Ross Andrew Mickel shows off the new tasting bar at Ross Andrew Winery in 2013. (Ross Andrew Winery via Facebook)

Ross Andrew Mickel shows off the new tasting bar at Ross Andrew Winery in 2013. (Ross Andrew Winery via Facebook)

Wine industry mourns Woodinville vintner, family killed in plane crash

Ross Andrew Mickel, wife Lauren Hilty and child Remy Mickel were a “bright and shining light in the lives of everyone who knew them.”

WOODINVILLE — When Ross Andrew Mickel opened his Woodinville winery in 1999, Washington was still a purple dot on the global viticultural map.

Ross Andrew Winery had been one of only a handful in the area: Now, more than 130 wineries and tasting rooms line Woodinville’s four districts, often side by side.

“Ross was an important part of that growth and success,” wrote Sean Sullivan, founder of Washington Wine Report. “He really was at the front end of a lot of trends in Woodinville.”

Last Sunday, Mickel, 47, along with his pregnant wife Lauren Hilty, 39, and their toddler son, Remy Mickel, perished in a plane crash in the waters off Whidbey Island. He and his family were among 10 killed in the crash Sept. 4, when a float plane abruptly disappeared from radar during a flight from the San Juan Islands to Renton. The small aircraft plunged into Mutiny Bay. One body was recovered during a search led by the U.S. Coast Guard over Labor Day weekend.

“We are deeply saddened and beyond devastated at the loss of our beloved Ross Mickel, Lauren Hilty, Remy and their unborn baby boy, Luca,” the Mickel and Hilty families said in a statement. “Our collective grief is unimaginable. They were a bright and shining light in the lives of everyone who knew them.”

The deadly crash sent shockwaves through Woodinville’s tight-knit community of winemakers. The Washington State Wine Commission said in an email that Mickel had “an incredible impact on the Washington wine community” and would be greatly missed.

Winemakers, sommeliers and growers remembered Mickel as a viticultural pioneer who helped make Washington a wine destination.

Mickel got his start in the late ’90s while working under master sommelier Rob Bigelow at the landmark Canlis restaurant in Seattle. There, he “soon realized that wine was going to be his life’s journey,” according to the Ross Andrew Winery website.

The Seattle native then traveled throughout South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa, soaking in as much knowledge as he could from the grape-growing and winemaking corners of the world. Upon returning to Washington, he took a job working at Betz Family Winery in Woodinville during harvest season.

Mickel wrote that Betz Family Winery was “arguably one of Washington’s most highly allocated and respected producers,” and with good reason: Owner Bob Betz holds the prestigious “Master of Wine” degree from the Institute of Masters of Wine in London.

Mickel’s seasonal job at Betz Family Winery quickly turned permanent. He was hired as a cellar worker and then secured a position as the famed winery’s assistant winemaker, though Betz saw Mickel more as a winemaking associate, an equal. Mickel’s family played a big role in the early years of the business, too. His step-dad Ned Nelson was the architect of Betz Family Winery, having designed their basket press, which Betz called a “groundbreaking approach to pressing wine.” He called Mickel’s mother, Sheila Nelson, a “fabulous chef” who often cooked for the winery’s workers.

Even after a long day of cleaning cellar floors and filling barrel after barrel with stained and bruised hands, Mickel was the kind of guy who always found a way to make the people around him laugh, Betz said. And even after getting the same question from customers over and over again, he would answer the 10th iteration as enthusiastically as the first.

“He brought a real spirited, fun-loving attitude,” Betz remembered. “You just wanted to talk to him.”

Mickel began making his own wine in the Betz Family cellars, under the guidance and support of Bob and his wife Cathy. After several years, Mickel eventually went off to build his own winery.

By the time the late ’90s came around, Betz said a critical mass of wineries started to form, “but we still had a lot to discover and a lot to prove.”

Mickel sourced fruit from a variety of Washington wine regions, such as Walla Walla, Columbia and Yakima Valley. Those regions didn’t become federally approved American Viticultural Areas until the 1980s. Many of the state’s first plantings, including Syrah, happened around this time, seeds for what would become the “Big Bang” of the state’s winemakers. Mickel was among them.

“He made a difference in the industry with the wines that he made, with his support of the industry and with the attitude that he had,” Betz said.

Mickel remained a lifelong student throughout the years, a constant contributor to the collective knowledge of Washington vintners. He was eager to share lessons and tips and skills he gained from more than two decades in the industry. And he was prepared for another busy Washington wine grape harvest season. The 2022 vintage began in August, just a few weeks before the plane crash.

“Making a living making wine is by no means easy, despite everyone’s romantic notions of it. So there’s a lot of shared equipment and blood, sweat, and tears amongst everyone there,” Sullivan wrote to The Herald. “It makes losing him that much more difficult, as he was woven into the community. With any fabric, you can remove a piece and it will stay together, but it will never quite be the same.”

Taylor Goebel: 425-339-3046;; Twitter: @TaylorGoebel.

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