Aaron Tekulve started working in Seattle restaurants about 10 years ago, first in Lark and then in Canlis; soon after, he began partnering with Washington winemakers to host private dinner parties where he paired approximately eight courses with a winemaker’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 many parts of California and Oregon, Washington state winemakers were not bogged down by tradition and the need to produce single-varietal wines. ; instead, he says, they freely mix varietals in a frantic quest for deliciousness. He also found an incredible diversity of wines 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 which pride themselves on serving hyper-local vegetables, grains, meats and seafood — are dominated by foreign wines or owned by one or more local wineries. So when he got the keys to what would become Surrell’s restaurant in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2019, he knew he wanted to promote Washington wine.
“I saw this huge gap in representation,” says Tekulve. “I just have a ton of respect for what’s going on in our wine country, and I think they’ve always needed more of a spotlight on them.”
Surrell, which opened in November 2021, now offers what Tekulve considers 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 this is the first time he’s seen a restaurant that isn’t owned by a winery (The Tasting Room , in Pike Place Market, is dedicated to Washington wine but owned by a consortium of wineries).
Tekulve serves 10-course tasting menus of modern Pacific Northwest cuisine Thursday through Saturday, but the restaurant floor (a converted turn-of-the-century Victorian home) is a dedicated Washington wine bar with small plates, open from Tuesday to Saturday. Wines poured range from $10 for red and white wines to $50, when he opens a bottle from his library of 15- or even 20-year-old Washington wines, though Tekulve insists the price isn’t not synonymous with quality.
Additionally, the bar serves snacks like charcuterie, cheeses, olives and marcona almonds as well as oysters on the half shell, king salmon and labneh crostini, 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 the strength of Washington wine is in its diversity; its many growing regions, from the Yakima Valley to the Red Mountain wine appellation in southeastern Washington State, produce an astonishing variety of wines. Meanwhile, cool fall temperatures are helping across the state and allowing grape growers more flexibility to pick grapes at their peak, without having to rush harvests before grapes become overripe, putting them at risk. gives greater control than some California winemakers over the level of tannins in their wines. The Columbia Valley, home to many of the state’s vineyards, also has access to consistent irrigation and hasn’t been heavily impacted by wildfire smoke, giving it advantages over the many affected areas. by drought and prone to wildfires in Oregon and California.
Because of this range in wine regions, a grape 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,” says Tekulve.
But the very diversity that makes Washington wine great has caused branding challenges. Napa Valley is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Willamette Valley is famous for Pinot Noir, but nationally, Washington’s wine regions aren’t really known for anything.
Also, compared to some of the more popular wine regions in other parts of the country, Washington’s largest wine regions are much farther from population centers, making them too remote 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 traveling to Eastern Washington wine country or in the Woodinville tasting rooms.
He insists that fine wines from Washington rival wines from anywhere else and says he has turned even the most stubborn Francophiles into local wine lovers.
“We like to prove the naysayers wrong,” says Tekulve. “I will argue until the day I die that there is a Washington wine for you.”