Eleven Winery: Hurrah for Syrah

Matt Albee pours a five-gallon bucket of grape-and-liquid slurry called “must” into the wine press at the start-up Eleven Winery on Roe Road. Albee hopes to begin marketing his white wines next spring, his reds the following year. - RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo
Matt Albee pours a five-gallon bucket of grape-and-liquid slurry called “must” into the wine press at the start-up Eleven Winery on Roe Road. Albee hopes to begin marketing his white wines next spring, his reds the following year.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

Sometimes, you need to have a nightmare before your dreams can come true.

Matt Albee thought he was on the right track. He and wife Sarah had moved to Bainbridge Island – “the most beautiful place I could ever imagine” – with hopes of starting a family and a family winery. But then the high-tech axe fell, and he lost his California-based telecommuting job.

“I was out of work for a year,” said Albee, “and I spent that time working on the house. And the added equity gave me the financial foundation to start the winery.”

On that basis, and after a delay while the couple’s first child arrived, the Eleven Winery was born this spring on their Roe Road property, a backyard operation that Albee hopes will someday produce several varieties of fine wine.

Once an amateur bicycle racer – “one of the many people to be dominated by Lance Armstrong” – Albee was casting about for a real job when he fell in with a winemaker in the Santa Cruz area of California.

“I apprenticed at the Page Mill winery for four years,” he said. “The winemaker was exceptionally generous with his time and space, and taught me how.”

The cycling career supplied the name for his enterprise.

“Eleven is the gear bike racers use when they’re really going for it,” he said. “And the word also resembles the French word ‘eleve,’ which means raising the quality of the wine.”

Working around his day job as a commercial real estate appraiser in Seattle, Albee has spent the last year wrestling with the regulatory and logistical difficulties of establishing a winery.

The easiest things to find, he said, were the oak barrels from the Burgundy region of France.

“That was easier because I knew where to go – to another winery,” he said. “These barrels came from the Silver Lake winery, and I specifically sought them out because they have been used for a few years, so all the oak has been extracted from them. I want to make wines with a fruity, fresh flavor, without any oak.”

The more mundane necessities like the plastic boxes for hauling grapes and the 225-gallon fermentation vats were harder to find, but he eventually located those things at wine-specialty stores in Oregon and California.

Then came the hunt for grapes – Pinot Gris from Oregon, Syrah from the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, Sauvignon Blanc from the Red Mountain area of eastern Washington and Cabernet Sauvignon from Sunnyside, near Yakima.

“If you’re going to make great wine, you have to start with great grapes,” he said, “so I drove all over eastern Washington and Oregon to find them. This is a great time to be looking, because a lot of grapes planted during the boom years of the late 90s are starting to come into production now.”

Albee said that separating grape-growing and wine-making is the norm in the business.

“Grape-growing is a specialty in itself,” he said. “I know how to make wine, but not how to grow grapes, and I don’t have the wherewithal to buy the land I would need. Few wineries make wine only from their own grapes, and neither buy or sell,” he said.

For the last few weeks, the Albees have been processing their grapes. First, the grapes are machine-crushed and dumped into vats – skins removed for the whites, retained for the reds. Yeast is added to start the fermentation process, which lasts roughly three weeks. After the yeast and solids settle to the bottom, the remaining slurry of grape and fluid goes through a press that produces wine and dried skins, which are then landfilled.

The wine then goes into the barrels for aging – nine months for the whites and two years for the reds.

Albee intends to market the output – 100 cases per year of each variety – to a mailing list and through local retail outlets and restaurants.

“This is what is called the crush period,” he said. “It’s not you crushing the grapes, it’s more like them crushing you.”

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