Stepping into one of the coziest tasting rooms in Washington State – a space that was once a parlor in a historic home – it’s difficult to imagine Chinook Wines’ Kay Simon getting her start by working for one of the biggest producers in California.
Simon and her husband, Clay Mackey, are the ultimate Mom-and-Pop operation, with the couple doing everything at their 3,500-case-a-year winery from making deliveries around the state to charming the customers who find their way to that tasting room in Prosser. That’s a mighty long journey from working for the giant United Vintners in the San Joaquin Valley.
“It looked kind of like an oil refinery with half million gallon jacketed tanks sitting outside,” said Simon, who graduated in 1976 from University of California at Davis. “We used to ride bikes to get from one facility to the other. We all wore hard hats and carried two-way radios. It was pretty industrial.”
A fateful trip to the Northwest in the 1970s led to a new chapter for Simon: “I came up to see my brother graduate from University of Puget Sound. While I was working in California, a friend kept bringing me bottles of Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling, so when I was up here, I knew I had to visit.”
While on a tour of the landmark Woodinville winery, Simon asked an insightful question and the observant guide recognized a pro. “He introduced me to the winemaker and I learned there was a job opening for assistant winemaker. It was a bit of serendipity.” She got the job and her experience working two harvests in California proved valuable.
“Working on that scale gave me exposure to every single piece of equipment you could ever use in a winery. It gave me a good feeling for how wine is made in a practical way,” she said.
She worked at Chateau Ste. Michelle from 1977 to 1984 and during that time met her future husband and business partner, who was a vineyard manager for Ste. Michelle.
When they established Chinook in 1983, concord grapes dramatically outnumbered vinifera in the state and there were just three wineries in Prosser. Now, there are 30 producers located off Interstate 82 and the production of grapes for making wine has surpassed concords.
“We just recently had our first meeting with all the Prosser area wineries, talking about the what we could do together as a group,” Simon said.
Early on and continuing to the present, Chinook has had a reputation for excellence and exceptional value. The late Bob Woehler, wine columnist for the Tri-Cities Herald wrote glowingly: “Few wineries can match the quality for the price of Chinook.”
Consistency has always been a goal important to Simon: “When making wine, you’re not going to just let it happen, but guide it a certain way. I’m not going to say there’s a cookie cutter recipe. It’s an agricultural product and the grapes change from year to year. But it is about being methodical and paying attention to details.”
The quality of Chinook’s wines was also recognized early on by celebrity chef Tom Douglas, then a rising star at Café Spot at the Pike Place Market. Chinook has been a prominently featured pour at Tom Douglas restaurants in Seattle for more than 20 years.
“They make great food wines and they’re such incredible values for the quality,” said Douglas.
There are no radical departures from the winning game plan in Chinook’s future. A new lab building soon will be completed. Mackey will continue to nurture relationships with longtime growers who’ve supplied them with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Semillon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc and the couple will participate in tastings and winemaker dinners around the state.
“We’re going to keep doing what we do,” said Simon, who served as the Honorary Vintner Chair of the Auction of Washington Wines in 2008. “You’ve got to keep yourself out there in front of people and that’s one of the things I like best. I marvel at people who travel to wine country and happen into our tasting room. We’re a discovery for them, maybe in the same way their parents discovered us years ago. It’s great how those connections get built again and again.”
August, 1984. Chinook's first wine release, Seattle (Wash.)