Even with 700 wineries, the pioneering spirit is alive and well in the Washington wine industry. Take the Roberts family, for example. Neither Blain nor Kim Roberts has an agricultural background, but they love wine and enjoy being near the ocean. A Washington State University county extension agent suggested they plant grapes on the coast, something that had never been done before.
So in 2007, they purchased land near Aberdeen, just 9 miles from the beach, and planted wine grapes, including Madeleine Angevine, Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Franc, bringing in plants from a Bellingham nursery. Their vineyard is - by far - the westernmost vineyard in Washington. So far, they have not produced a wine from estate grapes, instead relying on Columbia Valley vineyards until their vines are ready.
In addition to their 8 acres of vines, they have another 8 acres of berries and fruit trees, including cranberries, raspberries, huckleberries, Asian pears, apples and blueberries. As they are located on an area of Washington known as the "Cranberry Coast," most of their cranberries for wine come from a nearby Ocean Spray operation.
Son Dana Roberts is the winemaker, having learned his skills at WSU, and daughter Carrie operates the tasting room and handles the finances.
The winery is easy to pick out, as it includes a 40-foot-tall scale model of the iconic Grays Harbor Lighthouse. Kim, an architect by trade, said the choice was easy.
"We're not in Tuscany, and we're not going to pretend we're in Tuscany," she said with a laugh.
Westport produces a dizzying array of wines - 32 and counting. The strategy comes from when Blain and Kim owned the largest scuba diving business in Hawaii and worked hard to provide something for every customer.
"You find out what your customer wants, and you give it to them," Kim said. "When someone comes in and asks, 'Hey, do you have such and such?' we do our best to produce it."
Because they're the only winery in the area and are able to draw in visitors who travel to Ocean Shores and other areas of the coast, they want to make sure they are providing a great experience. Westport's first bottling was 2,100 cases, and the winery quickly sold out because of the local demand. This forced them to turn to fruit wines because of readily available sources, and that has turned into a booming business. As a result, nearly all of their wines are sold directly to consumers, with just a little available at retailers or restaurants.
The wines are meeting with critic acclaim. Both the 2008 and 2009 Boom Runner Reserve Merlot received "Outstanding!" ratings in the past year, as did its 2009 Jetty Cat red blend and 2009 sparkling Gewurztraminer.
As you can guess, Westport also is gaining a reputation for clever labels and names. Blain was a nationally ranked surfer in the 1970s, so "Surfer's Last Syrah" was born. Pinot Noirvana, which uses Yakima Valley grapes, honors Aberdeen native Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame. One of the biggest hits is "Bella," a red blend that plays off the Twilight books and movies that are set in Forks, just up the coast. Proceeds from Bella benefit the local blood bank.
And to continue making Westport a true destination winery, the family opened an on-site restaurant in October, led by Erin Worth, a graduate of Western Culinary Institute in Portland who also has worked for Tom Douglas. She and her two chefs use herbs and produce grown on site, as well as fresh regional ingredients. Kim said their take on beef Wellington, called "beef Washington," is a local hit. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Thursdays through Sundays.
What seemed like a long shot just a half-decade ago has turned into a hit. Breaking the rules seems to help.
"We're not conventional," Kim said with a chuckle. "That's one of the fun things about us. We're introducing people to wines."
The quality of Westport's wines keeps them coming back.
1 S. Arbor Road, Aberdeen, WA 98520, 360-648-2224, westportwinery.org. Open daily at 11 a.m.