Success came rather quickly last year for Xander and Samantha Kent as Orenda Winery attracted attention with one of the Pacific Northwest’s most decorated examples of Cabernet Franc released in 2019.
It’s important to note that this young couple from Colorado had never released a wine until last year.
“We’ve hopefully got a long run in this industry and we got in early enough,” Xander said.
He is 33. His wife, Samantha, is 29, and they opened their tasting room June 22, 2019, in the Snoqualmie Valley town of Carnation. They hadn’t even finished labeling their 2016 Cabernet Franc when it received a double gold at the Seattle Wine Awards.
In early October, the Orenda 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon earned a double gold at the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, but that 2016 Cab Franc from Stillwater Creek Vineyard showed even better. It won best of class on its way to being voted as the Best Red Wine of the judging. The 2016 Franc capped the year with a Platinum from Wine Press Northwest in its year-end judging of gold-medal winners.
And now, less than a year after selling its first bottle of wine, Orenda Winery has been named Wine Press Northwest’s 2020 Washington Winery to Watch.
“We’ve gotten to know a few people in the community and we pour at farmers markets, and when they would see that the Cabernet Franc won a double gold, they would buy a bottle,” Samantha said. “Then a couple of days later, they would drive up to the winery and sign up for the wine club.”
One of those folks they met at one of those farmers markets happened to be Katelyn Peil, wine director at Seattle-based Heavy Restaurant Group. And it was Peil who nominated Orenda’s 2016 Cab Franc for The Invite, an international judging staged each October in Hood River, Ore., at the Columbia Gorge Hotel for Northwest wine buyers.
“I literally discovered them at a farmers market in Snohomish and was impressed with the wines,” Peil said. “I hadn’t seen them in the market at all, but their Cab Franc fit regionally, stylistically and price point-wise for what I needed on my last wine menu change. I also really enjoyed their Riesling and Cab.”
The Kents readily share credit with Woodinville winemaker Mark Bosso. He has spent four years working for Erica Orr on the feel-good Baer Winery project. Prior to that, Bosso was assistant winemaker for Javier Alfonso of Pomum Cellars and Idilico fame. Along the way, they’ve gained access to vineyards such as Stillwater Creek in the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley sites Elephant Mountain/Sugarloaf, Dineen and Konnowac, a home for old vines Cab that Alfonso now controls.
“Mark is an incredible, incredible gentleman with so much passion,” Samantha said. “In the winery, he loves cranking old folk tunes or ‘80s songs, and he talks about his wine with such a heartfelt soul.”
Bosso will always be more than an early winemaking mentor to the Kents. He officiated their wedding in 2018. Brian Bartley served as the best man and also helped as cellarhand with that first vintage. Both served with Xander in the Peace Corps, which sent Xander to West Africa in 2011. Upon his return, Xander went on to earn a master's in environmental management and an MBA from Duke. In 2016, he moved to Seattle for work at Amazon on sustainability packaging. Bosso was already well into his winemaking career in Woodinville.
“Myself, Mark and Samantha thought it would be cool to open a winery someday,” Xander said.
They launched Orenda Winery with 600 cases from that debut 2016 vintage, and production gradually increased to the point where they crushed at Orenda the equivalent of 1,000 cases from the 2019 vintage.
Samantha really wanted to live more rural, saying, “There was a lot of serendipity to finding a property that was a small, turnkey winery. This has been a retirement dream, something we fully discussed, and one that we’ve been able to realize earlier than we ever hoped.”
Along the way, the Kents also have extended this property’s history as a winery, buying it from Larry and Birgit Lindvig, who operated it as Pleasant Hill Cellars. They used some glasses of Larry’s award-winning wine to help broker the deal and turn the Kents — who met as salsa dancers — into farmers.
“I’ve had to herd cattle a few times that have come over to say hello, and I’ve had to fill a few hundred mole holes,” Samantha said.
Samantha left the medical field to oversee Orenda. With her background in neuroscience and physiology and published doctoral research in neuropharmacology, she will assume all winemaking duties this year from Bosso, who is taking a full-time job at a larger winery.
“Part of my background is fine dining, so when I’m thinking about wine, I’m always thinking about the food pairing,” she said.
Xander’s Peace Corps work included beekeeping, something he continues to enjoy at Orenda. That’s why estate honey and honeycomb are available in short supply at the tasting room and farmers markets.
“Part of our charm is that we are a small, locally owned winery on a farm that’s over 100 years old with bees and this events center that’s become a community gathering space,” Xander said. “We are loving the engagement that people are having with the brand and this space.”
Don’t go to Orenda expecting a sense of pretense. Last fall, the Kents served mulled wine using a recipe Samantha learned in Germany during her days as a student. The Kents also have been known to offer salsa dance classes.
Visitors can use Snoqualmie Valley Trail to reach Orenda, and the bucolic grounds have allowed Orenda’s event center to become an attractive venue for weddings. The new owners used it themselves to become Mr. and Mrs. Kent.
Their label, which depicts earth, wind and water, was designed by Minnesota artist Gregory Euclide, whose work is featured on album covers by the Wisconsin indie folk band Bon Iver and hangs at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, Nordstrom in downtown Seattle and Microsoft offices in Redmond.
For those who can’t reach Orenda’s century farm, the wines are also available for online sales.
“The plan is for me to continue to work at Amazon,” Xander said. “I’ve got to finance our 100 percent French oak program.”
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
32305 NE Eighth St., Carnation, WA 98014