WOODINVILLE, Wash. – When Chris Peterson decided to get into the wine business, he was the first person to go through Walla Walla Community College’s now-vaunted winemaking program, then he landed at one of Washington’s greatest wineries.
Today, Peterson co-owns Avennia, one of the hottest young producers in Washington, and now works with two retired National Football League quarterbacks on another project.
We recently sat down with Peterson to talk about his time with DeLille Cellars and his move to Avennia.
Here’s the interview:
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Getting into wine
Peterson grew up in the Pacific Northwest and went to high school in Yakima before moving to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. He later went to work for FedEx and began to become interested in wine. He even snuck into a private DeLille Cellars release event – a harbinger of things to come.
He was in his late 20s when he decided to move across the state to go through Walla Walla Community College’s new wine program. Back then, the Center for Enology and Viticulture was run by Myles Anderson of Walla Walla Vintners and Stan Clarke, a longtime Yakima Valley winemaker, wine writer and schoolteacher who died in 2007.
“I ended up being the first person to race through all the classes so I could get back to Seattle,” Peterson told Great Northwest Wine.
During his time in Walla Walla, Peterson had the opportunity to work at such wineries as Forgeron, Dunham Cellars and Glen Fiona. In 2003, he had wrapped up his studies and was ready to start his winemaking career. He just wasn’t sure where that would be or what it would look like.
As fortune would have it, DeLille was in need of an assistant winemaker. Chris Upchurch, who started the winery with Charles and Greg Lill and Jay Soloff in 1992, called Clarke to find a young winemaker who might fit into the Woodinville powerhouse’s system.
“Stan said, ‘Yeah, I got your guy. He loves drinking French wine. He loves DeLille.’ He really went to bat for me.”
Working at DeLille Cellars
Peterson spent eight vintages at DeLille Cellars, and he made the most of that time. In the cellar, it usually was Peterson and Upchurch “knocking out 100 tons at that point. It was a little intimidating.”
It also was an amazing experience to land at one of the state’s top high-end producers. Not that Peterson recognized that early on.
“Maybe I took it for granted a little bit,” he admitted.
But Peterson realized soon enough the responsibilities he faced. The year after he started at DeLille, he wanted to make sure he hadn’t done anything to ruin the wines. And when he hadn’t, that led to an epiphany that helps lead him today.
“It taught me over time that it’s not super hard to make great wine when you have great fruit,” he said. “It takes care, but there’s not a lot of technical stuff you need to do.”
His style fit that of Upchurch, who is not a classically trained winemaker but is an artist in the cellar.
“A lot of the best stuff I learned from him was just us tasting in the cellar,” he said. “We’d share really great wines together. We weren’t up late talking about highly technical stuff. It was really from the heart. I appreciated that.”
Many wineries use interns in the cellar, and DeLille is no different.
“There’s a lot of work to do, and it’s always helpful to have someone to do it for free,” Peterson said with a laugh.
In 2009, Marty Taucher came along and began working at DeLille. Taucher was a retired Microsoft executive who had become fascinated with the wine industry. He was taking classes at South Seattle Community College. As an intern, he spent a lot of time with Peterson, and the two became fast friends.
At one point, Peterson was looking over one of Taucher’s class assignments: a winery business plan. It became obvious to the two of them that they would be a great fit, as Peterson was a talented winemaker, and Taucher had business and marketing savvy.
“I always thought when I started a winery, ‘Who’s going to run the business?’ Because it’s not going to be me.”
So in 2010, they launched Avennia – a Latin name for the Rhône Valley city of Avignon.
“We wanted it to reflect an Old World artisanal style that I learned at DeLille,” Peterson said.
Through his time at DeLille, Peterson had gotten to know some of the best grape growers in Washington, and he was ready to take advantage of that.
“Let’s put it this way: When Avennia started, the first phone call I made was to Dick Boushey,” he said.
Boushey, owner of Boushey Vineyard near the Yakima Valley town of Grandview, is widely viewed as one of the state’s best growers.
Avennia’s first wines were greeted with high praise from critics and consumers alike, and Peterson and Taucher quickly were the talk of the Washington wine industry. Since their inaugural vintage, they have slowly increased production. This year, they will release about 2,400 cases, and that will grow to about 3,000 cases next year.
Passing Time with Dan Marino, Damon Huard
About the same time they were getting Avennia going, Taucher and Peterson met retired NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino and Damon Huard. Huard was the University of Washington’s quarterback the same time Peterson went to school there, and Huard and Marino had become friends when they both played for the Miami Dolphins.
Huard got to know Taucher through their mutual financial adviser, and when Huard and Marino decided to get into the Washington wine industry, they had dinner with Taucher and Peterson.
From that came Passing Time, a new Washington winery that will release its first wine next month. Peterson made the Passing Time 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon using grapes from Discovery, Champoux and Klipsun vineyards.
Through his first decade-plus in the Washington wine industry, Peterson said he feels fortunate to have worked first with Clarke, then Upchurch and now Taucher, Marino and Huard.
“I’m having a lot of fun.”