Kathy Shiels, one of the founders of celebrated Washington winery Côte Bonneville, stands before a room filled with wine aficionados. Some of the great minds of the wine world are there having a lively discussion regarding the Côte Bonneville flagship wine. The price tag of $120 becomes a focus. They point out that in Washington State, a wine priced over $100 makes people stand up and take note right away. If you can back it up with quality, it can become a world worthy wine. They turn to Kathy and ask about the intention of that price point. The answer, she explains, is that they came at it differently and developed the vineyard – DuBrul Vineyard in Yakima Valley. The goal is to make world class wines that showcase that spectacular site. “We didn’t have the passion to make a $20 wine. We wanted to be the best of the best.”
She explains that her daughter, Kerry Shiels, believes that the wine is inexpensive relatively speaking. The price justification takes into account the care of the vineyards, the aging of the wines before they are released, and all the other elements that go into crafting the prized Côte Bonneville wine.
Shortly before that spirited conversation took place at the 2010 Taste Washington seminar Washington’s Icons of Tomorrow, Kerry had returned home to Washington State and taken on the role of winemaker at Côte Bonneville. In Kerry’s words, “Making exceptional, unique wines that convey pedigree, geology, the vintage, and the people behind them is a challenge. Being able to share this with others is truly rewarding.”
Although a future in winemaking might have seemed the likely path when in 7th grade Kerry started making wine as part of a science project, there were some detours along the way. With an interest in science, Kerry initially studied mechanical engineering in college. Working for Fiat in Italy and Chicago followed. So did promotions which resulted in more time preparing spreadsheets and presentations rather than working on the creative process. Missing the connection to nature prompted Kerry to return to making something.
The journey back to the family winery began when Kerry applied to the highly acclaimed Viticulture and Enology Masters program at UC Davis. After neglecting to put on the application how the life science prerequisites would be completed in time, Kerry ended up working harvests for a year before starting the program, first at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa, and then Tahbilk in Australia. After two more wineries in Napa and one in Argentina, Kerry came home to Washington State to work full time with her family in DuBrul Vineyard and Côte Bonneville.
Kerry tells Washington State Wine and Beer about winemaking as a career in this Q & A.
What has most surprised you about your job as winemaker?
It continually surprises me just how much patience is rewarded. Wine just takes a long time! In the vineyard, just establishing the vines takes 3 years. Establishing that you have a world class site that can produce exceptional fruit year in and year out takes a decade, at least. Making the wine is a two year process, but allowing the wines to develop in the bottle takes longer. There are no shortcuts to proving that you can consistently make age worthy wines. At the end of the day, the proof is in the bottle. Our wines are exciting; from current releases back to the depths of the library.
We’ve always kept a big library to watch the wines evolve, and we’re starting to share them. When we recently started our wine club, we included a library club. All the wines are a minimum of 10 years old. The freshness and vitality of our 15 year old wines is really stunning!
Do you have advice for someone entering the wine industry?
The great thing about wine is that it’s so complex, and always changing. The hard part about wine is that it’s so complex, and always changing. Realize that you will never know everything. Get the best education you can, as a foundation for everything else. Find great mentors and ask them questions. Work in as many different environments as possible.
As the industry in Washington matures, education and competence will continue to become even more important. The good news is that there are more programs and options than ever before. There are more qualified people to learn from. There are more wineries and vineyards hiring interns. This is a great time for Washington wine. We’re still discovering, learning, and growing, and that brings a lot of opportunity.
Winemaking is a very physical job. Can you share with us some of those challenges and how you handle them?
The physical nature of harvest is good motivation to get outside in the spring and summer. The vineyard has great hills where we not only walk the vines, but I run with my dog. Upper body strength is a fun excuse to jump in the pool. I prefer working in the winery to going to the gym. It’s challenging if you aren’t prepared. When I get in shape and stay in shape, I enjoy the physical aspects of the job.
What is your proudest accomplishment as a winemaker?
I am proud of the diversity of high quality wines we make from one vineyard, from Riesling and Rosé, to Chardonnay, Syrah, and Bordeaux blends. The ability to convey a sense of place with each of these very different wines is unique in the world. The combination of a world class vineyard, estate winery, small production, and complete dedication to quality is rare. That’s a lot of what makes the wines so special. To be recognized for this year after year is a great accomplishment.
Experience Côte Bonneville
Last summer, Côte Bonneville opened a tasting room in downtown Sunnyside. The building is a historic train station that used to house the medical practice of Kerry’s father, Dr. Hugh Shiels. The interior has been updated with a modern sensibility, fresh blue walls, and Enomatic preservation systems for the wines. It also enables the family to offer more vineyard tours, wine club events, and winemaker dinners to engage and educate people about the process and the vineyard.
Be sure to include the tasting room on your itinerary when traveling from Seattle to Walla Walla or other areas of Washington Wine Country east of the Cascades. It’s a convenient stop not far from the highway, just beyond Yakima.
Côte Bonneville Tasting Venue
1413 E Edison Avenue
Hours: Wed – Sun, 10am – 5pm