Seattle Episode 70 – Matt Albee – Winemaker, Founder, Scientist and Chef of Eleven Winery
Entrepreneur Spotlight

00:00 / 00:44:02

Matt Albee / Eleven Winery

In 1999, Matt Albee, recently retired from a career as an (unpaid) bicycle racer, was looking for a new career that would involve similarly long hours of hard physical labor, but without the added tax burden of a sizable income.  And then it hit him in a flash of insight: he should become a winemaker.

After his epiphany, Matt went to Page Mill Winery, which happened to be located near his home in Menlo Park, California, and offered to help out with harvest.  The winemaker, Dane Stark, gladly accepted the offer, perhaps not realizing what he was getting himself into.  That first Harvest, after Matt showed up at the winery every morning before his day job for several weeks, Dane suggested that Matt make a barrel of his own wine using the Page Mill facilities.  Matt made one barrel that first year, four the following year, and twelve barrels the year after that.  At that point Matt and Dane agreed that the time had come for Matt to strike out on his own.  Matt and his wife Sarah decided to return to the Pacific Northwest, where they had both grown up, to be closer to their families and to be a part of the dynamic northwest wine scene.  They chose to locate on Bainbridge Island for the small-town feel, quality of life and proximity to Seattle.

Matt and Sarah bought a fixer-upper house in 2001, with a big garage that they would convert into a winery.  Matt fixed up the house, refinanced it, and used the extra money to start the winery.  In the meantime, their first baby was born, in August of 2002.  Sensing that having a new winery and a new baby in the same month would be a bad idea, they delayed their first crush until 2003.

That turned out to be the perfect year to start a winery in Washington State, as there were lots of grapes available.  Many vineyards were planted at the height of the dotcom boom in 1999 & 2000, and then several years later when those vineyards began producing fruit, the economy was in the tank and growers were practically lining the roadsides with signs saying “Grapes for Sale!”.  Out of this sea of possibilities, Matt was able to obtain some top quality sources, and continues to get grapes from those and other sources today.

Matt took the inspiration for the name of the winery from bike racing: the smallest cog in the rear cluster on a racing bike has eleven teeth, and it’s the one that you use when you’re giving maximum effort.

From the beginning, Matt knew that he didn’t want to be another snooty winery selling over-oaked, overpriced Cabernet Sauvignon.  He wanted to make the wine experience fun for people of all levels of wine knowledge, and by doing so include more people in it.  This philosophy extends from the writing on the back labels of all the wines, to the website, and into the tasting room.  And Matt doesn’t believe in dumbing down the wines to make them more “accessible”.  He figures that the better the wine is, the more people will enjoy it, and that everyone is equally qualified to enjoy high quality wine, as long as they have eyes, a nose, and a mouth.

A New Direction

After several years of building the business and raising a family, Matt and Sarah realized that while their life was very full, the one thing that was missing was the ability to contribute positively to their community and the world at large.  With little extra money and no extra time, Matt decided to turn his passion for winemaking into a force for good, and donate a portion of the winery’s profits to charity.  In order for this to be a significant contribution, this would mean increasing the size of the winery dramatically.  Accordingly, the winery has grown every year, and in 2011 moved into a new, larger facility.

Winemaking on Bainbridge Grows

There are now seven wineries on Bainbridge Island, up from two when Eleven started.  Most of the wineries are open weekends and offer quarterly “Wine on the Rock” events featuring food, wine and music.  Additionally, several of the wineries operate tasting rooms within walking distance of the ferry terminal on Bainbridge Island, that are open daily.



Dan Weedin / First Underwriters Insurance

Brad Berger / Cornerstone Financial Strategies

Matt Albee / Eleven Winery