WALLA WALLA, Wash. — There’s no question Dennis Murphy, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most successful home builders, has engineered a business model on a foundation of hospitality that’s delicious, disruptive and successful at Caprio Cellars.
The proof can be found in a simple web search for Caprio Cellars. There are more than 1,600 Google reviews, and the overall rating is a perfect 5.0. It’s an astounding testament, particularly considering the expectations customers have for tasting rooms and restaurants.
“Marketing is great and all, but one of the things that we’re most proud of are those Google reviews,” says Murphy, owner/ winemaker of Caprio Cellars and CEO of Hayden Homes.
It might seem an unbelievable rating for those who haven’t yet been greeted by customer experience director Emily Kiefer’s team and dined on the cuisine that executive chef Kyle Daniel and sous chef Angel Cruz pair with the wines Murphy grows and produces.
And during the 2023 harvest, Murphy made headlines and expanded his footprint in the Walla Walla Valley by purchasing the Figgins family’s shares in historic Seven Hills Vineyard and acquiring more ownership of the acclaimed SeVein project.
Uniquely complimentary experience
Simply put, no one in the Pacific Northwest does it like Caprio Cellars.
- There is no tasting fee.
- There is no charge for the not-so-small plates prepared within Murphy’s state-of-art food truck.
It bears repeating — the complementary wine-and-food experience is complimentary. Heaven help the next winery on someone’s tour after they spend a couple of relaxing hours at Caprio.
“It is totally innovative and disruptive to the industry,” Murphy admits. “And those who say we must be losing money with this approach would be wrong. Caprio is successful, and Emily can attest that we are making money.
“The key is we have to sell direct to the consumer,” he adds. “And if you can keep that DTC figure around 95%, you are in the Holy Grail of wine selling.”
According to Murphy, Caprio’s DTC stands at 97%, so those who visit are tasting, enjoying, buying, joining the wine club and fueling the growth of Caprio Cellars. In the past two years, Murphy has increased production by about 50%, closing in on 3,000 cases.
“The easy thing for us to do would have been to open the hospitality center and charge a tasting fee, but we were going to take a different approach,” Murphy says. “We’re not going to charge a tasting fee. We’re going to give an incredible experience, and we’re going to cross our fingers that we sell more wine because of that.”
Caprio Cellars, Murphy celebrate 15th vintage
Caprio Cellars began producing wine in the 2008 vintage, but Murphy didn’t create a stage for his bottles until 2019. In many ways, the timing couldn’t have been more challenging, with the pandemic just around the corner.
“It was a total roll of the dice, and everyone thought I was crazy for two reasons — no tasting fee and appointment only,” Murphy says. “And then COVID hit and everyone thought I was a genius because then everything was by-appointment. For a while, you were only allowed 20% occupancy, which worked for us because the building can hold 200, so that’s 40 people max. But our business model is that we only take 20 people at a time, so that was luck.
“So much has played into our favor,” Murphy continues. “And when we were shut down, we did the Friday night to-go dinners. We’d serve 50 to 100 dinners every Friday, and they were super popular. Those were the days when you weren’t going anywhere, so when people pulled up they acted as if they hadn’t seen a human in years.”
Those seeking a pretentious experience won’t find it at Caprio Cellars because that’s not Murphy. On this day, he wore a plain, logo-free white golf shirt and a pair of dark khakis. He talked about how he strives to keep things straightforward, honest, wholesome and hospitable.
“I’m a simple guy,” Murphy says with a chuckle.
His security gate at Caprio requires a phone call to the tasting room in order to proceed, but at the end of the driveway is a level of hospitality unmatched in the Northwest — starting with a flute of bubbles and a smile from Kiefer or a member of her team before you get to the door.
“I looked at the industry and spent a lot of time in friends’ tasting rooms watching what people do,” Murphy says. “People come to have a good time and be with their group — hence our tall tables with plenty of space and the fire pits outdoors. And people want food.”
Chico State benefits from Murphy’s success
Caprio Cellars became a tribute to Murphy’s family. And it was made possible by growing up near Sacramento with an interest in civil engineering and graduating from Chico State.
“I’d go see my grandmother, Eleanor Caprio, and she would give you a big hug and plate of lasagna and tell you how beautiful and brilliant you are. Why wouldn’t you want to go there?” Murphy says. “I always smile when I tell that story, but what a gift you can give somebody — just words of compliment and a plate of lasagna.”
As a 17-year-old, he struck up a seemingly unlikely friendship with a high school classmate, Hayden Watson.
“I had long hair, a mustache, played bass in a heavy metal band and was on the football team,” Murphy says with a smile. “Hayden was class president, would wear two IZOD shirts — with both of the collars up — and shoes with pennies in them. We couldn’t have been further apart.”
One day, Murphy was finishing up a drafting project — a prototype for a subdivision he dreamed he would build someday. Watson spotted it and lined up a meeting with his father — a real estate developer.
The path of Murphy’s life changed forever. The summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Chico State, the two high school chums went north and built two houses within the Watson family’s new subdivision in Redmond, Ore.
“We made $10,000 each and looked at each other and said, ‘We could probably do this.’ And that was 24,000 houses ago,” Murphy says.
Hayden Homes develops communities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, which means regular trips to each region for Murphy.
“We like to build houses for the people who run our country, and we’re proud of that,” he says. “Our average price has been between $250,000 and $300,000, but lately is getting close to $400,000. We don’t like that, so we are aggressively trying to get lower pricing. Everyone deserves to grow up in a house.”
Bottle of L’Ecole Merlot proves pivotal
Early on in Central Oregon, Murphy joined a well-heeled wine tasting group that regularly opened bottles from the world’s famous producers. The Walla Walla Valley was not yet on their radar.
“I went to Seattle to visit a buddy, saw L’Ecole on the wine list and I asked the somm, ‘Is this stuff any good?’ And he said, ‘This stuff will blow your mind.’ He brought out a mid ’90s Merlot, and I said, ‘No way! I’ve been driving by that place for years and have never stopped!”
As a result, he moved to Walla Walla in 1999. Not long after, his lumber supplier introduced him to Norm McKibben, owner of Pepper Bridge Winery and arguably the most influential figure in the region’s young industry.
“It turns out that Norm and I are both civil engineers and we knew some of the same people, so we had a lot to talk about and got along famously,” Murphy says. “It was fun to meet someone who had evolved from engineering to winemaking and winery ownership and vineyard management. And he just hired this young winemaker from Heitz Cellar in Napa.”
In addition to seeking winemaking advice early on from Jean-François Pellet, “We’re like brothers,” Murphy says. “We’ve been hanging out for 20 years fishing and going on duck-hunting trips.”
Murphy worked on his first Caprio wines at Pellet’s Artifex custom- crush facility. Then, Murphy began making them at nearby Pepper Bridge when McKibben asked him to join the ownership team in 2022. Once the wines are in barrel, they are moved to Caprio’s spacious cellar.
“Norm and I have been partners in Octave Vineyard since 2006,” Murphy says. “It’s an honor to be a partner, and they are doing me a favor by expanding my horizons. Norm is in his mid 80s, and he doesn’t look it. He’s one of a kind, and he comes here for lunch a lot.”
Estate vineyards at core of Caprio Cellars
Aside from the sparkling wine, the Caprio wines are grown on vineyards Murphy either planted with viticulturist Chris Banek or invested in. There’s Eleanor near his winery.
His Sanitella planting is in the famed SeVein project near Octave and above McKibben’s historic Seven Hills Vineyard.
“I own 300 acres in the valley, and I plan to plant more, but I won’t do that until I’m ready,” Murphy says. “The 30 acres I do have in vines will get me into the full production of the 5,000-case range.”
His ability to innovate and decades of working with local governments also set the table for Caprio’s culinary program.
The county prefers to keep as much land as possible in agriculture, and restaurants want to encourage people to drive back into town for their dining. It was the latter that didn’t line up with Murphy’s upbringing.
“Under the current zoning because of the size of our parcel, I am not allowed to build a brick-and-mortar kitchen, but I can have food trucks here. So I went to Emily’s husband, who is the best restaurateur I know, and asked him, ‘Design for me the greatest kitchen you’ve ever seen that is 8 feet wide, 22 feet long and can be mobile.’ ”
Murphy admits it’s difficult for him to sit still, which helps explain his range of involvement in nonprofit efforts. He ranks among the most impactful donors to Chico State, where he’s served on the board of governors. There’s also MindUp for Life, an education-based program for school children founded and overseen by a friend — Oscar-winning actress Goldie Hawn. Her famous partner, Kurt Russell, played for Walla Walla during the 1972 Northwest League season, batting .325 as a second baseman. A rotator cuff injury he suffered the next season pushed him into acting for good.
First Story grows beyond 109 families
The advocacy program that Murphy might take the most pride in is First Story by Hayden Homes, which provides a path to homeownership for deserving families.
“First Story began in 2000, and what we do is provide a no-interest loan for between five and 10 families a year,” Murphy says.
“You pay the principal for 30 years, and the house is yours. Many times the families who get these houses are the first in their sphere to own a house, and these houses become the epicenter for holidays and birthdays.
“The number of First Story homes is now at 109,” he adds. “I remember the time a 12-year-old boy came up to me and asked if he can paint his room because he’s never been able to. Moments like that are pretty special.”
Murphy, 53, isn’t quite ready to step away from Hayden Homes, but he does look forward to when he can channel more of his energy into Caprio Cellars and spend more time fly-fishing with his teenage son. The practical side of Murphy prompted him to outline a succession plan for his myriad businesses and a growth strategy for Caprio, thanks in large part to the culture he’s created for Kiefer, her team and the kitchen.
Match Make highlights Bordeaux varieties
In honor of the uniqueness surrounding Caprio Cellars, this Match Maker assignment focuses on a young estate expression of white Bordeaux varieties — the 2022 Estate White Wine — and a 2012 estate Cab from the Caprio library. The vibrant blend of Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon shines brightly among the kaleidoscope of locally grown flavors in the Caprio Gazpacho that features heirloom tomatoes, yellow peaches, cucumber and iconic Walla Walla sweet onions.
And to complement the graceful 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, his culinary team delivered one of the family-inspired Italian-themed small plates Caprio Cellars is best known for — Prawn & Sausage with house-made orecchiette pasta, house-made tomato ragu and grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
“It’s always fun to watch them make the pasta,” Kiefer says. “And we top it with fresh basil and olive oil we get from D’Olivo right here in Walla Walla. We love the oils and vinegars they carry.”
At the core of the culinary program are farm-fresh ingredients from the Walla Walla Valley. Daniel and Cruz work with Birch Creek Farms, Castoldi’s, organic tree fruit from Frog Hollow Farm, Moonlight Melons, horse-powered Hayshaker Farm and A.R. Teal’s Produce in College Place and D’Olivo on Main Street in Walla Walla.
And at the bottom of the menu card for those food and wine pairings is a segment titled “Every Sip Changes Lives.” It points out that with each bottle sold, a portion of proceeds are directed to Big Brothers, Big Sisters as well as First Story. Those ideas align within a couple of the concepts Murphy has long lived by. “Give as you go” is one of them.
“And my grandmother Eleanor wouldn’t understand why I would invite someone for a glass of wine and not offer them food,” Murphy says.
- Caprio Cellars, 1603 Whiteley Road, Walla Walla, WA 99362, CaprioCellars.com, (509) 412-3054.