LIBERTY LAKE, Wash. — Leave it to a winemaking MBA to prove that investing in some of the best grapes available on the market repeatedly yields amazing returns.
In the case of Liberty Lake Wine Cellars east of Spokane, Wash., Mark Lathrop purchases from two storied families with roots on Red Mountain who are members of the Washington Wine Hall of Fame — Dick and Wendy Shaw and the Williamses at trailblazing Kiona.
If their wines were sold in a different corner of the state, Lathrop and his wife, Sarah, would feel compelled to charge more for the string of award-winning red wines he crafts at Liberty Lake.
“We promote ourselves as ‘Red Mountain class with Spokane pricing,’ ” Mark says.
Wine judges aren’t privy to vineyard sourcing, but they often get a sense for provenance behind the Liberty Lake reds. Their relationship with the Shaws and vineyard manager Marshall Edwards includes Red Heaven and Scooteney Flats. From the clan at Kiona, the Lathrops pull off Heart of the Hill and Ranch at the End of the Road.
Last fall, Mark proved his point a record-setting seven times during the 22nd annual Platinum Awards. He entered seven of his red wines that had earned a gold medal somewhere in the country. Each attained a Platinum rating, led by the 2018 Scooteney Flats Cabernet Sauvignon — a $36 bottling that went Double Platinum, which means each judge on the panel awarded it a Platinum medal.
His other Platinum producers were a 2018 Malbec from Scooteney Flats, 2018 Tempranillo off Red Heaven, a 2018 Heart of the Hill Carménère, the 2018 Reserve Syrah and 2018 Heritage Reserve Red Wine.
“We don’t enter many competitions,” he says. “You are putting yourself out there by doing that, so it can be a gut check.”
One wine that’s earned acclaim but Lathrop didn’t enter into the Platinum is the Gewürztraminer he purchases from Williams family’s Ranch at the End of the Road.
“They are old vines from the ‘70s, so they are gnarly and pretty cool,” Lathrop says.
Another label — TAHIJA — earned a Platinum for the 2018 Candy Mountain Vineyard Sangiovese. While the Shaws have young vines on nearby Candy Mountain, the Lathrops get that fruit from the appellation’s namesake vineyard owned by Oregon Potato Co.
“I was surprised by Platinum for the Sangio, to tell you the truth,” Mark said. “It’s not something we’ve done as a winery and that was only my second vintage with it. Funny, but Sarah doesn’t like the Sangiovese.”
There is pedigree to that lot — one row from where famed Long Shadows Vintners pulls for its Saggi project. Remarkably, some of the Lathrop Sangiovese ends up as Liberty Lake’s sparkling rosé, a wine only on tap in Sarah’s tasting room. It’s made using forced carbonation with help of nearby Snow Eater Brewing Co. Production is limited; it’s released in May and sells out quickly.
“We have to do it because it’s Sarah’s favorite,” Mark says.
Not that he’ll have trouble remembering, but the 2021 vintage also goes down as the harvest when his loaded trailer suffered a flat tire on Interstate 90 east of Ritzville with 4 tons of Malbec from Scooteney Flats.
“I haul my own fruit because I want to pick up my fruit the day I want it harvested,” Lathrop says. “We don’t have any pumps. It’s all gravity flow.
“And we don’t filter the wine, so our wine is vegan,” he adds. “I know that if I see a wine that says it’s unfiltered then I’m more apt to purchase it.”
With his talent proven — he matched Maryhill Winery’s total of seven Platinum awards in 2021 — and because Liberty Lake Wine Cellars pays its bills on time, the Lathrops can boast multi-year contracts with those storied Red Mountain growers despite the increasing demand and price of their grapes.
“People always seek out the Red Mountain Cab in the tasting room,” Mark says.
Despite his growing up in Colville, Wash., and Sarah being a native of Butte, Mont., the Lathrops have long had a consuming interest in wine. After meeting in Eastern Washington University’s business school — where Mark also earned a master’s degree in music composition and played French horn — they soon began wine touring and picking up bottles along the way.
With their home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Liberty Lake Wine Cellars was a convenient stop, near the stateline between Idaho and Washington in the Spokane suburbs, and they enjoyed the wine made by longtime owners Doug and Shelly Smith.
In 2016, rather than see one of their favorite wineries shuttered, the Lathrops purchased the brand. Mark had no winemaking experience, but the chief financial officer of West Star Industries filled his spare time reading and researching the winemaking techniques to slowly attain an annual production of 2,700 cases.
What have the Lathrops sacrificed in the past five years?
“Well, we gave up vacations, and we don’t get out wine tasting that much any more,” Sarah says, adding with a chuckle, “We drank a lot of other people’s wines before.”
One of those rare occasions is when Mark travels to West Star’s corporate headquarters in Stockton, Calif., a short drive from the Lodi region where they enjoy analyzing old vine Zinfandel. Liberty Lake has access to a tiny bit of the heat-seeking variety at Red Heaven.
Solar panels take Liberty Lake Wine Cellars to net-zero
All of his red wine production is done under the solar-powered roof that makes him one of the few net-zero wineries in the state.
“Tyler Williams at Kiona makes our Chardonnay, and Joseph Martedi in Woodinville makes the Riesling that we split from Red Willow Vineyard,” Lathrop says. “Aside from the Gewürz that I make, I don’t really have the equipment to make white wine the way I want to make it, but I do make the rosé in-house. It never scores well, but it always sells out.”
There are scores of hits, however, and his penchant for small lots allows for fun projects, such as incorporating a handful of new Bulgarian oak barrels into his Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. In the meantime, more folks are pulling off Interstate 90 — a 9-iron from the lawn at Liberty Lake Wine Cellars — to taste what’s left of those Platinum winners.
“After news of the awards got out, we had a wine club pickup weekend and every person who came in who wasn’t in the wine club signed up,” Sarah reported.
Mark added, “A couple of wineries placed some orders, which was kind of cool.”
At some point, the Lathrops hope to be a club-only winery.
“We’re closer than I thought we would be at this point,” Mark says. “All of our 2018s were 120-case lots — which is five barrels — and 85 cases of those went to wine club. Now, we’re up to 200-case lots so there will be a bigger gap for us, which is nice.”
During the two years of the pandemic and prior to buzz following the 2021 Platinum, their core of supporters made all the difference.
“It was the wine club that kept us afloat during covid, and now on Thursdays we are open just for wine club members,” Sarah said. “We do something silly every Thursday, and there’s been a great reception for it. And it’s allowed us to get to know our club members beyond the four times a year when they would pick up their club wines and that was it.”
The Lathrops continue to pay homage to the winery’s founders on many of the bottles with their label — an image of the tree that stood between the original tasting room and the body of water that is Liberty Lake. And the two couples remain friends — only now it is the Smiths who are the club members in award-winning Liberty Lake Wine Cellars.
- Liberty Lake Wine Cellars, 23110 E. Knox Ave., Liberty Lake, WA 99019, LibertyLakeWineCellars.com, 509-255-9205