It is no mystery how Bookwalter Winery grew into one of the great Washington wine success stories. All it took was John Bookwalter bringing his entrepreneurial spirit to the family operation in Richland.
Bookwalter was born in Los Gatos, Calif., and the family moved to Washington when he was 10. His father, Jerry, managed Sagemoor Farms north of Pasco, where he got to know winemakers who bought grapes. Through those contacts, Jerry caught the wine bug, and he and his wife, Jean, launched Bookwalter Winery in 1983.
John, meanwhile, moved to Seattle, where he worked for Coors. But inspired by entrepreneurs he got to know, he moved home to Richland in 1997.
"This was my chance to help my family and do something on my own," he said.
At the time, Bookwalter Winery had a reputation for being a small, solid winery. John had bigger plans, and they involved changing everything.
In 2000, he hired Napa winemaker Zelma Long as a consultant to help improve his wines. Since 2008, French winemaker Claude Gros has consulted for Bookwalter.
In 2003, John revamped his tasting room. He liked how coffee shops were fun places to hang out, and on a visit to South Africa he noticed wineries had guests sit down for tastings. He combined the ideas to create a loungelike atmosphere at Bookwalter with cheese plates and appetizers and live music. Now he also has cleared space for outdoor entertainment and is adding bocci courts.
All of this led Sunset magazine to recognize Bookwalter last fall as the best tasting room in the West.
In 2008, Bookwalter opened a second tasting room in Woodinville. The move was perfectly timed, providing the winery a way to sell more wine directly to consumers and increase business during the recession.
The young Bookwalter, 45, is not standing still. He is expanding his 12,000-case production with a second label. The red wines will be called "Bookmark," and the white wines will be called "Footnote." He also would like to provide more food and hopes to bring in a chef in the next year or two.
What will he do next? One thing is guaranteed: He will continue to innovate and re-invent the ways his fans and customers enjoy his wines.
Here are some Bookwalter wines we've tasted recently:
J. Bookwalter 2008 Antithesis, Columbia Valley, $45: This blend of cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon speaks volumes. Cracking it open pulls out aromas of blueberry, blackberry, coffee, milk chocolate and a puff a smoke. The smooth drink is filled with more jammy berries, smoky chocolate and coffee grounds. There's a binding of solid tannins and a theme of opulence.
J. Bookwalter 2007 Connor-Lee Vineyard Conflict, Columbia Valley, $50: The massive fruit structure in this merlot-led blend opens with raspberry, strawberry fruit leather, chocolate and sarsaparilla. Strawberry and boysenberry is the theme in the mouth, backed by chocolate, lingering raspberry juiciness and fresh mint in the finish.
J. Bookwalter 2007 Protagonist, Red Mountain, $50: This blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah and petit verdot shows off smoky cherries and rich chocolate, accented by red currants, saddle leather and pink peppercorns.
J. Bookwalter 2009 Conner-Lee Vineyard Couplet, Columbia Valley, $20: This is a showy blend of chardonnay and viognier that opens with aromas of tangerine, orange Creamsicle, lemonade, gooseberry and Juicy Fruit gum. There's a satiny quality to the palate with banana and ambrosia salad, finished by nectarine and a waxy Gala apple.
J. Bookwalter 2009 Tercet, Columbia Valley, $18: No oak gets in the way of this blend of roussanne, marsanne and viognier, starting with the nose of pineapple, Golden Delicious apple, tangerine, lemon zest and white pillow mint. The viognier pops in on the tongue mimicking Circus Peanut flavors, joined by starfruit.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.