BENTON CITY, Wash. — During my time as the wine program director at the Walter Clore Center, we staged an annual tasting for consumers called “Rising Stars,” at which some of Washington’s promising young wineries poured their wines.
My column will now take a similar path, providing a platform for rising stars who don’t fit the traditional perception of winemakers.
Ellie Zeron of Zeron Vineyards and Elk Haven Winery on Red Mountain is one such star.
We spoke after the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium in Sacramento, Calif., where prominent messages included, “We need to make wine tasting more approachable and simple, allowing more people to enjoy a social experience,” and “Diversity is the key!”
Ellie interprets that as, “The industry needs more women and Hispanic people.”
She grew up in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, surrounded by orchids, rivers and waterfalls.
“I was known as independent, self-reliant and competitive,” she says.
Her father pushed her to become a doctor, but Ellie resisted, declaring that Venezuela had plenty of doctors, lawyers and teachers.
He said women weren’t meant to be scientists and was furious with her choice to pursue a degree in chemical engineering. Ellie remained resolute, knowing that it would be a solid career.
“Follow your dreams, because it’s possible,” Ellie says. “If you have passion, the hiccups won’t stop you.”
Her first job after graduating from University of the Andes was with a stainless steel and aluminum producer where there were many women in admin positions, but no women in the field. The sight of Ellie wearing a hard hat, steel-toed boots and working alongside men in her hometown won her father’s approval.
In 1999, the oil and chemical industry led her to Houston, where she was accepted into the English as a second language (ESL) program at prestigious Rice University. Outside the classroom, Ellie found watching episodes of Judge Judy to be especially helpful because only one person is allowed to speak at a time.
Her experience and education earned her a job in Dallas, where she met her husband, Jaime, and they started a family. They moved to Auburn, Wash., and Ellie spent six years at home with her children before she began working as a consultant/analytical linguist for the U.S. government.
One of Jaime’s projects took the family to the Bay Area, and Ellie visited Napa and Sonoma. There, she photographed and unexpectedly fell in love with vineyards. That connection inspired her to take University of California-Davis extension courses, leading to a winemaking certificate in 2012.
She launched her own brand — pronounced ZEHR-on — as a small negoçiant project pulling from Napa. Upon returning to Washington, Ellie connected with longtime Boeing Employees Winemakers Club instructors Doug DeVol and Steve Foisie. She began to research vineyard locations and targeted Red Mountain, a growing region she first learned of from Carole Meredith, a renowned grape geneticist and professor at UC-Davis.
In 2016, Zeron bought 5 acres of raw land on Red Mountain for her dream vineyard. Two years later, the family planted 3 acres of clone 8 Cabernet Sauvignon.
“I used my own hard-earned money from my consulting job to invest in my own business,” she says with pride.
Next, Jaime’s sister, Joyce, and her husband bought five acres for their own project — Casad Vineyard. At Ellie’s suggestion, they focused on red Rhône varieties Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
Making wine with Red Mountain, Idaho grapes
Along the way, Jaime’s boss, Miles Jackson, asked Ellie to design and plant a small, experimental high-elevation vineyard in Worley, Idaho. That’s grown into a 10-acre planting of aromatic whites — Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Gewürztraminer.
Before long, Jackson convinced Ellie to quit her government job and make wine from his Idaho grapes. Now, he also wanted a Red Mountain project, so he purchased land and hired Ellie to develop a 12-acre vineyard that surrounds the Jackson family’s Elk Haven Winery. It is populated by Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Carménère and Marselan — a cross of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon known for being heat-tolerant. Those wines will be made by Ellie in the Elk Haven cellar.
“When I designed Elk Haven’s vineyard, I wanted to include a heat-resistant variety — a perfect fit for Red Mountain,” she says. “Marselan got my attention after analyzing my options using the UC-Davis website.”
Those wines will be made by Ellie in the Elk Haven cellar once the vineyard matures. This spring, 1,600 cases of Ellie’s Elk Haven wines will be released.
Construction on her Zeron Vineyards tasting room is scheduled to be finished in 2023. She has about 1,000 cases from the 2021 and 2022 vintages in barrel.
Her goal at Zeron Vineyards is to make wine tasting more accessible to people whose first language is Spanish. She plans to hire staff who can conduct tours and tastings in Spanish and English. Her team will help break through the stereotype of “Hispanic people only work in the vineyards” and also to create a wine environment that guests can relate to and be comfortable in.
Technical terms are important to learn, she says, but they must be delivered in a language that makes people feel at home, regardless of their background in wine.
“Never rely on people’s opinion of you, not your accomplishments or lack of them, your appearance, etc.,” Ellie says. “Stay true to yourself!”
Gloria Terry says
What a great write up of the familia . Love you lots and are very proud of your accomplishments in the industry you love . Your Tia
Wendy VanArsdale says
Great article. I love her passion and vision.
Yay! Fantastic article and I agree Ellie is amazing!