Going All In
STORY AND PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS
How many of us have gazed out an office window and wondered whether we should be following our passions? Have you ever asked yourself what might happen if you ditched the nine-to-five job and lived your dream instead?
Washington winemaker and Microsoft engineer Kevin White is proof that it’s possible to do both: in his case, grow a boutique winery while pursuing a corporate career. Not only that, with hard work, dedication, and support, it’s possible to be successful at both.
White’s 2012 vintage La Fraternité and En Hommage red wines have both been awarded 94 points by Wine Enthusiast; the 2011 La Fraternité reached number 48 on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 list of must-drink global wines for 2013; and earlier this year he was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal as a Washington winemaker to watch. If you haven’t been quick or lucky enough to snag a bottle, his wines, which are designed to pair with food, also grace the lists of some of Seattle’s finest restaurants: Millers’ Guild, Crush, Staple & Fancy, The Barking Frog, and RN74.
White doesn’t have a long winemaking history. He majored in Computer Science at the University of Connecticut and moved to Washington in 2001 to take up a job a Microsoft. At that time he rarely drank wine—beer was his preferred beverage—but he knew he needed a counterpoint to spending his days in front of a computer. “I spend nine hours a day at work,” he explains, “seven hours asleep, so that leaves seven hours to do something else.”
For a while it looked like “something else” might be local politics. White likes collaborating with others on a common cause and originally spent his spare time in community service. His political ambitions came to a halt in 2007, however, when he tasted a 2003 Côte Bonneville Carriage House Red. It was a revelation.
White immediately emailed Côte Bonneville winemaker Hugh Shiels and asked if he could visit the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Together they walked the DuBrul Vineyard in eastern Washington, where Shiels explained the basics of winemaking. Most of it went straight over then 30-year-old White’s head, but he was fascinated.
Newly married at the time, White and his Seattle-born wife Stefanie soon realized wine was a passion they could share. Initially focused on educating their palates, they fell in love with the full-bodied, elegant red wines of the Rhone Valley. White went on to study viticulture and enology at South Seattle Community College, combining evening study with his job as a data specialist at Bing and helping Stefanie raise their twin sons. He eventually met Jon Meuret of Maison Bleue, who was making Rhone-style wines in Washington. Meuret encouraged him to try his own hand.
In 2010, White set about making his first wine. “I go all in,” he says. He obsessed over his four barrels of En Hommage, made with 100% Syrah from Olsen Vineyards, “as if I were producing 1000 cases.” It was little more than a science experiment on a grand scale. The wine was released in 2012, well received by the few people lucky enough to try it. White was hooked.
In winemaking, White had found a craft to which he could apply his engineer’s precision, attention to detail, and organization. It leverages many of the skills he uses on a daily basis as a program manager at Microsoft—managing complex, interdependent processes to achieve a specific outcome. “I program manage my whole life,” he quips.
Among the winemakers of Woodinville, White found the sort of generous and purposeful community he had sought in politics. In addition to Shiels and Meuret, White considers Leroy Radford from Baer and Flying Dreams Wines a mentor. They offered advice, encouragement, and more tangible help—loaning equipment, and even, in the case of Baer, use of his winemaking facility. White’s La Fraternité vintage honors the brotherhood that embraced him, while En Hommage is a tribute to these initial mentors. He has already started sharing his own experience with others who wish to follow in his footsteps. “I love to see people succeed,” he says.
White continues to be inspired by the rich, complex red wines of the Rhone Valley with which he first fell in love. He keeps the oak low, focuses on bringing out the subtleties of the top-quality fruit he uses to make balanced wines that express the terroir and pair well with food. Selling currently at $28 a bottle, his wines are not the cheapest, but La Fraternité, in particular, is consistently cited as exceptional value for money. White’s favorite wines—elegant Old World reds such as Gigondas, Barolo, and Barbera—influence his style and he has focused on the Rhone-style varietals, though in 2013 he is experimenting with his first Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend.
White sources grapes from the Olsen Estates, Upland, Elephant Mountain, Boushey, and DuBrul vineyards, all in the Yakima Valley, which has a climate similar to that of the Rhone Valley. His production levels are still low enough that he can secure small quantities of grapes from some of the best vineyards in the region.
2014 has been White’s biggest year to date. The 2012 vintages were released in May to rave reviews. Production rose to approximately 875 cases in 2013 and is set to rise to over a 1000 cases in 2014, including the as yet unnamed Bordeaux-style blend which will be released in 2016. He has leased and is currently equipping his own production space, “an investment in my own sanity,” he says, which will give him a lot more flexibility in his work hours and allow him to host tastings and dinners. “I love sharing my wines,” says the man who still personally emails or calls all members of his wine club.
Despite the growth of his business, White remains on track with his career at Microsoft, where he was promoted last year to principal program manager. He uses weekends, evenings, and vacation time to attend to harvesting, crushing, pressing, and bottling (he saves one week a year for a family vacation). He does everything himself, with the help of interested volunteers at busy periods, as he can’t yet afford to take on staff. He keeps his winemaking business separate from his Microsoft role, though he believes that being the CEO of his own small company has been immensely beneficial to his career. “Winemaking has been my MBA,” he says.
Kevin readily acknowledges that he couldn’t do what he does without the support of his wife, a clinical psychologist. Stefanie admits to being a “wine widow” during the crushing season, and takes on the bulk of caring for their now six-year-old sons during busy periods. Ultimately though, the business is Stefanie’s baby too. They blend the wines together and she is involved in all investment decisions. “It’s like having a third child,” she says, “it can be frustrating sometimes, but at the end of the day you still love it.”
White can’t foresee a time when he won’t be working for Microsoft—the salary allows him to focus on crafting the sort of wines he loves, rather than just what sells. “I’m just like any other guy at Microsoft,” he laughs. “Except I’m more likely to spend my bonus on a forklift truck than a Porsche.”
Over the next couple of years, he expects to consolidate production at around 1,000 cases, focusing on his three blends but also producing a limited edition reserve and experimenting with a white wine. But this professional manager admits he has learned to stop planning years in advance.
“It’s amazing that I can spend my afternoons debating data management, then spend my evenings looking at this,” he says gazing over a Yakima vineyard at sunset. “I don’t have two jobs. I have one life.”
Kevin White Wines are available at select restaurants and retailers. For more information on vintages and wine club, see kevinwhitewinery.com