Retired Boeing engineer John Bell has poured his life savings into his new winery.
After making wine as a hobby for many years as members of a Boeing wine club, several wannabe winemakers have joined the big league and are making commercial wines in Washington State. John Bell is one of the more recent Boeing employees to take the plunge, though his venture is more like a jump off the high-diving board.
Bell, a former 747 program engineer for the Boeing Company, retired in September 2004 before grape crush, after trying to juggle both his engineering job and winemaking duties for his new winery Willis Hall the prior year. The winery is named after family names of Bell’s father and grandmother.
In 2003, the first year that his winery in Marysville was bonded, he produced 1,200 cases of wine. The second year he increased production to 1,300 cases, but in 2005, he “bought way more grapes than planned” and will have 2,400 cases for sale. He explains that after the short crop in 2004 due to winter kill, he wanted to support those growers who had helped him find grapes the previous year during a year of ample supply.
“I don’t know if the market in Seattle is big enough for all my wine,” Bell said half jokingly. He recently hired an agent who will sell his wines on commission to help broaden his market reach. In the search for markets beyond his backyard, he recently tested the export arena by participating in the Washington State Wine Expo—a week-long event in May that annually brings international wine buyers to the state to make contacts with Washington wineries.
His summer schedule is full of winemaker dinners at restaurants, charity and auction events, and commitments to lecture at wine classes in community colleges, pour samples at wine shops, and pour his wines at Taste Washington in Seattle and Spokane.
It’s not surprising that he doesn’t get much sleep these days, trying to produce and market his award-winning wines. Bell was named Best New Winemaker in Washington by Seattle Magazine and has received many awards for his Merlot, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Grenache, and Sangiovese from wine competitions, both in-state and internationally.
He makes 18 different wines, his favorites being the Italian varietals Dolcetto and Sangiovese, and the Spanish Tempranillo. He likes working with Grenache, using the red varietal to blend with Syrah. Because Grenache is difficult to find in the state, he recently contracted with a grower in eastern Washington to plant the variety specifically for him.
His fruit-forward wines are crafted for the ultrapremium market and ready to drink now. They range in price from $16 to $35 per bottle. He uses premium glass, corks, and labels and only first-rate equipment housed in a garage near his house.
The garage is not your typical 2-car family unit but a 2,000-square-foot building that he originally used to restore old English sports cars, his hobby “before wine.” The inside of the garage is insulated, and two rooms can be heated or cooled. He poured new concrete outside for the crush pad to withstand fork lifts and heavy equipment. Bell stores his wine inventory in a bonded warehouse in Kent because he is “totally out of room” in the garage.
Bell still distinctly remembers what sparked his interest in wines. As one of the lead engineers for Boeing’s 747 project, he often took suppliers out to dinner for business.
“I still remember one dinner in particular. It was 28 years ago at Daniel’s Broiler, a steakhouse in Seattle. The customer handed me the wine list to pick something out, and I literally didn’t know whites from reds.”
Embarrassed and humbled, Bell decided that he would learn more about wines. “Engineers have always got to know stuff. I decided to learn more about wines.”
He attended a monthly class at Richard Kinssies’s Seattle Wine School and soaked up everything he could about wine. His growing interest led to membership in the Boeing wine club in 1999 where he dabbled in winemaking with co-workers. As time passed, his wines improved remarkably, and he was winning awards in the Boeing wine contests. He was also generating more wine than he could consume or give away.
At the same time, Bell’s job duties at Boeing had changed to more management and less design and engineering. Work was not as fun as it once had been. Making wine commercially was the next logical step.
He is confident that his wines are good enough to sell commercially, but the challenge is getting them known and in front of people.
“Don’t assume that if you make it, they will buy it,” he warned “You must make friends and build relationships with others before you need them to help sell your wine.”
While Bell was making wines for fun through the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Makers Club, he often stayed for dinner in the Seattle area after work to avoid traffic. He often shared bottles of his homemade wine with various restaurant staff and management.
“I’d been marketing my wines for four years before I started making them commercially,” he said of his wine gifts to restaurants. “I received many positive comments that my wines were good enough to share, which helped to encourage me.”
And because he has an extensive private wine cellar, with around 2,500 bottles of various wines that he stocks to stay abreast of wine styles and industry trends, he also knows well Seattle’s wine shops and their owners, another helpful step in marketing his commercial wines.
“The financial requirements of doing a winery are daunting,” Bell adds. “That’s primarily because the return on investment is so slow in coming with the two- to two-and-a-half year wait for red wine before it’s released. My P&L [profit and loss] statement looks pretty bad due to my massive investment.”
Though he’s spent every last penny of his 401(K) account, he is confident that his winery will eventually be successful. “I believe that my wines are good enough to sell,” he said.
He has visions of expanding the volume of production in the winery, but first must concentrate on selling what’s already been made. Ultimately, he would like to be large enough to be able to hire help and be part of the work experience of students studying viticulture and enology.
“I’d like to someday be able to pull back a little. I don’t get much sleep these days, and I will be 60 years old this year.”