Simon, Kay (b. 1953) and Clay Mackey (b. 1949)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 6/30/2020
  • Essay 21042

The dynamic married team of Kay Simon and Clay Mackey founded Chinook Wines in the Yakima Valley. Both grew up in California, Simon on a small farm where her father made a bit of wine, and Mackey on a farm with vineyards in Napa Valley. They studied in the 1970s at the nation's leading viticulture (grape growing) and enology (winemaking) school, the University of California at Davis, and then began careers at wineries in California. Simon and Mackey would meet later, when both worked at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington. Simon joined as a winemaker in 1977 -- one of the first women in the state's wine industry -- and Mackey came aboard in 1979 as a vineyard operations manager. The couple made their first wines together in 1983, married in 1984, and bought a farm in Prosser, where they opened Chinook to tourists in 1985. The decades since have brought numerous accolades for their wines, and Simon and Mackey are fondly recognized within the industry as pioneers and leaders.

A 'Pretty Idyllic' Childhood

Kay Simon was born on May 11, 1953, in Greenbrae, California. Her parents, L. Jay and Mary Louise Simon, raised Kay and her siblings, Philip and Alice, in the town of Corte Madera. Her father had worked in the metals trade for the Gearhardt Company, and also as a mechanic for Greyhound. He eventually founded a partnership, the Foster & Simon construction company, while also running a small family farm.

"It was rural," Kay Simon recalled, "in the middle of a growing development. It was five acres originally and then when my dad's sister passed away he bought her part. We were not early sustainability people, but there was always a cow in the pasture that became hamburger, or sheep, and we had chickens, and the garden that was producing stuff. We had a milk cow. So, mom made butter. Or ice cream. It was pretty idyllic. And, as people did then, dinner was scratch home cooking" (Simon, 2016). Simon also enjoyed the childhood experience of stomping grapes for her father's annual batch of homemade wine. She attended schools in Corte Madera, and then Redwood High School in Larkspur, California, where she graduated in 1971.

"My parents didn't drink fancy wines, but they did drink wine with dinner every night," Simon recalled. "So I had an interest in foods and wine -- my dad made his own homemade wine -- so I was exposed to that in my childhood, but as I got into high school, I probably became more interested in cooking and foods. And then as a senior in high school I took a job with a county nutritionist and worked with her in what they now call 'WIC' -- Women Infants and Children. I worked in that program. Volunteering. And then thought, 'Well, that's what I want to do: become a nutritionist'" (Simon interview with author). 

At that point only two schools in the University of California system offered nutrition studies. One was the University of California at Davis. The other was the University of California, Berkeley, which had become a hotbed of radical agitation. Given that choice, Simon laughs, "My mother said, 'No freshman daughter of mine is going to Berkeley.' So, I went to Davis" (Simon interview). 

Inspired by her grandfather Francois Gilfillan, who spoke German and served as the Dean of Science at Oregon State University, Simon entered UC Davis in 1971 with plans for a double major: nutrition and German. She studied in Germany from August 1974 through August 1975, a visit that sparked an appreciation for brewing beer. Upon her return to Davis, one of her professors "pointed out to me that there was a fermentation science major, so I switched" (Simon interview). The enology program at UC Davis had just three women enrolled, so Simon was a pioneer of sorts. She completed her fermentation science studies and graduated in 1976.

Into the Wine World

The American wine industry was on the cusp of a major qualitative advance in the mid 1970s, and Simon easily entered the business, first as a cellar supervisor and lab technician for a giant outfit, United Vintners, in the San Joaquin Valley. In time she interviewed for an assisant winemaker position at Robert Mondavi's legendary winery in the Napa Valley. Mondavi winemaker Zelma Long conducted the interview and she wanted to hire Simon, but that was not to be: Simon later learned that Robert Mondavi himself rejected the idea of having two women as his winemakers.

As the summer of 1976 unfolded, Simon made plans to visit the Seattle area for her brother's graduation from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. The big excitement locally was that a fancy new winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM), had just opened a French castle-style facility and expansive estate grounds in Woodinville, 15 miles northeast of Seattle. Simon made her way out and took a public tour of the winery. During the tour she asked a few salient questions -- inquiries that revealed her keen knowledge. The tour guide suggested she might like to meet the winery's principal winemaker, Joel Klein. "There was a little bit of a surprise," Simon later chuckled. "When I met Joel Klein he said that he had already heard my name. What was happening was, at the time, his former classmate from UC Davis, Zelma Long, had her short-list of assistant winemakers that she had interviewed, and I was on that list. So, she had told Joel -- who was also seeking an assistant winemaker -- my name" (Simon interview). Small world.

Simon retuned to her job at United Vintners, but was soon invited to return to Ste. Michelle for a formal job interview conducted by Klein and his boss, Victor "Vic" Allison, one of the winery's founding members. Simon impressed the men with her knowledge and was offered the job, and in September 1977, she packed up and moved north, renting an apartment between Bellevue and Issaquah, and began commuting to Woodinville. On just her third day working there, Ste. Michelle was rocked when Allison died suddenly of a heart attack.

Among the initial tasks Simon and Klein did together was teach CSM's executives the proper terminology for use in wine tasting and analysis. Said Simon in 2016: "The Woodinville-based executives had by and large not been in the wine business prior -- they were business guys. So that was interesting. And then, there was lots of responsibility given to young people, many of us who had come up from California with the technical degrees that they were lacking and weren't yet offered in Washington state. See, we were given, in our early-to-mid 20s, a lot of leeway. A lot of responsibility. So that made it, in many ways, a lot of fun and exciting ... but it was also a little daunting [laughter]. It was really a fun time to be employed by them. Because they had all this backing money. You know: 'You want a new press? Go buy one.' You know, 'You need a hundred new barrels? Go buy them.' There was plenty of cash floating around. So that made it kind of exciting!" (Simon, 2016).

It was, indeed, quite exciting. The Ste. Michelle team was working to launch a new brand, from a new state-of-the-art facility, in a region that had been producing wine for decades -- but not premium wines. The bulk of Washington-grown grapes, mainly Concord and Riesling, had been used for sweet juices and fruity wines. Ste. Michelle's arrival was set to revolutionize the marketplace with premium dry table wines made from traditional French varietals including, among others, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay.

As the fall of 1977 approached, the Ste. Michelle team readied for the harvest. Then, and for some years hence, the grapes were picked at the vineyards in Eastern Washington and hauled by the truckload to Woodinville, where the crushing and pressing was done. Later, the crushing and pressing was done in Eastern Washington, with fermentation taking place at the winery.

After the '77 work was completed, and Simon had proved her worth, she was transferred to Ste. Michelle's renovated facility in Grandview, where she was named red wine maker. In 1978 she oversaw the production of the first wines from their new Cold Creek vineyard. But the following winter was brutally cold, freezing and killing the vines at Cold Creek. This required a complete replanting in the months ahead, so Simon was recalled to Woodinville for the following year or so, contributing to the production of some of Ste. Michelle's first sparkling wines. Meanwhile, CSM's latest expansion -- construction of the River Ridge winery outside of Paterson, and the planting of new vineyards there -- was ready to gear up. In 1981 Simon was sent there to serve as the first winemaker, working alongside Joy Andersen, who ran the lab and later became a fine winemaker herself. In 1983 River Ridge was recast as Columbia Crest winery. It became one of the largest and most successful wineries in the state.

A Viticulturist Calls

In 1979 Simon met up with Chateau Ste. Michelle's newly hired vineyard manager, Clay Mackey. Mackey was born to U.S. Navy officer Wendell Mackey and his wife Margery in a Navy hospital at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on February 5, 1949. As a military family -- which included siblings Martha, Malcolm, and Peter -- the Mackeys moved around a lot, being stationed in such places as Monterey and Coronado, California; in military housing in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle; and in Rhode Island and Washington D.C. The family returned to Honolulu when Clay was in the fourth grade. He attended Punahou School from the fifth through the ninth grade, and later a boarding school, the Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1967.

Mackey's father retired as a Naval Captain in 1966, obtained his teaching credential, moved to California, and bought a 50-acre farm that included 30 acres planted to old-school grape varieties including Zinfandel, Carignane, and Green Hungarian. Suddenly Clay Mackey's parents were in the grape-growing business, and they easily fell into a wine-tasting social circle that included folks who would be major players in the California wine world: Louis P. Martini (whose father had founded the Louis M. Martini Winery in St. Helena in 1933), and Joe and Alice Heitz (who had produced Napa Valley's first vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 1950s, and whose Heitz Cellars Winery was formally established in 1961).

After graduating from high school, Mackey enrolled in 1967 at the University of California, Berkeley, with the intent of studying law. After dropping out in early 1969, he was invited by a fraternity brother to move to Clovis and work at his family's farm, and with no other immediate plans, Mackey agreed. "Although I didn't quite understand what he was talking about, I said 'Sure.' So, I worked as a tractor driver. And, they had grapes but I was mostly working with citrus, cattle, and they had a big hay operation. But, the industry just attracted me; the more I found out about it ... mechanical stuff always kind of fascinated me. And, you know, being outside. This was, again, a huge farming operation: I'd basically be out in the middle of nowhere operating a piece of equipment all day long and hardly see anybody else. But that didn't bother me because I was outside and doing something that was of interest" (Mackey interview with author).

From there Mackey took a summer job working in the vineyards (and a bit in the cellar) at Heitz. In 1970, Louis P. Martini took an interest in Mackey's career quest and spent a couple of days showing him around the Martini vineyards and the wine production facilities. Martini also took Mackey to the campus at UC Davis, introduced him to professors of enology and viticulture, and basically advised Mackey that if he truly wanted to enter the wine business, he needed to get serious about it. And Mackey did. He enrolled at Napa Community College, raised his grade-point average, and then transferred to UC Davis, where he furthered his studies for a year and a half.

In 1972 another of Mackey's parents' friends, Bill Jaeger, offered Clay a summer job at his Curtis Ranches vineyards in California. A couple of months in, the vineyard manager quit and Mackey got the job. "I'm basically one of those people who literally owe my career path to the luck of having some people show some interest," Mackey said (Mackey interview). Jaeger also was a partner in famed wineries Freemark Abbey and Rutherford, and Mackey had the opportunity to observe their inner workings.

In 1979 a team from Washington's new winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, came down to tour the operation at Curtis, wich had been an early adopter of a new mechanical means of harvesting grapes for fine wine, rather than using traditional manual labor. There were plenty of doubters in the wine business, but Macky impressed the Ste. Michelle people -- they soon hired him as manager of their new 2,000-acre River Ridge Winery's vineyard overlooking the Columbia River in Paterson. Thus, in October 1979 Mackey moved north, bought a home in Prosser, and began work at River Ridge. 

Kay Meets Clay

Simon and Mackey eventually crossed paths at a Chateau Ste. Michelle meeting in Woodinville. The two had plenty in common, and soon took a liking to each other. Fate intervened one day when an airline flight they were both booked on was cancelled, and they opted to have what amounted to their first date: dinner at the Pasco airport diner. 

Long story short: The couple worked hard and made connections with movers and shakers in the now-simmering Washington wine industry. They befriended many of the farmers and vineyard owners, field workers, winery founders, and commercial distributor representatives. It was thus a natural development for Simon and Mackey to begin dreaming of operating their own winery. Within five years of meeting, they did exactly that. Mackey boldly left his job at Ste. Michelle in April 1982 and began consulting on vineyard management. Simon followed, offering consulting services to wineries. 

In the fall of 1983, before they even had a winery, Simon and Mackey purchased a quantity of Sauvignon Blanc grapes from CSM's Vineyard No. 4, and some Chardonnay grapes from the Carter Family Vineyard. Arrangements were made via CSM's manager of grower relations, Stan Clarke, to crush and press the fruit at the Quail Run Winery in Zillah, where Clarke was a partner and where Simon and Mackey could store a couple of fermentation tanks.

The summer of 1984 brought two significant events: the release of Simon and Mackey's first wines, and their marriage. Unlike many American wineries that market with labels boasting their family's name, they chose a different route. "We wanted to be recognized for producing good wines," Mackey recalled, "not to see our own names on the bottle" (Holden, 47). Hence, they conjured the name "Chinook," a Native term referring to a warm southwesterly wind. The business was officially launched.

Chinook Wines made its public debut on August 16, 1984, in Seattle at the La Galleria di Umberto restaurant in Pioneer Square. Two days later Simon and Mackey had their wedding, and the reception featured a sparkling Riesling that was one of the Northwest's first true methode champenoise wines. In November, the wine was made available for sale. For the 1984 harvest, the couple again made their wines at Quail Run. The year was significant: Government authorities approved the establishment of Yakima Valley as an American Viticultural Area -- Washington's first AVA -- and the state approved the application for Chinook to become a fully bonded winery beginning with the 1985 harvest.

From Dreaming to Doing

Simon and Mackey now had their hands full. They had scouted out and bought an old farm just outside of Prosser and began the hard work of converting an old farmhouse and outbuildings into a winery. "We wanted to do something that was entirely our own," Mackey said. "At Chinook, we do everything from renovating the winery building to winemaking and marketing" (Meredith, p. 139). While Simon led the winemaking, Mackey managed their business, interacting with Chinook's Yakima valley growers, including Boushey (near Grandview), Lonesome Spring Vineyard, and Oasis Farms (both northwest of Benton City).

Chinook began welcoming visitors to its tasting room in 1985. The room had been the living room of the little white farmhouse, and the kitchen served as Simon's lab. Outside, a path, shaded by an arbor of gnarly legacy vines of old Concord and Black Monukka grapes, leads to a wine storage room and beyond that, the winery itself: an old red barn that by 1988 (with the help of Simon's father and brother) was fully readied to handle the crush and fermentation tanks.

Thus began decades of consistently positive acclaim for Chinook wines. As early as 1986 Northwest food and wine critics praised Chinook for its "consistently sound, sometimes brilliant wines" (Holden, p. 48). In 1988 Chinook was described as "one of the Valley's premier boutique wineries" (Hill, p. 112). In 2007, Paul Gregutt of The Seattle Times wrote, "Chinook wines are technically exact and infallibly consistent. They are the classic expression of Yakima Valley fruit" (Gregutt, p. 152).

Chinook has consistently wowed critics and consumers, and each vintage typically brings fresh new examples of white wines (Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay), reds (Cabernet Franc and blends), and a quick-selling favorite, the Cabernet Franc Rosé. Today (2020), visitors are encouraged to picnic on the lawn area, which is further shaded by an old oak tree and cherry orchard, and is adjacent to a Cabernet Franc vineyard. Chinook has won fans for its Cabernet Franc, just as it has for its splendid Merlots, and for the dry rosé, which has won a cult-like following.

Chinook's Legacy

Simon and Mackey achieved their initial dream and much more. Said Simon in 2020, "(I'm) proud of what Clay and I accomplished here. We basically had no money. We had an idea" (Simon interview). Chinook wines have remained favorites at numerous top restaurants, and both Simon and Mackey have served as consultants for numerous wineries and/or vineyards lacking fulltime enologists or viticulturists. Their professional profile has grown accordingly, and "their widespread influence and expertise has made its mark on the Washington wine industry" (Meredith, p. 161).

In 1985 Simon was elected to the Board of the Washington Wine Institute, and in 1999 she and Mackey served on a committee of winemakers that established standards for the Washington Wine Quality Alliance. Mackey also served on the Washington Wine Commission for six years. And in 2008, at the annual Auction of Washington Wines gala, Simon received a Lifetime Achievement award for her contributions to the industry.

One project Chinook first embraced in 2013 was annually producing, in partnership with the PCC consumer co-op, two wines for a fundraising effort called "Long Live The Kings." For every bottle of Chinook's Yakima Valley White or Yakima Valley Red sold, $2 was donated to restoring and protecting habitat for wild salmon and steelhead. Yet, it is Kay Simon and Clay Mackey who remain grateful: In a November 2016 interview Simon said, "We are lucky to be part of this industry. We are lucky that the Washington wine industry exists. So, I feel fortunate for that fact."


Kay Simon telephone interview with Peter Blecha, November 13, 2016, recordings in author's possession; Kay Simon telephone interview with Peter Blecha, April 19, 2020, recordings in author's possession; Clay Mackey telephone interview with Peter Blecha, April 19, 2020, recordings in author's possession; Ronald and Glenda Holden, Touring the Wine Country of Washington (Seattle: Holden Pacific, Inc., 1983) 141; Ronald and Glenda Holden, Northwest Wine Country (Seattle: Holden Pacific, Inc., 1986) 47-48; Chuck Hill, The Northwest Winery Guide (Seattle: Speed Graphics, 1988) 112-113; Ted Jordan Meredith, The Wines & Wineries of America's Northwest (Kirkland: Nexus Press, 1986) 139-140; Ted Jordan Meredith, Northwest Wine (Kirkland: Nexus Press, 1990) 161-162; Ronald Irvine with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project (Vashon: Sketch Publications, 1997) 365; Paul Gregutt, Washington Wines & Wineries -- The Essential Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) 20, 39, 85, 90, 152-153.

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