Feb. 18, 2022 – For centuries, vineyards that dot gently rolling hills overlooking some of the world’s most beautiful vistas have gifted generations of families with not only a livelihood but also life itself. Embracing known and unknown risks, toiling towards perfection, and facing adversity head on are deeply-rooted, viticultural traditions. Eléni (Helen) and Big Papa (Daniel) Ferrelli, co-founders of EFESTE, an award-winning winery in Washington State, and their family are no exception.
Daniel’s father, the original Big Papa, learned how to make wine from his ancestors who lived in Italy’s Calabria region, located in the toe of the boot. His family immigrated to Chicago during the Great Depression and Prohibition. Passing down the family’s Italian and American heritage, as a young boy, Daniel helped his grandfather make wine in their basement using his old wine press. Burnished in Daniel’s memory were also the Ferrelli family Sunday dinners, really Sunday feasts to which neighbors were invited with just one request to bring a fork.
The family moved west to the Seattle area in 1959, bringing their passion for food and wine with them. When Daniel married Helen Stylianoplous, their future as vintners was sealed as Eléni and Big Papa although the leap into full-time winemaking waited a few years while they raised a family of three children.
However, Daniel never stopped making wine at home, an annual family tradition. With assistance from his father, brother, uncles and cousins, Daniel produced and bottled wine for family and friends from his garage. When his daughter Angela was in high school, Kevin Taylor, her boyfriend, offered to help. The garage proved to be just as good as a marriage made in heaven. The high school sweethearts graduated from Washington State University, married and began nurturing the next generation.
In 2005, Angela and Eléni traveled together to Italy to celebrate Eléni’s retirement and Angela’s decision to put her marketing/advertising career on hold to stay home with their two young boys. Big Papa and Kevin watched the boys while they were gone. What a surprise when Angela and Eléni returned home to learn their garage winery was now going commercial!
“Dad and Kevin told us they met a guy, got some grapes, and decided to make real wine,” Angela said to Chaîne during a Feb. 9, 2022 telephone interview. “They said it was just going to be a couple of barrels but it was A LOT more.”
In 2005, the Ferrelli family and the Taylor family founded EFESTE (Ferrelli, Stylianoplous and Taylor) with an oenological philosophy to let nature take the lead. Purchasing grapes grown in Eastern Washington, they hired a full-time winemaker with expertise in native fermentation.
The first two years were relatively calm as they waited for the 2005 vintage to age. The two families leveraged each other’s unique skill sets to plan their first release in 2007. Kevin has a background in land development and finance; Big Papa is a natural salesman; and Eléni is an amazing cook, Angela said. With her marketing/advertising expertise, the nascent company was already laying a solid foundation for growth. That growth came quickly after they crushed it with their 2007 release. But along with instant success came adversity.
Joe, Angela and Kevin’s five-year-old son, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). On the day of their first release in 2007, Joe started his low-dose chemotherapy treatments that would last for the next three and one-half years, the standard pediatric protocol to defeat the blood cancer. Once his treatments ended, Joe internalized his doctor’s advice to make healthy choices as he grew. Today Joe is enthusiastically learning the wine business through real world experience and, as a student, is working on his acceptance into the Viticulture and Enology Program at Washington State University. He is also a member of the Cougar’s football team. “My son is absolutely amazing. He’s very much appreciative of his cure and acts that way,” Angela said.
EFESTE’s Tough Guy, a high end Red Blend, is named after Joe. A portion of the proceeds from every bottle sold is donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) Pacific Northwest. EFESTE’s annual Rockin’ Sips is a charitable fundraiser for the LLS and Joe is the spokesperson to the media and at the event. Usually held each February, this year the fundraiser will take place in June or July because of the pandemic.
Washington State Vineyards and EFESTE
Tough Guy is made from grapes grown in Eastern Washington in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area (AVA). It’s one of 19 AVAs in the state, according to the Washington State Wine Commission (WSWC).
As of 2020, there were 1,050 wineries in the state producing more than 17 million cases, according to WSWC data. More than 99 percent of Washington wines are made from grapes grown on about 59,000 acres in the Columbia Valley AVA, nested within the Columbia River Valley. Geographically, the state is traversed by the 46th parallel and 47th parallel, which also defines France’s famous Bordeaux and Burgundy winemaking regions.
Mark Fiore, EFESTE’s principal winemaker, joined the company almost five years ago. “I met Kevin, drank two beers, met the rest of the family, had dinner and it was done,” Mark said during the Feb. 9 telephone interview. Angela said they knew immediately Mark was the perfect fit.
In 2008, EFESTE planted their first vines in Eastern Washington within the Red Mountain AVA, which encompasses about 2,300 acres.
Just as Mark came on board in 2017, the vines reached maturity. His first recommendation to the family was to harvest the grapes for their estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Because their vineyard has a rare north-facing slope, Mark said the grapes have unique characteristics. Designated as an AVA in 2001, Red Mountain’s terroir is defined by warm temperatures, persistent winds and an average rainfall of five inches. EFESTE’s Tough Guy is also made from grapes grown in the Red Mountain AVA.
In tribute to the family’s heritage, EFESTE’s Big Papa wine is made from grapes grown on old vines planted 35 years ago in the newly formed White Bluffs AVA, Mark said.
Sourced from a single grower, the Bacchus, Sagemoor and Dionysus vineyards all sit on the banks of the Columbia River. Mark added that the Bacchus and Dionysus vineyards sit on sloping land close to one another with elevations from 550 to 900 feet. The climate is ideal with warm temperatures, which are never too hot or too cool. The Sagemoor vineyard is farther south and also has a beautiful view of the Columbia River and the Rattlesnake Mountains. The soil is comprised of a very sandy loam, an ideal composition of clay, silt and organic material for grapevines.
In 2021, EFESTE expanded into sparkling wine, a dream for many years. EFESTE crushed it again when Mark produced Angie, a delicious Champagne made from grapes grown in the Clos Chevalle vineyard located within the Lake Chelan AVA. The vineyard is EFESTE’s most northern vineyard with a higher elevation of 1,250 to 1,600 feet and sits along the south shore of Lake Chelan, Mark explained. The grapes ripen late so it’s a perfect site for their sparkling wine.
Mark will begin traveling to the vineyards in March to first check to see how everyone handled the winter weather. Because the climate varies dramatically from Western to Eastern Washington, Mark keeps a close eye on the weather. “It’s different every year,” Mark said. Two years ago, wildfires tainted some of their grapes so they decided not to make their Paulie varietal. “Every harvest has its own challenges. That’s why I love what I do.”
As harvest approaches, Mark will make weekly visits to the vineyards. But deciding when to pick the grapes is only the beginning of a tense yet exciting fall season for Mark and the winery.
As a Seattle-based winery using grapes grown in Eastern Washington, there is a major logistics component to EFESTE’s operation. Grapes are transported by truck but Mother Nature determines optimal time for picking and transport.
“Bad things can happen if the grapes are picked in the morning and sit in the sun all day,” Mark explained. “Trucking grapes has become more difficult,” Angela added. With a total production of 13,000 cases, Angela said if they expand to producing 20,000 or more cases per year, they will consider installing a crush pad in Eastern Washington.
For their red wine production, after harvest, Mark lets the grapes start the fermentation process on their own. There can be a seven to eight day lag period as that bubbly process begins. “We just have to protect the grapes from oxygen. We use a lot of carbon dioxide and dry ice to protect the wine,” Mark said.
“It’s a glorious process,” Angela commented.
Mark then tastes the wine daily to determine when to press. They have the luxury of being able to wait 30-40 days if necessary. He is tasting for flaws so his palate can easily handle a tray of 16 samples.
A few years ago EFESTE purchased state-of-the-art concrete tanks sourced in France’s Bordeaux region. “They’re gorgeous. They look like five UFO spaceships,” Angela said. Mark added that people still fondly remember the day the tanks came. “It was a fun day when they arrived,” he said.
Their commitment to excellence has earned EFESTE many awards. Most recently, the 2021 Seattle Wine Awards for Washington State Wines honored four EFESTE wines: 2019 EFESTE ‘James Vineyard’ Malbec (92 pts); 2019 EFESTE ‘Taylor Mag’ Cabernet Sauvignon (92 pts); 2019 EFESTE ‘Estate Grenache’ (93 pts); and the 2020 EFESTE ‘Penelope’ Rousanne (92 pts).
The family’s entrepreneurial expertise proved invaluable during the pandemic. The shock of closing their two tasting rooms, one in Woodinville and one in Seattle, was a seismic one. “We couldn’t cry. Everyone was in the same boat,” Angela said. It was another adversity the family met head on.
To her staff, Angela said: “Listen, here’s the deal. We’re not selling Armani suits. We’re selling wine and everyone is still going to want a glass of wine so let’s get creative.”
Eléni and Big Papa had always made food for EFESTE’s big events with rave reviews from attendees. “My mom could still cater an event for 500 people if she wanted to,” Angela said.
As they pondered how to operate in the midst of a pandemic, they added food to become a one-stop shop for customers.
“We just stayed true to our roots. We stayed entrepreneurial and tried to figure out ways to sell and be there for people,” Angela said. They opened a tent selling food, wine, T-shirts and gift items. People came out in droves. Now they offer pizza each day, which has been very popular.
Angela said 2021 was one of their best years ever. She was deeply touched during the pandemic as their customers worried about them. “It was really a beautiful thing,” Angela said.
The family feels a bit of pressure to duplicate the stellar year they had in 2021 but they are standing on the shoulders of generations of winemakers who have passed down their skills and commitment to excellence. And as heir apparent to EFESTE, Joe Taylor is there to eagerly receive the torch in time. “It’s just a perfect fit for our family so we’re pretty excited,” Angela said.