As with so many industries, the upper echelons of the wine industry were traditionally reserved for men. The past two decades have brought with them significant change, and the world of wine is becoming more inclusive. Washington wine pioneers like Nina Buty, Mary Derby, Eve-Marie Gilla, and Kay Simon have personally witnessed the shift away from male-only wine events, vineyard management, and seminars. Join us in raising a glass to the women who prune, pick, crush, and bottle some of the best wines in the world right here in Washington State.
Kay Simon was one of two women in the winemaking program at the University of California at Davis. The year was 1976, before there was an enology and viticulture degree at UCD. Technically, her degree is in fermentation science. An influential professor in fermentation encouraged Simon to pursue brewing. “But when I graduated, all the jobs were in wine. So I went into wine.” After working in the wine industry in California, she was recruited (along with many wine industry luminaries) to Washington State to work at Chateau Ste. Michelle. Ste. Michelle was well-funded, but lacking in local talent—there wasn’t a wine program in the state at the time. “A bunch of us moved up and incubated the industry. Andre Tchelistcheff, Cheryl Barber Jones, me.” Her father was an entrepreneur. “I knew in the back of my mind that I could start my own business.”
The gender discrimination was pretty fierce, but Simon was fiercer. “To break the barrier with the guys, you had to be hard-headed to make sure you were being heard and respected.” It was a challenge, but Simon didn’t shrink from it. Her experiences have inspired her to enable more women to be successful in the industry. She has mentored women entering the business, and she is a member of the Seattle Chapter of the Dames d’Escoffier, an organization that gives women scholarships in culinary arts and winemaking. At their last auction, the women raised $80,000 for the Dames d’Escoffier. “Through the scholarship committee, I meet a lot of young women at WSU. I also had a young woman visit me who is interested in the industry and looking to make a change.” She marvels at young women in the industry now who seem intrepid and undaunted, raising families and hustling labels. Her advice for women starting out? “Get the science-based background and work hard. Learn everything you can. Read everything you can.” It doesn’t hurt to have Simon’s brand of grit and determination, either. After working at Ste. Michelle, Simon and her husband Clay opened Chinook wines in 1977. “Laws were more restrictive back then. We couldn’t even have a tasting room.” The regulations have changed “People don’t even have to ferment on the premises to be considered a winery.” This means that entrepreneurial marketing-driven folks can source the wine and design a label and go into business. Simon didn’t see this as a bad thing, just a big change in the way the industry functions.
As for her work as a winemaker, Simon is dedicated to crafting each bottle, drawing on her entrepreneurial spirit and her love of the product. She had just come in from pruning when we spoke. “I am very hands-on.” She and her husband Clay have made the winery central to their lives, and they enjoy it immensely. And their enjoyment shows.
“Food and wine were a part of our family life every day growing up. We still enjoy wine with our meal every night.” For Simon, wine is woven inextricably into every part of her life. And she wouldn’t change it for the world.