Firefighters, nurses ferment good times at Rain Shadow Cellars

Sean and Kimberly Merrill

Wines that taste the same year after year? That’s not what the foursome who own Rain Shadow Cellars are all about, they said during a recent visit.

“We could try to perfect a wine, or we could change it to try coming up with something that’s unique,” said Craig Anderson, who with his wife Kristy owns the Coupeville house where the wine is produced. “Big wineries have to be consistent. But people want something unique each time they go to a small winery.”

The Andersons run the business with Sean Merrill and his wife Kimberly — the men are both longtime Whidbey firefighters and the women are nurses. Though their day jobs keep them busy, the four spend much of their free time on their second business.

“Above all, we want to have fun,” Craig Anderson said. “Every part about this is fun — even getting up at 2:30 in the morning to bring home grapes.”

At the moment, the Andersons’ 1/3-acre vineyard, planted with 330 vines of seven varieties, is only six years old. Most vines take four to six years to produce usable fruit. So for now, all the grapes for Rain Shadow wines are purchased, from Antoine Creek Vineyard near Lake Chelan. The couples recently woke up ridiculously early to bring home two 1,000-pound bins of grapes and then crush and press them.

It’s not unusual for wineries to buy some or all of their grapes rather than growing them, because some species simply can’t flourish here, the couples pointed out. Still, they want to grow at least some of their own.

“The vineyard is an experiment,” Merrill said. “The climate is different here from South Whidbey. We get much less rain — our name says it. It’s more like Vancouver, B.C. We’re right on the edge of seeing what can actually grow here.”

Meanwhile the center of action remains the Andersons’ garage, where two 260-gallon stainless steel vats hold this year’s Riesling (with room to spare) and two White Oak barrels, along with several glass carboys, hold this year’s Malbec. Plans call for producing 830 bottles of Riesling and 700 bottles of Malbec. The Riesling won’t be ready until April 2016, the Malbec until March 2017.

Part of the fun is in shaping the wine’s flavor. The couples want their Riesling to be “off-dry,” or semi-dry, a rarity in a wine that’s usually either sweet or very dry, they said. Last winter they produced a Malbec-Cabernet blend in the garage “with the heaters on and the wind blowing outside. It was great,” Sean said.

Rain Shadow Cellars produced its first wine in the summer of 2014. In five years, the foursome would like to be producing roughly 500 cases per year, up from last year’s 105 cases of white and 63 cases of red. In three years they plan to produce a Sauvignon Blanc from grapes planted especially for them at Antoine Creek, they said. Next year they may try producing a Chardonnay, and their Reisling will be a perennial, they said.

The four have invested roughly $15,000 in their venture so far, with no prospect of any payback for several more years of sales.

Completely out of the question, they said, are wine tastings at the vineyard. “It would wig me out to have people on my property,” Craig said. But they don’t rule out tastings at other locations.

Rain Shadow Cellars wines can be bought at Greenbank Farm’s wine shop, Haggen in Oak Harbor, Compass Wines in Anacortes and Tulip Valley Vineyard & Orchard in Mount Vernon.