Aaron Tekulve started working in Seattle restaurants around 10 years ago, first at Lark, and later, at Canlis; soon after, he started partnering with Washington winemakers to throw private dinner events where he’d pair around eight courses with a vintner’s wines. He quickly fell in love with Washington wine and the people who make it, like Morgan Lee of Two Vintners and Covington Cellars, Darby English of Darby Winery, and Chris Sparkman of Sparkman Winery.
Tekulve found that unlike winemakers in Europe and in many parts of California and Oregon, Washington vintners weren’t bogged down by tradition and the need to make single varietal wines; instead, he says, they freely blend grape varieties in an unbridled pursuit of deliciousness. He also found an incredible diversity of wine in the state due to the breadth of grapes from different climates and altitudes, each lending a unique terroir. Meanwhile, the wine lists of fine dining restaurants around Seattle — many of whom take pride in serving hyper-local vegetables, grains, meats, and seafood — are dominated by out-of-state wine or are owned by one or more local wineries. So when he got the keys to what would become Surrell restaurant in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2019, he knew he wanted to promote Washington wine.
“I saw this huge gap in representation,” Tekulve says. “I just have a ton of respect for what goes on in our wine country, and I feel that they have always needed more of a spotlight on them.”
Surrell, which had its grand opening in November 2021, now boasts what Tekulve believes is the world’s only Washington-only restaurant wine list. Zach Geballe, a Seattle-based wine writer and longtime wine director for Tom Douglas Restaurants, says it’s the first he’s seen at a restaurant not owned by a winery (The Tasting Room, in Pike Place Market, is dedicated to Washington wine but is owned by a consortium of wineries).
Tekulve serves 10-course tasting menus of modern Pacific Northwest cuisine Thursday through Saturday, but the upstairs of the restaurant space (a converted, turn-of-the-century Victorian home) is a dedicated Washington wine bar with small plates, open Tuesday through Saturday. Wine pours range from $10 for both red and white wines to $50, on the occasions where he opens a bottle from his library of 15- or even 20-year-old Washington wines, though Tekulve insists price doesn’t equate quality.
Additionally, the bar serves snacks like cured meat, cheeses, olives, and marcona almonds as well as oysters on the half-shell, crostinis with king salmon and labneh, cups of butternut squash soup, and desserts like smoked dark chocolate truffles. Tekulve says the menu, which changes seasonally, is inspired by Spanish tapas and Northern Italian cicchetti (small plates served with drinks).
Geballe says Washington wine’s strength is in its diversity; its many growing regions, from the Yakima Valley to the Red Mountain wine appellation in southeastern Washington, produce a stunning variety of wines. Meanwhile, cool temperatures in the fall help across the state and allow wine makers more flexibility to pick grapes at their peak, without having to rush harvests before grapes become overripe, giving them greater control than some Californian winemakers have over the level of tannins in their wines. The Columbia Valley, which holds many of the state’s vineyards, also has access to consistent irrigation and hasn’t been majorly affected by wildfire smoke, which gives it advantages over the many drought-stricken, wildfire-prone areas in Oregon and California.
Because of this range in wine-growing regions, a varietal produced with the same technique could taste wildly different when the grapes were grown in different parts of the state. “We have four or five different syrahs on our menu right now, but characteristically, they’re all so different,” Tekulve says.
But the very diversity that makes Washington wine great has caused branding difficulties. Napa Valley is synonymous with cabernet sauvignon, and the Willamette Valley is famous for pinot noir, but nationally, Washington wine regions aren’t really known for anything.
Also, compared to some of the most popular wine regions in other parts of the country, Washington’s largest wine regions are much farther from the population centers, making them too far for a day trip. That’s part of the reason Tekulve wanted to open a Washington-only wine bar in Seattle, a place where tourists and locals alike could experience Washington wine without driving out to Eastern Washington wine country or the tasting rooms in Woodinville.
He insists good Washington wines rival wines from anywhere else and says he’s turned even the most stubborn Francophiles into lovers of local wine.
“We love to prove the naysayers wrong,” Tekulve says. “I will argue until the day I die that there’s a Washington wine for you.”