In the ever-evolving world of wine, trends are like fine vintages—they come and go, leaving a distinct mark on the palate of the industry.
Lately, two prominent trends have been swirling through the wine culture challenging traditional notions and reshaping the way we approach the world of wine: the increasing demand for low or no-alcohol alternatives and the rise of ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails. These trends not only signify a shift in consumer preferences but also pose new challenges for winemakers as they navigate an increasingly competitive market.
Mari Womack, owner and winemaker of Damsel Cellars has been bucking these and other trends since she began her odyssey by doing one thing: staying focused on producing high quality wine.
Washington State’s wine industry has seen massive growth in the last decade and Mari’s small production winery is no different. We first met her in 2019 when Damsel was just 7 years old. She was producing 2,000 cases a year on her own while housing a small tasting room at her winery location. 4 years later, she has a full-time assistant winemaker, a cellar hand during harvest, is producing 3600 cases a year, has expanded the original tasting room at her flagship location, and she’s opened a second wine tasting room in the heart of Woodinville’s Hollywood Hill District.
It’s not that Mari is ignoring what consumers want, she’s just not convinced the trends necessarily reflect her clients.
Over the years the learnings have been plenty and, just like the vintages, consumer trends are impossible to predict. Wine drinkers have always been a finicky bunch, throw in the generational preferences between Boomers, Gen X, and millennials and it’s really anyone’s guess as to what people say they want versus what their buying habits suggest. Case in point, if millennials really are prioritizing sustainability, smaller production wineries are far more environmentally friendly and natural than any RTD drink that has been mass-produced elsewhere in a large factory.
Rather than concern herself with playing the constant guessing game, Mari focuses on the one thing she can control and let’s the final product speak for itself.
It certainly seems to be paying off as she’s seeing off-premise sales increase 20% thanks to several local restaurants featuring Damsel wines, and wine club sign ups have also increased steadily year over year.
“After all the growth we’ve seen in Washington, there’s a certain expectation of a lot of attrition and consolidation coming,” Mari tells us. “A lot of the small wineries and family farms don’t have succession plans. Many of the next generation aren’t interested in following the same path and everything’s more expensive right now. With Chateau Ste. Michelle downsizing and California coming up to Washington, there’s likely going to be a big shift in the next 5-10 years.”
For her wines, Mari draws inspiration from ancient myths and legends, infusing her wines with a sense of mystique and storytelling.
Each bottle becomes a vessel for a narrative, evoking a sense of adventure and intrigue. These names aren’t arbitrary; they are carefully chosen to reflect the essence of the wine within.
‘The Fates’ tells the story about how Mari ended up making a wine she never intended that initially became one of her most critically acclaimed. When she established Damsel, she was planning on producing strictly single varietal wines, never blends. In 2016, she had to co-ferment Grenache and Mourvèdre because she received less than a half ton of both varieties when she had been expecting more than a ton of each.
“I processed it and co-fermented the Grenache and Mourvèdre, threw some stems in there for fun and it fermented beautifully. So the Fates became a staple in the back of my mind of now that I have the Fates Rhône blend, I have to have the ‘Furies’ Bordeaux blend.” When she moved to her current location and saw the concrete tank, she immediately thought of fermenting Syrah in it and the concrete also conjured up the myth of Medusa turning men into stone, “that wine [Medusa] just named herself and then I realized I had this whole series.”
Mari works with several different varieties ranging from Pinot Gris and Marsanne to Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Her favourite to work with are the Rhône varietals because they’re not as prescriptive, “you can co-ferment them and do all sorts of funky things—crush, de-stem, whole cluster, add stems back…where with Cabernet being so expensive, you just don’t want to screw it up.”
Despite shifting consumer trends, fluctuations in financial markets, and heightened competition from various sources, Mari remains steadfast in charting her own course, repeatedly shaping her own destiny. There’s no doubt that the goddesses are favorably watching over her as she continues to walk the path of her fate.
2022 Damsel Cellars Marsanne
Medium gold in colour. This is a 100% varietal wine, in our experience unusual for Marsanne which is usually found in the company of Roussanne. But Damsel has found a way to make this work as this wine has plenty of richness and texture and does not need a blending partner. Fruit is sourced from Boushey Vineyard on Red Mountain – one of Washington’s finest vineyards. Fresh and bright but also having a medium body. One eighth of the barrels went through malolactic fermentation leaving the wine with medium acidity. The wine shows lovely pear and melon flavours with hints of citrus adding complexity. There are spicy notes on the finish that add to the sense of definition.
2021 Damsel Cellars Medusa
Sticking with the varietal theme, Medusa is 100% Syrah. 50% whole clusters are used here to add a touch of additional savouriness. Dark red to purple in colour it shows the depth that comes when your source of fruit is another top quality vineyard, this time Stillwater Creek on the Royal Slope. This Syrah steps outside of what has evolved into the Washington tradition where lots of sunshine and heat generally produce big and bold, black-fruit driven wines. Medusa shows red and black fruits, medium body and structure and evokes more St. Joseph than Barossa. Lovely mouthfeel that shows elegance and cries out to be served with roasted meats of any type!
Very Good+ (USD$54)
2020 Damsel Cellars The Fates
Moving into blended wines we have a Châteauneuf-du-Pape look alike that is 50% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre and 20% Syrah. Clocking in at 15.2% alcohol, it showed no heat but just a voluptuous full body. Cherry liqueur dominates the flavour profile and gets support from the dried herbs, cracked pepper and earthy notes. Hedonistic but by no means overdone, just intense flavours and rich mouthfeel. Delicious now but likely to improve for many years.
Excellent+ (USD$38 – particularly good value for this quality level)
2019 Damsel Cellars The Furies
This blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc shows that when Bordeaux varieties are grown in Washington and put in the hands of talented winemakers you get a wine that shows the quality of a classified growth Bordeaux.
Black currant and blackberry primary notes are joined by secondary hints of baking spice and pencil shavings. Medium body, medium+ tannin and medium acid this shows a very classy, St. Julien-like quality. Theres is a soft, round texture within a perimeter of ripe tannin. The finish is long and infused dried herbs and pencil shavings. Delicious!
2022 Damsel Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
Light gold in colour, we get notes of grapefruit and citrus on a light body with medium acidity. Fresh and crisp, but steering away from that pungency that too many Sauvignons show, this has great balance that makes for a very pleasing aperitif style white that would be very refreshing on a hot, summer day.
Very Good+ (USD$20)
2022 Naked Chardonnay
Raised 100% in stainless steel this Chardonnay is on point with the current trend towards leaner, fresher wines. Apple, melon and hints of marzipan. Medium body with medium acid this wine achieves a sense of elegance while still providing a pleasing mouthfeel.
Very Good+ (USD$25)
2022 Damsel Persephone Pinot Gris
Another varietal wine, this is focused and racy showing notes of green apple and citrus. The body is medium and the acid probably nudges up to medium+. Raised in 50% stainless steel tank and 50% in concrete egg this has both roundness and linearity. The finish is long and juicy. Very refreshing.
Very Good+ (USD$28)
We have not encountered that much Malbec in Washington and this wine makes us wonder why not? Deep red/purple in colour this wine has medium+ body and medium+ tannin. The flavour profile has dark red charry, plum and hints of blackberry. The finish is long and spice-infused. Round and approachable this was sophisticated but pleasure-driven.
Artisan Hill Tasting Room (Flagship)
18746 142nd Ave NE
Woodinville, WA 98072
H: Saturday & Sunday: 1pm-5pm
Hollywood Hill Tasting Room
14467 Redmond-Woodinville Rd NE
Woodinville, WA 98072
H: Sunday-Thursday: 12pm-6pm / Saturday & Sunday 12pm-7pm