ROB ENTREKIN wasn’t looking for a second career. But as the Finn Hill biomedical engineer plans to move his winemaking operation from his garage to one of Woodinville’s newest warehouse winery districts in a few weeks, he admits his intellectual curiosity may have gotten the best of him.
It all started in 2000 when wineries began opening in Woodinville. As he began tasting wines at local wineries, he started buying wine directly from the winemakers. And he began asking questions.
“As an engineer, I wanted to know how the same grape varieties were turned into such different tasting wines,” explains Entrekin, who does research and development in ultrasound imaging for Phillips Healthcare. His curiosity and interest continued to grow until 2007, when he enrolled in Washington State University’s first Web-based certificate program in Enology (winemaking).
The magic happened when the students met in Prosser a few months into the program for their first weekend-long “grape camp.”
“It was inspiring to see the intensity and commitment of my fellow students. So, I decided that if I was going to learn all of this, I should apply the knowledge and make some wine,” Entrekin says. “But if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it at scale. And if I was going to make wine at scale, I might as well do it commercially and get licensed and bonded so that one day this hobby on steroids might break even.”
And so he did.
He converted his two-car garage into a functional winery production space, including an air conditioned cold storage area, lab space, barrel storage and work space that moves out onto his driveway during crush. He installed a commercial sink, water filtration and new lighting. He bought the pumps, hoses, fermentation tanks and equipment needed for a small-scale commercial operation. And then he bought six tons of grapes.
With the help and support of his wife Karen -- who is currently enrolled in the WSU program -- their family, friends and neighbors, Finn Hill Winery completed its first crush in the fall of 2008.
“There is a lot involved in winemaking: selecting vineyards, barrels and other decisions. But the act of making wine is crush and that’s what I enjoy,” says Entrekin, referring to fall ritual when winemakers take just-picked grapes and process them -- typically a strategic combination of sorting, destemming, crushing, fermenting and pressing.
“I’m a very hands-on person. I’ve always loved making things… I love the process of taking something and transforming it. That’s what winemaking is for me, taking grapes and transforming them into something that is hopefully fantastic.”
While Entrekin says he wishes he’d started 20 years earlier so he would have that much more experience under his belt, his position as someone embarking on an unexpected second career gives him one real advantage. He’s not relying on the winery for income.
Instead, he is simply in pursuit of the best wine he can make. “I want to make wines that impress me,” he says. “That’s my goal. If they impress other people, then that’s great. But I’m not satisfied yet and I hope that I’m never quite satisfied. I want to always be improving.”
WHAT IS his style? “I’m still trying to find my style,” says Entrekin, sipping his 2009 Petit Verdot. “But the things I’m interested in are primarily Bordeaux varietals and blends, and wines that pair well with food. It’s very tempting to make big, heavily extracted tannin bombs because you can impress people in the tasting room because they’re more of a cocktail wine. But what I’m after is medium-bodied wines with a bit more acidity so they can stand up to food.”
Committed to scrupulous attention to detail and quality, Entrekin ages his reds in oak barrels for two to three years. The problem, though, is that three years’ worth of barreled wine takes space. And his suburban, two-car garage is out of space.
“We’re moving into an 1,800 square foot building with a tasting room and production space,” he says. “Making wine is easy. Selling wine is hard. If I’m going to have a chance to succeed, I’m going to have to have a place where people can find me and come taste wine. I’ll be over in the district where people will come.
“The one thing I’ll miss is that it has become a neighborhood event,” says Entrekin, who has lived on Finn Hill since 1991. “When I’m crushing grapes, people just stop by. It’s neat to have people show up and help out, whether with sorting, unloading, or whatever is going on. I’ve never had anyone come up and complain, although maybe they’re being polite. I think most people think it’s neat to have a winery in the neighborhood.”
“Wineries are intimately connected to the land,” he say. “So it seemed logical to name our winery after the place where it was established.”
Even though the operations are moving on, the winery’s roots will always be with Finn Hill. So the winery, of course, will keep its name, and the winery will also keep its gnome.
“I’m told that Finn Hill is named after a Finnish community that settled here years ago,” Entrekin explains. “In Finland, gnomes are earth spirits – guardian spirits – who are attached to the land. A farmer in Finland would have a gnome to protect the land, for example. We have a gnome as a sort of homage to the Finnish culture.
The new tasting room (18800 142nd Ave. NE, Suite 5A, Woodinville) is scheduled to open some time in November, and will be open on Saturday afternoons.
For more information about Finn Hill Winery, check out its Facebook page here.