The Boeing Employees' Winemakers Club (BEWC) originally took flight as a hobbyist organization in 1971 when a small group of Seattle-based aeronautics coworkers, who were also amateur wine enthusiasts, banded together to learn enological techniques and share equipment in the noble quest to produce fine homemade wine. The Boeing Company -- a firm that has long supported employees' various off-hours recreational activities -- provided meeting and gear-storage space for the group's members. The club became a prime example of what can happen when highly productive people join forces to compare notes and teach each other what they know about some arcane subject and/or activity -- in this instance, the art and science of winemaking. In the 1980s the club expanded into the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Makers Club (BEWBC), which today continues offering its membership regular meetings, classes, seminars, access to gear, winemaking supplies, a growing library of enological publications, and the annual Boeing Winefest. Judging by the several dozen wineries birthed over the years by various alumni, the club is a soaring success -- once noted by The Wall Street Journal as perhaps "The World's Best Wine Club."
Supporting a Contented Workforce
The Boeing Company has long tacitly and even directly supported the extracurricular recreational activities of its employees. Specific examples over the decades include a Boeing employees' flying school, square-dancing groups, bowling teams, and coin-collecting, hunting, fishing, fencing, scuba-diving, rafting, music, gemology, and wine-tasting clubs. Even the mega-successful Boeing Employees Credit Union (BECU) -- which originated in the mid-1930s -- got off to a stable start in part because its founders were allowed to solicit new members in the company's cafeteria during lunchtime. The nascent cooperative was also provided office space and the services of a Boeing accountant to help establish its footing.
Boeing's corporate culture recognized early on that a contented workforce -- one that interacted through various social activities -- was an engaged workforce. As The New York Times once astutely noted:
"Fat paychecks, pensions and health insurance are not enough to recruit and keep employees these days. Companies are again finding that adding a bit of social context to work is crucial to keeping employees happy and productive. That is where employee clubs come in. Workplace specialists say clubs are a way to build camaraderie and help people get to know fellow employees away from work. Companies benefit, too. Clubs help create loyal employees, reduce turnover and improve morale while costing very little" ("The Workplace as Clubhouse").
Boeing Employees' Winemakers Club
Founded in 1971 -- the same year that Boeing structural engineer Richard Schnelz blazed the trail by buying the Shelton-based Werberger Winery -- the Boeing Employees' Winemakers Club emerged at a time when Washington's wine industry was at a serious low point. A few decades back there had been scores of wineries all across the state, but by the early 1970s there were only a couple of active winery operations left in Seattle -- one of them being Associated Vintners, which had been founded by a partnership that included Boeing engineer Allan Taylor. The other was American Wine Growers (AWG), whose roots traced back to two Prohibition-era wineries, National Wine Company and Pommerelle. It was sold to new investors in 1972 and recast as Ste. Michelle Vintners (the company that would, as Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, lead a local wine renaissance over the next few decades).
The timing of the wine club's formation was excellent, and Boeing management was supportive, eventually providing meeting and equipment-storage space at the recreational center in the south cafeteria of the company's Developmental Center complex, adjacent to Boeing Field at 9725 E Marginal Way S. Boeing also allowed dues-paying BEWC members to take time off as needed during production seasons and supplied printing facilities for publication of the club's monthly newsletter, The Press. On August 19, 1971, Boeing's own newsletter, Boeing News, announced:
"A winemaker's 'starter kit' and a seminar on the basics will be presented at a meeting of the Winemaking Club August 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the math seminar room of Boeing Scientific Research Laboratories. The starter kit will show types of required equipment and approximate costs. Copies of simple tested recipes will be available for making of wine from grapes, berries, apples, plums and several common vegetables" ("Winemakers to Meet").
The fact that a lot of the wine made by club members early on was from fruit other than grapes was due in part to the scarcity of European-derived Vitis vinifera winemaking grapes in the Northwest. The club originally acquired fruit cooperatively from two main sources. California Zinfandel and Barbera grapes were bought each autumn right off the train cars or trucks used by longtime local Italian American importer Anthony "Tony" Picardo, located in the Georgetown neighborhood. Later, sometime after the pioneering Sagemoor Vineyard was planted along the Columbia River in 1972, Washington-grown Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were accessed. The club managed to acquire some additional enological gear from Italian immigrant Frank Daquila's short-lived (1981-1985) downtown Seattle business, Daquila Winery, at 1434 Western Avenue. Grapes would also be acquired through the Western Washington Amateur Winemakers Association (WWAWA) and arrangements were made for club members to go to vineyards in Eastern Washington and pick their own grapes.
In time, Boeing would also generously provide a small amount of capital as seed money for the club to purchase other essential gear, including a grape crusher/presser/destemmer and corking machines, which were allowed to be stored on company property. The BEWC launched its own store, where members could buy -- at steep retail discount -- their own gear, ingredients, chemicals, and other supplies, and could special-order various additional items as needed. As time went on, the BEWC -- and various other Boeing-associated clubs -- were relocated from the Developmental Center to the Boeing's Activity Center's 18-10 building at 22649 83rd Avenue S in Kent. As of 2018, the club stored its gear at Snoqualmie Ridge, and held its meetings at various hosting wineries in the Woodinville wine country in northeastern King County.
Boeing News published many items tracking the winemaking club's ongoing activities during its formative years, but its general glee over the club's existence was made clear by an article in 1972 headlined: "Wine Making Is an Ancient Art, Which Now at Boeing Has a Start." As the club -- which boasted 50 members by mid-1972 -- became better established, officers were elected and various essential tasks were assigned to individuals. In addition to establishing the positions of president, vice president, and treasurer, the BEWC placed other members in charge of various functions, including grape procurement, equipment management, membership, publications, publicity, and organizing and maintaining a library of enological publications.
Meanwhile, programs were launched to further educate members about everything from buying grapes to producing juice and marketing wine. As the club's website later noted: "By sharing experiences and sampling each other's creations we all enhance our skill and knowledge in this ancient art" ("About Us").
The result of all this interaction was a good amount of surprisingly good wine -- plus a track record as an incubator nurturing notable winemaking talents. Indeed, in 2010 a Wall Street Journal writer suggested that the Boeing club "might be the very best wine club in the world. It's certainly the only amateur wine club I know of that has launched some serious professional careers" (Teague).
As the 1970s flowed into the early 1980s there was a notable increase of interest in amateur winemaking, inspired in part, no doubt, by the recent emergence of esteemed new Washington wineries including Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon, and Quilceda Creek, as well as the planting of ever more acres of vineyards. The club saw "its growth and maturation parallel that of the state's wine industry. Over the years, better grapes and more grape sources led to better wines. More people got excited about joining the club, and all sorts of resources, from grapes to yeasts to literature to pH meters, became more accessible" (Gregutt, "Boeing Wine-club Alumni ...").
Another attractive feature of the club was its annual wine-judging event. The inaugural one was held on December 17, 1971, at the Mercer Island Royal Fork Restaurant, where the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's food and wine editor, Stan Reed, served as the chief judge. Winning over the other 24 contenders was Bob Reichel's Zinfandel, while the runners-up were a Spanish White by Glenn Jones, a Concord by Violet McNamee, and a Gooseberry by Lois Still. Other early members who produced promising wines were Rich Clark, Chuck Jackson, Kevin Neal, and Chuck Kuranko, who had started the club's wine-education program.
By the late 1980s there were more than100 members, and the club had expanded into the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Makers Club (BEWBC). Then, in the go-go era of the 1990s, membership increased to perhaps 200, and for a number of years a northern faction split off as the Boeing Employees' Everett Wine and Beermaking Club before returning to the fold. In 2018 the BEWBC had about 80 active members, a few of whom stood out for their notable contributions and winemaking successes, including Eugene B. Foote, Steve Foisie, Doug DeVol, Dave Larsen, Tim Narby, and Ben Smith.
Eugene B. Foote
Among the earliest Boeing employees to get active in the wine-production business was a senior engineer named Eugene B. Foote. In 1978 he began making European-style dry white wines in a building at an industrial park near the Boeing plant along Seattle's Duwamish River. The E. B. Foote Winery then moved to 9330 15th Avenue S in the nearby South Park neighborhood.
In July 1980 Foote entered his 1978 Gewurztraminer in the Tri-Cities' Northwest Wine Festival at Richland and won the coveted Winemakers Award. The following month that same wine took a gold medal in Seattle at the Pacific Northwest Enological Society's annual festival. More awards were bestowed on E. B. Foote Winery over the following years, but it was eventually sold and slipped into obscurity.
In 1978 Stephen Foisie, a design illustrator and later manager for Boeing Support Services, joined the club. A self-taught enologist, he had been making wine since 1975 in collaboration with a cousin who happened to work with Prosser-based horticulturist Dr. Walter Clore (1911-2003), later to gain widespread renown as the "Father of Washington Wine." Foisie recalled:
"It was through Walt that we were able to find grapes -- because it was almost impossible to find vinifera grapes in eastern Washington back in the 1970s ...
"In 1984 Doug DeVol and I took over teaching wine-making for the club. We shared the effort for a couple of years, and I've been teaching ever since. I would guess that since 1985 I've been able to introduce probably 500 people to wine technology. Then in about 1995, Tim Narby, the then-president of the club said, 'You know, we really need to start notching it up a bit, and start looking at some really high-quality grape sources.' He was one of the first to go out and start developing relationships with the new vineyards that were popping up all over Eastern Washington. Then, later, Ben Smith took it an order of magnitude beyond that. So, he and Tim and a number of others started getting really serious about high-quality grapes and at one point we were ordering over 50 tons of grapes for 200 members. We at one point had access to grapes from 27 different vineyards in Washington and we were involved with the Washington Grape Growers Association.
"There's one thing most people don't realize -- and it's the first thing I ask in my class -- and that is: 'How many people want to become commercial winemakers?' And, you, know, a lot of people do. And I say, 'Well, if you want to become a commercial winemaker, you need to change the nomenclature to 'wine-seller,' because you are going to spend about 10 percent of your time making the wine -- which has to be a high-quality crafted product from high-quality fruit. But, now you gotta understand marketing, product differentiation, distribution systems, and pricing. You've gotta have good financial acumen as well, to balance books. And people don't understand that" (Foisie interview).
Foisie's practical grasp of not only technical winemaking theory but also of wine marketing had a demonstrably positive effect, and he rightly took pride in the success many of his students attained. "You know, there are probably close to 40 wineries that started as a result of the wine club or were influenced through a member" (Foisie interview). And his contributions have been noted by others: "Thanks to Foisie's insistence that would-be professional winemakers master the elements of marketing before going public with their wares, Boeing grads have shown a considerably higher survival rate than more impulsive peers" ("The Boeing Style").
Boeing financial planner Dave Larsen led the pack in scoring widespread acclaim for his high-quality red wines, and his was the second winery founded by a club member.
"Thanks to his early start and Boeing purchasing power, Larsen immediately lined up impeccable [Washington] vineyard sources, Ciel du Cheval, Champoux, and Charbonneau among them. He remembers seeking out their fruit because, he says, 'Woodward Canyon, Leonetti, and Quilceda Creek were already doing great things with it'" (Gregutt, Washington Wine ..., 93).
Larsen's commercial wine production debuted with the 1989 vintage. He was able to retire from Boeing 15 vintages later and in 2009 opened the Soos Creek winery at his home at 24012 172nd Avenue SE in Kent.
In the late 1980s Boeing mechanical engineer Ben Smith was a budding homebrew-beer enthusiast. But then a workmate came to him one day with a proposition: "He was dabbling in home winemaking and knew that I brewed beer and liked wine. So he asked me if I wanted to go out to a vineyard with him and just pick 100 pounds of fruit and try my hand at making wine" ("Ben Smith ..."). Smith accepted. Their source happened to be Dick Boushey's Yakima Valley vineyard -- by 2018 among the most prized in Washington.
"I made one vintage, the '92, on my own and it was in barrel ... and then I found the club. And it was a thriving amazing community of people" (Smith interview). As Smith once explained: "The best part about the club was being around passionate winemakers ... That exposure just fueled my fire. I also made great connections and was taught by some fantastic teachers" (Shevory, "Boeing Club Members ...").
Three vintages later, in 1995, Smith entered the Boeing Winefest: "A seemingly natural born winemaker, Smith's [wine] ended up taking 'Best of Show' at the club's prestigious annual wine competition" (Sullivan, "Ben Smith ..."). Bolstered by that win, Smith soon took on the role of head of grape procurement for the club and proceeded to forge solid contacts with the proprietors of some of Washington's finest vineyards.
In 1996 Smith's wine scored again at the Boeing Winefest, and in 1997 he reigned supreme with his Cabernet-Merlot-Bordeaux blend and late-harvest desert wine. "When the four wines he entered in the Club's annual competition won first through fourth place in the Best of Show category, his colleagues recommended that he consider a new career" ("100 Best ..."). "I had a good feeling about that [laughter]. Coming on top of winning in '96 and '95. It was just clear that it was working. It was working very, very well" (Smith interview). Smith and his wife, Gaye McNutt, proceeded to plant their own vineyard, Cara Mia, on the highly esteemed Red Mountain in Benton County in Southeastern Washington, and launched their award-winning Cadence Winery at 9320 15th Avenue S in Seattle's South Park neighborhood. In hindsight, Smith said:
"The club had a deep impact. Through the club I was coordinating the procurement of 50 tons of grapes from all these wonderful vineyards. It was an astonishingly great entrée to the great vineyards in Washington state. So the club gave me that opportunity to get to know what great fruit really tastes like. And then, on the other end of it, among the judges from the 1997 competition was Michael Teer from Pike & Western Wine Merchants. And after the competition Michael came up to me and said, 'You know, if you make this commercially, I will sell it.' And coming from one of the great retailers in Washington, those were wonderful words to hear. And so, Michael Teer was Invoice No. 1 when we started selling wine in August of 2000. And then Dan McCarthy at our local wine shop [McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants] was Invoice No. 2 -- and Dan also helped us create a business plan, too. So we kinda knocked down two of the top retailers early on, one by geographic happenstance and the other through the club.
"We all owe the club a big thank you ... and especially Steve Foisie -- he was so energetic and a real force in the club. So, the Boeing wine club had a fairly significant impact 20 years ago on what was happening in the Washington wine scene" (Smith interview).
The Cup Runneth Over
Over the decades the Boeing wine club has produced a bumper crop of talented enologists. Among those club members who have established, or make wine for, local winery operations are Tim Narby (Nota Bene Cellars), Ron Yabut (Austin Robaire Winery), John Bell (Willis Hall), Larry Lindvig (Pleasant Hill Estate), John Olsen (Alia Wines), Richard Fairfield (Cedar Ridge), Dan Crutcher (Crutcher Cellars), Max and Jen Jensen Griffins (Crossing Winery), Steve Mason (Major Creek Cellars), Brad Sherman (Michael Florintino Cellars), and Ben Ridgway (Queen Anne Winery).
In addition, the founding of Seattle's 8 Bells Winery was inspired by years of making wine in collaboration with Boeing acoustic engineer and club member Paul Joppa. Lastly, club alumnus Doug Graves (Graves Cellars) moved to France in 2008 and as of 2018 was making Cotes du Rhone wines for his own Mas De La Lionne winery.