste Jonathan Maltus and ex-Treasury Wine Estates exec Matt Parish. Michaud first met Parish during his days as director of group winemaking for Constellation when it owned Covey Run. They reconnected during the fall of 2013, a few months after Parish took over as chief winemaker for Naked Wines.
“It started when I got a LinkedIn note from him that asked if I was interested in making wines for Naked, and he let me know what the model was,” Michaud said.
And her work with Naked Wines fits within the rest of her life. From a winemaking standpoint, there’s no crossover with the 12,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and red blend she will continue to develop under the Diversion brand for Damian Davis’ Seattle-based Rainier Wine Co. Her Diversion 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was among those wines selected to be poured at the Washington State Wine Commission tent during the 2015 U.S. Open Golf Championship at Chambers Bay.
For the record, Michaud makes wine around her full-time job as project manager for a software company in the Tri-Cities.
“For that, I’m usually on the phone, behind a desk or in a meeting,” she said.
Her husband, Justin Michaud, is winemaker for Coyote Canyon Winery in Prosser and sales rep for Sonoma cooperage Tonnellerie Leroi.
Katy Michaud Riesling taps into Yakima Valley
A month ago, Michaud introduced her Riesling with this note:
I am so excited to be launching a wine for you! Thank you all for funding this dream.
While I’ve been making wine for a while, this is the first time I have bottled something with my name on it. I’ve got to say it is a thrill. Please let me know how you find the 2014 riesling. I am so pleased to show you what we can do up in Washington State!
She developed the Riesling at Pacific Rim Winemakers in West Richland, focusing on two Yakima Valley sites — Selenium Vineyard and Hogue Ranches near Prosser. A tiny portion came from The Benches, a breathtaking site in the Horse Heaven Hills now owned by Seattle’s Precept Wine.
“Riesling is a pretty polarizing varietal,” Michaud said. “There are those with a chip on their shoulders about dry Riesling and those who remember the sweet Riesling of the ’70s. Many people really like them sweeter or really like them dry and complain that they are way, way too sweet or much, much too dry.”
The large majority of her responding Angels enjoyed the 2014 Riesling. Many of those who chose not to give it the highest rating of five hearts left a note that it was a bit sweet for their taste.
“I basically was creating what Washington was giving me, but I’ve given up on trying to make a Riesling that is a crowd-pleaser at less than 10 grams per liter,” Michaud explained.
Notes such as petrol and river rock don’t speak to the masses. Neither do those with an acid profile she described as “skinny” in the realm of less than 1 percent residual sugar, particularly from the record-hot 2014 vintage in Washington state.
“I like a lot of peach and apricot in there, and a fair share of lemon and lime because I don’t like things too round,” she said. “I was shooting for 1 and 1.8 percent as a sweet spot, but the acid profile that I like is a bit heavy-handed for that. It ended up at 2 percent, and I had to abide by that.”
The final chemistry for her 5,000-case production ended up with a pH of 3.1 and a total acidity of 6.95. Perhaps someday she’ll get her fans closer to one of her favorites — a Spätlese-style Riesling from JoieFarm on British Columbia’s Naramata Bench.
“When I was at Covey, I actually had our lab reverse-engineer that for me,” Michaud said with a chuckle. “I love that golden triangle of sugar, pH and acid of Joie.”
Sharing personality, building an online community
She’s also not shy about allowing the Naked Angels a peek into her personality through her online responses.
— “I think i should have stock in sriracha.”
— “We recently found a series called Bloodline on Netflix we like.”
— “Our puppy is named Marilla bc my daughters and i happened to be reading Anne of Green Gables when she arrived.”
Michaud said, “I’m naturally an introvert, and I’m OK at working the market and meeting with customers, but it does sap your energy doing that part of the job. Here, I think the consumer and the winemaker develop a better relationship with each other because you are having a conversation with people. There’s a richness to that conversation, and there’s more of it.”
Another aspect to the online interaction, Michaud said, is that commenters are more likely to be honest.
“When you are out working the market and at winemaker dinners, people you meet generally are more or less positive. They want to say nice things,” she said.
Wine, label, bottle reflects personality
“It speaks to your personality,” she said. “You get to an opportunity to contact the label designer, there’s an interview and you go back and forth.
“I want flint glass, and the gold would have made it edgier, but it turns out they couldn’t get their hands on flint hock for this first bottling,” she added. “I’m happy with how it all worked, and I enjoyed the process. You pretty much get to own it.”
At first, it was a bit emotional for her being at Pacific Rim, which is where Covey Run barrel-aged its red wines.
“I identify myself with white wines, but it was a little melancholy being around the barrels,” she said. “At David Bruce, I was the barrel racker/lab girl. There’s something being around barrels that really speaks to me.”
Bottling for the Katy Michaud 2014 Riesling took place at the Kenwood Wine Studio, which is NakedWines’ production facility along the Sonoma Highway.
NakedWines.com raises $500K for Michaud
A news release by Naked Wines said the Katy Michaud project generated more than $500,000 in backing.
“We wanted to pick the best Washington winemaker, and that’s Katy,” Gormley said. “It’s crazy that a woman this talented has never had the opportunity to make her own wine her own way, and it’s a real honor that we get to help her out with that.”
Michaud understandably feels particularly close to this project.
“I’m their first out-of-state winemaker so far, and my wine was just released a month ago,” she said. “The idea is to have their local winemakers come into the tasting room once a quarter or so, and once a year there is a road show where they go to four or five cities. I think you have to be a beloved winemaker to do that, and I’m not totally sure that I’d make the cut.”
Judging by the response, there seems to be a waiting market for a Katy Michaud red wine.