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The Winery Alliance of Bainbridge Island

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seven local micro-wineries band together to make their own luck

BY ABRA BENNETT
PHOTOS BY ABRA BENNETT AND SHEL HALL

 

A bicycle racer. A commercial photographer. A municipal bonds trader. A landscape architect turned general contractor. A pro ski instructor turned wine seller. A guitar maker. A computer industry refugee. Plant them on an island, drum up a cadre of volunteers, produce award-winning wines, and what have you got? The Winery Alliance of Bainbridge Island (WABI). Seven small wineries, seven very different winemakers, one common passion: turning grapes into an intoxicating nectar, and doing it by hand on Bainbridge Island.

Drinking wine from a cool and damp little island in Puget Sound isn’t the obvious thing to do, but these seven guys are out to change that. “We want people to put us on the list of what they do with out of town guests: take them to the International District for dim sum, go to Pike Place and the Space Needle, have salmon, and take the ferry to Bainbridge Island and drink wine, ” says Jim Wilford of Fletcher Bay Winery. “Take the ferry, check. Drink local wine, check.”

Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne, Siegerrebe, Müller Thurgau, Madeleine Angevine, Viogner, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Lemberger, Cabernet Franc, if there’s a grape being grown in Washington, it’s finding its way into Bainbridge Island wines. In six cases out of seven, those grapes are coming from Eastern Washington, from Walla Walla, Yakima, the Horse Heaven Hills, or Red Mountain. The winemakers rent a big truck, drive over the mountains at the crack of dawn, ferry back to the island with a truck full of grapes, call in the volunteers, and the crush begins.

One case is the exception, for better and for worse. Mike Lempriere of Perennial Vintners is growing his own grapes on the island, and making a selection of cool-weather wines from his own fruit. Certified Salmon Safe, one year away from being able to apply for “organically grown” certification, that’s the good news: local wine from clean, local grapes. The bad news is related to the cool weather part; in 2010 and 2011, years practically without summer on the west side of the Cascades, Lempriere had no grape harvest. As in, he wasn’t able to make one single bottle of wine. A winery without grapes is not a pretty sight, and Lempriere has his own house in the vineyards up for rent, saying that he can no longer afford to live in it himself. For moral support, Lempriere has his fellow members of the Puget Sound Winegrowers Association, “about 15 wineries in Western Washington that are crazy enough to grow our own grapes here,” he adds wryly.

For a support group closer to home, there’s WABI. Formed in 2009, the group was the brainchild of Hugh Remash of The Eagle Harbor Wine Company.  “I knew that there were other people on the island making wine, so I called them together and suggested we form an organization,” he explains. A combined marketing effort was Remash’s initial goal. “I don’t toot my own horn very well, in fact, I’m terrible at it,” he admits. Because of a Bainbridge Island sign ordinance limiting home-based businesses to putting out a sign only 21 days a year, WABI members got together to organize winery open houses one weekend a month, to make that weekend a wine destination time, hoping they’d all benefit from the increased exposure.

 

Matt Albee of Eleven Winery, and President of WABI, sums up the Alliance’s goal: “Promoting our businesses and Bainbridge Island as a wine tourism destination, working together, sharing ideas and equipment.” He adds, with a sigh “And it’s hard to be a sole proprietor winemaker.”

 

Albee knows about the hard life. In business full-time as Eleven Winery since 2003, his current production level of 2000 cases per year makes him by far WABI’s largest producer. Yet it’s only now, after 9 years in business, that he can contemplate paying himself a regular salary. His advice for anyone dreaming of starting a small winery: “You can do it only with the backing of somebody who has a job. I couldn’t have done it without my wife Sarah supporting me and the family for many years. If you do as I did and start really small, don’t expect to make any money out of it. If you’re going to make a small investment and grow it, you’re not going to be able to take money out for a long time as a salary, basically until you stop growing. And don’t do it by yourself!”

Hugh Remash of The Eagle Harbor Wine Company is another one that’s in the wine business full-time. A former wine retailer, wholesaler, importer, and holder of both American and Italian sommelier certificates, wine is in his blood. While he was stationed in Germany in the Army, he started drinking the exceptional German Rieslings. When he came back to the U.S. he couldn’t find any wine he wanted to drink, so he decided to start making it himself. Currently making 700-800 cases a year and on his way to 1000, he explains his philosophy of winemaking: “I try to make wines that are delicious and distinctive. I want to make memorable wine.”

Other WABI members have kept their day jobs, and dream of being able to become full-time winemakers a bit later in life. The rub is, they’re making wine in their garages and sheds, where space and equipment are constraints. Equipment can be shared, fortunately. Lempriere describes the way WABI works: “The filler, the corker, the sparger, the capsuler–whoever is bottling, basically all the equipment is at their place.”

The space constraint is harder to overcome. Jim Wilford, making 800 cases in his garage, is maxed out on space for additional barrels. Alphonse de Klerk’s Rolling Bay Winery is tiny at his current 550 cases per year. He’s planning a big jump up to 1000 cases for the 2012 harvest, and hopes to see 2500 cases one day. He’ll have to move his winery to a much larger facility to accomplish this, but with any luck he’ll have help. His 24-year-old daughter Camille has just graduated from his alma mater, the Northwest Wine Academy, and may be just what he needs to help take his winemaking to the next level.

And then there are the economic constraints. Paul Bianchi of Amelia Wynn lays it all out. He makes 700 cases of wine in his garage. “We’re all cash out of pocket,” he says “so we have 2-3 years of inventory that we’re sitting on, plus the cost of barrels and bottles.” The grapes to make 700 cases of wine cost roughly $30,000. An American oak barrel costs around $450, a French oak barrel, $950. “You have to have cash” he states bluntly. “You need to be able to put yourself on the line financially to get started.” He calculates roughly: it takes about 875-900 pounds of grapes to fill a barrel, so there’s about $1000 a barrel just for the juice. You get about 300 bottles per barrel, so there’s $3.33 per bottle, just in juice, and that’s not for the most expensive grapes, then you have to amortize in the price of the equipment, barrels, bottles, and the winemaker’s time. It’s a tough business model, but Bianchi says “We’re making wine because there’s this creative process that we all enjoy, wine is a fleeting experience.”

Lots of people dream of making a little wine of their own. Lempriere says that people are always asking him which vines to plant at home, and they almost always mention Pinot Noir, a temperamental grape. “I do everything I can, begging them please, please, don’t plant Pinot Noir. I try to talk them into Siegerrebe, because it’s the earliest ripening, it makes a great dry wine, it makes a lovely sweet wine, a great sparkling wine, and it’s fantastic for eating.” If you’re planning a foray into winegrowing, this might be the best advice you’ll receive.

How to get started making wine? Wilford, Lempriere, Bianchi and de Klerk got into it originally as a hobby. Albee apprenticed for 3 years at a winery in California before striking out on his own. Remash spent much of his working life in the sales end of the wine business. Wilford and Albee have taken winemaking courses at UC Davis. Bianchi and de Klerk spent time in France, Remash in Germany, honing their palates in cultures where wine is a part of daily life.

It’s a challenging life, but somebody’s got to live it, at least if we all want to drink hand-made, small-batch wines. And the evidence is that we do. All seven WABI members sell out of their wines each year. Although Alphonse de Klerk works full time in addition to making wine, he shrugs it off. “I just enjoy having a multi-faceted life,” he says with a satisfied smile.  And Matt Albee, who worked for many years without paying himself a regular salary, recently discovered a bottle of Eleven wine prominently displayed in the artwork of Pearl Django’s eleventh album, titled Eleven. “I never wake up in the morning and go “oh crap I have to go to work,” he says. “I enjoy everything I do.” We can all drink to that.

 

Sidebar: Taste the Wine

Abra Bennett lives part time on Bainbridge Island and part-time in France, and drinks as much wine as possible in both places. You can read about her travels and adventures at http://frenchletters.wordpress.com

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