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At Belle Vallee
Cellars in Corvallis, Joe Wright bottles more than 6,000
cases of Pinot Noir using skills learned through an intense
indoctrination at Willamette Valley Vineyards. Under the
tutelage of winemaker Joe Dobbs, Wright says, he “got 14
years of experience in seven years.”
career has followed a circuitous route. A native of Los
Angeles, he spent three years in Aspen, Colorado managing an
upscale wine store before moving to Oregon. Still
fascinated with selling wines, he almost accepted an offer
to work for a distributor, but decided instead that “it
would be smarter to get my hands dirty a little.”
became the "cellar rat" at Willamette Valley, where he learned
the ins and outs of winemaking from the ground up.
seven years of total immersion working with Dobbs, Wright
progressed to cellar master before deciding to set off
on his own. “I’ve come full circle,” he says. “Now I have to
sell my own wine.”
Today, Wright presides over
the only winemaking facility in the city of Corvallis,
14,000 square feet, half of which is devoted to
production, and the rest filled by a tasting room and case
storage area. His 2002-vintage wines include more than 6,000 cases of
various styles of Pinot Noir, along with Cabernet and Merlot
crushed from Rogue Valley grapes.
Wright agrees the
mentoring process is a great way to train.
harvest at Willamette Valley we crushed 200 tons of fruit
for 30 different kinds of wine! We were hustling year round,
eight days a week, making wine, but you had to do it to get
the job done, and to gain an understanding
of what you’re doing and why. I learned a ton!"
Mentoring can be as
rewarding to the established winemaker as it is to the fresh
young talent. Marty Clubb of
L’Ecole No. 41 in Walla Walla
region helped launch
more than one newcomer, including
Dunham four years before Dunham Cellars
became a reality.
“Historically I hire
people who are fairly open and train them,” he says. “You
develop a kind of style and philosophy," which Clubb wants
reflected in His L'Ecole No41 wines. "When you bring in
somebody who does it other ways, you have the potential for
conflict, of battling over style.”
It was in 1995 that Clubb hired Dunham, after a brief internship at Hogue Cellars.
Dunham was allowed to use the L'Ecole facilities for his own winemaking as
well, after hours. The first Dunham Cellars vintages
were crushed at L’Ecole, until 1999, when the fledgling winery moved to its current home.
those early years working with Dunham a win-win situation.
“It was a good
transition for both of us," he recalls. "I could keep Eric on while I
trained someone new. If he was still just doing a few
hundred cases, he could have
Clubb has lost other
assistant winemakers he trained, but seems genuinely pleased
to be making what is clearly a contribution to the industry as a whole.
His winemaking roots, after all, date back to the
mid-‘80s when the first vintages of L'Ecole
were crushed at
Waterbrook Cellars. The downside of mentoring, Clubb
explains, is turnover.
Clubb no longer actively
seeks young talent for the purpose of training them.
“When Eric started with us it was just him and me,
and we were doing seven thousand cases. Now we’re up to 26
thousand cases and have more than 10 employees. It’s
difficult to run a business when you’re constantly turning
from L’Ecole was probably preordained.
“I’ve wanted to be a
winemaker ever since I was a little kid,” Dunham recalls.
reach this goal, Dunham first earned an AA degree in irrigation technology
in order to earn an income. Next, he spent seven months at Hogue
Cellars as an intern. "I
forced my way into the lab,” he
laughs. There he learned as much as he could about chemistry
giant step toward his winemaking dream came on his
way to enrolling at Washington State
University for a degree in viticulture. Marty Clubb offered him a
job as assistant winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41... “and I had to
about 22,000 cases a year at its facility at the Walla Walla
The opportunity to mentor and be mentored
is something that sets the winemaking industry apart from
many others. In
fact, according to winemaker Januik perhaps the best way to learn the
business -- from crushing and bottling, to marketing and
distributing -- is to work for someone else.
“My advice?" Januik
you really want to learn this trade, quit
what you’re doing, and go work with somebody making wines for
a few years. I can’t emphasize that strongly enough.
People should find a mentor, and work with them seriously.
It’s one of the things that sets our industry apart.”
So who is Januik
mentoring? Well, there are his two sons, and dreams of a million cases