At the Orcas Project, the brainchild of Orcas Island husband-and-wife Cole and Stephanie Sisson, they’re taking a rather novel approach to starting their own winery. In fact, it’s essentially the opposite path that practically every other winery follows. The Sissons have opened up a tasting room first, then sharpened their skills as négociants, then applied for their production license and are just now exploring the possibility of planting their own vineyards.
Call it a unique, interesting or maybe even strange way to set up a winery. But the Sissons have taken two measures of planning and perhaps a dash of kismet to parlay their early-stages project into something that’s promising, forward-thinking and currently resulting in some beautifully crafted wines that are worth checking out.
The Orcas Project evolved as an extension of the Doe Bay Wine Company, a bottle shop and tasting room in Eastsound on Orcas Island that the Sissons opened in the summer of 2017. Cole was born and raised in the Doe Bay area, a community on the southeast side of the island for which the shop is named.
His wine background began primarily in Seattle-based restaurants such as Ray’s Boathouse, Wild Ginger and RN74, where he worked while earning his wine certifications and is currently a Level 3 Sommelier.
He also served as head sommelier at Michael Mina restaurant at The Bellagio in Las Vegas, and worked for Bodegas Ontañon in Rioja, Spain, as a national sales and marketing specialist.
“I was transitioning out of my role in sales when I started Doe Bay Wine Company (in 2015),” Cole says. “It was intended as a consulting/cellar management company, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was going to morph into.”
Stephanie, originally from New Jersey, has a strong background in culinary arts and worked at restaurants in Philadelphia, where she also earned her Certified Specialist of Wine certification from the Society of Wine Educators.
The two met in April of 2016 while Cole was attending a food and wine festival in Philadelphia. Later that year, the couple reconnected in Mexico, got engaged and first took up residence together in Seattle in January of 2017. After quitting their jobs and moving to Orcas Island permanently that June, they got married and started their business within the following two months.
The dizzying pace of their whirlwind romance and business startup might have caught everyone off guard.
“Welcome to the family,” Stephanie recalls her future mother-in-law saying. “Can you send us a picture of what you look like?”
But with things seemingly falling into place, the Sissons knew that it felt right from the onset.
THE PROJECT TAKES ROOT
“I originally wanted to do some kind of project with wines on the island,” Cole says. “The impetus was that after working with Spanish grapes in Spain –Tempranillo, Albariño, Garnacha – it would be a really cool segue to work (with a winemaker in Washington) to make specific wines for us. The thought was to start off with that and leave it open and see what happens.”
The release of the Orcas Project’s first vintage, a 2017 Albariño, coincided perfectly with the Sissons’ opening of the Doe Bay Wine Company wine shop.
“The idea was that The Orcas Wine Project’s wines would be our house wines, with Doe Bay acting as a kind of umbrella having beer, cider and wines from all over the world from places we visited,” Cole says. The Orcas Project was viewed as “a platform to be creative, but to also partner with winemakers we admire and respect and like to work with on a long-term basis.”
The Sissons’ involvement in the winemaking process – or as Cole refers to it, “stamping the final product with their creative fingerprint” – has gradually grown from working with wines in different stages of fermentation, to finished lots of wines, to sometimes having a hand in selecting the grapes themselves.
“We try to work with our winemakers through the whole process,” Stephanie says. “We like to start (with them) a year-and-a-half ahead of time so that they have us in mind with the harvest.”
Their vineyard sources include Chalice Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and Dineen, Upland, Red Willow, Bacchus, and Winebau Vineyards in Eastern Washington. Finished products usually run from between 25 to 200 cases per release and bottles feature distinctive, whimsical labels designed by local artists that picture animals native to Orcas Island.
Must-try current releases include a fresh 2017 Chardonnay aged in 10-percent French oak with lovely clover and apple aromatics and flavors; a 2017 Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre, with sweet and smoky meats and a slightly peppery yet elegant finish; and a 2016 Graciano, which Cole likens to a vivid, Cabernet/Zin blend with plenty of texture, fresh herbs and delicious dark fruit flavors.
As The Orcas Project progresses, the Sissons are researching the likelihood of both planting their own vineyards and making their own wine on Orcas Island. Cooler-climate grapes such as Madeleine Angevine and Ortega are a few of the possibilities they’ve tossed around, but there are also other grapes on their radar that aren’t as commonplace to Western Washington.
“We’ve looked at (the Fraser Valley in) British Columbia as inspiration, Cole says, “and we’re playing around with more traditional varietals such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.” Ever the forward-thinkers, the Sissons cite climate change over the next 20 years as a leading factor in the increasing feasibility of growing these grapes successfully within the Puget Sound AVA.
For now, thty will continue to rely on sales at their Doe Bay wine shop, where The Orcas Project wines are offered for tasting and purchase. The wines are also available for shipping throughout Washington and are featured at several San Juan Island restaurants and occasionally at wine dinners in cities such as Bellingham and Seattle.
“We like being small and that people have to reach out to us. It’s a ‘neighborhood-style’ soapbox,” Stephanie says with a smile.
Even so, “This is all kind of a platform, a stage to get to the next chapter,” Cole says. “Instead of having grapes first, we started with a tasting room, and the idea is, as time goes by, to add the other elements to it.”
“The long-term goal is to go from vineyard all the way through; to be involved with every aspect of the process, not just the finishing stages. I think as we move forward and as the project evolves, certain wines will start to stand out for us. It’s a creative way to put it together.”