January 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Tasting Rooms in Spokane

Far from most vineyards, urban wineries lure locals and tourists

by Jane Firstenfeld
Tasting Rooms in Spokane
Easily spotted from Interstate 90, Latah Creek's signature tower beckons visitors to the Spokane Valley tasting room.

  • Although it's 100-plus miles distant from most of Central Washington's famed vineyards, Spokane has become a mecca for boutique wineries and tasting rooms.
  • Surprisingly, tasting rooms are not clustered in any single neighborhood, but scattered throughout the sprawling metropolitan area.
  • In addition to carefully crafted wines, each Spokane winery cultivates a distinctive identity to attract visitors.
Spokane, Wash., home to Washington's second-largest population mass, seems an unlikely epicenter for wineries and tasting rooms, yet more than a dozen have emerged in the defacto capital of the Northwest's Inland Empire. These wineries are not clustered in any particular neighborhood, but seem to be distributed almost at random among dramatically different settings. And, although some have a few acres of vineyards, the vast majority of grapes are purchased from Central Washington's premier growing regions, a hundred or more miles distant.

Last October, I took a road trip to Spokane, where I grew up, and revisited youthful haunts. Many remain familiar, but development has been striking. In my childhood, the Spokane Valley was a series of villages then in transition from agriculture and light industry to housing and shopping malls. The valley, recently incorporated, is now solidly suburban, and greater Spokane's population is close to 500,000.

Tasting Rooms in Spokane
In the '60s, there were virtually no wineries in all of Washington. Spokane's oldest wineries, Arbor Crest and Latah Creek, were founded 25 years ago, and are genuine Spokane Valley landmarks. Others are in more urban sites, but each capitalizes on its own individual advantages. Here are five wineries that have achieved tasting room success.

Latah Creek: a roadside attraction

Latah Creek (latahcreek.com) was built to order as a winery, and produced its first vintage in 1982, when it was the 18th winery in Washington state. Owner/winemaker Mike Conway, a co-founder of Hogue Cellars, had been making wine for Warden's Winery on Spokane's west side for two years before it closed. Although Conway's roots were in California (he had worked at E. & J. Gallo and Parducci), he decided to create his own winery in Spokane Valley.

"I was looking for something that was on the freeway," Conway recalled. "Not being in vineyards, I wanted to be visible. This was the closest to town we could get with freeway frontage." The valley location, about 10 miles from downtown Spokane, is just north of busy Interstate 90; a Spanish-style "bell tower" makes it easy to spot the winery from the freeway.

Conway's choice was prophetic; as Spokane's population has sprawled eastward, traffic continues to increase. On the rainy October Saturday when I visited, the tasting room was comfortably crowded. Conway estimates it welcomes an average of 1,000 visitors each week.

Latah Creek is noted for its Merlot wines, and produces a lovely varietal Sémillon, but is best known locally for Huckleberry Riesling, the most-scanned wine in local grocery stores. "It's not sweet," Conway stresses. Huckleberries grow in wild profusion in the region; they resemble blueberries, and local families make yearly forays to harvest favorite berry patches. "To our finished Riesling, we add a little huckleberry juice just before bottling. It adds a little tartness," Conway says.

The tasting room/gift shop is a draw in itself: Conway's wife Ellena is the buyer, and as traffic has grown, so has the space devoted to non-wine inventory. Conway estimates that, dollar-wise, non-wine purchases contribute about 20% to the tasting room's sales.

Another, highly profitable draw is Latah Creek's custom label service: Even non-wine drinkers find this an attractive gift option, since they can commission a single bottle as a local souvenir. With a $2 set-up fee, and a $1 per label charge, "An order for a $7 bottle of wine ends up bringing in $10," Conway explains. Those who've ordered once tend to re-order, bringing in repeat business; and businesses order multiple cases for events and corporate gifts. Conway estimates that as many as 10-15% of bottles sold at the winery bear custom imprints.

Latah Creek currently produces about 17,000 cases per year. About 20% is sold at the tasting room, and to the 100-member wine club; the rest is sold through distributors in the Northwest and in Arizona. Conway has long-term contracts with grapegrowers in Central Washington's Wahluke Slope and near Othello, and the Columbia River Gorge. Grapes are crushed at the vineyards and delivered in tankers, arriving within 24 hours. Fermentation, aging and bottling are completed at Latah Creek.

Conway is optimistic about Spokane's unusual winemaking scene. The proliferation of wineries, he believes, is beginning to attract tourists. "I see continued growth," he says.

Tasting Rooms in Spokane
Poised on the brink of a 450-foot precipice above the Spokane River, the Cliff House mansion at Arbor Crest is a National Historic Landmark, and tourism magnet.
Arbor Crest: a lofty vantage point

Arbor Crest Wine Cellars also marked its 25th anniversary in 2007, but its location has been a local landmark since 1924, when an eccentric inventor named Royal Riblet built a Florentine-style stone mansion atop a 450-foot basalt cliff above the Spokane River. For decades, Riblet's "Eagle's Nest" was accessible only by tramway from across the river. For children of the Spokane Valley, it was as intriguing as it was unattainable, and in 1979 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Since this alluring icon is now a part of Arbor Crest, I made it my first stop in the city.

Arbor Crest wine is produced five miles from what is now called the Cliff House Tasting Room, on the family property of winemaker Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels. Her uncle and father founded the winery in 1982, when their orchard business began to dwindle. Arbor Crest bought the 75-acre Riblet estate in 1984, and maintained a tasting room in the mansion's garage until the business outgrew the space. A modern tasting room now shares the grounds; visitors can roam the gardens and gazebo, and take in the spectacular vista of the valley below. The mansion is opened for tours several times per year.

Some 30,000 customers annually avail themselves of the tasting room, stocked with books and gift items, according to Kristina's viticulturist husband Jim van Loben Sels, who shares co-general management duties. Arbor Crest produces about 20,000 cases per year, ranking among the top 25 in sales among Washington's 530 bonded wineries. Wines are distributed in 21 states and two international markets, and some private label and limited release wines are sold direct to retailers.

About 45% of production is sold at the winery, another 5% online; as yet, Arbor Crest does not have a wine club. At the tasting room, about 80% of the revenue comes from wines sales, the remaining 20% from retail items.

Van Loben Sels says most tasting traffic comes through the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitor Bureau, which helps the Spokane Winery Association (spokanewineries.net) produce and distribute fliers and maps. "Our business thrives year-round, whereas other regions in the state are subject to fluctuations in visitor traffic," van Loben Sels says.

Arbor Crest's compelling location generates more than just tasting room revenue. Because of the tantalizing but dangerous precipice, visitors under age 21 are not permitted on the grounds during normal tasting hours, but at other times, the winery hires additional security and hosts about 25 weddings and 25-30 other events per year. Seasonal Sunday concerts each draw another 800-1,000 visitors.

Although Arbor Crest grows Chardonnay on a small estate vineyard, for use in sparkling wine, "It's fairly cool in Spokane for winegrapes on a consistent basis," van Loben Sels says. The winery has long-term acreage contracts with Columbia Valley, Wahluke Slope and Red Mountain appellation vineyards, allowing ample input into grapegrowing decisions.

"We work one-on-one with our growers. I frequently visit weekly at the beginning of the season, and daily at harvest time. We are a full-service winery," van Loben Sels says. "Fruit is trucked up from the vineyard and processed in Spokane." Like Conway, he sees great promise in the Spokane industry. "We are seeing tremendous growth, and more year-round visitor traffic."

Tasting Rooms in Spokane
Though Lone Canary is situated in a modern business park, its vintage Chevy panel truck serves as an attention-getting mobile billboard.
Lone Canary: bird of a different feather

Lone Canary Winery (lonecanary.com) has made its nest in a different style of setting, an obscure business park. Winemaker Mike Scott and his partner, Steve Schaub, chose the location for "proximity to Spokane's downtown area and a central point for the outlying areas. It also had good, open warehouse space that could provide an easy work area for wine production. As a start-up winery, we liked the idea that we wouldn't need to tie up all our money in real estate, but invest in barrels and fruit instead. We occupy about 3,500-4,000 square feet."

Production is 5,000 cases annually, about half of that Lone Canary's sole white varietal, Sauvignon Blanc. The remainder is Barbera, Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from three Central Washington growers with whom Scott has worked for years.

"I don't have contracts, but because of the relationships we have developed over the years, I don't think I need one," he says. As at Latah Creek, crush takes place near the vineyards and juice is trucked to Spokane. "This method works into our overall business plan very well," Scott says, although he racks up many miles on his vehicle every fall. "I have to drive 180 miles to my first vineyard," he says. "But after pulling samples and talking to the growers, the drive home allows time to imagine and plan. I have always felt that Spokane wines are very thoughtful wines."

Typically, tasting room traffic is slowest during January and February. "Every other month shows us good traffic. Our customer count has been steadily growing, despite being tucked away," Scott says. About 30-35% of production is sold at the tasting room.

Jen Westra, who hosted our mid-week tasting, is at least partly responsible for this. She stocks the tasting room's retail space, which, though spare, showcases an idiosyncratic selection of wine accessories and cuisine items like flavored varietal grapeseed cooking oils (Riesling/lime and Chardonnay/garlic are stand-outs) and handmade scented candles in canning jars.

"I really did try to look for things that are either locally produced, or are unique items that you don't find in every other tasting room," Westra says. "It's been important to find things that are distinctive and memorable, while remembering that our primary business is a winery, not necessarily a gift shop." Non-wine sales account for perhaps 10% of tasting room revenues, Scott says, but Westra adds, "I think people who are coming in to taste wine are perhaps a bit more open to impulse buys, since wine itself is more of a 'mad money' item than groceries."
Spokane's Emphasis on Tasting Room Sales

Sold at
Arbor Crest Wine Cellars
Spectacular, landmark location; concerts and private events
Caterina Winery  5,000 Almost 100%
Near cultural attractions; live music venue 
Grande Ronde Cellars
1,500  35%  Downtown location; wines from co-op producers; fine art exhibits and sales 
Latah Creek  17,000  20%  Freeway-accessible location; custom label service 
Lone Canary Winery  5,000  30-35%  Central location; ample space; unique retail items 

Grande Ronde: the art of the sale

Grande Ronde Cellars (granderondecellars.com) closely resembles my preconception of a Spokane urban winery. Down a steep flight of stairs in the 75-year-old, red brick Freeman Center, it might have been cast as a speakeasy during a drier era. Today, the co-op tasting room is a showplace for organic and exotic foodstuffs, fine art from local and internationally known artists, and the wines of Grande Ronde, its sister winery Mountain Dome, plus Masset, Vin du Lac and soon, Morrison Lane. Its neighbors are high-end restaurants, the grandly refurbished Davenport Hotel, and the classic, art-deco Fox movie palace, now being transformed into a symphony hall.

Winemaker Dave Westfall grew up in Spokane, where he started a wine distributorship in 1984. In 1997, he founded Grande Ronde, with support from colleagues at Mountain Dome, a sparkling wine specialist. He still produces his Grande Ronde wines there, but Mountain Dome's situation on the slopes of 5,880-foot Mt. Spokane, a seasonal ski-resort, limited public access, and its tasting room was open only two weekends per year.

"As our production increased, (Grande Ronde now makes 1,500 cases per year), we decided to make the tasting room accessible to the public year-round, and open a co-op, off-site tasting room," Westfall recalls. The downtown location opened three years ago.

"The primary focus of the business is wine, and wine is the great majority of our sales….Each winery is steadily building a clientele and increasing their sales. We take a percentage of the sales to cover our overhead. As our sales have increased for both the wineries and artists, it has been a winning situation for all of us," Westfall says. Grande Ronde's year-old wine club has about 100 members, who contribute about 5% of annual sales; 35% of the wine is sold direct at the tasting room, and the rest through distributors in Spokane and Seattle.

The tasting room averages 20 customers each weekday, and 50-100 on weekends; the winery association's Spring Barrel Tasting and Holiday Wine Fest bring in as many as 1,400 people each. Every month, Grande Ronde hosts an artist and draws attendance of about 100. The art inventory is eclectic, and includes paintings and prints, art glass, carved furniture and marble sculpture, on a frequently rotated basis.

Since his winery's inception, Westfall has sourced grapes from Walla Walla's Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge vineyards. Fruit is hand picked from the same rows each year, loaded in bins to Grande Ronde's waiting truck, driven to Spokane and crushed at the Mountain Dome facility the same day.

"The advantage of our (tasting room) location is that it is downtown, and as people get to know where we are, we see increased traffic….This coincides with the increased tourist trade in Spokane, and the revival of downtown," Westfall says.

Tasting Rooms in Spokane
Caterina's downtown location in a former dairy attracts both wine lovers and live music aficionados.
Photo: Keena Ramirez
Caterina: show and taste

Caterina Winery (caterinawinery.com) is another downtown showpiece, with a completely different business model. Wine is produced on the property, which may be best known locally as a venue for live music. Situated on the lower floor of the historic Broadview Dairy, adjacent to popular River Front Park and the Spokane Arena, and across the river from the Opera House and Convention Center, it's walking distance to downtown hotels and a growing tide of upscale urban residential living spaces.

Owner/winemaker Monica Meglasson, an Oregon native trained at UC Davis, says she's learned a great deal from other winemakers. "I feel a real sense of community here," she says.

She rents about 15,000 square feet, including tank room, lab, storage, two barrel rooms and warehouse, plus the tasting room/wine bar/music venue. Production is 5,000 cases per year. Tasting room traffic varies wildly, depending on the season, but, apart from a 100-member wine club, almost all of the wine is sold at the winery, or direct-to-retail in Spokane.

There's not much to buy at the tasting room, other than wine, but "The music draws large crowds, with many sold-out shows," Meglasson says. Tasting room attendant Patrick Kendrick books the music, with a preference for indie artists. At the events, held in a high-ceilinged space lined with wine racks, "Wine sales vary as much as the music, but not always in ways I would expect," Meglasson says. "The music at Caterina has as great a range as the winemaking styles of local winemakers. One night, you might find dark, mellow blues, and the next, some bright punky, lively show. Either can be a huge wine sales night, or more beer-driven."

Meglasson sources most of her grapes from Willard Family Vineyard in the Yakima Valley; others from Seven Hills and Pepperbridge in Walla Walla; and Sundance and Evergreen vineyards in the Columbia Valley. Would she like a vineyard of her own? "Are you kidding?" she asks. "Do you see how hard those guys work?"

For now, she says, "I'm perfectly happy in Spokane, and I'm excited to have new wineries joining us all the time."
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