Joy Andersen never gave a lot of thought to being one of the first women in Washington State’s fledgling wine industry back in the 1980s. “I was too busy doing the job I was hired to do,” said the winemaker for Snoqualmie.
After graduating with a degree in chemistry from the University of Washington, Andersen initially moved to Wenatchee to work in the fruit industry, but budget cuts soon erased that position. When Cheryl Barber hired her to work as a lab tech for Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1981, Andersen thought: “I’ll do this until I get a ‘real’ job.”
She steadily worked her way up the ladder until she was named assistant winemaker at the brand new Columbia Crest, working with Doug Gore. Andersen credits some of her early success to lessons learned from the legendary André Tchelistcheff, who worked as a consultant to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates after he retired from BV in Napa Valley in the 1970s.
“He was a great teacher, who made everyone feel as if they were capable of doing anything,” she said. “We used to get together and taste through everyone’s wines and André would comment on how to improve the wines. It was very helpful.”
When Ste. Michelle Wine Estates acquired Snoqualmie in 1991, Andersen stepped into the role of winemaker, working toward honing a style that emphasized terrior and varietal character. “I always hear my mother’s voice in my head saying ‘keep it simple’. Simplicity can be a beautiful thing,” she said.
That driving focus became even sharper when she began developing Snoqualmie’s Naked line using organically grown grapes. “Those first few years of growing organically were challenging. It was scary out there. There were lots of bugs and lots of weeds. We really had to move outside our comfort level,” she said. “But if you give Mother Nature time to find her balance, she will.”
The results of these efforts are evident in the glass: “Lots of people say organic and biodynamic wines are better quality. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is true that you spend a whole lot more time out in the vineyard monitoring the fruit, and that’s got to be good.”
There’s also an added bonus to growing organically, Andersen said. “It might cost more in the beginning, but eventually, operating costs even out. It all ties into being better at what we do.”
Several years ago, Andersen began heading up a project to draw awareness to and encourage improvement of sustainable practices in Washington wineries, an initiative that bore fruit in February, 2012, when the Web site launched: winerywise.com (Vinewise.com launched in 2007.)
“This project represents nearly four years of effort supported by educators, winery reps, various consultants, the Washington Association of Grape Growers, all pulling together as a group to coming up with online guides,” she said. “It truly started out as a grassroots effort, before we finally got some funds through a grant.”
It likely goes back to her scientific approach, but Andersen said she still gets a kick out of implementing efficiencies.
“My ego has never been tied to one brand, I prefer to stay in the background and to be part of the growth projects, bringing in better technology, working on project management, so we do things better and more efficiently,” she said.
While she has traveled to wine country in France, Australia and New Zealand, she would love to do more exploring. “But one nice thing that has been afforded winemakers at Ste. Michelle is these partnerships with Old World entities, which allows us to learn about their traditions and practices. From Piero Antinori, we’ve learned about how so much of great winemaking is about fruit, about getting the right clones for example. Dr. Ernst Loosen showed us that deficit irrigation isn’t always appropriate for every grape. For instance, he showed us that it’s OK to have a little more vegetation on Riesling vines.”
The chance to continue growing as a winemaker is what keeps Andersen going, even during those 14-hour days around harvest. “It’s been such a good experience, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” she said.