As a rule, starting a business on a dare is not a great idea. Every rule, however, needs an exception.
Boyd “Buzz” Buckingham owns the Law Offices of Boyd F. Buckingham, Inc. P.S. and is also one of the owners of Rockmeadow Cellars, a winery in Sammamish, Wash. Rockmeadow Cellars is owned by six couples, including Buckingham and his wife Karen.
“We were remarking one time that I had this barn on this property, and it was unused, and we ought to turn it into a winery,” Buckingham said. “We had a place to do it and it was just kind of a dare—these six couples, we were all into drinking wine. I started my own law business and just believe that you can do most anything. I saw what was going on in Walla Walla and I said, ‘We can do that.’ The next thing you know, we went out and bought some grapes and equipment and off we went.”
Buckingham said he and the others first began to learn about the wine-making process from books. “We just read vociferously about it,” he said. “We probably spent a good six months reading books, and we still read books.”
They then experimented with a winemaking kit and talked to wine professionals. “We started with the kit wine, which is just grape juice, basically, and it comes in a box and you…make six gallons of wine,” he said. “It gave us just a kind of taste of what it would take to do it.”
Another resource Buckingham found useful was the selection of viticulture classes offered through the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College.
The owners of Rockmeadow Cellars had an advantage in that Buzz and Karen’s daughter Lyndsay attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. The Walla Walla Valley Appellation is home to more than 70 wineries.
Tom Glase, a winemaker at Beresan Winery who also has his own label, Balboa Winery, was especially helpful, Buckingham said. “He actually has helped us quite a bit in getting used barrels and connections. He knew somebody in town who gave us a connection to Sagemoor Vineyards in Pasco and we called them up and they sold us grapes,” Buckingham said.
In addition to grapes, they get barrels through the connections they’ve made. Rockmeadow Cellars obtains new barrels from Tonnellerie Quintessence, a French company with a California representative. They get their used barrels from L’Ecole No. 41, another Walla Walla winery. The importance of used barrels “that are at least three, if not four or five years old (is) that the wine is exposed to 50 percent new oak and 50 percent used oak,” Buckingham said. “You don’t overoak the wine that way, plus a new French oak barrel is $800 and a used barrel is $30.”
Rockmeadow Cellars recently received its first award. A cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend called Rockin Red 2004 got an “excellent” award in Washington CEO Magazine‘s “Best of Washington Wines” feature in March. The wine will be released this fall.
Rockmeadow Cellars purchased 1,250 pounds of cabernet sauvignon and 1,250 pounds of merlot grapes from Kent Waliser, the general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards, for their first production. Since then, they have been growing steadily.
“We’re going to get 14,000 pounds of grapes this year,” Buckingham said. “We should be able to make about 16 barrels. About 1,000 pounds will make a barrel. A barrel will produce roughly 300 bottles of wine. You’ve got 4,800 bottles of wine. Next year, we want to double that.”
The winery plans to stay small, however. “At some point, when you get big enough, you have to start mechanizing more. You can’t control every little facet as much as you can when you’re doing 400 cases,” Buckingham said. “When you triple that, it’s a lot more work. When you mechanize, you lose a little bit of quality. Our plan is not to get big—our plan is probably to max out at 1,500 cases, which is considered a very small winery, but one that…can make enough profit that it can be very self-sustaining.”.
Still, not everything has just fallen into place for the owners of Rockmeadow Cellars. Running the winery has proven to be harder than they originally expected, Buckingham said. “You don’t know what you don’t know. There’s so much to know.”
Marketing has been the most challenging part of Rockmeadow Cellars, Buckingham said. “The marketing part is difficult because that’s an unknown variable in a lot of cases. What market are you targeting your wine at? How should you price it?”
Getting a label designed took a year and a half. “We’ve had an incredible debacle just trying to get a label designed,” Buckingham said. “You have to have that wine label approved by the federal government for certain things, like the warning. When you have six couples that are partners, everyone wants their input.”
The licensing process took even longer: two years. “We got licensed last year. It’s a lot of forms,” Buckingham said. “You have to get a license from the federal government, from the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Bureau), from the state, and then from certain places, you have to get a local license. It’s a lot of paperwork. And then they come out and inspect the premises and make sure it meets code.”
Despite those bumps in the road, Buckingham encouraged those who are interested in opening their own winery to pursue it. “There are a lot of grapes being grown in Washington…the availability of good grapes is abundant and we have noticed many, many small wineries like our own that people are starting up and making incredibly good wine,” Buckingham said. “The winemakers in the area have been very helpful in sharing information.”
Buckingham said he enjoys his involvement with Rockmeadow Cellars and finds it rewarding. “I like the camaraderie…when we get together and do what needs to be done. We just have a great time getting together and working the wine and drinking some good stuff and having dinner afterwards and laughing a lot.”
Additional Information: Vineyard Resource List, Vineyard Service Provider Directory