COUPEVILLE, Wash. — When Department of Defense firefighter Sean Merrill received a promotion in 2008 that took him and his wife, Kim, from Colorado to Whidbey Island, they couldn’t envision starting a winery in the tiny town of Coupeville just five years later.
He had picked up some experience in the wine industry while living in Napa in the early 1990s prior to transitioning into firefighting. But nearly two decades had passed, and Coupeville, with a population of about 2,000 and at least 200 miles from the nearest Eastern Washington vineyard, could hardly be considered a mecca for winemaking.
And yet, it was there that the idea for Rain Shower Cellars took root, driven by a partnership with Oak Harbor natives Craig and Kristy Anderson that started in the Anderson garage. There’s now a dedicated production facility and the island’s newest tasting room.
Spark begins with work in Napa Valley cellars
Born in Cincinnati, Sean enlisted in the Marine Corps, which took him to California, where he met Kim in Monterey in 1995. He was in the early stages of being a firefighter at Fort Ord military base; Kim, originally from San Jose, was working as a paramedic.
A few years earlier, while Sean was living in the city of Napa (“back when Napa was cool,” he said with a smile), he worked at Beaucanon Estate and Monticello Vineyards.
“I was part of the winemaking process at Monticello, and I learned a lot from founder Jay Corley,” he recalls. “It was a great time, and I had a lot of fun, but life took me in another direction.”
After two seasons with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, he knew he had found his calling. From there, it was on to the Monterey Peninsula, and then to Colorado Springs from 2000 to 2008 before transferring to Washington state. He now is Whidbey Naval Air Station district fire chief. Kim is a nurse at Island Hospital in Anacortes.
Rain Shower Cellars takes shape with Anderson family
Once the Merrills settled in at their home on north Whidbey, Sean made a work connection with Craig, who is fire captain for the City of Oak Harbor. The two quickly became friends.
“Craig had no experience with wine, but he liked to drink it,” Sean laughs, “and they were also making ciders at home, so that started the discussion about winemaking.”
Kim, along with Craig’s wife Kristy, a nurse practitioner in Coupeville, initially knew little about what their husbands were working on.
“They started talking about the process, and he and Craig would scheme without Kristy and I being there,” Kim said with a grin.
“But we had to have a better plan than, ‘Hey, we want to make wine,’ ” added Sean. “We knew Mark Hulst of Skagit Cellars, who in turn knew Carl Engebreth at Tulip Valley Winery in Mount Vernon. He introduced us to Carl, who said, ‘I’ll let you make some wine here to see if you remember if you know what you’re doing.’ We stayed with them for a year and loved the hands-on work.”
Sean went back to school, earning his enology certificate from Washington State University. The two couples purchased their own equipment, converted the Andersons’ garage near Coupeville into their production facility and licensed Rain Shower Cellars in 2013.
“After a few years, we realized, we really dig this, let’s get a bigger place,” said Sean, “and Kristy agreed. She said, ‘I want my garage back,’ ” he laughed.
They built a new facility adjacent to the Andersons’ residence in 2019, referred to as the barn, “and promptly realized it wasn’t a big enough space,” said Kim.
Still, the facility allows the Rain Shower partners to produce 800 to 1,000 cases a year, putting them squarely where they want to be, for now, in the boutique winery category. They also finished a cozy tasting room with outdoor seating in July 2021, just off Highway 20 near downtown Coupeville.
Chelan-area vines yield Rain Shower wines
Since its inception, Rain Shower has purchased all of its grapes within a short drive of Chelan. Nearly everything is off Antoine Creek Vineyard, led by grower/winemaker Brock Lindsay. Dry Lake Vineyard provides Merlot and Chardonnay.
“Brock is a fantastic guy who is doing wonderful things over there,” Merrill said. “Our relationship with him is phenomenal, and we never want to leave.”
Rain Shadow is producing all Bordeaux reds for now, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. The Cab Franc is also made in a rosé style, and a delicious three-varietal red blend is also available.
This spring, the winery plans to release several new wines, including a 2019 Reserve Malbec, 2018 Cabernet Franc and a 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend. All are from Antoine Creek, a key source for Lindsay’s winemaking portfolio in Manson at Succession Wines — Wine Press Northwest’s 2018 Washington Winery to Watch.
And just for fun, at least at this point, Rain Shadows planted its own estate grapes next to the production barn on the Andersons’ property.
The partners don’t care for Madeleine Angevine or Siegerrebe, which thrive in the Puget Sound, so they selected two other cool-climate white varieties — Iskorka and Burmunk. Those grapes, native to Russia, are turned into “friends and family wine,” though the Merrills note that once they have more time to tend to the vines, the winery may do a limited release in a couple of years.
Whidbey Island emerges as wine destination
Today, the quartet of owners have settled comfortably into their “second job” roles, Sean as winemaker, Kim working on “all things social media” and website-related, Kristy as the “ultimate planner” and administrative guru and Craig as cellar-rat and “the best piece of equipment you’ll ever have,” says Sean, only half-jokingly.
Being a small, family-owned winery with a wine club still in the works, and situated in a somewhat rural area, it’s Rain Shower Cellars’s appeal as a destination winery that will help drive customers.
Wine enthusiasts can explore the half-dozen or so other wineries in and around the town of Langley on the south end of the island, including Bloom’s Winery, Holmes Harbor Cellars, Spoiled Dog Winery and Whidbey Island Winery.
Visitors will also find that Coupeville, nestled along the shores of Penn Cove, is a charming town with several gift shops, galleries and restaurants. The Merrills single out the nearby Captain Whidbey Inn for excellent food and cocktails in addition to its accommodations.
For those who never dreamed they’d venture to this part of the Puget Sound in search of delicious wines, a visit to the area and its wineries should be a pleasant surprise.