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Marc Freemanwritten by
Marc Freeman
The taste of success

With upwards of 800 wineries, Washington state has emerged as the second-largest premium wine producer in the United States. Turning off a side street in an industrial area of sleepy Woodinville, I start to think the majority of these wineries might reside here, within a complex of storage depots referred to by locals as the “warehouse district.”

OK, so industrial concrete isn’t quite the image of vast farmlands and sprawling grapevines I envisioned on my way over. For that you’d have to travel to Eastern Washington, to Walla Walla and Horse Heaven Hills - places with the kinds of names you couldn’t make up if you tried. But I didn’t come here for the scenery. I came to meet Kevin White, Bing principal program manager lead and driving force behind the well-reviewed Kevin White Winery.

On paper, red wine and data mining hardly seem an appropriate pair. One goes with meats, the other with user experiences. But beneath the surface of alcohol and statistics, there’s a common running theme concerning an attention to detail.

Yet somehow that doesn’t do justice to White and his world. In his case, there’s another current coursing through his veins: obsession. “With data mining, you’re obsessed about understanding how people use products so that we can deliver the best possible experience,” said White. “With wine, you have to be obsessed about everything. From the quality of the product, to what the label looks like, to how are you going to sell it, to ‘Oh my God – can I sell it?’”

We’re in the cellar at Baer Winery now, where White makes his Syrah and Grenache-blended wines. “Here, let me show you around,” said my mild-mannered host. We’re surrounded by rows of French oak barrels stacked floor to the ceiling. While not a large enough space to get lost in, you might wish you could dive inside one of his barrels. For that’s where the vino chemistry occurs, converting grape sugar to CO2 and alcohol.

In some ways, White’s story, soft-spoken data scientist turned chemist, reads like a “Breaking Bad” episode. The other Mr. White, aka Heisenberg, was also a converted chemist, albeit in a more dangerous way. In that world, chances are I’d end up as an ingredient inside the large metallic de-stemmer or grape press off to my left. Fortunately, my subject’s obsession does not take such a dark side. But just to be sure, I quiz those who know him best.

“He’s serious, silly, an artist and a scientist,” said Leroy Radford, owner of the Flying Dreams Winery and one of White’s wine mentors and friends. OK, so far, so good. “He always makes an effort to check in and see how things are going,” said Chris Robinson, a college friend and senior developer on the Power Query Engine team at Microsoft.

Fair enough. His wife and “taster in chief,” Stefanie, a clinical psychologist, calls out his earnest desire to connect with people. “He finds people really interesting and likes to get to know them.” In many ways, that jibes rather well with the idea of wine. For at its core, wine brings people together, to talk, enjoy a meal, relax and share with others.

Back in the tasting room, I kind of wish we would open up one of his bottles right now and say “salut.” I check that thought as he darts off to meet a delivery truck dropping off new barrel racks. His eyes light up as he eagerly jumps onto a forklift to move the racks into the warehouse. His enthusiasm tells me that this is clearly his toy store. “My kids will get to learn how to drive a forklift before they drive a car,” predicts White. “Not a lot of kids will be able to say that.”

In a similar vein, not a lot of adults could say they can balance a full-time career with a small business on the side, a wife and two young twins. But somehow White does. According to Stefanie, their son Connor is so taken with dad’s side profession that he has already cast aside typical childhood dreams of being a garbage man or pilot to focus on becoming a winemaker. Of course, taking field trips to Eastern Washington and getting to crush grapes could sway almost any kid. But it’s more than that. “He adores his father,” Stefanie said.

I wonder if the man ever sleeps. He assures me he does, but you somehow get the sense that in order to feed his obsessions, his day requires more than 24 hours. The hardest time of his year occurs during the harvest season in the fall. That’s when the wine grapes, which are about the size of blueberries, get hand-picked from different Eastern Washington vineyards and trucked over to Woodinville in refrigerated trucks. The grapes then get crushed and de-stemmed, with the resulting liquid placed into barrels for aging and then eventually bottled and labelled. “Stefanie is a wine widow for six weeks,” White admits. She puts it another way. “The wine is like our third child,” she jokes. “We’ve all had to make sacrifices for it. But in the end, we all love the child.”

Part of what balances out the occasional wine widow lifestyle is the perk of working together. When I ask him his favorite experience from the job, White doesn’t hesitate to point out that it’s the opportunity to create each wine’s flavor profile with her.

So where does all his drive and passion come from? Part of it emanates from his childhood. As the oldest of five boys in Fairfield County, Connecticut, White took care of his younger siblings while striving to meet the high expectations that come with being the eldest child. Another part comes from White being an eternal student in search of knowledge and making connections with people.

The wine is like our third child.

“He has a beginner’s mind,” said Radford. “He has a genuine authentic desire and passion to learn. He’s not afraid to look foolish if the end result illuminates something for him.” That’s not to say his is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants personality. “He plans decades ahead, but then will make a lot of changes to the plan,” said Stefanie. “Thinking through them is how his mind works.”

Case in point, take his college experience at the University of Connecticut. Unlike the majority of us who consider college a rite of passage into independence, high-jinx and occasional stupidity, White obsessed over his future career, viewing his time at school as job training for a lucrative career in computer science. In 2000, a chance encounter with a Koosh ball cemented that path.

“I was at this job fair on campus,” recalled White. “The Microsoft booth was giving away free Koosh balls and I wanted one.” A simple exchange of said Koosh ball for a personal resumé led to a summer internship in Redmond, Washington. Yes, summer in Seattle, one of this area’s great secrets that entice many an unsuspecting victim. Next thing White knew, he was living in Seattle as a tester working on SQL Server 2000. It was a rewarding and challenging experience from the get-go.

Yet despite the enjoyment his work brought him, five years later, the eternal student found himself at a crossroads in his career. “I wanted to learn more,” recalled White. “I had been working in back-end data systems for other companies to use and put data in. I wanted to learn about the data.”

Kevin behind a bunch of his casks

White found such an opportunity with Bing. “They were building a platform while collecting and trying to understand data,” said White. “Going from building platforms for other companies to applied data and platforms seemed like an awesome opportunity.” The challenge was changing his perspective. A lot of what White does these days concerns search relevance. White and his team collect data about how people use Bing, how they search, what they click on, and the accuracy of results based on user intent. “We have to be obsessed with the customer and their experience so as to build world-class products and services that deliver the best possible results.”

With a fulfilling relationship and career, most of us would take stock and feel that we’ve reached a pretty high plateau. White, however, still felt a void. He wanted to make an impact with people. For a while he dabbled in politics and considered running for office. “I would've liked to have been governor one day,” remembered White. “I never think small.”

Yet similar to the Koosh ball incident, a chance encounter with a local bottle of wine changed his life. The bottle, a Côte Bonneville Carriage House red wine, recommended by an employee at a local market, became White’s “a-ha” moment.

We have to be obsessed with the customer and their experience to build world-class products and services.

“It was so pleasurable,” said White. “It just dawned on me that if I'm having this much fun enjoying this as a consumer, maybe I could enjoy it more providing that experience for other people.”

What White did next can best be described by the Yiddish word “Chutzpah,” which people get when they discover a passion for something they want to pursue. He called Hugh Shiels, the owner of Côte Bonneville, and asked if he could visit his vineyard. Shiels was more than accommodating. “Kevin’s a natural networker,” said Robinson. “When he wants to do something, he’s able to figure out who are the best people and try and work with them.”

What started as a curiosity soon became much more. White enrolled in chemistry classes at Seattle Community College. He started attending wine events and auctions. He read about the state’s geology. He used his vacation time to volunteer as a cellar rat for different winemakers. “I asked a lot of questions and cleaned a lot of bins, because that's what you do.”

Kevin's twin children

“He was just like a puppy,” recalled Radford. “He was wagging his tail, trying to be helpful.” Starting your day at 7:30 in the morning and getting home at midnight would kill many a soul, but to White it only fueled his obsession. “There's an art to it, a discovery, and a voyage. You find out what you're passionate about and you use that as your North Star to drive towards.”

That journey would not have been possible without his position at Microsoft. “I had a full-time job that gave me the luxury to take a buffered risk,” said White. That risk led to production of his first wine in 2010. Last year he sold out 500 cases.

One of the attractions for White in what he does is the inclusive sense of community within the local industry. It is this very sense of collaboration and mentorship that enables White, for example, to make his wine at Baer Winery. “That’s the thing about wineries here,” said White. “Everyone doing it is passionate and wants to share it with other people.” Radford goes one step further. “If one of us succeeds here in the warehouses helping each other, there’s a sense we all succeed.”

Last year, Washington produced 12.5 million cases of wine. Yet somehow the local industry has been able to maintain its community vibe. In fact White has used his experience as the inspiration for the names of his wine: En Hommage (French for homage) and La Fraternité (French for “the community of the people”).

It’s an epiphany every time.

As much as there’s an inward sense of community, White also wants to pay it forward to fans of his wine. He started a wine club on his website that currently has more than 150 members. White’s made a point of reaching out by phone or in person to every member. “The ability to have that connection with people about something I am passionate about is awesome,” said White.

Ever the wine enthusiast, White sees himself as a fan as much as an advocate and producer. “To open a bottle of wine and enjoy tasting something that blows me away, just sets me off,” said White. “How it all comes together. It’s an epiphany every time.”

Originally published on 9/2/2014 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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