BELLINGHAM, Wash. — The philosophy of Welcome Road Winery owners Kristen Dorrity and Leigh McMillan is remarkably simple: “We love wine, food and the great outdoors.”
And while the couple enjoys skiing, hiking and traveling, they strive to maintain a close- to-home, neighborhood-oriented feel to their brand as they expand beyond their flagship tasting room in West Seattle into downtown Bellingham .
“Call it our brand,” McMillan says. “We’re laid back, we’re unpretentious, we’re outdoor-centric. We wanted to grow, but we wanted to do it in a way that still enabled us to be a part of the community.”
McMillan is a Washington native, while Dorrity is originally from New Jersey, attended law school in California and moved to Seattle in 1993. They met in 2005 and married in 2013.
Both were somewhat late bloomers to the world of wine: Dorrity recalls that her early experiences with wines were at dinner parties in California in the 1990s. McMillan didn’t start drinking wine until her 30s and remembers a special bottle of Côtes du Rhône as the “wow” wine that nudged her into winemaking.
“After that, I got really interested in where wine comes from and how it is made, and Kristen and I have both traveled around France and gone to wine regions there.”
Once the two determined that starting their own winery might be a great “retirement business,” McMillan enrolled in Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program. She completed the two-year course and earned her enology certificate in 2009.
“My ‘best friend’ from class and I went in together and bought a ton of grapes and made our first batch,” McMillan said.
That friend is Alan Holtzheimer, who went on to open Silver Bell Winery in 2012, now in the Lake Chelan community of Manson.
“We handed it out to friends and family, who seemed to like it, so we got a little bit bigger, and it got slightly out of control,” McMillan says with a laugh.
Welcome Road Winery was born and became commercially licensed in 2011.
Pouring in West Seattle since 2016
For the first few years, Welcome Road operated its tasting room and production facility out of Woodinville.
“It was a great place to start,” McMillan said. “We got exposed to a lot of different wineries, met a lot of great people and learned a lot about how to operate a tasting room. But it wasn’t a part of our neighborhood and our community. We were always looking for a space in our neighborhood and ended up finding one a mile from our house.”
They opened that West Seattle tasting room in 2016 and have maintained a relationship with a Woodinville winery where they continue to use its production equipment, store their barrels and bottle their wines.
“Occasionally, we’ll augment that with grapes from different vineyards,” McMillan says, “but those two are our primary sources. They’ve been with us since day one.
“I love to go over to Zillah and walk the vineyards and taste the grapes,” she says. “That is one of my favorite things to do, and I’m so grateful to be working with such awesome growers.”
Their work with the Rawn brothers, who manage both Dineen and Marcella, allows McMillan to craft wines that she, Dorrity and their customers appreciate.
“We like to sometimes say that we make wine in a French tradition,” McMillan says. “The varietals we work with, for the most part, are Bordeaux. We do make Syrah, since it’s one of our favorites that we add into the mix. We like a lighter, earthy style that’s easier to pair with food.”
Cabernet Franc is a core variety for Welcome Road, and McMillan also will blend it with Malbec and Merlot.
“And, quite frankly, we like a lower-alcohol wine,” she laughs. “We’ll have a couple glasses on a Wednesday when we don’t want to have a big red/Cabernet Sauvignon. So we very purposely strive to make wine that is comparably, in Washington state, lower in alcohol.”
They’ve found that the Rawn brothers, who also own Two Mountain Winery, are an ideal fit.
“Dineen and Two Mountain hit the perfect flavor profile that we’re looking for,” McMillan says. “It’s complex, it’s interesting, it has structure, balanced tannins, and it’s not overwhelming.”
Those influences from France have helped inspire the names of some Welcome Road wines.
The 2017 L’Oiseau (French for “little bird”) won a gold medal in the Right Bank Bordeaux Blend category at the 2021 Seattle Wine Awards. The 2019 vintage of L’Oiseau has been released as 100% Cabernet Franc.
Welcome Road’s 2018 Atelier, a blend driven by Cabernet Franc, earned a gold medal last year at the Washington State Wine Competition. Its name comes from a French reference to an artist’s studio.
McMillan’s current favorite is the 2019 Chaton (kitten), a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend that can be described as bright with flavors of spicy fruit and great backbone.
Dorrity leans towards the 2018 Roadtrip Red, a blend of four Bordeaux varieties, as her favorite. Their tasting room menus include white wine options Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Expansion into Bellingham
With the goal of growing their annual production beyond 1,000 cases, Dorrity and McMillan began looking for a second location.
“We own a cabin in Glacier, about 45 miles east of Bellingham, and we’re up there a lot,” McMillan says. “Welcome Road is the name of the ‘street’ our cabin is on.”
“We’d stop in Bellingham, have lunch, drink some beer, so when we started to think about places we could expand, it was just a natural for us,” she continued. “And how we approach our laid-back tasting room experience just seems to be a fit with Bellingham.”
The couple found a prime spot in the city’s downtown arts district, just steps from the Pickford Cinema and Whatcom Museum. They opened their Champion Street tasting room in October 2021.
“We’re very psyched to be there,” McMillan says.
Dorrity, who describes herself as a “detailed person,” built the tasting
room bar and has been “busy with fun stuff like scheduling, record keeping and working in the tasting room.”
Whether it’s in Bellingham or West Seattle, McMillan notes their love of the outdoors translates into sustainability practices that customers should notice.
“We don’t put foil on our bottles,” she says. “It no longer serves a practical purpose; it just adds waste. We use lighter weight bottles, which reduces CO2 significantly. And the vineyards we work with are certified sustainable. That’s all an important part of how we operate.”
By blending concepts of environmentally friendly practices, food-friendly wines, and neighborhood-friendly tasting rooms, Dorrity and McMillan have made Welcome Road Winery a welcome addition to the communities they call home.
Welcome Road Winery
3804 California Ave., SW
Seattle, WA 98116
Satellite tasting room
300 W. Champion St.
Bellingham, WA 98225
Hours vary by season and location
- Dan Radil is a freelance writer based in Bellingham. His site is DanTheWineGuy.com and serves as president of the Bellingham Northwest Wine Competition.