Taking Her Seat at the Table: WineMaker Interview with Katie DeSouza Henley

Virginia’s 2019 growing season wound into the harvest time in almost perfect fashion, nearly the best conditions a winegrower/winemaker could order.  It was on a cooler labor day weekend that Katie DeSouza Henley took time away from the vineyard, cellar, and tasting bar and gave her time to me to talk about her journey into winemaking and emphasize the philosophy that makes Casanel and its’ wines unique.  Katie and her family planted the vines and opened this place with a sense of determination to make something exceptional – better wines that would disrupt the perception that high-quality wines could not be made in Northern Virginia.

Katie started out as an English major at Virginia Tech, with a goal to write children’s books and novels, living the writer’s life in New York City.  When her parents sold their construction company and purchased the land in order to open a winery, Katie agreed to do her family duty and help out – as a dishwasher in the tasting room during her breaks from school.  Her sister was running the tasting room and urged her to listen in and learn about what was becoming their family business. Katie had other plans, earning herself a fellowship with a writing mentor in New York City after graduating early.  The fellowship was slated to start in the summer, so Katie spent the Spring of 2010 working in the winery. After a few days working with her dad on the farm, she found herself hooked. She didn’t have a degree in viticulture or Enology, but she had the determination and work ethic to learn all she could.  While writing is her love, and she still does a lot of writing both for the winery and for herself, she realized that a career in journalism and writing would be rough in the new climate of social media and blogs, and decided to focus on this newfound passion. 

Katie learned all she could by watching and asking questions.  Why do you prune these leaves and not those? Why do you train the vine in this direction and not that one? They brought in a consultant and a partner winery to do custom crush with the grapes they were now producing.  Taking online courses from UC-Davis and getting a degree from there made no sense, since she wasn’t growing grapes and making wine in California, so she dove in and found mentors and began tasting everything that was being made around Virginia.  At this time wineries were booming in Loudoun County, and Casanel became the 22nd to open their doors (now there are roughly fifty!).

“We had zero experience in wine.”  Her friends and friends of the family felt they were crazy – what did they know about wine? Sure they liked to drink it, and in Katie’s words, “We were Portuguese, of course we had been drinking since we were children!” She and her friends and family figured out the Virginia wines they liked – King Family, Blenheim, Afton Mountain, and learned what they were doing with the grapes.  “Virginia cannot make a big Napa Cab, we should be proud of our own soil.”

Katie’s father Nelson, the “quintessential manager,” assigned her to watch and work closely with the winemaker consultant and learn all she could.  After a few years working with that consultant, she made a sharp turn – things were not working out for her with this winemaker. She didn’t like some of the decisions being made, spoke at length with her family, and made the leap – they fired the consultant and went in a different direction.  Her new influences and mentors became Lucie Morton and Katell Giraud – two of the big female names in Virginia wine. Morton’s was among the first wineries to open up in Virginia and she supported the development of a number of wineries. Giraud was born and raised in France and was working in other wineries in Northern Virginia.  Morton’s depth of understanding of viticulture and experience working with Piedmont soils and Giraud’s dedication to ensuring the wine was high quality by monitoring development closely in the tank and barrel left strong impacts on Katie. Katell taught her to never make a faulted wine – her approach was to be technically completely correct.  The vineyard and cellar protocols under her were very strict, and total adherence is now Katie’s expectation for herself and the team. This fits well with her father’s philosophy (Nelson-isms are posted in the cellar) “Your best is never good enough” – you can always do something better and improve, so do that – go out, learn it, and make it better.

Casanel truly is a family, built from the ground up winery.  Father Nelson built the main building, salvaging what could be used from a barn deemed unsafe for occupancy, as well as the homes on the property.  Katie is self-taught at the winemaking. The family’s goal is to build a legacy in this space. Katie’s nieces participated in the grape sorting this year, learning to check for the quality of each grape on the cluster as it was on the sorting table.  Katie sees inspiration in farm wineries like Jeff White’s at Glen Manor – the farm has been in the family for four generations. Katie’s focus is on building a tradition that will continue well beyond her time at Casanel, with De Souzas working the land and making great wine for generations to come.

Katie’s work with Giraud concluded in the worst of wine weather years, 2018, before the monsoon season began.  Despite the wet conditions, Katie worked with her team to harvest and pick the best grapes the season could produce, and worked to put the best wine possible into barrels. Prior to the harvest, Giraud told Katie that she had learned everything she could from her, and could do the rest herself.  Katie has – watching every aspect of production. She lives on the property and walks her dog through the vineyards every day, checking every aspect of vine growth to ensure things are proceeding as planned.

The goal for the winery is to create a space that is homey, but also where there are relationships, where people continue to come back.  Katie often runs into club members at Target or when going around in the community and loves chatting with them, as well as seeing them at winery events.  

“Some wineries you go and you are greeted and told to wait for a tasting and they may be pretentious, or not give you much information.  I’ve been to places where the owner or winemaker is disrespectful or dismissive and doesn’t answer questions.”

We’ve all been to those wineries where you get your pours and the employee walks away because something else, a phone, a colleague, anything else is more interesting to them.  At Casanel, the tasting bar team makes it about you, the customer. They want to hear what you think, share information about the wine and winemaking, and forge a connection. It’s the connection (and the amazing wine) that keeps you coming back and creates a loyal customer.

“People, passion, and a sense of place.  We bring it home through the tasting experience.  Lots of owners/winemakers don’t touch the cellar. The crew at the tasting bar do everything with me, so I teach them everything.  People are afraid to invest themselves – but we invest in them and they return it.”

She posts herself behind the bar and to hear how customers react to the wines and what they’re really looking for in the wine and the experience, and she grounds her perspective in this customer-focused approach.  Here’s what that connection looks like – during this interview, she took my friend into the cellar and shared a few wines from the tank with us – just so we’d understand her process and she could illustrate what she works to achieve.  Not many winemakers will take that time with you, especially at harvest.  She takes the time to answer your questions and showcase how the wine develops through her attention to detail.

Katie has taken her meticulous notes about each vintage and varietal and compiled notebooks that all customers at the tasting counter review, learning details about the grapes and production of each wine.  Every employee understands these notes and talks about the winemaking with each customer. She wants to be fully transparent and give wine tasters all the information they could want, and through the conversation she shares her love of this work and makes the connection, knowing that this will make them come back for more.

What’s next for Casanel?  Right now, Katie is focused on expanding their sparkling program, with the incredible White Spark now released and the Red Spark, made from Norton, as staples.  A black spark is coming soon too…. Be sure to watch for that. She wants to do more than Pet Nat, a true sparkling that ages and impresses people. Casanel is Loudoun’s first “grower champagne house,” – the first to focus on true sparkling wine that has to age before it’s ready to savor.  She is on the way, as one recent vintage of Red Spark earned 88 points, and frankly, the White Spark is a really fantastic blanc de blancs. After the interview, my friend and I sat on the deck by the pond with a bottle.

Throughout the interview it was clear that Katie was self-taught and intends to be self-made as a winemaker.  While she has no degree in enology or viticulture, she does have the grit to go find experts and learn from them, and attend to all that she has learned matters in wine-making.  She is also stubborn. While Jim Law at Linden ripped all his Carmenere out of the soil several years ago, she continues to grow it, watching it carefully to protect the blooms from “shattering” in the rain.  As she is teaching her niece about the family’s intended legacy, her niece noted that what was needed were umbrellas for the grapes to protect the flowers. If she shares her aunt’s determination, watch for that invention coming to market in about 10 years!

Katie has taken her seat at the table, it was not given to her.  She notes that the wine world is not kind to female winemakers in general and felt she has had to fight for the respect, and be sure that everything Casanel does is at the highest quality in order to be taken seriously.   Determination is central to her work in the vineyard and the cellar. Lucie Morton taught her to “Do your own research,” so she turns leaves in the vineyard while walking her dog, checking for any sign of mold or indication growth isn’t proceeding as she wants.  Her determination has paid off, as her pet project, the production of sparkling, has caused Mark Squires to tell her, “This is the only way to drink Norton.” The 2015 Petit Verdot recently earned 90 points from Wine Advocate, and is consistently a medal winner in competitions around the country.  Katie was invited in the summer of 2018 to a discussion and review of her wines by Mark Squires and was being tasted against Virginia groundbreakers like Linden and sitting in the same chair as Jim Law. She hasn’t been waiting to be offered a seat at the table. Through hard work and sheer determination, she has earned that seat.

Family is everything at Casanel.  While we spoke, Katie’s husband Tyler joined us briefly.  They were meeting up later that day with his parents who would be visiting for a while.  Also during the interview, father Nelson and mother Casey stopped by to check in with her and chat with us.  The sense of family pride in what they have accomplished at Casanel is tangible. There will be a legacy for them in this place.

In the vineyard and in the cellar, music is a staple.  Everyone whistles or sings among the vines, and music is a must for Katie while at work amongst the tanks and barrels.  She is convinced that the music has an impact of the flavors, so she shifts between upbeat or classical for white wines, and jazz and blues for reds.  She did note that she has “racked” the Petit Verdot to Radiohead at times. Strong grapes require strong music.

And about her moniker on Instagram, Midnight Barbie?  She always wears black, but she also feels like she has to be prepared in the cellar, because you never know who will come in.  She was in there recently when David Greenhill walked in to chat with her about the vintage. She has worked so hard to learn her craft and be taken seriously, and she knows she will be judged for any perceived failing.  So she keeps up not only her craft and knowledge, but ensures everything else is perfect too. As Katell taught her, ZERO faults. 

Katie DeSouza Henley is determined to make great wine and provide a great experience for her customers.  The awards continue to roll in for Casanel, with their Carmenere continuing to get recognition. One day, she would like to win the governor’s cup with Casanel wine.  But more than the awards, what she’s really determined to do can be distilled to this: build a legacy in this place – a legacy of great wine and a great experience for everyone who comes.  Her determination has gotten her everything else on her agenda, so it’s just a matter of time for the cup, and for the rest, well, her loyal following speaks for itself. You’ll keep coming back to Casanel.


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