Winter 2018

Platinum Judging casts spotlight on Port of Kennewick project

The Port of Kennewick recruited Palencia Wine Co., and Bartholomew Winery in 2016 to serve as anchor tenants for the Columbia Gardens Urban Wine & Artisan Village, a Columbia River waterfront redevelopment in downtown Kennewick, Wash.

According to a panel of West Coast wine experts at the 19th Platinum Judging by Wine Press Northwest magazine, Columbia Gardens now can market itself as home to two of the top winemakers in the Pacific Northwest.

In the case of Washington winemaker Victor Palencia, his Midas touch doesn’t just turn wine into gold medals. They often turn platinum. No one was awarded more top awards during the 2018 Platinum than Palencia. His talents earned nine Platinums across Jones of Washington and his growing Palencia Wine Co., empire, which includes the Vino la Monarcha brand at Columbia Gardens.

“This news is going to help me market my wines,” Palencia said. “I am humbled.”

Meanwhile, the No. 1 wine of the judging — dubbed “The Best of the Best” — came from tiny Aluel Cellars in Seattle. Consulting winemaker for the 2014 Coat of Arms Red Wine is Bart Fawbush of Bartholomew, who left his West Seattle production facility for the new Port of Kennewick project.

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Kind of sounds like one of those old Banner Bank television commercials, eh?

“I love Seattle, but Kennewick has been an absolutely fantastic opportunity,” said Fawbush, who crushed 3,000 cases worth of wine from the 2018 vintage at Columbia Gardens. “The people have accepted us with open arms, and we’ve doubled our revenue in 2018. We’re excited about helping to change this part of Kennewick.”

The path that Samuel Hilbert and Alex Oh took on their way to launching Aluel Cellars included wine club membership in Bartholomew Winery, which maintains a tasting room in the old Rainier Brewery building. As their interest in becoming vintners grew, it seemed natural, but not automatic.

“We were looking at a couple of different options, but we became good friends of Bart’s and trusted his opinions, so it made sense to work with him at that point,” Hilbert said. “We really do a lot of the blending ourselves, and hands-on in the production space, making the decisions of the grape sourcing and the style of wines we want to produce, with Bart there to give us advice along the way.”

Fawbush got a sense Hilbert and Oh were serious when they met up for beers after attending Taste Washington a few years ago.

“They were asking me all these questions,” Fawbush said. “It wasn’t long after that when their label came to fruition, and they’ve been awesome clients – absolutely fantastic.”

Aluel Cellars began with a 2012 Malbec, a production of 225 cases – the equivalent of nine barrels. From the 2013 vintage, they developed the concept for the proprietary Bordeaux blend they call Coat of Arms. With the help of Fawbush, they came up with 125 cases of that blend. The secret sauce from 2014 proved to be Carménère, the obscure red Bordeaux variety that Fawbush pulled from both Glacier Vineyard, an estate site for AntoLin Cellars, and Two Blondes Vineyard, farmed by Chris Camarda of Andrew Will fame. In 2015, all of the Coat of Arms juice came off acclaimed Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills.

“Each year, it’s the best of our Bordeaux lots,” Hilbert said. “The 2015 wine was just 35 cases. It shows that we’re sticking with the best lots, but that was all the juice we could get out of it at the end.”

Their wines are bottled in Kennewick, yet they’ve found Capitol Hill near Broadway to be a tasty fit.

“Ours is a super-super urban tasting room that’s open six days a week and just a block from light rail,” Hilbert said. “And we’re the only tasting room on Capitol Hill.”

Recently awarded New Business of the Year from the Greater Seattle Business Association, the plan is for Aluel Cellars to remain ultra-boutique. Oh is a partner with Stoel Rives in Seattle with a masters in biotechnology from the University of Wisconsin. Hilbert, a product of Cedarville (Ohio) University, works in Seattle real estate.

“Alex and I both have a big passion for wine,” Hilbert said. “I grew up with agriculture in the Midwest before moving to Woodinville, where I got to know a lot of winemakers through a buddy’s wine shop. Alex has a chemistry background, and we met over wine.”

Decisions made through their blending trials indicate that Oh and Hilbert have a definite flair for developing balanced red wines. The Platinum won by the 2015 Coat of Arms is particularly impressive considering that it’s a Merlot-dominant wine (73%), while the 2014 version could legally have been labeled as Carménère (86%).

Aluel is a simple mash-up of their first names, yet Hilbert and Oh are building a following. News of their two Platinums and the top-rated wine of the judging won’t hurt.

“We’re pushing 1,000 cases a year, and we’re in it for a while,” Hilbert said. “We’re definitely committed.”

While the move of Bartholomew’s production from the Seattle area to the Tri-Cities might have added a logistical layer, the results have been well-received. And Fawbush said the Platinums won by Aluel Cellars for its Meritage-style wine also provides him with a sense of pride.

“Forty dollars,” Fawbush chuckled. “I don’t even have a single bottle priced that high.”

Next year, Fawbush and Palencia will be joined at Columbia Gardens by tasting rooms for two more wineries — Cave B Estate Winery and Gordon Estate Winery — and a pair of food trucks.

“The Palencia and Vino la Monarch brands were just a dream six years ago, so it’s really humbling to look back and see what we’ve been able to achieve in such a good environment,” Palencia said. “Columbia Gardens has become a center spot for our operations and helped us to build a company that we hope serves as an inspiration. I knew there were some serious wine connoisseurs in the this area, and the Tri-Cities community has been amazing to us.”

This story was originally published December 21, 2018 12:00 AM.

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