I first met Joel McNelly, co-founder of Capstone Cellars, at Esther Shore Park in Vancouver, Washington. He was pouring wine at a wine festival. Joel was very animated and excited to share his knowledge with me. As our conversation ended, he offered to sell me a small wine barrel and advised me to not start making wine commercially because, as he put it, ‘the way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large fortune.” I took it as a joke, but soon realized he was right, as I ignored the advise and plunged ahead with our own winery. We became fast friends and over the years have shared our experiences together.
Capstone Cellars was established in 2003 by Roy and Sandy Bays and Joel and Cathleen McNelly. The men worked together at Longview Fibre and together dreamed of having a winery. The plan was that Joel would build a building on his mother-in-law’s property and the winery would lease it and Roy would buy the initial winery equipment. Roy would be the winemaker/chemist and Joel would be in charge of sales and operating many aspects of the business. Joel became an expert in barrel selection. I think Joel knew every barrel cooper in the world and his selections helped make Capstone wine a favorite. Another big factor in their success was a relationship they forged with famed Yakima vineyard manager, Dick Boushey. Boushey fruit was highly sought after by every winemaker in the state. The Bays/McNelly partnership worked primarily because the couples all had defined roles and unique skill sets and they tried to stay out of each others way. Of course, there was the inevitable healthy tension in decision making, that occurs in any creative endeavor, when it came time to blend the wine, or how many barrels they would buy for the upcoming harvest.
I came out to their Pacific Way winery for crush a few times and saw first hand the energy and intensity of their work, Roy mixing up the yeast and testing the must, and Joel directing the crush pad with numerous volunteers.
The wives were also very involved. Sandy kept the books, religiously making sure that all compliance issues were handled and Cathleen’s sense of style and hospitality added an elegance to events and wine tastings held at the winery and in the community. They all were focused on the goal to craft small lots of premium, complex wines that were distinctive. They won many gold medals for the wines over the years which proved the consistency and attention to detail in their winemaking. Over the 13 years, they crafted many fine wines including their flagship Sangiovese. They were able to coax out the black plum, bright cherry and crushed herbs that is so sought after in this variety. They also made merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, several excellent red blends, and a some white wines. Of note, their lovely viognier.
Recent events, including health issues, a desire to spend more time with family and friends, and just plain old fatigue, led the couples to decide to get out of the business. Fortunately, Roy’s daughter, Debbie Bays Luchau and Kirk Raboin have stepped up to purchase the winery and keep the vision going. In a recent conversation with Debbie, she told me that she and Kirk were motivated in part by a desire to ‘keep the legacy of Capstone Cellars alive.” That legacy includes being the first commercial winery in Cowlitz County, but more importantly, helping raise awareness of the joy of the wine life-style, including the work involved in making a quality product. Another part of the legacy is a commitment by Capstone Cellars to contribute to the community by hosting fundraising events and raising the quality of life in our area. Their plans include moving the winery to their property in Rose Valley and taking the winery to the next level of growth and quality. I can’t wait to see what they do.