Three average guys now make above-average wines in Washington

Many of us have flirted with the romantic notion of chucking everything to become a winemaker. But how many actually take the leap?

A lot, as it turns out. Washington’s wine industry has grown from just 19 wineries in 1981 to more than 300, and more are springing up all the time.

More and more resources, including the Walla Walla Institute for Enology & Viticulture ( or 509/524-5175) and South Seattle Community College’s Culinary Arts Department ( or 206/764-5344), offer the know-how to get you started in winemaking.

Short of taking a class or getting a degree, you can volunteer to help out at various local wineries during fall crush; many top vintners say that’s where they got their start. No one’s saying it’s easy, but learning to make wine is certainly possible, as proven by these three success stories.

Doug McCrea, the Regent of Rhône

Life story: A woodwind musician, McCrea was a professional performer from 1965 to 1980. He played classical music with the San Francisco Symphony and toured Europe with a jazz quintet.

The turning point: McCrea first made wine in his Lake Stevens garage in 1987, and it turned out great. “I was looking for a new expression of creativity, and I found it in making wine.”

What he’s making: McCrea was the second person to make Syrah in Washington, and he continues to be a fan of the Rhône grape. Today he makes five different Syrahs, including the internationally famous McCrea Cellars Cuvée Orleans.

What’s ahead: McCrea has planted two other Rhône varietals that haven’t been grown before in Washington: Grenache Blanc and Picpoule. “I don’t see myself getting tired of making wine,” he says. “It’s just getting interesting.”

INFO: McCrea Cellars (free tastings by appointment; or 360/458-9463)

Ben Smith, the Baron of Bordeaux

Life story: For 14 years, Smith was a member of a team that developed steering systems on Boeing planes. The job didn’t excite him as much as he’d hoped, but there was a silver lining: The mechanical engineer learned how to make wine as a member of the influential Boeing wine club.

The turning point: In 1997 Smith’s wines won nearly every award in the wine club competition. “I picked up my big block of a cell phone and told my wife, ‘We did great, so let’s put all our cards on the table and do this.’ That’s when we started Cadence winery.”

What he’s making: Sexy Bordeaux-style reds, including Cadence’s premium blend, Bel Canto from Red Mountain.

What’s ahead: Smith just planted his first vineyard on 10 acres he owns on Red Mountain. “It’s a really cool period to be in Washington wine,” Smith says. “We are finding that perfect combination between grapes and land. It’s exciting to be in on the ground floor.”

INFO: Cadence (free tastings by appointment; or 206/381-9507)

Charles Smith, the Sultan of Syrah

Life story: Smith learned how to run his business as the owner of the Winslow Wine Shop on Bainbridge Island. He developed the chops to negotiate under fire during the 10 years he managed rock bands in Europe.

The turning point: Smith says a desire to step into the spotlight is the main reason he turned to winemaking, founding K Vintners. And the man with the unruly ringlets is a star attraction at wine events. “I hear people say, ‘There goes that crazy K guy with the big hair,’ ” Smith says.

What he’s making: K Vintners is well known for Syrahs that are earthy explosions of fruit and spice. But the wines linger in the mind long after they have faded from the palate, in part because of Smith’s genius for promotion. Who could forget wines with names like K Syrah, the Beautiful, or House Wine?

What’s ahead: Why mess with success? “I could do this until I am an old man,” Smith says as the sun sets behind the vines. “Some days I can’t believe this is my winery.”

INFO: K Vintners (free tastings 10-5 Sat Apr-Oct or by appointment; or 509/526-5230)

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