Armstrong Family Winery – The Journey to Washington

Armstrong Family Estate Vineyard, Walla Walla, Washington

Armstrong Family Winery – The Journey to Washington

We were driving through rolling hills of fields of wheat for as far as the eye could see. This is the Armstrong Family Winery’s Valley Grove Vineyard. It is their home and an oasis in the wheat fields.. You’ve seen it. It’s popular for car commercials these days, and for good reason. It’s spectacular, and eerie. The vastness makes you feel at once both immense in this wide open vista and extremely small.

Armstrong Family Winery Barn at the Valley Grove Vineyard built in 1895 with clouds above
The Historic Barn at the Armstrong Family Winery’s Valley Grove Vineyard

So this is wine country? You wouldn’t guess that from the scenery. We were driving North out of the city of Walla Walla Washington, past the penitentiary and into the open fields of wheat. Finally, we turned and came upon a green patch. Turning in, we crossed the creek to a spot of green with trees, vineyard, a house and cottage and a spectacular historic barn.

We sat with Tim & Jennifer Armstrong on their back patio overlooking the Audrey block of cabernet sauvignon.

Armstrong Family Winery

It started in Chicago

Neither of them were really into wine to start with. It wasn’t part of their lives, even as young adults (I can relate to this personally). When they got married, Tim had a little interest in wine. He had been to New York and someone poured him a glass of Opus One (lucky guy).

Well, this hooked him on Bordeaux wines and soon enough he was spending a good bit on wine and investing in Bordeaux futures! His pragmatic wife Jenifer asked “Hey, do you know what you are doing?” He found an online class from the UC Davis extension that they both took.

They literally would mail DVD’s

Jennifer Armstrong, July 2019

Yep, they are a little dated by this. They sat in their Chicago bungalow learning about wine and Tim realized that this was his calling. He had grown up in Wisconsin surrounded by farms, and while the family didn’t farm he had a propensity for mechanical things. That and his love for wine…he’d found his bliss. Jen was skeptical, but supportive.

A bottle of Merlot

How did they decide on Washington? Here’s the story. It all kind of started with a bottle of Merlot.

So when we were in Chicago, we were buying mostly Bordeaux, getting progressively geekier about those wines and paying a lot of attention to the wine that we were drinking.  One day Tim came home with a bottle of Walla Walla Merlot.  It was a Walla Walla Vintners bottle.

Jennifer Armstrong, July 2019

They had been thinking about wine making and researched different regions. Virginia & North Carolina, came up since they were near to Jen’s family. They thought about New York with the Finger Lakes region. With Tim in the technology industry, the Bay area was an idea, but that bottle of Walla Walla Merlot….

We tasted it and were kind of blown away.  It tasted like the Bordeaux that we had fallen in love with.

Jennifer Armstrong, July 2019

What blew them away? Tim says this bottle was new world fruit with the structure and earthiness they loved about Bordeaux.

It really was striking this balance between old world wines and the California west coast wines that we had gotten to know.

Tim Armstrong, Armstrong Family Winery, July 2019

Armstrong Family Wines start in Woodinville

So now Washington was a viable option for them. They spent a couple years doing research and paying attention to the region. When an opportunity to move to Washington for Tim’s job came up, they made the move. This was the opportunity to be a part of a world class wine region. Something you can’t do in Napa or Sonoma without coming in with a large fortune. In Washington it is still possible to own a small vineyard and make wine, without being a millionaire.

Tim flew to Seattle and a friend told him he needed to check out Woodinville. He was blown away. Here people kept their day jobs and moonlighted as winemakers! It occurred to them that they could pursue this and get started right here.

They moved out in 2010 buying grapes even before the furniture was delivered. They met people at a wine shop and then a brewer/winemaking supplies company who referred them to people in the warehouse district where they bought a couple hundred pounds of grapes.

Immersive education and a fast track to winemaking

Tim arrived on Jennifer’s birthday in October around 7:30 am to pick up the grapes. Well, the grapes were not there. While he waited (until 4 pm) for the grapes he had them put him to work. He had his first experience in a commercial winery that day. Waiting for those grapes, he helped out, cleaning things and shoveling grape must.

The next summer he called John Patterson of Patterson Cellars in Woodinville. Tim told John he wanted to make some wine and work with him. John tried to talk him out of it. He was unsuccessful. In 2011 Tim & Jen contracted 6 tons of grape and made their first vintage. So the 2010 home batch they started…by the time it was ready to bottle, they were bottling it in a commercial winery. Fast tracking for sure.

Tim dove into classes with the WSU extension as well as South Seattle Community College. As the business evolved they signed a lease at the end of 2012 and opened their own space in 2013. 2013 they did their own crush, in their own facility in Woodinville. By 2016 they had 52 tons of grapes in that tiny spot. They had upgraded equipment, but it was just Tim, Jennifer and Jennifer’s Dad doing it all.

They played the winery tetras game, which was more difficult in this area. The Warehouse district tasting rooms were open all day, so you couldn’t utilize outdoor space in the parking lot until late at night. They pulled 10 all nighters that harvest. They determined it was time to make a change.

The Walla Walla spell

They fell for Walla Walla. It’s easy to do. A drive through town will have you enchanted and you won’t ever want to leave. So they didn’t. They found a small vineyard north of town that was for sale and their fate was sealed. With a vineyard, a house, a historic barn, a creek, a guest cottage…it was perfect.

Not that it was easy. The spot was originally out of their budget. They kept their eye on it and eventually the price came down. Sadly it went under contract just before they got to it. Their disappointment only lasted a day, when a friend in the industry told them the contract fell through. They drove up from Seattle immediately and the rest is history.

The Valley Grove Vineyard is 22 acres with 2 blocks of cabernet sauvignon. They had to do some retraining of the 17 year old vines and pulled their first harvest in 2019. They now have 2 tasting rooms, one in Woodinville and one in Walla Walla, and they have plans for the winery they want to build here on site.

Our conversation didn’t end there. Join us as we talk about the history of the vineyard, and their plans for this beautiful spot just outside of Walla Walla.

For More information

Want more information? You can visit their website or read the other pieces we’ve written about them.

As always be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date on all of our posts.

Robin Renken CSW (photo credit RuBen Permel)

Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.

When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.

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Robin Renken
[email protected]
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