ABERDEEN, Wash. – It’s harvest time, and one Washington winery is making a long, lonesome trek to get its grapes.
Make that 20 treks across the state.
Westport Winery, one of Washington’s westernmost producers, is in the midst of making nearly two-dozen trips over the rugged Cascade Mountains to bring home fruit from top vineyards in the Columbia Valley.
The arid Columbia Valley is a long haul – in every way – from this winery eight miles from an area of the coast whose skies seemingly are in a constant state of drippy mistiness.
Earlier this week, we chatted with owner Kim Roberts after her second trip over the mountains to pick up Gewürztraminer from famed Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley.
Here’s the interview:
Westport Winery creates wine country in Grays Harbor County
The Roberts family took a roundabout journey to creating one of Washington’s top destination wineries. Kim grew up in the Snohomish County town of Marysville and moved to the fishing village of Westport when she was a teenager. The siren call of the coast was just too much, and she began working on charter boats during the summer to put herself through college at Washington State University.
Not long after graduating, she met her future husband, Blain, in the harbor one day. He owned a dive operation in Hawaii. Love followed, and she moved to the seemingly idyllic lifestyle of the tropics.
But Washington was in her heart and soul, so after a few years, they moved to Leavenworth and later to Spokane, where they bought land and farmed. But Kim couldn’t get the saltwater out of her system, so the Roberts family bought 40 acres of land halfway between Aberdeen and Westport. On the advice of a county extension agent, they planted 10 acres of grapes and launched a winery – a heck of a whim for a family had no prior connection to the wine industry.
Especially in Grays Harbor County, which doesn’t have a reputation for the most sophisticated palate. But Westport Winery is changing that by listening to its customers and creating wines they want. As a result, son Dana Roberts produces an astonishing 35 wines and collaborates with his sister, Carrie, on three hard ciders.
“It turns out it was a thirsty community,” Kim says with a laugh. “We’ve listened to our guests.”
Westport makes traditional varietal wines and blends as well as fruit wines, sparkling wines and dessert wines. One favorite is called Rapture of the Deep, a sparkling cranberry wine that was served last year at the U.S. Capitol because its Christmas tree came from Washington.
That a few of the Westport wines use cranberry should be no surprise, as the communities of Westport and Grayland are in an area known as the Cranberry Coast. Just two miles west of Westport Winery is an Ocean Spray plant where Craisins are made.
Harvest’s long road
This time of year is the hardest on the Roberts family. When grapes need to be hauled, the day typically starts at 4:30 a.m., when Kim and Blain awaken and get on the road within an hour. If the Cle Elum Bakery is open, Blain will insist they drive over Snoqualmie Pass. Otherwise, they might take the more scenic White Pass.
They will arrive at their vineyard destination by about 11 a.m. or noon, then turn around 90 minutes later and head back to the coast. When they arrive, Dana begins processing the grapes.
“What we do would be pretty unheard of in France,” Kim said. “They wouldn’t drive the grapes five hours.”
Westport is among a handful of coastal wineries that put up with the long haul. Producers on the islands, Olympic Peninsula and coast battle traffic, mountain ranges and ferry schedules to bring home their fruit. Kim says she and Blain actually have it kind of easy compared with winemakers in the San Juan Islands.
“Having that ferry ride at the end of the day would be really overwhelming,” she said. “Then, more than ever, you’re on someone else’s schedule.”
Before harvest ends in early November, Kim and Blain will make 20 trips to and from the Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain.
Top vineyards make difference at Westport Winery
When Westport Winery started back in 2008, it went hat in hand to vineyards, hoping to get any grapes. Now that it has begun to earn a reputation for quality and destination status, the Roberts are gaining access to higher-profile vineyards and growers.
Red Willow Vineyard, long one of Washington’s top growers, has been selling to Westport Winery for the past three years, based completely on personal relationships. The Sauer family, which owns and farms Red Willow, has a connection with Grays Harbor County, and they stopped in one day around Thanksgiving. That turned into a friendship and business relationship.
In addition, Westport buys grapes from such vineyards as Two Blondes in the Rattlesnake Hills, Discovery Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills and Songbird Vineyard on Red Mountain.
Kim spent three years on the board of directors for the Washington State Wine Commission, and that connection also helped lead to better grape sources.
“Now our winery is stepping up another level,” she said. “Even though we make fruit wines, we want to be taken seriously.”
Bookwalter connection helps Westport take another step
Two years ago, the Roberts family knew it wanted to continue to push its quality higher, so Kim approached John Bookwalter, owner of J. Bookwalter Wines in Richland. Both were serving on the wine commission board, and John had the reputation of turning his family’s winery into one of the state’s top producers.
“John Bookwalter is a rock star,” she said. “He agreed to work with us as Dana’s mentor and consultant. That turned the tide.”
On a regular basis, John either travels to the coast or Dana comes east of the mountains so they can taste through Westport’s wines together. John provides winemaking feedback, as well as advice on vineyard sources, marketing and sales.
“He’s a pretty inspirational guy,” she said. “We’re proud to have him as a friend.”
At home on the coast
Those wanting to try Westport Winery offerings will need to go directly to the source. With few exceptions, Westport wines are sold only at the winery. Fortunately, it’s just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from either Seattle or Portland.
“It’s a very easy drive for folks,” Kim said. “People in Seattle or Portland are happy to drive a couple of hours for the food we serve. We’ve definitely become a destination.”
It doesn’t hurt that KING-TV’s Evening Magazine has voted Westport a top destination winery in Washington, and the wines are earning medals from top competitions across the country. As a result, half or more of the visitors to Westport are from outside of Grays Harbor County. All of this is the result of Dana’s wines, his sister Carrie’s work as general manager, as well as Kim and Blain’s dedication, energy and vision.
And about those 10 acres of grapes: It turns out they will ripen perhaps one vintage in 10. So Kim has removed all but an acre and replaced them with Marionberries, blueberries and other crops that thrive in the cool, misty coastal climate.
Which is perfect for a winery that is built to look like a scale replica of the Grays Harbor Lighthouse.
“We’re not in Tuscany, and we’re not in France,” Kim said. “So we didn’t want to build a chateau. We wanted to be really honest to who we are. Out here, it’s all about the water. The water determines our activities, our food, our scenery, our neighbors. We’re dedicated to that coastal experience.”