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Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011

Prosser's Olsen family to focus on grapes, not wine

PROSSER, Wash. -- Olsen Estates has scores of award-winning new wines to sell, but the bottles no longer are available at the Prosser winery.

The Olsen family recently shuttered their showpiece tasting room and winemaking facility in Vintner's Village, and the website has been stripped down.

"The Olsens decided they are going to go back to being only the grower -- the positive side of their business," sales manager Robert Johnson said Friday.

Brothers Dick and Larry Olsen broke ground on the winery in spring 2006. It soon became one of six wineries to anchor what has grown into The Prosser Vintner's Village.

Dick Olsen, a founder of the Washington Wine Commission, did not immediately return a phone message left at his farm office in Prosser.

"The fathers wanted to retire, but the sons -- Leif and Martin -- thought they could further the family business by opening a winery," Johnson said. "Their plan was to give it five or six years. It got to the point after five years that they weren't willing to spend any more money on it if it was going take five more years to be profitable."

Inventory from the 2008 and 2009 vintages, estimated at a combined 7,000 cases, has been moved to a Seattle distributor.

"That's a good year and a half worth of inventory," said Johnson, who is based in Seattle.

Olsen Estates did not crush grapes for its label in 2010.

"In these times when wineries are struggling financially, you are going to have more people in our situation in the future," Johnson said.

Last spring, industry insiders said there were indications that Olsen Estates was on the market and perhaps headed out of business.

General manager Martin Olsen declined to comment on those reports when contacted by the Herald. Meanwhile, winery workers were told they would be laid off before the summer's end.

"In August, they didn't have a buyer and had to decide whether or not to bring fruit in," Johnson said.

Olsen Estates and winemaker Kyle Johnson received critical acclaim for the wines from beginning, starting with the 2006 vintage.

Their 2007 Heritage Syrah ($45) earned a platinum award at the 2010 Wine Press Northwest Platinum Competition after winning a gold at the Seattle Wine Awards.

The dessert-style 2007 Golden Berry Select Riesling ($55) also got a gold at the Seattle Wine Awards.

And the winter 2011 issue of Wine Press Northwest also gave its top rating of "Outstanding!" for its 2008 Edythe Mae Vineyard Syrah ($38), its 2008 Vineyard Select Grenache ($38) and 2008 Estate Petit Verdot ($38).

But the pricing of many Olsen wines created problems, Johnson said.

"Trying to sell a bottle at $40 retail from a winery that most people haven't heard of is a lot to ask of a consumer, especially in these times," Robert Johnson said.

Last summer, Olsen Estates began to lower prices, but "it was too little, too late," he said.

Consumers should continue to look for new Olsen Estates wines for the next 18 months.

"It's kind of a weird situation, but we will still be submitting to all the wine writers because we still have a fair amount of wine to sell," Johnson said. "If the quality is there and the price is right, there are people who will still want to buy a wine even if the winery is not operating."

The Olsen family has farmed in the Yakima Valley since 1908. Crops include apples, cherries, blueberries and hops among their 2,500 acres.

In 1980, Dick and Larry began growing wine grapes with a 35-acre parcel of Riesling, a popular and winter-hardy German white variety.

The family now controls more than 800 acres of vineyards and grows 23 grape varieties in the Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area near Benton City and Prosser.

Several Northwest winemakers likely will be pleased to have more Olsen grapes on the market.

Clients include renowned wineries such as Betz Family Cellars, Brian Carter Cellars, Gilbert Cellars, Hogue Cellars, Oregon-based Owen Roe and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

In the meantime, Kyle Johnson has launched his own label called Purple Star.

"Unfortunately, Kyle has gone from being a kid in a candy store -- having his pick of all that fruit -- to having to buy it on the open market," Johnson said.

Assistant winemaker David Volmut began making wine for his own label two years ago. He plans to open Wind Rose Cellars this spring in Sequim.

For information on purchasing wine from Olsen Estates or Purple Star, contact Robert Johnson at www.olsenestates.com.

* Eric Degerman is managing editor for Wine Press Northwest. He can be reached at 509-582-1404 or edegerman@winepressnw.com.