There’s something to be said for the safe road. There are fewer bumps and bends, plenty of travelers to keep you company, and the freshly painted signs assure you’ll always stay your course.
But for those with a full tank of gas and a taste for excitement, the road less traveled can be a lot more fun. Among the inspiring voyagers are Ryan and Renee Crane, owners of Walla Walla’s newest winery, Kerloo Cellars. Leaving the security of their 9-to-5 lives, this husband and wife team set out to prove that daydreams can become day jobs — if you’re willing to change lanes.
ON YOUR MARK …
With promising sales careers, the purchase of their first home (a 1912 craftsman they still gush over today) and all the shiny accoutrements of city living, these young Seattleites were cruising in the fast lane three years ago. But while the wheels of their lives gained momentum, they couldn’t escape the feeling they were heading the wrong direction.
“It’s the difference between just being content, and taking risks for your long-term goals and happiness,” says Renee. “We had a great life in Seattle, but we knew something else was out there for us.”
After years of waiting tables in college, Ryan had already developed an appreciation for wine when he landed his first post-college job with a beer and wine distributor. As he learned the ropes, he unwittingly started a process of self-discovery that would one day take him far away from the life he knew.
“I started to realize that the sales part was critical — and I liked that part — but it wasn’t where my core was,” says Ryan. “The job was great, though, because it gave me more direction. I knew I wanted to learn more about making wine.”
Luckily for Ryan, dreams have patience. After leaving the beverage distributorship, he a few more jobs before finally addressing the voice in his head, telling him to follow his heart and go make wine.
Convincing his wife wouldn’t be a problem — she was ready to stir things up, too. “It’s good to make changes. It’s good to take risks. And making wine was something Ryan had talked about for such a long time,” she says. “We didn’t have kids yet, so we just thought — let’s really explore this, let’s check this out.”
GET SET …
And so the journey began. After exploring wine programs up and down the coast, Ryan enrolled in the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. The school had a solid reputation, but more than that, the region — and state — felt ripe with opportunity.
By late July 2006, the dust had settled, and they found themselves on the way to their brand new life (with their yellow Lab, Rigley). Though they’d sold their cherished home, left well-paid jobs and moved hundreds of miles from friends and family, the real work had just begun.
Somewhere after his first harvest job and between a full load of classes while moonlighting as a server at several local restaurants, Ryan found an opportunity with Va Piano Vineyards. Owners Justin and Liz Wiley hired him to work in the tasting room and manage their wine club. Ryan told his wife, “I just want to help them and see where this takes us. I feel like this will be a good start.”
And a good start it was. Before long, Ryan was spending less time in the tasting room and more time working with Justin on production. Under Justin’s mentorship he eventually became Va Piano’s assistant winemaker, a role he still holds.
Supportive of Ryan’s ambition to make his own wine, in 2007 Justin asked his protégé if he was ready to start. Without hesitation, Ryan said, “Absolutely.”
The Cranes didn’t have much money, but they scraped together enough to purchase a modest amount of fruit — one and a half tons from Va Piano’s Estate Vineyard and one ton from Les Collines Vineyard, about five miles east. “It was
more like an experiment. Both are amazing sites, and I wanted to find out how different these vineyards were,” says Ryan.
Renee, who is expecting their first child in late December, remembers visiting those first eight barrels of wine, quietly gestating in Va Piano’s massive barrel room. “I used to go down and rub the outside of the barrels, telling them to grow into something tasty. Those were our first babies.”
With their dreams now in liquid form, they started work on the branding of their winery while navigating the lengthy — and costly — regulatory issues required to bring their wine to market. To date, the Cranes have invested about $50,000. “We don’t have millionaire parents,” assures Renee. “We’ve sold cars, we’ve worked three jobs. We’ve put everything into this winery.”
After three years of hard work, a few sleepless nights, and a newfound hobby of throwing caution to the wind, the Crane’s dream has officially taken flight. Named after the rousing call of the crane — with a subtle nod to their surname — Kerloo Cellars released its first 185 cases of wine last month, featuring two distinctive syrah wines.
True to Ryan’s approach of making wines with a “sense of place,” one syrah is made only with Les Collines fruit, while the other is a blend of 80 percent Va Piano and 20 percent Les Collines grapes. The result: two rustic and “palette-challenging” wines, accurately showcasing the best characteristics of each site.
Currently in barrel, Kerloo’s second release is slated for late spring and will include two new syrahs, as well as 210 cases of Rioja-style Tempranillo. Ryan says this classic Spanish varietal offers “bright fruit, sexy acid and strong tannin structures.”
While production will increase by more than 600 cases in next few releases, Ryan plans on keeping the operation fairly small. “We want to be an accessible winery. You’re never going to come to Kerloo Cellars and not know who I am.”
And that’s fitting, because learning who they are might be the best souvenir from their journey. The path has been long, and not without blind corners and discouraging dead-ends. But through it all, the couple says they’ve emerged more driven, more excited than when they began.
“There’s always something telling us, ‘Push ahead. You’re doing something right,’” says Renee. “I really do believe we’ll be successful. This isn’t just a business for us. It’s something we’re inspired to do.”Kerloo Cellars wine can be sampled by appointment or purchased online at www.kerloocellars.com. For more information, call 206-349-0641. By Joe Gurriere