Swirling delights

Until about 10 months ago, when Jesse Parker wanted a good bottle of wine, he headed out of town, usually to Redmond. Parker’s wine commute shortened when All Things Wine opened in the Highlands in July. The 75-year-old Highlands resident is now just a 20-minute walk from a good bottle of wine.

  • BY Wire Service
  • Friday, May 30, 2008 3:08pm
  • Life
Meggie von Haartman of Renton sips wine at a tasting at All Things Wine in the Renton Highlands.

Meggie von Haartman of Renton sips wine at a tasting at All Things Wine in the Renton Highlands.

Close-to-home choices

abound for fine wines

Until about 10 months ago, when Jesse Parker wanted a good bottle of wine, he headed out of town, usually to Redmond. Parker’s wine commute shortened when All Things Wine opened in the Highlands in July. The 75-year-old Highlands resident is now just a 20-minute walk from a good bottle of wine.

Parker visits All Things Wine once or twice a week to taste, buy or order wine. He and his wife drink wine with their dinner a couple times a week.

“This area just really needed this kind of place,” says Parker, a concert pianist.

Leesa and Wayne Kofmehl agree. Like Parker, the married wine enthusiasts were tired of traveling long distances for good wine. So after four years of planning, the Highlands residents decided the time was ripe to open All Things Wine.

Leesa describes the shop’s genesis as “a hobby that went awry.”

“We just love wine,” she says. “We love going out and tasting. We love going out and being able to learn more stuff about it. But there wasn’t a lot of places nearby to get a variety of wine. We found ourselves drinking the same thing at grocery stores.”

Leesa knew if she and Wayne were feeling this way, others in the growing Highlands neighborhood must be feeling the same.

The shop’s booming business indicates Leesa was right.

“We get new customers every single day,” she says.

Many customers come for the free tastings, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Four wines from the American-Australian collaboration Marquis Phillips and a shiraz by Strong Arms are on the tasting bar on a recent Saturday.

Leesa introduces each wine. She describes the first as a “light, oaklike chardonnay. Creamy, buttery,” she says. The kind of wine you would drink on the porch while waiting for the briquettes to get hot. A “porch pounder.”

A dish of crackers and aged Irish cheddar to cleanse the pallet is nearby, but Leesa says the progression of wines from lightest to fullest-flavored makes them unnecessary.

Stocked with what Leesa calls “boutique wines” from all over the world, it’s hard to leave All Things Wine unsatisfied. Small labels above the wooden racks of wine divide the shop into regions: Australia, California, France, Italy, New Zealand, Oregon, Portugal, Spain, and the most expansive section: Washington.

With 500 wineries, Leesa says Washington’s wine region is growing. This growth could explain her shop’s wealth of eager customers.

“With 500 wineries in Washington, people are hearing about it all the time,” she says. “People want to know where to get those wines.”

Parker helps Leesa and Wayne find a lot of wines. He turns them onto bottles he finds on Internet wine sites.

He stopped by All Things Wine on that recent Saturday to pick up the last bottle of a red he recommended. He also did some tasting – swishing around a mouthful before spitting it in a silver bucket atop the counter.

“That’s good,” he says.

While spitting wine looks uncouth, Parker says the method coats the mouth with wine and lets in lingering taste sensations. “You see what lingers,” he says. “You can identify strawberry, cherry…”

Aside from flavors, Parker can identify good, cheap wines. He points out an $8 bottle of red wine he says is comparable to a $37 bottle on the tasting bar. All Things Wine has other good, cheap wines.

“We sell fine wine,” Wayne tells a customer on that Saturday. “But fine wine doesn’t necessarily mean expensive.”

Parker stocks a refrigerator at home with about 100 wine bottles. He calls that “small town” compared to big collectors.

Big collectors like Russ Price of Fairwood. His home was once stocked with about 1,000 bottles of wine. But when Price turned 75, he realized he was never going to drink it all. Now 82, Price is down to about 400 bottles.

He buys most bottles at The Wine Alley, just a half mile from home. Before The Wine Alley opened three years ago, he drove to Seattle for his wine.

“I’m so happy to get a store really close by,” Price says, while swirling a glass of red wine. “It’s a really good store, and a good time.”

Price owned a wine shop in Seattle from 1968 until 1972, but it wasn’t until a 1972 Paris vacation that he got hooked on the drink. He now comes to The Wine Alley for wine club tastings most Thursdays. He later wrote a wine column for the “Renton Reporter.”

Like Price, most Wine Alley collectors are older than 50. “The empty nesters,” says Allison Helfen, who owns The Wine Alley with her husband Scott.

But collectors aren’t Wine Alley’s only customers. There’s also the 25-35 set, who Allison says are just starting to enjoy wine, and the 35-50 set, or “just your everyday wine drinkers.”

With a selection of premiere wines from $9 to $300, The Wine Alley has something for each of these groups.

The Helfens ensured these Renton wine drinkers existed before opening their shop. The wine industry is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, Allision says.

“We love wine, but this is not a hobby for us by any means,” she says. “We enjoy the business of wine.”

The Helfens were inspired to open a wine shop by a trip to Italy. They originally planned to open a wine bar, but didn’t want to work late hours, and wanted to offer tastings. Like All Things Wine, The Wine Alley offers three tastings each week, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Business has also been good for The Wine Alley, which Allison says is partly due to the booming wine industry.

“A lot of people are more interested in wine, and more enthusiastic about wine,” she says.

Dan Baker and his wife are one of wine’s newest converts. Baker came to The Wine Alley with a spreadsheet of wines on that recent Saturday. He and his wife are ranking the wines they try, in a quest to find good, cheap wine.

“We’re scientists,” he explains.

They’re also “traditional beer drinkers,” and don’t know what kind of wine they like. Older age and a search for fewer calories turned them onto wine. It was Baker’s first visit to The Wine Alley. He usually buys wine at grocery stores.

“It’s my first time in,” he says. “I’d like to come back.”

It wasn’t Janet Skaggs’ first time at The Wine Alley. She’s been coming since the shop opened.

“I watched them building this place,” says the 56-year-old Fairwood resident. “I saw the sign before they moved in. ‘We’re going to have a Wine Alley!’ I told everyone I know. They knew I love wine. I said, ‘This is going to be more than wine — it’s going to be an atmosphere.’”

The Renton wine shop has become Skaggs’ favorite place. She comes about once every two weeks, usually for chardonnay, or a nice red. She enjoys a glass of wine a night.

Skaggs sometimes buys wine at grocery stores, but she likes The Wine Alley’s advice and willingness to take special orders.

“Mostly I like what I find here,” she says.

Emily Garland can be reached at emily.garland@reporternewspapers.com or (425) 255-3484, ext. 5052.

Wine tastings

The Wine Alley and All Things Wine both offer tastings and wine clubs.

The Wine Alley, 14276 S.E. 176th St., 425-271-4501, www.thewinealley.com

All Things Wine, 4605 N.E. Fourth St., Ste. 4, 425-254-8400, www.allthingswineonline.com

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