It was a dark day when Latah Creek’s Mike Conway and his wife, Ellena, arrived in Washington on May 18, 1980. Mount St. Helens had blown its top and ash was raining down across Eastern Washington.
“We spent our first week holed up in a motel in Pasco, waiting for the roads north to open up,” Conway said of his auspicious introduction to his new home.
He didn’t take it as a sign to turn back around and return to his native California, where the wine industry was decidedly more established. “I think we were young enough and naïve enough at the time, we didn’t realize we should be scared,” Conway said.
After beginning his enology career at Gallo and later becoming assistant winemaker at Parducci, Conway had been hired as winemaker for Worden’s in Spokane, thanks to a personal recommendation from his buddy, Jed Steele.
“I was in a wine tasting group with Jed. He had gone to Gonzaga and it was originally his intention to come up to Spokane and make wine. He ended up not coming and I got his job,” Conway said.
Early on at Worden’s, Conway sourced grapes from the Hogue family vineyards, and when he wanted to go out on his own, Conway approached Mike Hogue asking if he would be interested in being an investor.
“He said yes, he’d be interested in helping me start a winery and asked if I’d be interested in helping him start a winery,” Conway said.
While he was launching Latah Creek, he also was the first winemaker at Hogue Cellars, which meant he put in a whole lot of miles between Spokane and Prosser for a couple of years. (Though, sometimes, Mike flew up in his plane to make the commute quicker.)
By 1984, Hogue had grown so large, Conway stepped away from his winemaker role and Rob Griffin was hired. “By that time, I was fully committed to being the best small family winery in the state, so it made sense,” he said.
The Mom-and-Pop approach has resulted in an operation that pays close attention to its loyal customer base. Latah Creek’s wildly popular Huckleberry Riesling and Maywine might not crack The Wine Spectator’s Top 100, but those releases sell like flapjacks smothered in maple syrup.
“There’s always a market for easy-drinking wines,” Conway said.
In recent years, after daughter, Natalie, joined the winemaking team, Conway began working on a small lot reserve project.
“The Monarch series first came out in 2010. We originally intended to do 50 to 100 cases of one red blend, but the response was so positive, we’ve expanded it to include a Petit Sirah and a Zinfandel in addition to the original Cabernet-Syrah blend,” Conway said.
One of the motivators behind this project was to hone Natalie’s winemaking skills so she could eventually take the reins.
“She’s learning just like I did, with a lot of hands-on training,” he said.
Conway had once dreamed of becoming a doctor, but switched to microbiology after a four-year stint in the Air Force. After the military, Gallo hired him to work on quality control. Later, he joined the team at Franzia and then Parducci, where he joined the winemaking team.
“I got the job at Parducci because John Parducci was looking for someone that he could train to make wines in his style, not someone with a Davis degree,” Conway said.
He learned it wasn’t such a stretch to marry the art of fermenting grapes with science.
“Those two really go hand-in-hand,” he said. “There are a lot of very creative winemakers who don’t make good wine because they don’t understand the importance of sterilization, especially early on.”
While Conway, a past president of the Washington Wine Institute, is looking forward to his daughter taking a leading role in the next few years, he has no plans for a traditional retirement.
“I’m sure I’ll always be involved in Latah Creek in some capacity,” he said. “I know very few winemakers who actually fully retire.”