Tucked away in the urban hustle and bustle, Federal Way’s first winery is carving out a niche — one grape, one vine and one acre at a time.
Vilnis Kleper, who had previously only enjoyed wine as a consumer, decided Abbe Vineyard and Winery would be his “retirement” venture after a successful career as a civil engineer.
He and his wife, Guna Kleper, a retired pharmacist, have partnered with sommelier Dainis Svarcs on what has become a labor of love.
“Seven and a half acres takes a bit of work,” Vilnis Kleper said of the vineyard on South 373rd Street between Enchanted Parkway and Pacific Highway. “I never thought a vineyard was that labor intensive.”
Kleper said he relies a great deal on Svarcs, a vintner with almost 20 years of experience in the industry.
“He knows his wines,” Kleper said. “And he has the palate, and he has the nose.”
Kleper and Svarcs joined forces in 2009 when they planted their first chardonnay grapes at the estate.
They started with three acres and then added another acre and a half. Although they do have some sauvignon blanc plants, they primarily grow chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, which Svarcs said is strategic because if the microclimate in Federal Way does not generate enough heat, the partners can turn the fermented juice into sparkling wine.
Abbe Winery is a little different than other small-scale wineries. Kleper and Svarcs do everything onsite from growing the grapes to harvesting, fermenting and — after Svarcs decides a wine is ready — bottling.
“Many wineries don’t even grow their own product,” Svarcs said. “There are very few of us who grow our own grapes in the Puget Sound. Not only are we in the cellar working on our product, we’re also in the field making sure the plants are doing what they are supposed to do.”
Abbe Vineyard and Winery also purchases red grapes from a few established Eastern Washington vineyards for its blends, and has at least a dozen grape varietals in oak and stainless steel barrels.
Currently, the winery has 380 barrels, with vintages dating back about four years. The wine-making process is labor intensive and time consuming. Svarcs said it takes about five years before grapes can be harvested for wine. The first, second and third leaves — as each crop is called — are just to get the grapes established. By the fourth leaf, Svarcs said he can usually start to see quality grapes.
“To truly have a good crop (for producing wine), it takes five years,” he said.
Harvesting usually happens from mid-August through October, but it depends on the sugar levels of the grapes. Once the grapes are harvested, they are de-stemmed and crushed, then put into vats where yeast is added to begin the fermentation.
Fermenting takes three to six weeks, depending on how quickly the sugar turns into alcohol. The juice is then put into barrels and stored anywhere from one to six years. Svarcs said he and his palate decide when a wine is ready to be bottled. He prefers more supple and well-rounded wines that are “not obtrusive.”
“It doesn’t get into your face,” Svarcs said.
The winery produces chardonnay, cabernet merlot, malbec, syrah, pinot gris and more. Currently, people can order Abbe Winery’s products online at www.abbewines.com. The wines are also sold at IGA and QFC stores and will soon be available at Fred Meyer, Svarcs said.
Tasting room and permits
While Svarcs and Kleper are content to continue running their “boutique winery” and do not have plans to expand, they would like to add one element to their business: a tasting room.
And just as Kleper and Svarcs depend on Mother Nature for a successful harvest, they are also bound to Federal Way’s zoning and code regulations — the only impediment to Abbe Winery opening a tasting room to the public. At this time, that use isn’t permitted by the city.
Kleper said the tasting room will only be a small part of the operation, hosting up to 30 people during the day on weekends.
After learning they could not move ahead with that plan, the Abbe Vineyard and Winery partners sought help from the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce. Chamber CEO Rebecca Martin said she didn’t even know Federal Way had a winery until she received a call from somebody at the state level telling her about Kleper and Svarcs’s permit problem.
Martin discussed the winery with the Chamber’s board of directors before convening a meeting with an array of stakeholders at the same table. A game plan was set: See if city staff could come up with immediate measures to allow Abbe Winery to open a tasting room, then determine if wineries and other similar businesses could be written into Federal Way’s zoning regulations as permitted uses.
In addition to the winery itself, some Federal Way leaders say the tasting room will be a welcome addition to the city once all the proper steps are completed. Mayor Jim Ferrell and Councilwoman Susan Honda have voiced their support for the idea. Community Development Director Brian Davis said city planners are exploring options that would allow Abbe Vineyard and Winery to proceed with tasting room plans in the interim while the finer details — and regulation amendments — are ironed out.
“We realize this is a good opportunity for the city of Federal Way and the winery,” Davis said. “We’re working so [Kleper] can be open and the zoning does not get in the way.”
Martin said she is excited and committed to see this happen in Federal Way because of the economic and cultural possibilities.
With revised regulations, Federal Way could open the doors to not only more wineries, but other industry clusters such as microbreweries, Martin said. While those types of ventures would attract visitors, Martin said they could also spur associated economic development, such as outlets to sell the product being created — retail shops, restaurants and other entrepreneurial ventures.
“We don’t see this as tourism,” Martin said. “We see this as the start of a new industry segment that will grow jobs and make products for the marketplace.”
She added: “This is how you use commerce to grow a community and stabilize a workforce.”
Before any of that happens, however, Martin said it is necessary to have a vision that all community stakeholders can buy into.
“It’s our responsibility to ensure that we have an environment that welcomes and supports business growth,” she said.