Whatcom County Wineries Look to Bounce Back
This article originally appeared in the October, 2018 issue of Bellingham Alive Magazine
Any business has its ups and downs, and the Whatcom County wine industry is no different. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to say that the county has been in a bit of a downward cycle as of late, contracting from a peak of 13 wineries a few years ago to the 10 that now produce and sell wine here.
That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s cause for alarm among Whatcom County wine enthusiasts. On the contrary, there are still plenty of solid, affordable wines being produced by area winemakers and new and better ways to enjoy them.
But the lack of growth does raise questions as to the general health and continuity of the local wine industry. What’s behind the current downturn? And why haven’t more wineries opened here when Washington State, as a whole, continues to expand its role as a player on the domestic and international wine scene?
TIME, MONEY AND BEER
When Ken and Jill Peck, husband-and-wife winemakers and owners of Blaine’s Dakota Creek Winery closed their doors in 2016, people assumed that something went wrong. Bankruptcy, slow sales, and health issues were all gossipy topics tossed around the wine consumer water cooler as possible reasons for the winery’s “demise.”
As it turns out, the Pecks went out on top when they decided to wrap things up – without even considering selling the winemaking facility next to their home. Ken had previously retired as a US Customs agent about 10 years earlier. And the closure of Dakota Creek Winery was simply, as he referred to it, a “true retirement.”
One might think that the county’s aspiring winemakers would look at this as an opportunity to fill a void in the local wine industry, but it’s not that easy.
“There’s a lot of hard work to starting a winery and most people don’t realize that,’ says Margarita Vartanyan of Vartanyan Estate Winery, located just east of Bellingham off the Mount Baker Highway. She also cites the time and financial considerations in getting your product on the market as a major detriment to any startup winery.
“A brewery might take three months to get their beer ready, but a winery could take over two years before they are able to sell their wine,” she says. Vartanyan uses her own red wines as an example, which require at least that much time to age in the barrel and bottle before they can be released. The economics are simple: when wines aren’t ready to sell, the winery isn’t making any money.
Bellingham’s Peter Osvaldik of Dynasty Cellars agrees that this is a difficult time to break into the wine industry in Whatcom County.
“It’s a tight market for any winery,” he says, and the proliferation of Bellingham microbreweries hasn’t helped. “The beer scene has overwhelmed the town,” noting that the area’s younger, college demographic has contributed to a shift in more breweries and beer production…at the expense of area wineries.
GOOD WINES AND INNOVATIVE MARKETING
While the Whatcom County wine industry struggles, those loyal to local wineries have reason to be both happy with today’s wines and optimistic about the future.
A case in point: the performance of area wineries at this summer’s 3rd Annual Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival, which featured over 175 wines from the Pacific Northwest. Four Whatcom County-based wineries participated in the festival and its judged competition. Fourteen wines were entered; 14 wines earned medals.
Included in the accolades were Everson’s Samson Estates Winery, which captured a gold medal for its Delilah Blackberry Wine along with a bronze and three silvers that included its Delilah Raspberry Wine and Black Currant and Framboise Raspberry Dessert Wines. Blaine’s GLM Wine Co., which earned a silver for its 2017 Rock Flour Sauvignon Blanc plus a bronze medal. Dynasty Cellars, which took home a silver for its Irresponsible Red Wine Blend and three bronzes. And Vartanyan Estate Winery, winner of a bronze medal plus silvers for its 2012 Nebbiolo and 2014 Trilogia Red Wine.
In continuing to produce award-winning wines, all of these wineries are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to enhance the tasting room experience and bring more visitors to their wineries.
Vartanyan has plans to revive her popular outdoor concert series and frequently hosts special events such as “bottle your own wine” and barrel tastings. Osvaldik has launched a new food menu with plans to expand his outdoor patio area and commercial kitchen. Anne Gould, manager at Samson Estates, continues to promote the winery’s pavilion adjacent to the tasting room as a venue for weddings, office parties, and other special events.
There’s also considerable buzz surrounding Mount Baker Vineyards & Winery near Everson, which was sold earlier this year. The new owners have been working on a much-needed facelift to the tasting room and product rebranding while local wine enthusiasts eagerly anticipate the winery’s reopening.
And Tom Davis, co-owner and winemaker of GLM Wine Co., notes that he saw an uptick in sales this summer at his near-the-border winery, in spite of a weak Canadian dollar.
That’s all encouraging news for Whatcom County wineries and wine drinkers alike. It’s also the bright side about nearing what appears to be the bottom of a business cycle. There’s no place to go but up.