The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 25, 2014

Chankaska hires new winemaker

Mike Drash brings years of experience from Napa Valley

By Robb Murray rmurray@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Mike Drash and his wife were considering a move to the Midwest — his wife has family in Wisconsin — when he noticed a peculiar job opening for a little winery in Kasota.

Funny thing was, the ad came from the same search firm used by the elite wineries in Napa Valley, some of the same wineries where he’d worked for years. So he took the ad seriously. And when he came out to visit Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery, he was impressed.

“If you put this place in Napa it would fit right in,” Drash said. “If it had been some mom and pop podunk, I wouldn’t have wasted my time.”

Drash interviewed for the job in December. A short time later he accepted. Two weeks ago, he arrived. Much of what he’s experienced so far isn’t that different from wineries in Napa.

“Today I’m down in the cellar and, besides looking outside at the snow and it being six below, it’s a winery,” Drash said.

But there are some differences. Major differences.

Drash has never worked with so-called cold-climate grape varieties, but he’s ready to jump into it. In fact, last weekend he attended a conference on cold-weather wine-making. While there, he said, he tasted about 20 different wines using the University of Minnesota-developed Marquette grape.

Chankaska’s Marquette red wine recently won a national award. Drash said the complexity of the Marquette is something he’s eager to dig into from an agricultural, chemical and artistic standpoint. He also excited to get learning about cold-weather grapes and their personalities.

In Napa, Drash said, the volume is a little different. Growers talk about their product in terms of “acres,” whereas in Minnesota they talk about in terms of “vines.”

Prior to coming to Minnesota, Drash began his wine-making career in California. He started at De Loach. Two years later, he took a job working in the cellar and lab at Chateau de Baun, a winery that was later purchased by Kendall Jackson.

He then spent some time at J Wine Company where he later became its sparkling wines production manager. From there he moved to Far Niente Winery where he was assistant winemaker under Dirk Hampson. Before coming to Chankaska, he was the winemaker for Luna Vineyards.

Drash and his wife Tracy also run their own wine business, called Tallulah Winery, named after their daughter. The name Tallulah also has a connection to Hollywood. Drash’s great, great aunt was Tallulah Bankhead.

Drash says he came to wine-making by simply being exposed to it. (He tried to take a wine-making class during his senior year at Rhodes College, but his GPA didn’t qualify him for admission. Later, though, when he’d found success in the industry, they’d asked him back as a guest speaker.)

After college graduation he was working at a restaurant in Key West, Fla. — where the owner educated the wait staff on recommending wines to guests — when a newly hired coworker told him she’d recently worked for a winery in California.

He told her that was what he wanted to do with his life, so she gave him the name and number of a guy at De Loach. He drove cross-country and knocked on the guy’s door, an act so impressive that it ended up in a job at the winery. His education began in earnest. That was 17 years ago.

Drash replaces Drew Horton, who Chankaska staff say gave his resignation several months ago and offered to stay on until a replacement was hired.

Drash says he’s slightly nervous about keeping up the strong reputation Horton established with quality wines.

“The previous wine maker did a very good job,” Drash said. “And I hope I can make the wine even better.”

Chankaska owner Kent Schwickert said he hopes Drash can bring the winery to the next level.

“At this point in our business plan, we have reached a plateau which will require a winemaker with different skill sets, predominantly higher production and the consistency of making world class wine,” Schwickert said. “Mike has that in his tool belt. He also brings experience in other areas that we have been lacking which we anticipate will put Chankaska Wines on the map.”

As is the nature of the business, it’ll be more than a year before Drash’s wines will be available for consumption.