Since returning to the family winery in 1997, John Bookwalter has constantly been pushing himself and reinventing the business his parents started in 1983. In these fast-changing times, Bookwalter has shown how creatively disrupting himself not only launches him forward but also can drag along a region and an industry that is, at times, reluctant to follow.
Eight years ago, Bookwalter changed his tasting room to a sit-down affair. The idea was get people to slow down and enjoy the wine, rather than belly up to a bar and taste quickly before moving on to the next winery. He knew that if he could slow the pace, he should be able to provide a better experience for wine lovers. That experience would be more likely to turn them into fans.
He brought in couches and overstuffed chairs, redecorated the winery and basically changed the atmosphere into something more relaxed. Soon, he began to offer cheese plates and other small bites. He stayed open later (most wineries close at 5 or 6 p.m.) and offered live music four nights a week.
This fall, Bookwalter took his business to a whole different level by basically turning his winery into a restaurant, called J. Bistro. He has hired Kristin Swaggart, a young chef who has already garnered regional and national acclaim and whose focus is on keeping her ingredients as fresh and local as possible.
"Farm to table" has become a nice catch-phrase in the last couple of years, signifying a shift by chefs who want to create an experience that is uniquely local. Bookwalter is especially excited about what he and Swaggart will be able to accomplish in the heart of Washington's Columbia Valley, which happens to be one of the most diverse agricultural regions anywhere.
"I think we're as well positioned as any community in the country," he said confidently.
In the spring, Bookwalter will put in some raised beds behind the winery to give Swaggart even more options for fresh herbs and vegetables.
Creating a restaurant inside a winery is nothing new in the Pacific Northwest. Wineries in British Columbia have been doing this for the better part of a decade, with about two dozen in operation seasonally or year-round. Washington was a bit behind in this area but has been catching up in a hurry, thanks to several wineries around Lake Chelan, as well as Cave B in George, Chateau Faire Le Pont in Wenatchee, Westport in Aberdeen and Tagaris, which is a neighbor to Bookwalter. Oregon has also begun to take advantage of the trend, with such wineries as Cana's Feast and King Estate among those jumping in early.
Bookwalter sees it as a natural extension to his business. In fact, he thinks it is much easier for a winery to open a restaurant than just about anybody. In his case, he already has the infrastructure of a modest commercial kitchen, a staff that is focused on service and, of course, a built-in wine list. His main additional cost is kitchen staff.
"There is an opportunity for all of us to become food based," he said of the Washington wine industry. "Lodging, food and wine: These are the three things that drive wine tourism."
The quality of Northwest wine is no longer in doubt, thanks to the industry's growth and accolades at regional, national and global levels. With that, the quality of the winery buildings themselves have improved dramatically. Look at Kiona and Col Solare on Red Mountain, Bookwalter says, or Cave B. The culinary experience now needs to catch up with the quality of the wines, especially in the wide-open Columbia Valley.
Because the foundation of the Washington wine industry in the '70s and '80s was based on agriculture rather than tourism, the experience has been genuine but not always tourism-friendly, lacking in high-quality restaurants and lodging.
But that is quickly changing, thanks to folks like Bookwalter. Eight years ago, he turned his business upside down by creating the coffee lounge atmosphere. Today in the Tri-Cities -- a community of more than 200,000 people -- Bookwalter is a go-to spot for people who want to get together for a glass of wine or an informal meeting. Eight years ago, he was the first to have a winery that was comfortable and relaxing to just hang out in. Eight years ago, some in the industry probably thought he was a bit crazy. Now, he's seen as a pioneer.
And don't think for a second that Bookwalter plans to stand still and admire what he has accomplished. That's not in his DNA.
His winery sits on 10 acres of land. When the winery was built and five acres of wine grapes were planted, there wasn't much nearby. Now, he's surrounded by shopping centers and housing developments, and an interstate exit feeds a steady stream of cars right past the turnoff to his winery. There are five wineries within a mile.
Bookwalter has started to take out some of the vines because, frankly, the location isn't good for growing grapes -- "It's a great spot to tell when everyone else will get frosted," he quipped -- and the best use is as a wine-and-food campus. He's added bocce courts and created an outdoor event area with additional parking. He has plenty of room to expand without having to purchase an extra square inch of land.
Bookwalter has been running the family winery for nearly 15 years now, and his reality is finally catching up with his vision. Expect that kind of vision to drive the Northwest wine industry forward.
Andy Perdue is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.
This story was originally published December 15, 2011 11:43 AM.