While sweet Riesling and Merlot were once the foundation of Washington’s wine, you can tell, just by cruising the wood racks of The Wine Alley shop in Renton, that this is a whole new scene.
Our state’s offerings were already intriguing when Allison Helfen ’89 and her husband Scott started the shop nine years ago. “When we first opened, the hot thing was viognier. And Syrahs were everywhere,” says Allison Helfen. Today the shelves are even more diverse. “They have to be. People get bored,” she says. That’s why her stock has shifted to include inky Malbecs, sprightly Sangioveses, and rich Barberas.
The Helfens’ shop carries more than 900 wines. They offer a good representation of the West Coast, a selection of internationals, “but we are primarily Washington,” says Helfen. “And we do our best to not carry anything you’re going to find at a grocery store or big box store.” Their edge comes, in part, because those smaller wineries, the ones that don’t produce on a level to be of interest to a big distributor, are working with new grape varieties and playing with new blends. They need shops like The Wine Alley to sell their wines outside of their winery.
“There are not a lot of any of those grapes out there,” says Helfen. “They could make just 40 cases, maybe, of one in a year. And they come to us to help sell them.”
Right now, Helfen herself is into whites. But those too are changing. With sweet Riesling holding court for so long, dry and off-dry Rieslings have moved onto the Northwest palate. “They’re such great wines,” she says. “They pair so well with food.” And, as we tour her little shop with its apricot-colored walls and small tasting space at the back, she has to mention the current rise of the dry rosés. “They’re so good. People used to look for them in the summer, but now you can find them year-round.”
Helfen, a hospitality alum with a background in hotels, had dreamt for years about a neighborhood wine shop somewhere around Seattle. But it wasn’t until 2004 on a trip to Italy that Allison and Scott sampled the local enoteche and found the impetus to open a local wine store at home. “Every neighborhood had one,” she says. “Why shouldn’t ours?”
It wasn’t a decision made lightly. “Many wine shops have opened and closed since we’ve been in business,” says Helfen. “Most of them were created as a hobby or a passion.” But The Wine Alley started with a clear business plan that the Helfens meticulously researched and vetted. After scouting several locations, they chose the Cascade-Fairwood neighborhood of Renton, where they already had their home. All that planning was done while they researched their product. “We knew we liked wine, but we didn’t know a lot about wine,” says Helfen. Online classes and books helped them understand the finer points. And they tasted and tasted. “In the end it’s simply grape juice,” says Helfen. “What people enjoy is what people enjoy. You’ve got to know your customer.”
Helfen susses out her customer’s preferences at her weekly wine tastings. Even if people don’t sample at her shop, she urges them to seek out local tasting events. “You don’t have to spend any money,” she says. “I pour 10 different wines every week. It can really expand your palate.”
Her own expanded palate has led her of late into blends, which she likes for their complexity and harmony. “I prefer blends in general. With whites you can get bright and fruity and then blend in a little chardonnay to add a bit more body.” She points out a popular red blend called Powers Spectrum, which has five different grape varieties. “It’s amazing. You really can notice all the flavors,” she says.
The Helfens’ efforts are appreciated by their loyal customers—many of whom continue to nominate and vote for Wine Alley as the “Best Wine Shop” in Evening Magazine’s “Best of Western Washington” contest for six out of the last seven years.
“We are fortunate because we are a neighborhood store,” says Helfen. “We support our neighborhood and our neighborhood supports us.”