Can’t imagine teaching yourself a skill without the Internet? While this idea may seem radical in today’s high-tech culture, for Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery, learning how to make wine without the ability to Google search was the reality 20 years ago.
“I was doing a lot of research into winemaking in Woodinville, so I had access to guys like Matthew Loso [then of Matthews Winery] and Chris Upchurch [of DeLille Cellars],” McNeilly says of his Washington grassroots and industry mentors. “They were very generous, [and] you had to ask questions and read books.”
FROM WOODINVILLE TO WALLA WALLA
McNeilly started his foray into the wine industry in sales with Seattle-based distributor Unique Wine Co., and in 1999 he started making wine in the garages of friends and family. Since then, Mark Ryan Winery has gone onto become a staple in the Washington wine circuit, with accolades from national and local wine experts, three tasting rooms, wines served across the country and an expansion from Woodinville to Walla Walla for production.
Acknowledging that his experience in wine sales equipped him with industry know-how and helped him get his foot in the door quicker, McNeilly admits few things have surprised him in the past 20 years. “Our success and our ability to grow has been happily surprising,” he adds. “We think about things pretty carefully and thoroughly so we try to limit surprises in a sense.”
A strategic plan to proliferate the success and growth over the last two decades, Mark Ryan Winery has moved production from Woodinville — allowing its thriving Hollywood Wine District tasting room location to shine on its own — to Walla Walla, where there is a secondary tasting room for wine lovers on the eastside of the mountains.
“It’s a great thing to think about because we were crammed into these tiny warehouses in Woodinville, which was a great beginning for us, but it was difficult to do the [whole] process correctly,” he says. “The winery today is probably a lot different than what I thought it was going to be when I started. I thought my winery was going to be a lot smaller and less people involved.”
Employing around 40 people, McNeilly says he is in love with how his winery has taken off. He is also a fan of his company’s sales model as well, which he believes sets it apart from others.
“We don’t use any distributors in Western Washington, so we have a team of very smart sales people that go out to sell wine to restaurants and retail,” he says. “Our ability to always be present helps us stay relevant.”
THE FUTURE IS QUALITY
As for the future, McNeilly says his company is always trying to improve the quality of the wine. Under the skilled direction of winemaker Mike Macmorran, the program primarily focuses on red wines — from Bordeaux-style blends to single varietal Rhônes — with a Viognier and Chardonnay in tow. McNeilly says his personal favorite is the 2017 Dead Horse, a bold Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend from the Red Mountain AVA.
Becoming a nationally recognized brand is also on the agenda as well. But, despite the growth, McNeilly does not want to lose the unique feel that his tasting rooms have: rock n’roll with gorgeous reclaimed wood on the floor and walls, music memorabilia hanging, motorcycles as decor and the notoriety for hosting some of the best wine club member parties in the area.
Stemming from his past experiences not knowing what to ask when he visited a wine shop, McNeilly’s top goal is to ensure the opportunity for discussion in his place. “When people visit Mark Ryan, we want our tasting rooms to be casual but also very informative,” he says. “So I want people to feel comfortable to ask questions.”
With 20 years in the rear view mirror, Mark Ryan’s latest wine is set to be released on October 4. Going big but remaining approachable, McNeilly and team look forward to scaling up and leading by example with world-class Northwest wine.