Washington Wine History Interviews: Joy Andersen, Chateau Ste. Michelle

  • By Cynthia Nims
  • Posted 8/10/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22500

Joy Andersen (b. 1957) was born in Pocatello, Idaho, where she lived for 15 years before her family moved to Snohomish. After graduating from Snohomish High School, she attended the University of Washington to study chemistry. After she got a job as a harvest technician with Chateau Ste. Michelle, she discovered winemaking as her career path. Her commitment to a "less is more" winemaking style, and deep appreciation for what it takes to make wine in a sustainable fashion, earned her accolades in the industry. She worked as a lab supervisor and winemaker at Columbia Crest, and head winemaker at Snoqualmie Vineyards, among other positions. She stayed with Ste. Michelle for 36 years, retiring in 2017. On May 5, 2022, HistoryLink’s Cynthia Nims sat down with Andersen in Prosser to talk about her career and what inspired her. 

First Taste of Winemaking

Cynthia Nims: Can you tell me about what [your first harvest technician job] entailed?

Joy Andersen: It’s usually just during harvest period, just a temporary position, and you’re a gopher for whatever is needed in the lab and in the winemaking. I did a lot of small-lot winemaking, carboy-type stuff for them, at their direction, and that’s really where I got bitten with the wine bug. Because I didn’t know anything about wine when I took that position. I just wanted a job, to be gainfully employed. That really piqued my interest, it meant the science nerd in me [could thrive] in this really fun industry. I mean, who wouldn’t like working where people are always happy to see you, they always like what you’re doing, they always want to learn about what you’re doing? It’s very, very rare that I ever experienced anybody with any kind of negativity towards the industry, so that was a draw definitely.

But just the fun and the use of what skills I had and so forth was really attractive to me. It was just a challenge, there was always something new to learn, some new technique or some new challenge that would come along that we maybe hadn’t faced before. I think of most of my career as being a lot of fun, and really great people too, just a lot of really interesting, diverse, definitely wacky sometimes. The draw was that there was always something fun to be doing.

CN: What year was that first job?

JA: It was in the fall of ‘81.

CN: You evolved from that initial position to become winemaker, can you talk about that transition from your job that fulfilled your desire to be working, and then you got the [wine] bug, and how did you become a winemaker?

JA: The first position ended, at the end of the year, I think, around the New Year, I can’t remember exactly. They said, "we’re building a new winery over in Eastern Washington and we’d like you to go over there and run the lab for us if you’re up for it." And I said, "Sure, of course I will." But the facility won’t be ready until August or September ... I worked in retail until the other position became open and I started coming over here.

Those first years, boy, it was like the Wild West, I tell you what. That first harvest in '82 at River Ridge, we were still under construction, there were no doors on the place, sand was blowing everywhere. It was kind of crazed; we had grapes coming in and we had no scale house at the winery. We had to go down the road, a mile and a half, to scale anything. So if you can imagine you’ve got grape loads coming in, you’ve got tanker trucks coming and going, so we’re running between just trying to get the grapes crushed and get the processing done, we were out on the road a bunch just trying to get some of these other things done that weren’t in place yet. It was crazy.

Andersen attended a couple of University of California Davis winemaking courses, but for the most part her winemaking training was on-the-job. She remembers that era as very interesting, with a lot of potential, "a lot of time to just test your wings, and hopefully you don’t fail too badly. It was really a pretty exciting time." She moved from being a lab supervisor to an assistant winemaker in the late 1980s. She served as the white-wine maker at Columbia Crest for a number of years, and as the head winemaker at Snoqualmie Vineyards, with some overlap in her work, focusing on different Chateau Ste. Michelle projects. She worked alongside a number of other winemakers at Chateau Ste. Michelle also doing the same.

CN: I guess that expresses the dynamism of Chateau Ste. Michelle as it was growing and evolving. A lot going on.

JA: Definitely. I remember listening to Allen Shoup talk one time in the lobby at Columbia Crest. We hadn’t been there real long, we had a company meeting and I remember him saying "we’re going to take this brand to 350,000 cases." And I remember saying to whoever was sitting next to me, "Wow, what is he smokin' today?" Because there was no concept, in my mind anyway, that we would be ... well, 350,000 cases sounded like a lot. But now, see where they are. It’s sort of silly, I didn’t certainly have that kind of vision, but it’s a good thing other people did.

A Sustainable Approach

CN: Can you talk a bit about your winemaking approach or philosophy. You did on-the-job training, so you probably didn’t have one going in necessarily, but can you talk about what you learned at first and how that philosophy and approach evolved over your career.

JA: I always remember my mother saying "keep it simple, stupid," and that was sort of always my approach in the winemaking, too. The less inputs, the less toying with what have you, the better. There are economic reasons to do that. Also I just think Mother Nature has it right and if we try to go in and do too much, we’re not improving what kind of happens naturally. And so I think that has always been the basis of what I think brings about quality in some of the products that I worked with.

If there’s something there, if there’s a tool or some kind of input that’s going to give you some real bang for your buck in improving the taste or the smell or something, that’s one thing. But so many times we’re doing things that really don’t matter and we’re spending resources to do it. I was always just more "less is better" from the get-go and that really did kind of feed into that whole organic and definitely the sustainable [approach] as well. So that whole movement was very natural for me.

CN: And that just sort of persisted through your career, to try to keep it as simple as possible?

JA: Yes, I think definitely. You want quality inputs that really do something. I’m just a farm kid, I don’t have a lot of time. If I can do it with baling wire and duct tape and it’s as good as or better [than other options], I will do that. I think what it comes down to is just really letting the whole process of what Mother Nature can give you, and augmenting that versus trying to overrun it, it’s really key.

Happy Behind the Scenes

CN: So if I’ve done my math correctly, it was about 36 or so years that you were with Chateau Ste. Michelle? And did you ever have the dream, inkling, desire to leave and have your own winery or start your own vineyard?

JA: [laughs] No, never. Don’t ask me why, but it just really was never any part of my brain to want to do that. To have something that was "me" or "mine." And I really think just in my whole career, too, I just loved being part of all these projects and different things and having influence on it. I did not love being spotlighted for any reason, I did not care for any of the marketing that I had to do. I enjoy people and I enjoy talking with them, but I don’t seek out situations where I’m in the forefront. I’d much rather be the person behind the scenes that’s making things happen. That’s more of a joy for me than any of the other ... I think I shied away from anything that would that would be my own.

Reflecting on the Highlights

CN: I think you’ve touch on these things already but can you confirm for me, in these 36 years, what kept you engaged and inspired and really driven and in love with that work.

JA: A lot of that was the people. Bottom line, you got to love the people you work with if you’re going to go in there every day. And the work. It was always this great puzzle for me. I really enjoyed being able to see what the job at hand was and have to determine how to make that happen. Okay, so you want to grow to 350,000, you want to grow to a million, how do we make that happen and what do I have to put in place to make that happen. And then get the staffing and the structure in place to carry it out and do it well. There was always some challenge every year, if there wasn’t something new that we were challenged with, then it would be a problem that we’d be challenged with. It just kept my interest, and I enjoyed almost everything about it through those 36 years.

CN: Were there any particular products or moments or experiences that just really stand out for you as highlights of your career?

JA: ... One of the things that I was very happy to see happen and be part of was the Winerywise group. We put together a sustainability program for wineries with the Wine Institute, they found funding for us. A lot of different folks in the industry came together, I hope people are still using it. It was challenging but it was also rewarding to see that come to fruition and actually be put out. It was made available to people to help, whatever their needs were. It was really set up to be a resource, so they could discover other resources. It wasn’t per se a "how-to" as much as it was, "here’s where you can find the information and here’s examples of what’s been done in the past and how you might become more sustainable for your particular circumstances."

Andersen retired from Chateau Ste. Michelle in June 2017. One of her sons works as a viticulturalist in Oregon, and his wife works in the wine industry there as well. Which allows her, in retirement, to still engage in the wine world vicariously.

CN: So it’s a family legacy now.

JA: Yeah. They’re working hard, staying in it.

CN: That’s great. Now you can be an observer and a sipper and a supporter.

JA: There you go. It’s a good place to be, definitely.

Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of Joy Andersen by Cynthia Nims.

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