Gilbert Cellars, a small family winery in Yakima, handcrafts true-to-varietal Washington wine.
STORY BY ADRIANA JANOVICH
PHOTOS COURTESY OF GILBERT CELLEARS
I opt for a spot at the counter and begin to soak in the familiar. The casually elegant space is flooded with soft winter light from a wall of windows lined with two-tops and bench seating. From my perch on the first floor of the 1899 Lund Building, I enjoy street views of the heart of Yakima’s historic district and relish my memories of this place.
For one year, I lived directly above this downtown tasting room. Let’s just say, as a wine lover, it was very convenient.
Today, just over five years later, a visit to Yakima isn’t complete — at least, for me — without a stop at Gilbert Cellars, where a dramatic, three-paneled painting of Gilbert Peak hangs behind the bar and the Left Bank is a signature Bordeaux red blend.
“It starts out with a softness, but the character of the wine changes throughout the meal; it becomes much more rich,” explains Laura Rankin Schlect, a fifth-generation Gilbert and one of eight partners in the family business.
Left Bank “kind of finishes with a cedar, almost piney, note,” Laura says. It’s winery’s flagship offering because, she continues, “it appeals to a broad range of palates.” Goodness knows it was one of my go-tos when I lived upstairs.
Laura manages the tasting room, as well as marketing, for the winery, which includes an amphitheater 10 miles west of town. “At any given point,” she says, “each of the grandchildren has had a role at Gilbert Cellars — whether in ownership roles or working at the winery.”
The Gilberts are long rooted in this region. But it wasn’t until 15 years ago that the younger generations diversified, expanding the family orchard business by cultivating vineyards and crafting approachable wines. Today, Gilbert Cellars is one of Yakima’s premier destination wineries and event venues.
“We’re really into making wines that we want to drink,” Laura says.
Her ancestors landed in the Yakima Valley in 1897, when Horace “H.M” Mark and Marion Gilbert moved from Illinois to farm. But the family’s foray into winemaking dates only to 2002, when a handful of Gilberts, including two of Laura’s uncles, bought a vineyard and began making wine for family consumption. The following year, they planted their first wine grapes — Riesling — at Hackett Ranch, which H.M. and Marion bought in 1920. Originally a cattle ranch owned by the Hackett family, the property was “really close” to the Gilbert operation, says Laura, a great-great-granddaughter of H.M. and Marion. Today, it’s a 300-acre patchwork of grape vines and apple, apricot, and pear trees, which produce fruit that the Gilbert family sells wholesale domestically and internationally. It’s also home to the winery.
The Gilberts started making wine commercially in 2004, under the direction of Laura’s cousins, Sean and Nate Gilbert, who planted more wine grapes — with an emphasis on Rhone and Bordeaux varietals — on family-owned land, from the Columbia Valley and Wahluke Slope to Horse Heaven Hills. Head winemaker Justin Neufeld — who previously worked at Chateau St. Michelle, Silver Lake, and Glen Fiona — joined the team in 2007, and the Gilbert Cellars Tasting Room opened downtown a year later.
“This might sound surprising, but November and December are probably our busiest months in the tasting room,” Laura says. “It’s a time when people come home and want to gather with friends and family.”
During my last visit, as snowflakes swirl outside, wine sales associate Paige Engeland starts my wine tasting with a dry rosé, made with a blend of Mourvedre and Grenache grapes. I try several of their other offerings, (there are more than a dozen) including a Gewurztraminer and Unoaked Chardonnay.
Checking my impulse to take them all home, I buy three bottles. And that ridgeline, the same one that keeps watch over the room, graces every label.
The highest point in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Gilbert Peak is at once a source of pride for the Gilbert family, as well as the region’s lifeblood. Glacial melt from Gilbert Peak feeds the Tieton River, which nourishes the orchards and vineyards throughout the cornucopia that is the Yakima Valley. The peak is named for Laura’s great-grandfather, Curtiss R. Gilbert, “who was — along with a bunch of his friends — one of the first mountaineers in the valley and did a lot of trekking throughout the state. This was his favorite hike.”
The family credits Curtiss R. with getting the business through the Great Depression. “He found ways to really be resourceful that would not only save the family money but also create long-lasting structure for the business,” Laura says, noting that a Quonset hut he salvaged now serves as the barrel room at Hackett Ranch.
It’s not only a place of work for the family but it’s home. Throughout the decades, many Gilbert relatives have lived there. When Laura returned from London, where she earned a master’s degree, she lived at Hackett Ranch with her cousin and business partner, Meg Gilbert Bradford. “Living at the ranch and working at the winery gave us our close connection to the land and its history,” Laura says. “It helped us build a connection to not only to the past but the future of the property.”
The idea for adding an amphitheater to grow and diversify the family business came naturally. Originally, grapes had been planted on the slope that now makes up the seating area for about 400 people. In the winters of 2010 and 2011, the vines froze. “It’s just a little hollow there that collects air, so it was not ideal for growing any fruit,” Laura says. “So we finally graded it, planted some lavender, and laid some grass.”
Since 2011 — when the first concert featured the then up-and-coming band The Lumineers for a small group of friends and family — the ranch has drawn regional and national acts — from The Cave Singers to Chatham County Line. Music in the Vines, Hackett Ranch’s signature summer concert series, completed its seventh season in 2017.
The Gilberts have diversified their business in other ways, too — although those endeavors were short-lived. In 2015, after three years in business, the Gilberts shuttered their Glacier Basin Distillery, which produced grappa, vodka and cherry and apple brandy on Hackett Ranch. And two years after incorporation, the family abandoned plans for their Wiley City Brewing Co., a microbrewery that had been in the works on the same property. They instead decided to focus on fruit, wine, and events at Hackett Ranch, Laura says.
She also says she thinks H.M. and Marion would have been proud of all that the family has accomplished since the founders first arrived in Yakima Valley. Marion might have had “a harder time with the selling of wine,” Laura says. Marion was, after all, heavily involved with the local temperance movement. But, Laura says, “I think they would both definitely be proud of the family legacy.”
The Gilbert Homeplace, a stately Victorian located in a historic neighborhood that was once on the edge of town, is part of that legacy. Completed in 1898 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s part of the Yakima Valley Museum and a standing reminder of the Gilbert family’s long roots in the region.
The Gilberts pay homage to that legacy every year with an annual trek to Gilbert Peak. Two years after Curtiss R. died — in 1947 at 53 — his most frequent hiking partner, then U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, dedicated the peak in his honor. The family held a memorial hike every 10 years until 1997, when it became an annual tradition.
“This is what our family chose,” Laura says. “Our family chose the Yakima Valley in 1897, and we continue to choose it today. We really believe in the land and the people that make this place so great. Our biggest hope is just sharing the beauty and the bounty of the Yakima Valley with anyone who can make the journey. We want people to see what an amazing spot this is.”
Adriana Janovich writes about food, wine, and travel from Spokane.