Tom Bowling fell in love with Wenatchee on his first visit here nearly a decade ago. He was planning to retire to Florida after selling his freight forward operation in Los Angeles.
When Tom, his wife Maria and daughter Virginia came up to visit relatives — Maria’s cousin is local artist Martha Flores — Bowling was taken with the small vineyard Flores and her husband Rod Daut had. Also, Maria’s uncle had started a successful winery in Southern California. Other wine industry friends had educated Bowling in the basics of making fine wine.
“It made me think, ‘I wish I could do that,’ ” said Bowling, reminiscing about the sudden switch in plans that brought him to the Wenatchee Valley to purchase property and begin planting grapes for Virginia Thomas Winery. “ … I loved the four seasons, the low crime rate, natural beauty and, back then, the low property prices.”
He and his wife jumped in with both feet. The couple bought a seven-acre Eagle Rock estate and home in 2014. He quickly began clearing the hilltop property and planted four acres of Bordeaux variety vines — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec — as well as Chardonnay on the site overlooking Wenatchee and the Columbia River. He later added small plots of Lemberger and Grüner Veltliner grapes. He took classes through University of California at Davis and Washington State University wine programs.
Bonded in 2018, Virginia Thomas Winery is one of very few local wineries that grows most of its own grapes in the Wenatchee Valley. Bowling also purchased two buildings between Piere Street and Riverside Drive in Wenatchee. The Riverside Drive property houses Columbia Valley Brewing and Riverside Pub, the Riverhouse Cigar Bar and Virginia Thomas Winery.
With a sunny, picturesque vineyard perched above early frost areas and a prime location surrounded by the busy Riverside Apartment complex, Virginia Thomas Winery was off to a great start. Wines sold briskly. They received good reviews. Virginia Thomas Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc won Silver Medals in the 2020 NCW Wine Awards competition. People joined the Virginia Thomas wine club. What could possibly go wrong?
COVID-19 came along and everything changed. Wineries, along with business economies all over the world, were thrown into a tailspin. The first year COVID slowed business for Virginia Thomas, but it also gave his young wines another year to mature in the barrel, said Bowling. The young vineyard also had time to grow. Wine club membership dwindled off, but Bowling began offering 15% discounts to everyone, and with free delivery. Sales rebounded.
But then, the second year of COVID became more personal. After a 2020 Thanksgiving vacation to Arizona, the entire family contracted the disease. Tom and Virginia were sick and quarantined at home. Maria was hit harder and was hospitalized for a week.
The family gradually recovered, but, last April, Tom suffered a stroke.
Tom was housebound and mostly bedridden for nearly two months. It was mid-summer before he could drive again or do any work in the vineyard and winery.
“There was nothing happening here for more than two months. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since,” he said.
Bowling put the year’s vineyard grapes up for sale to amateur and commercial winemakers. Nearly all was put to good use and the proceeds nearly paid for his hired help.
He started bottling the previous year’s wine (2020) this fall. He resumed offering tastings to small and large groups by appointment in the cigar bar and wine processing rooms. He hopes to set up a dedicated tasting room later this year.
Things are beginning to roll again.
He plans to limit production to about 500 cases a year, mainly red varietals, Bordeaux blends and smaller amounts of Chardonnay and Grüner Veltliner. He’s been excited about fermenting some of his white grapes on the skins to get a French-style “orange” Chardonnay with more body and color than traditional oak or stainless steel-aged American Chardonnay. Tastings and sales will continue by appointment. Virginia Thomas wines are also available at the Riverhouse Cigar Bar and Big Rock Beer & Bottle Shop in Wenatchee.
“We want to offer the best quality wine at a fair price,” he said. “But I want to enjoy it. If it becomes too much work, I don’t want to do it.”
Virginia Thomas Winery
Thomas Bowling, owner/winemaker
527 Piere St., Unit C, Wenatchee