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Fortuity Cellars recruits winemaker Alexis Sells from Duckhorn
WAPATO, Wash. — Fortuity Cellars, a young brand poised to open up a new winery and tasting room in the Yakima Valley, has taken a significant step by hiring Alexis Sells, a member of the winemaking team from Napa Valley icon Duckhorn Vineyards.
It will be a homecoming of sorts of Sells, who grew up in Spokane, Wash., and graduated from Walla Walla Community College’s vaunted winemaking program in 2014. Lee and Emily Fergestrom, who own Fortuity Cellars, consider it a feather in their cap to recruit a rising young talent to the Yakima Valley.
“Absolutely!” Emily Fergestrom told Great Northwest Wine. “Having someone with her work experience at such a professional level with a robust program like Duckhorn, which is focused on traditional winemaking techniques, and her knowing how to execute at such a level of quality — she checked all the boxes for us.”
Sells, 27, who will join Fortuity Cellars later this month after wrapping up at Duckhorn, already has a remarkable résumé and looks forward to the 2020 vintage turning into the 10th crush of her young career. Four times, she worked harvest in Walla Walla at wineries and production facilities such as Artifex, Bergevin Lane, Dusted Valley Vintners, Isenhower Cellars and M & L Productions for Aryn Morell and Josh Lawrence.
“I’m excited to return back to Washington where my love of wine began,” Sells said in a news release. “Yakima is the center of everything Washington has to offer: amazing wine, skiing, hiking, beer, camping and rafting. I’m really looking forward to working with Emily and Lee as we focus in on and uncover all that Yakima Valley wine country has to offer.”
Sells to take over for winemaker Johnny Brose
Sells will take over for Fortuity Cellars founding winemaker Johnny Brose, a longtime friend of the Fergestroms who now is in his first year as a winemaking instructor at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore. He spent time as an adjunct instructor at award-winning Yakima Valley College in Grandview, where Fortuity Cellars has been leasing space and making their wines since the Fergestroms launched their brand with 850 cases from the 2017 vintage.
This spring, Lee Fergestrom with a background in tech startups, and Emily, with a career in communications and politics, plan to open their own production facility and tasting room on Lombard Loop Road. Early in 2018, they formally announced plans to build near the grounds of Sawyer Gardens, a popular events center and wedding venue the Fergestroms purchased in 2017.
There’s also a role for consumer education in the works for Sells, who has completed her Level 3 coursework with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Fergestrom said next up for Sells is Level 4, followed by pursuit of her Master of Wine certification.
“She’s very committed to continuing her education, and it’s very interesting to us, too,” Fergestrom said. “Her background and involvement in the WSET program are assets we want to share with our visitors. It’s really awesome for us, and we think they are exciting things for the Yakima Valley wine industry.”
Fortuity Cellars targets 1,500 cases for 2020 vintage
Sells was a 16-year-old student at Lewis & Clark High School in Spokane when she began to consider viticulture and enology as a career after learning that a friend of her sister was a candidate for the College Cellars program. The Walla Walla Community College‘s Institute of Enology and Viticulture now lists four graduates who went on to work for Duckhorn Vineyards, including Canvasback head winemaker Brian Rudin in Walla Walla.
After graduation from College Cellars, Sells worked at New Zealand giant Villa Maria where she learned more about Sauvignon Blanc and other white varieties such as Arneis and Verdehlo. She has spent the past four years working for Duckhorn, starting as a lab technician and working her way onto the Chardonnay team for the Napa producer.
“She’s got friends and mentors in the Washington wine business, and that’s comforting for us to know that she has such a strong direction for her future,” Fergestrom said.
Fergestrom said the interview process with Sells included a bottle of Duckhorn Chardonnay she’s played a role in.
“It’s really beautiful, barrel-fermented and barrel-aged and very stylish,” Fergestrom said. “It’s on-point with our Chardonnay and a good indication of how she’ll fit in with us. Ours is about one-third new French oak, and I would say ours is more of the Oregon style rather than a California-reserve style with its bright acidity and creaminess vs. the buttery and oak notes.”
The scope of Sells’s work will change significantly. Last year, Duckhorn released 37,000 cases of its flagship 2017 Napa Valley Valley Chardonnay with a retail price of $36.
“We’re a small operation, and don’t plan on growing beyond 2,500 cases, so it was important for us to not only make a quality hire but also find a quality person,” said Fergestrom, who graduated from West Valley High School in Yakima. “We’re really excited to have Lexi onboard. We think she’ll be an amazing asset to have in the Yakima Valley.”