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Friday, Aug. 13, 2010

Richland getting city's first winery

RICHLAND, Wash. -- The ground is broken and the permits are in place.

Richland is getting its first winery inside the city limits. Thomas O'Neil Cellars is being built on Highway 240 in the Horn Rapids Business Center.

You're not alone if you thought Barnard Griffin, Bookwalter Winery, Tagaris Winery and Taverna Tagaris were in Richland.

Actually, "they are all in an unincorporated island, surrounded by, but not part of, the city of Richland," said Rick Simon, the city's development services manager.

Thomas O'Neil Cellars is owned by Tom and Patricia O'Neil of Kennewick. Until July, he was assistant winemaker for Milbrandt Vineyards in Mattawa, a job he held for five years.

"In 2010, I was bit by the entrepreneur bug. I decided I wanted complete control over my winemaking," O'Neil said. "I gave my notice in April and on July 1 was out of there."

Construction on the new winery began Aug. 9, but the official ground breaking is at 9 a.m. Aug. 20, complete with a speech by Richland Mayor John Fox.

Opening his own winery is something O'Neil has been working toward since he was a teenager and tasted his first wine.

"When I was 15 or 16, my father bought a bottle of Chateau Lafite. It was good, but we wondered why it cost $35, an expensive bottle at the time," O'Neil said. "That began my curiosity as to why people so get into this product."

Then, his senior year of high school, O'Neil traveled to Spain -- where the legal drinking age is 18.

"That's where I discovered the joy drinking Spanish Rioja wines," he said.

Yet O'Neil didn't pursue his dream until he was 46 and quit his job as a technical writer for General Motors. He's a native of Michigan, a graduate of Michigan State University and married another Michigan State grad, Patricia.

"We never thought about moving. Our families are there, so are our friends," she said. But then, in 2001, she spotted a story in an MSU alumni news sheet about a new enology/viticulture program at the university.

"I said, 'You should check this out.' I never thought he'd do it," she said.

"Before, my only choices to study winemaking were to go to school in New York or California. With a family, that wasn't possible," O'Neil said. "But when MSU started their program, the kids were out of the house and the university was in Lansing, just a two-hour drive away."

After graduating, O'Neil landed an internship at Columbia Crest under Ron Bunnell.

"(Bunnell) was doing some consulting with Milbrandt and at end of my internship, he went up there with my rsum in his pocket. I had one interview and was hired as assistant winemaker," O'Neil said.

That was July 2005. By November, the O'Neils had sold their Michigan home and were building one in Kennewick. Now, they're building Thomas O'Neil Cellars and plan to be open in time for Spring Barrel Tasting weekend next April.

He's already making wines at another facility and expects to have a Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Rhone-style red blend under the couple's Fahrenheit 100 label. That's their second label -- Fahrenheit 100 refers to our hot summer days -- which will go on bottles of moderately priced wines costing $12-$15.

He'll release hand-crafted reds with an emphasis on Rhne varietals, under the Thomas O'Neil Cellars label in the spring of 2012.

You can share in the O'Neils' story and watch their winery go up by visiting www.facebook.com and searching for Thomas O'Neil Cellars.