Sigillo Cellars: Community Has Always
Been the Foundation to Its Success
A “for fun” experiment in Snoqualmie, WA., has grown into a major enterprise with tasting rooms on both sides of the Cascade Mountains.
By Dan Radil
If there was one thing we learned from dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, it was this: In spite of stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and social distancing standards designed to keep us apart, the need for building a sense of community was never stronger.
At Sigillo Cellars, it didn’t take a healthcare crisis to trigger the support of those connected to this relatively new winery. Community has always been the foundation to its success…built on a team of family, friends, and dedicated wine enthusiasts that now spans both sides of Washington’s Cascade Mountains.
BUILDING THE BUSINESS
Like many smaller, Pacific Northwest wineries, Sigillo Cellars started as a family-based operation that produced wine essentially as a “for fun” enterprise.
Issaquah resident Ryan Seal, one of the winery’s founding partners, recounts his dad, Mike Seal, and Sigillo’s original winemaker, Steve Bailey, making wine out of Bailey’s garage in 2005.
After about four years, Ryan recalls asking Bailey, “You’re getting pretty good at this, would you like to start a winery? He said, ‘no, but if you do, I’ll work for you.’ So I put together a business plan, talked to my dad and a childhood best friend (Scott Hussey), and said let’s go into the wine business…with no dollars. We’ll just make wine and figure it out,” he laughed.
Building the winery wasn’t quite as haphazard as Ryan makes it sound. “I owned a coffee company for about 11 years and worked in healthcare for about 20 years, so I had a decent understanding of small business,” he said. “I didn’t know how to market wine, but I went after it with the same approach I had with my coffee business; do it good, treat people right, and they’ll treat you right.”
Sigillo Cellars’ first commercial production began in Bothell in 2010. They subleased space from another winery in Woodinville in 2011 before moving to a building owned by a friend in the town of Snoqualmie, WA.
“We had never planned to stay out in Snoqualmie,” Ryan said. “It’s a sleepy little town and it’s not really where the wine scene is; that’s in Woodinville.” But with budget-friendly lease rates, the smaller town made more economic sense. “We moved everything out there and opened our doors in July of 2012. Our first tasting room was in the corner of our production area,” Ryan explained.
Foot traffic and word-of-mouth from the local community helped send the winery on its way, and Ryan estimates they were able to grow production by about 40-percent each year. They quickly outgrew the original space and have since moved into their current location, the renovated Sunset Theater building in Snoqualmie’s historic district.
The choice of Chelan as Sigillo’s second location, interestingly enough, was tied to the relocation of Vicki Curnutt, who had been Sigillo’s tasting room manager in Snoqualmie since day-one.
“Vicki wanted to move east and I didn’t want to lose her,’” Ryan said. “My parents owned a house on the shores of Lake Chelan and I’d been going over there since the mid-1990s and always loved it. But my biggest fear (about opening a winery there) was the seasonality issue,” Ryan added, referring to Chelan’s distinction as a primarily summertime resort and recreation area.
Once again, it was the availability of a building – this time the all-brick, Lakeside School, originally constructed in 1922 – that helped nudge the Sigillo team into making the leap of faith to expand there.
Ryan had driven by the vacant facility many times, and it was his connection to the building’s owner through another winemaker that set the plan in motion. “I fell in love with the building,” Ryan said, “because it keeps with the historic vibe of what we are.”
The tasting room celebrated its grand opening in July of 2019, and Ryan is “100-percent pleased” with the Chelan-area expansion. “I love the community and always have,” he said.
Curnutt, who now lives in nearby Entiat, agrees. “There’s camaraderie amongst all the wineries,” she says, also noting that “Chelan is a very laid-back community and we’ve made lots of new friends…which is easy to do in a small town.”
THE EVOLUTION OF WINES, WINEMAKING, AND THE TASTING ROOMS
Today, Sigillo Cellars’ formula for success is based on what might best be defined as “winemaking by committee.”
Mike Seal now heads up the winemaking team, with support from his wife, Cande Collins, and, as of late, Ryan has played a more active role in the winemaking process as well. The trio also utilizes an outside consultant when needed.
Sigillo’s ownership is rounded out by Scott Hussey and his wife Christie, who serves as Director of Marketing and also manages the winery’s event planning and social media outlets.
Ryan categorizes Sigillo Cellars’ wines as striking a nice balance between fruit-forward, New World drinkability and Old World age-ability. He also points out the winery’s wide range of current releases (“maybe too many,” he jokes) with price-points to fit any budget.
Carménère, Cabernet Franc, and Tempranillo are some of Ryan’s personal favorites, and the winery’s four-varietal, Bordeaux-blend, ‘Confluence’ is one of the top-selling consumer choices.
“Our tag line has always been, ‘don’t just taste wine, Experience it,’” Ryan explained. “That’s truly been my approach. I don’t think good wine has to be expensive and I’ve fought hard to make good, affordable wine.”
He also likes to focus on what he refers to as “the sights, the sounds, and the smells of the tasting room. It’s that experience that people remember.”
“We serve food, and after five o’clock we’re more of a wine bar (at both locations) and with the help of Cande’s scheduling, we have live music on Friday and Saturday nights,” Ryan added. “We’re still in the process of building out our Chelan tasting room and we’ll have a full commercial kitchen and a rooftop deck environment with tapas-style options and a rotating menu that emphasizes “keeping it fresh and keeping it local.”
ONGOING COMMUNITY SUPPORT
Sigillo boasts an impressive 1,500-member wine club and Ryan anticipates an increase in future production from the current level of 6,000 cases to 10,000 cases annually. Plans are also underway for the release of a second label – “Rowan Tree,” named after his son, Rowan – that will feature two red blends. He envisions the label with a line of wines similar to that of Saviah Cellars’ “The Jack” and Dusted Valley Vintners’ “Boom Town”.
In order to dedicate himself completely to Sigillo Cellars, Ryan left his job in medical sales in December, 2019. “After all these years of looking over my shoulder while trying to come in to work in the winery, I’m so happy to be doing it full-time,” he said.
Ryan sums up his winemaking journey with a nod to guidance, advice, and even the use of equipment he received from other wineries, adding: “I fell in love with it because I like wine, it’s fun to make wine…and seeing how great everyone is in the industry makes it even better.”
“It’s been a challenge to learn, but what I’ve found is that people in the industry are always willing to help you out,” said Ryan. “And the great thing about it is, we all produce something different. My wine will never taste the same as somebody else’s wine; and so they’re not afraid to say, ‘I’ll help you with that’…and it’s just super-cool.”
That’s one of the benefits of taking a leap of faith when you’re surrounded by a strong community of supporters. Whether they’re family, customers, or even competitors, together they act as a “safety net” to provide assistance and encouragement. And in today’s crazy, upside-down world where separation is the new normal, that’s never been more important.
Sigillo Cellars’ flagship winery and tasting room is located at 8086 Railroad Ave., Snoqualmie, WA. 98065. Phone: (425) 292-0754. The Chelan tasting room is located at 2037 W. Woodin Ave., Chelan, WA. 98816. Phone: (509) 888-5713. The winery’s website – www.sigillocellars.com – contains a schedule of musicians performing at both locations, a food menu served at both locations and hours of operation at both locations.
And if you’re looking for something to do on Saturday, Aug. 21, Sigillo Cellars will be one of eight wineries participating in the Annual Sip Suds & Si Art & Wine Walk in downtown North Bend, WA. You’ll find details about the event in the Calendar of Events at: www.discoverwashingtonwine.com/calendar-of-events.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan Radil is a freelance wine writer and educator based in Bellingham, WA., and has been an avid follower and supporter of the Washington wine industry since the mid-1980s. He currently contributes to Wine Press Northwest and Bellingham Alive Magazine, is President of the Whatcom Beer & Wine Foundation, and produces a wine blog called: danthewineguy.com.