MATTAWA, Wash. – Canadian-born Kendall Mix has been one of Washington’s most talented winemakers since he arrived in 1993. Now, he ranks among the state’s most important figures by taking over the winemaking at Jerry Milbrandt’s Wahluke Wine Co. and Butch Milbrandt’s Milbrandt Vineyards.
“Jerry and I have been courting Kendall off and on for 10 years, but the timing has never worked out,” Butch Milbrandt told Great Northwest Wine. “This time, it worked out perfectly.”
For the past three years, Mix, 52, has been working for the Middleton family at Cadaretta, an award-winning producer in the Walla Walla Valley. His work for each of the Milbrandt brothers means he will be in charge of more than 1 million cases for Wahluke Wine Co.’s clients, and head winemaker for Milbrandt Vineyards.
“I’m going to be jumping up in volume,” Mix chuckled. “But I like what they are doing and probably the biggest thing for me is being able to do winemaking every day. At a smaller-production winery, you are really only working with the wine on an average of one week a month, and I missed that part.”
Haines leaves Wahluke Slope for Sierra Foothills
Mix replaces Emily Haines, who left to work for Trinchero Family Estates as winemaker at the company’s Terra d’Oro Winery in the California Sierra Foothills town of Plymouth. The Amador County brand’s roots reach back to 1973, and she will work with estate vineyards that span 400 acres and Italian varieties such as Barbera, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris and Muscat.
“I’m happy for her, but I wasn’t happy about her leaving,” Milbrandt said. “We had a couple of going-away parties for her, a lunch and a cocktail party, so we sent her off in style. I’ve been to Plymouth a couple of times over the years, and I’m looking forward to visiting her and see what’s going on down there.”
Jeremy Santo remains the head winemaker at Ryan Patrick, the 25,000-case brand sold in 2011 to the Milbrandts. Santo continues to make those wines at Wahluke Wine Co., and they are poured at the Ryan Patrick tasting room in Leavenworth. One of Mix’s most important clients will be Milbrandt Vineyards, a 40,000-case brand with its tasting room in Prosser.
“I’ve not made wine on this scale for a few years, but it’s going to be like riding a bike,” Mix said.
This year, the Milbrandt brothers celebrate the 20th anniversary of the initial vineyard plantings on the Wahluke Slope, which continues to serve as the foundation for one of the state’s largest custom-crush wineries.
Mix looks forward to more responsibility
Mix already has worked for two of the Washington’s largest producers – Chateau Ste. Michelle and Goose Ridge Vineyards – but his career in the wine industry didn’t begin until after he graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in microbiology. He went onto study viticulture and enology at University of California-Davis. In 1993, after several years at Robert Mondavi and R.H. Phillips, Mix landed a job with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s red winemaking team. His mentors at the Canoe Ridge Estate facility in the Horse Heaven Hills included Ron Bunnell, Charlie Hoppes and Mike Januik.
In 2004, he began a six-year career at Washington Vintners in Walla Walla where he helped launch Corliss Estates and Tranche Cellars. In 2010, he took over at Goose Ridge Vineyards for his friend Hoppes.
“I’ve talked to the Milbrandts over the years a few different times and for one reason or another the timing wasn’t right,” Mix said.
Wahluke Wine Co., counts more than 20 clients, and many of them involve some of Washington’s most famous producers. A number of those bring in grapes from vineyards beyond the Wahluke Slope, which also interests Mix.
“This also will reconnect me with a lot of people that I’ve known over my career, like the guys at Dusted Valley, Trey Busch and Mark McNeilly,” Mix said. “The Milbrandts cast a pretty wide net in terms of winemaking clients, and that’s been a really interesting aspect to this.”
Mix also gets the green light to continue his own small-lot Lawrelin Wine Cellars brand.
“That’s really important to me,” he said.
Mix joins Nelson at Wahluke Wine Co.
Flint Nelson will stay on at Wahluke Wine Co., as assistant winemaker, which came as welcomed news to Mix. While they haven’t worked with each other before, they’ve been part of the Washington Wine Technical Group and have sat in on tastings together.
“We know each other pretty well, and Flint’s a great guy. He’s part of the reason why I’m not too stressed out about this,” Mix said. “He’s a wealth of knowledge and experience, and between the two of us, we’ve seen just about any situation that you can see in winemaking. I think we’re going to make a really good team.”
Mix isn’t quite finished at Cadaretta. This week, he’ll be back in Walla Walla to oversee the bottling for the Middletons.
“I’m really pleased the Milbrandts allowed me to do that,” Mix said. “I don’t think I’m burning any bridges with the Middletons.”
Mix, one of the most well-liked winemakers in the Washington wine industry, looks forward to helping spread the news of the quality that comes off the Wahluke Slope.
“It’s a great region that has a lot to offer,” he said. “I don’t know if the consumer understands it all that well, but it’s been such a core part of some of the best wines to come out of Washington.”
And the Wahluke Slope ranks among the most bountiful, evidenced by the amount of juice that Jerry Milbrandt will pull off his 2,700 acres of vineyards throughout the Wahluke Slope and Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley.
“They’ve already estimated the crop to be about 12,000 tons,” Mix said, which means he’ll be overseeing well more than a million cases of wine. “It’s going to be fun. I’ve not made wine on this scale for a few years, but it’s going to be like riding a bike.”
July for the Northwest wine industry serves as a period of transition as winemakers chase opportunities between the end of bottling and the start of harvest. Soon after the Fourth of July holiday, Rocky Pond Winery in Orondo welcomed Shane Collins as winemaker, and Tsillan Cellars replaced him with industry veteran Ray Sandidge.
While his work in Mattawa doesn’t offer the panache of making wine in Walla Walla, Mix, a resident of the Tri-Cities, already is becoming more familiar with his commute north along the Columbia River to the Wahluke Slope.
“You know, it’s slightly shorter to Mattawa,” Mix said.