WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Nearly a year after winemaker Eric Dunham died, a heavy cloud of grief remains over the family and friends he left behind.
“It has haunted me,” said Karen LaBonté, owner of Trio Vintners in Walla Walla, who was one of the last people to see Eric alive. “He was such a high-energy, friendly guy.”
Joanne Dunham still is trying to come to grips with why her step-son would take take his own life.
“He lost his dad,” she said. “Then he lost his mom a month before he died. There are things when you look back, but you just don’t think it’s going to end in this kind of result. I’d never known anybody who committed suicide.”
Eric, 44, died Oct. 23, 2014, in Cannon Beach, Ore. His father and best friend, Mike Dunham, had died just over a year earlier after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Everyone remembers Eric for his easy smile, his willingness to help others, his talent as a winemaker and his gift as an artist. When he died, Eric’s friends, family and fans were devastated, unable to grasp what he was holding inside, unable to understand what could torment someone until they believe they have no other way out.
We spoke with a number of people closest to Eric to try to understand how and why his life could have unraveled.
Growing up, becoming a winemaker
Eric grew up in Walla Walla. His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and Mike raised him and his sister alone until marrying Joanne in 1982.
The Walla Walla Valley was just beginning to get a wine scene, thanks to such modern pioneers as Gary and Nancy Figgins of Leonetti Cellar and Rick and Darcey Small of Woodward Canyon Winery. Mike was good friends with many of the early winemakers, and he’d often dress up the young Eric in a tuxedo to help at local wine tastings.
“They let me taste some of the wines,” Eric told Wine Press Northwest magazine in 2008. “I started asking questions. I’ve wanted to make wine since I was 10.”
After serving in the U.S. Navy, Eric took up winemaking as a hobby, making his first barrel in 1993. This spurred him on to work at Hogue Cellars for a few months until he was hired by L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden as assistant winemaker.
“Eric had the winemaking creativity,” said Marty Clubb, L’Ecole’s owner. “He learned to make wine under our roof, and he was confident in what he was doing.”
Father and son launched Dunham Cellars in 1995, making 200 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. It was one of the first dozen wineries in the valley, where today there are more than 100.
“Eric wanted to have the winery,” Joanne said. “That was his dream. Michael made it happen because Eric was going to start in the garage like Gary (Figgins) did.”
Mike decided to back him, so they started the winery as a team.
“Michael had that entrepreneurial spirit,” she said.
Acclaim came quickly, followed by growth. Trey Busch was in sales at Nordstrom in Seattle when he met Eric in 2000, and the two became fast friends. One day, Eric asked Trey to move to Walla Walla.
“I said I’d love to live here, but I didn’t know what I’d do,” Trey said. “He said, ‘You can come work for me. I’ll teach you how to make wine.’ ”
Trey stayed for a couple of seasons before moving on to become head winemaker at nearby Basel Cellars and ultimately launching his own winery, Sleight of Hand Cellars. He looks at his career path from retail to highly respected winemaker with a sense of awe and a great deal of gratitude toward Eric and Mike.
“It wasn’t a passion to make wine,” he said. “It was an opportunity that Eric provided me to move my family to the other side of the state.”
Eric also was at least partly responsible for bringing Andrae Bopp to Walla Walla. Andrae was a chef in Boise, and he met Eric in 2003. Their friendship grew as Andrae became more and more immersed in the Walla Walla wine scene.
Eric, Trey and Justin Wylie (owner of Va Piano Vineyards and Joanne’s nephew) began to push Andrae to move to Walla Walla and open a restaurant.
“Those were the three guys,”Andrae said. “I don’t know that they had to talk me too hard into moving here, but they were responsible.”
Eric Dunham changes with winery
In 2000, the Dunhams partnered with friends to launch Trey Marie, a new winery that would focus on Bordeaux varieties. The brand never caught on, so ultimately it was folded into Dunham Cellars. The result was that the Blair family in Bellingham became the majority owner of Dunham Cellars, with Mike and Eric continuing to run it.
This was – and remains – an amicable partnership. John Blair moved to Walla Walla and stepped in as general manager in the wake of Mike’s death in 2013. Joanne Dunham owns a minority share. Eric’s share of the winery is in probate.
By 2007, Dunham Cellars had grown to more than 15,000 cases, and the Dunhams looked for a new direction. In early 2008, they hired Dan Wampfler from Columbia Crest as their winemaker. Eric remained the face of the winery, but he no longer was involved in the day-to-day tasks of winemaking and instead took on the role of national sales manager. His generous and gregarious style was a perfect fit, and that helped the winery continue to grow.
With the pressure of winemaking removed, Eric took the opportunity to expand his artistic side. He’d already been dabbling in painting, and now he became prolific in this outlet. Today, the walls of Dunham Cellars are covered with his paintings.
Eric also got married, and he and his wife, Kanae, a native of Japan, had a son. Naturally, Eric’s little family deserved a bigger part of his focus, and he didn’t hang around with even his closest friends quite as much.
“Eric and I didn’t see each other on a regular basis like we used to,” Trey said. “I wasn’t around him every day to get a sense of what was going on with him.”
In 2009, Mike was diagnosed with a form of kidney cancer. He died four years later. The Walla Walla High School grad loved the wine business not only because it was fun and friendly, but also because he got to work so closely with his son.
When Mike died in May 2013, Eric told Great Northwest Wine, “I was fortunate to have almost 20 years in the business with him.”
Joanne said the two worked so closely together – including sharing an office – they knew what each other was going to do at any given time.
When Mike died, Eric took it hard, even if he didn’t show it.
“He covered it up,” Joanne said. “He tried to move on. He didn’t really talk about it that much. I don’t think it was ever really resolved.”
Eric Dunham’s final weeks
Thinking about Eric’s last days alive still brings tears, even 10 months later. It’s still raw. His closest friends are working through their grief by talking about it and moving past trying to figure out the why – because he left few clues.
In the months leading up to his death, Eric began to give away some of his possessions, including art supplies, original paintings and even favorite jackets.
Two months before he died, Eric and Andrae went on a trip through Hells Canyon together, an event that featured Eric’s wines and Andrae’s cuisine.
“It was 25 people having a really good time,” Andrae said. “He and I spent a lot of time together. We had just a great time. There was zero indication of anything wrong.”
A month before Eric’s death, his mother died. Eric had almost no contact with her for 20 years, so even when his sister called and suggested he come see his mother in the Seattle area, he quietly declined.
In his final two weeks, Eric was supposed to be doing sales calls, but instead he disappeared. He wasn’t responding to texts or emails, but the winery staff finally tracked him through credit card purchases.
On his last trip through Walla Walla in mid-October, he stopped at Andrae’s Kitchen, which is inside a gas station convenience store.
“The day he left Walla Walla, he stopped in here, which he did regularly,” Andrae said. “He said, ‘Hey, bro. I just want to tell you that I love you.’ I said, ‘Cool, I love you, too, man.’ It was no big deal.”
Andrae asked Eric if he was hungry or wanted to go grab a beer. Eric nonchalantly declined, said goodbye and left.
“I think about that all the time,” Andrae said. “That last little snippet. There wasn’t anything weird about it. It didn’t send off any alarms off in my head or anything like that.”
He didn’t stop by the winery to talk to Joanne or at his house to see his wife and son. Instead, he began to drive to the Oregon coast.
Karen LaBonté was in Cannon Beach with her longtime partner, Darwin Turner. They hadn’t told anyone, but they were planning to purchase property in the coastal community and move there because she suffers from Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear imbalance that is exacerbated by the climate in Walla Walla.
On Oct. 22, the couple were walking to a restaurant in Cannon Beach and ran into Eric. They spent 15 minutes standing on the sidewalk talking about harvest and otherwise chit-chatting. They invited him to join them for dinner, but he’d already eaten. Instead, they had a glass of wine together.
“We sat there and had a glass of wine, and I never picked up on anything,” she said. “I’d known Eric for 15 years. It was nothing different. Nothing.”
The next day, family and friends back at Dunham Cellars became increasingly concerned about his well-being and asked Cannon Beach police to check on him. As officers knocked on his hotel room door, Eric took his life.
Dealing with Eric Dunham’s death
Joanne was in Seattle that day, buying groceries for a Dunham Cellars wine club party that evening at the old Rainier Brewery building. She’d lost her husband the year before, and now she’d lost her step-son. She and the employees she was with were devastated. But they had 200 people showing up, and the three decided they had to go through with the event.
Some of the guests already had heard the terrible news and did their best to lift up Joanne in her time of crisis.
Trey was in the Denver airport when Justin sent him a message with the news.
“I just collapsed,” he said, his voice growing quiet.
Back at the winery, grapes were arriving and needed to be crushed. That turned out to be a blessing for the winemaking crew, as the mundane task of processing fruit helped them deal with the shock of losing their friend and leader.
As Karen was leaving Cannon Beach to drive back to Walla Walla, she began to hear rumors of Eric’s death but didn’t believe them.
“I immediately thought it was B.S.,” she said. “When I realized it was the truth, I pulled the car over on the highway and had to absorb it because it was so shocking.”
Because of Facebook and Twitter, news of Eric’s death spread quickly, and thousands of friends, fans and wine lovers collectively mourned. Hundreds of Dunham Cellars bottles came out of cellars during the next 72 hours, and glasses were raised in Eric’s honor around the globe.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, shock turned to grief. Many wondered how someone who was so outwardly happy could get to a place so dark.
“The hardest part was going out on the road after Eric passed away,” John Blair said. “We still had events to attend, and people were coming up and expressing condolences, people wanting to know what happened – why. You have to relive it over and over and over and over and over. That was tough.”
Joanne thinks regularly about Eric and what perhaps she could have done differently.
“At first, I was really angry with him,” she said, holding back tears. “I’m not angry at Eric anymore. I feel disappointment. I feel sorry. He had so much.”
Andrae said being angry is a normal reaction. He wonders if he missed something, if he could have done something to help his dear friend.
“We all wish there was something we could have done,” he said. “But obviously, there was nothing that we could have done. When you look back at all the things that were going on and you put them all together, you can kind of maybe piece something together. He was well loved. I wish he would have reached out, but sometimes when you’re in that spot, you can’t.”
Karen continues to be haunted by that last evening of Eric’s life.
“I didn’t tell anyone for a long time because I didn’t want anyone to ask if I’d missed something and could have done something,” she said, tearing up. “There was nothing.”
She has an idea of what Eric was thinking. Having survived three battles with cancer and her husband abandoning her and their newborn son, she too has hidden in dark places.
“I feel a lot differently about suicide than the average person,” she said. “I’ve been down to where I’ve contemplated it. I don’t look at suicide as a selfish act. I look at it as a personal thing.”
In his office, Andrae has a piece of Chihuly glass with some of Eric’s ashes in it.
“It sits on my desk with a photo of him and I kayaking in Hells Canyon,” he said fondly. “I see him every day.”