by Catie Joyce-Bulay
When Brad Binko moved to Walla Walla, WA in 2014, he jumped into the wine world with both feet. The same year he enrolled in the community college’s enology and viticulture program, he began working as an assistant winemaker at a local winery and started two of his own labels, Eternal Wines and Drink Washington State Wines.
He recalls coming upon steps in the winemaking process he hadn’t yet learned and asking his professors what to do. “I was definitely learning at a more rapid pace than others since I was doing it for myself too,” he said.
Binko, who has owned several businesses in the past, didn’t stop there. After opening up a downtown tasting room for Eternal Wines in 2016, a year later he opened Drink Washington State Wine’s tasting room in Walla Walla’s Airport District. The space in the Incubators neighborhood, owned by the Port of Walla Walla and rented to start-up craft beverage producers at a reduced rate, doubles as his production facility for the two labels.
He considers Eternal Wines his baby. “It’s kind of like my own personal philosophy and tasting views for wine,” he said. “It’s mostly Rhône varietals because I feel that Washington does those really well and it’s all single vineyard, single varietal.” Most of his lots are between 24 and 50 cases.
Drink Washington State Wines is his cash-flow label. Selling at a lower price point, he markets it as a more accessible and ready-to-drink wine. He remains intentional in his grape selection for this label as well. He sources them from different vineyards within a specific AVA.
“I’ll blend them together as a representative sample of what the AVA actually produces,” he said. These wines are designed for retail and sale outside of Washington, where he hopes to raise awareness of Washington’s wine regions. “I’ve kind of taken it on as my mission to go and tell the world about us,” he said.
Drink Washington State’s colorful labels were designed by his childhood friend and graphic artist, Jay Galanti to look like a retro postcard of the region it is from, with playful names like Escape to Walla Walla 2015 Red Blend and Groovin on Wahluke Slope 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Originally from Buffalo, NY, where he grew up exposed to his dad’s extensive wine cellar, Binko first got serious about wine in Charleston, SC. While working in a fine dining restaurant, the general manager and sommelier took him under their wings. He moved to Las Vegas to further pursue bartending and his wine education, but found the unionized industry impossible to get into. Instead he fell into club promotion with MGM, where he worked up to managing partner and then started his own company, but wine was always on his mind, taking trips to Napa Valley two or three times a year. He later earned the first two levels of sommelier certification, but knew he wanted to do more. After looking at Walla Walla Community College, he said he fell in love with the program and the town.
Between both wineries, Binko produces 1,200 to 1,500 cases a year, which he self-distributes around the state. He hopes to find a distributor and export out of state soon. For now, in addition to making the wine, running the tasting room with three employees and marketing, he finds himself on the road promoting his labels. Earlier this year he was in California to pour at the San Francisco Wine Chronicle Competition. When he attended last year, he said he was one of only two Washington wineries and spent a lot of time explaining to California wine drinkers where Walla Walla was. This year, he won nine awards between the two labels.
Back in Washington he is quickly making a name for himself. Eternal Wines won awards in the 2017 Seattle Wine Awards, including a double gold for the 2016 Eternal Perspective Grenache Blanc and a gold for the 2015 Eternal Sunshine, a Viognier.
Binko still finds time for experimenting, using natural yeast in all his productions. “You have to be careful, obviously, because you don’t know what it is,” he said. “But the thing with native yeast is, in my opinion at least, you get a more complex final product and more interesting wine. Obviously, the down sides are you don’t know exactly what it is, so you don’t know exactly how to treat it and every different location has different yeasts.”
He typically creates a starter yeast in the vineyard with 30 pounds of grapes about three to four days before they are ready to harvest. “By the time, we’re ready to ferment the grapes that we’re harvesting, that bucket is rocking and rolling,” he said. “We just pitch that into the main lot if we like where it’s going.” He said the advantage of this method is if he doesn’t like the direction the native yeast is taking, he has only lost a small number of grapes. He adds that he sometimes has to inoculate a batch with a conventional yeast strain if it isn’t fermenting properly, but hasn’t had any major issues with the native yeast.
“[Natural yeast] is getting more common,” he noted. “It’s kind of a trendy thing that’s happening right now… It’s nice to be small so I can do this kind of stuff.”
Binko is not only interested in the new, but old as well. In February he was in Chile on a grant funded by the Washington Association of Wine Growers to study Carmenere and old vines.
“It’s a really nice all-around wine,” said Binko, who was intrigued by the Bordeaux varietal, typically used as a blending grape but becoming more popular on its own. “It’s called a forgotten grape because not a lot of people are using it. Back in the 1700s it used to be pretty widely planted.” The variety is still thriving in Chile, but most vines were wiped out by disease in the U.S. and never replanted.
“Hopefully what I learn can help other people learn,” he said. “Together we can make a better product or find an easier way to do something.” He will be filming his interviews with winemakers and vineyard managers for three weeks and then bringing the information back to share with the Washington wine community, whom he said has been supportive of him as a new winemaker.
“It really feels like more of a community than a competition, which is amazing,” he said. “You don’t really get that anywhere else.”