By L.M. Archer, Foodable Contributor
For anyone about to start their own business, winery owner Mark McNeilly’s unconventional success story may sound more like a cautionary tale than an entrepreneurial blueprint. McNeilly’s interest in wine making sparked during a fluke flip through a Wine Spectator issue on Napa Valley. Thinking “maybe I can do that, “ he opted out of college at Western University, landed a wine distributor job with Unique Wine Company, and spent five years covering territories in Snohomish and eastern King County, all the while wrestling with a nagging desire to make his own wine.
That persistent passion eventually paid off. Passion, plus an unusual knack for attracting the right people at the right time, asking the right questions, and an uncanny ability to collaborate and delegate, catapulted McNeilly into the role of ‘accidental impresario,’ founder of Mark Ryan Winery, and a juggernaut in the Washington state wine industry.
While still a distributor, a garage winemaking colleague presented a rare opportunity to purchase some grapes from one of his connections. Those grapes? One ton of Cabernet Sauvignon and one ton of Merlot from Jim Holmes’ vineyard Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain.
“I couldn’t even spell the name of the vineyard, let alone pronounce it,” McNeilly admits. Nor did he have any idea of Holmes’ stature in Washington’s wine community at the time. McNeilly just knew he was one step closer to realizing his dream, and said yes to the grapes.
Quickly, McNeilly’s dream turned into a nightmare as he realized that he lacked the necessary winemaking equipment. What followed resembled part fire drill, part scavenger hunt as he scrambled to beg, borrow, and cajole friends into loaning him a crusher, fermenters, barrels, bottles, and more. Out of that bittersweet first vintage grew the fruits of Mark Ryan Winery.
Just how did he come up with his winery’s name? “My last name is McNeilly,” the towering, garrulous winery owner explains. “A good Irish name, but it didn’t resonate with me for a winery name,” admits McNeilly. But the name represented something more. McNeilly didn’t just want to make wine, he wanted to make premium, high quality wine that showcased the region’s exceptional fruit.
Fortunately, his five years as a distributor allowed him access to some of Washington's top winemakers. Bob Betz, Mike Januik, and Matt Laso of Matthews Cellars: McNeilly reached out to these seasoned professionals with questions and all generously shared their winemaking knowledge with the neophyte.
Still, those first years proved peripatetic. McNeilly recalls producing his first wines in the one-car garage of his good friend Michael “Mossy” Moss in Greenwood, later in his parents’ Bellevue garage, then a Kent warehouse, which doubled as his living space. For a time in the early 2000’s, McNeilly worked for Matt Laso of Matthews Cellars before putting down roots on his own in the Woodinville Warehouse District in 2003.
From the start, Mark Ryan Winery focused on establishing long-term contractual relationships with Washington State’s finest wine growers from ‘sweet spots’ on Red Mountain and Yakima Valley, such as David and Patricia Gelles of Klipsun Vineyard, Leif Olsen of Olsen Vineyard, and Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard. These mutually respectful relationships gained him greater control over the fruit from vineyard to bottle.
It turns out that McNeilly’s five year slog as a distributor bestowed other dividends as well, including the marketing chops to allow him to self-distribute Mark Ryan wines.
“Unbeknownst to me, this wholesale sales experience has proved to be a very valuable skill, and I still have very strong relationships with many retail and restaurant wine buyers, ” marvels McNeilly.
McNeilly’s modesty belies a fierce acuity. In 2007, Mark Ryan Winery introduced a secondary label entitled Board Track Racer, named for the early 1900’s motorsport. “I love motorcycles,” McNeill shrugs. Turns out, so do his customers.
These affordable wines, named for classic motorbikes like “The Vincent," “The Shift,” and “The Chief,” end up on the tables of consumers who can afford the approximate $25 price point, yet aspire to his premium Mark Ryan Winery labels like “Dead Horse,” “Long Haul,” and “The Dissident.”
By 2008, Mark Ryan Winery attracted an unshakeable, cult-status following. But increased popularity also increased McNeilly’s juggling between production and marketing responsibilities. McNeilly reached out to friend and fellow winemaker Mike MacMorran to help him find an assistant winemaker. Ironically, McNeilly soon recognized that MacMorran embodied everything he sought.
“We both share the same winemaking philosophies and work ethic. Plus, it’s nice because Mike’s organizational skills balance out my creativity.”
And so, in 2009, Mark turned the mantel of full-time winemaker over to MacMorran. This delegation granted McNeilly the bandwidth to explore, expand, and exercise his creative juices.
In 2012, he added another tasting room in the Woodinville Hollywood District tricked out with game tables, dartboards, and his beloved bikes. McNeilly also allied with famed Washington winemaker Charlie Hoppes on Mark Ryan Winery’s Numbskull GSM blend, sourced from Walla Walla.
Currently, McNeilly reveals negotiations with former Evening Land Oregon winemaker Isabel Meunier and wife Megan Ann on a Willamette Valley project bearing his wife’s name, featuring more feminine wines. Interestingly, despite the fact that Washington state now boasts over 850 wineries, McNeilly sees no downside to the explosive growth.
Asked what he’d advise others thinking about jumping into the fray, MacNeilly counsels, “Go to school, learn the business side of things. Don’t bootstrap it. And understand the world of wine.”
At the end of the day, however, McNeilly concedes that he just “tries to keep it light, keep it fun, not take things too seriously—just like the people who like our wines.”