Chris Camarda was Seattle’s original garagiste, making his first vintages in a skinny 600-square foot space on Queen Anne, a snug spot that was little bigger than a railroad boxcar. “It was 10 by 60. We used a tape measure,” said the man behind elegant Andrew Will label.
Even in that humble setting, Camarda set lofty goals firmly planted in the ideal of showing off Washington state grapes. He was an early fan and customer of fruit from Ciel de Cheval and Champoux, which he became part owner of in 1997.
The Wisconsin native moved to the Puget Sound when his father got a job at Boeing. He went to Seattle Prep and, years later, started his longstanding relationship with wine while working in the restaurant business, first at the now defunct Oyster Grotto and then at the venerable IlBistro at Pike Place Market. There, he hatched a plan with co-workers to make some wine, as a learning exercise.
“We were always talking about wine and drinking wine, so we decided to try and make some,” Camarda said. That was in 1987 and the experiment turned out to be a noble failure.
“We learned that it’s a lot harder to make a small amount, so the next year, we bought a ton of grapes and made two barrels,” he recalled.
It was good enough to convince him to launch Andrew Will in 1989. “We made about 400 cases that first year,” he said.
Like many fledgling vintners at the time, Camarda continued working two jobs. He was a fixture at IlBistro until 1997. The biggest change in those early years was making the move to Vashon Island. “We were trying to remodel the house on Queen Anne, but then we said, let’s live in a rural area. We looked in Walla Walla, but really liked the idea of being close to the city,” he said.
Situated on five acres, 10 minutes from the ferry landing, the verdant space feels a world away from Seattle. Among the stately cedars and pines, there’s a production facility that’s downright grand compared to the winery’s original space. Just outside the heavy wooden sliding doors, there’s a basketball hoop and a chipping green. (Camarda’s a golfer.) The family garden is protected from deer by high fencing and there’s a chicken coop. Rural, indeed.
The operation remains small, with a three-man crew working harvest and another three on the sales and marketing team. And Camarda’s imprint is on every carefully-selected barrel.
These days, he’s especially keen on focusing on clonal selections that best fit the growing conditions in each particular vineyard. In charting the direction he’s going to take, Camarda consults with respected scientists and on-site vineyard manager, Chris Hoon. His Two Blondes Vineyard near Zillah was replanted in 2004 and Champoux is undergoing a dramatic transformation, too.
“We are trying to let the vineyards reveal themselves. I believe that if Washington is ever to be considered a great wine region we need to establish the characteristics of our geographical areas and the characteristics of each vineyard in those areas,” Camarda said.
Judging by the rave reviews Andrew Will wines have received from the world’s most respected wine writers – Robert Parker, Jr., called him brilliant -- and Andrew Will’s loyal legion of faithful fans – many who make the trek to Vashon for the annual open house in September – those vineyards continue to reveal themselves to be stellar.