Early wine entreprenuer back with custom facility

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LOWDEN -- Janet Byerley became known as one of the earlier pioneers in Walla Walla's wine scene when she co-founded Waterbrook Winery in 1984.

But since the sale of the community's fourth-oldest winery in 2006 to Seattle-based Precept Wine Brands, she's spent more time on the gym floor than the crush pad.

Now the the owner of Walla Walla's local Jazzercise franchise is getting back into the wine business with the launch of Avenue Wine Group.

Byerley has joined forces with longtime winemaker Brian Carlson on a new custom-crush and wine production facility.

The operation is in the 20,000-square-foot McDonald Road facility where the original Waterbrook wines were made. Most recently, wines for Le Chateau Winery were produced there.

The infrastructure returned to the possession of Byerley's brother, Stuart, who owns the surrounding farm. But its ideal use is as a winery, she explained.

So she paired up with Carlson, who was production manager for Waterbrook from 1992 to 2004 before moving on to other wineries, and developed the new concept: customized programs for every type of winery from boutique to big.

She said the "Avenue" name represents "the access offered for Northwest wineries to reach their winemaking potential."

The facility includes a large crush area, fermenters, lab, barrel storage, bottling line, case storage and space for receiving and loading. Byerley said remodeling of the main tank room and creation of a new lab has improved the space.

"It looks better now than it ever has," she said. The facility has produced annually up to 48,000 cases.

The concept is similar to other custom-crush facilities. Equipment is shared, but each winery is independent with its own space.

Byerley said the goal the first year is to work with five or six wineries.

Resident winemaker Carlson will be available for client-directed, hands-on production from crush to bottling. He'll also be available for lab work, consultation and other needs for custom and alternating proprietorship clients.

Carlson became a winemaker in the Valley after graduating from University of California, Davis, in 1988. He's made award-winning wines for Waterbrook, Spring Valley Vineyards, Cougar Crest Winery and Le Chateau.

Byerley, general manager of Avenue, said focusing on alternating proprietorship services seemed a better fit for a Valley saturated with wineries.

"I didn't really want to drop into the wine industry with another brand," she said.

"It's a tough business. There's a lot more options and competition out there than in 1984 when I first started. This is more of a support system for the wineries."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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