‘Boutique,” “artisanal” and “hand-crafted” are adjectives sometimes attached to small-scale wineries.
Doug and Shelly Smith prefer a more modest label, jokingly referring to their Liberty Lake Wine Cellars as “garagesque.”
But the wines they’ve produced during the past six years are no joke, having won gold medals, “excellent” ratings and a score of 90 in The Wine Advocate.
“Garagesque” refers to their winemaking/tasting facility, which the couple originally intended as a boathouse.
Doug’s day job is community development director for Liberty Lake. Shelly travels across the country as an independent consultant helping insurance companies achieve health-care reform accreditation.
On June 9 from 1 to 5 p.m., the Smiths will celebrate the fourth year of their tasting room being open, with wine discounts and treats.
They discussed the winemaking side of their busy lives during a recent interview.
S-R: How did you get into winemaking?
Doug Smith: It all started with beer making at home. I enjoyed it, but the beer was not to Shelly’s liking.
Shelly Smith: It was like Guinness – a stout or a porter.
D.S.: But that got me hooked on the whole fermentation thing. So Shelly nudged me to try making wine.
S-R: How did that go?
D.S.: The first batch was a disaster. But Shelly got the bug for going to wineries throughout the state, and winemakers consistently advised us that you need really good grapes in order to make good wine. Our problem was that, as home winemakers, we couldn’t get good quality fruit in the small volumes we wanted. So based upon our desire to make good wine at home, we literally went from a 20-pound crush to 4 tons. And to make that volume of wine, we had to be licensed and bonded. So we proceeded on the assumption that if we couldn’t sell what we produced that year, at least we’d have a lifetime supply of wine.
S-R: Where did you find good fruit?
D.S.: A couple of growers in the Walla Walla Valley agreed to take a chance on us, and we came out of the gate very strong with a syrah from Spofford Station.
S-R: What happened next?
D.S.: We lost our Walla Walla fruit source the next year when the vineyard changed hands. But with a gold-medal bottle of syrah in our hands, we found a grower on Red Mountain (in the Yakima Valley) willing to take chance on us. And we’ve been on Red Mountain ever since.
S-R: What do you mean by “take a chance”?
D.S.: Growers don’t want their pedigree fruit to go into bad-quality wine produced by some novice.
S.S.: And have their vineyard mentioned on the label.
D.S.: That can ruin a vineyard’s reputation.
S-R: How did you learn about winemaking?
D.S.: Early on, everything we did was based on a textbook from UC Davis – seat-of-your-pants winemaking. Later, when we decided to get a little more science in our winemaking, we did the WSU viticulture program.
S-R: Do you attribute your first gold medal to beginner’s luck?
D.S.: There was certainly a level of luck there. But we’d done a fair amount of homework.
S.S.: And 2005 was a really good year for fruit. We knew enough not to screw it up.
S-R: How much did it cost to jump from 20 pounds of fruit to 4 tons?
D.S.: We went from 15 bucks for a few pounds of Costco fruit to $12,000 for premium grapes.
S.S.: Not to mention another 10 grand in startup equipment.
S-R: How did you market your first batch?
S.S.: Neither of us had ever worked in retail before. But we only had about 230 cases that year, so we figured we could probably sell it all from the tasting room. And we joined the Spokane Winery Association to be part of their events. But a lot of people still don’t know we’re here.
S-R: Tell me about your winemaking facility.
D.S.: We live in a part of (Liberty Lake) that doesn’t allow any parking outside your garage. And we wanted to get a boat. So we built this as a combination boathouse and weekend getaway with a view of the lake. But we never got the boat, and our new hobby took over the space.
S-R: At 500 cases, are you making money?
D.S.: We’re not writing personal checks (to underwrite the winery) anymore.
S.S.: But 500 cases are not a moneymaker.
S-R: What’s a profitable production level?
D.S.: Depending on overhead, some people can make a living at 1,500 cases.
S-R: Do you envision your winery expanding?
D.S.: No, this size is just right for us.
S-R: Are you involved in the fruit-growing phase?
D.S.: No, our viticulturist is the expert, and he calls us when it’s time to harvest.
S-R: Which wine are you most proud of?
S.S.: It changes every year. Right now, I’m most proud of the syrah.
D.S.: I’m a fan of the merlot because that’s a signature fruit for Washington, despite the bad publicity from (the film) “Sideways.”
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who wants to start a winery this size?
D.S.: Approach it as a lifestyle decision, not an economic decision.
S.S.: And be prepared for it to take over your life a little bit, because there’s no control over when the fruit is ripe.
S-R: What do you like most about winemaking?
D.S.: For me, the physical labor. My (professional) world involves putting a lot of ink on paper, and then it goes up on a shelf. This involves creating a tangible product.
S.S.: Our parents don’t understand our day jobs, but Doug’s mom says, “My son makes wine!” She totally gets that.