To well-seasoned wineophiles, the term “garage wine” might suggest an unflattering picture – perhaps a novice winemaker, tinkering with a starter kit in the family garage and rearranging the garden tools to make way for carboys that ultimately produce marginally drinkable wine.
And yet, business partners Paxton Rembert and Scott Whitman of Coach House Cellars in Bellingham, Wash., have embraced their garage winemaking roots by continuing to produce wines – currently about 1,600 cases annually – in the same space where their winery originated.
Granted, this isn’t your ordinary residential garage. The free-standing building sits near Rembert’s home and is large enough to comfortably serve as production facility and storage area for several dozen oak barrels stacked four-high.
The oversized area doesn’t mean you’ll find lawn mowers and minivans taking up unused space in this garage. The focus here has always been on serious winemaking, resulting in a label that pays homage to the building where it all began, and taking the duo’s love of good wines to a whole new level.
STARTING A WINERY … BACKWARDS
Rembert and Whitman’s paths first crossed in the mid-1990s while they were Jet Ski racing in the Bellingham area. When they weren’t competing against each other on the water, Rembert, a sound technician originally from Silverdale, and Whitman, a restaurateur originally from Monroe, discovered they also shared a common interest in good wines.
“We took a lot of trips, mostly to Eastern Washington,” Rembert recalls. “And we brought back a lot of wine,” Whitman is quick to add with a smile, especially from the Walla Walla area, where they began traveling to in the early 2000s.
During several of their post-travel wine-drinking sessions, the pair began seriously discussing the possibility of making their own wine. Whitman says it stemmed not only from tasting their fair share of poorly made wines — “We can do better that that” — but also to Rembert recalling their experiences with a number of spectacular wines that they wanted to try to duplicate.
At the time, “We were both naive enough to think that it would probably be cheaper for us to make our own wine than to go buy it,” Whitman recalls. “And that is 100-percent false,” Rembert adds with a laugh.
“Most people start a winery and they forget about the business side,” Whitman says. “I did it backwards by taking about a year to a year-and-a-half to learn about the business side first.”
His business acumen and research led him to the conclusion that launching the winery was a viable option. The next step was earning some practical experience.
He contacted Jim Moyer at Fort Walla Walla Cellars about starting a winery and immediately delved into discussions about price points, cash flows, and annual sales projections. Whitman’s background work made such an impression on Moyer that he invited him to participate in a harvest.
After two years of what Whitman describes as his long-distance apprenticeship, he and Rembert tackled their first vintage in 2009. They crushed the grapes in Walla Walla and bottled them in Everson at Mount Baker Vineyards with the help of owner/winemaker Randy Finley.
“People would ask about our ‘garage wine,’” recalls Whitman, so by simply embellishing that descriptor to ‘coach house’ – defined as a small building for storing vehicles – Coach House Cellars was officially underway as a commercial winery in 2010.
IT’S ALL ABOUT VINEYARD SOURCES
Rembert and Whitman initially used their connections with Fort Walla Walla Cellars to procure grapes from Walla Walla’s Les Collines Vineyards, and with time spent at Mount Baker Vineyards to land grapes from Sheridan Vineyards and Crawford Vineyards in the Yakima Valley.
They’ve since expanded their sources to include Copeland, Lonesome Springs, Sugarloaf, and Elephant Mountain Vineyards.
“We want you to ‘taste’ the vineyard (so) we really work to preserve the varietal,” said Whitman of their winemaking philosophy. He and Rembert single out Sheridan Vineyards as being particularly great to work with. “Vineyard management has to work with what your vision is (and) they know how to do it right.”
GREAT TASTING ROOM, AWARD-WINNING WINES
Anxious to open a tasting room in the Bellingham area, Whitman took the rather novel approach of first purchasing a coffee shop in the city’s Fairhaven district in 2014 and then converting it into the aptly named, Rustic Coffee & Wine Bar shortly thereafter.
The wine bar portion includes a dedicated space that exclusively features Coach House Cellars wines, and general manager Rochelle Robinson and an enthusiastic staff will pour customers a glass of wine anytime the coffee shop is open.
“We may have the longest hours of any tasting room in the state,” jokes Whitman, referring to daily openings as early as 6:30 a.m. and closings between 7-9 p.m.
Wine tasters might take notice that Coach House is slow to release its wines, and that’s all part of Rembert and Whitman’s business plan.
“We’ve never had to make the choice of releasing a wine too early to improve cash flow,” Whitman says. “It gives us the ability to let the wines lay down a bit longer before release.”
That means their single white varietal, a tasty, slightly oaky 2015 Chardonnay with green apple and pear flavors, is just hitting the shelves. For red wine fanatics, all of their single varietal 2014 vintages will be available later this year.
This includes three wines due for release this summer: a big, berry-filled Malbec and a 100 percent Sheridan Vineyard-sourced Syrah set for release in the spring, a gorgeous, plummy Merlot, and a stunning Cabernet Sauvignon featuring dense, black cherry fruit.
And what Coach House release would be complete without a wine bearing the “Garage” label? Rembert and Whitman originally created this overachieving Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend in 2013. It sells for $15 a bottle. Acclaimed wine merchant/vintner Doug Charles of Compass Wines in Anacortes promptly named it his 2015 Washington Red Wine of the year.
“We’re also working on a few other different things,” Whitman offers with a sly grin. That may include a White Garage blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, complete with a slightly revamped label.
Until then, Coach House Cellars’ fans should be more than content with this year’s remarkable, soon-to-be-released 2015 Garage Red Wine with beautiful, brambly berry fruit and hints of black pepper and baking spice.
It’s a fittingly-named tribute from a pair of winemakers who recognize where they began and where they’ll continue to make great wines.
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
This story was originally published March 19, 2018 12:00 AM.