In 2000, Don Townshend opened Townshend Cellar and helped make Green Bluff – land of the apple orchard – famous for cabernet and merlot.
It grew into one of Spokane’s biggest winemaking success stories, largely on the strength of its popular T3, Vortex and Red Table blends. In recent years, Townshend also acquired several other Spokane-based wineries, including Caterina, Lone Canary and Mountain Dome, which continue to sell under their own labels.
On Friday, a new era will begin for Townshend Cellar as it opens a sparkling new tasting room at 8022 E. Green Bluff Road, just a couple of miles from the old tasting room.
We asked Don Townshend to explain the evolution of Townshend Cellar.
SR: How did you get started in winemaking?
Townshend: I got in the wine business through the air-conditioning business. I sold commercial air-conditioning – and still do as a day job. I sold some equipment to Preston Winery down in Pasco. And during that, I became good friends with the Prestons. Later on, I spent a lot of time with them, and became interested in wine. And that’s basically how it all started. I accessed a lot of knowledge, and a lot of fruit.
SR: How did Townshend Cellar get started?
Townshend: In 1995, through the help of the Prestons, I made a couple of barrels of wine – one of merlot and one of cab. We barreled it three years and bottled it up. At that point, I tasted the wine and thought it was as good as any wine I’d ever tasted. Of course, after that, I’m thinking, ‘“Wow, that’s great, you just ferment a little juice, put it in barrels, bottle it and you’ve got something that good. That’s easy!”
So in 1998, I actually took the bond and started making commercial wine. … The original business model was to make maybe 1,000 cases and sell it for a lot of money – $50 or $70 a bottle. With 1,000 cases, you could actually make a decent living at it. … But it was clear real quick that my model wasn’t going to work. We weren’t going to sell bottles for $50 or $70. It was going to be $20 or $30 at the most, and we changed the business model a little bit, and expanded. We started making more wine at a lower cost and built the building up in Green Bluff and turned the garage into a bigger tasting room. We started selling in November 2000, and we started with cab, merlot, chardonnay and huckleberry port. We made about 1,000 cases of wine.
SR: How did you grow and expand?
Townshend: One of the vineyards I buy from is Willard Farms out of Prosser, and he grew a bunch of different varietals. It always seemed like he had a neat variety out there and he always had extra grapes. Me, being who I am, I said, “Yeah, let’s make some of that.” … We ended up expanding into lots and lots of varieties.
Then we started making T3, which was kind of a special project we did, made specifically as a restaurant wine. They wanted a product they couldn’t get at a store.
That’s where the project started, and it was just a blend of three varietals (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc). That became almost kind of a cult wine. It was very good for the price and you couldn’t get it. That was just human nature – you can’t get it, you want it!
So we’d have people drive over to the tasting room from all over the place just to get T3. That became probably our best-selling wine. We made Vortex red, too, which would be available in the stores, so people wouldn’t get mad at us for doing T3. Vortex, which was similarly made, we sold quite a bit of that. A few years after that, we made the Red Table wine (featuring a red table on the label) which is a blend of cab, merlot and syrah, which was priced at $10 a bottle retail. That was well-received. We way over-delivered the quality of the wine at the price.
SR: Are those your best-known wines?
Townshend: T3, Vortex and Red Table, those are the workhorses for us right now. We like to think of ourselves as being the best cab producer in the state. But unfortunately – no, it’s not “unfortunately.” I can’t say how much T3 has done for the company. It’s what got us on the map. Like I said, in the original market, you couldn’t buy it in the stores. It was extremely good wine, but you couldn’t buy it anywhere else. We’d still have it that way, but the Washington state liquor laws state that if you have enough availability, you can’t withhold a product from anybody who wants it. We still sell a lot of the product.
SR: Can you explain the philosophy of your winery?
Townshend: I would say, our goal is to produce high-end quality wines at reasonable prices. And we like to make it fun.
SR: How much wine do you make a year?
Townshend: Somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 cases, depending on how the markets are. Those are the Townshend label.
SR: Where do your grapes come from?
Townshend: The majority of our grapes come from the Prosser, Yakima and Tri-Cities areas, and south of Prosser in the Horse Heaven Hills area. We get grapes mostly from Willard Farms out of Prosser, now.
SR: Tell us about your tasting room.
Townshend: Well, we are opening a new tasting room. We are just finishing it up and we will officially open on (Friday). It is located about 2 miles from the old tasting room on Green Bluff. We built a new production facility up there. We are not currently producing there yet, but we hope to by next year. We just got all of the bonding and paperwork done on that facility.
We’re now at the very top of Green Bluff, at 8022 E. Green Bluff Road. It’s the Green Bluff Christmas Tree farm location. So we’re also selling Christmas trees on the same property.
SR: So you can buy your Christmas trees and your wine all at once?
Townshend: One-stop shopping.