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From a career change grows grape expectations and vines
Simply put, it wasn’t just a matter of sour grapes. Rather than wallow after being laid off by CenturyTel in 2006, Joe and Konnie Serka decided to fully invest themselves in a new career.
That change was not related to telecommunications or technology. Instead, the Olalla couple opened Olalla Valley Vineyard and Winery in 2009.
Joe Serka, 66, said he could have taken a new job out of state, but was really ready to retire. And while running the vineyard hardly constitutes a break — he estimates he spends 40 to 70 hours a week pruning his three acres of vines and making wine — Serka could not imagine doing anything else.
It began as a hobby in 1999 when he and two of his sons repurposed an old horse pasture on the property by planting a vineyard. Howwever, Serka’s interest in wine began much earlier.
Serka, who is of Croatian descent, said he was raised in a culture that fished and made wine. He did both as an adolescent in Gig Harbor. He began making wine with his father when he was 10 years old.
“That was their custom,” he said. “I got the smell of fermented grapes and never got it out of my head.”
Serka’s “Croatian Family” label pays homage to his heritage and his family traditions. The tasting room is decorated in Old World tradition with many antiques. Displayed in the room are historic black-and-white photos of friends and families, along with his grandmother’s press from 1939.
Patrons can sample varietals — Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Voignier and Agria — that generally range between $20-$30. Serka also produces blackberry and raspberry wines from the 350 to 400 pounds of berries he picks each year to keep up with demand. Finding enough supply in Olalla, which means “land of many berries,” never is a challenge. They also grow lavender on the property, which is used to make True Grosso, Royal Velvet and Provence.
While Serka said he enjoyed his former career, he feels a greater sense of satisfaction when he speaks with customers about his wine.
“You do things and there’s a result,” he said. “It’s always nice to see how the wine turns out.”
At least when it turns out well. Most of the more famous vineyards in Washington state are located in arid regions, such as Chelan, Yakima and Walla Walla — for a reason. The reds they produce require more heat and the volcanic soils the area is known for.
“The last few years here have been cold and that has been difficult,” he said, adding that he also had to construct a wire fence around his rural property to fend off deer that destroyed the majority of his vines a few years ago.
But a challenging climate has not dissuaded Serka from pursuing his passion. After all, he noted that wine has been produced for thousands of years and originally came from Europe.
“Our climate here is the true natural state for grapes,” he said. “Europe has good years and bad years.”
Serka said the weather has been better this year, but it has not come without some disruptions.
“We’ve had some problems with pollination that has left us with uneven bud breaks,” he said. “I think that’s from the winds in June.”
Even after making wine for much of his life, Serka said he still is learning — particularly when it comes to the characteristics of his property, which is located at 13176 Olalla Valley Rd.
“We learn something new every year,” he said. “The French say it takes 10 years to know your vineyard.”
There are some benefits to having a vineyard in the Puget Sound region, he said, such as never having to irrigate after planting a vine.
He also said he maintains the “European way” of wine making, which means all fruit is picked by hand and no sulfites are used after fermentation.
The couple features a small wine cellar on the property, which he said might create more challenges if he decided to grow more than three acres. Both said they are fine with that, as they are more focused on being civic-minded rather than large profits.
“That’s all I can handle,” Serka said.
The couple recently donated proceeds from the winery’s annual Antique Fair to benefit Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, which lost its Gig Harbor thrift store to a fire last month. The Serkas also sell Christmas trees and wreaths to aid South Kitsap Helpline.
“We make just enough to keep going,” Konnie Serka said.