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Legend of Latah

Michael and Ellena Conway, of Spokane, are celebrating 30 years in business at their Latah Creek winery. (Jesse Tinsley)
Michael and Ellena Conway, of Spokane, are celebrating 30 years in business at their Latah Creek winery. (Jesse Tinsley)

Path to becoming a winemaker an unusual one for Mike Conway

Mike Conway came to winemaking through the back door.

Fresh out of the military, Conway worked as a microbiology technician at Gallo in California. In 1977, he joined Parducci Wine Cellars as an assistant winemaker. “Looking back,” he says, “if I’d stayed there I’d probably have been an assistant winemaker for many, many years.”

Instead, Conway moved to Spokane in 1980 to become winemaker for Worden’s Winery. Two years later, he partnered with grape grower Mike Hogue to open Hogue Cellars and Latah Creek.

Conway recently recounted he introduction to winemaking and his 30 years as owner of Latah Creek winery:

S-R: What made you want to make wine?

Conway: There was no vision to begin with. I was about to get out of the Air Force in ’72, and the prospect of going back to school didn’t appeal to me. We were stationed in central California, so I applied for a number of jobs around there. Gallo happened to be the first place that took my application. I don’t know why they hired me. But I was able to go to school during the day and get my degree in microbiology. After three years at Gallo, I went to Franzia Brothers. They had wine classes, and I was invited to participate. I wasn’t doing any winemaking at that time; I was testing. But that class got me thinking about winemaking.

S-R: Where did you go from there?

Conway: In 1977, I heard that Parducci Wine Cellars in northern California was looking for an assistant winemaker. I had no winemaking experience, but I knew all of the processes. John Parducci was looking for someone he could train to make wine according to his technique, rather than getting a young UC Davis graduate with a preconceived notion of how wine was made. During the three years I was there, I learned winemaking from the ground up. That gave me the confidence in 1980 to move here and open a winery.

S-R: What was the local wine industry like then?

Conway: There were only 18 wineries in all of Washington. When we opened Latah Creek and Hogue in ’82, we were numbers 35 and 36. Now there are 20 wineries just in Spokane.

S-R: How much did it cost to start Latah Creek?

Conway: A little over $100,000. Back then you could borrow money. Today it would be virtually impossible to start a winery with loans.

S-R: What were the early years like?

Conway: They were great because the industry was so small. Wine events around the state were like family reunions. We’d gather to share wines and stories. Today, with 750 wineries in Washington, I probably only know a handful.

S-R: What was your first big success at Latah Creek?

Conway: We had a cabernet and a merlot in the late ’80s that were Wine Spectator Top 100 selections.

S-R: Any big changes over the years?

Conway: I think the biggest reasons for our success are the quality of our wines and our pricing. And we’ve been very conservative. Our vision was to do 30,000 gallons a year. We did that after our second vintage, and we’ve been there ever since.

S-R: How much do your wines cost?

Conway: Recently we’ve added some boutique reds in the $20-plus range, but 90 percent of our production retails for $9 to $16.

S-R: What do you like most about winemaking?

Conway: What I like most is what I hate most – that it’s different every year. It’s not something you can do from a cookbook. You’re dependent on Mother Nature, and 2011 was probably the most challenging harvest we’ve had in 30 years. We had a really late summer – we actually never had a summer – so we had to let the grapes hang longer. And that’s where the challenge of winemaking comes in, and gives you the most satisfaction: being able to make great wines from a difficult vintage.

S-R: Where do you get your grapes?

Conway: About 50 percent come from vineyards around the Gorge Amphitheatre, and the rest from the Wahluke Slope and the Yakima Valley – all within 150 miles of here.

S-R: What would surprise people most about winemaking?

Conway: All the manual labor. I’m inside the tanks, hosing out the sediments and dead yeast and stuff like that. It’s more than just taking a grape and magically transforming it into wine. There’s a real science to it, and you have to watch over it constantly.

S-R: Do you visit other wineries to get ideas?

Conway: Three of the wines we’re making today are because of some travels to Italy and seeing what they have there.

S-R: Wineries come and go. Are there some basic reasons they fail?

Conway: Probably the expectation that there’s going to be an instant cash return. It’s a long growth cycle. Newcomers can’t expect to sell their initial releases for the same high-end price as wineries with 20 years’ reputation. When we started our business we had a five-year prospectus, and we made that – but it took us 15 years.

S-R: Has the recession affected your business?

Conway: The entire industry has been affected – upper-end wines more than lower-end ones. We saw a 10 percent decrease in our sales, but from what I hear, that’s pretty darn good.

S-R: What are you most proud of about Latah Creek?

Conway: The fact that we’re still a family business and have been able to bring our daughter in as assistant winemaker.

S-R: Any changes on the horizon?

Conway: We’ve started our Monarch label – small-lot reserve red wines that cater to a different audience. Probably the biggest thing we’ve noticed over the years is people saying, “Well, this isn’t very expensive so it can’t be very good.” Then they taste it and their minds change. Now we’re making boutique wines for people willing to spend $20 to $30 for something special.

S-R: What’s your favorite wine besides your own?

Conway: If I’m drinking something that’s not Latah Creek, it’s typically Italian from the heel of the boot, and it’s primitivo. That’s a great everyday house wine.

S-R: Your winery is in the Spokane Valley, nowhere near Latah Creek. How did you come up with the name?

Conway: We lived in Hangman Valley when we first moved here. One day a neighbor who’d heard we were starting a winery left us a two-page list of name suggestions. We’d been thinking of something like Conway Cellars. But we read all the names and noticed Latah Creek. We didn’t realize that was the creek we passed every day, because we knew it as Hangman Creek. We chose Latah Creek just because we liked the sound of it.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at