One of the ironic peculiarities emerging from the Coronavirus pandemic is this: In spite of stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and social distancing standards designed to keep us apart, the need for building a sense of community has never been stronger.
At Sigillo Cellars, it didn’t take a healthcare crisis to trigger the support of those connected to this relatively new winery. Community has always been the foundation to its success, built on a team of family, friends and dedicated wine enthusiasts who span both sides of the Cascades.
BUILDING THE BUSINESS
Like many smaller, Pacific Northwest wineries, Sigillo Cellars started as a family-based operation that produced wine essentially as a “for fun” enterprise.
Issaquah resident, Ryan Seal, one of the founding partners, recalls his dad, Mike Seal, and Sigillo’s original winemaker, Steve Bailey, began making wine out of Bailey’s garage in 2005.
After about four years, Ryan recalls asking Bailey, “You’re getting pretty good at this. Would you like to start a winery? He said, ‘No, but if you do, I’ll work for you.’ So I put together a business plan, talked to my dad and a childhood best friend (Scott Hussey), and said let’s go into the wine business — with no dollars. We’ll just make wine and figure it out,” he laughs.
Building the winery wasn’t quite as haphazard as Ryan makes it sound. “I had had a coffee company for about 11 years and worked in healthcare for about 20 years, so I had a decent understanding of small business,” he said. “I didn’t know how to market wine, but I went after it with the same approach I had with my coffee business; do it good, treat people right, and they’ll treat you right.”
Sigillo Cellars’ first commercial production began in Bothell in 2010. They subleased space from another winery in Woodinville in 2011 before moving to a building owned by a friend in the town of Snoqualmie.
“We had never planned to stay out in Snoqualmie,” Ryan said. “It’s a sleepy little town, and it’s not really where the wine scene is; that’s in Woodinville.” But with budget-friendly lease rates, the smaller town made more economic sense. “We moved everything out there and opened our doors in July of 2012. Our first tasting room was in the corner of our production area.”
Foot traffic and word-of-mouth from the local community helped send the winery on its way, and Ryan estimates they were able to grow production by about 40 percent each year. They quickly outgrew the original space and have since moved into their current location, the renovated Sunset Theater building in Snoqualmie’s historic district.
The choice of Chelan as Sigillo’s second location, interestingly enough, was tied to the relocation of Vicki Curnutt, who had been Sigillo’s tasting room manager in Snoqualmie since day one.
“Vicki wanted to move east and I didn’t want to lose her,’” Ryan said. “My parents owned a house on Lake Chelan, and I’d been going over there since the mid-1980’s and always loved it. But my biggest fear (about opening a winery there) was the seasonality issue,” referring to Chelan’s distinction as primarily a summertime resort and recreation area.
Once again, it was the availability of a building – this time the all-brick Lakeside School, originally constructed in 1922 – that helped nudge the Sigillo team into making the leap of faith to expand there. Ryan had driven by the vacant facility many times, and it was his connection to the building’s owner through another winemaker that set the plan in motion. “I fell in love with the building,” Ryan said, “because it keeps with the historic vibe of what we are.”
The winery celebrated its grand opening in July of 2019, and Ryan is “100-percent pleased” with the Chelan-area expansion. “I love the community and always have,” he said.
Curnutt, who now lives in nearby Entiat, agrees. “There’s camaraderie amongst all the wineries,” she said, also noting, “Chelan is a very laid-back community and we’ve made lots of new friends, which is easy to do in a small town.”
Today, Sigillo Cellars’ formula for success is based on what might best be defined as “winemaking by committee.”
Mike Seal heads up the winemaking team, with support from his wife, Cande Collins, and, as of late, Ryan has played a more active role in the winemaking as well. The three also call on an outside consultant when needed.
Sigillo’s ownership is rounded out by Scott Hussey and his wife Christie, who serves as director of marketing and also manages the winery’s event planning and social media outlets.
Ryan categorizes Sigillo Cellars’ wines as striking a nice balance between fruit-forward, New World drinkability and Old World ageability. He also points out the winery’s wide range of current releases — “Maybe too many,” he jokes — with price points to fit any budget.
Carmènére, Cabernet Franc and Tempranillo are some of his personal favorites, and the winery’s four-varietal, Bordeaux-blend, “Confluence,” is one of the top-selling consumer choices.
“Our tag line has always been, ‘Don’t taste wine, experience it,’” he said. “That’s truly been my approach. I don’t think good wine has to be expensive, and I’ve fought hard to make good, affordable wine.”
He also likes to focus on what he calls “the sights, the sounds, and the smells of the tasting room. It’s that experience that people remember.”
“We serve food, and after five o’clock we’re more of a wine bar (at our Snoqualmie location), and we do live music on Friday and Saturday night. And Chelan will be the same. We’re in the process of building it out, and we’ll have a full commercial kitchen and a rooftop deck.” He also pictures a casual dining environment with tapas-style options and a rotating menu that emphasizes “keeping it fresh and keeping it local.”
ONGOING COMMUNITY SUPPORT
Sigillo boasts an impressive 1,500-member wine club, and Ryan anticipates an increase in production from the current level of 6,000 cases to 10,000 cases annually. Plans are also underway for the release of a second label – Rowan Tree, named after his son, Rowan – that will feature two red blends. He envisions the label with a line of wines similar to that of Saviah Cellars’ The Jack and Dusted Valley Vintners’ Boom Town.
To dedicate himself completely to Sigillo Cellars, Ryan left his job in medical sales last December. “After all these years of looking over my shoulder while trying to come in to work in the winery, I’m so happy to be doing it full-time,” he said.
He sums up his winemaking journey with a nod to guidance, advice and even the use of equipment he received from other wineries. “I fell in love with it because I like wine, it’s fun to make wine … and seeing how great everyone is in the industry makes it even better.”
“It’s been a challenge to learn, but what I’ve found is, (wineries) are always willing to help you out. And the great thing about it is, we all produce something different. My wine will never taste the same as somebody else’s wine; and so they’re not afraid to say, ‘I’ll help you with that,’ and it’s just super-cool.”
That’s one of the benefits about taking a leap of faith when you’re surrounded by a strong community of supporters. Whether family, customers or even competitors, together they act as a “safety net” to provide assistance and encouragement. And in today’s crazy, upside-down world where separation is the new normal, that’s never been more important.
DAN RADIL is a freelance wine writer based in Bellingham, Wash. Dan taught wine classes at Bellingham Technical College and produces a wine blog, danthewineguy.com
Snoqualmie Tasting Room:
8086 Railroad Avenue
Snoqualmie, WA 98065
Chelan Tasting Room:
2037 W. Woodin Avenue
Chelan, WA 98816