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Saturday, Sep. 25, 2010

Midwest grad describes her path to NW wine industry

Editor's note: Cara Strickland, marketing assistant for Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, is a recent college graduate who has found her way into the Northwest wine industry. Here's a look at her path, in her words.

SPOKANE, Wash. — I fell in love with wine by reading about it.

One summer, on break from college, I read (and drank) through Wine Wise, figuring out what I liked by trial and error. I was hooked.

When I started thinking about jobs that next year, I decided that I wanted to get into the wine business. Perhaps you can imagine the responses I got as a Creative Writing major at my conservative private school in the Midwest. People were appalled, but I was serious.

Raised in Spokane for most of my life, I chose to send my resume (void of any wine-related experience) to all wineries in Spokane that appeared to have at least one employee. I was willing to do anything and eager to get my feet wet.

Amazingly, Arbor Crest Wine Cellars offered me a job working in the office. I soon learned that my title (which I didn’t get until very recently) didn't have a lot to do with my job. As one co-worker put it, we "wear a lot of hats." I wouldn't have it any other way.

One day, I’d be working the tasting room, chatting about the difference between a Petite Sirah and a Syrah or a Sangiovese and a Chianti. The next, I would be doing inventory in the warehouse or shipping wine across the country. As summer came, I watched the parking lot fill up for our Sunday concerts and found myself pulled out of the office more often to help pour.

While I’d heard of Arbor Crest during my youth, I’d never been to a summer concert or done a tasting. This job has also put me in the way of tasting other (wonderful) Washington wines. My taste buds are confirming what my research told me long ago: the Northwest makes good wine.

Aside from the day-to-day drama of making wine, I’ve gotten to walk through some exciting transition with Arbor Crest. When I came onboard, we were beginning the renovation of our historic Cliff House, the crown jewel of the lovely estate that the Mielke brothers chose as home to Arbor Crest in 1984. A winter fire did some damage, causing broken hearts across the city, but we’re watching the finishing touches come together; we should be able to celebrate Christmas inside, perhaps without a roaring fire.

Our winery is truly a family business, Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels, Harry Mielke’s daughter, came to Arbor Crest as winemaker in 1999. Her husband, Jim van Loben Sels, is an experienced viticulturist and often when I phone him, he’s out in the vineyards.

The warm, open nature of the family spills over onto the staff and our customers. Kristina signs the bottles: “From our family to yours” and she means it. When I have a question, someone always seems willing to explain what I don’t understand. Even when I haven’t asked, I’m always learning something new about barrels or grape hang-time or residual sugar. I’m growing into this business.

The real payoff of my job comes every once in a while when Kristina, our winemaker, brings up a barrel sample for the staff to taste. Unlike the wine we pour in the tasting room, this isn’t quite ready but promises good things to come. We sit around and ask each other what fruits we taste, or whether the oak is prominent.

Like me, this wine needs a little more seasoning before it’s ready to go out on its own, but it will get there, as, I trust, will I.

* Cara Strickland can be reached via cara.strickland@gmail.com.