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Failing at College Leads to Winemaking Success

Abandoning the college track, Mark McNeilly learned from those already in the industry when he wanted to pursue a career in wine.

When I asked Mark McNeilly, owner of Mark Ryan Winery, how he was introduced to the world of wine, he didn’t sugar-coat his response in the slightest.

“I was flunking out of college so often that I ended up bartending and waiting tables in between, and so I got exposed to some really good wine,” he said.

Taking that exposure and coupling it with what he calls a “healthy curiosity about how things are made,” McNeilly began reading about winemaking and learned that Washington was producing great wines. “It kind of went from there — the hobby became the job,” he said.

Thinking school wouldn’t be the way he would get his wine education, McNeilly opted for a more hands-on approach. From 1997 until 2002 he worked for Unique Wine Company as a wine distributor. Describing the work as hard and sharing with me his belief that selling wine isn’t fun, he does acknowledge the importance of his time spent in sales.

“Working for the distributor gave me great perspective; it really helped my palate, and it gave me great perspective on the world of wine," he said. "I understood where my wines, where Washington wines and New World wines fit, into the whole world of wines."

As for the other aspect of his education — wine production — McNeilly dabbled in making garage wine with friends in 1998 and 1999. Mark Ryan Winery’s first commercial year was 2000, and although he was making his own wine and had a winery with his name on it, McNeilly wasn’t finished learning from others.

In 2002 he began working for his friend, Matt Loso of Matthews Cellars, in national sales and marketing, which furthered his sales experience. Working there he also got to spend some time in the cellar, gain more production experience, and perhaps more importantly, take his place in the line of emerging winemakers who seek the mentorship of those who have come before them.

That was also the year McNeilly moved his operation to Woodinville’s Warehouse District. He chose Woodinville because of the existing synergy and community of wineries that was present and growing.

“With all the other wineries around here, it’s a great opportunity to learn from other people,” he said.

From his winery in the Warehouse District and a separate tasting room in the Tourist District, McNeilly has seen the tremendous growth Woodinville’s wine industry has undergone since his arrival, but he sees room for more growth still.

“It’s exciting; it’s ever-growing. I think greater Seattle understands a little bit about the quality of wine and the amount of wineries out here. It feels like it’s about to explode,” he said. “I think some support for these businesses would be good. Restaurants, delis, coffee shops, just some other things for people to do that complement what we’re already doing.”

While we can thank the earliest Woodinville wineries for establishing roots in an area that has proven highly fertile for selling wine, McNeilly believes it’s the efforts of the wineries working together to put Washington on the map that continue to grow the industry.

“At the end of the day we are all still trying to promote Washington wines and in the world of wines we’re a very small player. I think  really fostered this environment of helping other Washington wineries succeed,” McNeilly said.

His own commitment to “paying it forward” was a contributing factor in McNeilly being named 2011 Winemaker of the Year by Seattle Magazine.

“I got a lot of help when I got started, so I continue to offer help to new guys that come in, knowing that it’s not about just Mark Ryan Winery, it’s about Washington State wine. And so I think the more good quality wines that are out there the better it is for our industry. And ultimately it comes back to us with better sales,” he said.

New releases

Special events 

Saturday, June 11 

  • , 14111 NE 145th St., is hosting a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor in the Chateau Amphitheater at 2:45 p.m. General admission tickets are $39; reserve seating is $65. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster or in the Chateau Wine Shop beginning at 10 a.m.
  • Kestrel Vintners, 19501 144th Ave. NE, Suite C900, hosts a Truffle Making Class from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. where you will learn how to make three types of truffles and taste three different wines, plus make some truffles to take home for later (or the ride home). The cost is $45 per person and you need to RSVP through Kestrel’s Facebook page to participate.
  • , 16116 140th Place NE, is pairing with Corks and Canvas Events to bring you another evening of wine and instructor-led painting from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $45 which includes a glass of Matthews wine and all the supplies you need to create your own Lighthouse masterpiece to take home. Purchase your ticket online, or pay with cash at the door (see website for RSVP details).

Sunday, June 12

  • , 14111 NE 145th St., continues its summer concert series with an Acoustic Evening with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45 for general seating, $65 for reserved seating. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster or in the Chateau Wine Shop daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • , 14208 Woodinville-Redmond Road NE, invites you to raise a glass to the arrival of summer with the Summer Solstice Celebration from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the winery. Upon your arrival, you’ll get a glass of the newest release, the Doyenne 2010 rosé, and then sample a selection of the current vintages. Chef Bobby Moore from the Barking Frog will be preparing a summer BBQ picnic to pair with the rosé. Tickets cost $30 per person, plus tax and can be purchased online. You get a logo glass and special gift to take home as well.

Tuesday, June 14

  • in Redmond will host a seven-course wine dinner featuring chef John Sarich of Chateau Ste. Michelle on both Tuesday and Wednesday with a reception course beginning at 6:15 p.m. Sarich will make a short presentation about the wines that have been selected during the reception period and then visit each table for a more in depth discussion during dinner. All wines will be available for purchase for a discounted price at the end of the meal. The cost is $65; call 425-885-2646 to reserve a spot.

Thursday, June 16

  • 14450 Woodinville Redmond Road, is also hosing a Corks and Canvas evening this week. On Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. you’ll be painting Walla Walla Wheat Fields while sampling Apex wine. Tickets may be purchased online in advance or with cash at the door (see website for RSVP information).
  • Woodinville Warehouse Wineries suggest you purchase tickets early for their most popular Third Thursday Wine Walk: Chocolate and Cheese, as there will be a cap on the number sold. Find out which chocolates and cheeses pair best with which wines and why as you visit the participating wineries. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online or at the ticket tent (located at 19501 144th Ave. NE, between buildings B and C). The wineries’ doors will be open to you from 4 to 8 p.m., and you can find a complete listing of participating wineries and vendors by viewing the ticketing link above and remember to bring your own glass.

Coming Soon

  • Brian Carter Cellars Summer Solstice Celebration falls on Father’s Day, June 19, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., this year and tickets are on sale now for this event that will feature Corrida, Brian Carter’s Spanish-style wine, flamenco guitarist Mario Amaya, tapas from  and tastes of the newest vintages of three other wines. Tickets are $45, plus tax (includes a 15 percent discount on wine purchases that day) or $20, plus tax, for the under-21 and other non-wine drinking party-goers. Space is limited; see website for purchasing details.
  • Winemaster (and Brewmaster) Festival of Washington at the Red Hook Brewery grounds, 14300 NE 145th St., takes place on July 27 from 5 to 9 p.m. Tickets cost $49 and are on sale now. In addition to cheering on your favorite winemakers and brewmasters as they compete in the Winemaker Olympics, you’ll enjoy food from favorite gourmet food trucks and live music. This event raises funds for Heartbeat, serving wounded warriors.

Tasting room happenings 

All month long 

  • Dusted Valley continues to reward Passport to Woodinville holders with a special Midweek Boondoggle: Stop by with your passport, stamped or not, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 5 p.m. to enjoy winery-only offerings on Dusted Valley.
  • Matthews Estate has a big jar of corks in the tasting room and wants you to guess how many are in it. Stop in any day of the week to submit your entry; the closest guess wines a three year vertical of the 2006, 2007 and not-yet-released 2008 claret. Must be 21 or older to participate.
  • Otis Kenyon Wine is offering Merlot Vertical Gift Boxes, only 24 available, at a special price of $100; wine club members receive another 15 percent off. Included are the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages.
  • Hollywood Schoolhouse Wineries J. Bookwalter, Mark Ryan Winery, Pepper Bridge Winery/Amavi Cellars and Ross Andrew Winery are hosting B.Y.O.P (bring your own picnic, pork, party…) every Thursday in June from 4 to 8 p.m. The wineries will provide the grills and you’re encouraged to bring dinner that can be thrown on the barbie. No cost to attend; each winery will be pouring their latest releases which you can purchase by the flight, glass or bottle.
  • Red Sky Winery is beginning Summer Sundays; the tasting room will be open every Sunday in June from 1 to 4 p.m. and will feature the 2010 rosé, 2009 semillon and 2008 Sunrise.
  • Tefft Cellars is hosting The Art of the Vine, vineyard art by local photographer Richard Duval through the end of the month.

Saturday, June 11 

  • Two Vintners, 18572 142nd Ave. NE, continues its release weekend from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. Come by and try the 2010 grenache blanc and 2009 Seven Hills syrah.
  • , 19501 144th Ave. NE, Suite D300, is pairing chocolate with red wine and vanilla wafers with the white on Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. There is a $5 tasting fee per person.
  • , 19501 144th Ave. NE, Suite B600, hosts a Meet the Artist reception where Gary A. Gibson will be on hand to discuss his art from 5 to 8 p.m. Working in acrylics and oil and using toothpicks and popsicle sticks instead of brushes, Gary describes his textured works as “Studies of Color.” The artwork will be on display through mid-July.
  • , 19501 144th Ave. NE, Suite F300, is celebrating the release of the 2010 Little Rojo rose on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Come by to sample this wine that received a silver medal this year at the annual Rosé Revival event at Ray’s Boathouse.
  • , 15007 Woodinville-Redmond Road, is bringing in Maximus/Minimus barbecue for you to feast on while enjoying live music during its first Reserve Wine Release from 1 to 5 p.m. (The Maximus/Minimus pig truck departs at 3 p.m.) These limited release wines were made from the best barrels of red in 2008. Named for the owners’ daughters, each one features a label painted by the wine’s namesake; Olivia, Keegan and Eliana will even be on hand to “sign” your bottles. Visit the website for RSVP details. $14.95 covers your barbecue meal, and the tasting fee is waived for this event. 
  • , 19501 144th Ave. NE, Suite B400, is celebrating the release of two red blends, 2008 Sericus and 2008 Cuvee, with free tastings, complimentary food pairings and live music on Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
  • , 16110 Woodinville-Redmond Road NE, Suite 5, is releasing its sangiovese rosé this weekend and invites you to sample this summer favorite Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m to 7 p.m.

Wednesday, June 15

  • , 15608 NE Woodinville-Duvall Place, hosts Wine Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. This week’s featured winery is Covington Cellars, pouring four wines paired with a sampling of great Italianissimo appetizers for $15.

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