“If it takes 10,000 hours of repetition to become an expert, it’s important to start early and to know your place,” says Kerry Shiels, winemaker for Côte Bonneville in Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Taking her own advice to heart, Shiels began making wine in the seventh grade as part of a science experiment. Throughout her junior and senior high years, she continued to find opportunities to showcase the chemistry and microbiology behind winemaking. As a result of her own foray into an initial, more “professional” first career, today she is a huge proponent of early education in wine.
Upon high school graduation, the wine industry wasn’t seen as a career path so she majored in engineering, worked a couple years in Italy for the Fiat Corporation and was transferred to Chicago to focus on prototypes for tractors. Throughout her engineering career with Fiat, she spent considerable time on test tracks and on the floor, all the while preferring the brief, hands-on experiences to the considerable amount of time spent behind a computer focused on spread sheets. Finally, she was sent on one-too-many winter trips to Fargo, North Dakota, and decided she wanted to return to Sunnyside, Washington — where it was warm and grapes thrived.
“We were really developing something new [at Fiat], and that was neat and that’s what’s cool about wine,” Shiels explains. “You’re developing something and making something and that’s very tangible.”
Soon after, she pursued her master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology at U.C. Davis and gained extensive experience in Napa Valley, Argentina and Australia before returning to the family vineyard in 2009.
“My mom likes to say [owning a winery] is a very long process,” Shiel says, referencing the family’s estate property, DuBrul Vineyard, planted by her parents, Hugh and Kathy Shiels, in 1992. “First you have to birth the winemaker, plant the vineyard, grow the grapes [and] start the winery. The fact that I get to be involved in all aspects of that process is really cool.”
“Go big or go home” is Shiels motto. She isolated resveratrol about the time it was being touted as the French Paradox and truly exceptional, world-class wine is her aim every time. DuBrul Vineyard was one of the first Washington wineries to become vineyard designated. Sense of place is something that Shiels is proud to represent and advocate for.
Her intimate knowledge of what the ground brings forth year in and year out is a nod to the great vineyards of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne. She references the Antinori’s 26-generation lineage (of Chianti fame) when speaking of training younger talent and is excited that Washington State passed a “sip and spit” law in 2013 so that college-aged students (most of whom are under 21) can pursue a viable first career in wine.
There can be ego in the wine world but Shiels notes that when wine is a family business, it becomes more about the next generation, building the land and the way one winery can affect a community. Today, Côte Bonneville wine is poured out of a circa-1911 train station that was formerly her father’s orthopedic practice.
“Putting the winery in Sunnyside helps my friend around the corner who owns a restaurant, my friend down the street who owns a bed and breakfast [and] my friend who has a small boutique and it’s really a cool thing for the community,” Shiels says.
Her approach to focusing on own-grafted blends based on soil profile instead of grape varietals is a unique perspective that showcases sense of place in a very Burgundian way. As she likes to say, if you have the right site and employ traditional, classic winemaking methods, the result is a really amazing wine.