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Crafting Exceptional Wines Rooted in History: Spotlight on Travis Maple of Airfield Estates Winery

Travis Maple got his start in winemaking working on the bottling line at Chateau Ste. Michelle when he was just 19 years old. Completely fascinated by how you can transform the humble grape into an exceptional drink, Travis developed a passion for the winemaking process.

This passion and innate curiosity inspired Ste. Michelle’s CEO to sponsor his education in winemaking with a scholarship to Washington State University. After receiving his degree in Viticulture and Enology, he went to work for J. Bookwalter, which allowed him to travel the world and learn from some of the best consultant winemakers. He did that for about 11 years, and then joined Airfield Estates Winery in 2017.

Airfield Estates Winery and Vineyards sit in the heart of the Yakima Valley – Washington State’s oldest established AVA. The first wine grapes were planted in 1968, and today, the vineyard includes more than 20 different varietals, spanning across 830 acres. As you might have guessed, the land does have history rooted in World War II aviation, which Travis shares in our chat below.

For the past six and a half years, Travis has worked to transform Airfield’s wines into exceptional, natural wines that serve a broad range of consumers. His commitment to creating wines consumers will love and crafting wine for specific markets shines through in his final product.

What did your journey into winemaking look like?

My journey into winemaking started about 22 years ago. I always tell people I literally fell into the wine industry. During that time, I was living in Seattle. My roommate came home and told me he started working on a bottling line. Back in 2002, I thought this sounded really cool, and when he told me I could get paid $10 an hour, I was sold. He ended up getting me a position on the bottling line.

My first day of working on the line was at Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is a massive facility. At 19 years old, I was in awe. I was so in awe that I didn’t see the lip on the door, and I fell on my face and cut my chin open on my first day. That was my very first day in the wine industry. Even though I was just starting off on the bottling line, I was fascinated by the mechanization and processes of everything.

Through a lot of hard work, I ended up working my way all the way up. As I worked my first harvest for Chateau Ste. Michelle, I saw the most interesting thing– the simple ingredient of grapes turned into the amazing product of wine. I was constantly asking questions. I think I might have asked too many questions. After the harvest of 2002 was over, I was called into the office. I thought I was in trouble, but, instead, I was led to an office where Ted Baseler, the CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the winemakers, and the cellar masters were all waiting for me.

In fact, I asked so many questions, they asked me if I had ever thought of pursuing an education in wine. I was dumbstruck. They ended up sponsoring my education at Washington State University with the Walter J. Clore Scholarship. This moved me over to the eastern side of Washington where the majority of our production and vineyards are. After I earned my first degree in Viticulture and Enology, I still worked for Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Then I was recruited to work at a high-end winery called J. Bookwalter. While I was there, I went back to school and got a secondary degree in Food Technology from Washington State University. During my 14 years of working for J. Bookwalter, I got to travel the world and learn from some of the best consultant winemakers.

I started working at Airfield Estates Winery in 2017. The younger version of myself could have never envisioned this path for me.

I love the process of being able to transform something as simple as a grape into a world-class wine.

What is your favorite project you have worked on?

I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of making so many different wines that have earned tremendous scores. For J. Bookwalter, I helped create a new brand that was their first attempt at making an $85-$100 bottle of wine. I fell in love with the project, and fell in love with the Syrah varietal. It was a Syrah-based wine that we called “Antagonist”. There are so many different strategies you can use outside the box, for example, extraction methods. This was one of the highest scores I have ever been given by Robert Parker at 98 points.

My time at Airfield has been simultaneously one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in terms of projects. When I first came to Airfield, there was an inventory issue where we were backlogged a couple vintages with wines that were good, but not stellar.

Interviewing for the winemaking position here was one of the most intensive vetting processes I’ve ever been a part of. It was a three-day interview, and I was up against many candidates. I was very honest with the Airfield ownership. I told them I thought their wines were mediocre, and there was a lot of room to elevate the wines to another level. Fast forward six and a half years, I have now accomplished all these goals that I set out for myself during the interview process. Now, Artfield is known for producing some of the best estate-grown wines in Washington State. We’re no longer thought of as a winery that makes decent, cheap wines. We have a broad array of wines we produce, but we also make very high-end wines.

What makes your wines unique?

The team we have here is absolutely exquisite. We are fortunate to have the ability to source fruit from our own vineyard. We work exclusively with our own fruit and have complete control over the processes out in the vineyard, and this has reaffirmed to me that you cannot have exceptional wine without exceptional fruit. Over the past few years, we have gotten our estate vineyard dialed in, and we now have one of the most attractive vineyards in Washington state.

What is the hardest thing about winemaking?

I am always chasing perfection.

In this industry, you have one shot a year to make the absolute best product. If you don’t, then you have to live with the outcome. My goal is to do things right the first time and make sure we are set up to make exceptional wines.

It’s challenging to know the style of wines we like as winemakers, and, at the same time, realize I’m not making wine for myself, but instead I am making wine for a lot of different consumers that are all trying to find the perfect wine for their palate. Finding the sweet spot where my winemaking style matches consumer palate preferences successfully is a challenge.

Winemakers can be stubborn. We are set in our ways and we do things the way we always have. So Tastry has helped me be a lot more open-minded, especially when attempting to craft wines catered towards a specific demographic in a specific market.

Tastry provided blend options I would have never thought of using. That tool was very eye-opening. The comparative analysis allows us to select several different wines to see how we match up against competitors. Then we can improve our winemaking to improve the performance of that blend against competitors.

That is something Tastry brought to the table that I don’t think has ever been out there before, and that is a very unique tool.

One of my larger SKUs– a wholesale wine that I make about 12,000 cases of and is distributed in about 40 states– is in that incredibly competitive $18-20 price point. We wanted to find a way to get a competitive edge in the market to succeed over our competitors. We were able to evaluate the performance of our Cabernet Sauvignon against competitors and match ourselves with a certain demographic through Tastry.

By seeing these new tools in my winemaker toolbox that Tastry has to offer, I created a wine that would probably score 93 or 94 points. I thought that was absolutely wonderful and eye-opening.

What has been the most rewarding part of your career?

I think the most rewarding part of my job is seeing the enjoyment consumers get from a product that we have put so much work into creating.

One of my larger SKUs– a wholesale wine that I make about 12,000 cases of and is distributed in about 40 states– is in that incredibly competitive $18-20 price point. We wanted to find a way to get a competitive edge in the market to succeed over our competitors. We were able to evaluate the performance of our Cabernet Sauvignon against competitors and match ourselves with a certain demographic through Tastry.

My job is to create a product people enjoy, and when people enjoy your product, they come back and become great customers. That's very rewarding for me.

What sets Airfield apart from other wineries?

Airfield has a very, very deep-rooted history here. When we started off during World War II, we were a big farm. When the United States government was looking for places to create flight school after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they used my estate vineyard for several years. During this time, my vineyard was two runways, barracks, and anything they needed to train hundreds of pilots for war. In the 1960s, there were only a couple vineyards in Washington State and no big wineries. In 1968, we started doing our own plantings. We still have some of the original grapes today. Aside from our history, another unique thing about Airfield is that our wines are made of all estate-grown grapes. I’m also a very natural winemaker. I don’t like to use any animal byproducts. By implementing the techniques that I have and meticulously managing our estate vineyard, I craft these wines as natural as possible. Since we’re able to control our costs starting out in the vineyard, we can offer premium wines at a lower price point compared to other brands.

How has your winemaking process changed over the years?

Aside from our history, another unique thing about Airfield is that our wines are made of all estate-grown grapes. I’m also a very natural winemaker. I don’t like to use any animal byproducts. By implementing the techniques that I have and meticulously managing our estate vineyard, I craft these wines as natural as possible. Since we’re able to control our costs starting out in the vineyard, we can offer premium wines at a lower price point compared to other brands. The incorporation of artificial intelligence with Tastry and our high tech lab equipment have been the biggest changes.

What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from winemaking?

One of the biggest lessons is you’re never going to know everything. In winemaking, you will constantly be learning new things.

Having an open mind will take you further than being stubborn and set in your old ways. You have to constantly evolve with the consumer and the markets.

What is one piece of advice you would like to pass onto a newer winemaker entering the field?

When you do this job, give it everything you have. If you’re truly passionate about what you do, it will show in the final product.

Have you noticed any trends among today’s wine consumer?

I like to look at trends among demographics, especially the age groups. We used to think that Gen Z and millennials always wanted the cheapest wine possible. That might not be the case anymore. Data reports about demographics are intriguing because it helps us cater our marketing plan to the needs of these demographics.

It’s important to responsibly market your wine to the younger crowds, because they will be your consumers for many years to come.

I have noticed the trend seems to be sweetness– not necessarily residual sugar sweetness, but perceived fruit sweetness. I discovered that by looking at some of the reports Tastry offers. I think that by seeing that, and then actually tasting some of these wines we did a comparative analysis with, you can truly understand how the consumer likes it.

It’s not sweet, but it has the perception of this really dark fruit sweetness, and maybe that’s coming from the oak, or sometimes it’s coming from tannin. When you have that type of knowledge, it allows you to keep in mind what the consumer palate wants during your blending process for each different wine. It helps us craft these wines to fit our consumers’ palates.
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