Bookwalter Mirrors Washington Industry
Tri-Cities winery strengthens management as business grows
Winery owner John Bookwalter opened Fiction, a full service restaurant with nightly entertainment, 2.5 years ago as a sequel to the popular J Bistro, which serves a range of tapas and grilled entrees. Situated just off the tasting room in a building adjacent to the winery’s production facility, the restaurant was visible proof of the evolution taking place the Washington state wine industry.
“We’ve expanded to what the marketplace demanded both locally and regionally and nationally,” owner John Bookwalter told Wines & Vines this week. “Growth is good, but it has to be tempered and smart growth.”
The range of activities at Bookwalter’s Richland facility alone—not to mention the winery’s six-year-old tasting studio in Woodinville (which launched its own food-service operation last year)—meant that the winemaker has been pulled in many directions.
“The expansion of our business over time necessitated us bringing in what I call ‘bench strength,’” he said. “The marketplace needs more support from a sales standpoint, which I had fulfilled very softly as I was doing so many jobs. As we’ve grown the business, I need to pay more attention not only to the wholesale part, but I’m always looking to strive to create higher quality wines at the upper-end, and that just requires more full-time attention.”
Those requirements prompted Bookwalter to announce this week that Caleb Foster will be coming on board July 14 to oversee winemaking.
With the departure of his long-time assistant winemaker Travis Maple, Bookwalter saw a chance to review and rejigger management to consolidate and focus oversight of the winery and its several divisions.
Foster, who started his own eponymous winery Caleb Foster Wines LLC at Bookwalter in 2000, is best known for Buty Winery, which he developed with Nina Buty. Foster became a consulting winemaker for Delicato Family Vineyards’ Double Canyon Vineyards project.
Now, he’s made the leap to Bookwalter, where he’ll oversee production with the assistance of consulting winemaker Claude Gros and input from Bookwalter.
The move will allow Bookwalter, who joined the family-run winery in 1997 after sales and marketing roles at E. & J. Gallo and Coors Brewing Co. and has also chaired the Washington State Wine Commission, to focus on managing and developing the business.
“It was a rare window of opportunity to grab somebody like that, and his skill set,” Bookwalter said of Foster. “And I think it’s a great time to step back and look at the next five, 10, 15 years and figure out how we’re going to deliver on our promise of high-quality wines at various price points.”
Bookwalter has already drafted a preliminary plotline for the future of the Richland winery, which sits on 10 acres of commercial land.
The growth of the winery to annual production in the range of 30,000 cases has stretched the existing facility, and the addition of the restaurant operation has put further pressure on the existing infrastructure.
“We’re looking at creating a full warehouse and production facility and tasting room…so I can separate the tasting room from the restaurant,” he said. “Right now they cohabitate, and I think it’s confusing sometimes. It will create a clear division….It will allow me to expand production if that’s the direction we decide to go.”
Bookwalter said the new production facility would allow warehousing onsite (it currently occurs offsite) and a maximum capacity of 50,000 cases—a boon in the state’s capacity-constrained industry (see “Adding Wine Capacity in Washington”).
The plans also call for a 10-room inn, adding to guest services.
“There’s a lot of projects coming our way right now as well as the restaurant operations,” Bookwalter said. “We’ve been bursting at the seams for some time, so it’s just a logical move.”
By strengthening management, the winery will also address one of the key pitfalls growing companies face. Many companies grow too quickly, and lose a grip on issues that eventually become their Achilles’ heel.
Fortunately, the current sales environment appears to be favoring Bookwalter.
The winery is distributed by Young’s Market Co., which means shifts in the retail landscape of Washington state in the past three years have been beneficial.
“We were given the opportunity to do more business on-premise and off-premise because we were one of their smaller wineries, and their ability to deliver the business,” he said.
While some smaller wholesalers and self-distributed wineries have experienced “collateral damage” from the shifts taking place, Bookwalter said Young’s has provided effective representation and expanded his reach—something he doesn’t take for granted.
“Fortunately, I was with the right distributor at the right time,” he said.