Grapeland!

Silver Lake Winery.

The mood was nothing but upbeat last Tuesday when Silver Lake Winery announced plans to develop a $20 million, 80,000-square-foot "wine and culinary village" on its property overlooking the Sammamish floodplain south of Woodinville. Silver Lake, which crushed its first grapes in 1989, is not one of the state's best-known labels, but it's quietly grown over the years into Washington's seventh largest wine producer, producing 25,000 cases (plus another 40,000 cases of hard cider) in 2002. Not a significant destination for Woodinville's growing annual army of wine tourists in the past, Silver Lake's development puts the firm in direct competition for visitors with the Washington wine industry's twin behemoths, Stimson Lane's nearby Chateau Ste. Michelle and Canadaigua's Columbia Winery. The project is particularly daring because Silver Lake is that rarity, an investor-owned (the company prefers "consumer-owned") company, with 2,000 mostly small shareholders and without the deep pockets and corporate credit lines that sustain the big guys just down the road. Although the new complex, planned to open in summer 2005, is a major leap into the industry foreground, Silver Lake hasn't been content merely to produce moderately priced, occasionally modestly prize-worthy wines. Already hosting tasting rooms in Woodinville and vineyard-side in Zillah, the company opened a third in that quaint half-timbered outlet mall known as Leavenworth. Just last year, when winery growth nationally hit a brick wall, Silver Lake says its sales grew by more than 35 percent. Tasting rooms have proved a solid profit center for wineries large and small, good and badso solid that few wineries are now without them. For some time, there have been signs that in some cases, the tail has begun to wag the dog. Winery owners in Napa and elsewhere have invested multimillions in architectural marvels that have less to do with making wine than with projecting an image of wealth, power, and sophisticationwhich in turn draws the tourists to marvel at the peacocks strutting the manicured lawns, to pony up a substantial sum for the privilege of tasting the chatelain's wares, and often to drive off with a case or two of reflected glory to perfume their winter dinner parties. Silver Lake's project isn't on the scale of showbiz productions like Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola or Beringer's welcome-to-our-gracious-19th-century-château operation, but it still raises the ante, in an intriguing and also risky way. The design concept (by Freiheit Architects) is less château than mini-theme park or food mall, with little rustic buildings clustered round a central courtyard and clock tower. Silver Lake will own the complex but doesn't propose to dominate it. There's already talk of leasing space to other wineries for tasting rooms or, even more promising, an all-Washington wine bar developed in collaboration with the Washington Wine Commission. One or more restaurants would make natural tenants, but it's a little disturbing to hear talk of gourmet shops, art galleries, and an ice-cream stand. Still, if the developers draw the line at souvenir stands, pony rides, and a giant McDonald's-style jungle gym, we may have a new destination to be proud of. For an artist's conception of Silver Lake's new facility, go to www.silverlakewinery.com/story.htm. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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