Walla Walla’s wine industry takes care of the land through sustainable farming practices. Its members take care of each other through friendships. Now it’s time to help those who cannot afford medical care.

And one winemaker intends to accomplish this.

Ashley Trout of Flying Trout Wines has launched Vital Wines, a nonprofit winery whose sole purpose is to raise money for SOS Health Services in College Place. Vital Wines’ first release this spring will be a rosé of Sangiovese from Seven Hills Vineyard near Milton-Freewater, followed this fall by a red. The wines from Vital’s inaugural 2015 vintage will total about 400 cases.

“SOS is an open-door, no-questions-asked, bilingual, free clinic,” Trout said. “Donations are accepted at the door, but it’s a free clinic.”

When Trout joined the board of directors for SOS Health Services, she learned that a lot of its funding goes toward extending the medical licenses for doctors who are getting ready to retire. Those doctors then donate their time on a weekly or monthly basis.

That leaves little left for promoting SOS’s services to those who need them — and in the wine industry, a lot of people could use help with health care.

“I worked in the wine industry for eight years without health insurance,” Trout said. “That is normal. When you look at winery and vineyard work, it’s physical and seasonal. So you can’t really blame employers for not doing a better job of providing health care for their workers.”

In many cases, the Affordable Care Act doesn’t help, Trout said.

“We haven’t actually seen any drop in people (coming to SOS ),” Trout said. “We thought we would, but when you look at the stats throughout the country, a fourth of Latinos still are not insured, and when you get into rural communities where the per-capita income is a lot lower, then you’re talking about people who really can’t afford the ACA.”

When the plight of those who work in the wine industry — and agriculture in general — became clearer to Trout, she knew she had to do something. And that’s because she had personal experience with how traumatic medical emergencies can be.

A few years ago, Trout took a terrible fall while rock climbing in Japan. She was hospitalized for 42 days and underwent five operations — all without health insurance.

“Thank goodness it was in a different country,” she said. “Otherwise, I would still be paying that off right now. The care was great. It wasn’t free, but it wasn’t $300,000. It didn’t bankrupt me.”

This experience fuels her need to help others, particularly seasonal workers who might not speak much English and often are too frightened to seek necessary medical care. So for Trout, Vital Wines serves a couple of purposes. Not only can she help raise needed funds for the clinic, she also can increase awareness of the services it provides.

“We have not done as good of a job as we should have over the years of telling people that this clinic exists and that it’s free,” Trout said. “This label provides more awareness within the community that this clinic exists.”

So last autumn, Trout would drive around the Valley before her work day began, talk to harvest crews (she speaks Spanish) about SOS and hand out pamphlets that explain where the clinic is and how it works.

Trout is a young and energetic winemaker, and her compassion for others shines when she talks about wanting to help the uninsured receive the health care they need. As a result, nearly every part of Vital Wines has been donated, which increases the amount of money that goes to SOS Health Services.

It all starts with the grapes, which Trout receives from some of the Valley’s finest vineyards. And she’s not just getting cast-off fruit that other wineries don’t want. Vineyard owners are donating pristine grapes that will become great wines. 

She produces the wine at her facility, donating her labor to the cause. Bottles, labels, corks, shipping supplies and pretty much everything else involved in Vital Wines is provided by vendors at no cost.

“You name it, and it’s donated,” she said with a smile.

For many reasons, Trout plans to keep Vital Wines a small project.

“As it is, we’re already going to be increasing the budget of the clinic drastically,” she said. “With only about 500 cases a year, we don’t end up taxing any one donor too much.”

There are no plans for a Vital Wines tasting room. The wines will be sold directly to consumers through a wine club and mailing list, as well as through a select number of retail outlets in the Walla Walla Valley and perhaps in the Seattle area.

“We’ve done such a good job of taking care of our land in a sustainable way,” Trout said. “We’ve done a good job of taking care of our winemaking community in the sense that we’re all friends. But what we need to do is focus on that for one more step and make sure that the health care basics are taken care of. I don’t think it’s a hard thing to do. I think we can do it.”

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