Home winery making it big as part of burgeoning Snohomish wine industry
SNOHOMISH - The strong wine community in Snohomish is clear, but the journey to producing wine on a commercial scale is something few fully know.
For John and Kathy Olsen of ALIA Wines, what began as a wine-making hobby morphed into a lucrative passion that has been 20 years in the making.
The Olsens make and sell wine out of their shop-garage, which is not even 30 feet from their house in the unincorporated county area. A path of stepping stones marks the way between the two structures, and upon walking through the first threshold, one is greeted with an information table about their winery and two roomfulls of wine barrels. One’s scent and taste are immediately activated by their commanding occupancy, but the scent is not quite “wine-ish” — it’s fermenting wine grapes and grape skins. The meeting room and office are upstairs, with well-applied paint, décor and space.
“There’s generally a lot of creativity involved with wine-making, with different approaches to red or white wines,” Olsen stated as he strolled around the fermenting wine barrels. “And it’s actually a whole lot of blue-collared work and a whole lot of lifting. I think I calculated once how many times I lift a pound of grapes, and it was something like seven times just to get it in the barrel.”
ALIA Wines is registered with the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and Washington State Wine Commission as a winery. The company became an established commercial wine producer in 2005.
John Olsen is considered an expert in his field by colleagues who request his wine-making opinions and instruction; however, like any expert, he was once a beginner.
Back-track to the year 1994. Olsen, who is still a Boeing engineer, happened upon a wine-making class offered at the company via the Boeing Wine Club (now called the Boeing Employees Wine & Beer Makers Club). He decided to give it a try, and found that he liked it.
“We made some kit wines, just some out-of-the-box concentrate, but it helps you understand the process and to practice the chemistry,” Olsen said. “I did that for a number of years (making wine as an amateur through the Boeing Wine Club). From 1995 through the year 2000.”
The Boeing Wine Club began in 1971, when the wine industry in Washington was tiny and a number of vineyards had not been planted. A large number of vineyards that were planted in that time period, Olsen said are now considered world-class wine grape producers with wines that cost upwards of $1,500 a bottle.
When the Boeing Wine Club was started up, they contacted a lot of these vineyards to get agreements for harvesting wine grapes. The club then coordinated with members to purchase grapes and make wine on a small scale. At its peak, Olsen said, the Boeing Wine Club had about 200 members, and buying in excess of 100,000 pounds of grapes a year.
Olsen had a knack for wine-making during his amateur years, winning a few awards at the Boeing Wine Fest competition, such as Best in Show and Best in Category.
Olsen decided he wanted to continue to experiment with wine-making methods and try to go commercial. He practiced his techniques in wine production from 2001 through 2004. As an amateur, he entered more amateur wine competitions at Evergreeen State Fair and the Puyallup Fair. One of these fair entries was what changed the game for him.
Olsen entered some of his wine into the Puyallup Fair competition, and received “horribly low” scores from judges. He went back to the drawing board and switched up his methodology to try to improve the wine. He went back to the Puyallup Fair in 2004, and entered three of his red Bordeaux blend category wines that were fermented and aged since 2001. Of the 72 entries in that category, Olsen’s three wines placed first, second and thirteenth overall.
“That was one of the big moments that helped me to decide to go commercial,” he said.
Going commercial meant a lot of paperwork, and that first step was coming up with a name for his corporation. Olsen said he struggled with this, because he wanted something different. He poured over Latin and French dictionaries, and along with friends and family, compiled three to four pages of possible name lists. During a drive out to Champoux Vineyards to pick up fruit, Olsen said he just began going through the English alphabet in his head, selecting letters he found attractive in sound. He came up with “Alia.” After returning home, he looked the name up in a Latin dictionary and was puzzled with what he found.
“‘Alia’ is the Latin root for the word, ‘alias,’ which means ‘by another way or by another name,’” Olsen explained. “So, at that time, I had been playing around with some blends of grapes that were a little more cutting-edge than was typical at the time. Each grape brings a lot of different characteristics in the wine. You can mix and match those as needed, regardless of what you’re ‘supposed’ to do. So, choosing a winery name of ‘Alia’ made me think, ‘well, I’m kind of making wine by another way.’ It fit.”
There were no other wineries named Alia, and the Internet domain name was also available. Olsen had a winery name.
After getting commercially-bonded in 2005, Olsen has made good progress and maintains his small-scale status. He uses from 3,000 to 12,000 pounds of grapes a year, and one of the main vineyards he gets his red wine grapes from is the Arianses Vineyards, out of the Red Mountain vineyard region in the Tri-Cities area.
Wine grape growers in Washington focus on Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Savignon, Merlot and Syrah grapes.
Olsen still keeps his ties with Boeing colleagues and the network is still strong.
He stated there are currently 15 active commercial wineries that have their legacy rooted in the Boeing Wine Club. These 15 wineries are still somewhat active in networking with each other as well as hosting monthly tasting meetings to keep their senses in tune with wine aromas. Keeping one’s nose up to par in the wine world is crucial, because every little detail and note in a single wine comes from various factors, mostly to do with the wine’s grape.
As for wine on the local scene, Olsen is pleased with Snohomish’s wine culture. During the summer, which is just before fall harvest, ALIA Wines participates in the wine walk in historic downtown sponsored by Historic Downtown Snohomish.
“I usually participate in the wine walks, usually a couple each year,” he said. “They are fun and a good way to get to know the shop owners. For the people who attend it’s a good way to get to some wineries and the local businesses at the same time. It also encourages people to visit stores they might not have been to before to try the wine there.”
March is Washington Wine Month, and during this time of the year, wine makers are busy entering competitions. Olsen plans to compete in the upcoming Seattle Wine Awards, the Great Northwest Wine Competition, and his 2009 vintage Syrah won double gold at the Oregon’s Savor competition a few weeks ago.
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