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Dunham Cellars recovering, ready to grow after Eric Dunham’s death
WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Dunham Cellars has started a new chapter without the late Eric Dunham, but those he touched at his Walla Walla winery continue to struggle with completely turning the page.
The 2015 vintage marks the first time for harvest to start without its beloved founding winemaker, who died Oct. 23, 2014, on the Oregon Coast of a self-inflicted gunshot.
“The Earth cracked — that’s what it felt like,” said Daniel Wampfler, who has been making the wine for Dunham Cellars since 2008. “I’ll never forget when we found out. We just stopped what we’re doing, went home and came back the next day with a silence, but yet a simple purpose to just continue making wine.”
Eric Dunham’s charm and charisma combined with Wampfler’s winemaking skill helped Dunham Cellars further establish itself as one of Washington’s most well-known and marketable brands. And this year marks the 20th anniversary for Dunham Cellars, which the artistic Eric started with his father, Mike, who died in 2013 after a long battle with kidney cancer. The diagnosis of cancer years before allowed the Dunhams — Eric, Mike and Mike’s wife, Joanne — to bring on and groom John Blair as general manager.
“Shame on us for not telling our other stories earlier,” Blair told Great Northwest Wine. “Of course, we can Monday morning quarterback it and say that we probably should have, but it was such a success the way it was going, why change it?
“But we need to be out there telling our story,” Blair continued. “People don’t know Dan has been making the wine for seven years. People don’t know there’s another family that has been partners involved in this winery for 15 years.”
Taste Washington, the two-day Seattle festival in March, afforded Dunham Cellars an ideal opportunity to do just that with nearly 5,000 consumers.
“We typically would send only three or four people to Taste, but this year we brought everybody as a show of force, to let people know, ‘Hey, we’re all here,’ ” Blair said. “We were all wandering around in our shirts, and we looked like this Dunham Army to get the point out.”
The synergy between the two families has worked. Blair’s parents, David and Cheryll, were asked by the Dunhams to join on as managing partners in 2004. Three years later, when Wampfler was hired away from Columbia Crest, Eric Dunham began acting as national sales director.
“Honestly, Eric was blessed and cursed with the last name Dunham,” Wampfler said. “He was not only desired in the marketplace but was really good in the marketplace. So his role — really even before I started — was very much the face of the company and in the marketplace. He was working with distributors and customers alike throughout the country and even overseas.”
Blair and Wampfler continue to deal with rumors that Dunham Cellars no longer makes wine in light of the founding winemaker’s death, but the Dunham family remains involved in the Walla Walla airport’s largest winery. Joanne Dunham maintains a significant share of ownership in the winery.
“Joanne is still here every day working day-to-day,” Blair said.
Recent acclaim for Dunham Cellars
The wines have garnered awards, respect and commercial success before and since Wine Press Northwest magazine named Dunham Cellars its 2008 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year. Most recently, both the Dunham Cellars 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon XVII ($45) and Dunham Cellars 2013 Lewis Estate Vineyard Riesling ($20) were chosen in a blind judging by Seattle sommeliers to be poured at the 2015 U.S. Open by the Washington State Wine Commission. Earlier this year, that same Cabernet Sauvignon received a gold medal at the Great Northwest Wine Competition, the country’s largest judging of Pacific Northwest wines.
Earlier this month, the Auction of Washington Wines collaborated with several Walla Walla wineries to produce a collection of six-liter bottles featuring some of Dunham’s artwork. The lot generated $23,000 for charities, including Seattle Children’s Hospital. Hollywood actor Kyle MacLachlan, Dunham’s friend and partner in the decade-old Pursued By Bear wine project, made an emotional plea during the bidding.
“I think we’ve maybe accelerated our process of the mourning for Eric because we were forced to breathe it and live it every single day, but what happens is you’ll have a guest or a customer come in and just loses it,” Wampler said. “So that opens the wound up immediately, and then you help them mourn as well as you’re kind of holding it together for yourself.”
It also would be easy to get emotional and upset at some of the questions and the rumors that have circled Dunham Cellars in the aftermath of Eric’s suicide.
“I think we’ve seen the largest support come from the wine club, which is our closest and best customers,” Wampfler said. “They are close enough that they didn’t expect us to go away, and there are a few people who would show up during the spring release and ask and tell us, ‘OK, good. We didn’t think so, but we’re relieved.
“And then there’s the distant customers who may not have contact with us or even people with wine blogs who’ve said that we have got two more years of wines to sell that Eric made and then that’s it,” Wampfler continued. “It’s like, what? And you can’t necessarily correct that or combat that because it’s a stranger or it’s just a blog, but again, it’s shame on us for not telling that message.”
At some point, Blair might start referencing Wampfler on the Dunham Cellars packaging, but it’s not necessary, Wampfler said.
“I don’t need my name on the back of the bottle to know that I put my blood, sweat and tears and my passion into the winemaking,” Wampfler said. “We’re a team here. My title might be winemaker, but I’ve got an assistant winemaker and a cellar crew and a lab technician who are working just as hard as I am. I’m making the directions, but we’re a winemaking team. And I will always say that. I learned that from Ray (Einberger of Columbia Crest), it’s a winemaking team. Is it nice to get credit? Absolutely. Do I need it? No. I think the way that it’s flowing is just fine.”
Recent support for Wampfler’s wines has been remarkable, Blair said.
“On the retail side, the response has been the opposite of what some might believe,” Blair said. “There’s been this outpouring of support with a lot of people wanting to buy Dunham wines to honor Eric, so we’ve been doing great there.
“The wholesale side has been a little tougher just as we had expected because we had to hire a national sales manager,” Blair said. “I was kind of holding it down as best as I could, but I had a bunch of other things going on. But it’s been fine.”
Wampfler leaves Columbia Crest for Dunham Cellars
In reality, Dunham Cellars began writing this chapter eight years ago when Mike Dunham hired Wampfler away from Columbia Crest, where Wampfler worked for then-head winemaker Ray Einberger and alongside Juan Muñoz Oca — who has since succeeded Einberger at the Paterson giant.
“I absolutely was not looking to leave,” Wampfler said. “I think the world of that company and have a lot of dear friends who are still a part of that company. I met my wife at that company.”
Yet during a cold December morning 2007, Muñoz Oca and Wampfler noticed Dunham Cellars posted an opening for a winemaker in the Tri-City Herald classified ads.
“We knew the wines from competitive tastings and were impressed, but I didn’t know Eric,” Wampfler said. “Out of curiosity, I called the winery and asked why they had posted for a winemaking position when it was always Eric Dunham. A guy I didn’t know from Adam picked up the phone and said, ‘Dunham Cellars, this is Mike.’ ”
Wampfler identified himself, and Mike Dunham explained the situation, adding that Eric was “cursed and blessed with the last name and needs to be on the road because we’ve outgrown our shoes. So we need someone to come in and take over the winemaking, respect our style and help with the day-to-day operations.”
Curiosity satisfied, Wampfler complimented Mike on the wines and tried to hang up.
“As Mike had a way of doing, he persuaded me to stay on the phone a little longer and persuaded me into brushing up a résumé that I hadn’t touched in years and persuaded me into sending it to him,” Wampfler added with the smile. “He mentioned that he and Joanne were heading out on their annual RV pilgrimage down south and would be back in a couple months.
“I thought, ‘This is perfect. I’ll send him the résumé and I’ll never hear from him,” Wampfler remembers. “Well, he called me an hour later and said, ‘Can you come in on Friday because we’re leaving.’ It turns out that he backed me into this corner when I thought I had out-tricked him.”
‘The Pocket Protector’ complements ‘The Artist’
His work experience as research winemaker for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and assistant winemaker for Columbia Crest spanned barrel-fermented whites, all reds and sparkling wines. Along the way, Wampfler got to work on projects such as Col Solare, Luxe, 14 Hands, Red Diamond and Stimson Estate. That tool chest was vast and unmatched, there was job security, he was surrounded by friends, and he’d married white winemaker Amy Alvarez. Yet still…
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse and a family I couldn’t turn down,” Wampfler said. “I self-adopted my way into not only the Dunhams but the Blairs.”
Wampfler described the connection between him and Eric Dunham as, “He is the artist, and I’m the pocket protector, and we played off each other very well.”
And so Dunham Cellars was poised for growth with Eric spreading the family story with his friendly charm.
“Going from 4.5 million cases a year and fermenting, for example, 10,000 barrels of Chardonnay having experience with all those different coopers and toast levels and yeast and all these different varietals and different vineyard sources, it was very easy to have that immediate ability to pull the technical ideas into the direction of where he wanted to go,” Wampfler said.
“When I took over the practical winemaking, the handoff was immediate and simple. And Eric was more of a beacon to the past — here’s how the wines have been made in the past, and here’s the style that we’ve kind of gone with.”
One of Wampfler’s first lessons came down to the bottlings of Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Columbia Valley Syrah, which had always been 100 percent of each variety.
“To me, it’s almost always easier to make a better wine through blending,” Wampfler said. “With the Columbia Valley Syrah, I said, ‘Hey, what if we put a little bit of Viognier in?’ And Mike and Eric both said ‘No.’ ”
When he asked the same question about Cab, the response was “No!”
“OK, OK,” Wampfler said. “So it offered me a challenge but a positive challenge, and as a winemaker, that’s fun. It took me about two vintages before I got it, and it was like, ‘Maybe we could make a better blend, but we can’t make a better 100 percent Cabernet than we’re doing it now. So I fell in love with that idea rapidly.”
Wampfler soon moved from the Tri-Cities to Walla Walla as Eric Dunham went out on the road more often.
“He was so demanded in the marketplace that he really didn’t have the opportunity to spend time in the cellar that he wanted to,” Wampfler said. “And that’s why they hired me. From a marketing standpoint, we weren’t saying, ‘Dan’s the winemaker and it’s all Dan and it’s only Dan.’ It didn’t make sense.”
The Michigan State grad, who moved to Washington state in 2003 to work for Ste. Michelle, was appointed to the board of Washington State Wine Commission in 2012. He does rent a portion of Dunham Cellars vinification space to his wife, who is general manager, part-owner and winemaker for Sinclair Estate Vineyards in Walla Walla. She’s been in charge of those wines since 2010, when she resigned from Columbia Crest.
And Blair said Dunham Cellars will continue its relationship with MacLachlan on Pursued by Bear.
“Kyle is as devastated as anyone was because he was very close with Eric,” Blair said. “I think Kyle also recognizes Dan’s talent as a winemaker and wants to continue to work with Dan on the wines.”
Banner Bank, Blair connection began in 2000
The Blair family’s involvement began 15 years ago when wine lover David Syre and his Bellingham-based Trillium Corp., invested and partnered with the Dunhams on a new winery called Trey Marie. (Each of the three ownership entities had a grandmother named Marie.)
“Trey Marie was intended to be strictly Bordeaux-style wines,” John Blair said. “Trutina was the first wine they rolled out. My dad was in charge of all Trillium’s ag products, so David told my dad that he was in charge of our investment in Walla Walla. He started coming over here in 2000 to help run Trey Marie Winery. Dunham was still a separate entity.
“What they found is that Trey Marie just didn’t have the brand recognition that the Dunhams were cultivating on the Dunham side, and they decided it made sense to merge the two companies.”
Four years later, Trillium looked to get out and sold its interest to the Blair family.
“My dad helped grow a couple of businesses and knew how to do it,” Blair said. “He provided the capital for it, and the Dunhams were always the managing partners. Three years later, the partner who had come in with my dad to buy out Trillium’s interest wanted out, so my folks took over his ownership as well.”
The Blairs, owners in the business for about a decade, still look back fondly on Banner Bank’s purchase of Bellingham-based People’s Bank because it first served as a matchmaker between Trillium and Dunham Cellars. Banner Bank, headquartered in Walla Walla, would later feature Dunham Cellars in memorable a television advertising campaign.
“They played it all the time during Mariners games,” Blair said with smile. “It was great coverage for us. It really was probably the best press we ever had — that commercial that was played throughout the Northwest, and they played it over and over again.
“I guess Banner took a bit of heat from some of their other clients saying, ‘Why didn’t you choose us?’ Blair said with a chuckle.
From Bellingham to Walla Walla
Blair, a graduate of Whitman College with a background in hotel management and armed with an MBA from the University of Washington, began learning the ropes from Mike Dunham soon after the diagnosis of cancer.
“I hadn’t had much experience in the wine industry other than coming to help out at the big event weekends,” Blair said. “I was at Whitman from 1998 to 2002, during the first big second wave of Walla Walla wineries, so I kind of saw first-hand the sleepy cow town go to a pretty exciting, vibrant, energetic place in four years.”
He formally joined Dunham Cellars in 2011, and his responsibilities include Appellation Management Group, a farm services company that oversees several of the Mill Creek plantings in Walla Walla, and Kenny Hill Vineyards, a real estate company that includes a 70-acre partnership with the den Hoed brothers.
“I had about a year and a half with Mike,” Blair said. “I was his shadow until he had to step down at the beginning of 2013.”
Mike died in May 2013.
“The transition was smooth, but obviously it was tough emotionally for everyone here,” Blair said. “Mike was ‘Papa Mike.’ He was the friendliest guy in the world, and everyone wanted to be around Mike and listen to his silly jokes and his stories. I think all of us have an expression or two that we learned from Mike that we carry with us to this day.”
Those expressions get Wampfler and Blair to chuckle. Memories of Eric still are close to the surface and more melancholy at this point.
“With Mike, we knew it was coming,” Blair said. “With Eric, we didn’t.”
And the 2015 harvest will bring back memories of Eric’s death.
“For me, it was almost a blessing to have it happen during harvest because our hands weren’t idle, so to speak,” Wampfler said. “We had something simplistic, if you will, to think about, and we were doing something we love and something Eric loved.”
Dunham Cellars hires national sales director
Across the country, it will be Nick Literski sharing the Dunham Cellars story and promoting Wampfler’s wines. The 1996 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York resigned as regional sales director for famed Jordan Vineyard & Winery in California’s Sonoma Valley to take over for Eric Dunham, but the Boise resident is quite familiar with Washington wines after working as a district sales manager for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and a division manager for Southern Wine and Spirits.
“We like to call ourselves ‘The Three Amigos,’ ” Wampfler said. “And I’m the goofball of the group, so I’m Chevy Chase.”
Literski, an energetic, engaging character from Wisconsin, spent several years as a chef at a number of Las Vegas properties before migrating to the beverage side of the business.
“We went out and got a rock star,” Wampfler said.
And Literski’s job will be to help grow Dunham sales beyond its annual 25,000-case production. The combination of Trutina and Three Legged Red make up two thirds of Wampfler’s bottlings.
“We can direct ship to 29 states, and we have wholesale representation in 27 states, Japan and China,” Blair said. “We have the ability to produce about 30,000 cases here, and that’s our five-year vision. I don’t know that we want to get much bigger than that because then I think you start to lose some of the character of who you are, particularly when it’s taking the principals away from the business.
“What Mike and Eric were so good at when they started Dunham was being here,” Blair added. “They would come into the tasting room and make those connections that were so strong. All of us — Dan included — want to be able to do that more. We want to have time because those things are the foundation of our business.”
Celebrating 20 years of Dunham Cellars
And while 2014 will be a year never to be forgotten at Dunham Cellars, this year has given Blair, Wampfler and Joanne Dunham the opportunity to present a special label developed in 2011.
“When we knew Mike was going down this path, we wanted to create a wine for him — to honor him,” Blair said. “So we have a 2009 Lewis Vineyard Artist Series Blend, which we’ve never done before. We’ve always done a single varietal Cab, Merlot and Syrah. The idea was to have it be our 20th anniversary wine that we’d release in 2015. In-house, we called it ‘The Michael.’ Eric was going to paint a label for it, specifically for his dad. That didn’t happen. When Eric passed away, we decided to make The Founders Blend.”
When Dunham Cellars released it this summer, they described it as an iconic wine that’s only available once. A portion of the proceeds go to hospice.
“We’ve worked with hospice a lot lately, and they were wonderful, both with Mike’s and Eric’s passing,” Blair said. “They came in and helped us both as a group and individually.”
This weekend brings some levity — the sixth annual Dunham Days, a three-day festival at the winery that will include live music and catered food by Andrae Bopp and Dan Thiessen. And while Dunham Cellars will continue to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Dunham Days never will be quite the same without those two beloved founders.