Every wine aficionado remembers when and where it happened. That first glass of wine that made you stop and go “Wow, this is great!” It’s no different for us, except that it probably happened more than once! This is our improbable wine journey that has culminated in realizing our lifelong dream of owning our own winery. Contact us for more details
We hope you enjoy reading our story as much as we’ve enjoyed living it. And, of course, we hope that you’ll enjoy our wines. Jennifer and I met in 1999 in San Diego while working together at a biotechnology company. I was a molecular biologist, and Jennifer was an administrative assistant. She says it all started over the fax machine, but that’s another story (because it has nothing to do with wine).
Not to digress, we soon started dating, and frequenting the wineries of Temecula, Santa Barbara, Los Olivos, San Luis Obispo, and Paso Robles became regular weekend jaunts for us and our trusty companion, Hogan, our German Shepherd.
We felt unique among wine tasters as we shunned the posh spas and bed and breakfast places because we preferred to camp. Time after time we’d cram the car full of camping gear and the big smelly dog and wonder as we pulled away from home how we’d find room to bring back all the wonderful wine discoveries we’d make. Somehow we always found a way.
Introductory Fermentation 101
My love and interest of wine came about by a very circuitous route. I attended graduate school at UC Berkeley in the Biochemistry Department and did my Ph.D. thesis on the genetic control of yeast mating. That may sound like a bunch of genetic mumbo jumbo to some, but it did provide me with a lot of hands-on experience growing and culturing yeast in the lab, and the critical importance of sterile technique.
Soon some of my lab mates and I discovered some other cool things that yeast could do…ferment sugar to alcohol. Not that it was a ground-breaking discovery, it had been known for a few thousand years. But our revelation as poor, underpaid graduate students was a route to cheap beer. So back in the mid-1980’s I took up the hobby of home brewing (which I still do today, incidentally).
Now with over a hundred batches of homebrew to my credit, I consider myself somewhat skilled at controlled fermentation. Would there be other opportunities to apply this skill in life? Only time would tell.
Wine of the Year, 1994
I remained a beer guy for many years after that. The question “Wine or beer?” was not really the right question it seemed to me; it was more like “Which beer?” I just didn’t have much of an interest or palate for wine. In fact, on a few occasions while living in San Francisco in the 1990s, I declined to join groups of friends heading off to Napa for the day to taste wine.
It seems so sacrilegious now. Then one time I found myself at a Christmas party with a bunch of wine snobs. There wasn’t a beer in sight. These people were all talking and raving about the recent Wine Spectator “Wine of the Year” for 1994. It was the 1990 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Special Selection’ and our host, Adrian, just happened to have a bottle that he was going to share with us. This was one of those wines that made you go “Wow!” and so yet another unsuspecting person began his journey seeking the next great wine.
I spent the next few years tasting as many different varietals, styles, and regions as I could manage. I became a sponge for wine knowledge. In the course of this immersion process Pinot Noir soon became my preference. This grape, when done right made wines that were so subtle, smooth, and delicate that they became a true joy to savor and explore.
Soon thereafter the thought became implanted in my brain that I must seek the Holy Grail! I must go to Burgundy!
The French Connection
In the winter of 2000, only a few weeks after the dreaded Y2K bug had turned out to be the non-event of a lifetime, I found myself headed to Paris on business for, get this, two weeks! There was a pair of back-to-back science conferences that left me a free long weekend in between. So I hopped the TGV out of Gare de Lyon in Paris and headed off to Beaune, the undisputed capital of Burgundy.
This turned out to be a wine tasting experience like none other. Instead of tasting fairly new wines in small studios and tasting rooms in Southern California, here the wines were old, many over 10 years, and the tastings were often in caves beneath the city, some dating back to the 13th century. It was a haunting experience, in a good way, and made me think of the history of the land and people whose livelihood all these years was driven by the vineyards and caves that produced these fabulous burgundy wines. It was so thick with history and tradition.
There was one problem though. On this trip I was alone. I knew Jennifer was on a rapid rise in her interest in wine and enjoyment of it, and somehow I wanted to get her here to see this majesty and taste these wines. As I pondered this while sitting at the wine bar of Anthenaeum in Beaune, I noticed a small poster on the wall. It was announcing “Le Dégustation du Siècle” or “The Tasting of the Century.”
In November 2000 on the third weekend of the month, one of the big négotiants in Beaune, Patriarche Père et Fils, was holding a special tasting event featuring thirteen wines from 1959, which by most at that time was considered to be the vintage of the century in Burgundy. The thought of tasting thirteen wines that were older than me was mind-blowing enough.
The fact that this event was being held on Jennifer’s birthday was too good to be true and must be a sign! Impulsively I bought two tickets to the “Le Dégustation du Siècle” and two tickets for a lavish dinner in the caves the same evening for good measure. I was sure this would be the best birthday present Jennifer had ever received.
Le Dégusation du Siècle
November came faster than we expected, and soon we were flying across the Atlantic, headed for Paris. A few hours later by train, we arrived at Beaune, tired but eager with anticipation. As we walked towards the ramparts that surround the old central part of Beaune I could watch Jennifer’s eyes getting wider with the excitement of a kid at Disneyland. Both smiling, we walked through the ramparts and let the Burgundy experience take us away for a few days.
The next afternoon we arrived at Patriarche for the “Tasting of the Century.” We were assigned to a Sommelier to guide us through the tasting along with eight other patrons, grouped by language. We had a couple Scots, a couple Aussies, and a group of four people from Chicago. We introduced ourselves and chatted a bit while they provided us a 1998 Meursault Premier Cru to begin the program.
The wines of Meursault are one of the most distinctive expressions of Chardonnay. Deep, round, buttery, and biscuit-like. A truly brilliant way to start. Then we stepped closer to 1959, decade by decade. Next was a 1989 Volnay Premier Cru, followed by a 1979 Nuits St. Georges Premier Cru, then finally by 1969 Chambolle Musigny Grand Cru. Wow, I’d already had two wines older than anything I’d tried before, and we’d only just begun.
Then came the phenomenal, staggering series of 1959s. First, we started with a Batard-Montrachet, one of the most prized Burgundy white wines. Indescribable! Spectacular! Then came the reds, which included wines from the appellations of Pommard, Nuits St. Georges, Beaune, Gevrey-Chambertin, Grands Echezeaux, and the spectacular Corton Grand Cru.
To this day Corton Grand Cru probably remains my favorite wine, as the memory of this fine 1959 remains etched on my palate. Of course I have yet to try the fabled Romanée Conti, so one day that may change.
Youth & Enthusiasm vs Age & Treachery
If you’ve ever had a spectacular old wine, you will know what I am raving about. As a great wine ages, at some point it reaches a point where the tannins fade away and even the alcohol seems subdued leaving behind a rainbow palate of fruit, earth, and other components of the territory. Like silk, it coats your tongue and seductively slides down your throat, all the while conjuring up memories of the year and times in Burgundy that made that vintage.
This experience was almost too much to take in and digest in such a short time. It was admittedly, a bit of a blur. Any superlative that I could come up with at the moment almost seemed too unoriginal. One thing that was very clear however, this day would change our lives and our paths forever.
We emerged from the 13th-century caves into the fading sunlight and cool autumn air of Beaune silent and overwhelmed. We grabbed a taxi and headed back to our hotel room to re-charge our batteries. We still had a fancy dinner to attend at the Château de Marsannay, and more fine wines to try.
Hospices de Beaune
The third weekend in November for nearly 150 years in Beaune is the Vente de Vins, or wine auction to benefit the Hospices de Beaune. Over the years rows of vines and small portions of vineyards have been donated to the Hospices. Each year the wine made from these vines are auctioned of en piece, or in barrels. It is a grand weekend of fine wines, new and old, great Burgundian food, and a wonderful, whimsical parade through the streets of Beaune.
This event has become an annual trek for me and Jennifer. Beaune has become somewhat of a second home to us. It feels familiar and comfortable each time we return to this old world jewel in the French countryside.
Leading up to our trip to the Hospices de Beaune in November 2002, I was starting to have some big thoughts about life. Jennifer and I had been together for over three years. I had never been with anyone that long before, and frankly I couldn’t imagine myself being with someone else. For the first time in my life, I thought about marriage.
And what a better place for a proposal than France. I wanted to propose to her in the caves of Patriarche. A month or so before we left, I sent an email to an acquaintance, Löic, who worked at Patriarche. I wanted to have him set up a bottle of Corton Grand Cru in one of their private vestibules in the caves for us where I would ask Jennifer to marry me. For some reason my email was never received or answered, I don’t quite know. So off to France we went, me with a half-baked plan for a proposal of marriage in my head, searching for the details.
I had to pick the right setting, but where? One afternoon we were walking through the streets of Beaune and decided to pop into an internet café to check our email. After I had deleted all the ones for mortgage offers and various male enhancement supplements, I had nothing interesting to read, so I handed the keyboard off to Jennifer.
She had a few emails, including one from my brother, Rob. She opened the email and read it, and I was reading over her shoulder. Hey we have no secrets, right? Somewhere about half way down the email he said, “So do you have a rock on your finger yet?” We both looked at each other and laughed nervously. To change the subject we went for a glass of wine.
I knew I had to act now. A proposal anytime in the future would be trite or unremarkable….it had to be today. So slyly I suggested that tonight might be a good night for us to have dinner in our favorite restaurant in Beaune, Le Cheval Bleu in Hotel Central. We have always loved this restaurant. It is very simple but the food is wonderful, each plate a work of art.
And we think they provide the best cheese selection, or “assiette de fromage” that we have experienced. So about half way through our meal, I nervously brought up the subject in a somewhat awkward, roundabout way. I said something to the effect that I had been talking with Hogan (my German Shepherd) and we had decided that we wanted Jennifer to be a member of our family.
She started to smile and I figured she got the drift so I was going to leave it at that but she insisted that I say the words. So I did, “Will you marry me?”
Blazing the Oregon Trail
On our first trip together to Burgundy in 2000, we were interested in understanding from the local winemakers and enthusiasts in Burgundy what they thought of our California wines. What surprised us was that person after person when we asked the question, immediately wanted to talk about Oregon, not California.
It seems that a mutual rivalry, admiration, and respect had been growing between these two Pinot Noir focused regions. We had not had many, if any, Oregon Pinots at this point, but we came home determined to learn more. We discovered an event in McMinnville in July called the International Pinot Noir Celebration, or IPNC. Each year it brings together sixty producers from Oregon, California, France, and elsewhere for a week of seminars, tours, dinners, and the Grand Tasting, a lovely afternoon event set in an oak grove on the campus of Linfield College.
Oregon’s wine country has a remarkable charm about it, and some surprising similarities to Burgundy, even beyond the wines. There are many great restaurants in the area like the Joel Oliver House, the Painted Lady, and Nick’s Italian Café, that not only have wine lists of six or seven pages (and that’s just the Oregon ones) but have a real commitment to using quality local produce in their dishes.
In addition, if you have ever been to both regions, the next time you find yourself driving south out of Dundee on 99W towards McMinnville, look to your right towards the Dundee Hills. You can swear you are driving south on the N74 through Pommard and Meursault looking at the Côtes de Beaune.
Off to Hollywood
When we returned to the US, Jennifer was intent on finding a job in the wine industry. My career in biotechnology soon led us from San Diego to Los Angeles, where we lived for nearly four years. One of our favorite places to hang out was a wine bar in Santa Monica called the Broadway Deli. One night, while chatting with our favorite wine bar server, Michelle, she revealed to us that she would soon be leaving the wine bar to pursue her dream in filmmaking. She soon decided that she wanted Jennifer to replace her at the wine bar. For the next couple of years, Jennifer became the dispenser of wine and wine tales alike at the Broadway Deli, and she cultivated a diverse and eclectic clientele who, like clockwork, showed up nearly every night she worked. I admit I became one of those regular patrons, and we had many a fun night hanging out with friends in the Broadway Deli.
The Deli was a great place to learn about wine. Each week they changed their rotating “by the glass” menu so there were several new things to try every time you went in. Of course, it was also a great place for people watching, situated on a busy corner along the Third Street promenade. And you never knew who you might catch a glimpse of or even sit next to at the wine bar.
We’ve got stories of Brooke Shields, Steven Spielberg, Axl Rose, Helen Hunt, and the guy who played Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H. Believe me, that last one was a funny one!
Ah, What the Heck
Although The Deli was a great place to learn about wine, hang out with friends, and meet interesting people, it really wasn’t the place to learn about the wine business. So Jennifer set her sights elsewhere and soon landed a job in Burbank with Heck Estates, which owns three premium Sonoma county wineries,
Kenwood Vineyards, Valley of the Moon, and Lake Sonoma. Jennifer was now the assistant to the National Sales Manager for Heck Estates, Dick Reeves. Her knowledge of the industry now had a chance to grow under Dick’s mentorship as she became exposed to many other aspects of operating in the wine business: sales, marketing, distribution, brokerages, and hospitality.
I think her crowning achievement was organizing an event for the 2004 Santa Fe Wine & Chile Festival, a five-course wine pairing dinner that Heck Estates threw to honor their highest volume distributors. It was a smashing success, and both Dick and I were proud of her. She clearly had a knack for this wine industry stuff.
Advanced Fermentation 201
Something else important happened during those years in Los Angeles. I had been out of the home brewing hobby for a few years and was eager to get back into it. One afternoon in July of 2001, we stopped off at a local homebrew supply shop in Woodland Hills to pick up some grains and hops to make a batch of my trusty pale ale.
As we were wandering around the shop, we noticed a sign on the wall announcing co-op sales of wine grapes from Paso Robles vineyards for home winemakers. I had always been interested in making wine at home, it seemed like a natural progression from home brewing. But I had no interest in making wines from kits or concentrates.
All of a sudden, when we saw this notice on the wall, our collective light bulbs went off in our heads. And in one of the most impulsive decisions of my life, I left the homebrew shop with not only my $20 worth of grains and hops, but I’d also put a deposit down on 500 pounds of Zinfandel and 300 pounds of Syrah.
The Home Beer, Wine, and Cheese Making Shop, as it was called, in Woodland Hills had a great set-up and process for home winemakers. The owner, John Daumé, also had his own winery in Camarillo. He would arrange grapes for home winemakers that piggy-backed on his orders.
You would participate in the crush at his winery, and then take home your grapes to ferment. He also provided everyone with use of a press, a corker, and other equipment. Additionally he’d run a beginner’s winemaking class and provide some basic analysis of your wines the following spring. It was a great way to get involved in winemaking without a huge initial investment.
In 2003 we changed tactics. Instead of making many small batches of different varietals, we decided to do only two varietals, but to do a standard 225-liter barrel of each. In addition, we became much more adventuresome in our search for grapes. This year we managed to get some excellent Zinfandel from the Dry Creek area of Sonoma County. Also from Sonoma, we got half a ton of Russian River Pinot Noir.
Since we made regular trips to Burgundy, and now also to Oregon in our endless quest for great Pinots, we have met a lot of winemakers who regaled us with many sad and frustrating tales of the finicky Pinot Noir grape. Were we diving in headlong first into his too quickly? Hmmm….nah! Damn the torpedoes! Besides, how often do you get access to Russian River Pinot Noir fruit for less than a dollar a pound?
We found making large amounts of a single wine a lot easier than many smaller batches. We were starting to appreciate the economy of scale. We were embracing the old adage, less is more, sort of. Our Friday night ritual was to wander off to the garage with a couple glasses and the wine thief and do barrel samples.
The 2003 Zinfandel was rock solid start to finish, having that classic stewed plum and prune flavor. The Pinot was, well, drinkable but not remarkable. Then one night in March, after the weather had started to warm up a bit, we headed to the garage for our weekly barrel tasting. Suddenly our Pinot had turned a corner and tasted like a Pinot should! And a pretty darn good one at that too.
This wine was far and away the best one we had ever made, with reputedly the most difficult of grape. Perhaps we just had that “je ne sais quoi,” that intangible ability to make decent wine. Maybe we just could do this after all. We even dared enough to take a few bottles of our 2003 Russian River Pinot Noir to France one year and let the critics, the French and English friends we’d cultivated over the years, have at it…with very encouraging reviews!
The Crescent City
Now I don’t want people to get the wrong impression. Jennifer and I actually do more than drink wine. We love to travel, whether it is a camping weekend on the coast, our annual trip to France, or fishing wherever we can drop a hook and line in the water. When I first met Jennifer I found out that she loved to collect masks.
Often when I would go away on a trip, I would return with a new mask for her collection. It dawned on me one day that a woman who loved to travel, loved to party, and loved to collect masks, would probably love New Orleans.
I had visited New Orleans once before in 1994. I think one thing about the Crescent City that always resonated with me was its age and its history. I have always loved the Old World, the grand cities of Europe, London, Paris, and Munich. Coming from a country with only a few hundred years of recorded history, walking through streets and buildings that were so much older has always been a spiritual experience.
More than anywhere else I have visited in America, New Orleans has a charm and personality that is thick and haunting…and French! What’s not to love? And with the traditions of Mardi Gras and Carnival, I am sure she would find some great new masks to add to her collection.
The New Orleans Wine & Food Expo
Like France, New Orleans has become an annual destination for us. One year, quite by accident, our passion for wine, and the New Orleans experience unexpectedly collided. Jennifer was working at Heck Estates in Burbank at this time. We were about to head to New Orleans for Memorial Day weekend.
A few days earlier she was talking with one of her colleagues, Todd, about what each was doing for the long weekend. It turned out Todd was also going to New Orleans that weekend, to pour Heck Estate wines at the New Orleans Wine & Food Expo. How could it be? It must be a sign!
Todd arranged a couple passes for us to attend one of the Grand Tastings. Over 80 wineries, 20 restaurants, in just four hours. What a blast we had. Later that evening we checked out a new wine bar in the Warehouse District called the Wine Loft. Now defunct, the Wine Loft was at the time a new tapas bar that had an impressive list of wines by the bottle and glass. And as you can imagine, this weekend was bustling and there were a lot of premium pours to be had. In typical fashion, we worked the progression from the whites to Pinot to the more substantial reds. To finish off, we tried something very new and unknown to us. It was a bit of a roll of the dice because this choice also happened to be the most expensive glass on the menu.
It was a 2000 Bookwalter Cabernet sauvignon at $17 a glass. We knew California wines pretty well. We knew Pinot Noir well, with the time we spent in Burgundy and Oregon. But Washington was still a mystery to us. Seventeen bucks a glass seemed a little steep, but hey, we were on vacation.
But this wine by Bookwalter really blew our minds. It was deep, smooth, and velvety, with tastes of chocolate, coffee, and dark fruits. We agreed that it was the best wine we had tasted that year. And at that moment the Washington wine country was a destination on our schedule for sometime in the future.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Another old saying goes “Be careful what you wish for.” The year 2004 was a tumultuous one for Jennifer and me. We were recently married and had just bought a new house in Thousand Oaks. Then suddenly my biotech job vanished and we were left in limbo for several months. I tried in vain to find employment in the Los Angeles area and elsewhere in California, but to no avail.
I had to broaden my search elsewhere, so I started looking everywhere across the country. I even entertained a research position in New Zealand. We came very close to becoming Kiwis, but it never materialized. Seattle has traditionally been a center of biotechnology so it was an obvious place to look for the next phase of my career.
I had grown up in British Columbia, so the Northwest was very comfortable and familiar to me. However, I had never considered Central Washington as a career destination, let alone a place to live. One thing led to another, and soon I had an offer to join the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in a business development position.
When I visited, it seemed like a small and sleepy place, but it was right smack in the middle of the Columbia Valley wine region, the home of that fabulous Bookwalter wine we had tasted a couple years earlier. The thought of being able to make wines from those grapes was very appealing. And at the time the California housing boom was in full tilt, and once we sold our house we just might be able to do something to fulfil our dream.
So off we went, with tears in our eyes, to Washington State. For someone who had lived much of his adult life in the Bay Area, I never imagined myself living in LA, let alone liking it. But after four great years, it was hard to leave because “We Love LA,” and still miss it there.
Jennifer’s Lunar Landing
When Jennifer made her first visit to Washington, I think she felt like she’s landed on the moon when she got off the plane at the Pasco airport. She was a Southern California beach girl through and through, and this was going to take some getting used to….some real getting used to.
We ended up in a 600-square-foot apartment while we waited for our house in LA to sell. We used empty boxes for furniture and a blow-up mattress for a couch to watch TV. Hogan loved it for there is little better when you’re a dog to be able to snuggle at the same level as your humans. Jennifer and I, however, were beginning to feel like trailer trash and were at each other’s throats.
In the nick of time our house in California sold and we soon found ourselves in a beautiful new, albeit problematic home in Richland. We had a bit more room to roam, but spent the next year battling with one contractor after another trying to make our house a home.
We came to Washington with big dreams. We were going to buy some land, plant a huge estate vineyard, and build the winery of our dreams. In fact we twice made an offer on the same 110-acre parcel of land in Benton City but both times we were not able to reach an agreement with the sellers.
Maybe in the end, someone was looking out for us and it was all for the better. Meanwhile, Jennifer was trying desperately to break into the wine business in the area. She came here with years of valuable experience in the business in California, but no one seemed interested in offering her anything more than a part-time position in a tasting room.
She felt like an outsider, and unappreciated for her talents, and rightly so. She grew dejected and we grew apart.
Eye of the Storm
Every once in a while the worst of times offers an opportunity for self-improvement and actualization. Our lives were turned upside down in early 2006, and we briefly separated.
During those very difficult times, we both resolved to put the past behind us and work together to make our lives better, to appreciate each other more, and to make our dreams happen.
We re-committed to each other, set out determined to start our own winery in Washington, and make it a smashing success. We’ve been on the go ever since, each day bringing exciting new developments as we work to make our dream a reality.
Lost in a Masquerade
We chose the name Masquerade for our winery because we thought the word best weaved together many of our memories and passions, our love of travel, of France, of New Orleans, and our love of the celebration, mystery, and intrigue that wine brings to life, not to mention Jennifer’s penchant for collecting masks.
In fact, our concept of Masquerade was born years ago as home winemakers. We’d label our wine with pictures of funky masks and give them as gifts, and enter in trade shows and competitions. But now it’s for real, and Masquerade has come a long way indeed, as have Jennifer and I.
So there you have it, the odd journey of a couple Francophile Pinot Noir freaks who ended up in the Columbia Valley to make wine. We are in Cabernet and Syrah country and we aim to take full advantage of it. ! I wonder if Bob Dylan had us in mind when he wrote in one of his songs, “I started out on Burgundy, but soon hit the harder stuff.” Stranger things have happened.
The City of Subdued Excitement
Finally, in August 2007 our dreams became reality when we opened our tasting room and production facility at the brand new Winemaker’s Loft in Prosser, a co-operative multi-tenant winemaking facility. In 2011, after several years in eastern Washington, we decided to move our entire operation west, to the Bellingham, the City of Subdued Excitement.
We think that slogan perfectly encapsulates what we are all about at Masquerade. In late July 2011 we re-opened our brand new winery and tasting room on Iowa Street, Bellingham’s Auto Row and so became Bellingham’s first Urban Winery!
We hope you will drop by, sample our wines, join our wine club, and perhaps participate in one of our events. And when you do, don’t forget to ask Jennifer to tell you her story about Colonel Potter!
Laissez les bons vins verser!
Bill & Jennifer Kimmerly
Owners, Masquerade Wine Company