By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
If you were making a list of people in the wine industry with an inspirational tale to tell, Ashley Trout’s name would have to be at the top.
This self-taught winemaker, who acquired her considerable skills through grit and on the job training, has managed, through the creation of a winery that funnels all proceeds to a free health care clinic for the underserved, to bring together the Walla Walla WA wine community in a manner not seen before.
Trout’s background in wine began in 1999 when, as an 18-year old student at Whitman College, she had the opportunity to do nighttime punchdowns for Reininger Winery in Walla Walla. About midway through her 8-year stint there, Trout suffered a climbing accident while traveling in Japan, which opened her eyes to health care access. It also caused her to reevaluate her priorities and seriously commit to a winemaking career.
Following her recovery, Trout went to Argentina for the first of eight harvests there, where she continued to hone her lab, cellar and winemaking skills. In 2006, she created Flying Trout, her first winery, back in Walla Walla. She sold the business in 2010, but stayed on as head winemaker for another five years.
In 2016, Trout founded Vital Wines specifically to address the health care needs for vineyard and winery workers in the Walla Walla Valley. Virtually all of the materials and labor to run the winery are donated, including wine grapes, labels, bottle caps, shipping supplies, barrels, lab work, graphic design – you name it.
It turns out that when Ashley Trout comes knocking to seek support, the answer is always a resounding yes.
“Ashley gave me a call about four and a half years ago,” recalls Joe Chauncey, owner and partner of Boxwood, an integrated design studio that supplies the design for labels, brochures, posters and business cards to Vital Wines at no cost.
“She had me within 30 seconds of her pitch. When she said she was starting a winery to generate funds to create healthcare for farm workers, I was in. She’s a force that carries all of the donors along with her.”
“In this industry,” Chauncey notes, “we all work hard, we put our heads down and maybe we have blinders on because we’re concentrating on what we need to do for our clients. Ashley has managed to shine a spotlight on what’s needed and what we can do to help.”
Sadie Drury is the GM at Seven Hills Vineyard, one of the first commercial vineyards ever planted in the Walla Walla Valley. Seven Hills sells its wine grapes to 55 different wineries throughout the region – and donates fruit every year to Ashley Trout’s Vital Wines project.
“When she started Vital Wines she called me, told me that the profits were going to the SOS clinic and asked ‘can you donate grapes?’” Drury reminisces. “We had Merlot left, so I said, sure. We do donate every year, depending on what I have available and what her needs are.
“She’s so amazing,” Drury continues. “She has a way of including everybody, she’s genuine, and she makes everyone feel special.
photo credit Victoria Wright
“The most important thing is that (the project) has raised awareness in the community that there is a need. It also points out to consumers that these are the people who work their butts off and this is where your wine comes from.”
Drury, who met Trout through mutual friends before their shared wine industry experience, finds personal inspiration in Trout’s work ethic and leadership style.
“Both of us have children, “ Drury attests. “She’s a really good example as a GM that women can have an awesome job, have families and still raise wonderful kids. I think that’s good … for women who work in the wine industry.”
Perhaps no one is better suited to understand the depth of Trout’s commitment and the impact her efforts have had on the local community than Dr. Paul McLain, the Medical Director of the SOS Clinic in Walla Walla.
McLain has been donating his services to SOS since its inception in 2007 when the clinic was located in a local basement and began offering free services on a walk-in basis to those in need.
Four years later investors purchased a defunct nursing home and reconstructed it through volunteer materials and labor to become, as its website states, “an urgent care facility that offers quality walk-in healthcare services to individuals without health insurance (or without adequate health insurance) in the Walla Walla Valley. SOS Health Services does not deny people access to services regardless of citizenship and geographic location.”
“At SOS we’re mostly serving the working poor,” McLain explains. “Ashley came on the SOS board and about four months later came up with a proposal to make wine to support the clinic. Her idea was to get together the local wine industry to benefit our workers. She didn’t have trouble selling (the concept) to the board. It’s turned into kind of a sensation.”
The sensation McLain refers to has enabled SOS Health Services to increase its capacity to serve. More patients are now receiving health care services because of a broader donor base.
According to McLain, this has meant the ability to create electronic health records, purchase medical instruments, double the size of the women’s health care clinic, offer free mammograms and refer those who need follow up care to a cancer center at another local hospital with which SOS has a working partnership.
While there is a comprehensive network of people who work daily to keep the clinic up and running, McLain points to Trout for much of the organization’s current success.
“Ashley is such a marvelous person,” McLain exudes. “She has a heart with no limit. So much depth, so much energy and so many ideas … and all for other people. Ashley has a way of bringing out the best in who you are. That’s who she is.”
For her part, Trout takes the accolades given to her with a modesty that’s consistent with how she is characterized. She credits many others for their contributions to the endeavor and says the idea for Vital Wines was a natural outcome, springing from her own life experience.
“I grew up in a bilingual, bicultural household,” Trout reveals. “I noticed who was making wines, who was in the industry and saw a discrepancy between who is having their needs met. When you combine my accident and my upbringing, I felt like I had to do something like Vital.”
Trout doesn’t fault winery owners and others in charge for a failure to take care of a largely seasonal workforce and what it takes to provide its members with a comprehensive health insurance plan.
But she does feel compelled to contribute and to call on that same industry, which, as she points out, benefits from SOS care for its workers, to pitch in.
“If we’re sending people to the clinic, why not be accountable?” Trout asks rhetorically. “Other than using the system, how are you helping to maintain it?”
Trout has been encouraged, but not surprised, by her community’s generosity once she laid the groundwork for what needed to happen.
“The industry response has always been ‘thank goodness,’” Trout reports. “The onslaught of donations had been pretty damn heartwarming.”
The hugely successful Vital Wines project is about to spread its wings with its own tasting room and volunteer staff for the first time ever this year. Trout says she, and the board of directors, are both nervous and excited about the prospect.
“Because we have no blueprint for this model in Washington, we’ve made mistakes and will do so again,” Trout predicts. “But perfection is the enemy of progress. We’re going to attempt to make your life, my life better. I think that (commitment) creates bonds that are priceless – and imperative.”