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Davenport Cellars

Focus on varietals

A desire to own their own business has led Jeff and Sheila Jirka to winemaking and running a tasting room with the ultimate goal of living out their golden years in a house overlooking their own vineyard with the winery and tasting room on site. The first part is in place, but the golden years? Evolving.

Currently, they focus on Bordeaux varieties and produce both white and red wines. They've made their Snowflake; Semillon; R.H.D., which stands for Rhodolphus Henry Davenport, Sheila's father; and Continuity each year since they began in 2007. "We're now changing our focus to target varietals," says Jeff. "Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot. If we don't think the wine can stand on its own, we don't make it. We made a Cabernet Sauvignon in 2008 and 2010, but not in 2009 or 2011. We'll see about 2012. We have 14 barrels of Cabernet which have never been blended. So we can use those to create completely different layered and complex wines. With 14, you have all sorts of flavors: bell pepper, smoke, black cherry."

One of their tenets is to buy the highest quality grapes available. Some vineyards they use are Seven Hills, Kiona, Les Collines, Ciel du Cheval, and Sheridan. Their first two vintages, 2007 and 2008, were custom crushed at Covington Cellars. They leased their first space in August of 2008, but didn't crush there until 2009. "Federal bonding was completed in February of 2009, and Washington State licensing in March 2009. By 2012, we wanted to get a wine club going, but offering only four wines would make it more difficult to engage and excite the members. So we started adding something a little different; small production wines, some which are wine club only that we won't make every year, like Syrah and Zinfandel."

In June 2007, they purchased five acres of vineyard property on Red Mountain. After several years of putting off planting and potentially losing water rights, they sold in late 2010. "We had to get over the hump of starting a vineyard four hours away from our home and hiring someone to manage it as we both still worked full time. We needed to focus on the winery. Plus we had to ask ourselves if we could produce something better than growers who had been doing it for 30 years."

It's rare to hear a positive story come out of the 2008 downturn, but it actually helped Jeff and Sheila. "In 2007, people often would taste, then buy a case of wine. In 2009 when we opened, people would taste and leave with a bottle or two. This change in buying behavior allowed us to build up our inventory. We knew we wanted to hold our wines longer in bottle before we sold them. The downturn got us there quicker. We agreed we'd start with 500 cases and increase each year. Instead of cutting back because of the downturn, we continued with our plans to ramp up and are currently producing 1000 cases per year. Not only were we able to increase inventory over a shorter amount of time, it allowed us to get into vineyards that had waiting lists because some wineries were producing less and giving up some exceptional fruit. Right now we're tasting and getting ready to blend our 2012 Bordeaux reds and will release them in 10-14 months. Other wineries are already releasing 2012 and 2013 reds. We've found that if we keep ours in bottle longer before selling, the wine totally evolves in a positive way. We feel our wines are diamonds in the rough. Some people judge wine quality by price, but ours are priced moderately. We want people to walk out thinking 'I would have paid more for this,' rather than 'I paid too much.' Plus we're not looking to become huge; we want to keep busy and have fun. We've met so many great people, not just customers, but people in the industry, too."

One of the things they love about the industry is that while there is plenty of competition, each wine is very different. "There's no recipe for what we do," explains Jeff. "You can take the same grapes and give them to two different winemakers using the same equipment and process, and come out with totally different wines. Plus we could make wine for 30 years and still have plenty to learn. We're traditionalists, using French oak barrels and letting the wine do its own thing. We get the most expression of place by not interfering."

Jeff "retired" in July 2013 while Sheila is still working. They wanted to have several income streams, so they not only make their own wine, they've made and sold wine to several other wineries. They rent a portion of their space and their equipment to two other wineries. On the other side of their tasting room, they have a bonded wine warehouse where other wineries rent space to store case goods. "We opened in early 2014 and without any advertising were full in two months," says Jeff.

Their latest revenue stream is the kitchen in their new tasting room which opened the day after Thanksgiving 2014. "There weren't many options for food in the area. If we sent customers elsewhere for food, they didn't make their way back to the area. There are plenty of places to taste in Woodinville. So this is a way to keep people tasting in this park." Tables, chairs, couches, nice lighting and rotating art make the tasting room a great place to relax, have a bite and enjoy some wine.

And those golden years? "At some point after Sheila leaves her job, we'll re-evaluate our goals and see if we want to buy land again. I always say she'll retire in 10 years. I said that four years ago and I'm still saying it today. But realistically, we are hoping it won't be that long." For their customers, it doesn't matter. The wine they make now is just right.

Davenport Cellars
19495 144th Ave NE, Ste A155
Woodinville, WA 98072

Click here to read about Jeff and Sheila's background

Connie Adams/February 2015

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