Latah Creek’s Winemaker and Owner
Mike started his career in the wine industry in 1972 as a microbiology technician at E&J Gallo, the largest winery in the United States. After leaving Gallo in 1975, two additional years were spent in the microbial field as the head winery microbiologist at nearby Franzia Brothers Winery. In 1977, Mike’s aspirations toward winemaking were fulfilled when he accepted an assistant winemaker’s position with the Parducci Winery in Northern California.
After three years of training and experience at Parducci, Mike was offered a winemaking job for a new start-up winery in a relatively unknown,new emerging wine area: Washington State. The same day Mike and his wife Ellena crossed into Washington state to start a new chapter, Mount St. Helens had blown its top and ash was raining down across new emerging wine area: Washington State. In history books, May 18, 1980 marks the eruption of Mount St. Helens; to the Conways, it is the beginning of winemaking in Washington.
In the early 1980s, Mike undertook the responsibility of managing and operating a new winery in eastern Washington; just the eighteenth winery in the State and the first ever in Spokane. His immediate success prompted a move in 1982 that dramatically changed the face of the Washington State wine industry – two new wineries were started where Mike performed winemaking duties. Latah Creek and The Hogue Cellars were brought about through a joint venture with grape grower Hogue and winemaker Conway.
After two years, in 1984, Hogue Cellars and Latah Creek were separated so Mike could give his full attention to his own winery: Latah Creek. Ellena, his wife, became engaged with the day-to-day operations and business responsibilities of running a winery and together, with the recent support of daughter Natalie, they have developed Latah Creek into a widely acclaimed winery. Mike looks forward to handing the reigns over to Natalie in the coming years.
Latah Creek’s Co-owner
Ellena helped open Latah Creek in 1982 alongside her husband Mike. The opening of Latah Creek was marked by another significant event – the birth of Mike and Ellena’s daughter Natalie. Responsible for Latah’s accounting, Ellena completed the financials and paperwork for Latah’s new buildings just as Natalie arrived – three weeks early! This surprise of Natalie’s early arrival didn’t stop Ellena from getting the paperwork submitted in order to move forward with opening Latah Creek, so strong was her commitment to launch the winery. The year of 1982 was a time of new beginnings for the family behind Latah Creek Wine Cellars.
Visitors to the Latah Creek gift shop have Ellena to thank for the wide range of wine accessories, gourmet food, and wine-inspired gifts. As buyer and manger of the gift shop, Ellena carefully hand picks each item. She takes great pleasure in managing Latah’s extensive gift shop and brings a warmth to the shop that makes visitors feel like family. Ellena professes that she must have been an Italian in a previous life, as many of her selections are inspired by her love for Italy. Ellena and Mike have made several trips to Italy over the years – always returning to Spokane with inspiration for new wines and wonderful food creations. Latah Creek’s customers look forward to sampling her latest food sensations during the numerous events she organizes for the winery; the most popular being the Quarterly WineClub parties and summer Anniversary Celebration.
In 2012, Latah Creek released Ellena~Ellena, a Cabernet Franc named after Ellena. This wine is Ellena’s favorite “house” red and she recommends pairing it with a wide variety of foods, including pasta, pizza, poultry, Middle Eastern, and Greek cuisine. If you need recipe inspiration, turn to one of Ellena’s cookbooks; collections of her own recipes and special creations passed down from family and friends. Ellena is an amazing cook; she prepares all the cuisine for all the Latah Creek events.
Ellena has a huge, generous heart. She loves her family, beautiful granddaughters, good food, and, of course, wine. She has been able to combine all these passions into the family owned and operated winery through philanthropic efforts. Ellena keeps Latah Creek and her family actively engaged in the community by supporting many local non-profits. The cause nearest to Ellena is foster children and, while she oversees Latah Creek’s philanthropic efforts, she is modest to take the credit for Latah’s work in the community. Instead, Ellena thanks Latah’s customers, telling them their “Latah Creek purchases makes a difference in other people’s lives” by allowing Latah Creek to have the resources to give back to the community.
Natalie was raised among wine barrels and bottles. Ellena went into labor three weeks early and Natalie was born just as the finishing touches were being put on Latah Creek’s building. Hospital-bound and on bed-rest, Ellena rushed to complete financials while awaiting the new family member. The Conway family remembers this as a time of new beginnings.
As a teenager, Natalie helped around the winery with a number of tasks from bottling to cleaning the tanks to packing gift baskets in Latah Creek’s gift shop. Little by little, Mike began to teach his daughter the art and science of winemaking. In fact, Latah Creek’s Monarch Reserve Red was produced as the result of Mike wanting to teach Natalie the craft of making a higher end, small lot wines. The Monarch Red, intended as a one-time batch, was so popular that Latah Creek continues to produce it today. Having learned the trade through apprenticeship, Mike wanted Natalie to have a similar hands-on experience and learn the family business. Natalie fondly recalls the first batch of wine she helped produce from grape selection to bottling – the 2004 Vintage. When Wine Spectator gave the Riesling 90 points, Natalie knew winemaking was her calling. She, like her father, had fallen in love with the science of vinification and chose to veer off her previous career path of physical therapy. In 2005, Natalie graduated Cum Laude with Honors from Eastern Washington University with a Bachelor degree in Biology.
With hopes of taking over the winery one day, Natalie is currently learning winemaking from her father and the fiscal aspects of the business from her mother. Natalie is poised to take a leading role at Latah Creek in the coming years and is already an integral part of the business. Analisa and Paige, Natalie’s daughters, seem destined for the family business as well. It isn’t uncommon for the Conways to find baby pacifiers and Barbie doll shoes hidden around the winery from the girls’ visits, just like they did when Natalie was that age.
Vicky is our only full time staff here at the winery. She started in 2006 and has been involved in nearly all of Latah Creek‘s day to day operations. She handles most of our personalized labels, assembles our beautiful gift baskets, manages the tasting room with Ellena, and occasionally joins the bottling line. Vicky and her husband, Jahn, love to ride their Harley, and even helped Mike and Ellena on their first ride to Walla Walla and Lake Chelan. It was quite the adventure! Make sure to ask about the severe winds and how Ellena almost lost her left arm and leg.
Husband and wife team Bob and Ruth have been working at the winery since 2002. Bob helped Mike with the manual labor of winemaking until Natalie took over after graduating from college. Bob is still seen around the winery occasionally, especially on bottling days, as he is the only one who can put caps on the bottles without messing the whole line up.
Ruth works part-time in the tasting room. You can usually find her here on Fridays, helping create marvelous displays, ready-to-go gift baskets, and much more. She loves crafts and brings a special added touch to our gift shop that would otherwise be lacking.
Chris works part-time in the tasting room. Look for her on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Chris and her husband, Ken, are long-time friends of the winery and the Conways. They have taken many trips to Italy with Ellena and Mike, where much wine was consumed, food devoured, and many trinkets brought home. Ken and Chris used to work on Sundays here, but have since retired. Fortunately, Chris has continued to shower us with her bright and sunny disposition each week.
Social Media rockstar, Kirsten, began working for Latah Creek in the fall of 2012. Her posts are a daily must-read, and always capture the heart and soul of Latah Creek. Kirsten also helps with promotions and events, via ideas, designs, and proof reading. She has the ability to tackle any task thrown her way, while still giving attention to the details. She is currently working with Ellena to put her first and second cookbook into the new format for printing. You won’t see her at the winery often but if you chat with someone on Facebook, it’s probably Kirsten.