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Originally published Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Grapes and grit in Woodinville

Some plain-Jane-looking warehouses in Woodinville are home to some of the state's 600 wineries. Among them are Mark Ryan Winery, Guardian Cellars, Chris Gorman Winery, Stevens Winery, AntonVille, Edmonds, Barrage, Darby, Sheridan, Alexandria Nicole, Des Voigne, Cuillin Hills, Red Sky, William Church, Arlington Road, Baer, Page and Senoj Estates.

Special to The Seattle Times

Since the prime slice of Washington wine country is rather inconveniently located east of the Cascade Mountains, day-trippers in the Seattle metro region have made Woodinville the favored destination for tasting and touring.

Here, there are big wineries: Ste. Michelle and Columbia. There are flashy new wineries: Januik/Novelty Hill. Veteran winemakers: Brian Carter, Lou Facelli and Mark Newton. And high-profile superstars: Chris Upchurch (DeLille Cellars) and Bob Betz (Betz Family). This is the Woodinville that most folks know — the glamour destination where wine auctions are set, concerts are held, and the glittery, gadget-filled tasting rooms reside.

But for the "been there, done that" crowd, there is another Woodinville wine scene emerging just north of town.

Here, more than two dozen tiny startups are clustered in a couple of plain-Jane industrial parks, places so nondescript that Wall• E the animated robot would feel right at home. "We're on the wrong side of the tracks," one new winemaker told me with a grin, referring to the rail line that cuts behind the tourist-magnet wineries to the south.

Most of these new micro-wineries are scattered among the rows of squat warehouses lining 144th Avenue Northeast.

On a recent Saturday, sandwich-board signs located at the 144th Avenue Northeast locale guided would-be visitors through a bland, industrial no man's land to the hidden cellars and tasting rooms. At virtually every stop along the way, a winemaker, owner or assistant winemaker was there to welcome, pour wine and answer questions.

Refreshingly real

This is the draw and the reason behind the buzz. It's why the bleak landscape doesn't matter. If anything, visitors are pleased by the poverty. It speaks to the grit and character, the passion and purpose of these winemakers. It reflects their drive, and their individual and collective dreams. It's authentic in a way that no visit to the gleaming wine palaces of more famous wine regions can ever be.

In place of vines, vistas and Tuscan villas, this enological Wall• E world — " 'Hoodinville," as insiders like to call it — offers visitors a taste of the heart and soul of wine country. Along with every glass of syrah or cabernet comes a story good enough for the wide screen.

At Guardian Cellars, Jerry Riener is pouring his 2005 syrah and 2005 Gun Metal Red. A man of apparently boundless energy, Riener seems to get by on no sleep, and has for years. "I work at the winery five or six hours every morning before going to work," he tells me matter-of-factly. During crush, when wineries are going at full speed day and night, he takes vacation time from police work to do his winemaking.

Riener earned a chemistry degree from the University of Washington, intending to be a doctor. Instead, he followed his brother into law enforcement, then began volunteering 10 years ago at Matthews winery, after driving past it daily on his way to work. "Curiosity got to me," he recalls. "I had no idea what was going on in there." He went on to help Mark McNeilly start his Mark Ryan winery, and in return got a jump-start on his Guardian Cellars.

Godfather of the 'Hood

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Many if not most of these winemakers began by volunteering to do the grunt work elsewhere for no pay, in effect apprenticing themselves, sometimes simply by refusing to leave. McNeilly, who says he wants to be known around the 'Hood as the Godfather, is the man most often cited as the inspiration.

He made his first wines in 2001, and they signaled a new wave in both winemaking and wine marketing. Many Mark Ryan wines are named for Pearl Jam songs, and they are full-throttle efforts, both the reds and the whites, that take no prisoners. Fruit sources are outstanding, especially from the Red Mountain vineyards. Like his friend and business partner Chris Gorman, McNeilly comes from a wine-sales background. While no threat with a forklift (he drove one over his own foot a few years ago), he instinctively knows how to make and market wines that stand out from the crowd.

He and Gorman have formed the Giant Wine Co. to market their Sinner's Punch White and Sinner's Punch Red, a pair of affordable blends from purchased juice. But at the Gorman Winery tasting room, it's Chris Gorman's own strikingly packaged wines that are the stars of the show.

Guitars and rock posters decorate the walls, and the wines have a certain swagger to them, with names such as Big Sissy, Bully and Evil Twin. Gorman likes to call his venture "the anti-winery." His wines are much in the Mark Ryan mold and often sourced from the same vineyards, but Gorman is no copycat. What I most admire about both men is their ability to ramp up the voltage on both whites and reds without making wines that lose their sense of place or wear out the palate.

Plenty to discover

On any given Saturday, you will find a dozen or more of these tiny tasting rooms open for business, and during the fall crush the odds are that everyone will be on site, even if not officially open. On this sunny afternoon, signs for AntonVille, Edmonds, Barrage, Darby, Sheridan, Alexandria Nicole, Des Voigne, Cuillin Hills, Red Sky, William Church, Arlington Road, Baer, Page and Senoj Estates compete for the visitor's attention.

I pull into Sparkman Cellars, where Kelly Sparkman is gently forklifting new French oak barrels into place while husband Chris looks on. "That's $58,000 right there," he says, forcing a smile. He's not exaggerating; the plunging dollar has meant that new barrels now cost upward of $1,200 each. And that's just the start.

New wineries must buy or lease a vast array of expensive winemaking gear, arrange to purchase grapes, tanks, barrels, corks, bottles, labels and packaging, pay rent and interest on loans, wade through oceans of government paperwork and licensing costs, and somehow find the time to actually make wine — long before any wine is actually sold or any income generated.

Chris Sparkman, who has a full-time job managing the Waterfront Seafood Grill in Seattle, began planning the winery in 2004. With advice from Charles Smith (K Vintners), grapes from Tom Hedges, and a great deal of winemaking help from McNeilly, he and Kelly made a few hundred cases that year, the same year their first child was born. By working two full-time jobs and using borrowed gear, stretching loans from their families and taking out a second mortgage on their home, the Sparkmans have reached a point where they are completely self-sustaining. They own everything — lock, stock and (expensive) barrels — and have the bills to prove it.

"This is not playtime," says Chris.

"It's exciting and scary," Kelly chimes in.

Along with their just-released 2007 Lumière Chardonnay, 2006 Ruby Leigh Red and 2006 Wilderness Red, the Sparkmans will be introducing new vintages of Stella Mae (now a Bordeaux blend), Outlaw Merlot and a new Ruckus syrah in a few weeks.

A few blocks away, in the Woodinville Commerce Center, another small cluster of wineries has the welcome mats out. At Chatter Creek, Gordy Rawson pours a selection of his new releases, which include a rare nebbiolo from Clifton vineyard grapes.

"Really nice synergy"

For years Chatter Creek occupied the basement of Rawson's U District home. In 2005, he explains, he moved out to Woodinville because "there was a really nice synergy and good retail. It was like a scavenger hunt, with really nice wine at the end of the hunt." These days, Chatter Creek's nearby companions include Covington Cellars, Pomum Cellars, Barons V, Stevens and Ross Andrew.

Like Guardian's Riener, Ross Andrew Mickel never intended to be a winemaker. While majoring in English at the University of Washington, Mickel worked part time at Canlis, and there his interest in wine began. A classmate, Carmen Betz, happened to be the daughter of Bob Betz, a certified Master of Wine who was just starting up his own winery after a career at Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Mickel asked Betz for career advice, and Betz sent him off to work crush, first at DeLille Cellars and shortly thereafter at Rosemount in Australia. A paying job as cellarmaster at Betz Family Winery followed, and there Mickel begin shepherding a few barrels of his own.

"When you're that young and so new to it," he says, "you try to get some great fruit and see what individual lots do. You need to keep experimenting, reading, learning, trying different oak, filtration methods and yeasts." Ross Andrew winery now occupies the original quarters where Betz Family Winery began, making well-balanced white and red wines from carefully chosen Washington vineyards.

A couple doors up is Stevens Winery. Tim Stevens apprenticed at Matthews, then consulted at Sheridan, and wound up with McNeilly as his consultant. "He's a master of space," says Stevens. "I had 20 one-ton fermenters going in 1,000 square feet; we had to walk over the top to get to the restroom in the back!"

From an initial release of just 100 cases of cabernet franc four years ago, Stevens has grown to 2,500 cases and a half-dozen wines. Husband-and-wife Tim and Paige Stevens run the show. The artful labels portray Tim's paintings and sculptures, most impressively a 5-foot tiki constructed out of used barrel staves. When you visit, be sure to ask for the 2007 Stevens MaryJeanne Cabernet Franc Rosé (it's sold only at the winery). The picture on the label? That's Paige's mom riding the elephant. It's an image that nicely captures the spirit of the artists, visionaries and workaholics who populate the 'Hood.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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