Some people are born into the world of wine, some people are drawn to it later in life, and in Ashley Trout’s case, some are simply destined for it. Ashley established her two brands Brook & Bull Cellars and Vital Wines in 2016, 10 years after founding her first winery. The former is staking its place among Washington’s elite, and the latter is a non-profit winery in which 100% of its proceeds are donated toward improving access to healthcare for local vineyard workers.
One would think that a person with so much drive and 30 harvests under her belt has known exactly what she wanted to do from the start. But we soon discovered that the secret to her success is an adventurous spirit that seizes the opportunities presented to her.
Ashley’s initial foray into the wine world at 18 was a more unusual and varied path without an ounce of glamour associated to it. She simply needed a job while she was attending Whitman College in Walla Walla. Originally from Washington DC, Ashley had spent her summers in LA but decided on Whitman for the opportunity to experience life in a small town.
“I had always intended to move back to the city once college was done and that would be it for small-town life, so while I was here, I knew time was of the essence. I thought my time was going to be limited here so I said yes to everything.”
One of those yeses was a job doing the nighttime punch downs at Reinginer Winery, “I initially thought what a ridiculous job just mixing up bins of wine, but I tried it and I loved it. During the day I was surrounded by people in the academic life and not doing a lot of physical work, then at night I could go do a workout in this place that smelled amazing, that I had all to myself…smelling, touching and tasting these things—it was a sensory experience that was different from anything else I was doing.”
Wine wasn’t something that was appreciated or prized during her upbringing so this nocturnal exposure is what started her trip down the proverbial rabbit hole, or in this case, the wine cellar. “I loved that you could tap into that version of intellect—that full sensory experience—and I just never stopped.”
That part-time job became a full-time job, but she still didn’t view it at the time as her profession. The turning point occurred when she was hiking in Japan and had a serious accident that resulted in 5 surgeries forcing her to miss her 5th harvest. “It felt very inappropriate for me not to be working harvest. That was a surprise.”
When she graduated college, she started doing double harvests working in the northern hemisphere in Washington and spending the winter months in Argentina’s Mendoza region. Her stints there included Alta Vista (one of Michel Rolland’s winery projects), Mendel, Tamari and Tapez.
At Brook & Bull, Ashley makes varietal wines that include Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Her experience in Argentina likely influenced her love for the latter and after tasting hers we asked why she thinks Malbec can be done so well in Washington. “I think everyone can grow Malbec well. It’s an extremely forgiving grape in the vineyards and with the winemaker so when a vine is young [3rd or 4th leaf], even what that produces is good, which isn’t always the case for other varieties.”
On the winemaking side, she credits the fact it’s a variety that ripens early, giving winemakers lots of time to make choices, “you’re never up against the wall worrying about first frost when you’re picking that first Malbec. It also doesn’t lose its acidity on the vine very easily so you can wait for it to get to exactly where you want to get it to and it will maintain its structure.”
Ashley also makes a “Come Hell or High Water” Red blend consisting of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon. An unusual blend given Syrah would typically be the varietal of choice with Grenache and Mourvèdre versus Cabernet Sauvignon.
“As you become a larger winery you generally have to fit more of a classic genre of offerings; we’re not limited to do that which I love.
People are generally afraid to try new wines but there are 10,000 varieties out there, so I like providing the opportunity for people to be a bit more adventurous in an easily digestible format…I use the Cab as the tried-and-true backbone so while it’s not the norm, it’s not so crazy that you won’t give it a try.”
What inspired her to start her Vital Wines project was recognizing the deep discrepancy between Washington’s multi-billion-dollar wine industry and the many workers it depends on that aren’t having their basic needs met. That triggered her own memories of growing up and seeing the challenges for immigrants firsthand, “I was raised in a bi-cultural household and my brother and I would do the translating for our surrogate grandmother in the grocery store, the bank, or wherever. But when it came to translating in the hospital, I really hated that piece because…you have a lot of [1st or 2nd generation immigrant] grandparents and they walk into a hospital and rely on their grandkids to do the translating because that middle generation is off at work.”
“You’ve got these grandparents that want to look strong and large and in charge for the grandkids they’re taking care of, but instead they’re divulging these embarrassing body parts that aren’t working the right way. Then on the flipside you’ve got kids who understand how important it is to get the translating right for this moment, but it’s medical jargon and they’re 6. I just hated every piece of that…it’s humiliating for people who don’t deserve to be humiliated.”
Thanks to Vital, numerous programs have been rolled out including free or reduced-fee clinics such as SOS, a free mammogram program, and the Yakima farm workers clinic.
They also have a full-time community health advocate that reaches out directly to vineyard crews to understand concerns and frustrations to connect them with the right programs available to them.
Ashley’s the first to admit that she’s done a lot of things imperfectly and that Vital Wines is no different. “You have to start somewhere and none of it’s going to be perfect.”
While she may not be perfect, Ashley’s certainly making a case for being pretty close by not only producing outstanding wines, but also inspiring so many others with her social justice work.
Cheers to being imperfectly perfect.
2022 Brook & Bull Chardonnay Conner Lee Vineyard
Light straw in colour. This wine is on point with the New Chardonnay: leaner and fresher. By using just 5% to 10% new oak, a clean profile is achieved but weekly stirring of the lees adds the body that might otherwise come from barrel influence. We get notes of apple and citrus on a medium body with medium+ acid. The finish is long and saliva inducing. This would be a lovely accompaniment to a plate of cold appetizers. Very Good+
2021 Brook & Bull Malbec
100% Malbec. Dark red/purple in colour. This wine is fairly structured with medium body, medium+ acid and medium tannin and shows some youthful exuberance. Lots of black and blue fruit that shows complexity as well as the warmth of the vintage. There is a slight stewed fruit note that comes out with exposure to air. The tannin is grippy still but not astringent. This will no doubt improve and develop further for many years yet it has definite approachability right now. A very inviting mouthfeel that shows good balance between structure and fruit.
1249 Lyday Lane
Walla Walla, WA 99362
T: (509) 563-2191
H: Thursday-Sunday 11am-5pm (Reservations recommended)
Monday by appointment
*To purchase Vital Wines or make a donation click HERE.