“Going, going, gone!” That’s the attention-grabbing subject line for one of the final mailings from Eye of the Needle Winery in Woodinville.
Bob and Lauren Bullock said farewell to their longtime supporters and customers when they closed the doors to their Warehouse District winery on Feb. 28.
“We’re hanging up our medals,” Bob said. “We’ve pretty much checked all of the boxes of what we want to do.”
For consumers and critics, that news brings some sadness. During a recent seven-year stretch, Eye of the Needle Winery earned six Platinum Awards from Wine Press Northwest magazine. Last year, the nonvintage The Eye Red Wine, a blend led by cabernet sauvignon, earned a Best of Class award at the Cascadia International Wine Competition and a spot on The Seattle Times list of Top 20 Northwest Wines for Under $20.
“I told Lauren, ‘It’s time,’ ” he said. “We’re OK, and with the world the way it is right now, let’s just not do this anymore.”
Negociant model takes winery to 11K cases
Bullock grew his nest egg on the wholesale, distribution and restaurant sections of the wine industry, so he knew how to play many of the angles he would encounter as a winery owner. His business acumen, sense of the Washington wine industry’s strengths and connections to top vintners with a surplus of wine led him to believe the Great Recession had created possibilities.
“I’d spent much of my life in distribution, and in the downturn of 2008 I found an opportunity,” he said. “Thank goodness for the negociant business model.”
He and Lauren purchased finished wine, blended those lots themselves into a “bistro program” and began with 440 cases in 2009. They targeted “the Sunday-through-Thursday drinker” and operated under the classic worst-case scenario of anyone opening a winery.
“Well, if we don’t sell it all, then we’ll have some great parties for our friends,” Bob recalled.
They soon earned many more friends. Bob loves to talk about wine, and he and Lauren are as approachable as the wines they’ve offered. So he combined his knack for selling with quality lots of wine secured from skilled winemakers he knew well. His Columbia Valley vineyard sources included the likes of Red Willow, Gamache, Stillwater Creek, Dineen and Milbrandt plantings on both the Wahluke Slope and in the Ancient Lakes.
Those winemakers Bullock worked with behind the scenes trusted him not to violate their nondisclosure agreements, and that mutual trust paid off. Bob and Lauren methodically grew Eye of the Needle into an 11,000-case brand. They sold most of their wines for bargain prices throughout the Puget Sound region, expanding into six states and Canada.
In 2019, their Super Tuscan-inspired Little Italy ($15) took a double gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition — the nation’s largest judging. Their nonvintage Harvest White ($11) earned the award for Best White Wine at the 2014 Seattle Wine & Food Experience Wine Competition, no small achievement for a blend based on the finicky Rhone variety viognier.
‘Give Back Wine’ booms with 12th Blend
While Bob, 68, is purposely vague about Lauren’s age, he chuckles when pointing out that he married a younger woman. The Vietnam War veteran battled some serious health issues — including a devastating stroke 20 years ago — and credits Lauren with helping him to recover and then operating Eye of the Needle as a joint passion. Their devotion, skill sets and hospitality complemented each other.
“The big thing that we’ll miss is our club people,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fun with a lot of people — especially during our concert nights on Fridays.”
There’s been a hurdle or two along the way, starting with their original label and name — Haystack Needle. It featured a knitting needle sticking down through a haystack.
“It turns out Sutter Home had a Haystack Vineyard on Atlas Peak,” Bullock said. “They were pretty nice about it. As long as we took the word ‘Haystack’ off the logo, we could leave ‘Needle’ and the rest of the graphic was OK.”
The Bullocks played up the eye of the knitting needle, which symbolized their fascination with stitching together individual lots into delicious blended wines. Then came a sticky wicket with the European Union when he labeled one of his early red blends as “Claret” – a British historical reference to negociant reds imported from Bordeaux. A famous Seattle wine shop offered an easy solution.
“The folks at Esquin said, ‘Why don’t you just call it, ‘The Eye’?” Bullock recalled.
It stuck, and that wine’s success prompted the creation of “The Private Eye” proprietary red.
Perhaps Eye of the Needle’s most clever bit of branding was the adoption of its 12th Blend program for red and white wines. The Bullocks’s subtle tribute to the Seattle Seahawks and their fan base — known as “The 12th Man” — rose to prominence during the team’s back-to-back runs to the Super Bowl. Eye of the Needle even went so far as to mimic the “Rave Green” color with a dark blue backdrop on the label.
“We had to battle with the NFL for months,” Bullock said. “And we’re going to hang onto the ‘12th Blend’ brand. I might still do some small projects on the side, and that could come in handy.”
By no means has Eye of the Needle been solely focused on extracting profits for the Bullocks. Each bottle sold of a 12th Blend wine led to a donation to Northwest Harvest. In the past six years, they provided nearly 200,000 meals.
“Since we started that, we’ve called that ‘The Give Back Wine,’ ” he said.
The Bullocks figure the last of their inventory will be sold through their myriad channels by April. They can manage those final transactions while spending more time on the Big Island of Hawaii.
“We’re looking forward to the next adventure,” Lauren said.
Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.GreatNorthwestWine.com.