Wine Trek, The Next Generation

by Christina Kelly & r & Mike and Ellena Conway's only daughter, Natalie, didn't want to grow up and inherit the family's business, Latah Creek Winery. Despite being born into the business the same year the winery opened, she didn't plan to be a winemaker.

The 22-year-old spent most of her life at the winery, perched on the counter next to the cash register her mother operated or else playing with dolls atop cases of wine and wine barrels. When school recessed for the summer, Natalie worked at the winery, often in the tasting room, and more often, cleaning up -- the grunt work.

Mike and Ellena talked about their only child taking over the family business someday, and Natalie felt the pressure when she got to high school, although never directly from her parents. Instead, she had her sights set on physical therapy, and she enrolled at Eastern Washington University, determined to be a top-notch PT.

Not wanting to push and nudge Natalie too much, the Conways faced the fact that they would likely have to sell their winery if their daughter didn't want to take it over.

"You have to have a passion for this industry, and while we thought Natalie might eventually develop that passion, she was more interested in physical therapy," says Mike. "We would talk at the dinner table about having to sell the winery, hoping that she might realize what that would mean. But we didn't really push her."

Though it was a tough wait for the owners of Washington state's 18th bonded winery, it paid off. Natalie graduated from Eastern Washington University in June and joined the winery full time as her dad's assistant winemaker this month.

The Road to Winemaking

Mike Conway was actually Spokane's first winemaker, coming from California in 1980 to work with Jack Worden, an orchard grower from Lake Chelan who opened a winery in Spokane. In 1982, Conway formed a partnership with Mike Hogue, and the team started Hogue Cellars and Latah Creek Winery. Arbor Crest Winery opened in Spokane in 1982, and Conway helped the family get started in wine production. Eventually, Hogue and Conway split the partnership to form separate wineries and Latah Creek officially opened in 1983, the year Natalie was born. It was a two-person operation -- Mike and Ellena.

"I didn't have a day job, like other winemakers -- this was it," recalls Mike, who had worked for E & amp;J Gallo and Parducci Winery in northern California before coming to Washington. "Our intent was to make this business work. I am sure there were people who wondered what we were doing -- wine was not a big business in those days. There were only 17 wineries in the state when we started."

Today, there are more than 350 wineries in Washington state.

The Natalie Factor

As a youngster, Natalie Conway took her parents to "show and tell." Her mom brought "smell kits" to the students so they could identify such smells as apples, spice, plum and berries -- all the smells associated with winemaking. The kids thought it was pretty cool; the teachers weren't so sure. In fact, her D.A.R.E. (a school anti-drug program) teacher told Natalie that alcohol was bad for people and stressed abstinence.

"Natalie came home and told us how many brain cells we were killing in one glass of wine," recalls Mike, smiling at the memory. "At the time, Natalie told the DARE teacher she was going to be a winemaker. We had to call him and talk about it."

Ellena says that she raised her daughter to pay attention to tastes, textures and aromas. The Conways always had wine at the dinner table as part of the meal, and Natalie was allowed to have the equivalent of a sippy cup with a tiny bit of wine, in the manner of many European families. Natalie and her mom would call out what they tasted in a particular dish.

"Honestly, we've been laying the ground work for Natalie for a long time," says Ellena. "She played in the winery -- her dad was always finding Barbie shoes on the floor by the barrels. And she worked in the winery. It was what she knew."

Ellena says she was hoping someday that Natalie would recognize and embrace her rich heritage. In fact, the Conways sent out regular newsletters to winery enthusiasts about upcoming releases, and often mentioned Natalie's comings, goings and milestones. They wrote about her prom, and other adventures in her move toward adulthood.

"I was mentioned so often that I ended up with 2,000 parents," says Natalie, shaking her head. "These were people who knew me from childhood."

By her junior year at Eastern, Natalie learned her major was requiring a longer stint at school and it wasn't what she wanted to hear. She began interviewing for jobs as a physical therapist only to learn that the jobs were already filled.

Her dad quietly sensed her frustration, and began pulling Natalie into the science of winemaking, hoping to use subtle persuasion to convince his daughter of where her heart and passion existed. They performed trial wine blends, researched yeasts, followed the fermentation processes and slowly began talking about the winery's future.

But, it wasn't her dad who made the final connection. It was Nick Barnes, a guy she met and fell in love with her junior year at Eastern. Nick's family owned Shamrock Construction, a family business that Nick was looking forward to running one day. Where Natalie was reticent to officially join the family business, Nick was roaring to get involved. He talked about the benefits of running a family business, and Natalie listened.

Natalie married Nick this year, graduated with a biology degree and told her folks she was ready to officially join Latah Creek as the assistant winemaker.

"I got hooked," Natalie says. "I loved the science aspects of the winery -- growing up, I never had that experience. I don't think I realized it took skills to make wine."

A Family Business

Natalie joins Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels, winemaker at Arbor Crest, and Eric Manz, assistant winemaker at Mountain Dome, as another second-generation winemaker in the Spokane region. Mielke-van Loben Sels didn't grow up in a winery as Natalie did, but she did spend summers in Spokane working at Arbor Crest, which was owned by her parents. Her original career choice was veterinary medicine, but she switched her major to fermentation science in her sophomore year.

"My dad was a physician, and none of us lived the winery day in and day out," says Mielke-van Loben Sels. "I didn't feel any pressure from them to join the family business, although in the grand plan of things, we certainly knew it would be a cool thing to do. I am very proud to be a second-generation winemaker."

Erik Manz says that he knew as a young boy that he wanted to work in the family business. In fact, his father Michael, owner of Mountain Dome Winery, gave him some Chardonnay grapes when he was 13, and Erik made wine -- a wine he served 16 years later at his recent wedding.

"I feel the pressure of being part of a small business, but never felt the pressure from my dad to take over the family business," says Manz, who has a sister and a brother. "Because I always wanted to do this, there didn't seem to be pressure. I love the lifestyle."

A New Direction

Latah Creek produces 17,000 cases annually, with 90 percent of that wine being sold in the Northwest (with the majority sold in Washington state and Spokane). The winery produces about 12 separate varietals. The Conways recently celebrated the winery's 23rd anniversary.

With Natalie on board, Mike and Ellena will begin handing over some of the duties; they plan on doing less in the next five to 10 years. They've already discussed eliminating one of the varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon) and are considering a reserve line. Mike is always amused, he says, by wine snobs who think his wine is inexpensive and therefore, not very good. In blind tastings, his wines do well, particularly when matched with food.

"We make good, value-oriented wines at prices people can afford," says Natalie, who plans to keep the wines affordable. "I think it would be nice to have one or two reserve wines in our portfolio. That will be part of the future."

Ellena says Natalie will bring new enthusiasm to Latah Creek and help create a new magic.

"You can get tired, after doing this for many years, even though you still have a passion for it," says Ellena. "Natalie will bring a renewed excitement to the winery -- it's exciting for us and for our customers."

In the meantime, Natalie says that being a full-time assistant winemaker has not registered with her yet. She says it still feels like she has the summer relief jobs she did while in school.

"This will be my first harvest, where I am not going back to school but working as a full-time winemaker," she says. "It will seem real when I head out to the vineyards, not to classes."

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