Diligent. Savvy. Shrewd. Insightful. Astute. Crafty. Dedicated. Discerning. Resolute. Ethical. Caring. All of these words accurately describe Ashley Trout, a veteran of nearly two decades in the wine industry in Walla Walla. Trout founded her first winery, Flying Trout Wines in 2006, focusing almost exclusively on Malbec. She sold that winery to TR Wines in 2010, but stayed on as the winemaker until 2015, when she left to start two new wineries, March Cellars (now Brook & Bull Cellars) and Vital Wines, a non-profit that donates all its profits to the SOS Clinic in College Place to help people in the Valley without health coverage, including seasonal vineyard workers. Ashley was kind enough to sit down with us one morning last month for an extensive interview about a variety of topics.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: Let’s talk background first. So you grew up in the Washington DC area and you decided to go to Whitman College in the late 1990s. Were you aware of what was going on with wine in Walla Walla before you came to Whitman?
ASHLEY TROUT: Well there really wasn’t too much wine here at the time. To put it in perspective, when Whitman accepted me they sent along a bag of onions(!). Because at the time, this was Onion Country. Walla Walla had gone through several iterations of being “pea country” and “asparagus country” and “wheat country” and what they were really glomming onto at the time was onions. When you think about 1998 and 1999, there really were only eight wineries. Legally, there might have been a couple more, but as far as who was up and running and who was producing wine at the time, it wasn’t a lot of people. And even though there had been some good scores coming through for Walla Walla wine, nobody was resting on their laurels. They were hard-fought wins during those years.
WWWL: So you went to Whitman and early on in your freshman year you saw an ad for part-time work at Reininger Winery [the seventh winery in Walla Walla, which opened in 1997].
TROUT: People in the wine industry looking for help didn’t have a great place to look for help at the time. What I mean by that is that when you’ve only got eight wineries in a small town in the middle of nowhere, it’s not like über-qualified staff members from around the world were moving here. That wasn’t happening back then. And the Community College wasn’t yet up to speed with their enology program, they certainly didn’t have graduates en masse yet. I’m not sure they had any graduates at all by 1999 in the enology and Viticulture program. There really wasn’t anywhere to look to find qualified candidates. So Chuck [Reininger] sent out emails to all the colleges just like you would for any other job. I saw one of those emails come through and I jumped at the chance.
WWWL: So what was the experience like at Reininger when you started? Were you working just a few hours a week or more than that?
TROUT: Right off the bat I fell totally in love. I loved it. It was just a week after I’d started college so I didn’t feel like the responsible thing to do was to jump in and work full-time – and Chuck didn’t really need me full-time that first year. My main duties at first were nighttime punch downs, which could be anywhere from 8 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on where you were in the season. On top of that, pretty quickly I also got involved in inoculations and other lab work, driving a forklift, packing up boxes of wine to be shipped out by UPS and manning the tasting room on Saturdays. One thing led to another and by the following year I was working a 40-hour a week part-time job!
WWWL: How many employees did Reininger have at the time?
TROUT: It was just Chuck, Raul (Morfin) and myself for a long time, several years. We were the three amigos and it was great.
WWWL: At some point you became the Assistant Winemaker at Reininger.
TROUT: That was a few years in. Chuck was very methodical about how quickly he grew the winery and in what way. I think that very smart of him. What that also meant was he was able to wrap his brain and hands and time around that wine for that much longer. So he was the main winemaker and there really wasn’t an Assistant Winemaker for many years. Raul and I were the crew and Chuck was the winemaker and that’s how it was the first few years. Again, I was 18, 19, 20, 21 at the time. It didn’t make any sense to hand over any dramatic titles.
WWWL: I want to talk about your time in Argentina, but first I’d like to ask you about the rock climbing accident in Japan. That must have been terribly traumatic.
TROUT: By the time I graduated from college, I realized that wine was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I didn’t want to look back at my life at age 90 only having done one thing since I was 18. So I took one year off to go work in Japan and do something unrelated to wine. So I was there doing pottery, learning Japanese, teaching English and doing rock climbing. The climbing accident certainly was traumatic. I had over a month of hospitalization, a bunch of broken bones and five surgeries. But I couldn’t have hoped for it to have gone any better than it did. I was very lucky. I broke unimportant bones -- I didn’t break a head, a neck or a back and I loved the care I got while I was there.
WWWL: As I understand it, the rock climbing accident led directly to you ending up in Argentina working harvest.
TROUT: Yes, it very directly led to me ending up in Argentina. I had always wanted to go there because I had had some people in my social circle in high school who were all from Argentina. I had heard all about it and I had always wanted to go. I missed harvest up here that year because everything was broken, so when my body was back online and usable I wanted to go do something. That was right when Argentina was coming online for its harvest, so I jumped at the chance to kill two birds with one stone – jump back into harvest and get to see the country that I had been wanting to go to for so long.
WWWL: Tell me what you loved about Argentina once you got there.
TROUT: Everything. I loved the wine and the food and the vistas. I loved the music and the culture. There’s such a focus placed on family and friends and enjoying the details in life. To me a lot of those priorities are spot-on and things that we miss on occasion here in the U.S.
WWWL: So after six or seven years at Reininger, you decided to start your own winery. Tell me how that came about.
TROUT: I was doing the harvest in Argentina and the U.S. and I was losing money doing it the way I was doing it, which was fine by me because that was my Enology program per se. By that point in time the Enology program was up and running but I was appreciating learning everything the way I was learning it. I was in two different hemispheres, with very different styles of making wine and I really appreciated that body of knowledge. So I didn’t mind paying for it that way, but what made a lot more sense to me given the connections I had in Argentina was to stop losing money and at least break even. Starting Flying Trout allowed me to know that the wines I was making both in Walla Walla and in Argentina were mine, that I had creative control over the wines and that it was a built-in sustainable plan.
WWWL: What would you say is your winemaking philosophy?
TROUT: Balance. I think that’s it’s really hard to do a great balanced wine. For me it’s important because you can be a “big” wine with big tannins and big alcohol and big dark fruit. As long as it’s balanced – great, do that. Or you can be a wine with a very low oak profile, more of a food-friendly wine, a little more acid. And that’s great too, but to me balance is really important, which is part of the reason why I tend to steer clear of a whole lot of oak usage. It’s not always easy to balance those behemoth oak profiles.
WWWL: At Flying Trout, most of the wine you made was Malbec, but with Brook & Bull, you’re making a bit of Malbec, but also many other varietals. Is that a challenge for you?
TROUT: So I’m a mom with young kids and the analogy that springs to mind is what one of my “mom-friends’ told me, that her first child took up 99% of her energy and that the rest of the children took what was left. You sort of try to recalibrate so that it works out as close as you can get to 50/50. In my case, it is somewhat true that Malbec is what I do. It’s in my wheelhouse. I focused on it for a decade and nothing else for that decade. I get it. Malbec speaks a language that I understand a lot more clearly than some of the other varietals that I’m working with now. But ultimately your attention span as a winemaker is gonna be used 100% on your portfolio. The question is how widespread is your portfolio. I don’t think at this point that I’m paying more attention to one wine than I am to the others.
WWWL: Tell me about your first tasting room, on Palouse Street. It was a Flying Trout tasting room first, then you shared it with Spencer Sievers and El Corazon and all these years later they’re still at that location.
TROUT: It was a really magical time. Anybody’s first company and first business location is really magical. Any entrepreneur is a dreamer by definition and it’s the first time that you’re ever putting the pedal to the metal. It was such a magical and exciting time. I remember we would have drywalling parties where we’d put up drywall and paint it and stay up to all hours of the night working on the visual of how that place looked and how it felt. And that was awesome. I’m glad that I got to do that and I’m glad that I don’t have to do that going forward. It was a special time and place. I was in my 20’s and I had more energy and I didn’t have kids and we could pull those all-nighters. There’s something really fun about that, but there’s also something special about not being stuck in that zone forever. Part of the fun of having a small winery is the joy of going through different phases and feelings. It was a special time that I’m glad I got to be part of.
WWWL: One of the things I admire most about Walla Walla is the community among the winemakers and the wineries here. It’s competitive, but it’s not cutthroat like it can be in some other wine regions. For example, if someone’s in the middle of harvest and a key piece of equipment breaks, they can usually go to another winemaker or winery in town and find someone to let them use their equipment.
TROUT: I think it does happens less in other places. I think the closer you are to the farming side of things – farmers in the middle of nowhere with equipment that nobody else knows how to use or “up against nature”. When you’re sort of that raw, everybody helps because they need to. Because everybody’s gonna need that help along the side of the road at some point. Your car can be broken down in New York City and tons of people might pass by and nobody stops. But if you’re in the middle of nowhere, one out of the first three people that pass you will stop. That’s very comparable to what we’re going through as an industry here. There’s very little economy of scale in what we’re doing here. There’s very little expertise here in terms of fixing mechanical equipment. And it’s not like we have firms that are based here that manufacture this equipment or that manufacture barrels or forklifts. And so we’ve all gotta be all of those things for each other because the structure as an industry on a large scale doesn’t exist in Walla Walla.
WWWL: Tell me about starting March Cellars (now Brook & Bull Cellars) and Vital Wines.
TROUT: I was really excited to start March once the kids were old enough that I was sleeping through the night and I knew I had my head on straight. I really wanted to be back at the helm again. I sold Flying Trout in 2010 and stayed on as the winemaker for a few years. But I didn’t own the company. I like running the show and having creative control and knowing what’s going on with the business side as well as the wine side. I wanted to get back in that realm, but I also wanted to take advantage of the things I know now in my 30’s that I didn’t know in my 20’s. And I also think Walla Walla is such a magical place and it’s a magical time to be doing what we’re doing. I just couldn’t sit back any longer and not take the reins on a project again.
WWWL: Almost simultaneous with your launch of March, you started a second label, Vital Wines, which is a non-profit, but not your typical non-profit. With a lot of non-profits, it’s a bit misleading because people may pay themselves large salaries to run the non-profit, leaving very little actual profit for the people that need it. But with Vital, 100% of the profits are donated to the SOS Clinic [to help vineyard workers who don’t have health coverage] and Vital doesn’t pay any salaries to your employees.
TROUT: 100% of the profits go to the SOS Clinic. We do hold onto the operating costs, which is why we don’t say “all proceeds”. But we really try our hardest to make sure the operating costs for Vital are as low as possible, which is why we’ve had no salaries go out the door for Vital. It’s one of the reasons why we launching March simultaneous to Vital because we needed a staff to sell the wines and you need that staff to be paid. Having both brands launched in the way that they were launched was really the only way we could have done this and done this properly. If we had launched Vital by itself the operating costs to pay the employees would have been such that the clinic wouldn’t get much money at all.
WWWL: Way back when, when you first came to Walla Walla, could you have imagined it would become a world-class wine destination?
TROUT: No, not at all.
WWWL: In your opinion what were the major components that have gone into making Walla Walla a world-class wine destination?
TROUT: I think it’s a confluence of different things. The wine has always been great, it’s a great location for making wine and Walla Walla was lucky enough to have some really great winemakers early on. That’s probably the biggest and most important aspect to all of it. That’s been the foundation. But on top of that we had a couple of good winemakers who in addition to being good winemakers, were really helpful in the marketing department, knew how to sell wine and knew how to get the information about their wines disseminated nationally. That was very helpful. Another thing is that simultaneous with the growth of Walla Walla as a region has been we’ve had 26 consecutive years of the growth of wine sales in the U.S. That’s insane. The timing was very fortuitous for Walla Walla.
WWWL: Besides Chuck Reninger, who are some other people you consider to be mentors to you as a winemaker?
TROUT: Chuck isn’t just a mentor to me in the past. He continues to be a mentor and always will be. He’s a great guy and a great winemaker and a perfect mentor for many of us in Walla Walla. I tend to look to different people in the industry for different things. Some winemakers are really great technical winemakers, while others are really, really great at the logistics; they have an amazing understanding of what those spreadsheets are supposed to look like. Six months down the line everything’s running smoothly and all your bottling or whatever has been ordered. I would love to have that brain, but I don’t, so I look to other winemakers to see how they’re doing those things so much smoother than I am. There are other winemakers and winery staff who are great at branding and marketing. It’s good to look at the Valley as a whole and see who’s doing a great job with that. There are other winemakers who are also winery owners and are trying to balance raising a family too. There’s even a few winemaker couples – that’s its own balancing act even without kids. There are a lot of mentors here in the Valley that I pick and choose from because those people are better than I am at certain things and I can learn from them.
WWWL: What’s your go-to wine on a typical night at home?
TROUT: There aren’t many typical nights at home these days (laughs). I certainly don’t have a go-to. I like mixing it up a lot. Lately I’ve been geeking out a lot on the techniques and technical side of Cab Franc. And also Rosé. Not Cab Franc Rosé, but Cab Franc (red wine) and Rosé. Malbec always plays a role. I also really enjoy taking a break from reds and drinking a Sancerre or something bubbly. Occasionally I like to drink a really great Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a Pinor Noir. To me, those are fun because it kind of turns the brain off in a sense because I’m not going to be making those wines. At no point am I going to be making an earthy Pinot Noir.
WWWL: So you can just sit back and enjoy those wines for what they are rather than judging them critically.
TROUT: Exactly. I tend to gravitate towards a lot of non-Washington wines for that same reason. It’s fun to drink wines from all over the world, it’s fun to turn the brain off and it’s fun to drink something beautiful.
WWWL: Speaking hypothetically, you’ve got 24 hours to live. What bottle in your wine collection do you have to open?
TROUT: Probably a Merry Edwards Pinot from the ’90s.
WWWL: What’s the best part about being a winemaker?
TROUT: Everything. The best part about being a winemaker is you get to put a roof over your head with art. There are very few artists out there who get to do that. And in addition to that, it’s so all-encompassing of your body and your senses that you’re physically exhausted and dirty and there’s so much beauty involved in all of that artistically. To boot, the fact that you can do it and make a living from it. To me, that’s crazy and I feel so fortunate to be able to do that.
WWWL: What’s the worst part of being a winemaker?
TROUT: Definitely bottling. Bottling is terrible. Once you’ve bottled you can’t tweak that wine anymore. Bottling is hard. It’s all logistics and it’s physically exhausting and not in a good way. Things can only go wrong on the bottling line. But if everything goes right with bottling, all you’ve done is hit net-neutral, you’ve accomplished everything you wanted to. But everything else that day can go wrong – maybe you didn’t order enough capsules or something went wrong with the filter. Bottling is terrible.
WWWL: Talk to me about the challenge of raising two young children while at the same time running two wineries and a tasting room.
TROUT: I think it’s really important especially as the mother of a daughter to show that hard work, ownership, strength and power are all things that can be accomplished and should be if that’s what you want to do. Not everybody should be a business owner, not everybody wants to be a business owner. That’s fine. I think it’s great that I’m able to model that for my daughter especially, but for both kids I think it’s empowering for the kids to know that they have two parents who are both high-functioning individuals. Time management is definitely the biggest challenge – sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything you were planning on doing.
WWWL: Your husband is a winemaker as well [Brian Rudin, founding winemaker at Canvasback]. How helpful is that to you?
TROUT: It can be a major blessing and a major curse at the same time. The major blessing is we’re always trading thoughts about wines, tasting notes, barrel ideas and vineyard locations. There’s all sorts of discourse between myself and Brian [Ruding, winemaker at that ends up being very, very beneficial. But the curse is that his busy season is my busy season. And that would be less of a problem if we didn’t have the kids, but we do, so the timing on that is pretty rough. The dead season is nice because we get to enjoy that downtime at the same time together and that’s nice. And it’s not just harvest. It’s also hitting the road for market travel. When distributors need us, sometimes it’s all happening at the same time too.
WWWL: What would you say are your long-term goals for your wineries?
TROUT: Over the years I’ve learned to focus more on the journey than so much on the destination. Obviously you have to have a destination in mind as far as what wines you’re going to make, how many cases you’re going to release each year and how many staff members you’re going to have. You have to have projections and that’s very important. But if all you’re ever doing is focusing on the destination, you run the real risk of not enjoying the journey along the way. Like I said, logistics don’t come naturally to me, so I don’t foresee either of these brands becoming huge wineries. To me that’s not super-fun and it’s not a fun way of winemaking either. I think both labels will stay pretty small. The goal is for all of us to enjoy the journey for as long as we can.
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