When you pass through the dramatic door that marks the entrance to the Olalla Vineyard and Winery tasting room outside Gig Harbor, Washington, it’s as if you passed through a portal transporting you to Tuscany. The room is filled with a rich, wooden bar and painted in colors that evoke the Mediterranean. Mary Ellen and Stuart Chisholm are making wines from both their estate vineyard and with fruit from Eastern Washington, assisted by tenured winemaker Matthew Loso. The two are inspired by the ancient winemaking methods of the Greeks and Romans and incorporate the use of handcrafted Italian clay amphorae for their fermentors, aiming to produce clean, fruit-forward wines that match their philosophy of natural wines.
You are one of only two winemakers in Washington State who bottle a wine produced only with the Golubok grape. Can you tell us what makes this wine so special?
The Golubok grape was originally planted here in our vineyard in 1999 by the former owner. The grape originated on the coast of Crimea in Ukraine and does extremely well here in the Pacific Northwest as it has “wet feet” and thrives in our cooler temps and moist conditions. It has one-eighth parentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and is an early variety. What makes this grape unique is the red flesh at harvest. We like to call it “the red wine for white wine drinkers” as it is typically low in tannins and acidity with jammy fruit flavors such as blackberry, raspberry and sour cherry. We only produce between 20-25 cases and it is [a] wine that is special to our wine club.
People of all ages know the iconic “I Love Lucy” scene when Lucille Ball stomps the grapes in a vat — I hear you’ve had to do the same before?
Our very first harvest took place on a cool October day in 2016. Stuart and I had been harvesting our Pinot Noir for eight hours, we finished harvesting about 4:30 p.m. and the sun was starting to set. We had to start processing the grapes so Stuart flipped the switch for the de-stemmer and heard a “clunk” — something had gone wrong and there was no time to figure it out as it was already getting late in the day. We called our winemaker, Matthew Loso, for advice, he suggested that one of us start “stomping grapes.” Stuart sanitized my feet and I hopped into the stainless steel tank. He then proceeded to dump cold Pinot Noir grapes into the tank and I stomped away for about two hours — all 400 pounds of grapes. After stomping, the grapes went into one of our clay amphorae for fermentation. We honestly weren’t sure how this vintage would turn out. We recently bottled this wine and were told by Matthew that it was excellent.
You are starting a new wine club with a unique name, “The Kilted Scotsman.” Can you explain the significance of the name?
Our wine club is called “The Kilted Scotsman” after my husband, “the weekend winemaker.” Stuart was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, but has been in the United States since 1992 — he sounds a bit like Sean Connery. He is known for wearing his “utilikilts” in the vineyard. We took our time creating the wine club as we wanted to get it just right, we announced the wine club about two weeks ago and are already close to our 50 person limit. Most of our estate wines will be available only to those in “The Kilted Scotsman Wine Club.”
Olalla has become quite the Gig Harbor destination with weekly live music. What do you and Stuart like to jam to?
Stuart was influenced in his younger years by artists such as Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and The Clash. His taste in music hasn’t changed much but has expanded to include blues, jazz and classical. My taste in music, at a young age, was a reflection of what my parents’ used to enjoy; artists such as The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Connie Francis and Patsy Cline… Our favorite Pandora for business station to listen to in the tasting room is “Italian Cooking Music.” Stuart and I have always been fans of live music so our live music Fridays will always be a part of the Olalla Winery experience.