Grandiosity and ostentatiousness don’t come to mind when visiting the Olalla Vineyard and Winery, off the beaten path and a few miles into the woods, a short drive from the Southeast Burley Olalla Valley Road exit off of State Highway 16.
It doesn’t have a grand iron gate greeting you while arriving for a visit, nor stone walls that surround expansive vineyards and a manicured lawn. And certainly there’s not an elegant, cream-colored chateau with a nicely appointed wine-tasting room at the end of a long driveway.
But that’s fine for the devotees of this little slice of heaven tucked away in the woods of the South Kitsap enclave of Olalla. Understated is the more apt descriptor for the spot. It’s quaint and lovely, to be sure. A place to sit back and soak in the beautiful forested surroundings, with wine glass within reach.
Olalla Vineyard and Winery’s bashful presence aside, it’s worth noting that this lovely little place owned by Stuart Chisholm and Mary Ellen Houston is gaining quite a following among wine lovers living on Kitsap Peninsula and beyond.
The couple purchased the vineyard and winery in December 2015 from original owners Joe and Konnie Serka and have been learning about the business by reading, listening to the experts and ingratiating themselves with the many of the owners of small wineries that dot the Kitsap Peninsula landscape. With 1,600 vines growing on 2 ½ acres of their property, and conducting an exacting process to produce an array of red and white wine varietals, there indeed is plenty to learn about tending a vineyard and running a winery business.
The couple — Stuart is originally from Scotland, as his lilting brogue suggests, and Mary Ellen is a Pittsburgh native — have been wine lovers all their adult lives but they are relative newcomers to the business of being winemakers and vintners.
When they started out as new owners and operators, it helped to have a helping hand from the Serkas, who put their energies and hearts into starting the business in preceding years.
“We joke that if we knew what we were getting into, we probably wouldn’t have done it,” Houston laughed. “But we’re glad we did — and we love it.”
It helps that the couple has the makings of a good team. She’s the social one who handles the front end of the business — greeting visitors, helping organize special events and chatting up those who want to know more about a particular varietal they’re sampling during wine tastings.
He’s on his own most of the day outside tending to the vineyard or working inside in the wine cellar and organizing myriad pieces of plastic tubes, stainless steel hardware used to process grapes, and clay pots to ferment wine. That’s when Chisholm isn’t in his office at the home they share on the property alongside the tasting room and event space. During much of the day, he works remotely for Nokia, where the 37-year employee is in procurement services.
Chisholm said the couple is hoping the winery business will eventually make enough money so that he can devote his energies full time to it. So far, they’re still a ways away from reaching that goal.
Houston, however, is working full time as a vintner and events organizer — and then some. Her days, particularly in the busy summer months, are hectic. She keeps stock of the winery’s new releases, which feature wine bottles wearing labels adorned by images of the couple’s pets, past and present. Their 15-year-old shih tzu dog named Romo is on a label, as is Romo’s sister Cinder, who passed away last year.
Because the Puget Sound region’s mild and wet maritime climate isn’t particularly suited to growing grapes, some harvests are more successful than others.
“Everyone over here is fighting the same issue with the weather. You can get a powdery mildew and it makes the grapes rot on the vine,” Chisholm said. About 80% of the grapes they use are bought from vineyards in eastern Washington, which is something most Washington wineries on the west side do.
“Even over in Woodinville, they’re not growing vines there,” he said. “Chateau Ste. Michelle has vines but they’re only for show.”
Even so, in their own vineyard, they grow anywhere from six to eight varietals and produce Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Voignier and Agria wines. From the winery’s vineyard, they are able to produce about 300 cases of wine out of the 800 or so total cases sold each year. Houston said the number of cases produced each year continues to grow, thanks to the expertise of winemaker Matthew Loso.
“We do a really good Pinot Noir,” Houston said. “We’ve had a couple of great vintages, and a couple not so great. It depends on the weather.”
Another favorite is a sweet strawberry wine they produce for Olalla’s own best-selling author Gregg Olsen, who is stocking it for his recently acquired Olalla Bay Market.
Their showcase wine, however, is a unique varietal you likely haven’t heard of. It’s called Golubok, which is grown and produced by only one other winery in the state. This red wine is distinctive in that it has reddish flecks that come from the flesh of the grape. The varietal originated in southern Russia and northern Europe, and was introduced and grown at the Olalla vineyard by the previous owners, who were Croatian.
Its exclusivity is punctuated by the fact that Olalla Winery grows just enough of the Golubok grapes to create 30 gallons of squeezed product, which in turn produces less than 15 cases of wine.
“Normally, with any other red wine grape, when you squeeze the grape at harvest in your hand, they have clear juice,” Chisholm said. “But if you squeeze the Golubok grape, you see the little red color already in the drink.”
While most of the winery’s earnings come from wine sales generated by the tasting room, special events like group dinners, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and memorials help spur the sale of the majority of the wine cases. Those groups have a minimum case purchase requirement, Houston said.
The COVID-19 pandemic trimmed the winery’s special events schedule last year, she said, resulting in just one or two events each month. They expect that when life returns to normal, hopefully by next year, the winery will return to hosting a larger number. The couple’s favorite special events are group dinners in the summer in which up to 30 guests sample wines and enjoy a five-course dinner seated in the vineyard and prepared by Port Orchard’s Le Garmache Catering.
Despite all the hard work, Houston really wouldn’t have it any other way.
“What I love most about this business is seeing the people that come in and enjoy themselves here,” she said.
“We’ve always said that this place is a destination. I love seeing them just amazed that there’s a vineyard in Olalla. It’s our little slice of heaven and we feel very blessed to have this business.”
Olalla Vineyard & Winery
13176 Olalla Valley Rd. SE, Olalla