Editor’s note: Heather Wallace is writing a series about alumni and current residents of the island community. Her goal is to help connect kids with people who have the experience and stories they need to know. To share suggestions, email email@example.com.
by Heather Wallace
Special to the Sounder
Starting a business is hard work. Starting a business on Orcas Island in six weeks is a lot more work. Returning to his roots, a place that holds his heart and where he finds ultimate peace, Cole Sisson along with his wife, Stephanie, will be opening the Doe Bay Wine Company this month in the Eastsound Square.
From the ages of 14 to 18 Cole was doing what a lot of kids on the island do – working at restaurants during the summer. From Bilbo’s to Rosario, he eventually ended up at Christina’s where he was able to expand his palette and learn from the owners of what is still considered to be one of the best restaurants to ever exist in the San Juan Islands.
“For the first time I’m having oysters, there’s foie gras, there’s champagne, there’s gastrique on the plates, there’s vegetables I’d never seen before – my mind just expanded beyond eating, drinking, tasting. [Bruce Orchid] is the one that really got me interested. He got me excited about things and I would ask questions.”
At 18, Cole’s curiosity about geography, history, culture and languages drove him to the University of Washington in pursuit of a degree in Political Science. Bruce and his wife, Christina, provided him with potential job contacts that he now understands were extremely valuable. He worked part-time at a high-end restaurant in Seattle learning more about wine lists and wine pairings. He spoke with the chefs, General Managers, and anyone he felt could provide him knowledge. He asked a lot of questions.
After his Junior year, he decided to take a break from the UW and moved back to Orcas, where John Trumbull proved to be a huge influence in his life. Cole recalls hitching a ride with John to Seattle and receiving an entire dissertation on French wine. 22 at the time, he ventured off to Europe for six months, hitchhiking, riding trains through Poland in the winter, working at hostels in Belgium, and having eye-opening food experiences in every country. He looks back on it as the “most informative time in [his] life.”
Cole returned from that trip with a realization that he could have a career in wine and proceeded in a process of self-education. He made lists of subjects he wanted to learn more about, the people he felt could teach him something or who might be willing to pass on their wisdom, and began doing informational interviews.
“I’ve always spent a lot of time asking [people] if they would meet with me for half an hour because I’m interested in what they do or how they do it…I wanted to see the different aspects of business, too. To kind of intertwine them and pull them together – so importing, distributing, retail, restaurant, wine making. I didn’t stay anywhere too long and for me, it helped flush things out and gave me the opportunity to really see perspective but it didn’t give me the continuity and longevity that comes with seeing a project through. For me, it worked…My goal was to always find the most intelligent people I could and try to work for them whether it was for free or whether they would pay me.”
Those responsible for pouring into Cole’s wine education included Kelly Liken (of Top Chef fame), Bob Betz at Betz Family Winery, and Raj Parr at RN74 in Seattle where he began working in his early 30’s. Six months into his job at RN74 he was offered the position of Wine Director at Michael Mina (a Michelin Star restaurant) at the Bellagio in Las Vegas where he found himself selling $10,000-$20,000 bottles of wines to customers.
Most recently, Cole was the Director of National Sales and Marketing at the Spanish company, Bodegas Ontanon, finding himself on a different plane 3-4 times a week. Although he had the highest respect for the wine, the family and the team there, he could not push aside the feeling that he was supposed to try his own thing.
It is here we presently find Cole, living in a yurt in Doe Bay, with his wife of less than a month – a New Jersey native who instantly fell in love with Orcas.
“Most of my friends from high school and college became either a doctor, lawyer, accountant or a teacher,” says Stephanie. “When I told my friends and family that I was living in a yurt for the summer, no one knew what that was – except for my mom’s husband who asked, ‘Like in Mongolia?’”
The wine business was a natural progression for Stephanie – a lover of food who was fascinated with the way wine can tell a story and the ability of wine to elevate food experiences.
And what does she miss most about New Jersey?
“Jewish delis, Cheesesteaks, going to the shore, the Mummers, scrapple, water ice, and accents!”
The two met at a wine event and Stephanie recalls how networking has provided many stepping stones and learning opportunities that she would not have had otherwise. Cole likens networking to high school dances.
“I think we should be comfortable and not afraid to reach out to other people,” he says. “It’s hard because it’s sort of like asking someone to dance – rejection is a powerful emotion…I try to spend as much time as I can [sharing knowledge]. We want to give back and help everyone we can. We are happy to share our experiences and help others with their adventures and dreams. “[Networking] is really just about unforced relationships – being kind, being intelligent, holding your own, but realizing that people like to help each other…it’s a big deal. In essence, it brings us back to who we are as people.”
Cole believes there is a huge benefit for kids who have grown up on Orcas to experience what the world has to offer before returning home.