Kate Norris + The Taste of Kindness
Co-owner of not one, not two, but three companies — including Division Winemaking Company — this Portland-based winemaker is a force to be reckoned with.
August 10, 2020 — With a wealth of experience in the wine, food, and event planning industries, calling Kate Norris an overachiever would be an understatement.
Determined to make approachable, low-intervention wines, Kate founded the Division Winemaking Company with Tom Monroe in 2010. Her wines are a clear expression of her personality — disarmingly charismatic, strong, and the life of a party. In them, as she so eloquently says, you can taste kindness, community and joy.
In this interview, we speak with Kate about her journey to wine, what it is like to be a woman in the industry, and the community she’s helped to build.
Well, actually, it’s more complicated than that. My mom is from Madagascar and my dad is British, so I’m bi-racial, born in the Middle East, but not Middle Eastern.
I was born in Bahrain and I grew up there for the first five years of my life before moving back to Europe. I moved to London with my parents and then to Switzerland and France and then back to London. And finally, I moved to the States right before high school.
My mom, being black, was never really comfortable living in inner city London. She had huge issues with racism and with the way that she was treated there. So we decided as a family to move to the States with the hope that they could find a better way of life — more inclusive of her skin color. It was a fresh start and an opportunity to try something new.
Tom and I met in San Francisco. My parents always laugh that ever since I was a little girl, I told them I was going to live in California. And they would tell me, “You have no idea what California even is.”
So after college, I worked in New York for an interior design firm during the week and full shifts at a restaurant on Saturdays and Sundays. This was for a year and a half. I didn’t take a single day off.
Then I took all of the money I had saved, packed my bags, got in my car and drove to San Francisco.
I met Tom on the back steps of my apartment building. He was moving my neighbor in. We then had very similar friend circles and met again a few months later when he stole a bottle of wine from me at a party.
Exactly! Who the heck are you?
Anyway, long story, but I arrived at this party and looked around and thought, I don’t think anyone’s going to be drinking wine here, and I hid the bottle. And then I found that he had opened it and was drinking it.
Eventually, Tom and I got married and, together, we fell in love with Oregon wine and with wine in general. It became a huge part of our relationship. We are divorced now, but we’ve never fallen out of love with wine.
Right after we got married we moved to the Midwest for Tom to go to business school, and for his final project, he had to make a business plan. With my help, we wrote a plan about starting a winery.
And it did really well! At the final business school presentation and competition it came in second place. The judges said that it was actually the best written plan, but that the return on investment was too slow. It wasn’t a money maker — which I can tell them is 100 percent true [laughs].
When the recession started in 2007, I was working as an event planner and Tom as an investment banker. At one point, we both looked at each other and said, “We’re not going to have jobs, are we?”
So we took the money that I had saved when he was in school and we moved to my parents’ tiny cottage in this small village in France where my mom and I used to escape when she was evading England.
We worked in this small wine-producing village, and would drive up to Beaujolais, which was about four hours away, to study and work at some of our friends’ wineries.
We did this for about a year before deciding to move to Oregon to start our wine business.
We originally thought we would set up in the Willamette Valley. Back then, and still today, parts were very remote and sparsely populated and that I remember thinking, I’d probably end up killing Tom and no one would even notice he was missing!
We ended up moving into Portland and deciding not to make wine that first year. I took a hospitality job at a big winery and we also took some odd jobs, helping out at a few wineries for bottling and stuff.
Finally, because it was the recession and nobody was able to pay people to work, we were able to trade Tom’s and my labor to start making our own wine. In 2010 we made a little bit of rosé, and a small amount of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — just over 300 cases total. Which looking back at, is no small amount to start off!
Yeah! We sold our first rosé on July 28, 2010. The fact that I remember the date is hilarious and significant. I still cry when people pay me for wine. It’s a dream come true, a total miracle.
We’d decided that we wanted to open an urban winery, so when the time came to find our own space we started looking around town. It was kind of like Goldilocks. Too big. Too small. Not good enough.
Finally, we drove up our street and noticed a building just five blocks away that we thought was awesome, but way too big for our 300 cases of wine. So we thought, how about we create a collective? Let’s see if any of our peers want to make their wine in here too.
It’s kind of a strength in numbers thing — we thought it would add a bit more legitimacy because nobody knew who we were. We imagined it would have a tasting room and a little wine bar where we would sell everyone’s wine and get people excited about local wine. We also wanted to prove a point that urban winemaking wasn’t making wine in the bathtub. Everyone thought that for a long time.
I do. I think you can taste kindness in wine; you can taste support and community; you can taste joy. I think these things are all part of what we can feel and taste in the products we enjoy. That struggle and success. I think it’s something we don’t talk about that much, but these emotions are encapsulated in everything.
This is the string between us as humans, which we don’t talk about that often, but is there between us. This mesh of life.
Oregon is collaborative. People started making wine here not very long ago, around 60 years ago. It’s a pioneer state in that sense.
When people came here to start making wine they struggled so hard to make it happen, but they were able to find a couple of other people who were like them – a small community of like-minded humans — planting grapes in a place that had never been planted.
And as more people became interested, the original pioneers were like, “Yes, come on down. There’s room for everybody.”
So my job is to pass that along, that openness and kindness. And to gently remind people when they’re not being open. We get to live a full, open lifestyle. It’s better for everybody.
Wine is about sharing. Its very essence is collaboration and community. It’s not about the individual experience so much as it is comparing your experience to others and enjoying it together.
Heck yeah, I feel it. Yeah, it’s been really hard at times. But at the end of the day, I feel really prepared as a human to stick up for myself thanks to my parents and my community.
Sometimes, I feel it’s just part of the deal, but it has gotten better. Seven or eight years ago, it was not easy to serve wine at tastings and have people look over my shoulder, asking me to speak to the winemaker. We still have a long way to go in terms of equality.
At the same time, it’s a fight I’m willing to have. I know that my wines speak for themselves and I know that they’re mine. Part of being a woman is having that confidence in yourself and one day people will eventually see you.
I want them all to know that they already have that strength within them. It’s there, whether or not they see it or feel it. I have faith in them and believe in every dream they’ve ever had. I believe in it for them.
We’re lucky. Oregon has a fair amount of female winemakers. We have each other’s back. It’s pretty great.
I would really love to be sitting on the hillside overlooking the village where I learned how to make wine in France. I’d really love a glass of Gamay from the vines that are sitting right there. And I really, really, really would love some saucisson au vin.
The Holy Grail, you know. Having that place that you love. You know exactly what it smells like. You know what the breeze feels like and what the sounds are like and how the light is.
This is the first installment of a three-part interview series we are releasing to celebrate women industry leaders with whom we are privileged to be working. To learn more or to purchase their wines, check out the “Discover By Values” feature on our homepage.
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