PROSSER, Wash. – Bob Gamache was ready to retire from Gamache Vintners, and his niece seems quite capable of stepping up.
So Jessica Gamache takes over as general manager of Gamache Vintners in Prosser, where she will work with her father, Roger. He will remain focused on the acclaimed Gamache Vineyards, but he’ll also continue as managing partner of both the 3,000-case winery and the 210-acre farm with his older brother, who reached the retirement age of 65.
“In January, Bob and (wife) Cris decided that now is the time, so Dad and I adjusted,” Jessica told Great Northwest Wine. “Helping out and adjusting is what you do in a family business.”
Roger, 59, said, “It needs to be clear that Bob is still my partner. We’ve done a lot of working together over the years, and this is a good thing — that’s he’s got the ability to retire and still be a partner.”
Gamache Vintners now becomes a second-generation business, and Jessica’s background in the wine industry made her the heir apparent. Her focus will be on growing the brand, rather than making any changes to the wines developed by Charlie Hoppes or their underrated 180-acre vineyard along the White Bluffs of the Columbia River.
Accolades continue for Gamache Vintners wines
Last year, the Gamache Vintners 2010 Syrah ($30) turned out to be one of the Northwest’s most decorated wines with gold medals at the Great Northwest Wine Competition, the Great Northwest Invitational, the Riverside International Wine Competition, Seattle Wine Awards and the Washington State Wine Competition.
Less than 10 percent of Gamache Vineyard fruit goes into the family brand. Customers include Abeja, a’Maurice, Basel Cellars, Bergevin Lane, Boudreaux, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hamilton Cellars, Kana, Nodland, Tamarack, Three Rivers and William Church. The William Church 2011 Gamache Vineyards Malbec ($36) recently finished atop the Wine Press Northwest’s 2014 Platinum Judging.
“We’re so proud of that,” said Roger, named Grower of the Year in 2013 by the Washington State Wine Commission. “The vineyard itself has somewhere around 30 customers, and William Church has been one of them for quite a few years. They are solid, good people to work with, and we’re glad they have done so well with that Malbec.”
Jessica grew up working the family farm with her siblings and cousins while going to Pasco High School before she earned degrees in business administration and psychology at Washington State University in 2003. Her past eight years led her to marketing and business positions throughout the Columbia Valley with Fidelitas Wines, Market Vineyards and Mercer Estates.
“For the first time, I’ll get to really embrace the full circle that starts in vineyard and take it to the tasting room,” she said. “I’ve had that experience of being hands-on in our vineyard my whole life, and now I can share that passion with customers.”
Wine Boss opens doors for Gamache
A common thread for much of Jessica’s journey in the Washington wine industry has been Hoppes, who grew up in the Yakima Valley and met the Gamaches while he was making wine for Ste. Michelle. Hoppes launched his Fidelitas brand a couple of years before Bob and Roger hired him to make the Gamache Vintners wines in 2002.
“This all started with a conversation with Charlie and Bob and Roger,” Jessica said. “Charlie’s brother was heading back to Nike, so he needed someone to help open his tasting room and handle the direct-to-consumer side, so I got my résumé to him.”
She worked from 2006 to 2009 on Red Mountain for Fidelitas, learning about marketing and branding.
“That was the initial bug, and then at one point, Charlie asked if I ever wanted to become a winemaker, so I spent a year and half working the cellars and taking chemistry classes at night,” Jessica said.
She got her hands purple at Covey Run, Columbia Winery, Hightower Cellars and Chinook Wines. Three years ago, she completed her certificate in enology from WSU while serving as general manager of another client of Hoppes’ Wine Boss project – Market Vineyards.
“I planned on only being there for five months, and it ended up being 2 1/2 years,” she chuckled.
Prior to take over at Gamache, Jessica spent nearly two years as marketing and business manager at Mercer Estates.
“Working with the Mercers was wonderful,” she said. “That gave me experience working with the launch of a national portfolio, and I assisted Will Mercer with a lot of projects.”
She left Mercer Estates in June and spent the past few months gardening, helping out in the vineyard and cooking.
“My breadmaking skills, which I’ve had fun with this last year, will go down a bit,” she chuckled. “But now, I’ll be able to see my family more because I’m working with them, rather than working for another family in the industry.”
Vineyard visits turn into family reunions
Family ties run deep in the Columbia Valley wine industry, and the Gamache clan is among the most interwoven. Bob grew up with cousin Paul Champoux, who made Champoux Vineyards the state’s most famous site for Cabernet Sauvignon. Last fall, Champoux retired and sold his shares in the Horse Heaven Hills vineyard, but Roger doesn’t seem worried about the future of that acclaimed source for Cab, which goes into the Gamache Vintners Heritage Series.
“Kevin Laurent, Paul’s longtime vineyard manager, is also a cousin of ours,” Roger said. “I grew up with him. I have absolutely no doubt they’ll have the same success.
“But if something happens, then I’ll make him start buying the beer and I’ll buy fruit somewhere else,” he chuckled.
Last year, the Gamache brothers lost a longtime friend when historic grower Bill Powers passed away, but Roger points to Greg Powers as another example of keeping the winery and vineyard in the family.
“I love this generational change that’s taking place in our industry,” Roger said. “I think it’s so cool, and you have to remember we’re still in the infancy compared with the rest of the world.”
Roger Gamache takes over as managing partner
Even though Roger will remain committed to the vineyard, Jessica plans to involve her dad as much as possible in the tasting room and public events outside of Prosser.
“Dad and I are excited about this team,” she said. “Dad is very easy-going and talkative, and I want to create an open-door feeling and energy in the tasting room. And we also want to make sure our staff will serve as leaders within the tasting room community in Prosser.”
Roger said there are no immediate plans to expand production or add any wines to their lineup, which has been headed up by Hoppes assistant Mitch Venohr for several vintages.
And other than revitalizing the tasting room, which she’s never worked in, Jessica said longtime customers shouldn’t notice any changes — other than growth and building relationships.
“It really helps invigorate the customer base when you have someone who is jazzed about the company and the brand and comes with a lot of experience,“ Roger said.
And she doesn’t expect to get out of all the vineyard work this fall.
“I was running grape samples and drove the tractor during the last day of hand-harvesting,” Jessica said. “I will still have my Carhartts ready to go and my Bogs ready for the cellar.”
Meanwhile, it might be another five years or so before Roger can spend much time skiing as he did before they moved their families from the Yakima Valley, trading hop vines for grape vines, peaches and nectarines. There’s also a sense of satisfaction as their farming operation adds a fifth generation.
“My brother and I have been full partners since we started in 1982, and he decided it’s time for him to retire,” Roger said. “So he’ll have the sun in his face, riding his bike and doing what he likes to do. Bob and Cris together have put in a lot of the dedication over the last 12 years to get the winery were it is today.”