There's a river running through Ashley Trout's veins and, apparently, it is made of wine. Her golden good looks, petite stature and laid back demeanor mask the fierce devotion of a woman who truly lives, loves and breathes her craft. After recovering from a devastating rock climbing fall, Ashley began working two harvests a year - one in Mendoza, Argentina, the other in Walla Walla - and now creates highly sought after wines for her label Flying Trout, as well as for Tero Estates, where she is the assisting winemaker (and which recently racked up an impressive number of Double Golds at the Seattle Wine Awards). Get out your rods, people, you're going to want to hook yourselves some Flying Trout before you miss the boat.
Don't let her looks deceive you - this is one tough yeast geek.
What's behind the name Flying Trout?
Flying Trout's actually a really easy name: my last name is Trout - I was born with it that way - and since 2005 I've been flying between Argentina and Walla Walla, working in both hemispheres doing wine.
I'm glad I asked because I thought maybe you really liked fishing or something
Nothing about fish, no. Last name's Trout. I am a terrible fly fisher-person. I've tried twice and lost many of Arnie's homemade flies in trees and felt really guilty. Arnie was nice enough to not complain but that was about it - then I was done. I am not a patient person. I don't like relaxing. I like moving and doing and fiddling. Patience and being mellow are probably not my bag of tea.
You mean you don't just sit around and wait for things to come to you?
No...I love the poetry of the fact that you've got this flowing water and the earth and the smells and everything that comes with it. I just can't sit there for that long. And people have asked me about this - as far as wine goes - because you're talking about aging things for years and years and years. The analogy I like to use is it's kind of like baking a cake. First you go to the grocery store and then you come home and mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, right? Then you mix the wet ingredients in another bowl and then at some point you mix them together - maybe you're mixing in egg whites or beating them for stiffness - you preheat the oven, you grease the pan, you pour everything in the pan, you put it in the oven, you wait, you take it out, you let it cool. Then, you're dealing with the frosting on top of all of that. Now imagine you're doing 17 cakes and they all started at slightly different time, or you've decided to do the frosting at a different time, so you can stagger out the 70 different steps to the point where there's no boredom - do you know what I'm saying?
Actually, no. That sounds like a lot of work!
Well, no...I think you can set yourself up for a lot of work. You can do things the hard way. And when I hear about people making one barrel in their garage or in their basement, I feel really sorry for them because that's as much work as I do. I just get to play with the bigger toys and we've got a bunch of guys rolling around helping out and it's all so much more streamlined. But yeah, if you pick the right vineyard, the right yeast strains, the right temperature for the room and you really get the infrastructure down, it's fun.
Some people say being a female winemaker is rough because the industry is predominantly male - what do you think about that?
I do think about it differently but I, oddly, have not talked extensively with the other female winemakers here in town about this topic. Which is odd because I talk to them about all sorts of other things. But I would think they would feel the same way - I would be shocked if they don't feel the same way - which is: it's a hell of a lot easier to be a female winemaker than a male winemaker. I feel really bad for male winemakers.
As far as whether more women than men are blessed with a palate, I'm not going to get into the politics of all that. I've seen all ends of the spectrum - there are men with fantastic palates - and that's not the issue. I just think that - gosh, everything is so much easier when you're a female in an industry that is so tangible with a product at the end of it. Here's a good example: when I show up to a vineyard I've got dozens of men who ask if they can load my truck for me. And this may be because they think I don't know how to drive a forklift after 15 years of working in the industry - which is odd - but instead of being concerned about that or taking that personally, I just think, "Well, that's a lapse of judgement on their part" and "Sure, I would love for you to do my work for me! Please load my truck up. Sounds great!" So that kind of stuff you can just hang back and people will do half of your work for you - which is awesome! Especially the stuff that isn't creative. You know, the stuff that just needs to get done. People really want to do that for women, which I think is just silly. But I'm not going to stop them.
So, I think it's easier to be a female winemaker. There are so many ways to take things emotionally but I think life's a lot easier if you just go out there and have some fun, get things done, learn, listen and make some wine.
Was there a wine that inspired you to start making wine?
Well, yes and no. I make all the right moves for all the wrong reasons. What inspired me to start making wine was that I'm from Washington D.C. and I wanted to see the Wild West so I visited colleges only west of the Rockies. I chose Walla Walla because Main Street was called "Main Street." I thought that was really funny and I wanted to live in a place where the main street was actually called Main Street. So, I moved here for that reason. Not because the college I decided to attend had this, that or the other - it was just that the town had a Main Street.
So about a week after I moved here I saw an ad for a job where the only credentials were, essentially, that you didn't mind working strange hours and you had a pair of biceps. And at age 18 I had a pair of biceps and I did not mind working strange hours. And I thought, "You know, when I move back to D.C. at the end of college, I will not be able to do something like make wine. But I'm able to do that now while I'm still here, so I am going to do it." And that was in 1999. But that's why I decided to start making wine - and because I could not make it on The Hill. And I had always envisioned working at a desk - I thought that's what big people did...they worked at desks year after year. Then I realized I had a job and it was actually a job I really loved.
But it wasn't until I drank Reininger's '99 Cab Franc that I helped make, that I really thought, "I get it. This is not only something that adults do but it would be a dream come true to keep doing this. I don't have to graduate from this. I have to graduate from college, but not this."
Will you ever go back to D.C.?
No. That's a one word answer.
You are somewhat of a yeast geek. How does one because a yeast geek? How does one even shop for yeast?
I'll pre-empt this by saying I am very impressed by guys who are able to do indigenous yeast - which is pulling from the atmosphere the yeasts that are already there and that's a tricky, tricky game. I know that Buty and Cayuse and some other guys have played around with it and have made some really beautiful wines. I think someday it would be fantastic to be able to do that. Having said that, in a lot of the facilities I have been in that has not been an option because there are already yeast strains rolling around the facility from previous lab yeasts that we have used. So, I could say it's an indigenous fermentation but really it's going to wind up being something that was already there. So that takes the wind out of the sails on that one.
And as far as shopping for yeasts, it's like the difference between oatmeal cookies and rosemary oatmeal cookies. You're just going one level deeper of what is the detail that's really going to set this wine apart - beyond the terroir because as a winemaker I've already made that choice. And then you've got the harvest date that's really important and you've got the oak to choose from, but I think year after year I'm so shocked at the difference that yeast strains make. I feel like it's one of the most creative parts of winemaking. You constantly talk about the creativity vs. the science and I feel like the yeast is one of those science-sounding things that is actually more creative.
How do you know which yeast is going to be right?
You don't. You just try. It's so scary and exciting because with winemaking you have to be a little bit ballsy every step of the way because you're not going to get to try it again - in my case for another six months - but really for another 12 months. So with every lesson you learn you only get one shot at it every 12 months. If you screw up, you really have to admit you screwed up because you can't band-aid it a week later or you can't make a different batch three months later. So that's what so incredible about yeast strains. You're not going to nail it because even though the labs will tell you it'll probably go well with a Chardonnay or Cabernet or whatever, you just don't know. I work predominantly with Malbec and there aren't that many yeast strains made specifically for Malbec so you have to pull something from a different realm and try it on Malbec. I've used some that I didn't like and that was that.
What do you do if you don't like it?
Well, one example was a yeast strain that I knew somebody else had used with Malbec and they liked it. I tried it and I didn't like it so I was stuck with this Malbec that I thought was fruit on acid on fruit - and that was a yeast strain that was supposed to really bring out fruit. But it was too one-dimensional. So that year, for that lot, I put it in one of my blends that was more earthy and spicy and less acidic. And it turned out just as great as the rest of the wines from that year - but only because I used it as an ingredient.
So it doesn't go to waste?
Certainly in some cases it does. I have to say I can think of two wines in my career that I have just done without. It's a sad moment. It's an angering moment because you've lost and you've worked so hard on it. I don't know why it angered me more than saddened me, but it just kind of pissed me off that it didn't work. I felt jilted by nature, you know what I mean? But it is what it is.
Mother Nature always rules.
She does. I was about to give birth last year and all of these women came out of the woodwork and they said, "You know, labor's not going to go the way you think it will" and I was like, "What are you talking about?" and they said, "Well I'm sure you've planned out how it's all going to go down, and you've got all the details covered, but you just have to understand that Mother Nature rules and she's just going to do what she wants to do." I would look at these women and be like, "Do you know what I do for a living?? Do you have any idea what I've been working with for like a third of my life?" I try very hard to let nature win without losing at the the same time, so I don't know why they thought I would not understand this concept.
How do you manage working on two continents when you've also got a young family and two dogs?
I would say "manage" is an extreme word. Certainly, I have to say a huge thank you to Doug Roskelley, that's first and foremost. I would say the dogs get less exercise than they did or ought to. My husband is also a winemaker - Brian Rudin, at Cadaretta - and he is very understanding that there is a season for everything. So there is a harvest season for us, and he makes more wines than I do so his harvest season is longer days and longer weeks than mine is, so I kind of try to hold down the fort a little bit during that time. And then we've got ski season of course, which he is very into, so I try to make that happen and then he tries to make my Argentine season happen so...unlike a lot of families where everything's 9-5, Monday through Friday - with maybe a little overtime here and there - we are weird. And luckily, I have a husband who understands that June will never look anything like October or March or December and we get through it - sometimes more intelligently than others.
Well, who knows? Malbec could originally be from Iran or Syria or someplace crazy. Many, many varieties actually are from Iraq, Iran, Syria - places that you would never think of as being the birthplace of, say, Cabernet Sauvignon. But as far as where it's traditionally done most successfully, France tends to be the second stop. So Malbec was planted quite a bit in the Bordeaux area and used as a blending variety. Then there was a big freeze and the Malbec got wiped out. Instead of bothering to replant it, because they weren't so amazed with how it did, another region not too far away, called Cahors, started to get a bunch of it going. So to this day, it's used more in Cahors. Then, at some point, Malbec was brought down to Argentina and it was done a lot down there. I would say probably starting about 10 years ago, there started to be more plantings in the U.S. - mainly California, Washington and Oregon.
Why did it catch on so much more in Argentina as a standalone vs. being a blending varietal in France?
Terroir. I think Malbec does very different things in different soils and climates and that's why I've designed Flying Trout the way that I have. The point is to do a Malbec in different appellations up here, and maybe get some Malbecs going from Argentina up to here as well, so you can do sort of a compare and contrast. Then, I think even within up here the comparison and contrast is really impressive. I think Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills tend to do this very manly man, gnarly Malbec that I just love. I think Walla Walla tends to do a jammier Malbec, sort of on the marmalade-y side of things, with some pepper. I think places in the Columbia/Yakima valleys and Rattlesnake Hills tend to have more structured, long finish, bright front - more sort of brighter red, young fruit. Not the fruit itself, but the notes you get off it - a lot of cherry, strawberry, raspberry, and fig. So Malbec does different things in different terroirs, which is not surprising. If you try a Cahors Malbec next to an Argentine Malbec never in a million years would you guess it's the same thing. Certainly clonal differentiations have a lot to do with it as well, but for the most part my answer is terroir.
You mentioned your husband is also a winemaker - do you find yourselves ever getting competitive with each other in winemaking?
Oddly enough, neither of us are naturally competitive people. We have learned that in order to have a successful marriage, we need to not work on the same wine. Because he likes to roll in and speed demon and play AC/DC and tell me to hold the hose and I want to deck him. And I roll in and I play Nina Simone and I want to think about something and I kinda go back and forth on things for a second and he wants to scream at the top of his lungs. So, that doesn't work. But as far as him respecting me and my skills, or me respecting him and his skills, that goes without saying. The competitiveness is kind of out the door a) because our marriage is probably more important than who makes better wine, and b) because we're not naturally competitive people. So that's kind of where we fall on things - we're just not allowed to make wine together.
You missed your first harvest in the U.S. due to a bad rock climbing fall. Looking back at how that got you to harvest in Argentina do you see that a little bit like a blessing in disguise?
No, I don't. It just sucked. But I think it goes back a little bit to what we were talking about before - sometimes you just have to go with the flow and that's the best way to do things. But the flow at that moment was telling me now is the time to go and that was great. I have a feeling that I'm fidgety enough that I would have gone to Argentina at some point just to check it out but, because I was down there when I was young and it was pre-dogs, pre-house, pre-marriage, pre-starting a winery, pre-a lot of things, I could just go. And to boot, a lot of the friends that I made down there were going through the Master's program in enology at the time. Since then, of course, they've all graduated and are all winemakers somewhere or work in a lab somewhere so the web really fleshed out and it makes being in Argentina really easy. And all that has to do with timing.
And certainly when Brian and I started dating I said, "Hey, so...this is what I do. I take off in March." Then we bought the house and I said, "OK, I am going to take off in March." And then we got the dogs and I said, "OK, so I'm going to take off in March." We had the baby and I said, "OK, so I am going to take off in March." So you can't wake up, you know at 35, and turn to your baby and your dogs and your husband and go, "Hey, check it out - I am going elsewhere for an extended period of time. Ciao!" You can't do that after the fact, but if it's part of the infrastructure of who you are because you started early on, you get that leeway. And for Brian, it was, "Hey, I ski." So that's all stuff we figured out as a couple. And timing is everything - the fall helped with that, but that's about it. Otherwise, it just sucked.
Anything you want to talk about?
Well, we've talked a lot about how timing is everything and I think there have been times in my life where I can easily look back and say, "That was my Studio 54." You know what I mean? There were the right people, there was the right food, there was the right music, or there was the right place, or right things or right whatever...but mostly it was the right time and there was something really magical about it. And I know, without a doubt, that my ability to get a job in the first place in the wine industry was another example of timing is everything - because my qualifications were a pair of biceps and lack of things to do. But right now I think is another, oddly enough, Studio 54 of wine - for the industry, not for me or for Flying Trout - but for the industry in the sense that we've got this magical place of being recognized, old enough to be recognized, but young enough so that there's nothing stagnant. You can try to do a varietal Counoise and probably because everyone's excited about Walla Walla, that 40 cases of Counoise will sell out even if it's not phenomenal. And then around the bend you can try to do, what I've seen a lot of lately, is a varietal Cab Franc or Petit Verdot and it turns out that it really is phenomenal.
I think when things are too young, you can't get away with that because no one's selling any wine - you're just trying to get your name out there. That takes a lot of open samples and a lot of travel and a lot of energy and a lot of talking. And when you're too old, everything is sort of stagnant and in place and classic. Right now, I could not imagine a better time to be doing my profession - female, male, young, old - right now is the time to be making wine in Walla Walla. It's the Studio 54 of wine.
With it being the Studio 54, which was notoriously hard to get into, it is also getting harder and harder for people to get their hands on some of these wines. What's your advice to people who want to?
If you just want what you want when you want it, join a wine club. But if you like adventure, you like living in the moment, you like learning and all these things, then join the wine club AND come visit.