Jody loved wine but had never really considered it as a career choice. So, before starting Seattle based Elsom Cellars, she built herself a successful career in the construction industry.
She loved her work in the Seattle office of a large construction company. She’d often need to travel to the head office in San Francisco. She made sure to coincide her trips with long weekends, and would excitedly head out to Napa or Sonoma Country, California’s premier wine regions. Their office also had a wine bar, where staff could come together, share their struggles and get advice from their mentors. Who would have thought a construction job could rekindle Jody’s love affair with wine?
At a very young age, Jody fell in love with wine culture.
Her parents did not drink at all, but they did take her on a big European trip. Her first experience with wine culture in Europe was at the age of 13. ‘One of the things I saw there is that in every restaurant, at the end of the day, people were just sitting around, happy, sharing stories, great meals and wine.’
She fell in love with the sense of festivity and community. `We were in one town and they were celebrating the harvest. I thought ‘what IS this!’ I just wanted to learn more.’ In Europe, Jody saw that wine could be the backdrop to creating great friendships or the forefront of fun wine and food tastings. She thought about one day owning her own winery, but thought of it as just a fanciful dream.
But in the early 2000s, the construction market crashed.
Her employer decided to close down their Seattle office and consolidate operations back to California. Jody was the last to leave, so was the last port of call for many of their local clients. She started to look for another contractor to take over when she realised that she could just take on the work herself.
But even though Jody had ready-to-go clients as a new freelancer, the construction industry was still in a slowdown. She started to wonder if there might be another path for her. ‘At that time, I was doing a lot of soul-searching. What made me happy? What did I want to do? I needed to work in an industry where I felt fulfilled and proud of what I was doing.’
In construction, she found that she had many wine industry clients. She loved sitting on the porch at the end of the day overlooking the vineyards, drinking a glass of wine. ‘I just thought, I’ve got to learn more about this.’
With her newfound spare time, Jody went back to school to learn about winemaking.
‘Initially, I just wanted to learn more and gain a new hobby. But I caught the wine-making bug. I met all sorts of people who owned vineyards and wanted to open wineries. The idea of having a product that you’ve actually made and nurtured and produced to sell was really appealing.’
So she thought, why not? She set out to open a small winery while keeping her freelance consulting work going too. ‘I thought, let’s try both: we’ll see which road I’ll end up following!’
Opening a winery was very expensive – so Jody formed a cooperative with other students.
They each purchased a piece of machinery to bring down their initial start-up costs. They shared the equipment, although each had their own production space and vineyard contracts.
‘I had this little tiny house in West Seattle. So I set up all the winemaking equipment in my basement! I would have hoses going all the way out my basement windows, down the driveway into the street. It was pretty comical! My neighbors would ask ‘what on earth are you doing over there?’
Jody eventually wanted to share the wine she had been making with others.
She was happy with how her wine was coming out. She thought it was time to introduce the community feel that she had loved so much about wine culture in Europe. So, Jody rented a space in downtown Seattle and began making wine on a larger scale: Elsom Cellars was born.
‘It was really nice to have the winery to entertain construction clients at. Show them another aspect of what I’m passionate about.’ Jody found that both her construction and wine businesses were doing equally well. She had initially thought she’d end up doing one or the other: but it seemed like both were powering forward.
Five years later, Elsom Cellars had expanded to become a winery, tasting room and events venue. It had become a popular destination: a winery and tasting room easily accessible from Seattle’s downtown area had been a hit.
But then, out of the blue, Elsom Cellars was hit with a problem that threatened to close the business down.
The city planned a new highway entrance, right in front of the winery.
The renovations began and the problems started straight away. ‘We were there trying to make wine and they would turn the water off without telling us. We’d be hosting a wedding and all of a sudden there would be no power.’ It made it impossible to run her business, but Jody kept telling herself that it would all pass once the construction finished.
After six months of business disruption, Jody realised it was time to make a decision.
The city had decided to reconfigure the road, so now it would be an illegal turn to enter Elsom Cellars driveway. ‘We had big truck deliveries of fruit – how were they meant to get to us?’ Jody realised that it wasn’t going to work out after all. ‘We’d been struggling and failing to deal with all this construction activity. Ironically, construction was threatening to be my demise.’
Even though Jody’s construction consulting business was successful enough to support her, she wasn’t ready to give up on the dream that had begun when she was just 13.
‘The winery is definitely a passion project. I love bringing people together, meeting the fabulous people that come into the tasting room. And the wine industry itself is just full of so many different creative and fun people. I didn’t want to lose that.’
Jody moved Elsom Cellars to Woodinville: wine country, just 30 minutes outside of Seattle.
They found a new space, built it out and started fresh. It wasn’t too far from the first winery, but it was a completely different market. So Jody discovered she needed to re-establish her presence: she really did feel like she was starting all over again.
But Jody had grown up in Woodinville and while it seemed like the best choice for the business, personally, Jody yearned for the city she had made home: Seattle.
Four years later, the business was again going strong. But now, Jody was going through a tough time personally. Struggling with breast cancer and going through a divorce, all she wanted was to get back to Seattle. She knew it would mean another big move for the business at a very difficult time in her life.
Jody knew that she needed to move back home so she and her business could both succeed.
She was in personal turmoil, wondering where she wanted her life to go. She didn’t want to cope with another move, but she convinced herself it was the right way to go. ‘I just thought: ok. I’ve been able to build this twice. We can do it one more time!’
So she threw herself into her third major move and discovered it was the best thing she could have done. Moving the business gave her something to work towards, to build the strength to move through her personal turmoils. She knew it was time to support herself and she was going to bring her passion for her winery with her.
Even when most people would give up, Jody hasn’t let her dream go. And in return, when she needed her business the most, it helped her through her most difficult times, too.
Over the last 15 years, Jody has seen the growth of small wineries like Elsom Cellars across Washington. She’s also thrilled to see a lot more women-led wine businesses, too.