Wine O’Clock celebrates 10 years

For the first five years of business, Bunnell Family Cellar operated out of the Susan and Ron Bunnell’s home. Located in the country, people visited by invitation, traveling down a gravel road to taste wines and visit with the couple.

That was in 2004, a time when the number of wineries in the state hovered around 300. But as Washington’s wine industry started to boom, the couple realized it was time to have a public façade beyond their family home.

“It was really important to us that people spend time with the wine and find the wine that was right for them. And one of the ways to get people to slow down and really look at tasting is to put some food in front of them,” said Susan Bunnell.

And that’s how Prosser’s Wine O’Clock Wine Bar & Bistro came to be.

The couple hired Western Building Design LLC of Yakima to finalize the plans for the nearly $750,000 project at 548 Cabernet Court. Chervenell Construction broke ground in July 2008.

By January 2009, the Bunnells were ready for a soft opening.

“At this point, we were going to be a wine bar, and we were thinking we’d have flat bread, meat and cheese—real simple. I had the image of walking in the back door with a couple of bags of groceries. I kept thinking we’re going to be able to keep this low-key,” said Susan, reflecting on the soft opening a decade ago. “It sort of kept expanding. People wanted a little more of this and that. ‘Can you add this to the menu?’ It kind of grew one dish at a time.”

After about three years, the menu expanded to include two entrees—one meat and one fish—a couple of salads, and appetizer and five pizzas. Today, there are about 20 employees on staff, including executive chef Kyle Meinecke.

The problem the business has run into is that after a decade, the restaurant has become so successful, customers don’t always realize they’re also at a winery, Susan said.

“They ask, ‘Where can we get the wines on the menu?’” she said. “And I say, ‘Here.’ ”

Bunnell Family Cellar has 23 current release wines. Along with the Bunnell label, customers can sample and buy wine from Newhouse Family Vineyards.

The brother and sister team of Steve and Marla Newhouse are 50-50 owners of the Wine O’Clock Wine Bar & Bistro building, and Ron Bunnell is the winemaker for both wine labels.

To remind guests they are at a winery, Susan would like to remodel the space near the garden area, opening up the wall on the west side of the building to establish a separate wine bar for a more traditional tasting experience.

“We’d like to be a place that isn’t a restaurant first and foremost,” she said. “We still have that special restaurant area, but also a place where people can do more traditional tasting.”

The building has about 4,000 square feet of space, including an office area, kitchen and seating for about 36 people. Guests, who are a mix of locals and out-of-towners touring wine country, are encouraged to stay and enjoy wines while they dine. On average, it takes a table for two about an hour and a half to dine. For a group of six, tables are booked out for about two-and-a-half to three hours.

By opening the left side of the building, Susan said she hopes to offer a more casual atmosphere for guests looking to taste rather than dine in an environment that would be less labor intensive.

Bunnell Family Cellar has about 400 wine club members, and while they can enjoy a glass of wine on the patio, the weather doesn’t always cooperate.

“It can be too hot or too cold or too windy. We’d like to have a space glassed in — an atrium — the patio feel but be casual and more quick service,” Susan said. “It’d be nice to have those two options and keep them separate.”

She said they’ve taken measurements but have no timeline on when they would start a remodel. Even though the restaurant fills up fast and reservations are recommended, there are always a couple of seats at the bar reserved for wine tasting.

“The reality is, people love to Instagram about food,” Susan said. “They feel more comfortable doing that about food than wine. From a marketing standpoint, it’s a plus. We have over 4,000 Facebook followers now. That doesn’t happen at a winery if you have 3,000 cases or less. Those kinds of numbers just don’t happen. Even though we struggle for people to see us as a winery, we have more guests that come through that we can showcase to. It’s a matter of framing it properly for them—but at least they’re coming through the door.”

» Wine O’Clock Wine Bar & Bistro: 548 Cabernet Court, Prosser; bunnellfamilycellar.com/wine-oclock; 509-786-2197.

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