Olalla winemaker harbors grape expectations

Joe Serka expects to fill this cellar with wine in a few weeks. His Olalla winery opens for business on Oct. 10.  - Charlie Bermant
Joe Serka expects to fill this cellar with wine in a few weeks. His Olalla winery opens for business on Oct. 10.
— image credit: Charlie Bermant

Joe Serka began making wine as a hobby about 20 years ago but it took until his 2006 layoff before he decided to take in seriously.

As a result, the family-run Olalla Valley Vineyards and Winery will open its doors next month.

“My wife Konnie and I both worked for CenturyTel,” he said. “We both were laid off, so we put a plan in action. We got all the permits, we renovated the equipment and have built a place where we can have wine tastings and host small events.”

Washington wine is gaining a national reputation, for its flavor and quality that can cost far more from more prestigious locations. Consequently, local vintners throughout the state are entering the business.

While all seek long-range profitability, it is mostly a labor of love, with the purpose of manufacturing something rewarding and unique.

In this respect, there is a lot that sets Serka apart.

In the first place, he grows his own grapes. This lends him an air of authenticity, in a business where importing grapes from other locations is a common practice.

“I think if you make a local wine, you need to use local grapes,” he said. “The point of a local wine is to provide a taste that is unique to the region. That wouldn’t be the case if you get grapes from eastern Washington.”

Serka acknowledges a flaw in this process. The weather in eastern Washington is more predictable, yielding a consistent grape quality from one year to the next.

Grapes grown in Olalla, meanwhile, are at the mercy of the weather and will suffer during a particularly wet year.

If after a such a year there is an unsatisfactory crop, Serka will be unable to meet his goal of 800 bottles a year. T

he fall-back plan is to concentrate on blueberry and raspberry wines, for which there will always be enough available fruit.

“Olalla is the Chinook word for berries,” Serka said, “so we’ll never have a shortage.”

Serka hopes to build his reputation with a series of whites, reds and blends which he expects to sell for between $20 and $30 a bottle.

He is growing several varieties of grapes and claims to offer the only Merlot product in the state.

Serka’s goal of 800 bottles a year is modest as wineries go, and he doesn’t plan to seek wide distribution.

Rather, he seeks to provide a hidden treasure for people who seek out good regional wine.

He also has no plans to market to local retailers and will sell his wine through the Internet or to people who come to the winery.

Another unique aspect is a connection to Croatia, from which his parents emigrated.

His family landed in this area due to a large Croatian community, which still thrives. The recipes for the wine were handed down through his family and culture, continuing traditions originating from the old country.

For example, Croatian wine’s special flavor comes from the practice of fermenting the grape stems along with the grapes.

Serka can’t say what makes a great wine, maintaining that it all comes down to individual taste.

Serka intends to celebrate the opening of the winery by inviting members of the local Croatian community to come out for a taste.

Afterwards, the winery, located on Olalla Valley Road, will be open on from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. after Oct. 10.

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