When I met up with Waters Winery founder and winemaker Jamie Brown last month, it was to catch up on cool new things going on in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. At the time, Brown had just finished bottling the first wines sourced from Waterstone, his winery’s 7.5-acre estate Rocks District vineyard, planted in 2016. Obviously, a lot has changed since our conversation at Waters’ Seattle tasting room, in the SODO Urbanworks complex. Just about everyone’s spring plans have been put on hold. And it’s a tough time for a lot of people. But Brown, who’s been making wine in Walla Walla since the late 1990s, is always a good interview. [He lives near Seattle with his wife, Yvonne Davis, and frequently commutes east to the vineyards and his winery.] So I reached out to find out how he’s been riding out the quarantine. Read on for the highlights from my phone conversation on social distancing with Jamie Brown.
How are you?
We’re hanging in there. It’s a surreal time for everybody, and we’re no different. We’re in the wait-it-out game. I have a bottling next week in Walla Walla that is still a go. We’re following all the guidelines. We’ll take everyone’s temperature, and nobody can be sick. And we’ve set it up to avoid any side-by-side contact. I’ll spend an extra couple of days when I’m over there and walk all the vineyards. We’re just hitting bud break, so I’ll take an assessment. The vines aren’t waiting for anybody.
What will you be bottling?
We’re doing our 2019 Prelude, a viognier-roussanne blend. And then we’re doing a custom wine for Ethan Stowell Restaurants. They don’t necessarily need the wine right now, because their restaurants are closed. But I want to get the wine in bottle, so we are prepared for when they open. I’m also bottling my cabernet sauvignon. We probably would have released our Waterstone Cabernet Franc and Waterstone Syrah during May release weekend in Walla Walla, but that’s been canceled. So we’re talking in-house about whether we want to try to do something in June, if the restrictions are lifted. Right now, everything is kind-of on hold.
Is there a lot going on at your Seattle tasting room these days?
We were doing deliveries and curbside pickup, but the volume just wasn’t there to station someone down there for 8 hours a day. So we’re offering curbside pickups by appointment. There are still supplies coming in. And we have upcoming wine club shipments that need to be packed and shipped.
How have the social distancing guidelines impacted what your team has been doing in the winery?
I have an assistant [Chad Garofalo], who works solo a lot anyway. He’s the only one in there probably 95 to 99 percent of the time. Whether it’s racking, blending, working on barrels or other tasks that we have throughout the year, the pandemic hasn’t really stopped any of that. He’s always been able to do our size of lots on his own. [Waters produces about 6,000 cases a year.] We had all of our blends together prior to the pandemic. So those were all put together and ready to go.
How have your customers been reacting to the crisis?
At SODO, we have regulars who were coming in all the time, just to have a glass of wine after work with friends. It’s become a community, especially since me and the other winemakers all know each other. [Waters’ tasting room neighbors at SODO Urbanworks include Sleight of Hand Cellars, Rôtie Cellars, Kerloo Cellars, Structure Cellars Winery, Nine Hats Wines, Full Pull Wines and others.] So, we’re trying to serve our customers as much as we can.
We are also pretty conscious about other people getting hurt by this thing, especially our restaurant brethren. I think those guys are getting hurt the most, so we’ve been conscious about trying to find ways to help them. We’ve been going down to purchase take-out food from them. And some of the folks have been getting creative and changed their restaurants into mini markets, selling things for people to prepare at home.
We put up a special at the start of April with our most affordable wines. They retail at $28 a bottle, and if you buy wine from that promotion, we take half of it and donate it to the Seattle Hospitality Fund, to support restaurant-industry workers. The special runs through April.
Have you or your peers heard anything from the state about what you might or might not be able to do when the quarantine restrictions are lifted?
You know, processing fruit isn’t a whole lot different than bottling, in terms of social distancing. We usually have one person up on the top of a hopper, taking fruit out of a bin as it goes down to the crusher. And then you normally have a couple of people on a sorting table, so it’s not going to be too hard for us to have social distancing there. And then there is somebody, generally me, getting the fermentation started. So I don’t foresee the production parts of our operations being an issue.
I think we would mostly be affected by whether we can have release parties and the large-volume events that we rely on for income. Even if they open things back up in 4, 6 or 8 weeks, my guess is that there are still going to be restrictions on the number of people you can have at gatherings. If the limits are something like 250 people, then it’s not going to affect us at all. If it’s down in the 50-person range, that would definitely affect us. It’s not that we can’t do good business at that level. But that’s on the lower end of the scale of what we can handle. And that would also affect some of our complex-wide events at SODO Urbanworks, which are quite large.
What else have you been up to?
I still have a lot of stuff going on at the winery. We signed a deal for national distribution in February, with new representation that will put us back in several states. And so we’re still going through all the compliance issues for different states, and logistics of getting wine to our distributors. So there’s a fair amount of stuff we’re doing behind the scenes to make sure that we are ready for when this thing gets lifted. It’s also been a good time for me to reach out to people that I have done business with and become personal friends with over the years. Just reaching out to buyers who I have hung out with personally and kind of seeing what they’re up to.
Aside from that, we’re just like everybody else. We’re doing home projects. I’ve edged the yard and mowed it and reorganized the garage. And we’re’ painting the downstairs. So we are definitely doing some home stuff.
[Photo courtesy of Waters Winery]