Business soaring at Kestrel Vintners (w/ video)

PROSSER - For nearly a decade, the slim, dark wine bottles that hold Kestrel Vintners' signature wines have been etched with a falcon in flight.

But it wasn't until a group of college kids came up with a new brand featuring a 1940s-style pinup girl that the winery really took off.

The winery's Lady in Red blended wine has enabled the winery to increase its production from 6,000 to 32,000 cases per year in the past four years.

Now Kestrel has added a small event center - perfect for small parties - a commercial kitchen and a picturesque grotto to its main building. And construction is under way on a 20,000-square-foot building for production, doubling the size of the current winery.

The expansion began two years ago, with a 3,000-square-foot addition to the original building, said Mike Birdlebough, Kestrel's general manager.

But the real transformation began in 2000, said Flint Nelson, the winemaker. The boutique winery was struggling and managers were looking for a way to expose more people to Kestrel wines.

The winery's business manager, Gudrun Parker, attended a wine and food show at Columbia Basin College, where she met Gene Holand, a CBC business professor, whose class had organized the event for the Washington Wine Commission.

Holand developed a special course to allow students to work directly with business owners to create marketing packages.

"I got kind of weary of teaching the same way, and it was time for a change," Holand said.

He even let the students give the class a "business" name - Creative Marketing Consultants.

"(Parker and Birdlebough) said they needed something new and unusual and wanted us to come up with something that was going to sell wine," he said.

Holand said the students came up with the idea of Drop Dead Red.

"We had some bulk wine that we didn't know what to do with and they came up with a name, found the artist and even told us how much we should sell it for," Nelson said.

Holand said one of the young men in the class came up with the idea of using 1940s-Vargas style pinup girls. The students and Michael Rastovich, a local artist, created the original artwork for the bottles.

Drop Dead Red, now called Lady in Red, was unveiled in July 2004.

"The first year we produced 3,000 cases, which was a tremendous amount for us," Nelson said. "And we sold out of that wine in three months. We did another bottling and sold out of that in three months."

The brand has been "wildly successful," he said.

"They really hit the mark," Nelson said. "It's a stunning package and so eye-catching."

Which makes selling a single bottle of wine to a single consumer easy, but there must be quality in the bottle to sell a second bottle. That's Nelson's job.

"We have always strived to make sure we are putting the very best wine in, so people are not only pleased with the bottle, but what's inside," he said.

Now the winery has added Platinum, a white blend, and a holiday edition.

And Lady in Red, which retails for under $20, has introduced a lot more wine drinkers to Kestrel's other offerings, allowing Nelson to be a little more creative.

"It's allowed me to create my Winemaker Select series of wines," Nelson said.

It's the exciting part of his job. He gets to experiment, creating interesting blends and varietals, like his Two-Ton Cab.

For that wine, Nelson experimented in Kestrel's Yakima Valley estate vineyard, cropping some old vine cabernet down to where it would produce only 2 tons of grapes per acre to increase the quality of the grapes.

He bottled a cabernet franc and co-fermented a syrah with viogner. The wines are being bottled in limited quantities of 200 to 300 cases and sold for about $40 a bottle.

"The wines have been so well received and usually sell out very quickly, and it's been so much fun for me to get to experiment and play," he said.

And the success has allowed the winery to expand its production area, to Nelson's relief.

"We really had outgrown our footprint," he said. "The winery was designed to produce a maximum of 10,000 cases, and we were pushing 32,000."

The winery's main building and tasting room have been expanded and spruced up with the addition of a commercial kitchen attached to an intimate dining gallery. It's perfect for cocktail parties, private dinners or small receptions, Birdlebough said.

At the wineries' entrance, grape vines wrap around a stone patio with round tables shaded by large umbrellas, providing a perfect place to sample Kestrel's wines aside a plate of artisan cheeses, which also are available in the tasting room.

And a 20,000-square-foot production and storage facility is under construction behind the winery.

"I'll have state-of-the-art equipment and more space," Birdlebough said.

Holand said Drop Dead Red has not only been positive for the winery, but also for the college marketing program, which is attracting more and more clients.

"It gave them a whole new product and at the same time gave us new breath," he said.

Kestrel Vintners, at 2890 Lee Road in Prosser, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.