Northwest Washington boutique wineries carve out niche in expanding industry

March 14, 2016 

  • Vartanyan Estate Winery
    1628 Huntley Road, Bellingham
    (360) 756-6770
    vewinery.com
    Friday and Sunday: 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm
    Saturday: 1:00 pm to 6:00 pm
    Other times by appointment.

    Dusty Cellars Winery
    529 Michael Way, Camano Island
    (360) 387-2171
    dustycellarswinery.com
    Open the first full weekend of each month, noon to 5:00 pm
    Private tastings also available by appointment.

    La Chanterelle Winery
    Bellingham
    lachanterellewine.com
    Private tastings by appointment only.

”Boutique winery” is a phrase that’s often used – some would say overused – in today’s wine scene. Part of the problem with this now borderline cliché descriptor lies in the lack of a pure definition of what constitutes a boutique winery.

While wineries and wine enthusiasts are quick to draw on a pool of adjectives such as “artisanal,” “handcrafted,” and “localized,” it’s “small-production” that’s probably the most agreed-upon description of a boutique winery…and even that term is sometimes up for discussion.

Annual production of around 1,000 cases or less seems to be the generally accepted standard for a winery to meet the boutique criteria; although no one is likely to cry foul if it exceeds that amount by a few hundred cases or so and still lays claim to boutique status.

Numbers and classifications aside, these wineries share in many of the same trials and rewards as anyone trying to operate a small business.

And given the challenges of marketability, distribution, and limited production, one thing is clear: a boutique winery must have a strong, loyal, and generally close-to-home customer base cultivated by superior service and quality wines in order to succeed.

Here’s a look at three northwest Washington wineries that fit the boutique category and their strategies for maintaining a niche in the state’s increasingly competitive wine industry.

Top-Of-The-Scale Boutique

Originally from Siberia, Margarita Vartanyan of Vartanyan Estate Winery was visiting friends in western Canada when she took a drive through nearby Bellingham and announced, “That’s the place I want to live.”

She moved to the area in 2002 and, armed with a background of centuries-old winemaking practices from her family, began producing her own Washington wines in 2004.

“The first years were difficult, like any other business,” she recalls. When the tasting room opened in 2008, “it was built on my regular customers,” who, she notes, still comprise a large portion of her business today. During the summer months, she also sees a significant number of visitors from the Seattle area, who make the trek north in search of good wines in the rural environs of Whatcom County.

Vartanyan provides this and more, with a tasting room located a short drive north of the Mount Baker Highway and just minutes from downtown Bellingham. The facility is perched atop a hillside with a view of the mountain and plenty of grassy areas for the winery’s outdoor concert series, picnics, and, of course, wine tasting.

Current releases include a 2014 Sweet Riesling, with juicy pear and pineapple flavors and bracing acidity that impeccably balances the wine’s sweetness; a 2012 Syrah featuring dark, inky fruits, and a soft finish with a touch of vanilla; and the 2012 Trilogia (Russian for “trilogy”), a blend of equal parts Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Merlot aged in Russian, French, and American oak, respectively.

Vartanyan produces a minimum of about 1,500 cases a year, putting her at the high end of the boutique scale. The size suits her well and she’s content to keep her production in that general vicinity as long as she can control what goes into the finished product.

“Because I’m small I can keep an eye on everything and I know every barrel.” With that practice, she says, “the winemaking becomes more personal.”

Mid-Range Boutique

Husband and wife Ryan and Dusty Kramer didn’t start taking wines seriously until their late 20’s. The winemaking process, Ryan admits, was more of a curiosity than anything.

But like many other boutique wineries, the “hobby status” of producing one’s own wines outgrew the garage and required additional space. Dusty Cellars Winery was officially licensed in 2006 and the Kramer’s tasting room, located next to their Camano Island home, opened in 2009.

Because of the winery’s somewhat isolated site, the couple relies primarily on what Dusty calls, “a very strong local clientele. There’s a great sense of community here.” Ryan adds, “When people get comfortable here, they come back.”

Without a distributor, the winery relies on word-of-mouth, tasting room purchases, and self-deliveries that range from nearby Stanwood to roughly Anacortes and south Whidbey Island. Summertime concerts, literally held in the Kramer’s backyard for up to 50 people, are also a big draw.

Grapes are sourced primarily from the Rattlesnake Hills and Columbia Valley AVAs and red wines are aged in a 50/50 mix of American oak barrels and one-used French barrels purchased from Quilceda Creek Vintners.

Red wines include the well-priced, 2014 Spartan (available in May, 2016), an easy-to-drink Merlot with a mouthful of dark berries and refreshing splash of acidity; and an outstanding 2013 Cabernet Franc, with complex layers of plum, spice, dried herbs, and plenty of toasted oak. Also ready for release this coming May will be a 2015 Riesling and a 2015 Cabernet Franc Rosé.

Annual production runs about 750 cases, but the Kramers have plans to parlay this into perhaps as much as 2,500 cases as part of their “retirement jobs.” While this might move them out of the boutique classification, the couple says it won’t change the way the winery operates.

“Our idea has always been to try to keep a low profile and let the wine speak for itself,” Ryan says with a confident smile.

Ultra-Boutique

Domestic partners as well as business partners, Lotte Freeman and Donatas Pocus established La Chanterelle Winery after careful planning and the desire to build on Freeman’s winemaking skills she learned from friends in the Bellingham area.

Freeman hails from Deming, Pocus from Lithuania, and after completing the arduous task of obtaining the necessary state and local permits, the couple started the winery in the cellar of their Bellingham home in 2012.

The immaculate facility serves as crush pad, barrel room, and tasting room and includes a tasting bar that Freeman constructed from wood from a barn near her childhood home. Retro-style furniture arranged nearby also offers tasters a chance to relax in the cellar’s cozy and comfortable setting.

One of the winery’s biggest challenges has been marketing their product, but a solid, customer base is catching on at local retailers where the wine is carried: Bellingham’s Cordata Community Co-Op, Old World Deli, and Seifert and Jones Wine Merchants.

Another good selling point: the quality of the wines themselves. A currently available Wahluke Slope 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon hits all the right notes, with expressive red fruits nicely balanced by sturdy tannins and brisk acidity. And a gorgeous 2013 Syrah – scheduled for release in August and also from Wahluke – is drinking beautifully with dark cherry flavors, vanilla bean accents, and a whisper of smoke on a silky finish.

La Chanterelle’s tiny annual production of about 120 cases will increase to around 200 cases with the 2015 vintage (scheduled for a 2018 release). About one-third of the vintage was sourced from Yakima Valley’s Boushay Vineyards.

“Our inventory is manageable,” Freeman notes, and, while pointing out that they’re still in the early stages, “if we grow more later, that’s fine.”

For now, she and Pocus are content to concentrate on the little things a boutique winery does best. “We do everything by hand and pay attention to details that might be missed in a larger winery,” he says. “We really think this makes a big impact on the wine.”

DAN RADIL is a freelance wine writer based in Bellingham, Wash. Dan teaches wine classes at Bellingham Technical College and produces a wine blog, danthewineguy.com .

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