By Katie Harris
Passers-by on Highway 240 recently may have seen the blue-painted plywood shell of a building rise up out of the sagebrush.
The 3,000-sq.-ft. building, which will later be painted green to fit in with its surroundings, will be the tasting room for Thomas O’Neil Cellars.
Winemaker and owner Tom O’Neil said construction began in August and should be finished in time for spring barrel tasting weekend in April.
The building at 2323 Henderson Loop will include a production facility, tasting room and an outdoor patio and stage.
O’Neil purchased the 1.2-acre property for $60,000 in July. The new building, which features a unique angled roof and arched entrance, was designed by Pasco architect Terence Thornhill.
Vitruvius Design/Build Construction is the contractor for the project, which will cost about $500,000. Another $300,000 will be spent on equipment like the wine tanks O’Neil is purchasing from California.
While he waits for the building to be finished, O’Neil has been making wine at a Walla Walla custom crush facility, using fruit from the lower Yakima Valley and from Goose Ridge vineyards.
The Thomas O’Neil Cellars label will include higher-tier, hand-crafted wines and a second label, called Fahrenheit 100 in reference to the local desert climate, will sell with a lower price tag.
Thomas O’Neil Cellars will focus on red wines, including varieties like cabernet, merlot, syrah and a Rhone-style blend. But he will also offer white wines like chardonnay and Riesling.
He hopes to offer an ice wine in the future.
“That’s the beauty of Washington,” O’Neil said. “You can grow all those varieties.”
The white wines and some red wines needing only three to five weeks of fermentation will be ready in the spring, he said, but the barrel-aged reds will be released in 2012.
“Being in winemaking is something that I wanted to do for a long time,” O’Neil said.
A Detroit native, O’Neil made wine in his garage as a hobby for years while he worked as a technical writer for General Motors.
When he discovered that his alma mater Michigan State University was offering a viticulture program, he jumped at the chance. So he started the two-year certificate program in 2002, taking classes in horticulture, chemistry, business and marketing.
When it was time to begin an internship in 2004, O’Neil moved to Paterson to work at Chateau Ste. Michelle.
“Loved it, absolutely loved it,” he said. “Loved the people, the weather here.”
The internship was only supposed to last four months, but O’Neil stayed.
In 2005 he was hired as assistant winemaker at Milbrandt Vineyards in Mattawa when it was first opened. But the business soon became too big for O’Neil’s taste.
“I wanted more creative control,” he said. “It was like a wine factory.”
So in the summer of 2009 he began planning to open his own winery. When he found the Richland property this year, he quit working at Milbrandt in July.
“I was on the fast track,” O’Neil said.
At first just he and his wife Patricia, a retired elementary art teacher, will work at the winery, but they may hire servers during the busy seasons. They plan to offer gourmet appetizers and other finger food with the wines.
O’Neil said he hopes to hold small concerts and events at the winery next summer and offer small tours of his production facility.
Find him online at www.thomasoneilcellars.com and on Facebook, or call 737-0851.