“I grew up in a bilingual household. I was exposed to the difficulties that non-English speakers have when trying to get and stay healthy. It was clear to me from early on that a large portion of the winemaking community in Washington fit that profile and was not getting those basic needs met. “
—Ashley Trout, Winemaker & Social Entrepreneur
Woman–Owned Wineriesis proud to spotlight winemaker and social entrepreneur Ashley Trout. As the founder of several brands over the course of more than a decade, this bright force of Washington State was recently named one of Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 under 40”.
Ashley’s most recent endeavor Vital Winery is based 100% on donations–-from the fruit to the bottles to the labels. All profits support a health clinic primarily serving winery workers. Brook & Bull is her 2,000-case winery featuring varietal-driven wines from small lots of fruit in the Walla Walla Valley.
You were a filmmaking major. What led you into winemaking?
I wasn’t glued to anything. Before my first week of college was done, I had signed on to do the nighttime punchdowns at Reininger Winery and would wind up working with them for more than 8 years.
It was a fluke of a part-time job that turned into a fluke of a full-time job, and then a very full-time job, and then a profession and identity and way of life. I didn’t see it coming quite frankly- the path was organic. It was the classic “right place, right time” situation.
What are your priorities in winemaking? What are you aiming to achieve?
Balance with a low-oak profile, as well as being able to showcase what some lesser-known varietals are able to do and be. You don’t get to see a lot of really high-end varietally bottled, low-oak Malbec or Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot.
Also, because we are a small producer that sells out mainly from the wine club and out of the tasting room, our blends don’t have to fit some generic mold. We can really get creative. I love that.
Who have been some of your mentors in the field?
So very many, including my first boss, Chuck Reininger. I’ll stick with the theme here because it’s easy to do: Merry Edwards, Kay Simon, Laura Catena, Nina Buty, Marie-Eve Gilla, Patricia Green, Susan Sokol Blosser.
I’m missing a bunch of European producers because I’ve always been stuck in those other wine worlds physically, and the farther I am from someone, I’m just totally unable to keep up with the gossip, true or otherwise.
Vital Winery gives its profits to a healthcare clinic. What compelled you to devote your profits to this cause?
I grew up in a bilingual household. I was exposed to the difficulties that non-English speakers have when trying to get and stay healthy. It was clear to me from early on that a large portion of the winemaking community in Washington fit that profile and was not getting those basic needs met. Yet this free clinic already existed, just not a lot of us knew about it.
In the wine industry, it is hard to get insurance, since so many of us just work the crush pad for 3 months or year round in the tasting rooms, but only one day a week. The vineyards and wineries in Washington are still young enough that when they hire people, it’s usually part-time, which leaves a big gap in insured workers. I wanted to see if we couldn’t close that gap a little.
Would you like to address your experience as a woman in the wine industry?
It isn’t very PC for me to say this, but I think the biggest problem is that women aren’t showing up in the first place.
Part of that might be because it is a physical job. There have always been times where a lesser trained man could still outperform me simply because he weighed 60 to 80 pounds more, and what was really needed was to pallet jack 6 barrels into a tight corner.
But that’s not the majority of the profession by any means. I’ve personally seen- and I mean repeatedly, women not applying for something that they could’ve learned quickly simply because they didn’t know it already. I see that drastically less in men. The bravado works in their favor in that realm, the hiring realm, and it’s ridiculous. So that’s what I mean when I say women just need to show up.
What do you think keeps women from showing up?
There’s a great TED Radio Hour on this titled “Nudge” that I totally believe. The premise is that young girls learn things faster than boys of that same age—crawling, walking, language, potty training. So parents learn to expect perfection from their daughters while they expect resilience from their sons (i.e., you fell again, shake it off).
Women are taught from an early age that if they aren’t going to nail something—a resume, forklift driving, harvest—then they shouldn’t step foot in that arena. [They are told:] You aren’t going to nail harvest. That is a fact. You will do better some years and worse others, but you will never be fully in control. Nature has assumed that role.
So I think women shy away from looking underprepared or underqualified where men don’t. They show up, we don’t.
How do you like to unwind from a long day of winemaking?
Rock climbing, fireplaces, and bourbon. Never together. Well, rarely…
And what’s in your glass, when it’s all said and done?
It’s hard for me to not analyze a wine while I’m drinking it. I very much enjoy and appreciate those wines- more than most people, but it’s not what I would call relaxing. I intentionally try to not learn or remember a lot about bourbon or coffee and have that be my safe harbor. I’ve been on a both California and Oregon Pinot Noir kick for a while and am somewhat madly in love with Sancerre and always will be.