John Bell, Winemaker and Owner, Willis Hall
I use both sides of my brain for wine making. The art side of me says, “What do you want to do?” The technical side says, “How do I do that?”
-John Bell, Owner and Winemaker, Willis Hall Wines
John Bell is the winemaker and sole owner of Willis Hall, LLC, a boutique winery based in Marysville, Washington.
He has fashioned artisan wines that were awarded Best-of-Class, Gold, and Best-of-Show awards. Vintage 2003 was the inaugural vintage for Willis Hall. In 2004 John retired from Boeing and is now making wine full time at Willis Hall. In April 2006 in their inaugural Washington Wine Awards, Seattle Magazine named John Best New Winemaker in Washington.
John also serves as the chairman of the board of directors of the Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce.
Q. When did you become interested in wine?
A. In 1969, after graduating from Penn State, I moved to the Puget Sound area to work for Boeing. A few years later, I was promoted to lead engineer. They asked me to take some suppliers out to a business dinner. We went to Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue.
The people I was dining with deferred to me on the wine choice. The wine list was Greek to me and that embarrassed me. I had to tell the people I was dining with that I didn’t know anything about wine.
I wanted to be conversant in wine, so I began studying wines, attending wine dinners, and annoying every wine maker I could find. Richard Kinssies, owner of the Wine Outlet stores, used to run the Seattle Wine School. I haunted that school for many years; much of my wine education is due to Richard’s tutelage.
Q. How did you progress from being a wine connoisseur to a wine maker?
A. I call wine making a “hobby gone awry.” After spending several years learning about wine, I joined the Boeing Employees Wine & Beer Makers Club. It was an excellent way to get started in the wine making business. They have a terrific education program and they have access to some of the finest vineyards in Washington State and therefore, the world. The club has its own equipment that members can use for free.
I did my first vintage in 1999 as an amateur, non-commercial wine maker. After four years, I had won many gold medals and best of shows and best of classes, so I knew that the quality of my wine was good enough that I could sell it commercially.
I also wanted to increase my production level. There are restrictions on the amount of wine non-commercial wineries can produce, and you can’t sell non-commercial wine. I wanted to have a broader audience for my wines because I thought they were worthy of being enjoyed by more than just myself and my friends.
Q. You started Willis Hall in 2003. How did you come up with the name for your winery?
A. Willis is my dad’s middle name and Hall is my grandmother’s maiden name. My first commercial vintage was in 2003, and I started selling wine in 2005, because it takes a couple of years for red wines to age. 2006 was my first commercial white vintage.
Q. Do you specialize in making a particular type of wine?
A. I tell people I’ve never met a grape I didn’t like, so I make many different varieties of wine. I adore Italian varieties.
I want my wines to be consumed with a meal. Wine is meant to go with food, and the purpose of it is to cleanse your palate between bites of food. I make my wines in a fashion that I think best does that job.
Q. Do you use any specific technology to make your wine?
A. I don’t subscribe to “interventionist” wine making, where you have to manipulate things all the time by moving them from here to there, racking, filtering, and sulfiting. Every time you move wine, the aromas escape from the wine and they’re no longer available for your glass. I try to keep my wine safe and unspoiled.
Instead of tromping on the grapes with my feet, I use modern tools, including harvest bins into which the grapes are hand-harvested; T Bins to ferment 200 gallons of liquid at a time; a small electric fork lift to move heavy items; a de-stemmer/crusher to take the berries off the stems and crush the berries; barrels to store the equivalent of 5,000 cases of red wine; stainless steel tanks for making white wine; a bottling machine that bottles 60 cases per hour; and a labeler that applies labels and capsules to the wine bottles.
Q. How do you use your skills as an engineer in wine making?
A. I use both sides of my brain for wine making. The art side of me says, “What do you want to do?” The technical side says, “How do I do that?”
Wine making is an 8,000 year old process – it’s essentially “controlled spoilage.” I love to study the process, understand it better, and influence the final product by guiding the natural process.
I taste from every barrel and take extensive tasting notes for each barrel. I re-blend each sample for hours to get it perfect. I retired from Boeing in 2004 to do this full-time. Wine making is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.
Q. Have you made inroads in exporting Willis Hall wines to Asia?
A. Yes. A few years ago, I worked with a startup exporting company and they exported my wine to Hong Kong, Macau, and to a restaurateur in Vietnam. I also worked with a second company and exported a few cases into mainland China, but there were so many regulations and it was such a labor-intensive process that the exporting company folded after a short period.
It’s much easier to export wine to Hong Kong, because there are no import duties in Hong Kong for American wine. As a result, American wine sales have boomed in Hong Kong, because our wines are affordable.
I recently completed another deal to export 200 cases to a single buyer in Hong Kong. This buyer is a party-thrower and gift-giver, so I believe the wine is for his personal use. I learned that red is considered a lucky color in the Far East, and my wine labels are hot-stamped foil red.
That was lucky on my part, because I never planned for that color to be of interest to people in Asia. Because of the red labels, a lot of my wines are given as gifts.
Q. What is your advice to small businesses that want to market in Asia?
A. Everything is relationship-based – it’s almost impossible to break into a market without an existing relationship. I advise developing relationships with people who have an established network in place of distributing your product.
Q. Where can we find Willis Hall wines in the Seattle area?
A. Locally, I market to restaurants, specialty wine shops, and higher-end food stores that have a steward in the wine section.
Q. How can we contact you?
A. Visit my website, http://www.willishall.com or call me at 360.653.1247.