Kay Simon (b. 1953) and Clay Mackey (b. 1949) grew up on farms in California and studied at the University of California at Davis, but it wasn't until both were employed by Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington that they met and later married. Simon joined Ste. Michelle 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. After they married in 1984, the couple acquired a farm in Prosser, built Chinook Winery, and began hosting tourists in 1985. In this November 10, 2021 interview with HistoryLink's Jim Kershner, Simon and Mackey talk about their agricultural roots in California, the early days of Chinook, and the challenges of running a winery during the pandemic.
Jim Kershner: Kay, I'd like to start with you right from the beginning. Tell me about your early days. Where are you from? A little bit about your upbringing ...
Kay Simon: Well, I was raised in Marin County, California at the town of Corte Madera. And my family had, oddly enough in the middle of suburbia, a small family farm, about five acres. So we had a cow and chickens and garden, and my folks were, they liked to cook and eat good food, and my father at one point made wine with friends. One of his buddies had a vineyard down in the San Joaquin Valley and they would bring grapes up. And so our barn became a fermentation cellar one year when I was about 10, I think. So I have a photo somewhere of a 10-year-old case, stomping grapes, my first foray.
Simon hoped to pursue a career in nutrition at the University of California at Davis, but after a year abroad in Germany, she returned to Davis with a newfound interest in beer and wine and changed her major to fermentation science, graduating in 1976. Her first job offer came from a winery in the San Joaquin Valley and her career was launched. Simon soon found a golden opportunity in Washington when Chateau Ste. Michelle hired her as assistant winemaker in 1977.
JK: Tell me how that job came about.
KS: That job came about because I was visiting Washington state, where my older brother was getting his degree from University of Puget Sound, and came up for his graduation. I had been made aware by another friend in the food industry. He purchased vegetables, peas, and carrots for Campbell Soup Company, and in fact he ended his career with them and he was a tomato specialist. But anyway, he would bring me wine from Chateau Ste. Michelle. The Riesling, it was really good. And so when I came up for this graduation, I said, 'Oh, I need to tour that winery.' And so I went out and toured. I asked the tour guide a question about the centrifuge that was in the middle of the cellar. And he said, 'Oh, are you in the industry?' I said, 'Yes, I am.'
JK: Yeah. And you figured out that you knew a little bit more about it than the other tourists?
KS: Something like that. And so he said, 'Oh, you must meet our wine master.' And so he called the winemaker downstairs and he looked at me and he said, 'Oh, I'm looking for an assistant winemaker.' And he actually had heard my name from a fellow winemaker in California. I ended up coming back for a formal interview and got the job.
Simon stayed at Ste. Michelle for seven years and became the first winemaker at what is now known as Columbia Crest.
JK: Clay, now it's your turn. Tell me about your early years.
Clay Mackey: Well, I grew up in a military family. My dad was in the Navy. I was born in Hawaii. Went back to Hawaii when I was in the fourth grade and stayed through my freshman year, and went to the D.C. area. So we moved around quite a bit as a kid, but both of my parents were from California, and when my dad retired, my parents bought a piece of property in the Napa Valley that had grapes on it.
JK: Did they buy it because it had grapes on it?
CM: Yes and no. They had friends who lived in the area and had visited the area and liked it. My dad turned out not to be a farmer ... it was not his forte. But that is how I became associated with the whole concept of a wine industry and agriculture.
Mackey's family had wine with dinner most nights, and occasionally the children got to sample it, but the wine business was far from his mind. He enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967, with no concrete vision for his future.
JK: So what ended up happening?
CM: Well I didn't thrive ... I reached a point where I was clear I needed to figure out what I was going to do and get myself motivated to do something. So I left after not quite two years and ended up going with a friend of mine who had a similar outcome, to work with his family on their pretty large agricultural operation in the Fresno area, in the San Joaquin Valley, and spent six or eight months doing everything that needed to be done on this agricultural operation, from driving tractors, to cutting hay, to all kinds of things.
JK: And you enjoyed that?
CM: I did. Yeah. I was drawn to the agricultural lifestyle. It certainly was attractive to me and ... through a kind of an interesting set of circumstances, my parents were good friends with some of the winemaking people in the Napa Valley. Among them, Louis Martini, from the Louis Martini winery. He was second generation; it was his father who'd started the winery. They were good friends with him. They were good friends with Joe Heitz, from Heitz Cellars. And so I got a summer job after I came back from being in Fresno. I got a summer job at Heitz Cellars doing a little bit of everything -- working in the vineyard, working in the winery [and] further was attracted to the business.
Moving to Washington
Mackey hired on as a Napa Valley vineyard assistant in 1972, charged with helping manage 300 acres spread across they valley. Meanwhile, family friend Louis Martini showed Mackey around his winery operation, and then took Mackey to Cal-Davis to introduce him to people in the viticulture program. Martini's guidance was a turning point.
JK: So what was your first job offer?
CM: I was assistant to the vineyard manager at that 300-acre vineyard, and within a few months of my being hired, he went on to another opportunity and I took over his role and I managed the vineyard from 1972. It might have been actually early '73, I don't remember, until 1979 when I moved to Washington.
JK: So how did that evolve when you were at that vineyard. How did the Washington work come up?
CM: A group of people from Chateau Ste. Michelle were touring vineyards in Napa looking at viticultural practices and talking to people about their experience with mechanical grape harvesting and all kinds of things. I had already come to the conclusion that it was time for me to move on. I liked the guy that I worked for a lot; he was really good to me, gave me a lot of responsibility at a young age and showed confidence in me. But he had four kids and I could see that even though they might not take an active role in the business, that if I ever wanted to own something of my own, that it probably wasn't going to happen in Napa because it was pretty expensive. And so I just casually mentioned to the guy who was leading up the tour of the people from Chateau Ste. Michelle, 'Is there anything I might be interested in up in Washington?' I don't remember the exact timeframe, but a couple months later he called me back and said, 'Are you interested in coming up for an interview?
JK: Did you think at the time that Washington was sort of a up and coming region?
CM: Well, I saw that it was a kind of a pioneering opportunity. Which, intrigued me. I saw that the definition of what a Washington wine should be hadn't been declared. And so you could kind of do what you wanted to do and, and take chances and be creative. That was all very appealing to me.
Mackey and Simon met after he was hired in 1979 and moved to Prosser to operate Chateau Ste. Michelle's vineyard operation at Patterson. He worked at Ste. Michelle until 1982 and then took a hiatus to help a cousin in the cattle business in California. Simon came to visit and encouraged him to return to Washington and continue his wine career. While Simon continued to work for Ste. Michelle, the couple worked on a business plan for their own winery. They made their first wines in temporary quarters at Quail Run Winery in Zillah. They called their new winery Chinook.
JK: So tell me about the name. How did you come up with it?
CM: From my perspective, the impetus was to, instead of picking a name that identifies with being French or Italian or something that we were not, to pick a name that identified with being from this region. And for us, the name says the Northwest and it has associations with people throughout the Northwest. Some people might think of the salmon. Some people might think of the winds. Some people might think of the Native community down on the mouth of the Columbia. Chinook Pass. So it just kind of said, 'This is where we are.'
They started with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. In Year 2 they made some Merlot.
JK: What were your early successes? The things that put Chinook on the map?
KS: Well, the fact that there weren't very many wineries to start with. And so the Seattle restaurant and wine community was eager to embrace a new winery. Yeah. And as people sometimes critique Davis for being too academic ... my answer to people that say that is, 'They didn't teach us how to make bad wine.' So we sort of knew our industry and we knew our jobs. We're both production people. And so we knew what we were doing with the very first wine and were able to make a commercially acceptable, good-quality wine.
Simon and Mackey acquired property in Prosser in 1985 and built their winery. They have less than two acres of vines on site and procure the rest of their grapes from other vineyards. Cabernet Franc has been emphasized as their red varietal, and they make a dry Rose from Cabernet Franc. The COVID-19 pandemic put a dent in their business.
JK: I know [Cabernet Franc] is used in a lot of blends. Do you do a blend too?
KS: We do. We have a couple of sort of side projects, well, not side projects, but we have a partnership with PCC Community Markets that are around the Puget Sound. It's Puget Consumers Co-op. And so we do a project with them, which benefits $2 of every bottle benefits Long Live the Kings, which is a salmon recovery organization, also based in Seattle. And so with that project, we do a blend ... Right now it's roughly half Grenache and half Cab Franc. It's a nice blend. It's a lighter sort of style red. So that's one project. We also have put Cabernet Franc into a special blend we do for Tom Douglas, who's a chef, restaurateur in Seattle. And Tom opened a restaurant called Lola 10 years ago ... It's in the Hotel Andra downtown. It's just been reopened. And so we're doing blends with Tom as well. So we do put it into blends, but not a blend that we sell with our label on it.
JK: Now you mentioned the COVID situation. Tell me how that's worked out.
KS: Just, it gave us a wallop.
JK: You closed your tasting room.
CM: We did.
KS: We closed the tasting room.
CM: We had kind of designed our business plan on the fact that we were going to represent ourselves in the market, act as our own distributor, essentially. And we had done that since we sold our first bottle of wine in 1984. We had been in the market and represented ourselves, and over the course of those many years, we had become friends with our customers. We had developed a pretty good portion of our wholesale business was at restaurants. I will not ever forget being in one of those restaurants on Friday, March 6th of 2020, and talking with the manager of the restaurant at how empty downtown Seattle was already.
JK: Even before?
CM: Even before any of the official proclamations, people had already started to pull their horns in, in terms of their activities. And the manager said, 'I don't know how long we can stay open under these circumstances.' And within a week, Tom Douglas had gone from 800 employees and I can't even remember how many venues to like 15 employees and shut all of the restaurants down. Well, that was half of our business was restaurant business. And it wasn't just him. Kevin Davis had four restaurants in downtown Seattle. He closed all four of them and will probably never reopen them. And so not only was it a challenge for our business, but it was a challenge emotionally, because these were our friends.
KS: Yeah. Are our friends.
JK: Well, so I was going to ask what the future of Chinook Wines is?
CM: It remains to be seen. Neither one of us wanted to walk away from what we've been doing for all these years. But there are obvious limitations physically as to of how long we can keep the pace up. But we're fortunate in that we don't owe any money to anybody and we don't have any investors to answer to, so we can gear the operation to what suits our needs.
Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of Kay Simon and Clay Mackey by Peter Blecha.