Damsel Cellars. The name of the winery might conjure up the historical myth of a woman, seemingly helpless, in need of rescuing. In the case of the woman behind the winery based in Woodinville, Washington and the meaning behind the name, nothing could be further from the truth.
Mari Womack’s path to winemaking was an unorthodox one. She didn’t attend school for it at one of the local enology or viticultural programs, nor did she come from a family already in the wine business. She does have a degree in landscape design and horticulture but that’s not what brought her to winemaking initially. She first fell in love with wine from working in the restaurant business while putting herself through college. There she was exposed to high quality food and wine long before she could afford it.
Over the next 22 years Mari continued working in the restaurant business in various capacities, including restaurant owner, then decided to move to Woodinville and pursue her ultimate goal of making her own wine someday, “We sold our last restaurant in 2009, came out here, and I just started volunteering. I knew I wanted to be involved in wine, I was always very passionate about wine and I would even plan vacations around it.”
Mari’s move to Woodinville meant joining a very tight-knit community where introductions were made easily. She started working at Obelisco back when they were only producing their Cabernet Sauvignon. She volunteered in their tasting room on the weekends and not long after was introduced to Leroy Radford, the winemaker at Baer Winery at that time (before he left to start Flying Dreams). She was so determined to learn whatever she could that she regularly showed up during production and harvest and would ask if the team there needed any help. She kept coming back and was exposed to everything from checking on fermentations to helping with crush: “once I saw the production side of wine and that great hands-on process, the feel and the smell of everything, I was hooked. I knew this is what I wanted to do. Forget the sommelier route, forget being a marketing or tasting room manager—production is where I knew I belonged.”
Working at Baer, she met Darby English (winemaker and proprietor of Darby Winery), who was in the same complex. Someone mentioned that he was looking for a tasting room manager, so she went over and introduced herself, “I said to him ‘hi, I’m going to have a winery someday, I hear you need a tasting room manager. I will help manage your tasting room if you teach me how to make wine’.”
The very first day she went to work for him was a sign of things to come. He asked if she knew how to drive a forklift. She didn’t so he tossed her the keys and told her to go practice in the parking lot and come back in a few hours when she felt comfortable, “I spent 2 hours trying to learn how to drive a forklift and soon learned that he applied that same philosophy to everything – this is why we’re doing this, this is why the ferment is going this way, this is why we’re doing this at this time. He was such a great mentor because there wasn’t anything that was off-limits that I couldn’t do. Even today, he continues to be a great sponsor for me.” Mari ended up working her way up to being Darby’s assistant winemaker for 4 years which she describes as the most intensive hands-on learning that you can do when you’re 2 people crushing 85 tons of fruit.
Another benefit of her connections in the community and her hands-on work experience, was the opportunity to develop her own relationships with some of the best vineyards in the region. Boushey and Stillwater Creek, in particular, are renown vineyards that are in big demand by winemakers in the state. The fruit from these vineyards are so difficult to get, they don’t need to take a chance on a relatively new winemaker. Clearly their desire to work with Mari is a testament not only to the personal connection she has with them, but to the respect they have for her winemaking ability as their name also goes on to the bottle.
Her first vintage under her own label was in 2012 and today she’s currently making 9 wines: a Rosé (first vintage currently in production), a Chardonnay, a Red Blend, a GSM blend, a Cabernet Franc, a Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Syrah, and a Grenache (her first vintage was just released). We’re somehow not surprised to learn that other than help in the tasting room, it’s just her looking after the production of approximately 1400 cases (17 to18 tonnes of fruit) of Damsel Wines. However, a little more surprising after tasting through 5 of the wines in her lineup (see tasting notes below), is the shockingly good price point given the quality level, “I made a conscious decision early on. A lot of it is that you make money in certain places and then sacrifice money in other places to get your brand going. At this point we’ll continue with 3 (the Rosé, Chardonnay & Red blend) at US$18, and then the rest will be in the mid/high $30s.”
Hearing about Mari’s tenacity, focus and passion, it begged the question as to why name the winery “Damsel” noting the obvious connotation to the word. “My partner Jay and I had discussed it early on. He came up with it and I thought it would be a cute name for a Rosé…we were going to name all the wine individually and have fanciful names and get all creative, but the more it kicked around in my head the more it really represented the fact that, in my mind, wine is very feminine and being a female winemaker there aren’t a lot of us yet in the Washington State wine industry that are head winemakers and owners. A ton of women are working in the industry, always have been, but not as many out in front. It was important for me to do that little nod to the feminine aspect of winemaking.
Gender has never hampered anything that Mari has done and she’s never felt forced into a specific role just because she’s a woman, “I think there are plenty of people out here where if you are hardworking and make a good product, you’re going to get recognized. I would love it if there were more women visibly out front leading in wine but there are plenty of women in the business; it’s more the visibility factor of actually being seen in those lead roles. Eventually I would love it even more if the qualifier would just go away. No one wants to be known for being a great female winemaker. Just a great winemaker. I’m not in competition with the other women, we’re all competing and cooperating together as an industry. When the qualifier goes away, and it isn’t such a noticeable difference, that will be great.”
We thoroughly enjoyed meeting Mari, hearing her unusual story, and tasting her wines for the first time. Her combination of strength, determination, and passion, all combined with a wicked sense of humour, made for a terrific interview. More importantly, she’s not just a great female winemaker, she’s a great winemaker…period.
2017 Damsel Chardonnay
From the McNary vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, this unoaked Chardonnay will win over even the staunchest “Anything But Chardonnay” wine drinker! A beautiful balance of acidity with a body and roundness that could match well with seafood or stand perfectly on its own with its bright citrus characteristics.
Excellent (US$18 – outstanding value at this price)
2016 Damsel Red Blend
Mari makes up this blend from “whatever I feel like making when it’s time to bottle.” The 2016 features 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Syrah, and 10% Cabernet Franc. This fruit driven blend was fermented in neutral oak with the intention of less tannins to make it perfectly approachable despite its youth.
Very Good+ (US$18 – outstanding value at this price)
2016 Damsel Boushey Vineyard Grenache
From the famed Boushey Vineyard, this is Mari’s first vintage doing a Grenache and it’s a terrific inaugural vintage. Raspberry and strawberry with a hint of herb and spice on the nose. Medium+ body it has a wonderful savoury characteristic that rounds out a with a smoked meat character. We also had the opportunity to barrel taste the 2017 vintage and it’s shaping up to be another excellent offering.
2015 Damsel Stillwater Creek Syrah
100% Syrah from the Stillwater Creek Vineyard, this wine is made up of a combination of 2 different clones that Mari blends together. It’s clean and smooth with a luscious mouthfeel. Blackberry, mocha and pepper, with an incredibly long finish.
Excellent+ (US$30 – seriously great value!)
2014 Damsel Cabernet Sauvignon
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from both the Boushey & Stillwater Vineyards. Held back for 5 years to ensure it’s given enough time to start showing it’s potential. “People drink their cab far too young and I think they’re starting to get the impression that that’s what they think it tastes like. I don’t hate cab but I like it when it’s done well and it’s given the time that it needs to become integrated and do what it’s supposed to do. It’s tough because it’s financially challenging to hold back your wine as a business. I hold back for 5 years because I only get one chance to impress people.” And impressed we were…big and bold with a terrific structure, this still has a good 5-7 years before it reaches full maturity.
18744 – 142nd Ave NE, Woodinville, WA 98072
Open Saturday/Sunday 1pm-5pm or By Appointment