Valley wine pioneer returns to her roots

Janet Byerley, a Waterbrook Winery co-founder, is a partner in a custom-crush operation at Waterbrook's first home.

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LOWDEN -- Janet Byerley became known as one of the earlier pioneers in Walla Walla's wine scene when she co-founded Waterbrook Winery in 1984. But since the sale of the community's fourth-oldest winery in late 2006 to Precept Wine Brands, she's spent more time on the gym floor than the crush pad. The owner of Walla Walla's local Jazzercise franchise is getting back into the wine business with the launch of Avenue Wine Group. Byerley has joined forces with longtime winemaker Brian Carlson on a new custom-crush and wine production facility. The operation is located in the 20,000-square-foot McDonald Road facility where the original Waterbrook wines were made. Byerley said this morning the facility has continued to be used for winemaking over the years. Most recently, wines for Le Chateau Winery were produced there. The building and infrastructure returned to the possession of Byerley's brother, Stuart, who owns the surrounding farm. But its ideal use is as a winery, she explained. So she paired up with Carlson, who served production manager for Waterbrook between 1992 and 2004 before moving on to other wineries, and developed the new concept: customized programs for every type of winery from boutique to big. She said the new name represents "the access offered for Northwest wineries to reach their winemaking potential." The pastoral location west of Walla Walla includes a large crush area, fermenters, lab, barrel storage, bottling line, case storage and space for receiving and loading. Byerley said remodeling of the main tank room and creation of a new lab has improved the space. "It looks better now than it ever has," she said. The facility has produced annually up to 48,000 cases. The concept is similar to other custom-crush facilities. Equipment is shared, but each winery is independent with its own space to carry out its vision. Byerley said the goal the first year is to work with five or six wineries. Resident winemaker Carlson will be available for client-directed, hands-on production from crush to bottling. He'll also be available for onsite lab work, consultation and other winemaking needs for custom and alternating proprietorship clients. Carlson was reportedly the first college-trained winemaker in the Valley after graduating from University of California, Davis in 1988. He has produced award-winning wines for Waterbrook, Spring Valley Vineyards, Cougar Crest Winery and Le Chateau. Byerley, general manager of Avenue Wine Group, said she will continue with her fitness passion and Jazzercise operation. She said the decision to focus on alternating proprietorship services seemed a better fit for a Valley saturated with wineries. "To make something work, I think you have to have a need and then fill that need," Byerley said. "I didn't really want to drop into the wine industry with another brand. It's a tough business. There's a lot more options and competition out there than in 1984 when I first started. This is more of a support system for the wineries."

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