Latah Creek Winery celebrates the joy of combining business and family

From left: Ellena Conway, Natalie Conway-Barnes, and Mike Conway make up the family of winemakers at Latah Creek Winery. - VICTORY MEDIA PHOTO
Victory Media photo
From left: Ellena Conway, Natalie Conway-Barnes, and Mike Conway make up the family of winemakers at Latah Creek Winery.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Latah Creek Winery. The Spokane Valley-based business is known as a pioneer in Washington state's wine scene and continues to produce both new varieties and established favorites each season.

Latah owner Mike Conway says he and his wife, Ellena, decided early on to keep the business a close, family-owned operation.

"We wanted this to be a small family business, and set our expected production with that in mind," he says. "Over the years, we've been fortunate to be able to maintain the business to support us and our staff, while still having time to be a family."

The couple's daughter Natalie Conway-Barnes joined the business in 2004, and she and Mike have been a father-daughter winemaking team ever since.

"Making wine alongside my dad for the past 17 years has been a unique experience, and I've enjoyed every moment," says Conway-Barnes. "I think we're one of the only wineries in the state whose winemakers are a father-daughter pair, with no assistants."

She says the two things that set Latah apart from other wineries are the ability to maintain its level of production with just two winemakers and a commitment to keeping their wines accessible to the average consumer.

"My parents started Latah with the idea of making wines people can enjoy at affordable prices," she says. "While we love to hear our wines are those that people save for special occasions, we also want folks to be able to enjoy a bottle in their day-to-day lives, so maintaining affordability is important."

Latah Creek's facility at 13030 E. Indiana is just over 7,000 square feet and includes space for warehousing, wine tanks, a tasting room and gift shop.

"We designed and built this space from the ground up, and aside from a few minor interior changes, it's stayed largely the same," says Conway. "It was made to produce 30,000 gallons – about 13,000 cases – of wine every year, and we stick pretty close to that."

"By our fifth year, we were already producing the same amount of wine we produce today," he adds. "We've been good at reaching our capacity each year, maintaining consistency in our processes, and continuing to make quality, award-winning products."

Conway-Barnes says Latah handles most aspects of production other than growing and crushing the grapes, most of which come from the Ancient Lakes AVA.

"A majority of our grapes come from Famiglia Vineyards, which is Cave B Winery near the Gorge Amphitheater," she says. "We also use grapes from Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley and various other vineyards, particularly for our small lot reserve wines."

Natalie Conway-Barnes photo

Latah Creek was the 35th winery established in Washington state, but in the last 40 years Washington has now become the second-largest growing region in the country.

"One thing that's changed is the number of wineries we're competing against," says Conway-Barnes. "But another thing that's changed is the winery experience. We're not just a winery, or an event venue, we're a place where people come to gather and spend time together."

Conway-Barnes says Latah remodeled its tasting room in fall 2019 taking out some walls and adding community tables with open seating, in part to help facilitate a "gathering place" atmosphere.

"We were kind of lucky in deciding to open things up a bit right before the pandemic," she says. "Now people can come in and watch our winemaking and bottling processes, taste wine, and share in the whole experience."

The winery occupies a bit of a unique niche. "We make both red and white, but if you ask around most people associate us with our sweet white wines because we're so good at producing those," says Conway. "That's one reason we've started to do more with our small-lot reds, to help remind people that we do create some wonderful well-rounded reds."

Many local stores and restaurants stock Latah Creek wines. "The Huckleberry has always been a Northwest favorite," says Conway-Barnes. "The pinot gris is also pretty consistently popular, and is our second-largest production item."

She says the winery's Mike's Reserve Red (originally called Monarch Red) is also gaining in popularity. "The reserve red is an iconic, legacy wine for us. It's a different recipe every year, as it's a blend of whatever reds we have on hand," she says. "Funnily enough that's my favorite thing about blends, creating something unique that can't ever be duplicated."

Latah Creek is also one of the few wineries that creates its own sangria, which blends Latah's merlot with huckleberry juice.

"One day about seven years ago, I decided to blend some of our extra huckleberry juice with a reserve red, tasted it and loved it," she says. "Our first batch of 70 cases sold out in two weeks, which was unheard of for us, and now it's something we make every year."

Conway says Latah Creek's wines have a similar taste and style to traditional Italian wines.

"I learned from an Italian winemaker, so our wines mimic that style, which I would say is fruit-forward and designed to drink with meals," he says. "Because that's what I was taught, I've also passed that knowledge on to Natalie, and we continue to have success with that style."

"We practice what's called Old World style techniques," Conway-Barnes agrees. "The big part of that being we let the fruit speak for itself and do as little processing as possible, so you'll usually taste the fruit before anything else."

When it comes to food pairings, Conway-Barnes says Latah regularly tries out its wine with recipes to find pairings that enhance both the food and the wine.

"We really love trying new things," she says. "Sometimes we're surprised by a good pairing, but that only further emphasizes the process for us, knowing we need to keep tasting to find the best experience possible."

She says Latah keeps its website updated with a recipe section, and also has three different cookbooks of the Conway family's recipes available for sale.

"We're working on a fourth cookbook now," she says. "Some of our favorites are probably cracked pepper steaks, which uses our Mike's Reserve Red in the recipe, and my mom's spaghetti sauce, which is easy to make in large amounts for entertaining and goes well with either tempranillo or cabernet."

Conway-Barnes says this year Latah Creek's biggest goal is to get back in touch with the community, post-pandemic. "The anniversary is a remarkable thing to celebrate, not only having been a Washington winery for 40 years, but having been a winery in Spokane, which isn't always thought of as a wine region," she says. "With the pandemic having canceled a lot of the community outreach we'd previously been part of, we are also looking forward to getting back out there and interacting again."

Brush on the Bluff @ Polly Judd Park

Sat., May 21, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
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