The French have a phrase for it: “vins de garage.” It originally applied to the wines of a rather rebellious group of 1990s winemakers – garagistes – who produced small lots of big, fruity, high-alcohol wines that ran counter to the more reserved standards of the Bordeaux region.
Since then, the definition of garagistes has expanded to include most any hands-on, small production winemaker who specializes in artisan wines made to their liking…and, presumably, for a loyal fan base that appreciates the little guy.
Whatever the recipe – perhaps one part independent thinking, two parts attention-to-detail boutique winery – the husband and wife team of Alan and Diane Holtzheimer have taken Silver Bell Winery from the humble beginnings of their Burlington garage to a classy LaConner tasting room with great success.
Originally from Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, the Holtzheimers took up residence in Burlington, Washington in 1995. Since the early ‘90s, Diane had envisioned purchasing an old home with the plan of converting it into a bed and breakfast.
“I did not share with her that I had no interest whatsoever in this,” recounts Alan with a grin. “But during this time, I was thinking of a business that would be complementary to hers.” A casual acquaintance suggested that a winery might work well, and as the years progressed, the Holtzheimers “took the idea and ran with it,” first by developing a taste for wine and then by researching the ins and outs of starting a winery.
“Alan is a research-aholic,” notes Diane. He purchased some home winemaking kits that, by his own admission, produced some horrible wines. The failed attempts were frustrating because, “to me, it was the equivalent of paint-by-numbers that should at least result in a drinkable wine…and it wasn’t. That sent me into the spiral of research,” Alan says. “I started buying every book that I could find, reading every web site that was out there, and asking questions of winemakers.”
One of the early problems he noted was, “…we needed to get good grapes. That was the biggest detriment to those wines. After we got the grapes things just snowballed from there.”
So what about the bed and breakfast? “By the time I was getting serious about making wine, in my mind the bed and breakfast was off the table,” Alan admits. “And I was OK with that,” Diane says with a smile. “This was a passion for him. I had never seen a spark in him (like this) until he started making wine.”
Like many boutique wineries, the Holtzheimers used their home garage as ground zero. “It really did, inch by inch take over the garage,” Diane notes. “I kept buying more and more equipment,” says Alan, “and at one point, Diane, who I knew was being patient with me, called me out on it. ‘That’s enough spending money on this hobby. Either start doing it as a business or sell this equipment.”
Diane’s version is slightly different. “You’re so passionate about this; just do it,” she recalls saying. “He was afraid to the make that jump and I was the influence (behind moving him forward).” In 2010 the Holtzheimers established and licensed Silver Bell Winery, derived from Diane’s vision to name the then-officially-retired idea of the bed and breakfast as the Silver Bell Inn.
Even with their initial production at only about 300 cases, the Holtzheimers quickly found that their garage winemaking facility was bursting at the seams. So in his signature, need-for-research style, Alan spent the summer of 2012 looking for a larger, more visible tasting room before the two settled on their current LaConner location that opened in November of 2012.
“We just liked the vibe of LaConner,” says Diane, noting that the destination status of the town makes it especially popular for out-of-town visitors. “Our largest customer base is from Seattle,” she says, and the couple points out that the town has much to offer in terms of art galleries, bed and breakfasts, quaint shops and a huge variety of restaurants.
Silver Bell’s warmly appointed tasting room is conveniently located on the main drag of the town, just a stone’s throw from the Swinomish Channel that separates the mainland from Fidalgo Island.
In a sense, “this is my winery, her tasting room,” says Alan. “And one of the things we learned through this process is that we had very strong complementary skills. She is extremely good at the…planning, the décor, the general feel of the winery and how we are presented to the public (right down to the labels). Basically everything outside the bottle is all her and anything inside the bottle is all me.”
“But I have the (discriminating) palate,” Diane laughs. “I’m his worst critic.”
Together, they’ve expanded their production to nearly 500 cases annually, with a long-term goal of 2,000. “We’ve always envisioned making wines that we like and that’s still true today,” says Alan. “We love the single varietals,” notes Diane, and Alan agrees. “Single varietal wines give you a better representation of the vineyard. There’s more ‘truth’ in a single varietal wine, but we’ve also experimented with some blends.”
From its inception, Silver Bell has produced a Syrah and a Pinot Gris and additional new, stand-alone releases include Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Grapes are sourced from a variety of Eastern Washington appellations such as Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and Ancient Lakes and vineyards including Cave B, Artz, Dineen, Copeland, and Airfield Ranch.
Blends have also found a place at Silver Bell and current releases include a white Bordeaux-style, 50-50 combination of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc and a Syrah/Merlot/Cabernet Franc red blend.
All of these wines have an understated, Eurocentric style about them; the result of the Holtzheimers strategy to pick the grapes early and avoid making “fruit bomb” wines. They’re well-balanced, with good acidity and reserved fruit flavors and best when paired with the proper foods.
Silver Bell recently joined six other wineries from Skagit County and Camano Island to form the North Sound Wine Trail (northsoundwinetrail.com). Together, the wineries invite guests to visit the area’s historic towns, take in some picturesque valley and island scenery, and have the opportunity to enjoy good wines along the way.
As part of the consortium, the Holtzheimers can take pride in their winery and its increasing exposure and popularity within the region. It’s a successful, yet ever-evolving journey that’s come to fruition for this hard-working couple, and an inspiration for anyone who’s dreamed of taking a winemaking hobby from the family garage to a bona fide boutique winery.