"I think it is a little shocking to people sometimes -- you don't expect to see a pregnant winemaker. When you go out on sales trips, people look at you with a puzzled look," says Mielke van Loben Sels.
Each bottle of wine sold in the United States carries a warning label about the effects of alcohol during pregnancy -- a label that seems ironic as a pregnant winemaker leans over the counter to sell the bottle of wine that she created. Some may wonder if the winemaker is drinking throughout her pregnancy, but they need not worry: Making wine is as much an intuitive art as it is science, and swallowing is not necessary.
Winemakers taste and spit out wine frequently as part of the job. As a winemaker blends wines from different barrels to find the perfect balance, he or she must taste the wines to get it right. Rarely do winemakers stay in the profession long if they drink wine throughout the day.
Although many women work during pregnancy, a pregnant winemaker faces a physical challenge, since taste, smell and stamina are all part of the job. Changes in body chemistry during pregnancy sometimes affect the ability to smell and taste -- senses that require spot-on accuracy for a winemaker.
"My taste buds and nose seem to be even more acute," Mielke van Loben Sels said. "I have not walked into the winery and felt nauseated, like some women."
Mielke van Loben Sels is not the first pregnant winemaker to work in the region. Holly Turner, winemaker for Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla, had twins three years ago; Marie-Eve Gilla, the winemaker for Forgeron in Walla Walla, has had two children in the past five years while making wines for commercial release.
"My taste buds changed dramatically," says Gilla. "Everything seemed so overwhelmingly powerful. I became a super-taster and had to be careful when I blended my wines."
Pregnancy affects stamina -- winemaking is a lot of work on your feet, said an assistant winemaker from Seattle who worked up until her eighth month of pregnancy. There is the physical work at the winery, and then winemakers are expected to attend events in the evening, help sell the wine, and attend all the trade meetings.
If shifting hormones become a problem, the women say they have backup available. Gilla is married to Gilles Nicault, winemaker for Long Shadow Vintners, also in Walla Walla. Mielke van Loben Sels says she has a friend in Northern California -- another winemaker -- on whom she will rely if her pregnancy dramatically changes her palate. Her husband Jim is a viticulturalist and says he stays in the vineyards and out of the initial blending trials.
This is Mielke van Loben Sels' second child. The couple's first child, Jack, was born in January three years ago. The couple learned some lessons from the first pregnancy, however, when Kristina delivered her son six weeks early. She admits she continued working hard during her last month -- sales trips, charity events, winemaker dinners and the manual work that takes place at a winery every day.
"I will spend more time telling her that it is OK to leave work early," says Jim, who said Kristina's early labor the first time took them both by surprise. "I'll try to keep her off ladders when she is seven or eight months pregnant and make sure my calendar is clear."
The couple has just opened Arbor Crest Downtown, a second retail space to catch the foot traffic in River Park Square on the third floor next to the movie theater. Jim says it's a smart business move to be a part of the downtown business core and more available for trade and conventions tours.
"This gets us closer to the consumer," he says. "Our winery on the hill tends to get fewer people as the weather turns cold and people are a little intimidated by the winding road."
While researching the downtown winery, van Loben Sels says he was told by the AMC movie theater officials that 73,000 people a month attend shows at the River Park Square AMC Theater.
"We have the potential to pick up a lot of new customers," he added with a grin.
In the meantime, the winery just released two new varietals -- a 2003 Malbec and a 2004 Petit Syrah. The limited wines will only be available at each winery location and will likely be sold out in the near future.