“A treasure in a bottle” is a common phrase used by a wine club member to describe the wines that are produced by Eleven Winery, a treasure in itself found on Bainbridge Island. Eleven wines are the product of a rare combination of science, heart, hard work and a driving desire to do good.
Matt Albee, the owner and winemaker of Eleven, is the master of the alchemy that results in palate-pleasing wines that are intended to pair well with food as well as stand alone on their own for the pure enjoyment of drinking. An aspiring athlete, Albee dropped out of grad school to pursue a career in professional bicycle racing. He reached a level high enough to race against some well-known names in the bike-racing world, but realized in 1998 that he would not be able to continue.
“Just as none of us are the same on the outside, we are not the same on the inside, and my body was just not predisposed to the rigors of bicycle racing,” Albee said.
Returning to grad school to study physics was on the list of options, but while dozing over a neuropsychology text in the fall of ’99, Albee had an epiphany. A voice from out the blue said loud and clear, “You should be a winemaker!”
Albee and his wife, Sarah, had enjoyed the pleasures of wine tasting in the verdant northern California area where they lived. Although Albee had not pursued the intricacies of winemaking, per se, he did understand the basics. The disciplines he already knew — chemistry, physics, hard work, tenacity, careful study and consistency — would all coalesce into one. Listening to the voice from the blue, Albee set about putting the wheels of his new life in motion.
Winemaker Dane Stark of Page Mill Winery succumbed to Albee’s tenacious insistence to become Stark’s apprentice. Within three months, Stark realized Albee was serious about learning everything there was to know about making good wine, and encouraged Albee to try his hand at his first barrel. Albee bought enough grapes to make 5 gallons of chardonnay — and his new career was born.
As he became more proficient at winemaking, his desire to own his own winery grew and soon it was necessary to find his own space. The Albees looked first in California, but then considered returning to their roots in Washington.
They needed a home within commuting distance to Seattle for their jobs. The couple found a location that spoke to their hearts on Bainbridge Island. The purchase of a fixer-upper home, remodeled and refinanced, brought the extra cash needed to start a winery in the garage.
“Washington is the perfect place for a winery,” Albee says. “The warm, sandy soils and long growing season in Eastern Washington are ideal for growing grapes, and the cool, moist western slope of the Cascades is perfect for cellaring the wines.”
The first couple of years were pretty rough, as they worked on their fixer-upper home and on their business launch with a baby on the way. Through their determination, Eleven Winery flourished, and in November 2011, an inauguration took place at the present warehouse location on Day Road.
The origin of the name, Eleven, can be found on the winery’s website, and explains the tenacity Matt and Sarah Albee have displayed in developing their business. The now-successful winery is the result of the Albees giving it all they had. They are totally self-financed, which is in itself an amazing feat for a young couple in such a competitive arena.
Eleven Winery produces about 2,500 cases a year. The wine club has 800 members, each signed up to receive two bottles of wine six times a year. The wine offerings are usually newly bottled releases, and club members can choose between reds or whites or accept the winemakers’ choice. Tastings are available at the winery on weekends or daily in the tasting room. Club members receive free tastings for themselves and their friends as well as invitations to member-only events. There is live music at the winery every Saturday, open to the public.
The wines — a nice selection of reds, whites and desserts — are, of course, responsible for the expansive growth of this small business. A sacred appreciation of the fruit, a keen understanding of the chemistry of winemaking, a solid dedication to hard work and a trustworthy palate combine to give Albee the tools of success.
He has established relationships with multiple growers in Eastern Washington, carefully sampling the grape varieties available. When the contract for a certain variety is agreed upon, he makes several trips across the mountains to monitor the yield, quality and progress of ripening. This close contact with the grapes enables him to be present the moment the picking progresses, at the prime ripeness he desires. Albee frequently takes his sons along for the picking and they spend the night in the vineyard, so they are there with their truck when the pickers arrive.
Lacking a large staff, Albee has developed a community approach to getting the winery work done during the busiest times, such as crushing and bottling. Wine club members and others who have signed up to be on the winery email list receive an appeal for volunteer help. The tasks and shifts are listed, and the rewards of hard work are coffee, a few snacks, lots of great camaraderie and, of course, a few sips of wine — and shifts fill out quickly.
Recently, Eleven’s wines have started to receive recognition beyond Bainbridge Island and its ardent family of followers. The 2014 Syrah — Elephant Mountain Vineyard took double gold and the 2014 Malbec took silver in the prestigious 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, while the 2012 Sweet Sarah Port received notice as “excellent” in the 2015 Wine Press Northwest.
The Sweet Sarah name bears a little resemblance to “syrah,” a delicious type of wine grape from which it is made, but Sweet Sarah is actually named after Albee’s wife. It is made by the port method, with the fermentation stopped midway by the addition of 180-proof brandy.
The result, in the case of the recently distributed 2014 Sweet Sarah, is a wine designed to pair magnificently with chocolate, especially chocolate desserts containing fruit.
The label on the bottle reads, “If you are really, really lucky, you will find one person who will make all of your dreams come true; one person who will work night and day and night again to make sure you do not fail; one person who will keep you on track and give you the support you need to do the one amazing thing you know you can do. One person who will believe you can do it, even when you doubt yourself. If you’re really, really lucky, you’ll find a Sweet Sarah.”
Other wines of note are the mourvèdre family — deep-crimson, classic red with notes of cherry and spicy complexity. The $44 Mourvèdre 2013 Vintage, a cellar addition for collectors or a special-occasion treat for aficionados, is the perfect accompaniment to rich, earthy flavors like wild game or mushrooms. The 2014 mourvèdre vintage was so popular, it is now only available to wine club members.
Numerous white wines are also available to suit discerning palates. With summer approaching, two wines that are especially well-suited to warm weather sipping or pairing with light meals are the 2015 La Primavera and the 2015 La Donella. Primavera is the epitome of rosé and, with its strawberry-watermelon flirtation on the tongue and fresh finish, allows the imagination to drift to a French seaside cafe. La Donella could be named after an opera, the heroine being complex and floral but assertive. A chilled La Donella will pair well with veggies or seafood off the grill or can simply accompany good conversation on the deck.
Not many entrepreneurs would fashion a rustic, wood-paneled salon for wine drinking and musical enjoyment inside a metal warehouse building. The cozy salon has soft lighting and curtains to camouflage the industrial doors that in summer raise up to the ceiling to allow the inside and outside space to flow into one. Passing through a set of double doors inside the salon takes one into the workspace of the winery itself, a warren of tanks, hoses, barrels and other equipment.
The downtown tasting room on Winslow Way provides a cozy bar and a few small tables for tasting the fruits of Eleven’s labors. Visitors can enjoy an introduction to the winery and purchase wines to take home.
Albee believes that what makes a successful business also makes a successful life. He feels that those who are fortunate to have enough are obligated to share with those who have less. A recent “Sunday FUNday” event benefitted the Kitsap Humane Society. Other organizations that receive regular contributions from Eleven Winery are World Bicycle Relief, which empowers people to improve their lives by giving them transportation; the Boys and Girls Club of Bainbridge Island; and Bike Works in Seattle, which has a program to teach kids bike repair and reconditioning and allows them to earn a bike after a number of hours of service.
Eleven Winery is also committed to environmental sustainability. It was the first carbon-neutral winery in the state. Its tagline is “Built to do good.” Considering how hard Matt Albee works at building community, distinctive wines and a gathering place, as well as contributing to worthwhile organizations that make the world a better place, he is reaching that goal one delicious bottle at a time.