Sean Boyd of Sightglass Cellars in Woodinville grew up in the wine industry.
Born in Colorado, Boyd spent his early years in San Diego where his father, Gerald D. Boyd, was editor of Wine Spectator in its earliest days when it was a newspaper. The family subsequently moved to the Bay Area with the business. Gerald later went on to write about wine for the San Francisco Chronicle.
One of Sean Boyd’s earliest jobs was working in the wine department at San Mateo’s Liquor Barn, an area retail store. He was selling wine before he was even 21. Boyd enjoyed the work but was looking for a change.
His father talked to a colleague who was then the winemaker at Geyser Peak in California and was also the former winemaker at Penfolds in Australia. He offered to set Sean up with a harvest job making wine at Penfolds.
“That’s set in motion the whole thing,” Boyd says of his winemaking career.
The “boomerang pass”
In 1991, Boyd put all of his possessions into storage and flew to Australia. He spent the next series of months working harvest. It was, to say the least, a sharp adjustment.
“The first few weeks, I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever done,” Boyd recalls. “It was so much hard work.”
Soon, Boyd found himself entranced by winemaking.
“There’s so much change every day,” he says. “I loved the camaraderie. It was physical. I got to be outside, even though it was hotter than blazes.”
For his travel, Boyd bought a “boomerang pass” that allowed him to travel extensively, touring Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Honolulu. Then he headed back the U.S and resumed selling wine, this time at BevMo in South San Francisco.
In 1993, Boyd decided to work harvest again both in the northern and southern hemispheres. The former he spent at Miguel Torres near Barcelona, Spain, then toured places in Europe and Asia before heading down to Australia a second time to work at Rosemount Estate. Again, he went back to selling wine once he returned to the U.S.
For his third and final international winemaking trip, Boyd realized he could work harvest in Australia and then move down to do another in New Zealand, spending the former at McQuigan Brothers and then Morton Estate in Katikati, New Zealand.
“That’s where I got my Sauvignon Blanc passion,” Boyd says of his Kiwi experience.
“I had only two contacts”
Returning to the U.S., Boyd worked for future mayor and governor Gavin Newsom at his wine shop in San Francisco, Plumpjack Wine & Spirits. It was not a good fit, with Boyd turned off by his snooty co-workers.
“They were the most snobby, uptight wine people I’ve ever known,” Boyd says.
Needing another change, at his father’s recommendation, he decided to move to Washington to check out the area’s emerging wine scene. His father gave him two names.
“The only two contacts I had were Bob Betz and David Lake,” says Boyd. These were two of the most prominent people in the Washington industry. Betz was working for Chateau Ste Michelle in Woodinville at that time and would later found Betz Family Winery. Lake, meanwhile, was winemaker at nearby Columbia Winery.
This was early 1998, when Woodinville’s wine scene was still in its infancy. There was opportunity for sure, but Boyd’s timing was not good.
“February is not a time where you really need a lot of people at the winery,” he says.
Lake said Boyd could work in the tasting room on days when the train showed up, off-loading large numbers of visitors at the winery’s doors. He split his time there and selling wine at Pete’s Wine Shop in Bellevue, where he would work for the next six-plus years.
“There was this fun community thing going on.”
Things broke for Boyd when Stan Barrett, a local businessman, decided he wanted to open a wine co-op in Woodinville. Barrett was inspired by Napa Wine Company. Woodinville Wine Company would be Woodinville’s 12th bonded winery, moving into the facility formerly used to produce Silver Lake’s sparkling wine.
Tom Barton was the winery compliance bookkeeper working with Woodinville Wine Company and knew Boyd from Pete’s. He connected the two, and in 2002, Boyd began moonlighting as part-time assistant winemaker while still working full-time at Pete’s.
A who’s who of future winemakers in Woodinville would make or store wine at Woodinville Wine Company in those early years, including Mark McNeilly (Mark Ryan), Chris Gorman (Gorman), Tim Stevens (Stevens), Matt Loso (then of Matthews, Page), and others.
“There was this movement in Woodinville of these people with a really great drive and a wonderful marketing sense,” Boyd says. “There was this fun community.”
Come late 2005, Boyd became head winemaker. He began to put his stamp on the wines, adding Stillwater Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay from Conner Lee Vineyard, and other fruit sources. The Chardonnay was inspired by now-defunct Buty Winery.
“When I moved to Washington and worked at Pete’s, I had a Buty Conner Lee [Vineyard] Chardonnay that just blew my mind,” Boyd says.
“Concentrating on great Washington vineyards”
Over time, Woodinville Wine Company evolved into Woodinville Wine Cellars, after the last of the people using the alternating proprietorship moved out. The wines were always high quality, but the winery made for an odd visit.
Owner Stan Barrett was also the North American distributor or Lacanche French ranges. As a result, a large part of the facility was used as a showroom, the rest for production.
Boyd, meanwhile, became increasingly known in the area for his humble nature and quality wines, with a number of them developing a strong following. His Little Bear Creek Red, named for the creek that ran behind the winery, would be a consistent standout as a value Bordeaux-style blend. The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon also made waves, with Doug Charles of Compass Wines in Anacortes calling it the “eagle eater” after it bested a bottle of Screaming Eagle in a blind tasting with customers.
While the wines have consistently drawn praise, Boyd always kept them centered around a simple concept. “My focus has always been concentrating on great Washington vineyards,” he says.
After a point, Barrett decided that he wanted to get out of the wine business. While Boyd briefly considered buying the winery, he ultimately decided to start anew.
“He said the magic words”
Starting over after nearly 15 years at Woodinville Wine Cellars was not an easy decision, however. “I was scared to put my foot in the water,” Boyd recalls.
He talked to friend and fellow winemaker John Bigelow at nearby JM Cellars about his situation. Bigelow told him he could start making his wines at JM. It was exactly what Boyd needed to hear.
“He said the magic words.”
In June of 2016, Boyd and his wife Kristin Jostad struck out on their own. Boyd purchased 20-some odd barrels of his best wine from Woodinville Wine Cellars to launch his project. He also kept his fruit contracts from the last decade.
In February of 2017, Boyd released his first wines under the Sightglass Cellars label. Boyd explains the origins of the name as follows.
“Through the process of racking, you’re separating solids from clean wine. You’re doing that using a sightglass to see where the clear wine is. That’s always, to me, a very hands-on, important part of the process.”
At his new winery, Boyd has kept much the same as where he started. He crafts an Artz Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. He makes perhaps the state’s best unoaked Chardonnay from Conner Lee. His entry-level red wine has taken the place of Little Bear Creek and remains a top value. There have been changes as well, with vineyards moving in or out and tinkering with the lineup.
In 2018, Boyd moved production from JM Cellars to the Artisan Hill area of Woodinville. This month, he relocated into a facility next door that increases the winery’s footprint by over 1,000 feet. The facility will have dedicated barrel storage space and also new equipment.
“We want to keep upping the ante on the wines,” Boyd says of the move.
Unassuming by nature, this is what Sean Boyd has done for over 20 years in Woodinville: upping the ante and largely letting the wines speak for themselves.
The new tasting room/production facility will have its first club member-only event this weekend and then be open to the general public starting the following weekend. As he has throughout his career, Boyd will quietly keep building his brand the old-fashioned way.
“Word of mouth is huge for us,” he says.
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