The two 50-ton grape presses came from Italy and fit perfectly when put in place on the concrete pad.

The two 50-ton grape presses came from Italy and fit perfectly when put in place on the concrete pad.

Photo by Melissa Hansen

The idea for the new Zirkle Wine Company custom crush facility in Prosser, Washington, evolved over several years, Mark Zirkle says.

“The idea for a winery was slow recognition that the state doesn’t have enough processing capacity,” Zirkle said. “It takes a lot of capital to put in crush equipment and fermenting tanks and ­storage. All that is difficult for small wineries to absorb.”

The Zirkle family is a major player in Washington State’s tree fruit industry with its Zirkle Fruit Company and sales company Rainier Fruit, growing, packing, and marketing apples, cherries, pears, and blueberries.

But the Zirkles are no strangers to the wine industry and have grown wine grapes for the last 15 years, contracting grapes from its 400 acres to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

“We know packing and shipping,” Zirkle said. “That’s what we do. ­Processing is not foreign to us,” although he admitted that the fermenting side of grapes and turning the fruit into wine is new to their family ­business skills.

The custom bulk winery is a model that works well in California, he said, adding that it’s a segment that’s been missing in Washington. Zirkle Wine has a contract to make bulk wine for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, allowing Washington’s largest wine company the ability to expand ­without investing in a new facility.

Zirkle Wine joins a handful of large custom bulk wine facilities ­operating in the state.

He acknowledged that the move to a custom bulk winery with its million-gallon capacity was a bit speculative, even with the Ste. Michelle contract. But, in their first season, the winery crushed more than he anticipated, and operations went better than he could have expected.

Zirkle Wine is located next to the family fruit-packing and storage facility in Prosser. The winery was designed with expansion in mind. There’s room to add another ­million-gallon capacity by just bringing in more tanks. After that, if more space is needed, an outside wall can become a retaining wall and the winery footprint expanded.

Is a Zirkle wine label in the winery’s future? When asked, Mark Zirkle quickly said no, explaining that the wine market is too competitive and the liquor distribution regulations too constraining.

He believes the recent entry of E. & J. Gallo Winery into the state is proof that Washington still has opportunity to grow. “Gallo’s involvement in our industry should help improve our national presence.”