Being a female winemaker is a remarkable thing in the wine industry; there are perhaps fewer than 20 among the 900+ wineries statewide. But, for Anna Schafer of àMaurice Cellars, that distinction is more like a box she checks on government forms.
While the media trend du jour is to spotlight standout winemakers who are women, Schafer of àMaurice Cellars is quick to refract the glow back on her support team. àMaurice is, after all, a family business, and the Schafer family has a long history of entrepreneurial drive.
“I am a fifth-generation Washingtonian,” said Schafer. Her great-great-grandfather moved to the territory in the mid-1800s during a land grab, settling in Aberdeen to raise a family. Since the beginning, the Schafer family has made significant contributions to the entrepreneurial spirit of the state.
As a young boy, her great-grandfather and his two older brothers walked the family cow from Aberdeen to Olympia each week to sell its milk at the market. One day, the boys decided that in addition to selling milk, they would cut a tree down and see how much they could make for the wood — a month’s worth of milk sales, as it turned out. They developed that idea into a huge timber company that outperformed Weyerhaeuser at the time.
Her grandfather, Maurice (the winery’s namesake), supported the war effort through his skills at properly loading and balancing cargo onto ships (in a time before computers, mind you). And her father, Tom, was a founding partner at Kidder Matthews, a commercial real estate firm with local roots. When he retired from commercial real estate in his mid ’50s, he took those entrepreneurial skills in a new direction — a family-owned winery.
The business may have been new, but his wine love affair started at the end of the 1960s on a Pacific Island (Fiji or Tahiti; the family stories vary). His mentor, with whom he was traveling, ordered a bottle of 1963 Mouton Rothschild. The waiter presented it with ceremony, and the wine astounded her father, along with how it augmented the meal. He carried the empty bottle around with him for weeks.
Fast forward 40 years, and the Schafer family is hard at work in the Walla Walla Valley, where it sustainably farms grape vines in the Mill Creek area. The Bellevue-based family chose to make wine in Walla Walla after visiting a cousin there several times. Each visit, they became more entrenched in the local wine culture.
“The sense of community quality in Walla Walla is so far superior than everywhere else in the state,” said Schafer. “Everyone is pushing everyone else to do better.”
The whole family nominated then-25-year old Schafer for the position of winemaker back when the winery was first getting started, and although she coaxes beautiful, complex flavors from the fruit, she says her mother Kathleen is the real boss.
“She has an incredible olfactory memory,” said Schafer. Everything must meet with Kathleen’s stamp of approval.
Schafer, an art history major during college, sketches and paints many of the winery’s labels: hummingbirds, sparrows, and owls. Once again, Kathleen deserves a little credit. The artistic streak flows from her genes. She was heavily involved with PONCHO, a nonprofit arts fundraising group in Seattle, and worked on large commission projects, but eventually put the brushes down after discovering the challenges associated with making art and raising young children.
“She was working on this huge commission for Seafirst Bank and had just finished it when my brother, Nick, accidentally kicked over a jar of India ink.” Goodbye, art.
The family has weekly meetings to discuss the business.
As it pertains to people interested in the winery business, Schafer suggests starting with three acres at a time in production. The following year, up it to six, then nine, etc.
“Don’t think you’re going to start a 20,000 case winery from the get-go. You can’t sell all of it to your friends,” she said.
àMaurice Cellars Tasting Rooms are in Walla Walla and Woodinville.