News and Reviews - Winter Wine Touring
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ARCHIVE FROM 2003

Featured winemakers in this article

Bryce Bagnall    Marty Clubb    Eric Dunham   Mike Januik
Lynn Penner-Ash    Jay Somers    Joe Wright

Going Solo.... page two
(Continued from first page)

      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.”

      Wright’s winemaking 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.” 

      Wright became the "cellar rat" at Willamette Valley, where he learned the ins and outs of winemaking from the ground up.  After 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. 

    “My first 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!"

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      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 Eric 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.

        Clubb calls 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 stayed here.”

       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 over.”

         Dunham’s departure from L’Ecole was probably preordained. 

      “I’ve wanted to be a winemaker ever since I was a little kid,” Dunham recalls.  To 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 and technique. 

       Dunham's next 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 take it!”

        Today, Dunham Cellars bottles about 22,000 cases a year at its facility at the Walla Walla Airport.

        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 considers.  "If 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 a year.

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Previously published feature articles:
"Wine Country Digest"
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Copyright © 2003 - January, 2014 Susan R. O'Hara.   All rights reserved.
Last revised:  01/07/2014