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From struggling writer to award-winning wine maker: Graduating V&E student named Wine Spectator Student of the Year

When Madeleine Higgins was trying to pay the rent in New York as a struggling fashion writer, she never dreamed that one day she would be interning in a custom-crush facility in Walla Walla, Wash., learning to make wine as a top-student in WSU’s Viticulture & Enology Program, and garnering national distinction.

A Los Angeles native who grew up in Seattle, Higgins attended Loyola Marymount where she majored in psychology, minored in English, and sold shoes part time to foot the bills. After graduating in 2013, Higgins landed a job in New York writing for Condé Nast’s Footwear News, though she quickly found herself living in an unsustainable situation.

Student stands in front of her research poster at convention.
Madeleine Higgins stands in front of her award-winning poster at the 2019 Washington Winegrowers convention in Kennewick.

“I wasn’t surviving in New York,” she said. “I couldn’t afford to eat.”

But it was when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer that Madeleine finally said goodbye to New York and returned to Seattle to be with family. As her mother recovered, Higgins started selling shoes again, helping out where she could.

“It was during this time I realized that writing wasn’t going to happen for me,” she recalled. “I don’t think I had enough passion to move through the difficulty of getting started.”

That’s when a chance encounter changed everything.

“I had a family friend who worked for Chateau Ste. Michelle, and hearing someone from the industry talk about wine was very interesting,” she said.

The conversation led to a private tour of the Woodinville, Wash. winemaking facility. Higgins was awestruck.

“I was really inspired by that particular tour,” she added. In researching winemaking as a career, she was immediately drawn to WSU’s Viticulture & Enology Program. But it was still a big decision.Then her mother gave her the push she needed.

“She told me to jump in and go for it.” Empowered by her mother’s courage and triumph, Madeleine moved to the Tri-Cities and started classes in 2016, ready for the challenge.

“I can say that I have always worked hard, and in my family—we’re Irish—hard work is one of our things.”

Over the last three years, her hard work has yielded great success. Beyond maintaining a high GPA, Higgins has completed a research assistantship, won Best Undergraduate Poster at the Washington Winegrowers Convention, created a wine for Blended Learning at Pepper Bridge Winery, secured a coveted internship with Stag’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley this summer, and was named Wine Spectator Student of the Year, an accolade that comes with a $15,000 scholarship from the magazine’s scholarship foundation.

The honor, Higgins said, “validates all the 5 a.m. routines of checking Brix (the grapes’ sugar content) in Walla Walla that turned into late nights at the Wine Science Center studying phenolic compound structures, and all the weeks of research with no days off in between, my internship, and school commitments.” But above all, she added, “this recognition told me that all my hard work and my leap into a new life was worth it.”

Looking back, Madeleine credits the program’s faculty for what she has accomplished.

“They are incredibly supportive,” she said. “At WSU, I have access to some of the most important wine researchers in the world,” and that has made all the difference.

Many aspects of her life are coming full circle. Having once written for a magazine, she is now being honored by one; and after completing her internship in Napa Valley this summer, she plans on traveling to New Zealand.

“The same family friend who first introduced me to wine has a daughter there and a lot of wine connections,” she said. In New Zealand, Higgins wants to learn by comparison.

“The only way for me to make an impact is to learn what other wine regions are like.”

Ultimately, she intends on making that impact at home.

“Washington is a really innovative place for wine making, she added. “Someone told me it’s the ‘rock and roll of wine.’ I love the idea of being a part of that.”

Visit us online to learn more about WSU’s Viticulture and Enology Program.










Media Contacts

Brandon Schrand, Senior Communications Coordinator, 509-335-2843