Tradition. It’s a word that conjures up many feelings and emotions. At the core, the word means “transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.” And no word could be more fitting when describing J. Bell Cellars in Zillah.
Wes and Natasha Teslo came to love the Yakima Valley as so many “West Siders” have. They came to the area to visit family and friends and were struck by the natural beauty, sunshine and abundance of produce grown here. After a few visits, they decided they wanted to own a piece of the Valley for themselves and purchased some orchard land in the Zillah area with a farmhouse. Now the family would have a sunny place of their own where they could enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
The Teslo family made regular weekend pilgrimages to the farm, and Wes became more and more interested in wine. He had always enjoyed exploring wines from all over the world, but seeing the abundance of wine grapes growing in the region piqued his curiosity even more and he began to read and research everything he could about Washington wines.
Before too long Wes connected with winemakers at Two Mountain, Knights Hill and Cultura about wine growing, weather, soil conditions and how they affect the flavor of the grapes grown here compared to regions in California and other parts of the world. He continued reading, tasting and learning everything he could about making wine and with his knowledge and passion — he set out to make his own. It was just supposed to be a hobby and it was just supposed to be one barrel. His wife Natasha wasn’t at all interested. “I figured he would screw it up,” she said, so she let him go ahead. The “one” barrel ended up becoming nine. He split the barreling of his Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines in American and French oak and let the different woods work their magic with the grapes he sourced from Zillah, Red Mountain and the Wahluke slope.
Upon tasting the results of his winemaking experiment, husband and wife had to agree, both barrels complimented the wines, but the French oak barrels made a huge difference – the wine was good! Realizing that Wes was hooked, Natasha gave in to his idea of becoming a winemaker. Although reluctant at first, she too became fascinated with the process of watching and testing the grapes on the vine for just the right taste; measuring sugar content and acidity, and then the harvest, crush, barreling and bottling of their own wines.
Wes became a self-proclaimed weekend wine warrior and spent every weekend coming to the Valley to work on his wines. Though there is an endless amount of labor in the process, Wes embraces the art of creating wine his way. He brings a personal philosophy where each step is hands-on and the process is kept simple. “For years we had a slogan on our wall in the tasting room that said ‘Don’t Mess With It,’” said Wes. He adds nothing to his wines, no color, tannins or yeast, and goes through a long barrel fermentation process in French oak, often 20 to 30 months. “It’s an old-world way of making wine, small batch and all natural,” added Wes.
Wes’ dream of becoming a winemaker was coming to life and this meant that more property would be needed to create a Yakima Valley wine destination and build a real tasting room. Slowly the couple purchased more acreage surrounding the farm and then finally took the plunge and moved the family from their home in Redmond, Washington, to the Valley. Today their property spans 30 acres and the one-time garage and storage area of the farmhouse has been renovated into a rustic and charming tasting room for their winery, J. Bell Cellars.
I asked about the name of the winery as it didn’t seem to relate to a family name, but I was wrong about that. “When we embraced becoming winemakers,” said Natasha, “we knew we wanted to keep it all about family.” The couple has two children, son Jason, 15, and daughter Isabella, 14. They were indeed the inspiration for the name. “When calling the kids, we often shorten their names and ‘J, Bell’ was commonly heard by all of our friends and family,” Natasha added. In fact, it was another family member who suggested the name J. Bell Cellars and so it came to be.
Natasha’s participation in the family business goes beyond the wine. She wanted to plant something special on the property that was once an apple orchard. Having always loved lavender for its heavenly fragrance, and knowing it would thrive in the dry, rocky soil, she purchased 10,000 tiny lavender plants in 2013. Five years later a breathtaking variety of blue, purple and white flowers greets you as you approach J. Bell Cellars during the late spring and summer months. Natasha doesn’t just grow the flowers for an appealing landscape. She also distills the essential oils from their harvested flowers and makes lotions, candles, balms and soaps that are sold in the tasting room. Additionally, on the last weekend in June they host a “Days of Lavender Weekend,” where they celebrate the flowers on their farm with various events.
Bringing people and families together is at the heart of J. Bell Cellar’s mission. There is nothing they enjoy more than hosting special events throughout the year including a six course Valentine’s Day dinner, Spring Barrel, Jazz at the Bell Summer Music Series and chef dinners where Wes and Natasha find up-and-coming chefs in the Northwest to create menus that pair with their wines. During spring and all through the warm summer months you can visit their winery and enjoy a hand-made, brick-oven-baked pizza. The Ukrainian dough recipe comes from one passed down many generations in Natasha’s family.
The beautiful grounds and courtyard outside of the tasting room make you feel like you are a world away, perhaps somewhere in France or Italy. There, surrounded by the scent of lavender, sipping hand-crafted wines, sitting under a canopy of pear trees or at the warm and cozy fire pit, you are experiencing what Wes and Natasha had hoped for: A day filled with simple pleasures – J. Bell Cellars style!