How to Become a Washington State Winemaker without Giving Up Your Day Job
Woodward Canyon’s Rick Small. Leonetti Cellar’s Gary Figgins. Andrew Will’s Chris Camarda. These accomplished winemakers started small, making wine on the side in garages and basements, while keeping their day jobs.
A new wave of home winemakers and part-time startups is taking the same path, satisfying the craving to produce fine wine on a small scale. They’re called garagistes, and they just might be the next Camardas or Smalls.
One group of about a dozen amateur winemakers from the Seattle area shares equipment at a member’s home near Lake Sammamish, using their collective buying power to forge relationships with some of Washington state’s best growers. “When we started out, we had to take what we could get, but now we’re buying by the row at great vineyards, including Red Willow, Conner Lee and Stillwater Creek,” says Kenmore-based Chris Hoffman, who is part of the group Vintners of Virtue, which buys more than 15,000 pounds of Washington grapes a year. Hoffman, who works in marketing for Isilon Systems, a data storage company in Belltown, annually makes about 13 cases, which he can’t sell, but shares with friends and family.
“It’s like cooking,” Hoffman says. “I love taking ingredients and turning them into something unique where the sum is greater than the parts.” (Appropriately, he calls his wines Alchemy.) Hoffman has no plans to make a career change, but some members of his group have gone pro part-time. Steve Stuart, a mechanical engineer at Kvichak Marine in Kent, bought the assets of Arlington Road Winery to open Elevation Cellars. Sammamish resident Gus White, who works at the Bothell data storage company Emulex, launched a label bearing his own name.
Green Lake residents Jill and Marc Beck began working with Crushpad, a Napa Valley–based enterprise that helps amateur winemakers go pro, in 2006. Crushpad walks fledgling vintners through every step of the process, from the selection of winemaking styles to the final blending to taking care of the legal requirements so tiny producers can sell their wines. The arrangement allowed the Becks, who used to work at Microsoft, to travel to the facility and be hands on during creation of their Purple Teeth Cellars Rhône-style wines.
While there’s nothing quite like Crushpad in Washington, Artifex Wine Company was launched a few years ago by Pepper Bridge Winery owner Norm McKibben to cater to small, bonded producers looking to make wine without setting up a full-fledged operation.
Many wineries around the state do custom crushing for fledgling winemakers. Joseph Miglino, a veteran sommelier who works at Russell’s Restaurant & Bar in Bothell, was helping his buddy, David Prigmore, the owner of Liberty Bay Cellars, during harvest in 2007 when his friend made an offer. “He told me it was time for me to put my money where my mouth was and try making wine,” says Miglino, who agreed and started Martedi Winery. “That first year, I made seven barrels of Sangiovese with grapes from Red Willow and Elephant Mountain, north of Zillah,” he says. The experiment turned out so well, he upped his production in 2008 and now makes a Riesling and a Syrah in a garage in Monroe.