Madeline Dow: A Winery's Best Friend, Sitka & Spruce's Worst Nightmare

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Thumbnail image for maddy3.jpg
Photo by Laura Marchbanks
Madeline Dow has a pretty cool job--if you like wine and food. She's the marketing director for the Washington Wine Commission,

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Madeline Dow: A Winery's Best Friend, Sitka & Spruce's Worst Nightmare

  • Madeline Dow: A Winery's Best Friend, Sitka & Spruce's Worst Nightmare

  • ">

    Thumbnail image for maddy3.jpg
    Photo by Laura Marchbanks
    Madeline Dow has a pretty cool job--if you like wine and food. She's the marketing director for the Washington Wine Commission, which basically means she's in charge of promoting our state's wine locally, nationally, and internationally. Considering she wasn't a wine drinker when she graduated from Chapman College in 2004, she's come a long way. The first one to call nepotism on her current career status, Dow credits her father, Peter Dow, for getting her into the restaurant and wine industry. Peter is the owner of Cavatappi winery. He also owned Cafe Juanita for 25 years before selling it to Holly Smith more than a decade ago.

    But don't go thinking Maddy's job entitles her to be drunk 'round-the-clock: She needs to be sober enough to play tug-of-war with so-called farm-to-table restaurants that refuse to put local wines on their menu. And Dow's not afraid to name names. In this week's Grillaxin, Madeline Dow sits down with me over a couple of beers at one of her favorite restaurants, Lecosho, across the street from the WWC, to talk about her deep restaurant roots, her favorite wines, and the best meal she's had in Seattle in just about forever. Did I mention everyone in Seattle associated with food and wine knows this woman? After this quick, salty read, you will too.

    SW: How did you get involved with the WWC?

    Dow: I worked for a marketing company that did promotional events. For example, the Orange County Register was one of their big clients and they were launching a magazine called SqueezeOC, and so we did a big launch party for them and all that. But I really started understanding the event and marketing world when I started making those connections. It's like, "OK, this woman is the go-to person for tents" or "This is the best place to rent Riedel glasses," and I thought, "I am building all of these relationships down here, but I don't want to stay down here. I want to have these connections up in Seattle." So, and this is a little bit of side nepotism, my father, Peter, was actually on the board of the Commission and was very familiar with kind of what I wanted to do in terms of--my degree was in advertising and PR--and I just kind of had this pipe dream of a cement-floors-and-exposed-pipe type of firm, and he was like, "You know, just for shits and giggles, you should go see the Commission when you move back here." I moved back in 2005 and he told me that the Commission was all about marketing, and my response was, "I don't want to get into wine!" It was the last thing I wanted to do.

    Did you at least like drinking wine?

    I liked drinking wine. I liked learning about different regions of wine because I wasn't really trying to prove anything by gaining that information. I would recognize

    labels. I really enjoy recognizing great packaging. And my dad actually really infused that in both my sister and me. In college, and even in high school, if I had a couple of friends over he would put a bottle of wine on the table and ask, "What do you guys think of this? Would you pick it off a shelf?" He was so passionate about why people picked [wine] the way they did and he puts - and still does - a lot of faith in this new generation of wine drinkers. He gets it. He's like, "You guys are the ones who are going to be buying all of our inventory in the next 10, 15 years so I want to see what makes you tick." So I was always really fascinated by great packaging, great marketing materials and I would seek that out in college, but I really had no drive to get into the wine or restaurant industry. Sure enough, I met with the Commission and totally fell in love.

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    Photo by Laura Marchbanks
    Which wineries do you think do a great job of marketing?

    I think Wines of Substance out of Walla Walla is smart, intelligent packaging. They've mocked up their own periodic table of elements with 100% varietals. It's great because what they're able to do is educate the consumer by showcasing one single varietal, like 100% Merlot. You can taste the difference. I think in Washington, we strive and we do great blends, but it's hard for some consumers to really kind of figure that out. The Substance packaging I think is slick, it's clean, it's one of the strongest packages out there and they do a really great job. I would also say Milbrandt Vineyards. If you've ever grabbed a bottle of Milbrandt - it's my favorite thing to show people - the back label has a perforated tab that you can peel off and it has the name of the wine and where it comes from, tasting notes and something to try with the wine. So, if you're at a tasting and you don't want to be the awkward photographer snapping photos of the wine bottles, you literally can grab the bottle and peel off the label. I think it's one of the most effective things that they've done.

    What's the most important thing to you when you see a label?

    My biggest soap box is having the word Washington on the front label. That's all I care about. I have research coming out of my ears on how people think Columbia Valley is outside of Panama! We obviously want to build our local market share and we do have a strong awareness of those AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) here locally, but we have so much data regarding people who have purchased a bottle of Columbia Crest or Hedges and they have no idea it's from Washington. We have firms that will call them up and ask, "Have you ever bought a bottle of Washington wine?" And they'll say, "No. Are you kidding? No." And then the caller will ask, "Really? Look in your fridge!" Unfortunately, it doesn't translate and that's the hardest part for us. I think the more we can really promote Washington as a whole, which is what we do with the understanding that we have strong AVAs and that can obviously stay on the label, I would love to encourage more wineries to put Washington state on the front label.

    Besides having Washington on the label, any other soap box?

    Restaurants in our area that claim to be local but don't have any Washington wines on their menu. It drives me crazy. There are restaurants in Seattle that incorporate this local marketing platform -- all of their products come from within X amount of miles and "Rah! Rah!" small farmers -- and their wine list is all imports.

    Off the record, can you name some names?

    Oh, you can put this on the record! Sitka & Spruce. They're the biggest hypocrites. They literally boast this whole farm-to-table concept. It irritates me because they get all of this press. Literally, their logo is the state of Washington and there are three Washington wines on their list out of 50.

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    Photo by Laura Marchbanks
    Why is that, you think?

    I've heard different things. I've heard they can't find Washington wines that pair well with their food and that the price point of Washington wines are out of reach for their customers. None of the reasons are just, "We don't like the taste." I want to be clear. Obviously, restaurants like Spinasse or Rover's -- you know, I get it. Spinasse, you should have a whole Italian list. People are going to your restaurant to have an Italian experience. I don't want to see a Washington wine on your list! But when you're Sitka & Spruce or emmer & rye and some of these other eat local, support your local farmers-type restaurants, they're not supporting our local growers or our local wineries and it's very disturbing the footprint they're causing with some of those imports. It makes no sense.

    Is that part of your job? Reaching out to these restaurants and trying to get them to add Washington wines to their roster?

    My job is not to do that. To be totally honest, when we get incoming national media, wine writers who write for large national publications who want to come to Seattle and have a great dining experience, I'll tell you what, nine times out of 10, those restaurants that don't support Washington wine are not going to be on our list of dining recommendations. That's one way to do it. The other way it to really recognize restaurants in Seattle that do have a strong Washington wine list.

    Such as?

    Tom Douglas Restaurants. Steelhead Diner. Here's a place that's a tourist mecca. They have such an amazing opportunity to educate incoming people from all over the world and he [owner Kevin Davis] has a 100% Northwest wine list. Those are the types of restaurants I want to give so much love to and just make out with them all the time. Until those other restaurants can come up with a legitimate reason why they don't have Washington wines on their list, I have no desire to give them any love. If it's a personal preference, I get it. But from what I can tell, it's just a disconnect.

    My ultimate goal with my job moving forward is to really grow our local market share. I think we can really do a much better job of it. Right now, I think we're between 30% and 40%. That basically means only four out of 10 people choose Washington wines when they have the chance to and that sucks! There's a couple of reasons for that. One is location. I have friends who have lived here their whole lives who have never been east of Stevens Pass. So, not being able to see the vineyards and that kind of thing. I also think we could totally do a better job on the pride factor. We didn't have a soccer team three years ago and now it's like the biggest thing on the planet and it's like, "What about Washington goddamn wine?" Why can't everyone love Washington here? It's weird.

    Do you have a better appreciation for wine - and drinking it - now that you've been with the WWC for six years?

    Yes! I have to credit not only our staff, but I think my family has always encouraged me to try non-Washington wines. At the Commission, we try a lot of wines. We have to keep up with our membership, we need to try their new releases, but you don't want a Washington palate. People call it a local palate sometimes. You want to try and make sure you can measure the quality of Washington wines against other wines of the world and I think that's where I really started to get stoked on the whole industry because I was like, "Shit! This Nebbiolo tastes just as good as this Barolo that's $75 more. This rocks!" I think that was really where my passion stemmed from. And also getting to know the people behind the wine. Getting to see their passion behind it really makes you want to have another three glasses with them and learn more.

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    Photo by Laura Marchbanks
    Tell me about your background.

    I grew up in Ballard. My father opened and ran Cafe Juanita for 25 years before he sold it to Holly Smith in 2001. I had all of my birthday parities at Cafe Juanita. I mean, I thought everybody knew what Piedmontese-style ravioli was when I was little. It was a Northern Italian-themed restaurant, but it was a different type of a family restaurant that I think most people have the impression of. It's not like we would go there every other night and hang out with my dad. The place was booked up all year-round. You had to call a month in advance for a reservation. It was a special occasion place for us and [my dad] kept that really separate from us. This was the world that he lived in, but he would come home to Ballard and be with us and be our dad. I grew up at a dinner table both at my house and out to dinner. At a very, very young age I was expected to behave and sit and listen to adult conversation and I think that was probably the best education of my life.

    Did your dad cook?

    He was cooking quite a bit [at Cafe Juanita]. He would come home and do more of the traditional style family dishes that we'd have, but my mom has the international bug, so she was always trying and experimenting with northern Mexican cuisine or tajines. She was a stay-at-home mom. She was actually a graphic designer. She designed the Cavatappi label with the wine stain and she was able to do some letter press jobs when my sister and I were younger. Once we were older and in high school, she was an art teacher at University Prep, which was the school that I went to.

    Why did your dad decide to give up Cafe Juanita after 25 years?

    He really loved the restaurant, but he started doing more and more with wine. He started his own winery. He was the first to convince Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard to plant Italian varietals in Washington state. When he started Cafe Juanita, the restaurant was the first to do their own pasta in Seattle back in the mid 70s. He taught ski lessons in the Alps in Italy and got bit by the Italian bug. We don't have a drop of Italian heritage in us. We're totally just complete fakers, but he loved it. He loved bringing in great Italian wines to Cafe Juanita and after touring through the vineyards over in Italy, he's like, "You know, we could totally do this." This was early in the industry when we were still growing. I think his liquor license number is like 27. He's one of the first wineries in the state and he was like, "Let's plant some Nebbiolo and some Sangiovese and see what happens." This was all early 80s.

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    What's Cavatappi?

    It's corkscrew in Italian. Like the pasta. In fact, people call his office all the time asking for cavatappi pasta.

    Are you happy with the packaging?

    People love the label and my mom is allowed to take full credit. The wine stain concept was so unique at that time and everybody was very nervous about what it was going to insinuate and, you know, politics. But yeah, I'm very impressed with the packaging.

    Does he still have the winery?

    He still has the winery and just sold his distribution company to Odom. He was bringing in wines from all over the world. And then he also distributed wines from WA, OR and CA. Kermit Lynch is a big importer in California who brings in wines from all over France and Italy -- some of the top brands. So, [my dad] was able to bring the same portfolio into Seattle so that Wild Ginger could have a smokin' wine list and Spinasse can have their big fancy Italian list. A lot of those wines come from Cavatappi distributing. He's still part of the distribution company. He just sold it like three weeks ago. He's still going to stay on board and he's still going to maintain the relationships with the wineries and that kind of stuff. He brought in Cayuse and Memaloose down in the Columbia Gorge and had all different wines from Washington as well.

    Any statistics on what people gravitate towards when buying wine?

    I think price point is one of the biggest things. People will rarely admit it, but it's so true. We've done a lot of research and I completely believe in this: for the millennial generation specifically, so we're talking 21 to 35-year-olds, it's total bragging rights. It's so unique. This generation will brag about this amazing deal that they got, like a great wine for under $10 or they'll bring a bottle of $150 wine to a party and be like, "Yep. Look at me. This is what I brought." A $40 bottle is like, eh, okay. You want to brag about a great deal or brag about an elitist concept that you're bringing to the table. I think a lot of that has to do with wine labels as well. The more information that you can get from either a wine steward or sommelier or someone like that that you can soak in -- you're going to bring a wine to that dinner party and be like, "Do you know, by the way, that this is biodynamic?" because you look cooler when you say it! You're able to absorb just one or two components about a wine and you're going to gravitate to it.

    Are you allowed to play favorites and name some of your favorite WA wines?

    I love trying new wineries that have just come on the scene, like Rotie Cellars out of Walla Walla. Sean Boyd is the winemaker there and he's doing some amazing Rhone blends, both northern and southern. Of course, I have my love affair with Efeste wines. I just love [winemaker Brennon Leighton's] whites, the Rieslings and the Sauv Blancs. I love Hedges wines, like the CMS. Again, smokin' deal, really good quality. I could totally drink it all the time. I love Chinook. I love their Cab Franc and their Cab Franc Rose. We adore [owners] Kay and Clay and think they do such a great job. But, I'm kind of an Italian whore. I'll go to my Nebbiolos and Barolos once in a while. I just love the flavor profiles of Italian wines and my namesake, the Cavatappi Nebbiolo Maddalena is a good wine. It's fantastic.

    Now you're just bragging!

    I am bragging! It's how I get paid on the side.

    Why are you so interested in dining at new restaurants?

    It's part of my job. I take it seriously. I feel like I want to be a source for not only our wineries and growers, but any local or national writer or anybody who gives us a call and says they're coming to Seattle and wants to know where to go. I want to be able to give them a really cohesive list of good restaurants. That's going to be a combination of new places and standbys that are classic. Because I grew up in the restaurant industry, when I first started at the Commission, my job actually kind of shaped towards restaurant relations so I started owning the restaurant award program and kind of being that main point of contact. I think I was also just the youngest person there without kids, so I could actually go out and eat all the time. But Seattle is a funny town. I think it's starting to become this total, like, "Have you been yet?". It's this buzz-worthy restaurant scene, which I love. It wasn't like that five or six years ago and I think now it really is becoming this swanky ... the buzz behind RN74's opening was huge and it was very cool. I love going there.

    What other places do you love?

    I really think that there are people who are doing cool and interesting things in Seattle, specifically Book Bindery. I think they've done some rock star stuff. Ethan Stowell. How to Cook a Wolf is my favorite restaurant of his, just because it's so sleek and so different. Cuoco, Tom's new Italian place. They have this fresh tajarin that they make in-house that I could eat almost every day. But, standbys include Cafe Juanita, obviously. I go to Bastille a lot. I love Mexican food. I actually love Laredos. I know people have mixed reviews about that place, but I think they did a good job. And there's this great place on 145th by my house that I go to all the time called Casa Azul. It's really good. But Azteca can always be an adequate standby. I'm not gonna lie. I will say, to give them love, I had the best meal of my life in more than a year at Mistral Kitchen. William [Belickis] cooked the best meal. I was with the wine writer for The Washington Post and Brennon [Leighton] came with us and we had a bunch of wines and we just let William loose. He brought us out what he loved. So, he did a trio of crudos that were to die for and then he did this huge plate of all of these different terrines and pates. He did a duck pate and a lamb terrine and two different foie gras. And then he was like, "By the way, the one on the end is kind of not on the menu." His staff apparently tried to make kosher beef hot dogs with Kobe beef the week before and the casing machine wouldn't fit. So, he was like, "Fuck it. Let's just do a hot dog terrine" and it was out of this world! There was cornichon relish with curry ketchup. It was so good! It was like hot dog heaven in your mouth! Canlis is always a great standby, too.

    If you had an extra $20 to spend at the grocery store, what would you buy?

    I would buy a really cheesy high-end bottle of olive oil. I totally go the cheap route on olive oil. I scour good deals on olive oil because I blow through it at home, but if I had an extra $20 I would probably look for some really cool $14 bottle of Spanish olive oil that I would normally never cough up the cash for, but I would just want to bring it home and dunk carbs in it.

    Do you think Walla Walla is the best wine experience in Washington state?

    I would say it's one of the best wine experiences. It's great because they have the infrastructure. This is our Field of Dreams. Our argument is "if you build it, they will come." Unfortunately, I think there are really good wine regions out there that have awesome tasting rooms but it's hard to send people there. But, Walla Walla has the whole package in terms of what you want your wine experience to be. It has a great place to stay, a couple of great restaurants, and you can fill your day with everything else. And there's a taco truck.

    Check back tomorrow for part two of this week's Grillaxin with Madeline Dow as she shares one of her dad's favorite Cafe Juanita recipes!

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