In certain Washington wine circles, it's fashionable to sniff at part-time winemakers who truck in their grapes from far-off vineyards. But as volunteers at an ebullient crush session this weekend at Rolling Bay Winery on Bainbridge Island discovered, the distance between a vineyard and a barrel room doesn't necessarily diminish the passion and camaraderie surrounding wine.
Now in its 20th season, Rolling Bay got its start as a neighborhood co-op: Members would annually collect their share of juice and make their own wines with it. "It was a hobby," explains Alphonse de Klerk, who serves as head winemaker. The operation was upgraded when members decided they wanted to experiment with red wines. "If you make reds, it's hard to do it in a glass jar," de Klerk says.
The winery was bonded in 2007, and has since collected a pair of medals at the Seattle Wine Awards. Rolling Bay annually produces 550 cases of wine in a tiny cottage that houses a tasting room--except during wine-making season, when the tasting table is removed to accommodate vats of fermenting juice. De Klerk and his partners still rely on their neighbors to help with sorting, de-stemming, pressing, and barreling duties. This year, they were joined by eager wine drinkers who'd signed up through the Bainbridge Island Metro Park & Recreation District's outdoor programs department.
"This is not just for show," de Klerk said with a grin. "We're getting free labor."
The first-timers didn't seem to mind yanking on a wooden wine press until their deltoids were exhausted or crouching over boxes stuffed with 4,000 pounds of Pinot Gris grapes, cutting out rot from the tight bunches of fruit, tough jobs made only slightly more tolerable by a blaring Bruce Springsteen soundtrack and free-flowing samples of week-old merlot. Perhaps they were looking forward to the potluck lunch accompanied by Rolling Bay wines, or the post-lunch tasting led by Wild Ginger sommelier David Morris. Or perhaps they were exhilarated by the chance to help transform grapes into wine.
"There's a serious value if, at the end of the day, you can say: I did that," says Morris, who believes amateur winemakers are as deserving of respect as amateur picklers and preserve-makers. "To be part of a community of people with passion, you can't put a price on that."
One of the Parks & Rec participants had tried to make wine once before, purchasing a Living Social coupon that entitled her to attend a workshop where "we had a packet of oak, we had a packet of yeast, and grapes in a bucket."
"This is a chance to help people understand wine," Morris says. "You have all these people who like wine, but can't make head or tails of it. They know the smells now. They know what it is to have their hands sticky with juice."
Whether or not the resulting wine is extraordinary shouldn't matter to the one-day volunteers or the neighbors who've devoted years to the project, Morris says.
"Sure, they're not going to be making Chateau Lafite, but they're doing something they love," he says. "They're having a great time doing what they love."