Published: Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Grapes in the garage

Lynnwood couple makes wine from home

By Mina Williams
Enterprise editor
Mike Grace hands his wife, Barb, a sample of wine as it ages in their home garage at Grace Cellars in Lynnwood.

Purchase Photo Reprint Enterprise/CHRIS GOODENOW

Mike Grace hands his wife, Barb, a sample of wine as it ages in their home garage at Grace Cellars in Lynnwood.

Much like garage rock bands in the 1970s, young wineries are performing in family garages across the state. Some of these “garage wineries” are shattering the geographic mold, breaking out of classic wine country guises and instead popping up in the suburbs. Even in Lynnwood.
Currently there are more than 700 wineries in Washington state, according to the Washington State Wine Commission. Not all of them are the behemoths. Most are small operations where boutique wines are hand crafted.
One such winery is Grace Cellars, owned by Mike and Barb Grace.
The Graces moved to Lynnwood in 2003 and Mike began a wine-making project in the garage with a single 30-gallon barrel in 2006. He made it for personal use and to test his talent for making wine.
Now the winery expects to produce more than 300 cases this year, jumping from 130 cases in 2007. By comparison, Chateau Ste. Michelle produces 1.37 million cases.
Small scale for boutique bang
“We have no desire to go into a huge production,” Mike Grace said. “We want to stay a little winery with good and unique wines.”
An oenophile, Grace was always on the lookout for the hand-crafted and unique selections.
He claims his success is rooted in the land. Grace sources his fruit from the rich Yakima Valley and areas around Tri-Cities. He routinely visits the vineyards he buys from to inspect the soil, vines and the grapes.
“As a winemaker, I am a minimalist,” Grace said. “It is all about the fruit and what it can do to produce a great wine. That is why I am out in the vineyards looking. If you start out with something good, you will end up with something good. The different manipulation of the barrels themselves, the yeast used and how long you ferment puts a winemaker's stamp on the wine.”
Despite the romance attached to owning and operating a winery, no matter the size, success relies on selling the bottles.
“This is a tough (economic) market,” Grace said. “We are fortunate that we are so small and not in huge debt.”
As a self-distributing company, Grace Cellars' vintages are sold through the Internet, at local wine events and at wineshops and restaurants, including Mill Creek's deVine Wines and Calabria Restorante.
Grace Cellars wines, made from grapes picked in 2007, are now released. A chardonnay, a cabernet sauvignon and two red blends, priced between $20 and $28, are currently being marketed through the winery's website. Drinkable now, yet they will age well, Grace predicts.
First leaf
Grace was first exposed to the good life of food and wine while working at a restaurant in Montana. As he became more passionate about wine making, he enrolled in online courses at University of California Davis, a noted college for viticulture and enology.
“There is a lot of chemistry to wine making,” Grace explained. “You don't want to create, you want the grape to create. Little things effect it, and those things can ruin the wine.”
As a Boeing employee for 22 years, Grace was exposed to the Boeing Employee Wine and Beermakers Club. Membership is strict — only employees and retirees of Boeing allowed, and no vintner or brewmasters who have gone commercial can be in the club. What the wine club brings to its members is access to vineyard fruit. They band together and buy in volume. Also there is shared equipment and warehouses for member use.
“It's a wonderful place for anyone with any sort of interest level,” Grace said. “People with a good variety of expertise are there to help you make wine or simply learn more about it.”
Other area winemakers, including John Bell, winemaker at Marysville's Willis Hall winery, have also schooled Grace in the ways of the grape.
“It is wonderful to find people willing to help you save your hide,” Grace said. “What do you do when grapes don't ripen how you expect, or there is a freeze? I like to have others show me how to recognize a problem and fix it, rather than lose all our wine.”
What the Graces are aiming for with their wine business is to have it support itself and enable them to retire and move to wine country and live a simple life among the beloved grapes.