A little breathing room

You’ve heard of wine cellars. Let’s visit one.

Here we are. 2621 N. 21st St. in Tacoma. Yes, the building isn’t much to look at. A low-slung brick commercial block that’s been around for years, and looks it.

At street level there’s a barber shop, Lou’s. There’s a chiropractic office next to it. We want the door to the left of Lou’s. It opens onto a narrow wooden staircase. Down we go. At the foot of the stairs, to our immediate left, are two wooden doors. Knock on one.

It opens and we’re greeted by Philip Coates. Tall fellow. Nice guy.


Bare floor. Unadorned masonry walls. Dim lights. And not mood lighting, either. More like: We could use a few more bulbs in here.

Toward the back is a plain old wooden table surrounded by six plain old wooden slat-back chairs. Overhead we hear the sound of footsteps in the chiropractor’s office upstairs.

It’s a cellar, people!

And the wine is where?

See those four big wooden barrels lined up along the left wall? It’s there.

See those white cardboard cartons stacked next to the right wall? It’s there too, in bottles.

And the equipment to make the wine is where?

There’s a stainless steel electric crusher/stemmer unit tilted on its side near one of the entrances. On its side it’s about 5 feet tall.

There’s also a hand-operated device with a large lever that shoves corks into bottles.

And that’s it. No computers. No printers. No phone. (Coates does have a cell.) We’re talking bare bones.

Welcome to the Coates Winery.

It’s very small. Teeny.

“Micro,” is the term Coates prefers.

He’s been making wine here since 2005. Before that he made it in his home, which he turned into a licensed and bonded winery in 2003.

It’s a one-man operation. It’s a big change from his former occupation: portfolio manager with Russell Investments in downtown Tacoma.

He managed about $6 billion in investments during his 131/2 years with the firm, he said. He left in November 2008 to devote himself full-time to winemaking.

Obvious question: Why?

“I’m passionate about it,” the 42-year-old Coates said simply.

It’s a passion of fairly recent vintage.

A 1985 graduate of Gig Harbor High School, he attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, majoring in economics. He graduated in ’89.

In college, wine was not on his radar. His drink of choice? “Cheap beer. Whatever I could get my hands on.”

Not far outside of town is a winery: L’Ecole No. 41. Coates and some friends went out there one day during the grape crush to help out. “They just had us doing grunt work,” he recalled. “Moving bins around. Moving grapes.” Manual labor. And he did it for only that one day. But something about the experience appealed to Coates.

“I fell in love with the romance of it,” he said. “There was a kind of a European feel that you’re out there in the vineyards and then back at the winery. It’s a nice fall day, it’s quiet and it’s hard work. And then you drink some wine.”

He liked the feeling. But then he set it aside and got on with his life.

From 1989 to 1991 he taught English in Japan. When returned to the U.S. he enrolled in music school in Los Angeles. He’d played bass in a jazz combo and thought maybe he’d have a career in music. Later he changed his mind and decided to put his economics degree to use. He went to work for Russell. He rose through the ranks.

But the seed planted back in Walla Walla began to germinate.

Coates developed a palate while in Japan and learned to differentiate between varieties of sake. During his years at Russell, he further educated his tastebuds at broker dinners where high-end wines were routinely served.

He began to read books on winemaking. He took a course in the subject from Washington State University. He decided he wanted a simpler life, one that didn’t have him chained to a computer and a phone, one that didn’t require him to get up at 3:45 a.m. to be at his desk by 5:30 in time for the opening of the financial markets in New York.

He wanted more time with his kids: Chloe, now 3; and Tatum, now 20 months. He certainly got that. These days the girls are his frequent companions in the cellar, running, laughing, yelling.

He began serious winemaking in his spare time at home, later moving his operation to the 21st Street location. He traveled over the mountains to vineyards in the Yakima Valley to buy his grapes. Red-wine varieties are his specialty: cabernets, merlots, syrahs.

He trucks them back in two-ton lots in a rental truck. Unloading them and running them through the crusher/stemmer and funneling the juice into fermentation bins takes five solid hours of backbreaking work. “It’s very intense. There’s lots of lifting,” he said.

A guy gets achy from all that effort. A guy could use the services of a good chiropractor. Coates’ wife, Brooke, is happy to put her professional skills to use to help him work out the kinks.

It truly is a family business.

He’s had only one varietal for sale so far, Pont 21 cabernet sauvignon, vintage 2003.

To date, it’s available only at three locations: the winery (by appointment), Tacoma Wine Merchants at 21 N. Tacoma Ave., and the Rosewood Café at 3323 N. 26th St. in Tacoma.

Rosewood owner Barry Watson was the first to market it in town and is a big fan. “It’s got bright pepper and dark cherry flavors,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful wine and I think it’s a great value. Washington cabernets of this quality tend to run in the $30 range. This is a $17 retail bottle of wine.”

There’s only a limited amount of it available. This is, after all a microwinery, and the amounts Coates produces are small. His next batch is slowly becoming wine in those four 225-liter French oak barrels lined up against his cellar wall.

“I don’t want it to get too complicated,” he said. “I think you can make a better wine with limited production and being more hands-on.”

“It’s a little like raising children,” he said. “In the first couple of years, you have some initial control. But once you set it in motion, it does what it’s going to do.”

Coates’ new life is in motion. And it’s moving in exactly the direction he wants it to go.

Soren Andersen: 253-597-8660">