Dusty Kramer (right) talks with a wine taster at Dusty Cellars Winery on Camano Island on Feb. 4. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Dusty Kramer (right) talks with a wine taster at Dusty Cellars Winery on Camano Island on Feb. 4. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Camano Island couple started award-winning winery in their garage

Camano Island winemakers Ryan and Dusty Kramer found their passion on a road trip to Northern California some 16 years ago. They’d been to Santa Rosa for a friend’s wedding and decided to do some wine tasting on the way back, first in Napa Valley and then in Portland, Oregon.

“It was a good time,” Ryan said.

“It was really nice,” said Dusty, smiling at the memory.

It was their first real getaway since their marriage and their first time wine-tasting.

“Granted, that’s the glamorous part of the wine business you see,” Ryan said. “You don’t see 12:30 at night with your pump broken and it’s 34 degrees out, you’re trying to salvage thousands of dollars.”

Stanwood High School sweethearts who were married and having babies by the age of 20, Ryan and Dusty, now 44 and 43, moved to Camano Island 15 years ago. Since high school, Ryan’s worked in “the dirt business,” as he calls it, designing and installing septic tanks on the island, which has no sewer system.

Today, he and Dusty have their own septic-system business, RW Kramer Enterprises, as well as three grown children and a burgeoning winery business.

Dusty Cellars Winery, operating out of their former garage at 529 Michael Way, Camano Island, grew out of a wine kit Ryan Kramer brought home sometime after that road trip. What began as a hobby, he said, “just kind of got out of control.”

“You just get the bug,” Dusty said. “And then before you know it, you’ve got 12 barrels.”

The couple launched Dusty Cellars Winery in 2006, trucking grapes from Eastern Washington and bottling about 200 cases of wine that first year.

It was Ryan’s idea to name the winery after his wife. “It just sounded good,” he said, but it took some arguing to convince her. And she had the last word.

“I said, ‘You’d better make good wine,’” Dusty said, “‘because I’ve got my name on that.’”

Apparently, he did — and does. Two Dusty Cellars wines from that first year, a Merlot and a Syrah, won a silver and a bronze medal in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in New York, which Ryan said he entered on a whim after getting some literature in the mail.

Benefiting children with cancer, it’s one of the largest wine competitions in the world and last year included 3,824 wines from 916 wineries representing every state and 24 countries, according to the competition’s website.

Five years ago, a 2008 The Queen Cabernet Franc from Dusty Cellars Winery won a Double Platinum award — reserved for “the best of the best”— in the Seattle Wine Awards competition, according to winepressnw.com. That competition drew 550 entries from more than 200 Northwest wineries.

“It really was pretty exciting,” Ryan Kramer said of the awards, because “you see the hard work paying off.”

One of the “boutique” wineries of the North Sound Wine Trail — mostly family-owned wineries that bottle 1,000 or fewer cases a year — Dusty Cellars is open for wine-tasting on the first weekend of each month.

Formed in 2013, the North Sound Wine Trail this year includes five local wineries — Dusty Cellars; Edward Lynne Cellars, also on Camano Island; Skagit Cellars, in La Conner; Glacier Peak Winery, in Rockport; and Carpenter Creek Winery, in Mount Vernon — and customers are encouraged to visit all wineries on the trail.

The proliferation of such wineries in recent years — a 400-percent increase in the past decade, according to www.winesnw.com — helped the wine industry become the fastest-growing agricultural sector in Washington, with an economic impact in the billions of dollars. Though wine grapes were first planted by settlers in Washington in 1825 and were growing in most areas of the state by 1910, according to the website, they weren’t planted commercially until the 1960s.

The Puget Sound climate has been likened to that of wine-growing areas in France and Germany and the region is one of 14 federally recognized American Viticultural Areas in Washington — the only one in the state west of the Cascades. However, only about 1 percent of the state’s wine grapes are grown here and the area is known more for its wine-tasting. Like Dusty Cellars, most Puget Sound wineries get their grapes from vineyards east of the Cascades.

Ryan Kramer tried growing wine grapes a couple of years ago, but gave it up as too labor-intense, though he left some vines growing for ambiance.

“There’s a lot more birds over here than in Eastern Washington,” he said. “And so it costs quite a bit to grow the grapes themselves without letting them go to the birds. And we have a lot more issues with water, being wet. We have mold issues, mildew.”

The result is that fewer than 200 acres in the Puget Sound region are planted for wine production, compared to more than 50,000 in Eastern Washington. An exact count is unknown because it’s been more than 10 years since an inventory was done, but Washington State Wine in January announced that will soon change.

A new acreage survey funded by the Washington State Department of Agriculture is in the works, according to www.washingtonwine.org, and “will take an inventory of the state’s wine grapes by crop, variety, age and production.”

Washington State Wine represents and promotes the state’s more than 900 wineries and 350 grape growers, estimates annual wine production at 16 million cases, roughly half red and half white wines. Total economic impact to the state was $4.8 billion in 2013.

The 800 cases Dusty Cellars expects to produce this year is a drop in the bucket by comparison, but the winery makes money every year and has allowed the Kramers to slowly build the business.

“Almost all the money we get out of it, we put back into it,” Ryan Kramer said. “I mean, we bought a pump one year and a press and a bin and a corker. So it’s just kind of a progressive thing.”

In a few years, when he’s 50, Ryan said he hopes to limit himself to septic-system design and back off from the heavy labor of installation, redirecting his energy into the wine business.

He and Dusty would like to erect another building on their 3-acre property that could be used solely for winemaking, with the current garage-turned-winery/tasting room dedicated to wine-tasting.

“This is our retirement,” he said.

The goal is to produce the 2,000-case minimum needed for distribution.

“It’s just almost impossible for us to get a distributor right now,” Dusty said, “because we make such limited quantities that they’re just thinking it’s not enough.”

Dusty Cellars wines are generally only available at Camano Island grocery stores, as well as at the winery and through Dusty Cellars’ 80-member wine club. Ranging from $12 to $30 a bottle, proof of the label’s popularity is that three of its eight wines are currently sold out, though Ryan credited the “buy local” movement with having some influence.

Come summer, Dusty Cellars wine-tasting weekends are enlivened by local blues and classic-rock musicians, from June through Labor Day weekend, 3 to 6 or 7 p.m., in addition to the third Saturday of the month. It’s not uncommon for people to bring picnics, the Kramers said.

“You give people something to do, like come in and listen to music, and make it a destination,” Ryan said, “and people really like that.”

“They’ve got the view,” Dusty said, “they can sit outside, hang out for three hours. That’s fun.”

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