Malaga Springs Winery: One man’s vision comes to life
Owner-winemaker Al Mathews says he makes the type of wine he likes to drink. Much farther down the list is the idea of making wine for popularity’s sake.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Like all other Washington wineries, Malaga Springs Winery is not currently allowed to serve guests in its tasting room during the Coronavirus crisis. However, all Washington wineries are allowed to offer curbside pick-up of wine by the bottle through Monday, May 4. To order wine from Malaga Springs, you can order by phone (509) 679-0152 or order from their online store at: www.malagaspringswinery.com. You can either pick up your order curbside from the winery, or have it shipped to you.
By Sebastian Moraga
Nestled in the hills of Malaga, outside of Wenatchee, WA., lies a man’s passion, nurtured in his mind as he spent season after season fishing in the frigid waters of Alaska. A commercial fisherman and a builder for a large part of his life, Al Mathews always kept the vision in his mind of someday making and selling his own wine.
Twenty years ago, Al landed in Wenatchee. Having lived in Oregon, Montana and Alaska, he had never found a place that could serve as a launching pad for his vision. That all changed, however, when he found Wenatchee, or more exactly Malaga (pronounced MAL-uh-ga), a town named after the sun-drenched, grape-growing city of southern Spain. With that bit of trivia in mind, and with the springs feeding the Three Lakes area just northeast of his new home, he named his fledgling winery Malaga Springs Winery.
A native of Montana earning a paycheck in Alaska back then, Mathews relished how the Malaga hills created a microclimate that allowed his grapes to thrive, something he could not have found up north or in Big Sky country. “The cliffs absorb heat in the summertime and radiate heat all evening and all night,” Mathews said. “In the morning, the sun comes up two hours earlier than it does down in the valley.”
Bud break happens about two weeks after the AVA in Mattawa, and harvest occurs almost at the same time.
“First day I opened my winery, I sat here looking down the driveway, wondering if anybody was going to drive down to the winery,” Al remembers. He had planted nine varieties of wine on eight acres at 1,700 feet elevation thinking that with a bit of luck, four might yield good wine. All nine did. In those early days, it helped that making loads of money wasn’t the goal. “He just wanted to make wine,” says Kathy Mathews, Al’s wife.
That was in 2004. Wenatchee had few wineries and even fewer grape-growers and Wenatchee was a stopover for wine connoisseurs on their way to Chelan and not a destination per se. Bit by bit, name by name, entrepreneur by entrepreneur, the Wenatchee Valley grew its wine footprint and now the Mathews and others welcome visitors from as far as Malaysia.
“Having Googled wine-tasting opportunities, they come to Seattle, then to Wenatchee’s Pangborn Airport, rent a car and drive to our winery with the express intent of having come here when they left home,” Al explains.
One unique aspect of the growth of the wine industry in Wenatchee is that it occurred in a symbiotic environment. Yes, wineries competed for the consumer’s dollar, but they also supported each other and worked as a team to turn the Wenatchee Valley into a destination. And they still do. He has signs pointing to other wineries’ tasting rooms in his front yard.
“We bolster each other, and we cross-promote each other,” Al said. “And we do activities together.”
Al credits Jan Lutz with the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce for bringing the wineries together from the start. “If I had to pick someone responsible for where we are now, it would be Jan Lutz,” he said. Lutz has referred to Al as a “renaissance man” who has done everything he could to make his dream come true. Al smiles at the compliment, but at the same time does not hide from his accomplishments.
“My wife and I built all the buildings, we planted all the grapes, and when we moved up here we had no electricity; for two years we had to haul water in our trucks to water our young grape plants,” he said. In addition, Al makes all the pottery that adorns the walls and shelves of his tasting room. Kathy grows all the flowers and does all the landscaping. “It’s all two people can do,” Al said. “It’s monumental.” It helps that Al’s dream has become Kathy’s dream, too.
Al says he makes the type of wine he likes to drink, emphasizing, above all, balance and complexity. Much farther down the list is the idea of making wine for popularity’s sake. “I would not know how to do that,” he said of making a wine with the sole aim that the public might like it. “And I don’t care to do that.” Even at the start, when he and his wife planted the nine varieties, they planted the nine they liked, not what they thought others might like or what might sell.
“I didn’t come into this as an investment opportunity,” he said. “I came into this as a lifestyle.”
It helps, he says, that as a younger man his first attempts at making wine (way before he landed in Malaga), were not exactly medal-worthy. Having made bad wine helps, he says, because now he knows how not to make it.
And he has the hardware to prove it, Malaga Springs wines have proven quite adept at winning fans when it matters, winning awards in San Francisco, San Diego, Monterey (Calif.) and also among its peers in Wenatchee. Many of his tasting room walls are decorated with the medals and trophies his grapes have won.
The tasting room offers great views of the Valley below. It takes a bit of driving through some zig-zaggy roads, but all told, it’s only six miles away from downtown Wenatchee, so it’s a chance to get away, but not too far away. “For the most part, people enjoy coming up here,” Kathy said. “Those who don’t, sometimes they experience our wine at the Visitor Center (in downtown Wenatchee) and then decide they want to come out.”
The labels on the bottle have won quite the number of fans as well. The blends carry the name Al y Kat (pronounced “alley cat”) which means Al and Kat in Spanish. The label is a very stylish-looking pink cat, with long eyelashes, an s-shaped tail and a tiny smile. The labels on all the bottles are the handiwork of Al’s mom, who drew them when she was in her 80s.
With the Washington wine industry booming, Al says he has no fear of the bubble bursting anytime soon. As the American wine-tasting public learns more about wine, it will become more sophisticated, demanding a better product. The demographics still skew older, but that is changing..
Millennials in their 20s are tasting good wine on their wine-tasting trips, a far cry from what the scene looked like when he was in his 20s, Al said. “We drank Gallo, buck-and-a-half-a-gallon,” he said, adding that sometimes he traveled from his college campus in Oregon to California and come back with gallons of Zinfandel.
Fifty years later, Al knows that he does not have many more years to make wine, but he moves his barrels from warehouse to bottle with no regrets, especially now that he has retired from fishing and can dedicate his full attention to his lifelong dream. Plenty of sips ahead, he says, adding: “I am glad I was able to start when I did. I don’t dwell in the past.”
From those humble early days of wondering whether anyone would drive past Wenatchee and venture into the Malaga Hills, Al and Kathy have developed a loyal following. Their patience as they zig-zag their way to the winery is rewarded by a list of award-winning varieties.
Whites include a 2017 Viognier, a 2016 Chenin Blanc, a 2016 Blanc de Noir, a 2017 Sauvignon Blanc and a 2017 Muscat Canelli. The winery offers two rosés, a Sangiovese Rosé and a blend, named AlyKat Bottle Crew Push, with the feline label that has become popular in its own right.
Lastly, the winery offers seven different reds: two Cabernet Sauvignon varieties, one from 2016 and one from 2013, and a 2017 Cab Franc. The list is capped by a 2013 Malbec, a 2014 Sangiovese, a 2015 Syrah and a 2017 AlyKat blend.
The winery is located at 3450 Cathedral Rock Rd, Malaga, WA 98828. Phone: (509) 679-0152. To learn more about the winery, visit: www.malagaspringswinery.com.