Ken and Jill Peck, owners of Dakota Creek Winery near Blaine, just received a rating of 90 points from "Wine Spectator" magazine for their 2007 syrah, released this year. The rating represents a major milestone for the small, artisan winery the couple started in 2005.
Here is their story, in their own words:
"For 32 years I worked for the U.S. Customs Service and retired in 2004," Ken said. "In 2005, I had already painted the house and done the chores I'd been waiting to do for 32 years. Now, what do I want to be when I grow up?
"We'd been amateur winemakers for quite a few years, so (we said) let's just look into this winemaking business. The next thing you know, I was building a cellar cave and having tanks custom-made in Italy and signing contracts for grapes. And it kind of just went crazy from there.
"We do try keep it really small. We limit it to 1,000 to 1,200 cases a year. When we make our contracts for grapes, we are very conscious about trying to figure out where we want to be in three years' time.
"We have contracts for 7.7 acres (of grapes) over in Rattlesnake Hills, which is south and east of Yakima.
"You look at the profit curve. If you don't produce quite enough, you are not paying for your expenses. Then you look at your ambition: 'Well, do I really want to work that hard?' Somewhere in the middle it pays for your effort. But not necessarily, at this point in our lives, are we out there to find every buck under a rock. You get to the point in your life where you have to decide how much is enough.
"We learned a little bit from the Internet, a little bit from classes that WSU (Washington State University) has at its wine lab in Prosser.
"I took classes in wine faults. Mostly it is talking to other winemakers or other vineyard people.
"One of the winemakers we talked to early on gave us a great suggestion: Just make the wines you like to drink. If you are trying to make something that is not your style of wine or a wine you don't care for ... that is really hard.
"It is nice to target wines you like. But with winemaking, what you are really doing is trying to prevent things you don't like.
"So much of it is really gets back to cleanliness. Dirty people make dirty wine. You try to treat this really like a hospital environment.
"It is a food-handling issue. I think a lot of wineries don't approach it from that standpoint. If you are a compulsive wiper, you could be a pretty good winemaker."
Jill adds: "It is 10 percent winemaking, 90 percent cleaning: mopping, sweeping, wiping. We did have a few wines that had some faults and we had to learn how to fix them. If it (the fermenting wine) is not doing what you want, you've got to figure out what does it want to do? What is a good direction for this wine?
"We do start with the very best grapes we can afford. If you start with good grapes, you can make a good wine."
Ken described the 90-point syrah as "a single vineyard syrah.... We only ended up with 59 cases. Then we get this nice accolade from Wine Spectator and we are down to under 30 cases. Ha, ha, ha.
"Wineries submit their wines to Wine Spectator (which gets) about 200,000 wines submitted a year. It is really difficult for a boutique winery to get rated by Wine Spectator, especially when you say your distribution is Whatcom County, Washington. Their readers are national or international.
"When you have a regionalized or limited distribution, they publish the rating only online. But the nice thing is, if you have a wine that is in the $20 range and scores over 88 points, then at the end of the year, it is listed in the last (printed) issue as a top value wine.
Last year, our 2006 syrah had 88 points and was listed in their issue as a top value Washington wine for 2008. This (2007 syrah) should be listed as well.
"We sell 80 percent of our wines right here. We probably would have a different attitude if we were 25 years younger. We don't want to grow.
"A lot of what our business is, is local people. Now that there are eight wineries (in Whatcom County), a lot of people spend their Saturdays out touring the wineries... then people have a chance to try the wine themselves.
"Nobody comes to the winery with a chip on their shoulder. They are all here to have fun. Just start a winery, and you will have lots of friends."
Mount Baker Vineyards 2004 Late Harvest Viognier received 91 points from The Wine Advocate and Blaines Glacier Lake Missoula Wine Companys 2002 Deluge received 90 points from The Wine Enthusiast. The number of Whatcom County wines to receive a 90-plus rating was corrected Nov. 16, 2009.