Women Making Wine—Finally Getting Attention

By Madeleine Hill Vedel

Sun contributor

“The wine industry is a sea of men,” confirmed Kasey Wierzba, head winemaker at Shady Lane Cellars in Suttons Bay, as we sat down to discuss her experiences in the wine industry and the path she took to arrive where she is—in charge of production at one of the region’s most beloved wineries, winning accolades alongside her colleagues.

In fact, this is not the first time we have met though it is only the second occasion. Kasey surprised me by remembering a moment seven years prior when I had purchased bikes from her and her husband’s new shop in Suttons Bay. I am impressed and touched by her memory of me and my children. It is quickly apparent that this gracious moment of connection is not unique to me.

Kasey grew up in Traverse City, loving the outdoors and the sciences. She pursued her education at Michigan State in horticulture and continued onto a Master’s with a focus on viticulture and oenology. With these degrees under her belt as well as local internships, notably with winemaker Lee Lutes at Black Star, vineyard management expert Craig Cunningham, and vintner Jay Briggs, now at 45 North, previously at Shady Lane Cellars, she suggested to Nick, her husband, that they leave the region and investigate opportunities out West in Napa Valley. “We were ready to explore.”

Focused and determined to hone her skills in all aspects of the wine world, Kasey was able to work under and with a number of accomplished women in the California wine world, who modeled lives filled with work, small children, and professional success. In the meantime, Nick built and operated a bike touring company which, when they returned to Michigan in 2012, evolved into his current bike shop and wine trail touring business, Suttons Bay Bikes.

During her seven seasons in Napa, Kasey worked first at Rudd Estate as a part-time harvest assistant using her oenology/chemistry skills in the lab. She then landed a full-time job at Frog’s Leap as vineyard manager under winemaker Paula Mascotti—a mother juggling her full-time occupation, while her husband managed his coffee company. “It was really interesting to see a woman big time multi-tasking. She always found time to bring it all together. She was a mom. She was really encouraging.”

Kasey worked two seasons with Paula before taking a break to give birth to her son. Before he hit his first birthday, she was back at Rudd for another seasonal stint focused on winemaking. “It’s amazing what sleep deprivation and focus can accomplish. You prove things to yourself and they continue to build your confidence and create more character at the same time,” Kasey said, laughing of that challenging period. After the season at Rudd, she moved into a full-time position at Far Niente Winery of Nickel & Nickel as a viticulturist, making use of her science background. There she worked with proprietor Beth Nickel and her two women winemakers Darice Spinelli and Nicole Marchesi, the latter close in age to Kasey and a young mother.

“I was inspired by these women moving forward and navigating some of the earlier years of the wine industry. It is still dominated by men and definitely was back then.”

The temptation was strong for both Kasey and Nick to stay in California, but the pull of family brought them back to Michigan, “We felt like we had put a lot of roots down in California and if we didn’t uproot those smaller roots, a big old tap root would grow and we’d be anchored. It would have been a different aspect for our children, growing up far from family.”

Back in Michigan, expecting her second child, Kasey spent the first year in the county helping Nick build his new bike shop, growing it into something sustainable. Once the shop was established, Kasey took a job with Wilbur Ellis, an agriculture supply company, scouting in the vineyards and orchards all over Leelanau and Old Mission. It was the foot in the door to start a conversation with local wineries. Attending gatherings at the Michigan State Research Center proved another platform for letting people in the industry know she was here and looking for an opening to get back into a winery. Jay Briggs, her former internship mentor, told her of a seasonal job at Shady Lane, under winemaker Adam Satchwell, for the harvest of 2013. After that first harvest together Adam offered her the assistant winemaker position. Three challenging harvests later—punctuated by the polar vortex of 2014, and the August hailstorm of 2015—Adam moved on and Kasey took over as head winemaker.

“It doesn’t matter what level of education you have, you start at the bottom [in a winery] and work your way up. You really start at the bottom, and even once you get to a place where you feel pleased about where you are, you are still schlepping a hose around, and cleaning—no one’s exempt. We all have lives and have to pitch in. That is one thing that makes a successful winery, and a successful group of people who work together—the absence of someone feeling exempt from doing a certain task. I think that success for a winery depends on people respecting others and working as a team.”

Much has happened at Shady Lane in Kasey’s three years at the helm. 2018 marked the year it became a fully estate-grown winery, making all their wines from grapes grown on the property. In 2016 she initiated an ambitious reserve program, currently featuring a reserve Cabernet Franc and a Blaufrankish of 2016, and a Pinot Noir in 2017. For these smaller batch wines she selects the best fruit, makes use of select ferments and barrels, and explores longer aging times than the winery’s classic offerings, seeking to express the full potential of the vineyards’ fruit.

“We have an amazing site here where there’s a large piece of land—two separate historical farms, with a combined 100 acres, of which over 53 are planted. The new property, Hennessey vineyard off of French Road, has a great southerly facing slope where it always feels three degrees warmer. It has all day sun. The two varieties over there I’m most excited about, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, are making beautiful wines with round mouth feel, warmer flavors and tones. We’ve also planted Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc there, as well as our Grüner Veltliner.”

Exuding a blend of calm assurance and infectious enthusiasm, Kasey gives credit to her mentors, her colleagues, and her capable assistants Adrienne Stone and Richard Lauzon, as she spoke to me of the short history of the wine industry of Northern Michigan compared to the [salt water] coasts, of the United States in general compared to Europe, and the adjustments she has made shifting from California’s Napa Valley to the hills of Leelanau County. Coming into her position at this particular juncture has been a plus. The questions of what varieties grow best up here and what to do in the years when the acidity is high and tannin extraction low have been faced before. “As an industry now, if we can’t squeeze out fantastic red wines from a certain vintage, you see a lot of rosé being made. Which is as it should be. The industry has made this turn towards a demand in quality, and we are all benefiting. We are on the cusp of being recognized internationally.”

As for being a woman in the industry, she refers to the recent win of the American Soccer Team at the World Championships in Europe. “A lot of careers and industries are recognizing that women have been a part in the industry, and we’re finally getting the recognition.”

With another appointment arriving shortly it is time to head out, but not without making plans to return to taste those reserve wines with Kasey, and perhaps to pitch in to help—if not carrying hoses, then perhaps by offering a meal during harvest. 

To visit, sample a few glasses, and enjoy an afternoon on the spacious new outdoor tasting area: Shady Lane Cellars is located at 9580 E Shady Lane in Suttons Bay. 231-947-8865 or email info@shadylanecellars.com.