Owning and operating your own winery might seem like a pretty cool occupation, but behind-the-scenes challenges requiring time, money, and sweat equity can make getting there a daunting task.
The husband-and-wife team of Brian Grasso and Brandee Slosar know that firsthand. They’ve poured countless hours into building Structure Cellars, and the results have been nothing short of amazing. It started with a boutique winery that originated in their Ballard home and has since evolved into today’s slick, contemporary barrel and tasting rooms in South Seattle.
Like many of Washington’s smaller winery owners, the couple has worked, and still works, in other occupations. Brandee has moved from a background in architecture where she says she “knew just enough to be dangerous” to her current day-job position in hair, make-up and styling; Brian spent years in the food service industry before making the jump to full-time winemaker in April of this year.
Prior to the winery’s inception, Brian earned valuable experience working at a trio of Woodinville wineries: Darby Winery, Baer Winery, and Sparkman Cellars. He and Brandee officially licensed Structure Cellars in 2011 at their 1926-built Ballard craftsman home, and even with its space restrictions, they worked production up to a staggering 750 cases-per-year level.
“We made wine in the basement… and it was absurd,” recalls Brandee. “We had to siphon juice from the (driveway) crush pad, down the stairs, and into the empty barrels. The barrels were floor-to-ceiling and it was just a regular, tiny house.”
After three years of cramped quarters, they moved in October of 2014 to their current site at the Sodo Urbanworks Building, located about 1 . miles south of Safeco Field in Seattle’s up-and-coming Sodo District.
CURRENT ROLES, ONGOING CHALLENGES
When asked about what titles they carry at the winery, Brandee is quick to respond, “I’m the guy behind the guy,” referring to her husband’s work as winemaker. “I do a lot of the wine club organization (which currently stands at over 500 members), customer interface, and label design. Brian does all the ‘heavy lifting,’” she says with a smile.
While the two work extremely well together, the proximity of spouses within the same industry definitely has its challenges. “It’s not as easy to complain about your business partner,” Brandee notes. “It’s hard, but in some ways it makes us better.”
“Working with each other is like our married life; we’re finding our way through it. And what we’re finding it that we need to find times where we don’t talk about the business,” says Brian. “We’re at our best when we let Brandee do what she’s amazing at, which is visual and organizing, and we’re at our worst when all we do is (work at) the winery.”
WINEMAKING PHILOSPHIES AND CUSTOMER SERVICE
Brian’s says his goal is to “make soft, approachable, food-friendly wines that are balanced and have good structure. The way that we go about doing that is whole-berry fermentation. We don’t do extended maceration, we don’t do aggressive tannins. We do lower oak influence to showcase the fruit. The other side of our philosophy is that it’s not just about making wine, it’s about delivering quality wine at a reasonable price.”
“I don’t know how other wineries do it, but I don’t think we do it the easy way,” says Brandee. “For our release party, it would be super-easy to call a food truck, but we don’t. We pair nine wines with nine different foods, we have music…it’s a big deal and all of our wine members come…for two days! People look at us and say, ‘That’s not normal.’”
Brian agrees and notes that when guests visit the winery they can stand at the tasting bar to taste but also have the option to be seated and “we come serve you. It may be the hard way, but sometimes that translates into a different experience than what you’d get at another tasting room.”
The couple’s formula of good wines and stellar customer service has proven so successful that Structure Cellars recently opened a second space in the Sodo Urbanworks Building. The original tasting room will maintain a more laid-back vibe, featuring hip-hop music; the new space will feature eclectic d.cor and include the winery’s “Foundation” label: 100 percent varietals made from vineyard grapes from Brian’s favorite barrels.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, it is. “Brian is relentless in terms of pushing forward,” Brandee says. “He hardly ever runs out of energy and he’s not someone who takes ‘OK’ as good enough.”
It’s that kind of drive and determination that has produced great results for this relatively new winery. And for Washington wineophiles? It’s a tasting room experience they won’t soon forget. Structure Cellars is located at 3849 1st Ave. South in Seattle and open noon to 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. More information: structurewines.com