Former home winemakers find their ship has come in with critics and consumers.
WITH SEATTLE’S OPENING DAY in our wake, the city’s most nautical-themed winery is Eight Bells, a three-man operation that has made a splash with critics and consumers since its inaugural vintage in 2009.
For those of you whose seafaring experience doesn’t extend beyond a Washington State ferry (myself included), eight bells refers to when a sailor goes off watch. A bell is rung every 30 minutes. On the eighth bell, the watch changes, and your shift is over.
Owners Tim Bates, Andy Shepherd and Frank Michiels were home winemakers whose hobby got out of hand. Bates and Shepherd worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and have spent plenty of time at sea on research missions.
Three to try
Eight Bells Winery 2012 David’s Block, Yakima Valley, $35: Named for legendary Washington winemaker David Lake, this is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, carménère and petit verdot. It is a field blend, meaning all the grapes are harvested, crushed and fermented together. Exotic aromas of plum, sandalwood and cinnamon are followed by even-keeled flavors of blackberry, blueberry and lavender.
Eight Bells Winery 2013 Red Willow Vineyard sangiovese, Yakima Valley, $25: Aromas of raspberry, black cherry and black pepper, followed by the crowd-pleasing flavor of raspberry jam. Smooth tannins lead to a memorable finish.
Eight Bells Winery 2014 Red Willow Vineyard syrah 8 clones, Yakima Valley $32: Thanks in part to a dollop of grenache (3 percent), this reveals huge aromas of blackberry, vanilla and barrel spice. On the palate, it’s a classic Washington syrah with flavors of blueberry, plum, leather, blackberry and a whiff of white pepper.
Moving production out of their garages, the three now make their wine in an old building in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood, about a mile from the University of Washington campus. There they are able to maintain production of about 2,000 cases. Open only on Saturdays, Eight Bells sells the majority of its wine directly to consumers from its seaworthy tasting room.
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About 85 percent of Eight Bells’ fruit comes from famed Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley. The winemakers’ relationship with vineyard owner Mike Sauer began in their amateur days, when they bought a bit of tempranillo. Subsequent years brought more red tonnage. They buy chardonnay from Boushey Vineyard and pinot gris and pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. That makes up all of their production.
With the naval themes of their winery, one might think they’d consider opening a second tasting room in Navy towns like Everett or Bremerton. They don’t make enough wine to support a second tasting room, however, and the three aren’t looking for extra work. But Eight Bells is a popular venue for sailors transitioning from the open sea to landlubber status.
At the end of a long week, when your own watch is over, it’s worth the effort to track down these delicious wines from one of Seattle’s top urban wineries.