When Josh and Lisa Lawrence Decided to Launch Gård Vintners,
It Was Important to Them to Honor Their Scandinavian Heritage
The Lawrence’s business has grown dramatically in the past 20 years. They started out making 350 cases of wine in 2003 and this year (2023) the number of cases is expected to hit 12,000. They now have tasting rooms in Walla Walla, Woodinville, Ellensburg, and a future one in Chelan, plus a restaurant currently open in Royal City.
Story by Sebastian Moraga
Photos by William Muñoz.
For Josh and Lisa Lawrence, owners of Gård Vintners, honoring their family heritage was important.
So when they decided to get into the business of growing grapes and making wine, they decided to honor their Scandinavian heritage and use the Norwegian word, Gård, for their business. Pronounced “Gord” in its native tongue, it’s pronounced “Guard” when it comes to the winery.
Gård is the Norwegian word for farm. Other meanings include “land” and “estate”. They are three words that apply really well to the history of the Lawrence family, not just in the past 20 years since they began making wine, but in the decades prior, when Josh’s uncle and dad worked the land and grew apples, cherries and other crops.
When Josh’s elder relatives decided to retire near the end of 2010, he and Lisa lived in the Seattle area. Josh was working in the wine-importing business and dealing with feelings of guilt over bringing imported wine to a state he knew could produce some fine vintages on its own. So, after taking over the family farm, he and Lisa decided to give growing grapes a shot.
“We had this concept of, ‘We ought to plant some grapes and see what happens,’” he said. Of course, it wasn’t as wing-and-a-prayer as that. First, he and Lisa hired a consultant who looked things over and “assured us we weren’t crazy,” Josh said.
So, the Lawrences planted six acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and six acres of Riesling on Frenchman Hills near the town of Royal City, in Grant County, WA. The year was 2003. Two years later, they started producing wine, and a year after that the Lawrences decided to go commercial with their first wines.
There was some apprehension at the very beginning, but never fear. For Lisa, the idea of moving from a big city in Western Washington to the small town of Royal City in Eastern Washington was a big change, but it was her idea.
As with many who eschew the Seattle-area lifestyle for somewhere else in Washington, the nutty traffic and the hours spent in it played a big factor in finding a different zip code. “At the time, we were living in Redmond and we could have driven from Redmond to Royal City in the time it took us to drive 12 miles over the 520 bridge,” Josh recalled.
Another factor was not wanting to lose the ‘family’ in ‘family farm.’ With his uncle and dad ready to retire and other relatives not exactly lining up to take over, Josh saw it as a good opportunity to take over and keep it going, and make it flourish at the same time.
“The wine grapes for me were an opportunity to show off what the Royal Slope can do,” he says, referring to the AVA that houses his venture’s fruit.
Yet another factor was the alluring camaraderie of the wine industry. As a wine importer, he witnessed that firsthand when attending the old Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers convention, now known as WineVit.
“I had never seen farmers so willing to help other farmers,” Josh remembers. “In the farming industry, everyone is competing, but I’m a rising-tide kind of person. I believe that if my neighbor is doing well, I have a better opportunity to do well and my other neighbor has a better opportunity to do well. We believe in pulling for everybody.”
That’s the kind of “refreshing” vibe Josh got from the industry, and that helped him take the leap.
Listening to the Lawrences, one gets the idea that full-on enthusiasm was as key an ingredient to getting in the wine business, as was the great weather on the Royal Slope. Time and again, the Lawrences, especially Josh, mentioned the word “passion” when describing their ventures in the wine industry.
“We planted the grapes with a lot of passion, we started the winery with a lot of passion, and we kept it going with a lot of passion,” he said.
That passion has paid off in many ways. For starters, the learning curve for this erstwhile wine importer and his spouse was steep, but since they loved what they were doing, the learning was easy.
“If I’m reading about different varieties of alfalfa, I don’t get nearly as excited as when I’m reading about different varieties of wine grapes,” Josh said.
These days, in addition to using the grapes they grow to make their own wine, the Lawrences sell fruit to dozens of other wineries. Their business has grown in other ways as well. They now have tasting rooms in Walla Walla, Woodinville, Ellensburg, and a future one in Chelan, plus a restaurant currently open in Royal City. And they have a growing wine club with about 1,100 members overall.
“It’s fun because we get to tell our story and they get an idea of why we do what we do and why the wine they enjoy tastes the way it does,” Josh explained, adding that not even the bug that stunned the world for the better part of three years could decimate the wine club’s membership.
“People needed a lot of wine to get through COVID,” he quipped.
Lisa agreed. “We got really creative and we kept things going,” she said.
And they are not done. Not just because the tasting room in Chelan is still in its embryonic stage, and has not opened yet, but because the mad scientist that Josh carries inside likes to tinker with things.
“It’s always a work in progress,” Josh said of Gård Vintners. “We did the right thing but we can still do it better.” That desire to break new ground is in his bloodstream. Back in 1965, his uncle had the choice of taking over an established spot in Ephrata, or starting from scratch on Royal Slope, when nobody wanted to farm on a hill, Josh said.
By now, you know which one he chose, and Josh is grateful to this day for that choice. “On the Slope, we are able to do phenomenal reds and phenomenal whites,” he said.
What Josh started with 12 acres has now morphed into about 450. What started as six acres of Cab and Riesling has morphed into about 20 varietals.
Their website: www.gardvintners.com features, among others, a 2020 Pinot Gris, a 2019 Pinot Gris, a 2019 and a 2017 Riesling, a 2020 Rosé, a 2019 Merlot, a 2019 Pinot Noir, a 2020 Vaucluse (described by Josh as a Syrah-Grenache blend) a 2018 Cabernet, a 2020 Chardonnay, a 2019 Chardonnay, a 2021 Grenache, a 2019 Syrah, a 2019 Sparkling wine that’s a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend, a 2021 Freyja that’s a blend of Viognier and Roussanne, and a 2019 called The Don, which is a blend of 91 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, eight percent Syrah and one percent Cab Franc. Prices range between $22 and $85.
The Freyja and The Don have a well-established fandom, said Josh, but if there’s a flagship wine in the Gård Vintners portfolio it’s the Vaucluse.
“That’s what’s cool about the Royal Slope,” Josh said. “We have great elevation – 1,675 feet at the very top. Our lowest spot is 750 feet. So you’re talking a 900-foot swing. Every 100 feet you’re gaining temperature, and some frost risk, too, but we are able to pick late-ripening reds, and retain acids in these early-ripening whites. It’s a lot of fun.”
The end result is a blast for the Lawrences. The wine they make is the wine they would like to drink, Josh said. It wasn’t always the case. It took months of understanding what the Royal Slope could produce for Josh and Lisa to realize that it fit well with their own palates. With Matías Kusulas (pronounced COO-soo-lass), their Chilean viticulturlist at the helm, the Lawrences have come to understand why they like what they like.
“Knowing where the grapes come from, planting them, growing them from the ground up — all that makes you love that flavor, that style, that complexity,” Josh said.
The name on the label has proven to be a sleeper hit, with folks named Gard becoming fans of their sort-of namesake wine. Josh laughs when he thinks how many more fans they would have if they had stuck with the original idea of naming it Lawrence. The label on both the front and back of the bottle does carry the family name and that also catches the eye of a few Lawrences here and there. Lawrence Estate Wines is printed on the front of the bottle and Lawrence Vineyards is printed on the back.
“We are trying to push that a little more,” Josh said. “We are selling grapes to 60 other wineries and we want it to grow.”
One of the meanings of Gård is “estate.” That did not go unnoticed by the Lawrences when choosing a name. “It’s everything,” Lisa said when asked what it meant to be an estate vineyard. “It’s the foundation of everything we do.”
Josh agreed, “Being ‘estate’ gives us the utmost control in everything we do, from start to finish, just based on that ‘estate’ aspect.” “Our annual wine club vineyard tour gets a big boost from happening at an estate vineyard,” Lisa added.
“We can talk about the site, the practices and the vineyard and how all that results in the wine,” she said. “Being in an estate vineyard really brings it full circle to the folks who take the tour.”
“For Chelan, and for all of our locations, we are trying to create more of an experience,” she said. “It’s not just the wine-tasting. There’s the food, the entertainment, and in Chelan we will have a couple of places where you can stay and immerse yourself even more in what you’re doing.”
Part of the goal is to make it an experience. Another part of the goal is to make that experience unique to its surroundings. Walla Walla is not the same as Chelan, Chelan is not the same as Ellensburg, but if you go to each town and find a Starbucks, you’ll get pretty much the same vibe in all three places. That’s the opposite of what the Lawrences want to offer.
“We want each spot to have its own personality,” Josh said. The same applies, in his mind, to the wine industry in Washington in general.
“We are maturing, but we are not mature yet,” he said. “We have always had this chip on our shoulder of ‘Hey, we are competing with California, and we are the little guy competing with California.’ Well, at some point, we need to quit caring about California. We need to care about Washington and do what Washington does.”
At the heart of that feeling is the continued partnership among winemakers in Washington. “Ninety-nine percent of the winemakers in this state are hoping that their neighbor kills it,” Josh said. “That’s fun to see, and we see it all the time.”
With time, the variety, and amount, of wines the Lawrences make will become greater. They started out making 350 cases of wine in 2003 and this year (2023) the number of cases is expected to hit 12,000.
The best way to experience Gård Vintners wines is by visiting one of the winery’s three tasting rooms, which are located in Ellensburg, Walla Walla and in Woodinville, WA. The Ellensburg tasting room is located at 311 Pearl St., Ellensburg, WA. 98925. (509) 925-1095; the Walla Walla tasting room is located at 43 E. Main St. N.W., Walla Walla, WA. 99362. (509) 524-9099; the Woodinville tasting room is located at 19151 144th Ave. N.E. Suite D, Woodinville, WA.98072. (425) 415-3813; and their Public House Restaurant in Royal City is located at 112 Evergreen Ave. N.W., Royal City, WA. 99357. (509) 414-1484.
But if you can’t get to one of their tasting rooms this spring or summer, you can purchase all of the company’s wines from their online wine store at: gardvintners.orderport.net/wines/WINES.