A look into Woodinville’s thriving wine industry

Wine tasting
Woodinville has embraced the wine industry since Chateau Ste. Michelle moved to the area in the 70s. Since then, over one hundred winemakers have started up their businesses and thrived. Photo: Pixabay

When planning a trip to taste Washington wine you don’t have to travel five hours east of Seattle. Woodinville is only 30 minutes from the city and has transformed over the past few decades into a hub for experiencing great wine varieties from across the state. Although many of the grapes are sourced from a few hours away, more than 100 winemakers make their home in Woodinville, and in the process bring in approximately 795,000 wine visitors each year.

The industry has seen some impressive growth over the years. In 1981, there were 19 wineries; now there are 950. In 2013, King County produced over 2.2 million cases of wine, with the majority coming from Woodinville, bringing in $357.6 million in revenue.

“I think it is probably the most unique industry there is in the world,” John Bigelow, Owner of JM Cellars, told Lens.

Bigelow originally worked in high tech but ended up starting a winery in Seattle with his wife in 1988 in the basement of their house. He quit his job and dedicated himself to learning how to make wine.

In 2000, he ran low on money and went back into tech and made wine at night or on the weekends. Over the next five years, Bigelow grew the business from 300 cases of wine to about 3,000 cases. In 2007, he quit high tech for the second time and planted his own vineyard.

He primarily sources grapes from vineyard acreage he purchased in Royal City and Walla Walla.

“Woodinville is a very strange place to have wineries,” said Bigelow. “There are no grapes that are used here for winemaking. All the grapes are 2 and a half to 5 hours away over in eastern Washington.”

Bigelow attributes Chateau Ste. Michelle as the “anchor” for the city’s success in attracting winemakers.

The winery opened in Woodinville in 1976 which featured a tasting room which attracted many people from Seattle. After seeing that success, several small winemakers started opening businesses around Ste. Michelle.

In 1988 there were four tasting rooms in the area, said Bigelow. Last spring, there were 57 tasting rooms within a mile of the JM Cellars property.

“It gives you a sense for how fast this industry is growing.”

Bigelow sells 97 percent of his wine through his winery and 3 percent through a distributor, which focuses mostly on restaurants. He added that he pays the company extra to have his wines poured by the glass at several different restaurants.

“To me that’s the best advertising I could get is to have someone tasting my wine versus seeing another bottle in a magazine,” said Bigelow. “I want people to experience the wine and then come out to the winery and experience our environment…that’s how we get loyal customers.”

Around 80 percent of Bigelow’s wines are red. His winery features Tre Fanciulli, named after his three sons, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The wine typically scores 90 points or higher each year by scoring groups. Another popular choice is the Cinsaut Red, which Bigelow calls his alternative to Pinot Noir, which is easy to drink.

The winery makes about 6,000 cases each year, which has stayed that way since 2009. Although most businesses look to expand, Bigelow said he has reached the perfect size.

“My goal is to make the absolute best wine and the best way for me to do that is to stay small and focused on just what I do very well.”

Lisa Packer, owner of Warr-King Wines, started out working in marketing for a tech company. She ended up taking a break and was persuaded by her friend who was the daughter of a winemaker to look into the wine industry. She worked alongside a winemaker for two years as part of an internship and realized that she wanted to make her own wine.

Packer started making her own wine and was encouraged to move next door to the winery she had been working at. She went from producing a handful of barrels at the start to opening her winery in 2016 with a tasting room. The winery has produced 1,100 cases this year.

“The nice thing about being here in Woodinville is that it’s a very collaborative environment,” Packer told Lens. “The warehouse district has a startup mentality…most of us start working together and we share equipment and collaborate ideas.”

One effective program to help spread awareness of local wineries is Passport to Woodinville Wine Country, hosted by Woodinville Wine Country (WWC), which aims to bring people into the industry. Over the last year, Packer said this program has helped her business grow by 40 percent.

“It is a way for people to discover undiscovered wineries. Participants get a book of 12 or so wineries to try…it’s a walk through Woodinville to show what we do differently, how we approach wine and getting you into the community and seeing the great things we do here.”

Woodinville is a really unique place, she added, “not only are there fabulous winemakers, but there are really great restaurants and places to stay…. it’s a great place to come for a weekend…make it a staycation and visit us.”

Sandra Lee, Director of WWC, said the marketing organization helps connect the media and consumers to the wineries and builds relationships with are destination marketing area groups like the Port of Seattle, she told Lens.

“We collectively are able to get the word out about the quality of wine and the different experiences you can have here.”

The organization also hosts a variety of events to encourage people to come out and experience Woodinville wine to go along with events that each winemaker might host at their own winery. One popular choice is “A Brush of Pink” where local artists partner with winemakers to showcase summer wines and different displays.

“You would never think that tourism would grow in a suburban area outside of Seattle, but because of the Chateau and the wineries, the infrastructure over the last decade has really filled in the gaps.”

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