Hailey Alexander just celebrated her 23rd birthday, and the smile she wears to work seems to be the same one she takes home after a day in an emerging industry.
And why not? The graduate of Mountain View High School in Meridian embraces her third harvest as the enologist for Cinder Wines and learning at the side of Cinder’s Melanie Krause, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most buzz-worthy winemakers.
“My friends think I have the coolest job ever, and I don’t disagree with them,” Alexander said. “They think it’s really crazy that someone my age has found a career path, let alone in the wine industry.”
So what is an enologist?
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“I usually say it’s an apprentice winemaker,” she said. “I’m learning the trade, which includes a lot of scientific analysis. And hopefully, one day, I’ll be one of the best.”
Success will come, said Krause, who owns and operates Cinder with her husband, Joe Schnerr. Both have helped to teach Alexander most of what she’s learned about winemaking, and the experience she’s gained has come without the financial burden of a college education.
“The only thing I can say with certainty is that she’ll be a really great winemaker,” Krause said. “We hope she stays in Idaho and contributes to the growth here, but she could also want to explore overseas. Hopefully, she doesn’t decide to do it for several more years. I don’t want to lose her yet.”
In the mind of Alexander, it’s been a win-win situation in every direction.
“The whole idea for Mel and Joe is that, ‘If we can make some people really inspired — young people — not only working with wine but working with Idaho wine, that’s really going to make our company stand out from the rest of the industry,” Alexander said. “They are going to really make a name for Cinder with these young, enthusiastic winemakers — show them the ropes and hopefully that will make the industry better and bring more awareness to Idaho.”
‘Aha’ on bottling line
The world of wine is filled with moving stories of romantic or fairy-tale experiences that have led people to pursue a career as a winemaker or vineyard manager. It’s commonly called their “aha moment,” a siren’s call that lures them body and soul into the industry.
For Alexander, it happened by chance. And the introduction was made during perhaps the most stressful chapter each year at any winery.
There’s no charm surrounding a day on the bottling line, and things can get ugly in a variety of ways.
“I remember my ‘aha moment’ very vividly,” Alexander said. “I was fresh out of high school, and Joe and Melanie, who knew my sister, kept inviting her to work bottling, but she was never available, so my sister texted me the invitation. That ended up being quite an opportunity for me. Here I was, an 18-year-old kid ...
“When I walked into the winery and just smelled all the aromas — the barrels, the wine, the steam from washing the barrels — it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “I was in awe that a place of work could smell that good. I thought to myself, ‘I could work here every day,’ and I hadn’t even bottled yet. It was really hard work, but I really enjoyed it and felt satisfied at the end of the day. I told them, ‘If you guys need any more help, please let me know.’ ”
Up to that point, her résumé — not that she had one — would have included service industry jobs with Wetzel’s Pretzels at Boise Towne Square and the Taj Mahal of Downtown Boise.
Alexander worked the bottling line a few more times at Cinder. Her age prevented her from pouring wine in the tasting room right away. Ultimately, she found her calling in the barrel room at the ripe age of 19.
“Early on, we saw that she’s a hard worker who was super enthusiastic about learning what we were doing and always questioned why,” Krause said. “That started as a cellar worker, and that trend continued.
“She already had this interest in cooking, and as soon as she was 21, we would taste and spit together,” Krause added. “I could tell she had a good palate, so all of those things factored into it. By that time, our company had started to grow like crazy, so it was time for me to get more help with the winemaking. And there she was. We were just waiting for her to turn 21 before we hired her as the enologist.”
It’s been quite a ride for Alexander and Cinder. Since first being hired, the popular and critically acclaimed Garden City brand has doubled in size from 4,000 cases to 8,000 cases. Its most recent awards include West Coast gold medals at the Sunset International Wine Awards for the 2015 Dry Viognier and a best of class for the 2015 Dry Rosé.
Saving on college debt
There are a number of esteemed West Coast colleges, some of world-class institutions, offering winemaking and viticulture degrees. Alumni from University of California-Davis, Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College fill the ranks of winemakers and vineyard managers throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Krause is a proud Cougar who used her formal education to gain employment at Chateau Ste. Michelle. Leslie Preston at Coiled earned a master’s degree from UC-Davis.
Oregon State, Chemeketa Community College, Umpqua Community College, Yakima Valley Community College and South Seattle CC also have wine programs.
Alexander felt no need to apply to any of them. She was learning on the job.
“She didn’t go to college, but we’ve trained her OTJ,” Krause said. “I think sometimes it’s something that she gets uncomfortable with when having conversations with people, but she’s so far along her path in becoming a winemaker that going to college for winemaking at this stage would be really silly, in my opinion.”
Instead, Alexander’s classrooms are the vineyards of the Snake River Valley and the lab, crush pad and barrel room on 44th Street.
“In my opinion, the best way to become a winemaker and make the best wine you can is to just go out there and make wine, study and know the science behind it,” Alexander said. “Nothing beats hands-on experience.”
Krause explained, “Before she became my enologist, we encouraged her to consider all her options, including college, and she looked at the prices. She’s learning so much now that it doesn’t make sense to get into debt and get a degree. We think what she’s done is great. There’s so much social pressure in our society to go to college, which I think can be annoying.”
There’s no doubt that some of Alexander’s friends admire and envy where she’s at financially, too.
“I don’t have any student loan debt, and that’s pretty comforting,” Alexander said. “Instead, I’ve started a Roth IRA and contribute to that. I have a 10-year plan, and I should have enough saved up for a down payment on a building and starting my own winery.”
Blending art and science
The creativity and artistry of winemaking fits with Alexander’s ethos. At Mountain View, she relished the courses offered in drawing, painting, stage craft, pottery and creative writing.
“Science was one of the things I was into in high school, too,” she said. “Working in a lab can be artistic, fun and expressive.”
That science background helped her avoid “the broke artist joke that goes around and around,” she said.
And the complexity of winemaking particularly appeals to her.
“I think that’s why I love wine so much — it’s the scientific and material version of art, and it’s very personal from winemaker to winemaker,” she said. “I first saw working at a winery as a manual labor job, but it’s also a scientific job, marketing and business.”
At Cinder, she’s been referred to as the “resident hippie.”
“I guess I do have some hippie tendencies in that I’m a pacifist and try to be a kind person,” she said. “I’m really into making things and growing things, living sustainably and being politically active as well, so I guess to some these are characteristics of a hippie.”
Alexander isn’t shy about sharing her opinions either, having been a part of government protests on the streets of Boise.
“If Hailey feels that strongly about an issue, who am I to stop her?” Krause said. “It’s important to be an active participant in life and be willing to express your opinions.”
The enologist even takes her beliefs on stage. “Slam poetry — that involves a lot of my fight for social justice and political activism,” she said.
An intern Down Under
A defining moment for Alexander came in the spring of 2013 when, with Schnerr’s guidance, she landed an internship in the acclaimed winemaking region of Marlborough working for Indevin, New Zealand’s largest wine company.
“They make 70 percent of the wine in New Zealand, so I was a press operator in a huge facility,” she said. “That year, I think they did 38,000 tons — about 28,000 tons of that was Sauvignon Blanc — and they operated day and night. I probably helped with around 6,000 tons.”
There are about 1,300 acres of vineyard planted in Idaho, which in an average year would lead to an estimated 6,500 tons of grapes crushed statewide.
“It took me a few months before I could start enjoying Sauvignon Blanc again,” Alexander said with a chuckle. “It was an amazing experience, and I met people from all around the globe — Germany, France, Italy, Czech Republic, even Virginia — and I still stay in touch with them.”
Working that crush in New Zealand gave Alexander more experience and poise.
“She went off and had this great experience and came back an even more valuable employee,” Krause said.
And by Indevin standards, Cinder’s crush in Garden City is small potatoes.
“This year, we’ll crush about 110 tons for Cinder, and we do make red wine for Huston Vineyards, so our total will be about 150 tons,” Alexander said.
Despite her time in Marlborough, Alexander admits she can have her moments.
“I’m still known as a klutz in the winery,” she chuckled.
Humility and levity help describe her personality.
“She’s super fun to have around,” Krause said. “She can be really nerdy, being into sci-fi, and her sense of humor and sense of imagination show up in little ways. And she always goes all out for Halloween. She’s dressed up like a zombie lab tech one year and a zombie Einstein another year.”
And if you see a young woman seated at Bodovino in Boise and concentrating on the stemware surrounding her, there’s a good chance it’s Alexander.
“I’m that one nerd at the wine bar with one-ounce pours of 10 or 15 wines on the bar and the notebook taking notes,” she said. “Some people go to a wine bar and have a good time. I go there to study.”
Her own cellar is limited to about five cases of wine, much of it from the Pacific Northwest. She’s a fan of Italian varieties from the Columbia Gorge, the lineup at Dunham Cellars in Walla Walla and just about anything from Jessica Munnell, the winemaker at Mercer Estates in Prosser, Wash., and a former colleague of Krause during their days with Ste. Michelle.
Mentors more than employers
Alexander has been on her own for several years, but she’s close to her sister and brother-in-law. And the relationship with Krause and Schnerr is something she cherishes.
“There’s a special kind of bond there,” Alexander said. “Sure, I’m an employee, but they’ve been huge influences for me and are kind of my heroes in that sense. I definitely look up to them and their business, and I’m thankful of the things they’ve done for me at such a young age.
“It’s a unique employer/employee relationship, and that’s why I’ve stuck around,” she added. “There’s so much more to learn. I’m not ready to make wine for someone else.”
Her education at Cinder even includes money-managing tips.
“We exposed her to financial management concepts and introduced her to a financial adviser, and she’s taken it and run with it, saving money and being prudent with her budget,” Krause said. “Those are some of the things that are missing in our school system — financial management and not going into debt.”
Those investments are growing with time, and the clock is ticking.
“When I have my own label, then I’ll be able to start shaping my portfolio,” Alexander said. “My plan is that in the next five years, I’ll start buying some of my own fruit and doing it all out of the winery here.
“And I’m hoping that in the next 10 years, I’ll have some sort of market for my wines,” she added. “Maybe by that point, I’ll have my own winery. I really want my brand to be focused on quality and environmental sustainability. Good wine takes time, and I’m going to let the wine do the talking.”
Thanks to Krause and Schnerr, one thing seems certain. Alexander won’t be venturing far.
“This is my home, and it’s a great place to make wine,” she said.
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.
Visit Cinder’s tasting room
107 E. 44th St. in Garden City. The tasting room is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit cinderwines.com.
Music and art at Cinder Wines
Cinder Wines co-owners Joe Schnerr and Melanie Krause are reaching deeper into the Treasure Valley art community at their Garden City winery.
The couple recently bought the building they’ve been in since 2008 and are looking for more ways to connect with the community.
“We want a chance to show off our artwork in the bottle and collaborate and show off other people’s artwork from our community,” Schnerr says. `
They recently took over the upstairs gallery space after a two-year partnership with nearby Surel’s Place artists in residency. You can see the new works of contemporary artist Laci McCrea. There’s a free premiere party from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1.
You’ll also find free music on the third Thursday of each month from the Idaho Songwriters Association and a growing number of ticketed concerts at Cinder’s 200-seat tasting room.
Thursday Night Live
Oct. 20: Bernie Reilly Band
Nov. 17: Steve Eaton
Dec. 15: BFD: Bud Gundmundson, Fonny Davidson, Divit Cardoza
Concerts are 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Free.
Dessert wine wins big at the Idaho Wine Competition
Koenig Vineyards’ 2014 Botrytis Single Berry Select Riesling was the winner of the best of show award at the annual Idaho Wine Competition on Sept. 20. The wine is a late-harvest Riesling made in the style of a German trockenbeerenauslese by the Caldwell-area winery. Other top honors went to:
Best red: Split Rail Winery NV The Horned Beast Cernunnos Syrah-Grenache-Mourvedre, Snake River Valley
Best rosé: Sawtooth Winery 2015 Classic Fly Series Grenache Rosé, Snake River Valley
Best white: Open Air 2015 Chardonnay, Snake River Valley
Best of class/double class: Vine46 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington; Indian Creek Winery 2014 Mountain Syringa Dry White Wine, Snake River Valley; and Cinder Wines 2015 Off-dry Riesling, Snake River Valley
Best of class/gold: Terra Nativa Vineyards 2012 Reserve Merlot, Idaho; and Cinder Wines 2014 Tempranillo, Snake River Valley
Double gold: Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2014 Phinny Hill Vineyard Carmenere, Washington; and Clearwater Canyon 2014 Umiker Vineyard Estate Syrah, Lewis-Clark Valley