By: Nan McCreary
If anyone can rightfully boast about their place on Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 2018 “Top 40 under 40,” it’s Walla Walla, Washington winemaker and social justice advocate, Ashley Trout. As an integral part of the Washington wine industry since 1999, she has started three wineries, including a non-profit winery for better access to health care for vineyard and cellar workers. With expertise that comes from working eight harvests in Argentina, she is putting her stamp on wines created by a new generation of women winemakers.
Trout’s journey on the wine trail began when, at age 18, she chose to use college as an opportunity to do something different, so she gave up big-city living (Washington D.C. and Los Angeles) and landed at Whitman College in the small town of Walla Walla. “I’ve always been a ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ kind of person,” Trout told The Grapevine Magazine, “so I took a part-time job at Reininger Winery. It was right at the inception of the Washington wine industry, and there were lots of us in our 20s who would do any and every job. We’d show up at midnight, or on Saturdays, we’d pack boxes, and if we didn’t know how to drive a forklift, we’d figure it out. It was a quintessential example of being at the right place at the right time.”
She worked at Reininger Winery for eight years, and in her fifth year, had an “aha moment” that ignited her passion, and led her to where she is today. “I was in a rock-climbing accident and broke everything,” she recalled. “When I missed harvest, I realized how inappropriate it felt that other people were doing harvest, and I wasn’t harvesting with them. That’s when I really doubled down.”
Trout began working the harvest regularly in Mendoza, Argentina, following her love of the Malbec grape. In 2006—at only 24—she opened Flying Trout Wines, named for her surname and the fact that she was flying between Argentina and Washington state.
“I’d been in the wine industry for five or six years, and I loved everything about the job and wanted more control over the wines I was making,” she said. “I also wanted the freedom to go to Argentina and participate in harvest and make wines there as well as here in Washington, so I just did it.”
At Flying Trout, Trout focused on Malbec, because, she said, “It’s a wonderful grape to work with, and gives you everything you need on a silver platter—acid, color and tannins—which are the bones of what you really need for an amazing wine.” Trout sourced her grapes from top Walla Walla vineyards, which, except for altitude, have a nearly identical terroir as Mendoza.
Trout sold Flying Trout in 2010 but stayed on as winemaker until 2013. In 2016, after a brief hiatus, she launched Brook & Bull Cellars. “I was at a point in life where I wanted to have creative control of the wine and the winemaking process and creative control over the business parts as well,” Trout told The Grapevine Magazine. “I’d had it before at Flying Trout and wanted it back.”
At Brook & Bull, located in the rolling hills of the Walla Walla Valley, Trout produces Malbec, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and blends. She also makes a Provence-style Rosé from Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Counoise grapes. Rather than start a vineyard, Trout prefers to source grapes from top vineyards in the area. “Maintaining and managing a vineyard and maintaining and managing a winery are two different skill sets,” she said. “In a vineyard, you’re dealing with mold and mildew and insects and pest and irrigation issues, and you’re dealing with biology and geology and meteorology. Within a winery, …it’s more like cooking, blending and tasting. It’s organic chemistry more than anything.”
While she was launching Brook & Bull, Trout also started Vital Winery, which supports free, bilingual healthcare for workers. “Vital had been stuck in my head for a long time,” Trout said. “I grew up in a bilingual, bicultural home, and I did a lot of translating for grandparents who needed help with information, especially when it was medical jargon, so I understand the need.”
Vital Winery is fully supported by donations, from grapes to bottles to corks, and all profits go into the mission, “Taking Care of Each Other.” Besides providing health care, Vital Winery raises funds for a project called “A Day at Home,” so vineyard employees potentially exposed to COVID-19 can stay home for testing without concern for the loss of daily wages. The non-profit winery has earned Trout accolades throughout the country, not just for her wines but for her services. And it is has benefited tremendously from wineries eager to donate—Trout said she turns down 30 to 100 tons of donated fruit every year, much of it from top wineries in Washington state.
While Brook & Bull and Vital Winery are two different types of projects, both are wineries and require the same winemaking knowledge and skills. At Vital, Trout’s wines fluctuate between which grapes and vineyards are used, changing every year. On the other hand, at Brook & Bull, Trout can count on consistency—other than what Mother Nature delivers—by using the same vineyards, the same varieties, the same rows and the same clones every year.
“I know what’s coming, and I can wrap my head around that and can get into an artistic zone because all those variables are taken care of,” she said. At both wineries, Trout strives for “varietally driven, nuanced and intricately balanced wines.”
In summing up her winemaking philosophy, Trout said, “I set myself up so I could say, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ If you set yourself up to fight (nature, for example), you’re going to lose, and it will be a slow, painful battle.”
In applying this philosophy, Trout sources from vineyards and varietals that excite her. To attain balance, she picks on the early side. “By picking early,” she said, “I get grapes with more acid, which have antibacterial properties, and produce wines that are more food-friendly and more balanced. Balance is a big issue for me.”
Trout is not a big fan of oak, as she prefers to “showcase” the grapes. “Most high-end wines are slammed with oak,” she said, “but I have $40, $50 and $60 wines with almost no oak. I’ve made it my little personal mission to teach people what an amazing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Malbec tastes like without the oak band-aid covering things up.”
While Trout has indeed received plenty of recognition as a winemaker—and a rising star among women winemakers—she continues to be committed to her craft, and to set an example to other women in the field.
“Today, 70% of wines are purchased by women, but only 8% of winemakers are women,” she said. “And 47% of male winemakers own their own winery, while only 4% of women do. That’s a huge disconnect. I think it’s really important for women in the wine industry to stand tall and proud because there aren’t many of us. If we want the next generation to join us, we need to show that there are other women doing it, having a good time and being successful.”
Many women are reluctant to enter the industry, Trout believes, because the work is so physically demanding. Women may also stay away, she said, because there are so few women winemakers that they assume there’s a reason and don’t consider it. While Trout said she’s never experienced sexism, she has run into age-old prejudices where people expect her to be the winemaker’s daughter or wife.
“When I’m behind the bar in the tasting room, no one ever imagines that I’m the winemaker,” she said. “They always think I’m a family member. But finally, when they get it, everyone is really excited.”
As Trout looks back on her journey, her only regret is that she didn’t bet on herself in a bigger way. “I can see that I didn’t look hard enough for investment dollars, I didn’t hire experts and I didn’t grow. I didn’t take myself seriously as an owner of a major winery. But as a minority in the industry, and a 20-year-old, it wasn’t surprising, even if it was a mistake.”
As for the future, Trout seems content to stay where she is. “It’s an exciting time to be in Washington now,” she said. “We still have a young and dramatic and passionate industry. We’re still filled with 20-somethings who are showing up at midnight doing whatever needs to be done, and that’s exciting. But now we have the efficacy we didn’t have when I was getting started, as the industry has been here for 15 or 20 years. It’s really the best of both worlds.”