By Zoe Branch and Sarah McCauley
The wine industry in Washington has long been a boon to the state’s economy. As the second-largest premium wine producer in the United States — coming in only after California — Washington state is home to more than 1,000 wineries that have an economic impact of $7 billion as of October 2019, according to the Washington State Wine Commission, a government agency established in 1987 and funded almost entirely by the industry.
And though the major grape-growing region of the state lies in Eastern Washington, Seattle’s Eastside is a hub of industry activity — with 130 wineries located in Woodinville alone, according to Woodinville Wine Country.
Many of these are small, family-owned businesses, run by people who pivoted into the wine business after working in sometimes wholly unrelated career fields. And with current and necessary changes in response to the COVID-19 health crisis, more pivots have recently been necessary, as wineries figure out how to take their businesses online.
It was over beers with a friend that Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen (pictured above) pitched an idea he’d been mulling over for a while. He wanted to make wine.
Granted, he was a sommelier at the time, so his knowledge of the craft was already beyond that of the average businessperson. His friend, George White, thought the idea was a good one — so much so that he offered his father’s Woodinville garage as the space in which the first iteration of W.T. Vintners would grow.
And grow it did. In 2007, they made 50 cases of wine; only a few years later, they had a successful winery just down the road from that original garage and were making about 2,000 cases a year.
The team was more than the two friends, too: W.T. Vintners is a joint effort between Lindsay-Thorsen; his wife, Cortney Mills; and friends George and Casey White.
That original pitch from Lindsay-Thorsen, though, follows the passion he found for the restaurant and wine industry — and the careful craftsmanship and attention to detail it requires — early on in his career. In his early 20s, he had a stable corporate job as a buyer at Nordstrom. The paycheck was good, he said, but he lacked drive. So, he went back to school and found his way into the restaurant and wine industry, working his way up to serve as sommelier at such esteemed restaurants as Seattle’s RN74.
Now, his expertise in and knowledge of the art of wine is a big piece of what allows W.T. Vintners to take a hyper-traditional approach to winemaking. Nothing is added during the fermentation process, which allows for what Lindsay-Thorsen calls spontaneous fermentation. The goal is to pursue elegance over power, he said. Each bottle is meant to tell the story of the vineyard it came from. To do this, whole grape clusters are used to bring out a flavor in the wine that is more savory than sweet. The wine is designed not to be overpowering in flavor or alcohol content.
In this way, W.T. Vintners wine evokes a sense of worldly travel, something else important to the winemaking team.
Lindsay-Thorsen and Mills got married in 2008, and, aware of the recession looming, they opted for a year of wine-focused globe-trotting rather than purchasing a home. For the next year, they traveled, working harvests from New Zealand to the coveted region of Burgundy, France — an experience that Lindsay-Thorsen believes was invaluable.
Built on a strong foundation of excellent wine craftsmanship and with more than a decade in the business, W.T. Vintners, with the rest of the industry, is looking at an uncertain future and navigating the ways it can continue to put out quality products to its customer base.
“Up until now, our business model has been based on direct sales from our Woodinville tasting rooms and largely at restaurants,” Lindsay-Thorsen said in late March. “With the COVID-19 crisis in full swing, both are presently shuttered for the unforeseeable future, so we are trying to (make) income to cover our business expenses through emails and social media marketing.”
This includes free local no-contact delivery and heavily discounted or free shipping to customers farther away, he said. And a few creative approaches are in the works, too, including hyper-limited “library” wines that have been in the cellar, as well as donations with every online purchase to a Washington nonprofit providing direct support to the hospitality industry.
“We hope this will be enough to weather the storm,” Lindsay-Thorsen said. “Along the way, we hope to cultivate a broader reach, bring some joy to our customers, and drive not only our sales but also the sales of other small businesses that are being devastated by the pandemic through our messaging.”
Enumclaw and Cashmere
Sandi and Salvador Moreno might have one of the most unique stories when it comes to how they got into the wine industry — and it starts with Craigslist.
While on active duty in the U.S. Navy in 2014, Sandi set out to find the perfect wine barrel to transform into a table for her backyard. But her project quickly turned into something more elaborate after a listing for a small boutique winery in Cashmere caught her eye. She and the owner got to talking, and soon she was planning to take over the boutique winery with her husband, the former owner promising to help them through the transition.
Both lovers of wine with an interest in starting a business, the two jumped in, continuing to work other jobs while also starting their education with the Northwest Wine Academy through South Seattle College to build their skillset and grow the business. Newly married at the time, they spent their honeymoon bottling wine.
Fast forward a few years later, and Sandi and Salvador not only run the winery in Cashmere; they have expanded to a second location in Enumclaw.
Boutique wineries operate on a smaller scale and, as a result, the couple has a hand in nearly every aspect of the business, from making the wine to designing the labels.
Their wines have unique, fruity flavors, and there also are fun dessert wines, like Sultry Coffee Port, which is fortified with brandy and infused with cold-brew Sumatra coffee. Typically, those who find something they like during a tasting will probably want to buy it on the spot — they usually make only about 50 to 100 cases at a time.
Their Enumclaw location is about an hour from the Eastside, with a tasting room located in the main downtown area, a cute street lined with locally owned shops and restaurants. Of course, on-premise tastings aren’t currently possible in Enumclaw or Cashmere, but those nearby can still drop by to pick up unopened bottles to go.
After about 22 successful years in the Seattle restaurant scene, Mari Womack knew that she wanted to get involved in the wine industry. And to do this, she knew she had to get closer to the action.
Woodinville was the answer, and soon she was spending most of her time there, volunteering at various wineries to learn the craft. In 2011, she started volunteering at Obelisco winery, and from there moved around to various local wineries, taking part in nearly all aspects of wine production. The great thing about the Woodinville wine community is that people are willing to help you, she said.
“I just kind of kept showing up,” Womack remembered.
She eventually became assistant winemaker at Darby Winery in 2011, and a few years later, she set out to do her own thing, founding Damsel Cellars in 2014.
The name Damsel Cellars is a nod to the way Womack sees wine — feminine and beautifully complex.
In the midst of uncertainty, Damsel Cellars has been busy with a move to a new locations next-door to where it has been established to expands its operations and tasting room. The move was completed at the beginning of May.
“We’re still in the process of remodeling the tasting room, focusing on our pickup and delivery since we can’t be open anyway,” she said.
Like many other wineries, Damsel Cellars is selling to-go bottles of wine and expanding its online orders and delivery capabilities.
Disruptions, however, don’t change the fact that Womack makes delicious wines that pair well with food — something reminiscent of her time in the restaurant industry. She wants the wine to accompany food, not overpower it, she said, seeing her creations not only as a complement to great meals, but also as an important addition to life moments. For her, these pieces make the process of making wine — and navigating these uncertain waters — well worth it.