Kim Roberts and her family at Westport Winery Garden Resort rank among the most innovative, eclectic and acclaimed wineries in the Pacific Northwest.
Last week, their young Ocean’s Daughter Distillery project pivoted into a position of producing hand sanitizer for regional law enforcement and first responders working amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve warned our neighbors that they will see a large police presence at our property right now because they are all here to get hand sanitizer,” Roberts said Monday.
More than 30 cases of hand sanitizer — which equates to about 360 wine bottles — have been dispensed to law enforcement and first responders from the Washington State Patrol, Grays Harbor County, Aberdeen, Montesano, McCleary, Westport and Squaxin Island Tribal Police. Those in law enforcement seemed to be half-joking when they took possession of the hand sanitizer. It came in a standard green 750-milliliter wine bottle emblazoned with a “DANGER – Highly Flammable” sticker of warning.
“They’ve told us, ‘If anyone sees us with a wine bottle this is going to look really bad,’ ” Roberts said with a smirk.
The Roberts family brought Washington wine country to Grays Harbor County in 2008. Kim and her husband, Blain, sold their successful Lahaina Divers business in Hawaii and moved to Washington state to create a family business with their son Dana and daughter Carrie. Dana learned to be a winemaker through Washington State University — Kim’s alma mater — and Carrie now serves as general manager for the businesses, which include the on-premise Sea Glass Grill and satellite tasting room in Seaside, Ore.
By 2011, Westport Winery was named the Washington Winery to Watch from Wine Press Northwest magazine. Five years later, Winery & Vineyard Management magazine in California named Westport as one of its Top 20 Most Admired Wineries in North America. In 2017, the Sea Glass Grill was selected by USA Today as one of the Top Five Winery Restaurants in the country.
As savvy as the family has been, Kim credits their “absolutely brilliant” tasting room manager on the Oregon Coast, who goes by just one name — Francis — for the prescience surrounding COVID-19.
“He warned me in late January that this would be serious; it is coming our way, and that we need to be ready,” Kim said. “So we started doing staff training after the first week in February and doing more preparations after our staff meeting the first week in March.
“We ended up implementing a lot of the procedures that were helpful for us and our customers, such as spraying sanitizer on every surface and handle, even the menus and the ticket books for the servers,” she continued. “And we really, really stocked up on things like kitchen gloves and toilet paper — well before all of those shortages began to happen. Francis told me, ‘This is going to be far worse than you can imagine.’ ”
In preparation for the production of hand sanitizer, Roberts began to gather up hydrogen peroxide.
Meanwhile, Dana prepared the spirits, which originated as “press fractions” of Riesling juice from famed Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, Chardonnay off Olsen Vineyards near Prosser, Pinot Gris via Sugarloaf Vineyard and Sauvignon Blanc grown in Elephant Mountain Vineyards.
With that in mind, it’s no joke when Kim said, “Our hand sanitizer is made from some of the finest wine grapes in Washington state.”
On March 18, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau gave distilleries across the country authority to produce additional ethanol for hand sanitizers to help with the critical supply.
“We had product ready to go in an hour,” she said.
Then, on Monday morning, Roberts received a special dispensation from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board allowing her business to donate hand sanitizer to first responders and law enforcement. Both state and federal agencies require distillers to account for every ounce of liquor, and it is unlawful for spirits to be given away.
“Ultimately, we donated everything that local law enforcement and first responders requested once the liquor control board approval came through,” said Roberts, who immediately issued refunds for purchases those agencies made prior to the WSLCB’s unique waiver.
“I am hopeful that the supply chain is going to open up so that they won’t need to rely on a small family winery for something as important as this,” she added with a sense of pride.
At this point, Westport Winery and Ocean’s Daughter Distillery are tapped out of hand sanitizer, but it’s not because they have run out of alcohol or glycol.
“We’ve used all of the hydrogen peroxide that we could find,” she said.
The Westport Winery/Ocean’s Daughter Distillery collaboration on hand sanitizer — which required about 10 percent of their spirits inventory — provided a unique feel-good story to share with club members and Facebook friends amid these uncertain and frightening times.
“There are 900 Washington wineries in this same boat, and we all face the types of hard choices that really weigh on you,” Roberts said.
Last week, the Roberts family had to lay off 27 employees as a result of closing their Sea Glass Grill and two tasting rooms. However, Westport Winery and the sister distillery — launched on Black Friday 2019 — continue to provide curbside service for those who call ahead or place orders online. They are shipping to the legion of club members whose purchases have led to more than $500,000 donated to 30 non-profit agencies in and around Grays Harbor County in the past decade.
And while hand sanitizer is not part of any wine club shipments, Westport Winery did help a customer on the other end.
“She mentioned that she was out of toilet paper, so in her shipment we put six rolls of toilet paper in the space where two bottles of wine would be,” Roberts said.