Not-so-fun fact = women are grossly underrepresented in the winemaking industry. Sure, you'll see women as sommeliers and working at tasting rooms, but the winemakers themselves - the people actually composing your favorite vintages - are usually men.
Enter Lisa Packer of Warr-King. After spending most of her career in marketing, the wine enthusiast in her took the leap and started learning about the bits and pieces that come together to form a bottle of wine. In 2013 she started Warr-King Wines, based in Woodinville, and she's been putting together incredible wine ever since. We sat down to talk with her about her work, how she switched careers, and the team of women winemakers across Washington helping to turn the tide.
Seattle Refined: Tell us a little about Warr-King - when did you start the label, and how did you decide to do it?
Lisa Packer: I decided to start the winery in 2013. I had worked for John Patterson of Patterson Wines for two years prior and did a harvest at Chateau Ste. Michelle. I’d been making a few barrels of my own wine at Patterson, but when the production space next door opened up we jumped on it; and that’s how Warr-King Wines was started.
What's something Warr-King does really well? Is there a specific wine you're known for, a flavor you like to include, or something that makes the wine different?
My big theme is that Washington wines are a perfect balance of old world and new – old world structure, acids and minerality like a European wine, and new world sunshine and fruit like a California wine. At Warr-King we’ve tried to leverage that balance and make new world wines in an old world style. This means we use slightly less oak, allow slightly higher acid, and shoot for a softer, more approachable wine that’s great with food. Our “Descendent” red blend is a great example of this – although the blend changes from year to year, it’s always Cab Franc-based and we strive for that old world style.
We’ve chatted a bit about how unusual it is for a woman to be the head winemaker. Why do you think that is?
It’s definitely a bit of an old boys’ network, so it’s been hard for women to break into. Although there’s a lot of artistry in winemaking, it’s also a lot of chemistry and math, and it’s physically demanding, which may have kept women out in the past. But that’s changing and we’re building support networks like the Sisters of the Vinifera, a group of 20+ women winemakers across Washington.
Can you tell us a little about your background before becoming a winemaker? How does one study and train to become a winemaker?
I actually spent the first 20 years of my career working in high tech doing Marketing and Communications work. I was working at a startup at the time that stalled. I was at a point in my life where I needed to do something different. A friend (a daughter of a winemaker) knew I had a passion for wine and suggested I take my experience and transition those skills into the wine industry. She heard about a program at Lake Washington Tech, which I enrolled in. I originally thought I wanted to do marketing or become a sommelier. But part of the program required an internship, and that’s how I landed at Patterson Cellars. I quickly realized I loved the science and production behind wine. Watching the fruit roll in at harvest made me happy. I worked 12-14 hour days 6 days a week processing fruit, but I loved it and I was hooked. After the Lake Washington Tech program I enrolled in the WSU Enology Certificate program, where I learned more of the science behind winemaking.
But ultimately, you learn by doing. There’s so many variables in a barrel of wine – the fruit is different from year to year, there’s hundreds of chemical and organic compounds, and so many things that can go wrong. So even if you understand the science, there’s a lot of experience and intuition that goes into a barrel of wine, and I think that’s what makes the difference between a competent wine and a great one.
Who's the team behind the wine who helps you?
My assistant winemaker Duane Bender and my Cellarmaster John World are indispensable; I literally could not do this without them. Dana Welter is our super-competent and friendly tasting room manager. We also have a huge crew of loyal volunteers who help us with crush, bottling and release events.
Let's talk about the wine specifically: what would you recommend for someone celebrating a big event? For after a long day at dinner? For sipping while you watch HBO on Sunday night?
We try to keep our wines at a price point where they’re not just special-occasion wines; you can drink them anytime but also be proud to bring to a dinner party or other special event. Our Roussanne is a great sipping wine, our Syrah goes great with a big cheeseburger or plate of ribs, and the Cab would be great to bring to an event.
What would you recommend for women who want to get into winemaking or winery ownership?
Women are scientifically proven to have better palates than men, so they actually are capable of making even better wines! The wine industry (especially in Woodinville) is largely about the relationships you build – everyone helps each other out, and it’s a really nice, collaborative environment that’s friendly to women despite the old-boy’s network, as long as you’re willing to pitch in and help.
If you’re interested in trying it out, work a harvest! Everyone is looking for volunteers. Plus you’ll quickly learn it’s not as glamorous as you think it is, and you’ll find out if you love it enough to continue.
Anything else you want to share with our readers?
Come in and taste our wines! We’re open Saturdays 12-5pm, Sundays 1-5pm.