Another winery a family affair in Queen Anne

The Ward Johnson Winery on Elliott Avenue West, which we wrote about in our Nov. 14 issue, isn't the only family wine business that's making a name for itself in Queen Anne. Located in Ben Ridgway's garage on Second Avenue North, the Queen Anne Winery is also making inroads in the competitive field.

The Metropolitan Market carries his brand, along with a couple of neighborhood eateries such as the Bricco and the Queen Anne Grill, and the Uptown QFC in Lower Queen Anne just signed on as a customer as well, Ridgway said.

It all started way back in 1968 when Ridgway was a kid and helped his dad, Glen, make peach wine when the family lived in Kansas, the younger Ridgway said. "It was actually pretty good."

Flash forward to 1976, when he moved here and joined his father, who'd taken a job at Boeing three years earlier, Ben said. "By that time, I was old enough to drink," he remembered.

His father brewed up wine in his garage using 15-gallon containers called carboys, Ben said. "I'd always go get the grapes for him." The wine was just for private consumption, Ben added.

But his father joined the Boeing Wine Club in the mid-1980s, and that provided the family with the opportunity to buy some of the finest grapes in the state, Ben said.

Ben was still helping. "And I got to know all the guys there at the Boeing Wine Club," he said, adding that he learned some new techniques in winemaking.

But he and his dad were only making small batches of wine, and that was a problem, Ben said. "I was always frustrated because we were running out of wine when it started to taste good." The wine tasted better the longer it aged, he explained.

So in 1991, Ben decided to ramp up his efforts and bought a 58-gallon French-oak barrel to make the wine. A general contractor by trade, Ben also built the garage behind his home for the operation. "So that was really when the winery started."

The effort paid off, and he won some contests at the Boeing Wine Club, which finally made him an associate member, Ben smiled. "By '99, I had four barrels," he said. "I was getting out of control," Ben said of a production level that came in a little over the legal limit of 200 gallons a year for private consumption.

He toyed with the idea of getting a license to sell wine commercially, but it just seemed there was too much competition out there, Ben said.

But the Boeing Wine Club started selling its wine commercially in 2001, so, following suit, Ben applied for a license the following year. It was a process that took more than a year, and he wasn't allowed to start selling his wine until 2004.

There was another problem, though. "They didn't like my label at first," Ben said of a snafu involving not capitalizing all the words in the Surgeon General's warning on the back of the label.

There was also an evolution in the name of the wine.

"We started with 'Garage Wine,'" said Ben's wife, Rochelle, who designed the label and won a contest with it.

Ben had also considered using a picture of the actual Queen Anne, the English monarch, for the Queen Anne Winery label, but settled on a simple one that features some grapes underneath a crown.

Ben now has two-dozen oak barrels, and it takes about $1,000 worth of grapes to produce enough juice to fill each of them, he said. The cost for the barrels has also risen as the dollar loses value to the Euro, Ben frowned. Used forklift included, he reckons it has cost him around $50,000 so far to set up and run his winery. "When I sell 300 cases, I'll break even," Ben said.

It's also a labor-intensive process when it comes time to bottle the wine, but he has a group of friends calling themselves The Wine Group who are willing to lend a hand, Ben said.

"I'm amazed he's willing to do all this work," marveled Ben's dad, Glen. "He's far exceeded my skills, if you want to call it a skill."

The Queen Anne Winery features cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot wines, but no white wines, Ben said. With the markup, his wines sell for $28.50 a bottle at the Met Market, he said, adding he's not sure what the QFC will sell the wine for.

Expenses and all the extra work on top of his contracting jobs aside, Ben is dreaming of bigger things. He'd like to distribute his wine in New York City, on the West Coast and even in Japan, the Queen Anne winemaker said.

[[In-content Ad]]