Not many people have the courage to leave a successful career to start their own small business, let alone one where they have no experience or background in the industry. But John Bigelow isn’t most people. From the moment you meet him, it is immediately evident that he’s a classic entrepreneur: a dreamer, a thinker, a believer, and most importantly, a doer.
Over the past 21 years, John has built a beautiful destination winery at JM Cellars and his wines have earned top scores from critics worldwide. On the surface it would seem that success has come easy to him largely due to his relaxed and enthusiastic manner. But when you learn how hard he’s worked over the past two decades, you truly appreciate how much he’s earned his reward.
JM Cellars sits atop what is known as Bramble Bump in Woodinville, Washington. It is a stunning 7-acre property featuring a private arboretum, a pond, walking trails, and a bocce court. It is the ideal gathering place for anyone interesting in whiling away an afternoon with a great glass of wine in hand. Walking along the trails and seeing such diverse flora and fauna, it’s hard to imagine that just over a hundred years ago, the property was mostly pasture land as part of a 550-acre dairy farm owned by the Stimson Family.
In 1933, the Stimpson Family went bankrupt during the Great Depression and the farm went into receivership. For the next 5 years, the Manor House became a brothel and speakeasy; a part of the local history that isn’t publicized much, other than on Halloween at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery where the house still stands. It’s believed that the ghost of the Brothel’s Madam, Nell, haunts the upstairs of the house and every year the winery does a special tasting where you can go inside and try to connect with her.
After Nell passed away, a man named George McBride bought the farm out of receivership and owned it from 1938 until he passed in 1976. Chateau Ste. Michelle purchased the property save for the 7-acre plot on Bramble Bump he left to his daughter Jan. Jan and her husband “Smitty” Smith, were living in upstate New York at the time and had a huge Arboretum there. They were both master Arborists and when they moved out West, they built the house and started developing the garden which today includes 120 Japanese Maples, over 400 rare conifers and pines, and 5 of the largest trees of their kind in the USA.
John and his wife Peggy met Jan and Smitty in 2000 when Jan was 87 and Smitty was 85. The elderly couple hadn’t lived at the property for 2 years as Jan required assisted care. “We had great conversations about what we wanted to do on the property with the winery, but we simply couldn’t afford what they were asking. When I told them we could only afford $150,000 less than asking price, they accepted the offer because they really wanted us to have it.”
John and Peggy set out to fix the home and property while keeping alive Jan and Smitty’s vision. Although the house was fairly dilapidated and needed extensive renovating, they managed to retain the basic structure. John put in 2 barn doors on what was originally the garage and where he made his wines from 2001 through 2006. “It was all gravel out front which was pretty difficult. I had tents everywhere and I still kick myself for not having a wine called “In Tents” red!”.
John ended up convincing his parents to move into the upstairs space because they wanted a dog and were living in a condo, meanwhile John and Peggy lived in Seattle. “I loved having them out here and it’s probably what has been the best part of this whole thing—I had my mom for her last 12 years and my dad for his last 14 years. About 6 months after John and Peggy had finished renovating, Jan and Smitty showed up unexpectedly to see what had become of the property. “They toured around the place, met my parents, and then thanked us for taking care of their treasure. I told them I was honored and about a month after that visit, within a week of one another, they both passed away.”
Up until John started making wine, he was in tech sales with IBM and Sigma computers. He was successful enough to earn a bonus one year that created a nest egg to start a small business. “I told Peggy I wanted to start a winery and be a winemaker, despite the fact I had never made wine before. But her brother was a winemaker and with everything I’ve ever done in my life, if I can find someone who’s good and willing to give me some guidance, I believe I can do it.” It turns out his brother-in-law isn’t just a good winemaker, he’s Mike Januik one of the State’s best.
Mike reviewed John’s business plan and advised him on what books to read, the extension classes he should take from UC Davis, provided a list of the best vineyards in the State, wrote him a recipe, and wished him good luck. “That was the best thing that could have happened. I had to learn it on my own. I quit my job in ’98 and spent the whole summer in the vineyards. I was at least smart enough to know that was the most important place to start. I can make a lot of mistakes in winemaking and still end up with ok wine but if I make mistakes in the vineyard, there’s not much you can do with bad fruit.”
That same year, John made his first wine (100 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon) at his house in Seattle. After not having income for 2 years, he returned to Tech sales from 2001 to 2006 as his day job, and continued to make wine at night and on weekends in Woodinville. During that time, he grew production from 1,000-3,000 cases, sharpened his winemaking skills, and built relationships with some of the top growers in the State. Today the winery is making about 7,000 cases of wine a year of which 97% is sold directly at the winery.
John’s winemaking philosophy is very much influenced by Old World traditions he saw firsthand travelling to regions like Italy, France and Spain. Everything at JM Cellars is hand harvested and hand sorted in the vineyard and when the grapes are received at the winery, the individual clusters are sorted again. If there’s one unripe grape, the cluster isn’t used. Because he’s working with whole clusters he found a machine manufactured in Italy that basically replicates the picking process from the 1800’s. It has a system with 2 screens that oscillate back and forth with small food grate fingers that essentially grab the fruit and drag it across the screens so that all the berries drop through, and the stems get picked off. We had never heard of this machine before likely due to the fact its speed is just 2 tons per hour—not exactly feasible for a large producer but possible for a small producer to use.
At the end of this process, the berries are hand sorted for the third time and put into a bin. John then puts on a swimsuit and personally foot stomps all the reds, “I do it because I want this control. I know how much juice I want to create to start the fermentations and it’s a really nice feeling—I can smell what’s going on, I’m literally IN it and I’m connected to what I’m doing.” Once fermentation has started, he cold soaks his reds typically 2-5 days, after which time they are brought out of the cold room and into the ambient temperature which will either start with a wild yeast or he’ll add a specific cultured yeast that he thinks fits the particular variety he’s working with. “The biggest thing that’s happening is that if you crush everything at the very beginning and you feed hungry yeast into it, it gorges. At the end of fermentation when you need it to finish off, it can end up being sluggish or ‘stuck’. I haven’t had a stuck fermentation in over 12 years because the yeast starts eating the sugar in the main juice I’ve just given it from the foot stomping, and then it runs out of sugar so it starts diving into every single berry and starts a fermentation in every one of those berries. When you ferment you expand so about 5-9 days into the process, the berries start exploding and injecting little shots of sugar into the main fermentation.”
The process helps John control the tannins because the skins aren’t being crushed, “When I press I’ll have a whole bunch of berries that release sugar in my press juice and I’ll have a little bit more tannin in there. I fill all the barrels with the free run juice that’s almost done fermenting and then I press which brings about 3 brix of sugar into the pressed juice. I’ll have a little bit more tannin in there and I’ll add that into each one of those barrels with free run juice and there’s enough healthy yeast in there to finish off the fermentation.”
He also ferments his whites with the stems. Not to add texture as you would for red wine, but because the stems help to get a better press. “If you de-stem all the fruit off the vine and you put it into a press and start squeezing, it’s going to create a big giant block of pulp and you’re not going to get a very hard press. But if you have stems in there, they act like little channels for the juice and you can actually get about 30-40 gallons more per ton.”
The entrepreneur in John is constantly striving to improve every aspect of the winery. In the same way his winemaking has developed over the years, so has the tasting room and surrounding acreage that feature several spaces both inside and out to enjoy a glass of wine. Plans are also in the works for a cave to be built in the next 2-3 years. The dreamer in John has created a destination winery that provides one of the most idyllic settings to enjoy his wines rooted in the deep belief that bringing people together is the most important benefit of wine.
2018 Bramble Bump White
A blend of 57% Viognier and 43% Chardonnay sourced from the highly regarded Stillwater Creek Vineyard. Flavours of peach and apple combine together with nice texture and mouthfeel. On the finish we pick up citrus notes and backend acidity that gives definition and juiciness.
Very Good (USD$25 at their tasting room)
Made from 100% Cinsault, the Southern Rhone grape found in many of the Provencal roses. Notes of strawberry and rhubarb are blanketed in a lively acidity that makes this Rosé perfect as a summer sipper. There is good intensity of flavour but still a nice, light body feel.
Very Good+ (USD$25 at their tasting room)
2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Margaret’s Vineyard
Margaret’s is JM’s estate vineyard and this is the first Cabernet Sauvignon he has bottled off the estate. A blend of 88% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc, this shows intense black fruit flavours: think blackberry and black cherry. The wine was raised in 70% new oak for 21 months but the concentration of the fruit is such that it keeps the wine very well balanced. We pick up only slight hints of vanilla and spice from the barrel and the tannins are ripe and polished. Very classy!
Very Good/Excellent (USD$49 at their tasting room)
2016 Margaret’s Vineyard Estate Red
This is JM’s version of a Bordeaux blend with all of the fruit coming from their estate vineyard. In 2016 the blend is 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot and 9% Malbec. Notes of dark red cherry and plum pick up lots of complexity from the mineral, cedar, baking spices and a hint of vanilla. 22 months in 80% new oak but you can barely tell. Polished and drinking really well right now, this is a wine to enjoy now or put down for a few years.
Very Good+ (USD$45 at their tasting room)
2016 Syrah Columbia Valley
The Syrah comes from blocks at Champoux and Klipsun Vineyards, among the top growers in Washington State. There is a terrific richness to the mouthfeel, almost decadent. We get notes of blackberry pie, cracked pepper and spices on the long finish. The wine was raised in a combination of 50% French and 50% Russian oak for 18 months, half new and half second fill. Even though the dials are turned up, there is still a good sense of balance. Made for grilled rack of lamb!
Excellent (USD$49 at their tasting room)
2016 Cabernet Franc
The Cabernet Franc is blended with 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, all from Margaret’s Vineyard. Black cherry and blackberry notes sit atop a medium+ body with medium tannins. There is a terrific spiciness to this wine as well notes of tobacco leaf. Complex now, it is only going to develop further and should see its tenth birthday in fine form.
Excellent (USD$50 at their tasting room)
14404 137th Place NE,
Woodinville, WA 98072
Tasting Room Hours:
Friday, Saturday & Sunday
11 AM – 4 PM
Tasting fee: $15 per guest* (applied toward purchase of 1 bottle)