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Walla Walla’s Corliss family buys San Juan Vineyard

By  on January 29, 2018

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — Yvonne Swanberg was thrilled to have Michael and Lauri Corliss as her wine club members at San Juan Vineyards.

On Thursday, the tables officially will be turned. Great Northwest Wine has learned that the owners of Corliss EstateTranche Estate and Secret Squirrel have purchased San Juan Vineyards from Swanberg. News of the sale is expected to be announced later today and become effective Feb. 1.

“Mike and Lauri actually belong to the wine club and have been members for four or five years,” Swanberg told Great Northwest Wine last week. “It was around Labor Day that I got the offer and a personal letter from Mike Corliss. It was pretty amazing when I saw ‘Corliss’ on the letterhead. I thought, ‘OH MY GOD!’ ”

The couple owns three large plantings totaling 455 acres in Eastern Washington — Red Mountain Vineyards (350 acres), Blackrock Vineyard (50 acres) in the Yakima Valley and Blue Mountain Vineyard (54 acres planted) in the Walla Walla Valley. In 2015, the Corlisses bought acclaimed Celilo Vineyard (53 acres planted) on Underwood Mountain in the Columbia Gorge near Mount Hood, Ore.

Swanberg, 72, co-founded San Juan Vineyards in 1996 with her husband, Steve, who died in 2006 after a two-year battle with cancer. Operating the 5-acre vineyard and 4,000-case winery on San Juan Island were labors of love for Yvonne, who has been looking to sell to someone with the talent, wherewithal and vision to take her vineyard and her brand to the next level.

“This is a good deal, and I’m happy with it,” Swanberg said.

Terms of the sale were not available, but both Swanberg and Washington Vintners in Walla Walla, the parent company of the three Corliss-owned brands and vineyards, said the SJV team will remain in place and sale of the wines will continue to be focused on the tasting room. It will be fascinating for fans of Swanberg’s estate white wines to see how Washington Vintners’ experience of farming cool-climate Celilo Vineyard, a site with varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner and Müller-Thurgau, translates to Puget Sound viticulture.

“The winery is an integral part of the community on the island,” Lauri Corliss said in a news release. “When Yvonne decided to retire and sell the property, we became excited about the prospect of working with Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine. We admire the pioneering vision of the Swanbergs and look forward to contributing to the success of their wine business.”

Aromatic whites thrive in Puget Sound

The Swanbergs moved to San Juan Island in 1979 and quickly established one of the region’s most successful insurance companies. The chapel at San Juan Vineyards is near the entrance to the winery and the vineyards.Along the way, they purchased a parcel of land along Roche Harbor Road that included a one-room schoolhouse built in 1896. They turned Sportsman Lake Schoolhouse No. 22 into a quaint tasting room and devoted 5 acres of the gentle-sloping hillside to vines.

A year prior, in 1995, the federal government established the Puget Sound American Viticultural Area, and the Swanbergs’ research led them to plant 2.9 acres of Madeleine Angevine — a Loire Valley cross of Madeleine Royale with Précoce de Malingre — and 2.2 acres of Siegerrebe, which is a cross of Madeleine Angevine and Gewürztraminer. Both varieties often thrive in the maritime climate, and those estate wines garnered a series of gold medals at West Coast competitions for a decade under the winemaking of Chris Primus and most recently by Chris Lawler.

“My largest vintage was 2008 at about 4,100 cases,” Swanberg said. “We’ve tapered down since then, but things will be changing here and ramping up. One of the big concentrations is going to be on the estate wines.”

Grape growing in the San Juans is far from bullet proof, as the 2017 vintage proved.

“It was a tough year with the Madeleine, but the Siegerrebe is beautiful,” Swanberg said. “We’ll only have 100 cases of the Madeleine Angevine and 420 of the Siegerrebe.

“I’ve got to get out of the habit of ‘we,’ ” she added with a chuckle. “It’s now, ‘them.’ ”

The Corlisses have a devotion to the area, both by land and by sea as property owners who spend their summer months on the island when they are not sailing the San Juans.

“They do come to the island a lot,” Swanberg said.

 Swanberg to retire on island after sale to Corliss

There were other suitors for San Juan Vineyards this summer, but Swanberg said Mike and Lauri Corliss were the ideal fit.

“It’s a very attractive property and a beautiful vineyard,” Swanberg said. “I have my feet on this dirt every day. Everybody knew that this was going to come sooner than later.”

For a time after Steve’s passing, Yvonne tried living in Spokane to be closer to family. She grew up in the Columbia River town of Northport, 10 miles down stream from British Columbia, but the call of Friday Harbor and the San Juans won out.

“I bought a home and I’m going to be on the island the rest of my life,” she said. “I’ll be doing some traveling, and I look forward to figuring out what I’m going to do, but I’m sure boredom will set in. I’ll be here at some of the events, and I will be readily available for whatever they need. I am retiring, but I’ll be just a phone call away.”

On Saturday, Swanberg toasted the sale at her vineyard near Roche Harbor with longtime friends, some of them traveling from as far away as Ohio and Texas.

“I’m just going to miss being here at the vineyard, and I’ll miss the customer base,” she said. “So many of my customers have become good friends.”

And owners, in this case. Swanberg said she and the Corlisses recently shared a lighthearted moment during the final phases of a transaction that took five months to complete.

“I had Mike’s wine club card in my desk folder, and I told him, ‘Here, you can have this,’ ” Swanberg said with a chuckle.

Corlisses purchase San Juan Vineyards

Corlisses purchase San Juan Vineyards

The award-winning, estate-grown winery is in the coolest-climate growing region in the state, in Friday Harbor.

Michael and Lauri Corliss are extending their wine industry footprint to their home-away-from-home on San Juan Island.

Through Washington Vintners, their Walla Walla company that owns Corliss Estate, Tranche Estate and Secret Squirrel wineries, the pair have announced the purchase of San Juan Vineyards in Friday Harbor, Wash.

Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed in the announcement. The winery is owned by Yvonne Swanberg, who started the business in 1996 with her late husband, Steve, building it into an award-winning, estate-grown winery from the coolest-climate growing region in the state. It is known for its white varietals, Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine.

The Corlisses have sampled the wines of San Juan Vineyards as residents of the island during the summer months.

“The winery is an integral part of the community on the island,” Lauri Corliss said in the announcement. “We admire the pioneering vision of the Swanbergs, and we look forward to building on their legacy.”

San Juan Vineyards is the only commercial operating vineyard and winery on San Juan Island, according to the their website. The tasting room operates in a renovated 1895 schoolhouse in the Puget Sound American Viticultural Area.

 The ownership change is effective Feb. 1.

The Corlisses started in the wine business in Eastern Washington in 1999. Grapes for their three existing brands are sourced in the Walla Walla, Red Mountain and Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Areas.

Washington Wine Blog – San Juan Vineyards

Interview with owner of San Juan Island Vineyards, Yvonne Swanberg

Recently I had the chance to catch up with the owner of the only winery on San Juan Island. San Juan Vineyards has achieved some great acclaim in the past, despite being a small production winery. The key is that the winery relies on fruit from great vineyards in Columbia Valley. Their red wines have achieved Wine Spectator scores of 90 in the past. They also recently achieved a double gold medal for their Madeline Angevine, a German varietal that is planted on their estate. This is one of the few varietals can thrive in the cool, damp climate of Western Washington. Here is my interview with Yvonne Swanberg, who talks about the trials and tribulations of being a winery owner.

(Washington Wine Blog) I’m wondering about your background in wine and how you decided to start a winery? What are some of the experiences that you have had?-

(Yvonne Swanberg) First, I had no background in wine aside from enjoyment. I enjoyed wine from the other side of the counter i.e. and more in an analytical sense. San Juan Vineyards was the idea of my late husband and business partner.

I became involved by “default” starting to do the marketing, etc. back in about 1998. By 2002 I was at the vineyard full time doing everything except the winemaking process. All decisions were made by my husband and partner. Previous to being at the vineyard, I was part of our insurance agency and worked as an Agent and Marketing Specialist. My husband (Steve) and I started an independent insurance agency back in 1980. I still tell people that it was this business that financed San Juan Vineyards and made it a reality.

I lost Steve to prostate cancer in 2006, and then the struggle started. The Partner refused to be a working or financial part of the project, but still would not work to turn it over to me. Finally, a couple of years ago it was necessary to work through legal channels to rid myself of this situation as he also refused to sign a listing agreement for the sale of San Juan Vineyards. I finally prevailed in June of this year. So, I listed the property hoping to find a new owner that has the passion to take the project to a new level. There is so much potential for San Juan Vineyards.

(Washington Wine Blog) Your wine has achieved 90 plus scores from Wine Spectator in the past. How has that acclaim impacted your winery?-

(Yvonne Swanberg) Our wines have received many accolades over the years – mostly medals from competitions. The wines have never garnered Wine Spectator scores of over 90. And, quite frankly, I quit pursuing this some time ago. I like the judgings with the medals and they have spoken well for the quality of our wines. We are a destination winery, and we are known specifically for our Estate Grown varietals. I believe my Winemaker, Chris Primus, has a distinct way of making the best Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine available in the Puget Sound. These two varietals are the main varietals grown in Puget Sound AVA, and not found in other areas in WA or OR. The 2013 Siegerrebe, receiving three Double Gold medals, shows there was no equal in the Puget Sound.

(Washington Wine Blog) Can you talk about your head winemaker and his style of winemaking? –

(Yvonne Swanberg) Chris Primus, Winemaker. Chris came to work for me in 2006 right after my husband lost his battle with cancer. The previous Winemaker had decided to go back to the Columbia Valley. This turned out to be a “good thing”. His style for red wine is basically to produce a wine that is food friendly, and also is true to varietal.

Bellingham Alive – San Juan Vineyards

San Juan Vineyards


Established in 1996, San Juan Vineyards is a Puget Sound American Viticultural Area winery destination for locals and tourists alike. The wine room, a renovated schoolhouse that was built in 1896, is an easy 10-minute drive from downtown Friday Harbor. The pastoral setting makes this winery a popular destination for oenophiles, tourists, weekend adventurers and party planners alike. San Juan Vineyards’ owner, Yvonne Swanberg, and winemaker Chris Primus also source warm climate grapes from several premier Central and Eastern Washington vineyards. Tucked within the rain shadow of the nearby Olympic Mountains, San Juan’s growing season of about 180 days is perfect for grapes common to Germany’s Rhine River Valley.

The 30-acre property includes a seven-acre vineyard of carefully cultivated and pampered Siegerrebe, a German varietal. Siegerrebe is a white grape developed in 1929 by viticulturist George Scheu. Rich creamy sauces will completely obliterate the delicate features of this exceptional low acid wine — so don’t even go there.
Riesling is a variety with an allure all its own. Few are blasé about Riesling: one is either a fan or not. The 2013 Riesling will convince the blasé and convert the nonfan from their charlatan ways. Stone fruit and honey wash over the palate in a cascade of flavors one after the other: apricot, nectarine, raw honey and finally a lingering finish that loiters long after the first sip. At $14 the 2013 Riesling is an exceptional value.

The judicious use, or not, of oak is a difficult secret to hide. This is most apparent in the 2013 Chardonnay, which is well priced at $20 a bottle. This wine is a lighter and brighter interpretation — due in large part to the complete absence of oak. Personally, I am a huge oaked Chardonnay fan, and yet, I find myself drawn to this fantastic wine like ants to a picnic basket. The convention is that oak is compulsory in production of a solid chardonnay; however, San Juan Vineyard is successfully challenging that notion.

On a sweltering summer day few libations are more satisfying than Rosé. The 2013 Afterglow is a lovely dry wine that absolutely hits the mark. And at $17 a bottle it is an exceptional value. Fermented in neutral oak barrels, this Rosé is a mélange of Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Afterglow is quite possibly the perfect sipping wine for those long hot summer afternoons.

Cabernet Franc is an indulgence one ought never to grow accustomed to. Of course there are those who may find it a tad too pretentious, but those folks are simply wine snobs. After 20 months in French Oak barrels,the 2010 Cabernet Franc is an exceptional treat. And critics agree, awarding this wine a Double Gold Medal at the Seattle Wine Awards. Modestly priced at $25, the 297 cases won’t last long!

It doesn’t matter how you get to San Juan Island: fly, swim, sail boat, yacht or ferry. Once there, make sure that your excursions include a relaxing stop at San Juan Vineyards to sample a few wines, enjoy a glass of Afterglow on the deck, and buy a few bottles to remind you of your island holiday. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to observe how the carefully groomed vines thread along the horizontal trellis. Understanding the labor involved in creating exceptional wines often stimulates an appreciation for each luxurious sip. If you can’t make it to San Juan, you can always order your wines online by visiting