The Roberts family didn't know a thing about wine before it decided to get into the business. Most of the time, we might look at this as a disaster waiting to happen. Instead, we see a winery emerging that not only is refreshing in its approach but also is reinventing the wine experience.
In 2007, Blain and Kim Roberts purchased 40 acres of land about halfway between Aberdeen and Westport, Wash., just eight miles from the Pacific Ocean. Traditionally, the rugged Washington Coast is not the place to try to make a go of the wine business. It's hours away from the state's major population center and hundreds of miles from the vineyards. Members of the agriculture and fishing industries in this area are not traditional wine drinkers.
Those 40 acres were covered with blackberries and Scotch broom, but they managed to clear the land and, on the advice of a Washington State University Extension agent, planted some grapes -- the westernmost vines in the Pacific Northwest. They also built a winery building that is a scale model of the regionally famous Grays Harbor Lighthouse.
Their son, Dana, a student at WSU, learned how to make wine at the Pullman campus as well as a winery owned by a friend near Leavenworth. Their daughter, Carrie, also joined the business.
Allow me to reiterate: None of them knew anything about the wine business. Blain was a former competitive surfer, and he and Kim had owned a scuba shop on Maui, and the kids had been competitive swimmers in their youth. Nobody in the family had the life experience to pull this off as a successful business.
In 2008, they opened Westport Winery. They asked their customers what kind of wines they would like and tried to make them, many of which used fruit other than grapes, including cranberries (they are on the Cranberry Coast, after all), blackberries and pineapples. During harvest, Blain and Kim leave Aberdeen at 5 a.m., drive to Eastern Washington, pick up grapes and arrive back at the winery by dinnertime. Dana takes over from there, working all night alone to crush and press the grapes.
Kim, the creative and physical energy behind the operation, comes up with fanciful names for each wine, including Mermaid Merlot, Going Coastal (a sparkling Gewuerztraminer), Surfer's Last Syrah (with a photo of Blain from the '70s), Shiver Me Timbers (a sweet blend of Riesling and tropical fruits), Shelter from the Storm (a fortified dessert wine) and Red Sky at Night (a raspberry-chocolate wine).
One of their bestsellers is a red blend called Bella, which is named for the main character of the "Twilight" vampire books, which are set just 60 miles up the coast in Forks. A portion of the sale from each bottle benefits the local blood bank, of course. Pinot Noirvana pays tribute to Kurt Cobain, the tortured lead singer of Nirvana, who grew up in Aberdeen. This wine helps benefit local youth.
They make 32 wines in all (so far), which would seem like a daunting number for much more experienced winemakers. Not to them. They think it's just right because these wines appeal to their customers. Just as importantly, Blain likes them, and he is fond of saying that if this doesn't work out, at least he'll have good wine to drink.
We found out about Westport Winery not too long after it opened. A colleague who was from the area mentioned it, and we said we would be happy to review the wines. She showed up a few weeks later with two cases of these wines with the goofy names and labels that Kim designed herself. Managing Editor Eric Degerman and I looked at each other and started to laugh, but we put them in our blind tasting. Lo and behold, they were delicious, and many scored ratings of Excellent and Outstanding.
The quality didn't seem to be a fluke, either. More wines came our way over the next two years, and we saw consistent results from Westport's wines. The Going Coastal even won a Platinum in our best-of-the-best competition. A year ago, we chose Westport as our Washington Winery to Watch. This was about the same time Kim and Blain decided to open a restaurant that focuses primarily on local ingredients. In January, they launched a bakery. This summer, they're planning to install a solar array that doubles as a patio cover for guests who want to sit outside. They have 10 acres of vines and 10 acres of other fruits. The cranberry juice for two of their wines comes from local bogs. They have a sculpture garden that honors every wine they make.
On the face of it, Westport Winery would seem to be doing everything wrong. But don't tell that to the winery's rabid fans. Don't tell that to Dana, who can barely keep up with the demand for his wines.
On a recent Saturday, a typically miserable February day on the coast, when the wind is whipping the rain in sideways, the tasting room at Westport Winery was crowded, and the wait to get a table in the restaurant was 15 minutes or more. Everybody was smiling as they ate a great meal and enjoyed the wines.
The Roberts family is doing the heavy lifting for the Washington wine industry. Their wines, their food and their infectious attitude are introducing people to wines in a way that few others are.
Most critics won't give Westport wines a sniff, and owners of "serious" wineries roll their eyes at what Kim and Blain are doing. But they should be thanking them because those customers who happen into Westport Winery eventually will start to explore Woodinville, Red Mountain and Walla Walla.
We need less stuffiness. We need an injection of fun. We need more wineries like Westport.
ANDY PERDUE is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.