WAPATO — Jim and Kris Russi have had a good time.
They’ve owned and operated Piety Flats Winery in Wapato for a decade, and they’ve made a lot of memories and a lot of friends doing it. But business isn’t what it used to be for mom-and-pop wineries. They’re both getting older, and Kris has serious health problems. So they are closing up shop by the end of the month. The memories, however, they plan on keeping.
“It is a fun business,” Kris said last week as Thanksgiving in Wine Country approached, standing in the kitschy-quaint tasting room and mercantile, where the Russis sell trinkets, jams and country-store fare alongside Piety Flats wine. “Very seldom do we get actual wine snobs.”
“We send ’em to Walla Walla,” quipped Jim, displaying the easy back-and-forth customers have seen between the two over the years.
The Russis met in Dallas back in 1971. Jim, who was raised in Western Washington, was fresh out of the Army. Kris, a German immigrant to the United States, was on vacation in Texas. They were married shortly thereafter. In 1982, they came to Yakima, where Jim’s parents had opened Russi’s Yarn and Needlework. Jim got into the orchard fruit business and in 2001 bought the old Donald Fruit and Mercantile to reopen it as a fruit stand.
“Everyone said, ‘You’re in wine country, why don’t you sell wine?’” Jim said.
Within a year, they were offering wine from local producers. And a year after that, they were selling their own, custom made for them by Dave Minnick of Prosser’s Willow Crest Winery. (Today, their wines are made by Juergen Grieb, co-owner of Treveri Cellars, and Justin Neufeld, the winemaker at Gilbert Cellars.)
It was still relatively early in the local wine boom. In 2003, Piety Flats Winery became the 334th registered winery in Washington state. In 2007 there were more than 500, by early 2009 there were 600, and there are more than 700 today.
Selling only from their tasting room, they still could barely keep supply high enough to meet demand. But within a few years, things started to change. Like other small wineries, they couldn’t afford large-scale distribution, and they couldn’t get on store shelves and restaurant wine lists without it.
“We were doing so well before 2007, we didn’t need anyone else,” Jim said. “We used to have people coming in here — during the summer months — and if they walked in, they walked out with a case. After 2007, they walked out with a bottle.”
The change came when the national economy bottomed out in 2007 and 2008. But that wasn’t the only problem. There was also the fact that wineries that got their grapes — and in some cases even made their wine — in the Yakima Valley started opening tasting rooms in Woodinville to cater to Seattle area wine drinkers. For wineries in the Yakima Valley that rely heavily on tasting room sales, that was just more competition.
“It’s an issue for everyone,” Jim said. “Unless you’re a big boy. Then it doesn’t matter.”
So now, with both Russis at 68 years old and sales having declined, they’re getting out of the business. Kris’ recent leukemia diagnosis only accelerated the decision. They’re trying to sell the business, and they’ve got wine marked down 40 to 66 percent. They expect to be out of the building by the end of December.
It’s bittersweet, they said. And it’s not exactly how they thought it would go, back in the booming days before 2007. But they’ll be financially comfortable enough in retirement. And they’ll get to see their two grown daughters more.
“And I’m getting to be a great cook, too,” Jim said.
“Spaghetti with hot dogs in it,” Kris joked. “It’s not my favorite.”
At that, they both laughed.
“It’s time to kick back and enjoy,” Kris said.