Rocky Pond Winery in Orondo, Washington announced today the hiring of Elizabeth Keyser as winemaker. Keyser had previously been assistant winemaker for California’s HALL Family Wines, which includes HALL, Walt, and Baca.
“I’m at my point in my career where I am ready and looking for more creative license and the opportunity to take more ownership in the [winemaking] process,” Keyser says of joining Rocky Pond. “I’m really excited to be moving to Washington.”
Keyser’s appointment follows Rocky Pond’s hiring of renowned Napa Valley consultant Steve Leveque in 2020. Leveque has worked with a who’s who list of clients that includes Chalk Hill, Opus One, Robert Mondavi, and HALL. Keyser’s connection to Leveque while at HALL is part of what drew her to Rocky Pond.
“I’ve benefited so much from having Steve as a mentor,” Keyser says. The pairing now gives Rocky Pond a formidable duo.
Rocky Pond was founded in 2013 by David and Michelle Dufenhorst, who planted the first vineyard in the proposed Rocky Reach appellation that same year. They subsequently planted a second vineyard starting in 2018. Rocky Reach is now home to seven vineyards in addition to a large amount of tree fruit acreage. Rocky Pond is currently the only winery in the proposed appellation.
Keyser says the youth of this nascent wine area was part of the appeal. “One of the things that attracted me most to Rocky Pond is we are truly pioneers of this region,” she says. “We have the opportunity to take almost a blank slate and work on the best set of varietals for the region and define this special piece of land.”
Keyser grew up in the suburbs of New York City and attended Miami University, focusing on communication and marketing. After graduation, she initially looked to work in those areas.
“At that point in time in my life, I never thought that I’d be working with an agricultural product or wanting to be a winemaker,” Keyser says. “I thought that I wanted to maybe go into PR for a fashion house or something along those lines.”
However, after attending a wine tasting with her parents at a local retailer, she was offered a seasonal job at the company. Keyser subsequently spent three years working for Zachy’s Wine & Liquor in Scarsdale, New York.
“For the first time, it was like everything was aligning in terms of my intellectual curiosity and my hunger for more knowledge around wine,” Keyser says.
In 2014 she worked as a harvest intern and production assistant at Cedar Creek Ranch & Vineyards in California. She subsequently worked as a cellar assistant at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in Dundee, New York and as a harvest laboratory technician at A to Z Wineworks in Newberg, Oregon.
From there, Keyser spent a harvest at Hardys Tintara in Australia’s McLaren Vale region before returning to California to intern at Cliff Lede in Napa Valley. She joined HALL Family Wines in 2017. Along the way, Keyser obtained a master’s degree in enology from Cornell University.
In recent years, the Dufenhorsts have moved aggressively to establish Rocky Pond’s presence. They planted two vineyards in Rocky Reach and a third in the nearby Lake Chelan viticultural area. In 2020, they hired John Ware as president. Ware had spent 20 years at Quilceda Creek, most recently as vice president and general manager.
Though Rocky Reach is young as a wine growing region, the area shows great promise. Its bedrock and soils are distinctive from most other areas of the Columbia Valley. It is also considerably warmer than the surrounding regions, allowing a wide assortment of varieties to ripen. Leveque says the area’s “rare combination” of factors is what attracted him to consult for Rocky Pond.
“All of these special and unique attributes provide grapes with complexity, concentration and vineyard-derived personalities that I have not seen anywhere else within the greater California-Oregon-Washington Pacific stretch,” says Leveque.
With the announcement, former winemaker Shane Collins, who has been with Rocky Pond since 2017, will become director of viticulture. Keyser will begin working at Rocky Pond February 1st.
Image of Elizabeth Keyser courtesy of Rocky Pond Winery.