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There are over 1,050 wineries in Washington. You ready to start one?

By Erik Lacitis, The Seattle Times
Published: November 13, 2023, 5:55am

THIS IS THE year that Brent Roberts, of Friday Harbor, decided to make the jump into winery ownership. He is joining more than 1,050 wineries licensed in Washington, most of them small. That’s a lot of dreams.

“I’m treading into the unknown here,” he says. And, understandably, he adds, “I’m nervous.”

Everyone in the wine industry knows this old saying: “How do you make $1 million in the wine business? Start with $2 million.”

Kate Fyrqvist, a nurse, is Roberts’ wife. She’ll be helping manage the burgeoning winery. She admits to nerves, too. They’re tapping into their life savings. They have two daughters, ages 3 and 5.

But what’s the choice? Years later think about the could-haves, should-haves?

“We discussed it quite a bit. It’s always been Brent’s dream. We’re in our 30s. The time to do it is now,” she says.

Roberts will produce 500 cases. It’s a small step, but that’s still going to be 6,000 bottles of wine he will have to sell. To help him figure it out, he’s taking a mostly online wine marketing course from Washington State University.

His goal, he wrote for the class, is that in five to seven years, “I’d like to be able to pay myself, and eventually my wife, a salary that allows us some freedom from our day jobs.”

Meanwhile, in the class, he has to ponder: “Why would someone want to buy your product? Is it better, cheaper, ‘cooler,’ ‘sexier’ than what is already out there?”

You’d better have answers.

IN 1981, THERE were just 19 wineries in Washington, according to the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Since then, we’ve become the second-largest wine-producing state in the country, averaging 50 new wineries a year in the past decade. California is by far the largest, with 85% of the country’s wineries.

Small enterprises such as the three profiled here — each producing fewer than 5,000 cases annually — account for 90% of our wineries, says the Washington State Wine Commission.

A quarter of those are even smaller, each producing fewer than 1,000 cases a year.

Bottom line: “It is difficult to support a family based on such small production amounts, so other sources of income are needed. Advice: Don’t quit your day job,” says Mike Veseth, editor of The Wine Economist blog and professor emeritus of International Political Economy at Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound.

A MAP OF the world shows why this state has become home to such entrepreneurs.

The 46th latitude cuts through Washington’s southern portion. That means a growing season that sees up to 17 hours of sunlight a day. The same latitude crosses through the wine regions of France.

There also are unique growing conditions in Eastern Washington.

“It’s about climate. Grapes don’t really care very much about soil. You can grow high-quality grapes in hydroponics and even sand,” says Markus Keller, a Washington State University professor of viticulture, the science of cultivating grapes.

On that side of the Cascades, he says, “A very sunny climate and no rainfall in the summer means that our grapes are fully dependent on irrigation.”

For that irrigation, we have the Columbia River, the second-largest river in the United States in volume of water flow, behind only the Mississippi.

And irrigation, says Keller, “means growers have an excellent tool at their disposal by simply turning the irrigation on and off. When you stop irrigating, the soil dries out and the plant stops growing and puts its energy on fruit ripening instead of canopy growth.”

Besides Roberts’ startup, two other wineries are profiled in this story. They’ve been around 17 and 22 years, respectively.

Passion is the common thread as to why they decided to make that jump. It wasn’t for the riches.

JODY ELSOM IS the owner of Elsom Cellars in the industrial Sodo District south of downtown Seattle.

Trucks rumble by her location on Fourth Avenue. For sure, it’s not the countryside French château setting of fantasies.

There are 16 wineries in South Seattle that would fit this industrial setting category, says the Wine Commission.

Life in Elsom’s small winery means small celebrations. One year, it was the acquisition of a rotator that attaches to a forklift. Now a bin full of grapes can be lifted, turned and dumped.

“Before that, we were doing it by hand, with shovels. At a small winery, you do a lot of that,” says Elsom.

In 1996, just graduated from the University of Washington in construction management, Elsom and four friends went to Europe for a month. Portugal. Spain. Italy.

Years later, Elsom still talks about what she experienced while staying at a hillside house in the Tuscany region of Italy. It was harvesting time in the vineyards in one of the most prestigious wine regions in the world.

“The community came together to support the harvests. There were celebrations in town after picking grapes. It was amazing,” she remembers.

Elsom went on to a career as a project manager at the Seattle branch of DPR Construction, based in Redwood City, Calif.

She says that at DPR headquarters and regional offices, then and now, there was a wine bar in the center of the office. Not to get sloshed, but, “It was a place to gather around, talk about lessons learned, have support within the community of the company.”

It’s camaraderie that Elsom talks about to explain why she started Elsom Cellars in 2006. She did this while running her own consulting business in construction management.

If you’re going to start a winery, you’d better learn how to make wine.

In 2005, Elsom was part of the first graduating class from WSU’s two-year enology certificate program. She learned the nitty-gritty of winemaking — sugars, acids, phenolic compounds, aromatic compounds.

Then came lessons you learn on the ground. Veseth explains, “Many winemakers have told me that they didn’t appreciate the amount of time and effort they would put into marketing their wine. They assumed that the hard part would be growing grapes and making wine. Selling it can be even harder.”

Elsom Cellars, as do many wineries, markets itself with a wine club that includes wine tastings and discounts on wine purchases. You sit in the tasting room, and right behind are large tanks used in the making of the wines.

The pandemic hit hard.

“We were making a profit before COVID. We were relying almost entirely on wine club events. That all went away. We’re building it back up. We’re not seeing 100-people events anymore. Now it’s more 30 to 40,” says Elsom.

She would like to have her wines in stores, but, she admits, “I hate sales. There are 1,000 wineries out there fighting for space in shelves. You have to answer, ‘Why should we have your wine and not somebody else’s?’ “ Her answer is, “Try it. If you like it, great. If not, don’t.”

At 51, Elsom is divorced, with a daughter, 18, and a son, 16, and has gone through breast cancer.

What advice does she have for someone thinking about starting a winery?

“Find somebody who loves sales,” she says.

WHEN TIM NARBY and Carol Wright married in 1985, one of their wedding presents was a winemaking kit that came with canned blackberry concentrate.

“I didn’t think it was that bad,” Narby says about that first wine. “Your expectations are very low.”

Narby retired in 2013 after 35 years with Boeing as a systems analyst.

Wright is in her 42nd year as a King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, specializing in child support cases. She also does the administrative work for the wine business.

In 1987, Narby joined the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Makers Club. It’s famous locally for its alumni who’ve started commercial wineries.

Soon enough, Narby was getting serious about winemaking.

He remembers driving out to Georgetown, where Tony Picardo, a legendary supplier of zinfandel grapes brought up from California, held court. Most of his customers belonged to the Sons of Italy (now Sons and Daughters of Italy).

“He had a little shed. He had one of those refrigerator truck trailers. He sat on a stool, and you said hello. He’d point to the grapes, pick out what you want, bring them here,” says Narby.

These days, like many Western Washington winemakers, Narby drives to vineyards in Eastern Washington to get his grapes. He rents a truck to bring back the haul. There are plenty of vineyard choices.

The Wine Commission lists 80 varieties grown in this state, from the popular cabernet sauvignon for red wines to the specialized Gewürztraminer aromatic grape used in white wines.

It wasn’t always so.

“Washington’s most important grape crop for many years was the concord grape that went into Welch’s juice and Gallo’s sweet sparkling Cold Duck,” writes Veseth in his blog.

When their Nota Bene Cellars opened in 2001, says Narby, “It was a passion gone rampant. A lot of people who make wines are really taken by the mystery and majesty of the process of fermentation.”

Before agreeing to the winery, Wright told her husband she needed to see, you know, a plan. Narby spent three weeks of their Christmas vacation putting together a five-year blueprint.

“I was impressed. ‘OK, I’m on board,’ “ she remembers thinking.

They rented space in an industrial park in South Park. Their neighbors include companies in machine works, pump sales and lighting.

I asked the couple to put together a spreadsheet of how much they initially invested.

The list began with a destemmer/crusher, a rotating cylinder with paddles that beat the grapes, making them jump out of the stem and drop into a crusher that breaks them down. That was $20,000 in today’s dollars.

The list continued: fermentation bins, barrels, a press, tanks, refrigeration and even small items such as a pH meter and hoses. It added up to close to $170,000.

IF YOU WANT even more of a reality check about getting into the wine business, there is an online winery cost of production calculator at nwwinerycalculators.org. It was put together for the wine industry by Trent Ball, chair of the Vineyard and Winery Technology program at Yakima Valley College, and Ray Folwell, his partner in Agri-Business Consultants, of Prosser, Benton County.

Equipment loans range from $273,000 for a 2,000-case winery to nearly $1.3 million for a 20,000-case winery. The calculations are based on 2011 dollars.

For a 2023 figure, says Ball, “Add 40 to 50% on top of that.” (An updated calculator is expected next year).

I asked what advice he had for winery newcomers. Not surprisingly: “A good marketing plan,” he says.

Another: “Make sure a portion of your winery startup includes white wines.”

By the time red wine ages in a barrel, and then ages more when bottled, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years will go by before it can be sold, says Trent. A white wine can be ready to sell in four to six months: “quicker cash flow.” Waiting two years for your first income is a long, long two years.

NARBY’S WINES SELL from $23 to $40 a bottle. It’s tough competition out there.

“You go into Costco, and you see a really nice French wine for $10,” he says. “One of the difficulties of being small scale is that you pay more for the cost of goods. Ste. Michelle can come in and get contracts with vineyards that are way better than someone like me, buying a ton here, a ton there. The same thing is with the cost of bottles, labels, corks.”

Has the winery ever made a profit?

“It depends on how you’re doing the accounting,” says Narby.

On a recent Saturday, with half a dozen friends helping, you can see why he keeps at it.

The previous day, Narby had brought back from Eastern Washington two tons of grapes, which were dumped into a destemmer/crusher. Some volunteers picked out by hand grape stems that had eluded the machine. It was a congenial group.

Afterward, there was pizza and wine. “It was fun. We sat around and talked for an hour,” says Narby.

This year, Narby will produce 750 cases of wine. At the peak of the winery in 2016, he produced 1,800 cases.

He says it’s time to think about closing up shop. The winery had a good run.

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“My wife wants to phase out of the business. I’m 69. She’s 68. We don’t want to work as hard,” says Narby.

Knowing what he knows now, would he have started the winery?

“Absolutely.”

ROBERTS AND FYRQVIST met at WSU in 2012. Roberts already was pursuing his dream at the school’s Viticulture & Enology program.

Back then, Fyrqvist was studying neuroscience, aiming for veterinary school. She had heard about the school’s wine club — $20 to join — and its free wine tastings.

With excursions to local wineries, “I got a free trip to Lake Chelan and a husband out of the deal,” she says.

Roberts grew up in Vancouver in Southwestern Washington. After high school, there was community college, an interest in indie rock (he played guitar and piano and sang) and a job at Starbucks.

Along the way, he became interested in winemaking. That meant WSU.

After graduation, he worked as an assistant winemaker at a winery, then as a winemaker at Zerba Cellars in Milton-Freewater in Oregon, 10 miles south of Walla Walla.

The couple married in 2016 and bought a home, which they sold in 2021. They moved to San Juan Island, where Fyrqvist grew up. Roberts got a job at the San Juan Island Distillery in Roche Harbor.

The couple made a profit selling their Eastern Washington home. That’s what would fund the winery startup. It wasn’t enough money to buy the thousands of dollars’ of necessary winemaking equipment, but these days, you don’t have to do that.

Now there are alternatives, such as “custom crush” facilities: Essentially, you subcontract the winemaking. Some will get you the grapes from their vineyards; produce the wine, bottle and label it; create a website; and produce the sales material.

Roberts has gone the route of a cooperative in which he brings in the grapes, and his costs include using the winemaking equipment. He does the actual labor.

He’s signed up with the Milton-Freewater Winemakers Studio, which plans to be operational next year.

Already, Roberts has bought four tons of grapes that he crushed; they’re now fermenting. Because the cooperative is still in the works, he used cooperative equipment that’s housed in a different location.

So far, he has spent $26,000 from the family nest egg.

For the WSU class, Roberts wrote, “My product is, by design, not meant to be radically different or controversial. I want it to signal quality and feature a Rhone-centric portfolio …” (He was referring to the renowned wines from the Rhone Valley in southern France; the grapes do well in Eastern Washington.)

That kind of wine retails “in the mid-$40s to $50s,” he wrote.

His Strata Varia label wine will sell in “the low to mid-$30s … I like the idea of overdelivering on quality and making the wines attainable to the middle-of-the-road wine buyers.”

LIVING ON San Juan Island, he wrote, “first priority” was to have his wine carried at Kings Market in Friday Harbor, “visited by practically every resident and tourist on the island.”

That means Roberts will be talking to Stan Reitan, the wine specialist at Kings, who’s commonly known as Stan the Wine Man and has his own YouTube channel.

Reitan says wine accounts for a considerable 11% of all Kings business, which, besides the grocery, includes marine goods and clothing.

If it’s local wine, he’ll carry it, he says.

He says he wishes prospective winemakers would talk to him early on in their venture.

For example, concerning labels: Corny doesn’t work. Busy doesn’t, either. Don’t use acronyms buyers won’t understand.

Pricing: Don’t come in too high. “It’s harder to go backward.”

Roberts says he plans to talk to Reitan once he can present a more detailed plan.

Yes, he says: He’ll be a little nervous.

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