2017 Washington Winery to Watch: Wit Cellars

March 13, 2017 

Yakima Valley

Wit Cellars opening

RICHARD DUVAL

  • Wit Cellars

    2880 Lee Road, Suite A
    Prosser, WA 99350

    witcellars.com

    (509) 786-1311

— May 7 marks the first anniversary of Wit Cellars, and it stands to be quite a birthday celebration for Flint Nelson, Carolina “Cat” Warwick and Gina Adams-Royer.

Heck, folks might spot Nelson — Wit’s lead winemaker — running the register.

“I know how to do the till now, and I never thought I could learn that,” Nelson chuckled. “That’s been a skill set that was way beyond me, but I’ve got it down. I do have more incentive, for sure.”

Nelson, Warwick and Adams-Royer worked together at Kestrel Vintners in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser before parting ways with the winery during the summer of 2015. The experience left Nelson doubting his future as a winemaker.

Yet, the trio formed a team and found a second wind to start their own winery. Nelson made a few calls, and they soon were back in the game in time for Nelson’s 25th crush as a winemaker. However, no one could afford to give up the jobs they’d found since Kestrel.

“It has been a lot of work,” Nelson said. “I’m too busy wearing too many hats with three jobs at this point, but with all of that risk has come great reward.

“Now that I’ve done it, it’s been the best thing I ever did,” he added with a chuckle. “Yeah, the best thing I ever did.”

And Wine Press Northwest has named Wit Cellars the 2017 Washington Winery to Watch.

Wit Cellars refers to their slogan of “Whatever It Takes,” and the brand went from conception to 1,350 cases in less than nine months. The wines Nelson came up with have been stunning. Critics gave top ratings to their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013 Red Wine, 2015 Rosé, 2014 Riesling and 2015 Pinot Gris. Nelson’s own brand, Mazzacano Cellars, also earned high praise for its 2013 L’armonia Red Wine and 2013 Grenache. Those wines are sold — if still available — alongside the disappearing Wit wines.

“I was worried about the price point of our reds being $40 to $60, but that doesn’t seem to have any effect,” Nelson said. “I’m surprised, but I thought I’d sell a lot more white. I’m making adjustments going forward.”

A key to their success has been the good karma Nelson earned during his first 25 years in the Washington wine industry, a combination of his talent and the relationships developed with a number of the state’s top growers. Wit Cellars sources vineyards in the Yakima Valley such as Boushey, Elephant Mountain, Upland and Olsen.

“I named my son after Leif (Olsen),” Nelson said.

There’s his long-term relationship with Ryan Flanagan, who manages Evergreen Vineyard in the Ancient Lakes, and then his fulltime job with Jerry Milbrandt as a consultant at Wahluke Wine Co.

“I have access to good fruit,” Nelson said with a smile.

Longtime friends helped get tasting room sales moving, yet Wit Cellars naturally developed a new legion of fans in a short period of time. And they are looking closely at opening a second tasting room in Woodinville’s Warehouse District.

“A lot of people have found us, and they’ve been super supportive because we have tons of wine club signups,” he said. “They knew of our work at Kestrel. It’s been good, and when we get into Woodinville, I hope it will be crazy.”

It took them less than a year to realize they have a good problem. Wit Cellars is selling more than it has in the bottle.

“We were conservative, maybe too conservative,” Nelson said. “In 2016, we picked up enough fruit to be at the 5,000- to 6,000-case level for just reds. We’ll be in good position in a few years.”

Not that Nelson needed the confirmation, but this winter he got another boost from the exclusive American Fine Wine Invitational judging in South Florida. Wines he crafted at Kestrel for its Winemaker’s Select Series went on to earn best of class for its 2013 Malbec, double gold medals for the 2013 Cabernet Franc and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, and a gold for the 2013 Mourvèdre.

“I can be proud,” Nelson said. “I knew those ’13s were really good when I made them.”

Nelson wasn’t out of work long when Milbrandt recruited him to Mattawa.

“It’s just four days a week, so I can work on Wit for three days,” Nelson chuckled. “And then I teach at Yakima Valley College at night. I’ve had a lot of support from Cat and Gina and my wife — we’re all making it work.”

Each has devoted a chunk of their life to the Washington wine industry. Warwick worked hospitality at Apex Cellars before becoming the first graduate of the YVC winemaking program in 2009. She reached the level of associate winemaker at Owen Roe before joining Nelson at Kestrel. Warwick now manages a farm near Benton City.

Adams-Royer arrived at Kestrel in 2012 and helped run the winery’s tasting rooms in Prosser, Leavenworth and Woodinville.

“She is managing our business and keeping us all on task, and she is doing a great job,” Nelson said.

He graduated from Washington State University in 1991 with a degree in food science and horticulture. His path began at Columbia Crest and led to Hogue Cellars, Paul Thomas and Apex. Mentors included Joy Andersen, David Forsyth, Rob Griffin, the late David Lake and Brian Carter.

“It’s been a fun journey,” Nelson said. “I never thought I would enjoy working in a tasting room, but I actually do kind of like it — one or two days a week is fun. It’s different when it is yours and you have to make it successful. I’m not very good at it, so it’s a good thing Gina and Cat are both better than I am.”

Eric Degerman is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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