Sean Gilbert (Jim Black/Good Fruit Grower)

Sean Gilbert
(Jim Black/Good Fruit Grower)

Sean Gilbert may be a principal player when it comes to his fledgling winery, Gilbert Cellars, but it’s his family and their network of friends that really set the Yakima, Washington, operation apart from most of the start-up wineries that try each year to make a mark in the state’s quality wine scene.

The Gilbert clan is one of a handful of pioneer families who has remained in the area for over a century, prospered, and made significant contributions to the community. Sean, the great-great-grandson of orchardist H.M. Gilbert, thinks of his ancestor as a guiding force in his own business philosophy. He even credits H.M. with setting the goal for the valley and his family to expand from a tree fruit operation to include wine grapes, though Sean admits that his protemperance ancestor meant grape juice, not wine, when he predicted grapes were the future of the Columbia River lands.

Orchard experience

Sean, like the four generations before him, worked in the family’s orchards through much of his youth. In fact, the Gilbert orchard operation is still his primary duty. “The wine business complements the orchard,” he said. “It doesn’t replace it.”

After working with his father, Cragg, and uncle Curtiss on the ranch as a youth, Gilbert attended Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he majored in history. Immediately after college, he worked for a small Seattle winery where he learned the details of winemaking and attended wine-tasting seminars to gain as much knowledge as possible about what makes a quality wine. That experience and a formative stint at Januik-Novelty Hill Winery in Woodinville, Washington, gave him the background he believed he needed to garner the support of his family for a more active venture in grape and wine production.

Not that the family hadn’t already set the stage for wine. Sean’s uncle Curtiss had the inspiration to buy ideal grape-growing property near Mattawa, Washington, in 2002. Sean thinks that whether his uncle articulated it or not at the time, Curtiss wanted to make his own wine.

At first, the family sold the wine grapes to other wineries, then, as an experiment, some of the Gilbert grapes were fermented at Tefft Cellars and bottled by Curtiss. His mother, artist Barbara Smith-Gilbert, created the first “Handsome Jim” labels for that sample. And the quality was good enough to pique their interest further. Sean was ready.

Demand for quality

“I felt there was a demand in Yakima for a high-quality wine producer,” said Sean. “I wanted to use our winery to show how good our grapes could be, as well as it being a chance for us to diversify.”

But starting a winery is costly and the returns don’t even begin until the extensive licensing process is completed and the first vintage is bottled—nearly a year for white wines, two for reds. Rather than indebting the business more than necessary, Sean worked with Yakima’s Desert Hills Winery to use their winemaking facilities.

Sean and his brother Nate, who had worked for Desert Hills since 2004, began the licensing process and officially started Gilbert Cellars in 2005. By 2006, the brothers had remodeled an old orchard shop on family property into a winemaking facility, where the wine is still being made. It is not open to the public.

He said the best advice he received during those early years of development was from fellow winery owner Jim Russi of Piety Flats Winery in Donald, Washington: Get help and hire professionals to complete the brutal alcohol licensing process.

Sean said hiring people to help with the process was expensive, but worth it.

A friend of a friend

Justin Neufeld, who shared Sean’s philosophy of emphasizing the quality of the wine, was hired as the Gilberts’ winemaker in 2007. Neufeld had majored in molecular biology at the University of Washington before interning with winemaker Doug Gore at Columbia Crest, which is owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. He then worked at Silver Lake Winery, a long-established Yakima County operation, before being named head winemaker for Silver Lake’s high-end label, Glen Fiona, in Walla Walla. On his time off, Neufeld would help Sean with his first wines (receiving bottles of Gilbert Cellars wine as payment), before becoming the full-time winemaker for Gilbert.

Not a lifestyle

Sean said that if growers who venture into the field hope to be successful, they first have to know what they like, then learn how to produce it. “Know what you’re doing first, gain experience, observing through visits of other wineries. Winemaking isn’t a lifestyle,” he emphasized, “it’s a business.

“People will try to push you in the wrong direction,” he warned. “Some of the best grapes in the state are made into underperforming wines, because winemakers don’t have a grasp on what style of wines they want. Know the style of wine you want, and see how it fits into the need in Washington and the nation.”

Is he worried that there will be too many wineries competing for the same dollars—as often bedevils the tree fruit industry?

“We can afford to have 3,000 more good wineries,” he said, “but it’s no good to have even one more bad winery.” Quality, he thinks, is what sets Washington State apart from many wine regions.

“The market for wine in the United States is growing,” he said. “There’s constant demand for new styles, and preferences seem to be changing. In the few years I’ve been involved in the industry, Riesling has come into fashion. Unoaked Chardonnay is now in style. The most nimble and able to adapt to put out the wine in demand is the one who will succeed.” And perhaps the best advice he wants to give to other growers is to “think like a farmer.”

Biggest fans

“My family members are our biggest fans,” he says. “It’s their winery, too, and they’re excited about it.

“Right now, we’re making 5,000 cases of wine—on sales of 2,000 cases,” he said. The 3,000-bottle difference is what is required for wine tasting and bottles for promoting the wines.

“Typical start-up costs for a winery our size is a million dollars,” he admits. “Once the grapes are first harvested, it will take eight months to a year to get the first income. If you make every decision correctly, you could be in the black in five years, but more typically it’s seven.”

With figures like that, it’s understandable why his family’s support, both emotional and financial, is so important. Sean has that support, and expects that even teetotaler H.M. would understand—although his ghost might not rest quietly.