Award-Winning Olympia Wines Bring Recognition, Respect to Local Winery

Photo by Stacee Sledge

Olympia-area wine lovers rejoice, because if you haven’t been to Madsen Family Cellars, you’re in for a treat.

Wait, you didn’t realize there was a winery in Olympia? There is. In fact, there’s more than one.

“There are three wineries right within a mile of each other here,” says Madsen Family Cellars owner Dana Madsen, speaking from his tasting room on Marvin Road, near the Lacey city limit. “One started last December and the other about two weeks ago.”

“I’m the old guy on the block,” he continues, with a laugh.

After a long career in construction as a civil engineer, Dana moved full-time to the winery last year. His wife Sandi is a high school English teacher, and also works in the tasting room.

Born in Federal Way, Dana met Sandi in 1976, while living in Fairbanks, Alaska. Sandi is from Nome, and the couple met onstage, singing in light opera theatre.

“Our kids only got to see their grandparents once a year,” remembers Dana, talking about what brought his family to Washington. The couple decided to move.

The family moved to Chehalis and Dana bought a gravel pit and some machinery. “I started making little rocks out of big ones,” he says.

In 1993, he sold the pit and the family moved to Olympia. Dana then worked for constructions companies as an estimator and project manager. “I wasn’t ready to retire when the recession came,” says Dana, “but it wasn’t my idea.”

Photo by Stacee Sledge

Dana and Sandi opened Madsen Family Cellars and its tasting room in 2008, after dabbling in hobby winemaking for a time, and then spending three years perfecting their product.

“We tried it ourselves first, at home,” says Dana. Their first foray was four different varietals: Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. “Two of them turned out really good: the Merlot and Syrah.”

“Naïve us, we got all our grapes at the same time,” he says with a chuckle. “We found out through that experience that all grapes don’t ripen at the same time.”

So, while some of the grapes used were ripe, others were over-ripe or not ripe enough. Hence, Dana and Sandi’s 50 percent success rate that first time out of the gate.

But those two successful wines were pretty spectacular.

“One of the old winemakers giving me advice along the way tasted that 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon and said, ’You’ve only got one problem: You’re going to have to do better than this next year. How are you going to do that?’ That was a little intimidating.”

During a weekend trip touring and tasting in Oregon wine country, they looked at each other and said, “You know, we could do this.” Their wine hobby was on its way to outgrowing their garage operation.

The couple made several research trips to Eastern Washington – to Walla Walla and through the Yakima Valley – talking to winemakers and honing ideas for their own wines.

They talked to one of the growers on Red Mountain and made a connection that resulted in Madsen Family Cellar’s first official grapes purchase.

Dana flew back and forth to UC Davis, taking classes in chemistry, doing lab work, and learning the technical aspects of wine. Sandi and the couple’s oldest son, Bjorn, joined him for a sensory perception course, focusing on the different tastes identifiable in wines.

“We learned a lot,” says Dana. “The rest of the information I’ve gotten about making wine came from other winemakers; most are really good about talking to new guys and helping out.”

Madsen Family Cellar’s grapes currently come from five different Eastern Washington growers: Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain, North Pasco, Prosser, Horse Heaven Hills, and Rattlesnake Hills. The winery processes between 15 and 18 tons of grapes each year.

“A year or two before we started there was a bad freeze and some areas got hit really hard,” Dana explains. “So I get grapes from five different [growers] and in many cases get the same kinds of grapes from two different places.”

This safety net allows Dana to blend flavors from two places, making his wines more complex and adding to their flavor profiles.

“We started out making the wine I wanted to make, which was big reds. We started with Red Mountain fruit, which is noted for being a big, perky fruit.”

But the couple quickly realized if they wanted to sell their product through a tasting room, they needed white wines, as well.

“And then you better also have some sweet wines,” Dana continues, “because there are some people who come in the door that only like sweet wines.”

Photo by Stacee Sledge

Today, 70 barrels ferment along one side of the 1,500-square-foot warehouse that also contains the tasting room. A similar warehouse next door holds the winery’s machinery and bottled wines.

The list of awards bestowed upon Madsen Family Cellars has been impressive, indeed.

“Last year was the first time we submitted wines to Wine Advocate, and three of our reds got over 90 points – and anything over 90 points is bragging rights,” says Dana. “That’s been a blessing for us.”

“It’s kind of remarkable,” Dana says, “because it’s so soon after we started. Those are 2007 vintages, and we only started in 2005.”

Other awards include more than two dozen silver and bronze medals from competitions in Washington, Oregon, California, Florida, and Texas.

As he wraps labels on bottles, Dana describes why he loves the work: “It’s just so rewarding. When you pour somebody a little wine at the tasting bar and they swirl it, sniff it, take a little taste – then their eyebrows go up and they say, ‘Oh my!’ You know you’ve done your job well.”

Madsen Family Cellars currently offers 16 wines in their tasting room or through their website. You’ll also find their wines at Top Foods in West Olympia and Bayview Thriftway downtown, among other area retail shops. Several local restaurants, including Cicada, Water Street Café, and Dockside Bistro, serve Madsen Family Cellars wines. A complete list of outlets is available here.

The tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Hours may change soon to 11am to 5pm. Check the Madsen Family Cellars for updates.

Madsen Family Cellars

2825 Marvin Road NE, Suite D

Olympia WA 98516

(360) 438-1286

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