As an undergraduate chemistry student at the University of Washington in Seattle, Kit Singh fell in with a crowd that liked to drink alcohol.
That statement isn’t likely to surprise anyone, but Singh’s drink of choice might. Instead of the plastic jugs of bottom-shelf liquor and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon most budget-strapped college students turn to, Singh took a liking to wine. Like true students, he and his pals wanted to find out everything they could about the subject matter.
To do so, they took several road trips to wine regions such as Napa Valley. That’s where Singh first was exposed to the art and science of making wines. The young man who had dreams of a medical career now had a new dream: to create wines.
The new dream wasn’t practical then, and wouldn’t be for a long time. Singh finished his undergraduate work and worked hard to get into dental school. “Then you graduate and you have a huge amount of debt,” he says.
Singh established a successful family dental practice, married and started a family. But his interest in wine never waned. His vacations gravitated toward wine regions: France, Sonoma, even Lake Chelan. Soon he began making small batches of wine in his garage. About 10 years ago, he turned his hobby into a business.
“Washington’s (wine scene) started to come on strong,” Singh says. “And I said, ‘If I don’t take this opportunity to do it, I’ll regret it later on.’”
Singh kept his dental practice and went back to school part-time at South Seattle Community College and the University of California, Davis to learn the art of winemaking. His background in chemistry and biology helped with that task, he says. He also volunteered at DeLille Cellars in Woodinville to get some hands-on work.
In 2009, Singh produced his first 1,200 cases and opened a tasting room in Woodinville’s Warehouse District. Several years later, he opened a tasting room in the town’s Hollywood District. Today, Singh’s Lauren Ashton Cellars produces about 3,300 cases of wine a year.
Woodinville was the perfect place for the Bellevue resident to maintain his existing career as a successful family practice dentist. It’s 10 minutes from Singh’s dental practice in the Redmond Town Center to the tasting room in the Hollywood District or to the processing warehouse he shares with two other winemakers.
Singh is one of many Woodinville winemakers who maintain separate 9-5 jobs.
Sandra Lee, Woodinville Wine Country’s director, says at least 67 winemakers in town split their time between their wineries and another job. She attributes the appeal of creating wines to a fascination with the chemistry and creativity involved in winemaking.
“They love the art or science of making wine,” Lee says. “It definitely is a passion that they have for the extensive time they dedicate to their craft.”
Jim Page of Gig Harbor was a corporate pilot when he started Page Cellars in Woodinville in 2000.
The idea to start his own winery was sparked when Page flew Eric Dunham, of Dunham Cellars, and Matt Loso, of Matthews Cellars, to Florida. The three men chatted about business on the way and eventually the passengers offered to help their pilot get started on a wine adventure.
Page said such mentorship is unique to the wine industry.
“I don’t know any other business where somebody will teach you the business from the ground up so you can be their competitor,” Page says.
That sense of camaraderie and cooperation among smaller winemakers makes practical sense. Boutique winemakers can, for example, pool resources and ship grapes on one truck, says John Bigelow of JM Cellars. Similarly, Lauren Ashton Cellars shares its production facility with two other winemakers.
“What’s exciting for me personally … is we’ve evolved into more of a synergistic community,” says Brian Stevens of Brian Carter Cellars.
Page and his wife, Rothelle, released their first 200 cases of wine in 2000, well before the influx of other startups in the Warehouse District. There are nearly 50 wineries located there today.
Page Cellars has gone from being one in a small community of winemakers on the west side of the passes to being one of the more established boutique wineries in the Warehouse District.
Page runs his business like he flies planes — carefully.
“I’m a pilot,” he says. “Any risk is too much risk. Our growth was methodical and slow.”
Today, Page Cellars sells 3,500 to 4,000 cases of wine a year.
Singh sees his challenge for the immediate future as maintaining his dental practice while keeping the winery thriving.
“(I’m) figuring out how to balance both sides of my life,” he says.