BY LESLIE KELLY
California native Jerry Bookwalter arrived in Washington in 1976 to manage Sagemoor Vineyards, one of the state’s largest grape growing operations at the time. The former farm kid, who studied Ag-Econ and more at the University of Southern California at Davis, sold fruit to the biggest names in the wine industry, near and far.
“People might be surprised to hear how many Oregon wineries were buying from us in the beginning, startups like Amity, Erath, even David Lett from Eyrie,” said Jerry of the nearly 500-acre property that includes Bacchus, Dionysus and Weinbau vineyards, a development that was the vision of Seattle attorney Alec Bayless.
In 1983, Bookwalter was bit by the winemaking bug and started producing quaffable Riesling and Chenin blanc he called “tooty fruity whites,” his first vintage made in the family garage.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the label got serious about red wines when son John joined the team. “Dad took me to Walla Walla in 1998 to taste wines with his friend Gary Figgins and I had a real a-ha moment,” said John, a former sales manager for various beverage companies including Gallo, Coors and Pepsi. “Gary told us we really needed to reinvent ourselves. That really resonated with me.”
J. Bookwalter was born shortly after that fateful tasting, the addition of the “J” serving a tribute to the family operation headed by Jerry, John and Jean, wife and mother, who Jerry joked: “She didn’t know I started the winery for about a year into it.” In the revamp, the Bookwalters benefited from sage advice dished by renowned California winemaker Zelma Long. “I had accidentally on purpose run into Zelma at a meeting in the Tri-Cities and asked her if she’d be willing to do some consulting in the Northwest,” Jerry said. “The timing was right and when she came on board, she and John really hit it off. Their style and work ethic really meshed.”
John said his father’s longtime connections with the state’s best growers helped shape the winery’s core mission to keep a sharp focus on the fruit. “It sounds like a cliché, but we really do believe great wine is made in the vineyards,” John said.
But as the marketing savvy younger Bookwalter pointed out: “You need to do two things to survive in this business. The first is to make great wine, the second is to sell it.”
Bookwalter’s first winery was in an industrial park and was challenging to find. “If 30 people showed up on a weekend, that was a very good turnout,” Jerry said. But when the new winery opened in the 1990s, it was a quick hit as a destination. “When I came on board and took a look around, it was clear that we had become an urban winery. We were no longer in the middle of farm country,” John said. “So, I thought we should offer more of a Starbucks-type experience. To create a place where people want to hang out.”
That dream took a big step forward in the past year, when the winery opened its Bistro with in-house chefs. There’s also live music four nights a week.
The Bookwalters were also among the first Eastern Washington wineries to open a satellite tasting room in Woodinville, back in 2008 before the trickle turned into a torrent. “We had been thinking about it since 2006, and we’re glad we made the move. It really helped us extend our handshake, introducing us to people who had never heard of us,” John said.
Because he’s still director of sales and marketing, as well as winemaker for the 20,000 cases a year winery, John’s work and playtime run together, but that’s just fine by him. “We’ve become friends with a lot of our customers and it’s a fun job. I get to travel. It doesn’t feel like work most of the time,” he said.
Jerry still co-manages Connor Lee Vineyards, but is mostly retired, which gives him the chance to enjoy “about 50 hobbies.” “I spend a lot of time fishing. Jean and I go to Arizona for the winters. We love to bird watch.” He also gets a kick out of spending time with his three granddaughters. “They’re a hoot, we’re thrilled to have them,” he said.
Any chance they’ll make J. Bookwalter a three-generation operation?
“Well, they’re still very young, but it’s my goal to keep the business a going concern and we’ll see if the kids get interested,” John said. “But that’s still a ways down the road.”
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