SEATTLE, Wash.‑‑Fortuity Cellars of Wapato has been selected as the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) 2019 Rising Startup Small Business of the Year for Washington state and Northern Idaho. The award will be presented at the annual SBA Region X Gala during National Small Business Week on May 8 in Seattle.
Fortuity Cellars is family-owned by Lee and Emily Fergestrom and co-operated with longtime friend and winemaker, Johnny Brose. They were nominated for the award by Sarah Truglio, an advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Yakima, where they have been SBDC clients since 2018.
“They were dream clients,” said Truglio, who provided technical assistance to help the Fergestroms better understand and navigate the SBA loan process. “They have a strong, shared vision for what they want Fortuity to be, and they are able to gather and digest a lot of data, make a plan and move forward pretty quickly. It’s exciting to see them grow and know that they will make a difference in the Yakima Valley.”
Duane Fladland, state director of the Washington SBDC, said securing financing is key to the growth of most small businesses, but entrepreneurs must first build a strong foundation, which the Fergestroms did. “Their work with Trent Ball and the Yakima Valley College wine incubator is a great example of how entrepreneurs can utilize different resources at different stages of their business cycle.”
Starting a winery is an expensive and risky process, said Ball, chair of the college’s agriculture department and head of the wine program. “Participants in the Yakima Valley College wine incubator are able to share processing equipment to reduce costs,” he said, and just as importantly, they are encouraged to engage with faculty, students and other incubator participants to share expertise and learn from others as they work through the startup process. “The Fergestroms checked all the boxes,” he said.
Emily Fergestrom attributes Fortuity’s success thus far to the fact that each of the principals has expertise critical to creating a successful boutique winery—strategic planning and product development, marketing and sales, and winemaking.
Emily has two decades of experience in public and private sector public relations and strategic communications; Lee has expertise in technology startups, financial modeling and product development, including with Infospace and JetClosing; and Johnny honed his craft in wineries in California, Australia and Oregon after graduating from Oregon State University with a degree in fermentation science.
“From the very beginning our vision has been to build a winery synonymous with high quality,” Emily said. “The three of us bring the trifecta of experience needed for any successful business. We think this has really helped us to get our wine into the bottle and out to the market in less than 18 months.”
When the Fergestroms started meeting with Truglio in fall 2018 they had already been making wine at the wine incubator at Yakima Valley College’s Grandview campus for more than a year, and had purchased a small wedding and events center in Wapato on 2.75 acres of landscaped gardens. With Truglio’s assistance, they were seeking a loan to construct a winery production building and small tasting room on the Wapato property.
For his part, Lee said he appreciated the way Truglio dove into the project with them and was willing to adapt to their busy schedule, whether that meant communicating by email, phone call or teleconference. At first he was hesitant to apply for an SBA loan because he thought it would be a long and arduous a process, but with Truglio’s assistance, it ended up being fairly straightforward.
Truglio is a “rock star,” Lee said. “I can’t thank her enough for helping us make our dream a reality.”
The idea for Fortuity Cellars started with the Fergestroms’ desire to create a business together, one that would leverage their expertise and also be the kind of business they would enjoy on its merits.
Many of their most memorable celebrations, from their wedding and honeymoon to outdoor barbeques with friends included a glass of wine perfect for the occasion, so Emily said, maybe they should open a winery. Lee liked the idea, except he quickly pointed out that they weren’t winemakers. That’s when Emily suggested bringing Johnny on board and Fortuity was born.
From the beginning, Emily and Lee were focused on the Yakima Valley. Emily spent the majority of her childhood there; it was also where Johnny was born. All three of them feel strongly about creating Fortuity Cellars as a destination winery that will showcase the best of the Yakima Valley.
“We want people to fully experience the Yakima Valley when they come to our winery,” Emily said. Eventually they see expanding to a second tasting room in Seattle, but their intention is to remain a boutique winery so that they can focus on the quality of customer experiences and giving back to the local community.
Fortuity released six wines last year: viognier, rosé of cinsault, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and a red blend. In 2019 they will expand to 10 labels, including merlot, malbec, syrah, a Bordeaux blend and sauvignon blanc. They source their grapes exclusively from several family-owned Yakima Valley growers, including Copeland, Dubrul, Kiona, Red Willow and Verhey Farms.
Brose, a hands-on winemaker as likely to be found out in the vineyards as in the lab, said Fortuity Cellars is open to experimentation, but in general their wines are acid-driven and fruit-forward to enhance any dining experience.
The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 30 business advisors working in communities across the state to assist small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business. The SBDC office in Yakima receives support from the Yakima Economic Development Association as well as the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and Washington State University, which is the statewide host of the entire SBDC network.