ABERDEEN, Wash. — It’s been a remarkable voyage in Grays Harbor County for the Roberts family, a project of depth and layers that lives up to its billing as Westport Winery Garden Resort.
“We were in a remote location, and we knew if we were going to be successful, we needed to create a destination and multiple reasons for people to come here,” says Blain Roberts, who previously owned a famous dive business on Maui with his wife, Kim. “We also needed to treat our consumers so well that they become our sales people and recruit their friends and family to come do business with us.”
Last year, the family christened their nonprofit International Mermaid Museum. Pandemic be damned, the fanciful exhibit attracted 83,000 visitors to the 21-acre campus along Highway 105 that features demonstration gardens with sculptures from dozens of regional artists, the on-premise Sea Glass Grill and an Ocean’s Daughter Distillery.
“It ultimately comes back to making great wine and being a Washington winery,” says Kim, whose four-year term on the Washington State Wine Commission ended in 2014.
Critics and consumers — savvy or inexperienced — appreciate those efforts. In 2021, Westport earned six Platinum Awards from Great Northwest Wine, giving the 15-year-old brand a career total of 30, moving them into a tie for seventh on the all-time list.
Westport earned its Platinums using a variety of approaches, ranging from Malbec and the rare Italian red Sagrantino, a rosé of Sangiovese off famed Red Willow Vineyard, two expressions of Riesling and the locally sourced sparkling cranberry. It’s a deliciously eclectic portfolio.
“There are only a few routes to the coast, so many people have to come by this winery,” says winemaker Mark Bosso. “I’ve worked for a lot of different wineries, and I’ve never seen a diversity of clientele like this.”
Bosso arrived from Woodinville not long after he helped turn Orenda Winery into Wine Press Northwest’s 2020 Washington Winery to Watch. He took over the cellar from the Roberts’s son, Dana.
“We are grateful for our continued relationship with John Bookwalter as our mentor and wine consultant,” Kim says. “Mark has built upon that foundation to take us up to the next level.”
The résumé of Bosso, who served in the Peace Corps, includes working for Erica Orr at Baer Winery and Javier Alfonso of Pomum Cellars/Idilico. Bosso already knew first-hand how valuable it was to work with highly decorated Elephant Mountain Vineyards and sister site Sugarloaf Vineyard. Both are owned and farmed by Joe Hattrup and now serve as the breadbasket for Westport Winery.
“Westport doesn’t have a speciality, but it has a broad appeal, and that’s a strength,” Bosso said. “Kim tells a story that starts with introducing people new to wine with the fruit wines and there’s a progression that happens almost uniformly with all of the wine club members. Before you know it, they are drinking dry reds and dry whites.”
Kim and Blain have reinvented themselves several times. Even though Blain grew up as a lifeguard in Southern California and Kim in Marysville, Wash., they met in the harbor of Westport in the early 1980s. Kim captained a charter boat in the summers as a Washington State University architecture student when Blain was having a boat built for his business in Hawaii. Three decades later, they recast themselves in Grays Harbor with two adult children, all four embarking on an adventure for 21 acres of forested land.
“We bought the property and we asked the ag agent what to do, and he suggested we open a winery,” Blain says. “We decided to do that, even though we knew nothing about wine.”
Labels on their bottles bring a sense of whimsy, tell stories and showcase regional artists, but judges at international wine competitions don’t know any of that. And the acclaim continues to come in waves, year after year.
“People assumed we were a joke because our bottles didn’t have a brown label with a brick building on it,” Blain said.
Kim looks back and says, “Not knowing what you can’t do meant there were no boundaries, but the year before we opened, we went to every Washington Winery of the Year and quietly visited them to see what they were doing.”
Keeping it all together has been daughter Carrie, the general manager, CFO and their best friend.
“We’re family, and we fight. Not viciously, by any means,” Kim says. “We walk together every morning. We work together every day, and we share an office. We travel together.”
And their tasting room staff guides and educates customers.
“We treat everybody with respect and just as regular people,” Blain says. “We’re not pretentious in any way. We understand that trying wine and buying wine is a choice. All we can do is help them make the right decision, and we have so much variety that I tell people, ‘You’ve just got to come back because there are things you are not going to have time to try that they would like.’ ”
The lineup in the tasting room includes a deliciously dizzying array of spirits developed by Bosso, with mother and daughter in on the blending trials.
“I’m constantly thinking about wine, which is business for me, but I can drink spirits without it feeling like work,” Kim says.
Acclaim for her wines hasn’t stopped in 2022, which includes bottlings by Bosso. At the Los Angeles Invitational, Westport received best of class, double gold medals and 97 points for the 2018 Courage Sagrantino made from Inland Desert Vineyard grapes and the Maritime Riesling, obtained from Elephant Mountain Vineyard.
In Sonoma, the International East Meets West judges awarded best of class to the Duckleberry Grunt, a deliciously balanced and fun blend of blueberry and Gewürztraminer that Bosso put together, which features artist Jill Neal’s rendition of Mrs. Bigfoot with a tattoo of Sasquatch on her lower back.
“Since 2008, our guests have made this the most popular wine on our list,” Kim points out.
Twice, the Sea Glass Grill — with its menu developed by Kim, a trained chef and baker — was recognized by USA Today as a top-five winery restaurant, most recently in 2017. That same year, Sonoma-based Winery and Vineyard Management magazine featured Westport in its series of 20 Most Admired Wineries in North America. And the family’s fans voted Westport as Best Northwest Winery Destination on Seattle’s KING-TV Evening Magazine for eight straight years.
“That was so cool,” says Kim, who during that stretch also authored her Aloha Jones Mystery Series spanning three novels.
From fruitless vineyard to 15-acre garden
Along the way, regional nonprofits associated with Westport’s myriad labels have received more than $500,000 from the Roberts family.
“That money in Grays Harbor makes a big difference,” says Kim, whose shared belief with Blain in karma also helped inspire her to become a certified yoga instructor after her battle with cancer.
There have been other hardships, starting with the vineyard they planted twice on the recommendation of experts.
“We could grow beautiful vines but never harvested a single cluster,” Kim said of the failure that she turned into her 15-acre garden, plant nursery and pitch-and-putt golf course.
A couple of years ago, they closed their satellite tasting room in Cannon Beach, Ore., but continue to operate a rental cottage in nearby Seaside for club members and guests. Lessons learned from their short-lived cider project were applied to the Ocean’s Daughter Distillery.
“I get bored, and I don’t have any hobbies,” Kim says.
Their trust in Bosso’s winemaking talent shows in the tripling of their barrel program and encouraging his interest in Sangiovese and Tempranillo. As they accommodated the surge of spirits production — 3,000 cases — they’ve created more demand for the 4,000 cases of wine, and Bosso takes a more focused look on the lineup.
“We’ve been sold out on everything because of all the closures,” Kim says.
When they closed their Oregon Coast tasting room, those energies shifted toward the development of the distillery and to the construction of the museum, inspired by the story and success of the Northwest Carriage Museum in nearby Raymond.
“I’ve been telling people for years that in a way, the word ‘winery’ was a disservice to our company,” Kim says. “There are so many more people who could come to our restaurant and gift shop, but they wouldn’t because of religious reasons or they thought the winery would be too snooty or they had kids with them.”
So Kim formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and selected a mermaid theme to link her family’s life-long connection to the ocean while highlighting Blain’s collection of underwater photography and artifacts from ocean-loving friends. Proceeds are dedicated to promoting ocean ecology.
“I invited 10 interesting women who are leaders in the community who I didn’t know well — but I respected — to serve on the board of directors,” she says. “All but one accepted.”
COVID-19 delayed construction and the opening until March 29, 2021 — International Mermaid Day. Fanfare for the museum was sudden and unexpected. It also changed their fortunes. Her estimate was 10,000 visitors per year — about 42 visitors a day. Even that seemed unrealistic, particularly during a pandemic.
“Our highest day last summer was 1,282 visitors,” she says with a smile. “I’m hoping we’ll get 100,000 visitors in 2022. We had 83,000 last summer, and we missed the first quarter.”
The immediate success of the International Mermaid Museum has helped the Roberts family to deal with the continuing aftermath — financially and spiritually — of the fire that claimed the building that housed their young distillery and some key pieces of their businesses.
“It’s been really hard to build a brand new museum, launch it, and then two months later lose a building and have to build a brand new building to replace it,” Kim says. “The fire was really hard emotionally. You lose your sense of security. We had to pivot so much last year that we got dizzy.”
Recently, Blain and Kim saw their prized chows — guard dogs Lulu and Curzon — sail across the Rainbow Bridge, but those canines who they jokingly referred to as their “Tibetan Swamp Pandas” are still featured on the label of the Little Wild Marionberry Riesling. Time will tell if young Mira will find her way onto a bottle.
This spring, Bosso and the Roberts family will release the 2019 Mermaid Merlot from Elephant Mountain — which earned 95 points this winter from Great Northwest Wine judges — to coincide with the Mermaid Festival March 26 through April 3. Just look for the 40-foot replica lighthouse halfway between Aberdeen and Westport along Highway 105.
“The sky is the limit for Westport Winery,” Bosso said. “They really have nothing holding them back. They have the fruit they need, and the facilities they need.”
- Westport Winery Garden Resort, 1 S. Arbor Road, Aberdeen, WA, 98520, WestportWinery.com, (360) 648-2224.