2016 Washington Winery to Watch: Finn Hill

March 14, 2016 

WOODINVILLE, Wash. — While growing up in the rural Midwest, Rob Entrekin was not inspired to get into winemaking.

“It was mostly soybeans, cornfields and the occasional pig farm,” he said.

But when he moved to Washington to work as a biomedical engineer, he discovered the Columbia Valley.

“It had the same rural agricultural feel,” he said.

And he found that endearing. But there was one big difference between Eastern Washington and the farms around Wanamaker, Ind.: vineyards.

By the early 2000s, Entrekin and his wife, Karen Sjöström, were living in an area of Kirkland known as Finn Hill (a neighborhood whose first settlers were from Finland). Not far away in Woodinville, winery tasting rooms were starting to multiply, and the couple took advantage of the opportunity to visit wineries to taste and learn about wine.

For Entrekin, it didn’t take long for his engineering senses to kick in.

“I was struck by the fact that wineries were getting the same fruit from the same areas, but the wines tasted different,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about that.”

So in 2007, he enrolled in Washington State University's viticulture and enology program, and he began to learn how to make wine. A year later, he launched Finn Hill Winery, producing 150 cases in his garage.

In the process, he began to quench his curiosity about how the same grape from the same place can result in completely different wines.

“It turns out there are a million things that can be different in a wine!” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t really start understanding those pieces of the answer until I started volunteering at other wineries in the area and starting my own winery.”

For his first couple of vintages, Entrekin took whatever grapes he could find, but as his winemaking prowess grew, so too did the quality of the fruit he was able to acquire. Today, he works with top vineyards, including Rosebud on the warm Wahluke Slope.

“Rosebud is my favorite,” he said. “I’m now getting an old block of Cab that was planted in 1981.”

And the quality shows in his wines. A recent tasting through his 2012 and 2013 releases reveal superb Merlots, Cabs, Cab Francs, Sauvignon Blancs and Semillons.

“That really comes from my own tasting preferences,” he said. “I have a preference for Bordeaux red wines. That’s what is interesting to me, so that’s what I decided to focus on.”

By the end of the 2011 harvest, Entrekin had gained a bit of a following and was starting to grow, but he had run out of space.

“I had a 6-ton garage,” he said. “I couldn’t process more than that.”

So he looked to the warehouse district on the north end of Woodinville and found a space that allowed him to expand to 850 cases with a goal of one day reaching about 1,500. That also gives him room to experiment. Entrekin, 64, has gained a lot of experience with Bordeaux varieties and Syrah, for example, but he would like to work with other varieties.

“I will try something a little different to get the experience,” he said. “I’m not a young guy, but I am a young winemaker.”

In 2013, he made a Petit Verdot, and in 2011 and again in 2015, he made a Malbec.

“I haven’t really gotten into the Rhône varieties much, but I'm really interested in Grenache, so there might be a GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blend) in my future.”

His day job at Phillips Health Care, where he does research and development in ultrasound technology, allows him to travel to Europe on business, and he always uses those opportunities for a little wine R&D. This winter, he spent 10 days in France, where he took the time to try some local wines.

“That was good inspiration,” he said.

Because he's pretty much a one-person operation (his son Alex runs the tasting room), he struggles to fit in sales and marketing with the winemaking and his day job.

“I’m employed full time, so staying on top of paperwork, bottling, etc., is plenty,” he said. “If I were to retire, I could promote my brand and establish myself in wine shops and restaurants.”

That could be a ways out, however.

“I wouldn’t mind retiring in the next couple of years, but I have a winery to support.”

Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine (greatnorthwestwine.com) and wine columnist for The Seattle Times.

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