Sammamish bursts onto wine scene
December 22, 2008
By Ari Cetron
Does it evoke an image of lush, rolling hills with grapevines planted arrow-straight, marching off into the distance?
How about a barn in the southern part of Sammamish?
The latter just took third place out of 92 wineries at the Tri-Cities Wine Festival.
“We kind of came out of no place, literally,” said Peter Frame, one of a dozen Sammamish and Issaquah residents who are Rock Meadow Cellars.
Rock Meadow Cellars is six couples who met about 20 years ago when their children all went to the same preschool, said Karen Buckingham, another member of the group.The group of them bonded over their love of red wines, which, 20 years ago, were far less sophisticated.
“I was probably drinking out of screw-top bottles,” Buckingham said.
Over the years, viniculture exploded in America, and in Washington state.
In 1989, there were 60 wineries in the state and growers harvested 43,000 tons of wine grapes. In 2007, there were 530 wineries and 127,150 tons of grapes, according to the Washington Wine Commission.
In 2006, the industry employed 19,000 people in wine related jobs and had a $3 billion economic impact on the state, according to the commission.
“We are becoming known for producing great fruit,” Frame said.
The families of Rock Meadow Cellars named for the neighborhood Buckingham lives in, evolved with the times. They started tasting more sophisticated wines, and, in 2004, thought they’d have a go of making it themselves.
They all had different skill sets to bring to the table, and were able to outsource some jobs – Buckingham’s husband, an attorney, swapped helping with a graphic artist’s divorce in exchange for the label’s design.
The group got a consultant to help take them through the process, with Buckingham’s husband, Buzz, and Frame taking the lead on the day-to-day winemaking.
The first step, of course, is the grapes. There are not really any vineyards in Sammamish, so the folks from Rock Meadow Cellars headed to Sagemore Vineyards in Pasco.
It is fairly common to either be on the grape growing side or wine making side of the business, Buckingham said.
After the harvest, the group rents trucks and hauls out to Pasco to pick up their grapes. This year, they took 13,000 pounds of hand-picked grapes back to Sammamish, where they first use a machine to remove the stems.
They crush the grapes, and no, it doesn’t involve rolled-up pants and stomping, but a more modern press.
“You crush to expose the juice to the skin,” Frame said. “The flavor and color come from the skin.”
The flavors in Rock Meadow Cellars are distinctly Washingtonian, said Buckingham.
Frame explained that, for example, wines in France, and even Italy, have much more rigorous regulations governing what winemakers may do to the wine while it’s fermenting, than exist in the U.S.
Even stateside, in California, he said, the grapes are grown in a less stable climate, making for wild changes in taste from one year to the next.
“In Washington, we tend to have a lot more stable vintages,” he said.
In this case, those stable vintages ferment in the Buckingham barn, along with some yeast and some sugar, (Rock Meadow Cellars uses French oak barrels which hold 225 liters and cost $874) and are left to their own devices for a few months.
“It really isn’t rocket science,” Frame said. “As a job, wine making comes with periods of concentrated labor, and then, not a lot of labor.”
When the fermenting is done, the group gathers and makes wine by committee, Buckingham said.
Rock Meadow Cellars produces five different red wines and hopes to add a white next year. The 12 people all come together and taste their wines, deciding how to blend them. Most wines, Buckingham said, involve blends of at least two different kinds of grapes.
As long as 75 percent of the wine comes from one sort of grape, they can market it as being that kind of wine, such as cabernet sauvignon, or cabernet franc. Otherwise it must be called a blend. Rock Meadow Cellars produces one blend, Rockin’ Red, which is a roughly even split of three different varieties.
Bottling is handled by a man who owns a portable bottling facility and takes about a day, usually in the spring, to do the job. Then the wine sits in the bottles for a few more months before it’s ready for sale.
The business end of the operation is coming along smoothly, Buckingham said. They will likely break even this year, and accolades keep coming; the Tri-cities Wine Society has requested some of their wines for its upcoming gathering.
And next year may be even better. Frame predicts that the 2007 vintage will be their best, yet.
For now, however, the winemaking remains a fun, side project for everyone, Buckingham said.
“Maybe some day we’ll move out of our barn,” she said, “but none of us wants to get too big, too fast.”
Editor Ari Cetron can be reached at 392-6434, ext. 233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To comment on this story, visit www.SammamishReview.com.