From apples to wine on the Wahluke Slope
STORY BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
PHOTOS BY RICHARD DUVAL
How do most couples meet? Not like Mike and Karen Wade of Fielding Hills Winery in Chelan.
“After college I was working at the jewelry counter at Northgate Nordstrom,” Karen recalled. “Mike came in to buy a present for a girl. That’s how we met.” The year was 1978. It didn’t matter that Mike was there to purchase jewelry for another girl; it was Karen who caught his eye. “It was kind of that classic thing where you try to figure out, ‘Who do you know that I might know?’” Mike recalled. “It turned out we had a few mutual friends.”
Mike had grown up in Wenatchee and came from a long line of fruit growers and sellers. Karen had grown up in Yakima—her family wasn’t involved in the fruit business, but they knew plenty of people who were. Mike’s and Karen’s respective high schools had played each other in the Big 9 Conference. “We figured our paths had crossed many times prior to that day,” Karen said. The two started dating. They never imagined that, 30 years later, they’d be making wine together.
After graduating with a business degree from the University of Washington in 1978, Mike did a short stint at Boeing and then at RAM Restaurant & Brewery in University Village, working as a bar manager. Karen worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines. The couple stayed in touch but were often in different time zones. “When he was getting off work at the bar, I was just getting up, so we would talk at 5 o’clock in the morning,” Karen said.
One day, out of the blue, Mike’s father invited him to come back to Wenatchee to work for Columbia Fruit Packers, an apple and cherry business started by Mike’s grandfather. When Karen got laid off from United, she applied for an executive director position at the Washington Apple Blossom Festival in Wenatchee. The couple was reunited, got married in 1984, and started a family.
The Wades’ entry into the wine business came in the late 1990s as the apple market was as the bottom of one of its boom and bust cycles. Washington’s wine industry was rapidly expanding. A vineyard near one of their orchards on the Wahluke Slope was successfully growing wine grapes, and the winery approached Mike about turning his orchard into a vineyard. “It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was better than losing money on Red Delicious apples,” he said. In 1998, Mike ripped out 24 acres of apple trees and planted a vineyard.
Already a wine enthusiast, Mike quickly decided he didn’t want to grow grapes for others; he wanted to learn to make wine himself. “Everything we grow and own at Columbia Fruit, we process for the fresh market,” he said. “I thought that if we were going to grow wine grapes, I should see if I could convert that into wine.”
Wade and a friend started out by buying a couple of hundred pounds of grapes at harvest. But the pair had little knowledge and few winemaking tools. “We didn’t even have a wine press!” Mike said with a laugh. The results did not bode well for a future in the industry. “We ended up dumping out everything we made. That was the first realization that we didn’t know what we were doing and clearly didn’t know anything about sanitation.”
Undeterred, Mike began dreaming of his own commercial winery. “He had a fully developed idea before he ever shared it with me, because that’s the kind of guy he is,” Karen said. Mike devoured books about winemaking and traveled to different wine regions to learn about the industry, but a trip to Napa left him intimidated. It all came together when he visited Walla Walla Vintners, however, a small winery founded by two long-time hobbyist winemakers. “The light bulb went off,” Mike said. “It was a size and scale and scope that seemed doable.”
Mike spent months peppering Walla Walla Vintners co-owner Gordy Venneri with phone calls and emails about winemaking. Meticulous by nature, Mike wrote down every step required to make wine, in a notebook. He would then call Venneri and, later, Charlie Hoppes (now owner of Fidelitas winery), to confirm the sequence. “There were many nights at the winery writing, reading, analyzing, and asking questions,” Mike said.
In 1999, Mike again tried his hand at home winemaking — this time with much better results. “We shared the wine with friends,” he said. “It was a very delightful surprise.”
In 2000, Mike bonded a commercial winery, Fielding Hills. He named the winery after his grandfather, Isham Fielding Wade, who moved to Wenatchee from Tennessee in 1919 to join his brother in the apple business. Isham subsequently started Columbia Fruit Packers in 1948. “It was his vision and his fortitude that made a place for this family in the agriculture industry,” Mike said.
At the winery, Mike focuses on four varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. All of the grapes come from the winery’s estate vineyard. With the Wahluke Slope being one of Washington’s warmer grape-growing regions, the wines are lush and concentrated with ripe, dark-fruit aromas and flavors.
“My whole approach has been to let the grapes express themselves,” Mike said of his style at Fielding Hills. Having a full time job at Columbia Fruit, he says, has made that easy. “I don’t really have time to do anything too sophisticated. I don’t have time to tinker.”
Despite his initial struggles as a home winemaker, Mike’s wines at Fielding Hills were an immediate success, receiving high scores from some of the nation’s most prestigious wine magazines. “We’d get an outstanding rating, and the phones would ring like crazy,” he recalled. While the accolades have continued to come in over the years, Mike is modest about taking too much credit for his wines. “It’s all about the grapes,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways to screw up wine, but you can’t make the wine any better than the grapes that you’re presented with.”
Like many small wineries in Washington, Fielding Hills has grown and evolved over the years. After starting out at 450 cases, the winery currently produces 2,400 annually. Last year, after 15 years of making wine in a shed near their home in Wenatchee, the Wades built a tasting room in the thriving tourist community of Chelan.
“I often think about friends my age who are looking at retirement,” Karen said. “What did we go and do? We built a winery!” The picturesque spot comes with a 270-degree view of Lake Chelan. “You can look up the lake and see where it starts to become a wilderness area,” Karen said. “You can look down the lake and see the lights of the city.” Despite the new responsibility, and the many long days and nights over the years working multiple jobs and raising a family, the couple has no regrets about joining the wine industry. “Wine brings people together,” Karen said. “I can’t tell you how many times people at our tasting bar see someone on the other side who they haven’t seen in years.”
And what about that woman Mike was going to buy jewelry for when he met Karen all those years ago? It turned out she was just a friend. “Our oldest daughter is named after her,” Karen said with a smile.
Fielding Hills Winery
565 South Lakeshore Drive, Chelan, WA 98816
509-888-9463 • fieldinghills.com
Sean P. Sullivan is the founder of Washington Wine Report, an online publication dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. He is also a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast and writes regularly for Seattle Metropolitan, Vineyard & Winery Management, and Washington Tasting Room.