RockWall Cellars pioneers local winemaking business

— When I walk into RockWall Cellars’ tasting room at 110 Nichols Road, Omak, I shout out a little greeting: “Wine club!”

Doug Sheets, the proprietor and winemaker, once requested I remind him of my wine club discount when ordering. And although it can be a bit startling for other tasters, I consider it an opportunity for him to tell folks about the club that he says has turned out to be his bread and butter. Besides, I want my 15 percent discount.

The name of the winery is an obvious one — orchards produce many rocks before anything else and have piles of rock walls throughout.

After pulling into the winery, you can continue to the tasting room or take a detour through his momma’s antique store; Nana’s Nook. Virginia and her husband, Dick Sheets, live on the property in the house Doug grew up in that her parents, Florence and Earl Allen, homesteaded from a $35 tax sale in 1928.

Doug and his wife, Sandy, live on the property also.

The tasting room was originally the apple packing and cold storage warehouse Doug and his parents built to keep fruit from their own orchards.

Once inside the beautifully appointed tasting room, you feel welcome and are drawn toward the counter where Doug or Sandy may be waiting for you. Or, just as likely, you’ll wait a bit while Doug comes running in from the back, fresh from “stomping” grapes.

This is definitely a working winery. Doug says he wanted to set the tone with a “nice” atmosphere, not something thrown together. And it is very nice, including posh towels in the bathroom decorated with witty wine sayings. My favorite is, “Who took the cork out of my lunch?” by W.C. Fields.

At the same time, it is very much a “come as you are” winery. It’s not stuffy. Doug thinks that sets them apart from other wineries and he does not charge for a tasting.

I asked Doug what his inspiration was to make wine and he said, “I like to drink it.”

Ah! Then he adds that it is an up-and-coming industry in our state, so he and Sandy decided to learn how to make it.

Fruit wines like rhubarb, pear or raspberry first intrigued him. But you can’t charge as much compared to grape wine, so fruit wines were short-lived.

Not having a clue how to go about it, they started growing grapes and had a bit of a trial-and-error experience. Currently, they are out of the orchard and vineyard business and only make wine.

They purchase 80 percent of their grapes from vineyards in Okanogan County. They decided to take a viticulture course at Wenatchee Valley College from a B.C. professor and eventually hired him as a consultant. He taught them everything from planting and techniques to what to taste for.

With email and step-by-step help, they learned hands-on and didn’t have one loser — all batches sold. They opened in 2007 and haven’t looked back. Their first Riesling got great reviews at a competition is California.

They also offer an educational experience of their own.

Many have participated in a bottling session, I among them. The first person on the line is the, “bottle puller out of the boxer,” who shoots bottles with a heavy argon gas replacing air.

Bottles are placed for the next guy, who fills them with wine under six pre-measured spigots. Then they’re headed to the corker.

This station is very exciting, as only one bottle at a time is handled. Bottles line up behind you and the foot pedal you use can be a bit touchy, leaving some corks insufficiently inserted. (I have been removed from the corker station in the past.) Then labels are affixed and corks sealed and into the same box they came out of and stacked away.

When Doug and Sandy first opened, they had a few food and wine events. Doug groused, “I just want to sell wine.”

Meanwhile, the community has been using this beautiful venue for various fundraisers and events.

It really is amazing the amount and variety of wine they produce with assistant winemaker Brian. Currently, they produce 10 different varieties of red, eight white, a Pink Gewurztraminer and a very lovely port. They produce just about 2,000 cases annually.

When I asked Doug what his favorite all-time wine was, he pondered a moment and said, “It’s got to be a reserve merlot from John Bele’s grapes out of Oroville I made a few years back. I may have just a bit left of that.”

Wow, that was specific.

“And the most popular wine?” I asked. Hands down, Lula — 55 percent Gewurztraminer and 45 percent Riesling. It’s named after Doug’s great-grandmother, who lived adjacent to the property.

You may see a beautiful young women strolling through the grounds with two children in tow; they are son Chad’s wife, Crystal, and kids, making it four generations currently making their home at the winery. Their daughter, Angie, her husband Ben Abshire and four children live in Liberty Lake and visit often.

Doug and Sandy have definitely created a new culture in Omak with RockWall Cellars. You may run into me there if you visit, just don’t be startled when I call out: “Wine Club!”

This is the first in a five-part series of columns on local wineries written by Sandy Hansen. To reach Sandy, email her here.


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