Award-winning winery

Sarah Lathrop

When one thinks of being a vintner, or winemaker, it might conjure images of perfectly lit evening walks between rows of grapes, vaults of aging barrels, and tables of folks sharing laughs over full glasses of their favorite variety. Sarah (Morris) Lathrop (B.S. Professional and Technical Communication, ’02) loves owning Liberty Lake Wine Cellars, located in a suburb of Spokane, Washington, but she is quick to rip off the Rosé-colored glasses when she describes her work.

Sarah Lathrop

“Winemaking is a lot of work, physically and socially. Most people think of winemaking as romantic, like walking through a vineyard with a glass of wine, but we only walk through the vineyards when we’re checking on our grapes, and boy are vineyards dusty!” Lathrop said. “Winemaking is 80% moving cases of wine from one spot to the next and power washing.”

Sarah Lathrop

Lathrop knows what it takes to run a successful winery. In 2023, Liberty Lake Cellars was named Washington State Winery of the Year by Washington State Wine Awards, shortly after being named the 2022 Washington Winery to Watch by Great Northwest Wine. In January 2022, Liberty Lake went 7-for-7 at Great Northwest Wine’s Platinum Awards, which was an unprecedented win in the organization’s 22-year history of judging.

Sarah Lathrop

“We are a minimal intervention winery,” Lathrop said. “We don’t use additives in the winemaking process, we don’t make must adjustments, we don’t filter our wine, and we use gravity to move wine during the racking and bottling process. Our philosophy is that if we purchase the best grapes that we can, they will produce a superior wine. It’s a philosophy that we carried over from the first winemaker and so far, it’s been successful for us.”

Sarah Lathrop

Liberty Lake produces small lots of 14–16 different wines, giving the customer a variety of choices.

Sarah Lathrop

“When people come into the tasting room, they’ll often see a different lineup of wine,” Lathrop said. “It makes the education part of wine fun on our end introducing people to a new variety they may have never heard of, such as Carmenere, Petit Verdot, or one of my new favorites, Tourgia Nacional.”

Liberty Lake’s stellar winning streak and affinity for business is the culmination of a 20+ year journey that started in Butte, Montana. Lathrop grew up in the Mining City and decided to stay close to home when she graduated from high school. She attended Montana Tech, majoring in Professional and Technical Communication with a minor in Business, because she enjoyed writing.

“It was so much more than writing,” Lathrop said. “We had classes in photography, videography, web development, journalism, etc. Plus, our professors were from all over the country and brought such a great perspective to Tech.”

However, the job market when she graduated in 2002 was not the best for an entry-level candidate.

“I really wanted to move to Seattle, but instead I was lucky enough to get a job at J-U-B Engineers in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in June of 2003,” Lathrop said. “When I started, I split my time as the executive assistant to the president and a marketing assistant for their subsidiary company Civic Mind Media. I worked there for two years before leaving with my boss, Jim Coleman, to help start his Civil Engineering Firm, Coleman Engineering, and at the same time I started my MBA at Eastern Washington University.”

Lathrop met her husband, Mark, while earning her MBA.

“Since meeting, we had always talked about owning our own business, and during our dating and after our wedding, all of our dates, vacations, etcetera seemed to be centered around wine,” Lathrop said.

The pair were wine club members at Liberty Lake Wine Cellars from 2008 to 2015, when they noticed the owners weren’t making wine.

“In September, we emailed them to ask why and they indicated they were going to sell the remaining wine inventory and close the winery,” Lathrop said. “We asked if they’d stay on for a year to teach us the winemaking process, they said yes, and by January 2016 we owned the winery. We both still had full-time day jobs until a few years ago. I went part-time at Coleman Engineering in 2020, and Mark became a full-time winemaker in March of 2023.”

Sarah’s duties at the winery include running the tasting room, managing staff, marketing, advertising, financials, and assisting with production during harvest and bottling seasons.

“We’ve made it successful by working extremely hard, not giving up, knowing how to pivot, and being very creative,” Lathrop said. “Our original projections were that we could both quit our day jobs in 2020, and we were right on track, and then COVID hit.”

The hospitality industry was shut down for six months, and Liberty Lake’s tasting room was forced to close.

“Many wineries in Washington ended up shutting down, but we didn’t give up,” Lathrop said. “We got creative with our marketing, making weekly fun packs for our customers—one week it was a movie pack with a bottle of wine, movie snacks, and our staff’s favorite movie picks, another week we partnered with a caterer for date night at home with to-go meals and wine, another week we did grab bags of library wines, where our customers didn’t know what they were getting until they picked their bag.”

That creativity continued after COVID.

“We created a night each week for our wine club members,” Lathrop said. “Each week, we offer a special and at least once a month something silly or educational or entertaining. I’m not aware of another winery in the state that does that. We have plans to do a March Madness contest, so those members who can’t join us in the tasting room can be involved.”

The couple also improved efficiency in all processes to handle duties alone if needed. It was a challenge, but Lathrop is not one to back down. Her history of running head-first at discomfort to achieve results is long.

“When I first started my career at the engineering firm, I was one of a very small number of women, most of whom were administration staff,” Lathrop said. “I was hired to be the executive assistant to the president, which quickly led to helping with project management for our Wyoming School Facilities’ contract. Lots of travel to Wyoming often had me as the only woman in a room full of much older men. It was hard to be taken seriously, and it took years to win them over. I had to learn to stand up for myself so that I’d be heard.”

Lathrop continued to push herself by putting extra hours into education and networking.

“I took any opportunity I could to advance myself, which led to me getting my MBA, getting additional certifications, and volunteering on boards to meet people in my community,” Lathrop said. “I was part of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee for 10+ years; I was on the Montana Tech Alumni Board for 8 years (I resigned in May 2023), and I’m currently the treasurer of the Spokane Winery Association. I am naturally an introvert, and putting myself in these situations was very difficult, but it has allowed me to meet many interesting people, gain mentors, and gain respect from others in my industry.”

Wherever the future takes her, Lathrop carries the lessons she learned at Montana Tech with her every day, along with the work ethic instilled in her by working in her parent’s Butte businesses from an early age.

“I think Butte and Montana Tech go hand in hand,” Lathrop said. “There’s a certain amount of tenacity that goes along with this place. Everyone is expected to work hard and do whatever it takes to get the job done. I remember professors giving us assignments that seemed impossible, but if we had problems and needed extra help they were happy to meet us during their time off. This has definitely carried over into the winery. There is no job at the winery that I would ask my staff to do that I wouldn’t do myself. You’ll find me at the winery cleaning out bins and then hosting a wine dinner, all within a few hours.”