With four distinct seasons in the Yakima Valley, a career in wine is fruitful year-round for Laura Rankin Schlect. She is a partner at Gilbert Cellars and heads the marketing and sales department. For her and the Gilbert Cellars team, winter is spent planning, spring is time to implement those plans, summer is packed with events that create memories for their customers, and fall is for winemaking.
Schlect’s roots stem from a long line of fruit growers in the region. Her great-great-grandfather settled in Yakima in 1897 and decided to grow apples and other fruit. Seventeen years ago, the family got into wine through the purchase of a plot that was planted with mature vines. Schlect’s uncle Curt bought the land. At the time Schlect’s two oldest cousins, Nate and Sean Gilbert, were both living in California. Then Sean moved to Seattle and began working for Januik Winery. His brother Nate learned winemaking in courses at UC Davis. In 2004, Sean and Nate both came back to Yakima to start Gilbert Cellars, along with a partnership of about 14 family members.
During that time, Schlect attended UC Santa Barbara, earning her undergraduate degree in Art History. In 2009, she spent a few months in Yakima working as a server at Gilbert Cellars tasting room before heading to London for graduate school and a master’s in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art.
While in London, her cousin Sean flew in on a business trip to sell apples and they made plans to meet. During their visit, he presented her with what would turn out to be a career defining idea. Was she interested in coming back to work for the family? At the time, it had not occurred to her to take a leap in that direction. But over the next few months she found herself considering it. She described the feeling she had as “a pull to come back.”
In 2010 Schlect was still in London. She was on the phone with her cousin Meg, who was living in New Zealand participating in the Willing Workers on Organic Farms program in vineyards and wineries. They both missed family and Yakima. Within a month of one another, they made it back and both began working for the Gilbert Cellars family business.
Schlect ran the tasting room for five years. Then she transitioned into a national sales position, then a tasting room manager and local wholesale account manager. Today, Schlect handles marketing and sales. She also oversees social media, e-newsletters, and dabbles in graphic design. As head of the winery’s Yakima-based sales, she develops relationships with local restaurants and wine shops, and nonprofit organizations. “We sell a lot of wine to nonprofits for events. We participate in events and have partnerships with nonprofits, which is something that has been really dear to our family’s hearts,” she said. “One of the reasons for starting the winery was to get involved in the community and give back.”
Since moving back to Yakima, Schlect has seen a lot of growth and shifts in the wine industry as mid-to-large size wineries establish themselves. “This leaves room for the small family boutique wineries like us to take our wines out into other markets and have people recognize Washington as a legitimate region,” she said.
Her initial vision for Gilbert Cellars was to develop The Hackett Ranch as an events space and bring in concerts and weddings. “Really bring people to the source,” said Schlect. “That was something I had envisioned and I think we have done a spectacular job in the last few years.”
It occurred to Schlect to begin utilizing the winery in new ways. “We built our wine cave in 2010. The property became much more of a destination at that point,” she said. “Some friends of ours who managed musicians and bands in Seattle were looking for places to showcase their music in Yakima. They started bringing over bands and realized what a great place it was. The very first unofficial “Music in the Vines” event was the Summer of 2011. We had The Lumineers and Hey Marseilles play. The following year it grew a little bit bigger. The third year was when we built the amphitheater.”
2018 will mark 10 years that Gilbert Cellars tasting room has been downtown. “There have been many iterations of the tasting room here but at the end of the day we are still doing what we set out to do, which is be a gathering place for Yakima. Sort of an extension of the Gilbert family living room and offer people a place to come and taste our wine daily,” said Schlect. “That is something we’ve been honing in on these last few years. We’re feeling pretty good about the pace of what we are doing here as well as the pace of what we are doing with winery production, events, and all that.”
Outside of her work at Gilbert Cellars, Schlect is newly married. She also is a co-founder of I Heart Yakima, along with Bridget Russel and Jessica Moskwa Hawkins. Schlect describes it as “a civic pride organization, really grass roots, meant to lift up the community through encouraging participation and positive speech. It focuses on all of the great things Yakima is doing, without ignoring the bad — recognizing that both exist in any community. You have to really focus on the good to help level that up and get everyone to see and be happy about where they live.”
Four distinct seasons. It’s fall now, and for the Gilbert family business it means something special. “We all get to go back to our roots and remember why it is that we got into this business in the first place. It’s about the wine. It’s about the community,” said Schlect. “Then we go back to winter where we start to rebuild, celebrate family, and be thankful.”