I met Dawn Phillips, now Dawn Loeliger, at the start of my law school career. My reaction to of our first conversation remains with me over three decades later: “Dang, it turns out that I am not the smartest one here.” A couple of years out of law school, Dawn introduced me to Chris Loeliger, who was then ardently pursuing her (that was not the introduction she gave, but it was pretty obvious). Another conversation, another reaction: “It seems like I was in the bottom third on that go round.” Having recently caught up with Dawn and Chris, I have to say I do not feel any smarter. I do give myself an A for recognizing early on two people who have a knack for figuring things out.
Dawn and Chris now own Jester Cellars, purveyors of TruthTeller Wines, a rapidly rising brand producing the best the Yakima and Columbia Valley regions of Washington can offer. They came to the wine business after careers in high-level management (Dawn) and electronic manufacturing and then real estate (Chris). So at a time in life when they should be focused on enjoying a bottle of wine, they are getting up early every morning to figure out how to make the best bottle of wine. And loving most minutes of what can be pretty long days.
The Loeligers’ journey from traditional careers to vintners began with Chris’ ardent pursuit. Chris was a beer guy when the dating began. Dawn had a bit more sophisticated palate. Young men will go to great lengths to impress young women so Chris dove in. In the long history of romantic sacrifices, giving up Corona for a good cabernet ranks down the list, but it obviously worked.
The next step was an accident of location. The Loeligers’ careers took them to Seattle, where a wine culture flourishes. Chris’ math/science/engineering background found an outlet in the home growing hobby culture that permeates the city. If you know Chris, you know he has two very powerful character traits. First, he is intellectually curious. Second, when he commits to finding out something his mind wants answered, he goes to great lengths to get the answer.
Here the question was: what does it take to make a great wine? Chris looked for that answer through taking formal classes on wine; by networking contacts in the wine industry, and seizing control of his garage. I am happy when my garage is organized enough to put the car in it, but Chris gradually began building a real winemaking operation in his covered parking. Looking back, Chris will tell you that the pursuit began innocently enough with reasonably priced hobby equipment. The hunt, however, grew to be a recognizable line item on the Loeliger budget. Well actually, Dawn will tell you that last part and Chris will reluctantly agree.
Making wine at home allows one to produce 200 gallons annually, but only for personal consumption. Chris honed his technique and those gallons tasted really good. On the other hand, the production costs made the price per glass a little on the steep side. About this time, the Loeligers’ younger son Andrew was ready to fly the coop and turn the Loeligers into Empty Nesters. In connection with this change of life status the conversations turned to the question of whether the winemaking was a slightly out-of-control hobby or maybe something else.
The central concept that came out of those talks was both simple and profound. Life rewards people who pursue their passions; that idea does not diminish if you happen to be more experienced in life. The more they discussed it, the more Dawn and Chris realized that they were passionate about wine. More specifically, they were passionate about making good wine accessible to anyone with an interest, not just connoisseurs. Passionate enough to pursue a business doing just that.
Chris has a stellar piece of advice for someone jumping into the wine making business. Don’t quit your day job. Commercial wine making has high barriers to entry stemming from the fact that it will be at least two years from the moment you start making wine until the time you actually have a bottle that a customer can buy. Wine making equipment is not cheap and of course, one has to procure grapes. In Washington, the grape procurement generally is done by placing contracts in March for delivery in September or October. Unlike the movies, not all growers are vintners. In Washington, the farmers farm and the winemakers take it from there. All to say, there are lots of moving pieces and even more uncertainty when starting a winery.
Chris took his own advice and stayed with the real estate while Dawn was part of the executive team at a large health care concern. Working double duty, it all came together and in 2016. Jester Cellars opened a for real winery with a tasting room in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville. Chris makes great wine, but Dawn and Chris will tell you that there are many people making good wine these days. What has set them apart is how much fun their brand is.
The branding took root from the family name, which Chris’ dad, a teller of tales of German-Swiss descent, loved to remind Dawn meant “village idiot.” Dawn was never sure if he meant it until a business trip to Zurich resulted in some quizzical looks after the first introduction. A little probing from Dawn led to a confirmation that Chris’ dad was not just making this up. Maybe to make her feel better, the new business connections explained to Dawn that village idiot was not precisely right; more like a jester who would make a fool of himself on the town square.
The Loeligers, extended family included, fit the “jester” part of the bill, with a love for puns, practical jokes and anything else that might produce laughter. With some more research and thought on the subject, the Loeligers warmed to the jester theme. The jester was the one person allowed to speak truth to the king, as long as it was done in an entertaining manner. And that was exactly what Dawn and Chris wanted to do: entertain, but also speak the truth about their grapes.
Remember all the moving parts that go into making a great wine? I left one out. You have to actually sell the stuff after is is bottled. The Truthteller idea helped with that part immensely. Each of the Loeligers’ wines has an appeal based on its story. Frolic, Madman or Quip are a few examples. If you read the story, you feel like you know the wine without having a detailed technical knowledge. Wine is a personal experience and with TruthTeller, that experience is joyful
As the business grew, Chris took the leap and ended his traditional career. He had to so he could help oversee the state-of-the art production facility and new tasting room, each opened in 2018 in the burgeoning wine mecca of Walla Walla. By the end of 2019, Dawn had helped sell the company she worked for so the timing seemed perfect to move into a full-time role with the winery. The two make a formidable team with largely complementary skills. Chris has the technical know how plus the rapport with farmers and Dawn has a keen business insight and marketing savvy.
It was almost too easy. So maybe we could throw in a pandemic to test a couple who had taken a leap of faith with their savings and their energies. 2020 is a tough year to have a relatively new, capital intensive business in the retail sector. Traditionally a wine maker’s revenue comes from three sources. First, steady customers purchase wine through a club. Second, occasional and new customers buy wine after stopping by your tasting room. Third, you reach a wider customer base through wholesaling to bars, restaurants and retail outlets.
The wine club continues to grow. I am a member and look forward with great anticipation to the deliveries. But the other two segments present obvious challenges in a constantly changing environment. Dawn said it best, that in the context of Covid “the ground keeps shifting under our feet.” And this is where the passion comes in. Chris and Dawn did not open TruthTeller to make money, they could do that in many other ways. They opened TruthTeller because they loved to connect people with great wine.
Wine was a big part of their life together and it now encompasses their family, with Dawn’s older son Keith an integral part of the business. Faced with an unpredictable challenge, they have committed to the future. A brand new tasting room in Woodinville just opened and they are making more, not less wine.
The passion gets them through it with a smile on their faces. The passion guides their night time “how long is going to last” discussions. The passion solves the occasional disagreements about how to navigate choppy waters. The passion keeps them growing personally. Dawn says the last year has given her more of a capacity for extending grace; Chris has gotten better at communicating. And the wine just keeps improving.
So while it would have been easy to take the relaxing rocking chair on the porch route, Dawn and Chris are having a blast making their wines. Every day is another story for the jester collection. If they had it to do over, they would not change a thing.
Dawn and Chris have always been two of my favorite people. Hearing their story took me back years to our meeting, but it also struck a chord with the optimist in me. Tonight is a perfect wine drinking night. M’Lissa and I are going to sit by the fire and have a glass or two of Gobsmacked and toast the pair of passionate Empty Nesters who made it possible. It is good to have smart, talented friends.
By the way, Chris and Dawn have been kind enough to offer Empty Nest readers a 10% discount if you are interested. Just use promo code “NESTERS” with your order.
Tales From An Empty Nest does not receive consideration from the products it discusses.