Photo: Kyle Maclachlan
This article originally appeared at American Express OpenForumChances are you know Kyle Maclachlan more for his acting roles in such cult classics as “Twin Peaks,” “Blue Velvet,” “Sex and the City,” and now, “Portlandia.” But for oenophiles who look for niche boutique wines from emerging regions, Maclachlan’s small yet growing wine business called Pursued by Bear is attracting garnering some legitimate respect and attention.
Based in Walla Walla, Washington, within the Yakima Valley where Maclachlan grew up, the last few years of his great grape endeavour has allowed him to spend time back home with family, and truly cultivate his love for a nice bottle of wine.
I chatted with Maclachlan about his business and some of the lessons he’s learned when evolving what started out as a hobby into a more serious and potentially profitable small business.
There are other celebrities making wine, but not many are as serious about it as you…
I’m very hands-on with this business. I’m originally from Yakima and I spend a lot of time with Eric Dunham and the winemakers up there at their winery (Dunham Cellars). What we’re making is something I feel I have really contributed to the process with. I chose the barrels, for example. These were ones I was recommended by Napa Valley friends of mine. They are hard to find barrels, so that was a real contribution I was happy to make. It helped my wine and it helped the winery too.
How have you used your celebrity to help Pursued by Bear?
My celebrity has helped tremendously with promoting the wine. I have opportunities other winemakers don’t. My celebrity has helped open doors for sure, but to keep them open I need to have a good product and I need to be consistent in my contact with my buyers. Selling wine is a people business and fortunately, I like talking to people. I am also helping Washington wines have a face. I am very conscious of talking about Washington State and it’s wine country.
Beyond having a personal connection to Washington State, what do you find so attractive about Washington State for wine?
A lot of it was about family. I got to go home and spend time with my Dad before he passed away. While he was alive, I was able to include my Dad in the journey I was taking making wine. He loved it. Besides family, the largest factor was the cost of the grapes. It is much more expensive in Napa. I also really like Eric Dunham and his family. In fact, the entire winemaking team up in Walla Walla is great.
I also always like to support the underdog and in many ways, Washington is the underdog at the moment in the wine world. That will change as more people experience the quality and lower price point for really great wine being produced in Washington State. The state of Washington is so vast and I am really enjoying drawing from it. Here the wine is never flabby and it’s a real pleasure in the mouth. Drew Bledsoe (former NFL quarterback) has has a wonderful winemaker working with him is wine here too for Doubleback, which is exceptional.
This started out as a hobby for you but it seems to have really evolved into so much more.
This is tricky. I’m able to do this because I don’t depend on the income from this project to live on. It’s still a hobby. But this isn’t just a dilettante thing for me. I’m actively involved with expanding the business now. I’m looking at wine sources and other vineyards.
What do you know about making wine?
While I have been paying attention to all of this for years with Eric and Jeff as an observer, I also don’t pretend to know the chemistry. I am confident with the blending and tasting now, and understand varietals and about the contributions of different types of grapes and vineyards.
The best education I’ve gotten is simply through a lot of tasting. I try fruits from different parts of the vineyard and have really gotten familiar with them to be able to discern on my own. I lean heavily on Eric. I’m asking him: ‘What might this do in two or three years?’ ‘How does this contribute to a blend?’ We take beakers and test and mess around with percentages. The fun part has been seeing these wines from start to finish and really getting to say I worked on them and with the Dunhams.
Is making wine anything at all like making movies or TV shows?
It is actually. It’s slow and you do a lot of waiting. You have to wait and see if people will respond to it, and see what people will say about it. How they respond to it reflects how it does, if it’s to their liking, the whole talk about numbers. It is also a lot like golf where you have to prove yourself every year. Every Thursday everyone starts at zero. It’s like that with wine, you have to prove yourself every year. Ultimately, what I’m trying to do is make something that I like. If i’m happy with it for myself, then I can let the chips fall. I also do a small amount so there isn’t a huge loss. It’s not my livelihood and I can be cavalier about it.
Sounds like it is a lot more work than one might anticipate.
It’s a lot of work. A lot more than I thought. I am interested in the competition of the marketplace and to see if I can make wines that stand up on their own. It’s a lot of work. You will get your hands dirty, and that appeals to me. I just didn’t realise how significant and how involved I would be, but I like it.
What has been the greatest burden of the wine business for you?
The greatest burden is the travel, although I can’t complain too much because most of the places that sell my wine are in cities that I like to travel to: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, Portland, Houston and hopefully soon, to Chicago.
What have you learned about this business that other small business owners could glean from?
Having a knowledgeable partner who knows what they’re doing and who I get along with well is essential. I’ve also learned that it takes a lot of time, more than I anticipated. I didn’t really think it through that far when I started. It’s something I’ve discovered on the journey. If it’s a vanity project that you want to do, that’s cool, you just need to find someone who can help make that happen. But if you think winemaking is something you might enjoy, the first thing I would suggest is to call it what it is: wine-selling, because that’s what it ultimately comes down to.
Where do you hope to be in five years with Pursued by Bear?
I’m just now asking myself that question. We’ve released our fourth vintage of Pursued by Bear and this year we added a small release of a fantastic Syrah called Baby Bear, named in honour of my son who was born in 2008, the year we harvested. So I’m just now lifting my head up and looking forward and thinking about what I want the brand to be down the road. Obviously, I want to continue to improve the wine, the intensity, the flavours.
I like to think that I’ll keep exploring the different sources of grapes, the different vineyards in Washington and subtly playing with the blend. The Syrah is exciting because I know some things that I want to try in the winemaking process to see what it will do, but I have no desire to expand production at this point, not until I have a better sense of what I want to do. I don’t have a real vision for the future for the brand or the wine other than tinkering with it. I just want to spend more time learning about other growers and vineyard sites.
And what do you suggest pairing your wines with?
They’re great with red meat, a rib-eye steak, anything with a glaze, a cherry glaze with a slight sweetness to it is fantastic. These wines have the acid to really cut through the fattiness of a red meat.
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