Walla Walla may wear the hot pants of Washington wine but it also smolders in another, perhaps unexpected, arena - art. As the winemaker at Foundry Vineyards, Ali Mayfield is passionate about creating wine as art and tying it to the work of artists that cast at the renown Walla Walla Foundry. No small chips, these include giants of the art world like Deborah Butterfield, Jim Dine, Tom Otterness, Thomas Houseago, Maya Lin, Kiki Smith and Dale Chihuly. No small task, but one that does not phase this soft-spoken former UPS truck driver - her passion for the art of winemaking can bring one to tears (at least this one).
Ali Mayfield: cry-maker.
What is your favorite meal - with a great glass of wine, of course?
That's tough. I'm not a big foodie and sometimes I think that's a weakness because wine is definitely meant to be enjoyed with a meal. For me, I would just much rather sit in the company of great people, eat cheese and drink a fine glass of wine. A lot of times it's the atmosphere, it's the people. I was once in Seattle and was invited to dinner with a group of Napa winemakers. I had this notion in my head of what Napa winemakers were like and that changed sitting in the back room of Via Tribunali at the Crocodile, eating amazing pizza, and literally passing around a bottle of fine German Riesling. It was a lovely time just being with people passionate about what they did so, maybe pizza and Riesling? No need for a glass, just pass the bottle around!
When did you realize you wanted to become a winemaker?
Well, I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, and I was going to school at Indiana University and working at UPS part time. I worked at UPS for 11 years and drove a truck for five, which was really hard work, but I loved being outside all the time. It was kind of a black and white company - I really wanted to do something that allowed me to be outside and enjoy the outdoors but with a lot more creativity than driving a truck. So, I actually used to make wine at home as a hobby winemaker.
Where did you get grapes in Indiana?
In a kit. A juice kit from a little local wine supply store. So I started making wine and giving it to all my friends as gifts. That's really how it got started.
So your wine was popular among your friends?
You know, I would really not advise drinking any of it. I still have a few bottles and will probably never want to drink those. But that's kind of how it all started. I just couldn't work for UPS anymore because I was so not satisfied, so I left that job, moved to Walla Walla in 2005, and went back to school.
I chose Walla Walla Community College because the program is very hands-on and I am a hands-on learner. The first year is all viticulture and the second year is all enology. You are out in the vineyards and you have your own rows that you prune and take care of. We even had a teaching winery - at the time it was the only college in the U.S. with an actual teaching winery. Within my first week at school my professor, Stan Clarke, called me into his office and I thought, "I have only been here for one week! How can I already be in some sort of trouble?" But he only wanted to tell me that Kendall Mix, the winemaker at Corliss Estates, was looking for an intern and he thought I'd be the right fit. So that's how it all started.
That's a prestigious internship - were you working the whole time you were in school?
Yes, the whole time. On top of the everything I did in school I had the opportunity to work my very first vintage in Walla Walla - which was amazing. In fact, I cried when harvest was over. Everyone was celebrating the last bin of grapes and I remember driving home thinking "that was THE most incredible experience and if I have to wait a whole 'nother year for that to happen again, I'm gonna cry," and I did. But now they come like this...snap snap. And I don't cry anymore.
What was so emotional about it - just the opportunity to be out in the fields?
Yes. And honestly, I couldn't have asked for a better mentor. Kendall took me everywhere with him - in the vineyards, doing grape samples, fermentations, chemical additions, sorting grapes...everything.
What happened after your internship was up?
I did my practicum hours at Corliss and then went back again for the 2006 vintage. By that time I was running analysis - Kendall had taught me that - so I did all kinds of analysis for him.
At that point, he thought that although I started at the very top it would be good for me to get more experience working with other wineries that might not have all the resources Corliss had. So I ended up going to Long Shadows - which I would say was NOT that experience at all. But it was good. When I got to Long Shadows I was really excited and ended up working the lab - the chemistry behind the winemaking. So I ran their lab for the vintage of 2007 then stayed that year.
Running a lab sounds so opposite of what people imagine of winemakers - what exactly does that entail?
Basically I ran analysis on all of the wines. Sugars, pH, malics, SO2's...everything. In a lot of places they consider it more like quality control, like if its pH is too high or too low, and then adjusting it. Basically I would supply all that info to Gilles (Gilles Nicault, resident winemaker at Long Shadows) so he could make all his winemaking decisions.
Then Kendall and Michael Corliss called and offered me a position back at Corliss because Michael had just bought the Tranche Cellars facility and he wanted me to be the winemaker for Tranche. So, it was a very hard decision, but I went back to Corliss because my heart was always there. I stayed there for the '08, '09 and '10 vintages then Kendall left Corliss and the opportunity at Foundry Vineyards presented itself. My real plan was to go to Tuscany and work for Giovanni Folonari because I wanted to have that experience working in a very old world wine making culture and working a vintage outside of Walla Walla.
Do you think you'll still do that - work a vintage outside of the U.S.?
I do think I will travel yes, I HAVE to. I would love to see Tuscany. I'd also love to go to France: Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux, the Rhone, the Languedoc, all of them. I'd love to go to Australia and see John Duvall's wines in Adelaide. Germany...I mean, there are so many places.
How do you feel about being one of the few female winemakers in Washington?
Actually there were a lot of women in my class but we were still a pretty small class - about 25 of us. But the thing that's most interesting to me is that so many of those people are no longer in the wine industry. I don't know if it's hard to find a job in Walla Walla or just that a lot of people come to get the education and then end up going other places. I know a lot of students did the two-year program here and then went on to get their bachelor's somewhere else.
So, it's a pretty small club?
Yes, very small. But before I moved here my dad said to me "why would you jump into the ocean if you didn't know how to swim?" But I'm kinda that person. I have to just dive into something and give it my all to make it successful. I got out of it what I put into it. I think I've been pretty lucky. But I've worked hard to be where I'm at.
What would you say to people interested in getting into winemaking - any advice for them before they dive in?
For me the education was really important. I am the kind of person who needed to prove to myself that I could do it. And now I have that little piece of paper, which is really great, but I think it's also the relationships that you make along the way. I admire those who are much more intelligent and understand the science and all the details, but the thing I feel very fortunate about is those people are my friends now and if at any time I was to have a question or a concern I can totally reach out to them. I think that's very important that you maintain all those relationships.
It's amazing to me the similarities between making art and making wine. You're basically taking something raw and creating something artistic and beautiful, something to express yourself. Very much the same process. I just feel fortunate that I've been able to meet Mark Anderson, to hear his story and to work for someone who this community really loves. He has such a huge following in the community that supports him, it makes this business already successful. I also love the experience of getting to work with the artists of the Foundry; I love the fact that they get to come to Walla Walla - this little town where nobody knows who they and they're just able to be themselves here.
Is there a piece of work here or an artist you really connect with?
The first time I saw Deborah Butterfield's work I was blown away. It's amazing. She's someone who absolutely understands the animals she's working with and you can just sense her passion for the animals and the artwork. I love people like that. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with David Bates - we haven't done a David Bates label yet, but I am certainly hoping that we can. I got to see some of his work in New York City in a gallery and it was amazing - probably the highlight of my trip. They're actually doing a lot of work at the Foundry for Thomas Houseago. He did this piece called "L'Homme Pressé" that's installed in a canal in Venice and I think it will go on the Super Tuscan that I made this year. So, it's almost like I have the ability to hear so much about the art that being able to put it on the label and make that style of wine bring the worlds together.
What's the most exciting thing that's happened here for you in the last year?
I've only been here a year so...this. It's a great opportunity to take something that was already started, put a lot of energy into it, and continue to build something unforgettable. I absolutely love the story of the Walla Walla Foundry and I love working with that artists to be able to create something that's unique to them. I'd have to say one of my highlights, and something I did for the very first time this year, was for this vintage I went to the vineyard, waited while they picked my fruit, loaded it up, and brought it back to Walla Walla. I went to Hood River to get Chardonnay and being in the vineyard with the whole crew as they picked the grapes was something I don't think I'll ever forget. So, literally, I have been with these wines from the moment they were picked, all the way through the process.
When are people going to be able to try these wines?
When are people going to be able to try these wines?
This Chardonnay I'm not exactly sure yet. We're hoping to bottle it sometime this summer and then we'll proabably hold it for 3-6 months in bottle before releasing it. But we may actually age it a little bit longer. All of my reds will be out in 2014. It's a waiting game but a very exciting one.
What do you most look forward to with a release?
Of course, we'll have a big release party! Our goal here is to be able to match those wines with specific artists. For instance, if the situation presents itself, what we'd really like to do is clear out the space, fill it with Deborah Butterfield's work and have her here for the release of the wine with her label. It would be a wonderful opportunity to talk to me about the wine and also to be here and see the artists as well. Being in New York City, pouring the Tom Otterness wine, and telling people that the artist on the label lives in Brooklyn and you can see his work in the NYC subway stations really gave people an instant connection to both the wine and the art. How great to come to Foundry Vineyards, meet Deborah Butterfield, see her art, and leave with a bottle of wine with her label? Because most people can't leave with one of her cast bronze pieces.
Since your wines won't release for a while are there any other Foundry Vineyard events you are looking forward to?
Definitely the White on White party - it's amazing! It's a chance to wear your very best white outfit and come celebrate with a large part of the local community here in our sculpture garden. It is June 2nd, the weather will be great, and we're only going to be pouring white wine - no worries about red wine on those white outfits! Also, as we can get more of the artists to be here, the opportunity for people to come see there work is an exciting one. Normally you would have to go to New York City of London to see this calibre of work. So to be in Walla Walla and view art this amazing is an opportunity not to be missed.
If you weren't a winemaker what else would you love to be?
I don't think I would be anything but a winemaker. That's it. This is what I'm meant to do. I wouldn't even dream of doing anything else - this was my dream, I totally pursued it, and I did it. When the artist David Bates was here, he said "You are just like a little kid. I have never seen someone so excited and so happy about what they do until I met you." Coming from an artist, it was huge. I don't mean to exuberate it but I think it just happens.
I think i just feel fortunate to be a part of Washington wine. I feel like I am in Walla Walla at a time when it is still developing and still growing - a great time. The industry has changed so much in the seven years I've been here and it's just going to continue to grow. I do hope at some point I have the opportunity to give back a little - like with all the people I learned from - to be able to mentor someone in making wine. I'm just excited for success.