Stu Watson
February 28, 2014 | Stu Watson

Vineyard manager Kimiko Atkins puts her art degree to grape use

Kimiko Atkins with mourvedre vines near Maryhill, Wash.

Kimiko Atkins with mourvedre vines near Maryhill, Wash.

When you tip a glass of Naked Winery's Climax Red, Oh! Orgasmic Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, just remember to toast Kimiko Atkins.

Atkins, who spends most of her days out on the gently sloping banks of the Columbia River's north shore near Maryhill, Wash., descends from a long line of farmers who came to the Columbia Valley from Japan in the early 20th century.

Her ancestors on her mother's side of the family grew truck crops and orchards.

Crop trends change. Today, Kimiko manages vineyards.

Orchards, too, until they stop producing fruit. Then the trees come out and vines go in.

Kimiko is one of Naked's silent partners, quietly pruning and training the vines that will bud and leaf and develop those marvelous, curvy clusters full of juice that is just begging to squeeze inside a glass bottle.

She says Naked buys about five tons each of her sangiovese, nebbiolo and barbera harvest – maybe six acres worth of fruit from the 35 acres of vineyards that she manages with her brother, Takashi. The vineyards also supply juice for the Waving Tree label, made by her father, Terrence.

“They seem to like our grapes,” Terrence says of Naked's appetite for the family's fruit. “From a quality standpoint, their wines are really nice.

“Peter is doing a great job,” Atkins says of Naked's winemaker Peter Steinfeld.

Growing up in a farm family, Kimiko at first thought she might try something different. She went to Central Washington University, extracting a degree in fine art and graphic design.

But her path to a degree took a bit of a detour, when her dad's growing interest in winemaking created a powerful pull on her talents.

The property had hosted wine grapes since the late 1800s. The sandy loam began a return to those roots after Kimiko's mother died in 1998, and she and her brother, Tahashi, inherited the property.

Terrence decided to make some wine from the old vines. Not bad, he thought. That led him to take his home winemaking hobby to the next level.

Reading books from the University of California at Davis.

Poking into the winemaking process at neighboring wineries.

And, ultimately, enlisting Kimiko to help produce grape.

“This is what you can do with a BFA in sculpture,” Kimiko says, laughing at the turn of events that put her hand to the fine art of growing grapes.

At first, she recalls, she knew only how much she didn't know. Lucky for her, she found her way to a viticulture certificate program from Washington State University in Prosser. It was there that she met the vineyard managers from such well-known labels as Kestrel and Columbia Crest.

“Those people were very generous with their help and knowledge,” Kimiko says. “I had one year of experience – enough to know I was in trouble.”

Not any more. As she walks through her vineyards, she talks about the different pruning styles for each grape, how she trims the leaves to let in sunlight and air, how she limits the amount of irrigation water to force the growth of smaller berries to boost the ratio of skin (and flavor and color) to juice.

The family vineyard has been supplying grape to Naked for three years, she says. Kimiko works closely with Jody Barringer, an owner and director of operations at Naked, to cultivate the grapes that Naked wants. She says it's a symbiotic relationship.

“We have a great working relationship,” Barringer says. “Kimiko has a passion about grapes and continuing to learn vineyard management. I have learned a lot from her about the growing process and things to look for in a vineyard. I enjoy walking the vineyards with her and discussing the upcoming harvest.”

And, a few months down the road, tasting the fruit of their shared labors.

Evelyn Atkins, Terrence Atkins, Kimiko Atkins and Takashi Atkins.


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