Long-time winemaker Serge Laville laid off as part of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates February workforce reduction
Katherine “Kate” Derby, whose family founded Spring Valley Vineyard in 1993, has been promoted to winemaker. Derby, a sixth generation Walla Walla Valley farmer, will be in charge of all winemaking operations.
“Leading the winemaking at Spring Valley is a dream come true,” Derby says.
The change comes after long-time winemaker Serge Laville, who had been at the winery over 20 years and winemaker since 2005, was laid off as part of a five percent workforce reduction at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), the company that owns the Spring Valley Vineyard brand. The layoffs were announced February 15th. Laville is currently determining his next steps.
“I want to stay in the wine business,” Laville says. “I’m hoping to stay in Walla Walla too, as that’s where my family is established. Plus, I know the terroir of Walla Walla.”
Derby is the granddaughter of Spring Valley Vineyard founders Shari Corkrum Derby and Dean Derby. Kate’s uncle, Devin Corkrum Derby, was Spring Valley’s founding winemaker. The Corkrum family moved to Walla Walla Valley in 1865, and the family subsequently began farming in the area.
Kate Derby grew up in Minnesota and spent summers at Spring Valley. “It was just wheat farms then,” Derby says. “We would ride in the combines and be part of the farm.”
In 1993, Dean and Shari decided to add wine grapes at the property. In 1999, the family founded Spring Valley Vineyard. This made the winery, then and now, a rare producer in Washington making entirely estate wines.
After the vineyard was planted, on summer visits, Kate would spend time hoeing weeds and checking vines. When she was 11, Derby made a pronouncement to her father.
“I said, ‘This is where I’m going to live. This is who I am.’ I just I didn’t know in what capacity,” she says. “I can’t describe it. [Spring Valley] is a feeling of home for me.”
Winemaker Devin Derby died in a car accident in 2004. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the Pacific Northwest’s largest winery, subsequently purchased the Spring Valley Vineyard brand the following year. The company leases the vineyard land and winery buildings and distributes and markets the wines.
It was around the time SMWE bought the brand that Kate Derby first became formally involved in Spring Valley Vineyard. In college as a psychology student at Bethel University in St. Paul, Derby took a leadership class. One of the assignments was to put on an event. For her project, Derby chose the winery’s Spring Release event in 2005.
“That was really the first time I integrated myself into the operation of the event and bringing people out to the farm and showing them what we do,” Derby says. It was also the start of her career in the wine industry.
In 2006, SMWE offered Derby a job in the Spring Valley tasting room. “I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I would tell the family story and talk about the wines.” After graduating from college, Derby also began traveling around the country representing the brand.
Soon, however, with a young family, frequent travel became more difficult. When a position on the winemaking team became available in 2011, Derby decided to shift her focus.
She spent the next 11 years working alongside winemaker Serge Laville. Laville joined Spring Valley as assistant winemaker in 2002. After Devin passed, he was promoted to winemaker. While going from marketing the brand to winemaking was a shift for Derby, she says it seemed natural.
“Growing up in the summers here and understanding the farm, I wasn’t scared at all to get my hands dirty,” she says.
Since the SMWE partnership started, plantings at Spring Valley have increased from the original 45 acres to 112 acres. The winery currently makes approximately 5,000 cases annually.
Spring Valley Vineyard is unique in Walla Walla Valley in that it is set off largely by itself to the north of downtown Walla Walla, surrounded by rolling wheat fields. It is among the more majestic places in the valley.
“There is not a day that goes by that I’m not thankful and amazed at what we have out here,” Derby says. “It’s a little oasis in the middle of wheat fields.”
The Spring Valley wines are instantly recognizable for their historical images of Corkrum-Derby family ancestors on the labels. The wines themselves are also identifiable due to a distinctive aroma and flavor profile.
“To me, it’s straw,” says Derby. “The straw from the wheat is in our wine.”
Derby has large shoes to fill taking over winemaking. The Spring Valley Uriah, a Merlot-dominant blend, has landed on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list four times, twice with Devin Derby as winemaker and twice with Laville as winemaker. The winery’s Frederick, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, also made the magazine’s Top 100 list in 2017.
“I’m very appreciative and thankful for the 10 years that I had working with Serge [Laville],” Derby says. “To continue the legacy of the winemakers that have been before me, I feel very honored to be able to do that.”
While Derby has long been the heir-apparent at Spring Valley, the change comes amidst a series of larger ones at SMWE. Chief winemaker Juan Muñoz-Oca left earlier this year, and the company hired a new CEO, Shawn Conway, in March. SMWE was purchased by Sycamore Partners, a private equity firm, in 2021. The February layoffs, particularly including such a prominent winemaker in Laville, are another sign that the winery is still looking to regain its footing.
Derby’s first vintage as winemaker at Spring Valley will start shortly. Bud bud break is expected later this month.
Image of Katherine Derby by Richard Duval. Other images couresty of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
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