WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Victor Palencia is a man who wears many hats in the Washington wine industry.
As director of winemaking for Columbia River’s Edge Winery, Palencia makes more wine than most people can imagine – especially considering they’ve likely never heard of of that winery. Columbia River’s Edge is in the town of Mattawa, an obscure but vital corner of the Washington wine industry on western edge of the arid Wahluke Slope. The operation is part of J&S Crushing, a custom-crush facility that helps other wineries process grapes and produce wine.
Palencia, who grew up in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser, was an early and important component of the project, which was meant to be a small production facility. By “small,” he means it could process 5,000 tons of wine grapes each harvest. That’s the equivalent of 300,000 cases of wine.
Today, J&S crushes 20,000 tons – nearly 10 percent of the entire Washington wine industry’s production – and is capable of producing up to 1.4 million cases.
“I try to show up to work every day,” he said with a laugh.
We recently caught up with Palencia at his own small winery in the Walla Walla Valley to chat about his growing role in the Washington wine industry. Here’s the interview:
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Victor Palencia grows up in Yakima Valley
Palencia’s story is well known, even for someone who is just 30 years old. He was born in Mexico and came to the United States with his family when he was just 2 years old. The Palencias came to the Yakima Valley, where his father worked in the mint fields, orchards and vineyards as a seasonal farm laborer.
While most of his high school friends were playing sports or goofing off, Palencia’s after-school job included working in vineyards alongside his father or for winemaker/grower David Minick at Willow Crest Winery.
“I grew up in the labor world, and all I really knew in my teen years was wine grapes,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “I was surrounded by them. It was a natural fit.”
After graduation, he headed east to study at Walla Walla Community College, where he earned a winemaking degree and moved back to the Yakima Valley. Though he was just 20 years old – and not legally able to drink – Palencia was the assistant winemaker at Willow Crest. This odd fact landed him in the pages of The New York Times.
“I’ve been facing challenges my whole life,” he said. “Drinking wine was definitely one of them early on.”
In 2007, he was lured to the fledgling J&S Crushing, a facility that shows the growing maturity of the Washington wine industry.
“There’s a lot of growth in Washington state, and all that growth needs an infrastructure,” Palencia said. “There’s definitely art going on, but it’s at an industrial level.”
Many large wineries simply do not have the bandwidth to handle every grape they need to make their wines, so they use custom-crush facilities such as J&S to help make that wine – all under the direction of each winery’s winemaker.
Jones of Washington and more
Because of facilities such as J&S Crushing, otherwise-obscure Grant County (known primarily as potato-growing country) is the second-largest wine-producing county in Washington. No. 1 is Benton County, thanks to such producers as Columbia Crest, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hogue Cellars, Mercer Estates, Hedges Family Estate, Kiona Vineyards & Winery and Barnard Griffin.
But Grant County beats out Yakima County, Walla Walla County and King County, all of which are much more famous for their wineries. Grant County is home to just a handful, three of which are large custom-crush facilities: J&S Crushing, Milbrant’s Wahluke Wine Co. and Coventry Vale. At least three more traditional wineries – Cave B, Beaumont and Ginkgo Forest – also are in Grant County.
While Palencia can’t say which wineries he works with, he is happy to talk about Jones of Washington, a winery owned by the Jones family (the “J” in “J&S Crushing”) and made at the winery facility in Mattawa. It has tasting rooms in Quincy and Wenatchee.
“Jones of Washington is proof of what J&S is capable of,” Palencia said. “It’s 100 percent estate grown. I get to work it from the grapes to the bottle. For me, it’s the ultimate dream: to craft something from start to finish and really influence the wine all the way through.”
Jones of Washington has quickly established itself as one of the stars in the North Central Washington wine region, and its artsy, farm-inspired label is easily recognizable. In 2012, Jones of Washington was named Washington Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest magazine.
Palencia also produces the wine for Henry Earl Estates, which is owned by Dick Shaw (the “S” of “J&S Crushing”) using estate grapes from the Wahluke Slope, Ancient Lakes and Red Mountain. Henry Earl is a fast-rising label in the Washington wine scene and has a tasting room in downtown Walla Walla (in the old Purple Parasol building) and has plans to build a production facility at the Walla Walla airport.
Finding success with Palencia, Vino La Monarcha
While his day job is running J&S Crushing and making wine for Jones of Washington and Henry Earl, the energetic young Palencia is building a name for himself on nights and weekends with Palencia Wine Co. and a second label called Vino La Monarcha. The winery is in an incubator building at the Walla Walla airport, and he has a tasting room in downtown Walla Walla.
In March, the Vino La Monarcha 2014 Pinot Noir Rosé – using Washington grapes – earned best of show at the Great Northwest Wine Competition. It beat out 1,203 other entries in the largest judging of wines from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho. When he earned the award, Palencia still had all 180 cases he made of the rosé. By mid-May, the wine was sold out.
“I will admit I didn’t plan for my Monarcha to overshadow my Palencia at this moment,” he said. “But it’s exciting to see, and I’ll embrace it.”
His Palencia wines – which carry a drawing on the label of his father using a shovel as he works in a field – is his premium tier. He makes a Rhône-style red blend using Yakima Valley vineyards he worked in as a youth. He also makes stand-alone versions of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, as well as Albariño from the Ancient Lakes, Sauvignon Blanc from the Frenchman Hills and Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain.
“We try to source from really key, really powerful vineyard sites that can amplify and showcase what Washington can offer,” he said.
Though Palencia is from Mexico, he does have an affinity for Spanish varieties. He grew up in Michoacán, a state in western Mexico. As a son of immigrants – and an immigrant himself – he struggles to get very far when he digs into his ancestry.
“But what I have been able to find out is our name is a province in Spain,” he said. “The more I learn about wine, the more I learn about my background and history beyond just Mexico.”
But he also tells his family’s more recent history through the Vino La Monarcha brand. Michoacán is home to some of the largest populations of monarch butterflies in the world, and those butterflies go on a famous migration from Mexico to Canada – and back.
“When it ventures on this migration, it’s a migration based on succession,” Palencia said. “That first generation will never be back. It’ll be four generations before their species will come back to their native land. It’s just a great story that I think showcases the ability of a species like a monarcha – and our human spirit – and just be able to let your dreams take flight, believe in something better, believe in the future and go for it.”