LEWISTON — Coco Umiker can be viewed as the Joan Jett of the Pacific Northwest wine industry — a young and feisty winemaker who released a number of hits in 2014 and whose wines went gold at major West Coast competitions.
And yet the wine world nearly lost Umiker two decades ago to ovarian cancer, years before she began learning how to make award-winning wine at her Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston.
“Once you’ve been the bald kid at school and lost all hope of trying to fit in, it’s freeing,” she said while pruning Syrah vines planted on her family farm. “I try to make my days and moments count. It helped fuel my fire.”
It shaped who Umiker, 34, is today, even though 11-year-old girls aren’t supposed to know about ovarian cancer or make their own choices on treatments that can determine life or death. Yet Nicole “Coco” Gardner nearly didn’t make it to middle school, much less Timberline High School in Boise, the University of Idaho or Washington State University, where she received her doctorate.
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“I was too ornery to let cancer get me down,” she said with a twinkle in her big brown eyes. “I may be small, but I’m vicious,” she said.
Her vineyard manager, business partner and husband, Karl Umiker, quips, “I don’t mess with her.”
Cancer nearly killed her more than once. First, it was the 12-hour surgery required to remove the three pounds of tumor that grew so insidiously from an ovary that it wrapped itself around her aorta.
“As a winemaker, even just 1 percent of something in a blend can make or break a wine,” she said. “I weighed just 89 pounds, so the cancer ended up being more than 3 percent of my body weight.”
Surgeons told her parents that Coco set a record for that hospital — most hours spent in surgery by a child. Her long road to recovery wouldn’t begin until after a summer’s worth of chemotherapy.
“There were four, one-weeklong treatments, which doesn’t seem like much, but god, it was transformative,” she said with a chuckle.
Cancer-killing drugs drained her energy and her appetite. And while she would bounce back from that, the bullying she suffered at grade school seems to have left the deepest scars.
At the same time, it strengthened the bond with Danielle Orchard, her friend before, during and beyond cancer.
“She was a super-good athlete — and fast,” Orchard recalls. “I was the one holding her feet when she was doing sit-ups in PE class and had this terrible pain in her stomach. She had to go to the nurse’s office, and I remember it was terrifying for me because she was always so tough. I’ll never forget seeing her in such pain and agony and her fear of not being sure what was going on.”
Initially, Coco was misdiagnosed with a charley horse, but her mom, Mary Mc-Quary, insisted on a second opinion. Mother’s intuition saved Coco’s life as she was rushed into surgery at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute. The spread of cancer meant removing the uterus and one ovary.
“I have this radical scar, but now I’ll even wear a two-piece (bathing suit),” she said. “They actually did a pretty good job of putting me back together, which is incredible after being open for that long.”
She lost her summer vacation, and by the time she returned to school in September, she weighed just 59 pounds. The months of chemo cost her 30 pounds and all of her hair.
“When I look back on the cancer, there were three really glowing moments,” she said. “One was when I went to the oncology clinic, and I sat there on the bench and they said, ‘You have cancer.’
“My grandmother died a year earlier from cancer, and I sat there with my parents looking at the doctor and the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Am I going to die?’ The doctor wasn’t going to say, ‘No.’ They were honest with me, which I really appreciated.
“She told me that I have a great chance of beating this, and that was all I ever needed. I never once thought about it after that — the bubble never went into my brain that I was going to die. They didn’t talk about odds, and I knew I had this team behind me. I thought a lot about my pain and illness and how horrible I would feel, but never thought about dying ever again.”
Her next critical moment came just before her last scheduled chemotherapy.
“I’d had such a rough time,” she said. “I was neutropenic. My platelet count was nonexistent, and my blood count was way down, so they let me make the decision. It was really cool. I was a kid, but it was my cancer, and this was my treatment, and there were some questions as to whether I could really handle another treatment.
“I was just so, so sick, but I had that control. It wasn’t my parents forcing me. It wasn’t the doctors forcing me. I thought long and hard about it, but I wanted to go for it because I didn’t want to move forward and then possibly relapse and wonder. My thought was, ‘I’m already here. How much worse can it get?’ So I went for it. It was a huge moment for an 11-year-old — to make such a powerful decision like that. Very defining for me.”
Beating cancer gave her confidence, but the bullying she faced daily at school also shaped the rest of her life.
“She used to be one of the top athletes in school, but when she came back, she’d be the last one picked on a team when we’d play kickball or basketball in the playground,” Orchard said. “And people would make fun of her wig or throw her hat over the fence. Kids can be so cruel.”
Coco quickly pinpoints the third defining moment of her battle to overcome what cancer did to her.
“It was the day I stood up to my bullies,” she said. “I came out on the other side of all the surgery and the nausea, and although I had a good group of friends, there was a group of kids who started bullying me.
“They would steal my hat, throw it over the fence, and I’d have to do the walk of shame to go grab my hat. They would laugh and mock me. It went on for quite a while, and if my friends weren’t there to chase them off, it would keep happening. There was always some way they would find me in that moment.”
Coco said it’s typical for parents to be unaware of the level of abuse their children face at school, the playground or online.
“I didn’t tell my parents that I was being bullied,” she said. “My mom was the type who would have gone and done something had she known, but there’s this shame and fear about telling people you are being bullied.”
What made matters worse is the ringleader was a girl who was two grades younger.
“There would be more and more people watching,” Umiker said. “It was getting scary, and you feel as though the whole world is against you. I begged my parents to let me stay home. I remember crying after school and crying before school. I was really terrified to go. I can’t imagine having a child of my own deal with that. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“So I hopped up on the box in the middle of the playground and whipped off my hat,” she remembered. “That’s what got them all to come over. I hollered at everybody and gave them the story.
“I had cancer,” she told them. “I almost died this summer, and my hair fell out because I was so sick. It will come back, and I am getting better, but to pick on me is cruel. Many of your grandparents had cancer, and some of them probably died from it. If you want to see my bald head, I’ll take my hat off and I’ll show you.”
It was the desperate breakthrough she needed.
“Nobody said anything,” Umiker said. “I think the curiosity was dead at that point, and I told them, ‘You can’t catch cancer. This isn’t going to rub off on you somehow.’ And that was it. The mean kids were still mean to me, but not as much. They didn’t have an audience anymore, and more kids stood up for me.”
The combination of experiences made her reflective and compassionate beyond her years.
“I’m always the first to cheer for the last in the race and the underdog,” she said with smile. “I’ve been there. I was the slowest kid. I was the ugliest kid. I was the strange kid. I was the kid who was picked on.”
It took her years to regain her athletic prowess, but not for lack of effort. In the eighth grade, she joined her school’s cross country team. The necessary tearing through of the scar tissue in her abdomen and her conditioning would lead to vomiting at the end of those 3-mile runs.
“I didn’t have any friends who were running cross country, and I knew my body needed that push, but I was always the very last kid across the line,” she said with a smile. “I wasn’t even a runner. The coach didn’t find out about the cancer until the very end of the season and then he cried. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ And I said, ‘You would have treated me differently, and I didn’t need that or want that.’ ”
By her senior year at Timberline, she’d emerged as one of the region’s top runners. At the University of Idaho, she advanced to national finals in cycling as a senior.
“Both groups tend to be really encouraging people,” she said. “I found a lot of support there to keep working at it.”
She also continued her relationship with Camp Rainbow Gold in Boise, an oncology center for children with cancer.
“I was there for a decade, either as a camper or a counselor,” she said. “Kids are running around there bald and beautiful.”
Some of the stories make her laugh. Others still produce tears. Cancer killed many of her fellow campers, including her boyfriend, Jamie Paul Confer. That proved too painful for her to continue her volunteer work at Camp Rainbow Gold. His life touched so many, there’s an endowed scholarship at the College of Idaho for cancer survivors in his name.
“She fell in love with Jamie, and when Jamie died, she really faced her own mortality,” Orchard said. “She faced so much at such a young age, and when you go through several phases of life while growing up — like she did — you can’t help but be changed by those experiences.”
Coco began to turn the page after she graduated from Timberline in 1999 and matriculated to the University of Idaho. Competitive cycling at the Moscow school introduced her to Karl, a chemistry grad from Arkansas on his way to a master’s degree in soil science. Their hard work, intelligence, passion for wine and contrasting personalities proved to be a winning formula.
“I think cancer had an impact on how driven I ended up being later in life,” she said. “I’ve done what I wanted to do and put my heart into it. I’ve got confidence in making my own decisions. I’m not going to get bullied or pressured by anyone, and if they try — Karl knows this because he lives with me — good luck.”
In 2003, while still in college, they began planting vines where Coco spent her summers as a child, on land her grandfather farmed his entire life. A year later, the Umikers launched Clearwater Canyon Cellars with 100 cases in a Lewiston garage and six partners.
They now produce 3,000 cases at their Port of Lewiston vinification facility near the Clearwater River, and their wines have proven so popular with judges and consumers, they had no inventory to sell this past winter. The 2012 vintage was the first when neither had a day job either teaching or doing research, and those Clearwater Canyon Cellars wines reflect that.
“It seemed like every competition we entered, one of our wines took top honors,” Coco said. “We were the only winery in the Pacific Northwest that had two wines in Great Northwest Wine’s top 25. We were on The Seattle Times’ top-50 list. We won a Platinum for our 2012 Carménère and a Double Platinum for our estate 2012 Merlot from Wine Press Northwest, and the year started when our 2011 Carménère got a gold at the San Francisco Chronicle. It was an amazing year in terms of awards. We look at it as confirmation that we’re on the right track."
Indeed, they have put Lewiston back on the international wine map — more than a century after Prohibition withered a historic region that was once home to the Pacific Northwest’s largest commercial vineyard.
“Being on the pioneering edge of something — and something great — is where the excitement is at for us,” she said. “And we have the history here with our family. It takes a lot of energy and ambition to be on the edge of something, but it’s so rewarding. I don’t find myself wishing, ‘I hope we were in Napa or somewhere else making wine.’”
Orchard, the dear friend from childhood, went on to the University of Texas to study medicine and has returned to Boise. This summer, she’ll work as an internal medicine physician at St. Luke’s. She’s also a fan of Coco the winemaker.
“(Coco) still can look like a little kid who couldn’t be old enough to drink wine, much less make wine, but she has an old soul for a reason,” Orchard said. “She’s just an incredible person.”
Tasting room customers at Clearwater Canyon Cellars might see medals hanging off her award-winning wines, but they won’t spot any cancer-themed ribbons. That’s not her style. She’d much rather make the argument for producing the Northwest’s best Merlot last year.
This year, she and Karl hope the federal government formally establishes the Lewis-Clark Valley as an American Viticultural Area, a petition process the Umikers have helped research as well as shoulder financially.
And next year, Karl and Coco hope to move their Clearwater Canyon Cellars production facility and tasting room next to their vines on Grandpa Nichols’ property in the Lewiston Orchards neighborhood — just in time to celebrate her family farm’s centennial anniversary. They also plan to add another generation to the farm.
“We want kids, so (the ovarian cancer) has been a little more painful to deal with, but we feel pretty excited about the idea of adopting a child,” she said. “It’s too bad that I can’t have a child, and I was grieving for Karl when I had to tell him because it’s his loss, too.”
As winemaker for Wine Press Northwest’s 2015 Idaho Winery of the Year, it’s obvious Coco is continuing to make the right choices. And she breathes in air that comes across as a little bit sweeter to cancer survivors.
“In some ways, being different for a moment in time, was very freeing and life-changing,” she said. “Would I have asked for it? No. Am I grateful that I had cancer and I was bullied? No. In retrospect, though, they probably did me a favor. I learned some things I probably wouldn’t have, and I would not be the same person if they hadn’t done that to me and if I hadn’t been so sick.
“It’s taught me to be my own person and go my own way and make my own decisions,” she continued. “You have that confidence. It’s been that way for me for such a long time. That’s my comfort zone. It makes more sense to me to make my own decisions rather than follow the herd.”
And that mentality has made her the award-winning winemaker she is today.
“In wine, it’s important to have your own style and make your own decisions, and that’s where the art comes in,” she said. “That part of winemaking came natural to me.”
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information website. Learn more about wine and see more of their stories at GreatNorthwestWine.com.