For Craig and Vicki Leuthold, Owners of Maryhill Winery,
Winemaking Isn’t Just Another Job… It’s a Calling
Since the winery opened in 1999, Maryhill has enjoyed a steady growth, now producing more than 80,000 cases of wine per year, all while staying focused on its successful direct-to-consumer business model.
By Mark Storer
Few winery owners in Washington state boast that their careers began in North Idaho, and maybe that rare example is what makes Craig and Vicki Leuthold say that winemaking isn’t just another job, it’s a calling. “Both Vicki and I wanted a change in our careers, and we had a passion for wine and the wine industry and that’s really how we came to open Maryhill,” Craig said.
Craig was working for a Fortune 200 company selling raw plastic materials throughout the northwest and Vicki was part of a family-owned office coffee service, the second in the U.S. to sell Starbucks coffee to the wholesale trade. Together, they started Maryhill Winery and it has grown steadily since it opened in 1999, becoming a Washington icon, while staying focused on its roots, its connections to local vintners and an almost radical connection to its customers.
The Leutholds lived, as they do now, in Spokane and belonged to the North Idaho Enological Society. “The Spokane Enological Society was hundreds of people, and we wanted something a little more intimate, so we joined the North Idaho Society,” Craig explained. “We ended up becoming board members and stayed for a little over a decade and really enjoyed meeting winemakers and distributors. We recognized that all of these people were passionate about the industry, and that’s something we shared in common.”
Craig said that they still share that passion, and they wanted to create not only a new winery, but a new business model, and so, Maryhill was born. “It wasn’t just a financial transaction we built where people come into a tasting room, and we work to extract dollars from them, it was building one-on-one relationships through creating a destination winery where people could come and spend time, enjoy the patio, relax and enjoy a tasting or a glass of wine,” he said. “When we first built the tasting room in Goldendale, people weren’t building destination wineries, and ironically the state had just passed a law while we were building allowing a winery to serve a glass of wine on site. Before that, wineries could just offer tastings, but not a glass of wine,” Craig explained, adding: “We wanted to create a space where people could spend time, and create memories.”
That philosophy has earned Maryhill the honor of being named Winery of the Year three times, once as Washington Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest, once as Winery of the Year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition and once at the Indianapolis International Wine Competition. And in 2022, the winery was named Most Valuable Producer of the Year at the Seattle Wine Awards.
The winery sits on vineyards farmed by the Gunkel family in Goldendale, WA., along the Columbia River Gorge, which is considered Maryhill’s “estate” vineyard. As a destination winery, the facility boasts an amphitheater that saw top-run summer concerts offered up through 2018. Craig said they had to end the concerts when more venues, particularly in the casinos throughout the state, started attracting more of the musical acts and prices began to increase. But the concerts were an added plus, and the winery still boasts an attractive view of the Gorge, Mt. Hood and the vineyard itself while offering tastings, glass and bottle purchases and small plates of food.
“Because we have a long-term contract, we can call the Gunkel family fruit our estate fruit,” said Craig. “But we made the decision right away that we were going to source grapes from multiple vineyards.” After talking with wine industry people, Craig said it was always apparent that Maryhill Winery would source grapes, rather than grow them, and they source from all over the state, from the Wahluke Slope in central Washington down to the Columbia River Gorge, and through Yakima, Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla and other places.
Over the years, steady growth has allowed the Leutholds to open tasting rooms in Spokane, Woodinville and Vancouver. Several years ago, the couple “dipped their toes” in the distribution world and tried to go national, but the effort wasn’t as successful as they would have liked and they pulled back to about a dozen western states where their wines can be found.
Maryhill now produces a bit over 80,000 cases of wine per year, and still, most of their business is strictly the direct-to-consumer model. “Once you leave the Pacific Northwest, you’re just one more brand in a sea of wine,” Craig explained. “I think we’ll continue our trajectory of growth, but the vast majority of start-up wineries now are doing it because they have a passion for it, or because they want this lifestyle.”
Craig said that a Washington winery can exist fairly well as a direct-to-consumer business making between 2,000 and 8,000 cases of wine per year with a tasting room or two. “It was the primary reason why we decided to shift. We didn’t do away with distribution because that’s still an important part of our business, but we opened the urban tasting rooms to expose our wines to more people, continue to build the wine club and grow in that aspect.”
The growth Maryhill has enjoyed has been poured right back into the winery.
Craig works with head winemaker Richard Batchelor, and with 35 different varieties of grapes and 60 distinct bottlings. “We want someone to come in and say, ‘OK, so this is what a Barbera from Washington tastes like,’ or ‘I’ve never heard of Mourvedre before, or Marsanne or any other of the varieties we can grow in Washington state,” Craig said. “Our wine club allows people to taste 35 different varieties of grapes, and they’re going to be able to taste some of these more obscure varieties that they’ve never tried. It’s about giving people a reason to visit you and enjoy your wines.”
Batchelor, a native of New Zealand, attended Lincoln University in his home country where he majored in horticulture, and then obtained a postgraduate degree in viticulture and enology. “I served an internship at St. Francis Winery in Sonoma, California,” Batchelor said. “That’s when my practical education began. I don’t think you ever stop learning about wine. I’m still learning all the AVAs in Washington, and all the different locations. There are a lot of surprises here, which is really nice.”
Craig’s winemaking philosophy, which Batchelor shares, is a minimalist approach, with the old adage, “good wine is made in the vineyard,” at the core of their belief. “Richard takes great care of those grapes. Nature delivers us 90 % of what’s going to come out of the bottle. We can use different oak, and some technically different fermentation to bring out different nuances, but we like to let the fruit do the work,” he said.
“We do native fermentations on all of them, and those different yeasts provide different flavor profiles,” said Batchelor, who has been named Washington Winemaker of the Year three times.. “We don’t inoculate any of our reds.” Another of those technical additions include Batchelor’s addition of glycol temperature control on all of the wine tanks that allows him to either cool or warm them. During harvest, when the weather turns cold, Craig said that they wanted to make sure the softer flavors and tannins get extracted from the skins, so they raise the temperature up closer to 80, even 90 degrees in the tanks to allow that distinctive softness to come through.
Batchelor’s favorite area for vineyards right now is Elephant Mountain Vineyards, an area east of Union Gap, WA., on a south-facing slope. Joe Hattrup is the vintner and Batchelor said that he is currently buying about a dozen different varieties from Hattrup. “The slopes and topography are unique there and Joe has done a great job of experimenting over the years. He’s really put his effort into what grows best there,” Batchelor said.
“It’s some of the highest quality fruit we’ve seen,” said Craig. The vineyard is unique in that about two-thirds of the vineyard is below the Missoula floods, with sandy and gravelly loam, while the ancient glacial loess exists at the upper part of the vineyard, making for distinctive grape-growing areas and styles.
While Batchelor spends his days making the wines with a production staff of nine people, Craig spends time sourcing the grapes, working with growers and confirming the contracts, and getting different varieties of fruit. It’s not as easy as it may seem, of course. For example, on the Wahluke Slope, labor is getting harder to come by and many vineyards there are turning to machine harvesting. “Well, that goes counter-culture to what we’re trying to do with our vineyard series of wines, so we’ve had to find another source. But by and large, we’ve worked with the same growers for the last six to eight years,” Craig said. “Richard is entering his 14th vintage with us, and we’ve built so much trust that we don’t think we have to have a lot of conversations about how the wine is made. We’ve got it down to the form and function of what needs to be done.”
Meanwhile, Vicki has taken a step back from the day-to-day operations while Craig continues to do that work. “She’s with me in all the meetings that we have, but before the pandemic she stopped traveling as much as I was, but now, even I don’t travel as much.” Craig said that post pandemic the industry has changed quite a bit and the demand of distributors for winemakers to visit their customers has almost disappeared. “We have a national sales manager, but people have changed the way they do business. Now, the money we’d spend on talking in-person to distributors is spent on incentives and in other areas,” he said.
One of those areas of growth is opening the tasting rooms in Vancouver, Woodinville and Spokane. As Portland suffers in the aftermath of lockdowns and what Craig calls, “the lack of political will to deal with the homelessness problem,” Vancouver has grown and its waterfront area has developed a mixed-use area that is blooming. “They didn’t take advantage of the same waterfront on the Portland side, and so Vancouver has really grown and is a wonderful place,” Craig said. Several other wineries have also opened tasting rooms on the Vancouver waterfront and the area has become an evening and weekend destination spot.
The Woodinville facility was a natural choice to enter King County. Woodinville now has more than 100 tasting rooms, and with its reputation as a winery destination, Maryhill occupies a standout spot with about 10,000 square-feet in the historic Hollywood Schoolhouse, a historic building from 1912.
The Spokane tasting room is located in the Kendall Yards area, and of course, Spokane is the Leuthold’s hometown. Opened in 2017, it was their first satellite tasting room and has enjoyed a growing region between Spokane and Coeur d’ Alene, just across the Idaho border.
Maryhill’s unique approach in everything from winemaking to wine distribution, to its customer interactions sets it apart from many other wineries. Craig said it’s all an ode to Vicki’s and his passion for an industry that is always seeking to better itself and find better, more practical, more environmentally friendly and more efficient ways to produce a great product. It certainly goes along with the saying you’ll find at Maryhill’s tasting rooms: “Passion. Patience. Balance.” In all three things, the Leutholds and their 125 employees practice them every day.
One of the best ways to experience the variety of Maryhill’s wines is to join one of the winery’s two wine clubs – Its Premium Wine Club and its Selection of Maryhill Wine Club. Benefits of becoming a Maryhill Wine Club member include special discounts, invitations to exclusive events, access to limited wines, weekly “Club Member Appreciation Days” that include 25% off all food menu items and $5 bottle discounts on Maryhill Proprietor’s Reserve wines and Vineyard Series wines, and complimentary tastings at all four Maryhill tasting rooms.
To learn more about joining one of Maryhill’s wine clubs, visit: www.maryhillwinery.com/Club.
Maryhill’s flagship winery and tasting room is located at 9774 Highway 14, Goldendale, WA. 98620. Phone: (509) 773-1976. Its three satellite tasting rooms are located in Spokane at 1303 W. Summit Parkway, Suite 100, Phone (509) 443-3832; in Vancouver at 801 Waterfront Way, Suite 105, Phone (360) 450-6211; and in Woodinville in the Hollywood School House at 14810 N.E.145th St., Suite A, Phone (425) 481-7925.
If you can’t get to any of Maryhill’s tasting rooms this summer, all of their current releases can be purchased from the winery’s online wine store at: www.maryhillwinery.com/Shop.