Rich Funk and his wife Anita started Saviah Cellars in 2000 and two years later, opened the first tasting room on the Southside of Walla Walla. Starting out small at just 300 cases of wine a year, Saviah now produces 25,000 cases each year. A self-taught winemaker, Rich’s background in chemistry and microbiology has served him well. Rich arrived in Walla Walla fresh out of college at Montana State University in 1991 for a job as an Environmental Health Specialist with the Walla Walla County Health Department. In a fortuitous twist, he quickly became acquainted with Walla Walla’s wine pioneers as he helped them work through their issues with water quality and wastewater management.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: You and your wife moved to Walla Walla from Montana straight out of college. How did you happen to pick Walla Walla?
RICH FUNK: In 1990 I applied for three positions as an Environmental Health Specialist in Eastern Washington. I interviewed in Colville, Wenatchee and Walla Walla and was offered the job in all three locations. However, I really hit it off with the team in Walla Walla and we thought Anita would be able to find a good job in Walla Walla as well. So we relocated and I started my new job on January 1st, 1991. Soon after we arrived Anita was hired at Key Technology.
WINE LIMO: What was your plan at the time?
FUNK: We thought we would pay off some bills, stash away some money and eventually move back to Bozeman and start a microbrewery. That was our dream at the time.
But three months after being in Walla Walla, I was diagnosed with cancer. So at that point, we put our entrepreneurial dreams on hold and focused on getting well.
As time passed, we fell in love with Walla Walla, started a family, built a home and began to study the idea of launching a winery. We approached the winery idea with a ten year plan. We did not take a dime out of the business or hire a full-time employee for the first six years. We worked every aspect of the business on evenings, weekends, holidays and vacations. We were living the dream, as they say.
WINE LIMO: You’re well-suited to the wine business.
FUNK: That’s true. I’ve embraced nearly all the aspects of owning a winery. I get satisfaction from the challenge, truly enjoy the problem solving, love the creative aspects, as well as the freedom to build something from nothing. But mostly, I love working with our team of dedicated employees to share the fruit of our labor.
WINE LIMO: Your wife Anita has been a big part of Saviah too.
FUNK: Definitely. I couldn’t have done it without her, not at all. We are a team, and she contributes a tremendous amount to the business, even though it isn’t her full time job. She has worked at Key for 28 years and is currently the Manager of Global Marketing. She has a skillset that is very valuable to the winery. We have built this business together every step of the way.
WINE LIMO: So it’s been a bit easier since those first five years?
FUNK: Well actually the first ten years were really hard. Going into our 20th harvest, we look back with tremendous satisfaction. The journey has been tough, though incredibly rewarding.
WINE LIMO: So in those early days, you got the job working for the health department, you started meeting those guys in the wine industry, the early winemakers in Walla Walla (Rick Small from Woodward Canyon, Marty Clubb from L’Ecole No 41 and Gary Figgins from Leonetti. Had you been interested in drinking wine before you moved to Walla Walla?
RF: We discovered wine once we got here. I was a brewer. I was a microbiology major and I was really into beer, but when we moved to Walla Walla we discovered that we liked wine. And so then of course, I just had this laser-like focus, this shift and I dropped the whole beermaking idea and focused on wine. We started drinking and enjoying wine. A doctor friend was on the Leonetti list and he loved to invite us over and share his wines with us. I bowhunted with him and he would bring nice wines up to camp and if we killed an elk, he’d break out a special wine to go with the fresh elk loin and I just started getting very interested in making wine.
WINE LIMO: 2000 was the first vintage at Saviah, correct?
FUNK: Yes, that’s right. About that same time Myles (Anderson) was getting together the enology & viticulture program at the college and they were having all these great classes and all these cool people from around the world came to give presentations. I became friends with Myles and Gordy (co-founders of Walla Walla Vintners). I told Myles that I was starting to make wine under my bond that fall, but that I would like to work harvest with someone who was really solid technically.
So I was in Montana bowhunting the first week of September and I called home from a pay phone to talk to my wife and she said, “You need to call Myles right now, he’s got an internship for you.” So I called Myles and he said “How would you like to work for a world-class winemaker this fall? “ And I said, “I would love that, who is it?” He said, “It’s Mike Januik. He’s been the head winemaker for Chateau St Michelle for the last ten years and he’s starting his own project and he’s making his wines at Three Rivers and I think he would be a fantastic guy for you to hang out with.” So, I went back to camp, threw everything in my truck, and drove home that day.
When I met Mike and Charlie (Hoppes) I said “I will bust my ass for you and you don’t have to pay me a dime. Just answer my bonehead questions and let me figure out how you really do this stuff.” Because you can read every book in the world but the hands-on experience is where it’s at in the wine business.
WL- So that alleviated the need for a formal wine education in winemaking?
RF: I had the microbiological knowledge, I understood the science side. The practical application of that science came easy to me. There was no guesswork there. I wanted to see the process through their eyes. Coming away from this experience the big questions for me were, “How do I sell this? and “How do I establish connections on the fruit side?” Because that’s really what drives the bus. Both boiled down to relationships and both required patience and time. I soon learned patience, persistence and perseverance were the secrets to the wine business.
I approached Ron and Leonard Brown, who farmed apples in the valley, and asked if they would consider planting some grapes for me. At the time they weren’t really interested in planting grapes. They were great people and loved wine, so I kept inviting them down to the cellar to taste my wine. One day I got a call out of the blue from Ron. He says “We just tore out ten acres of red delicious apples and it’s right next to the very first block of Cabernet (one of Leonetti’s most coveted block of Cabernet at the old Seven Hills vineyard). It’s 30 feet away. What do you want to plant?” I said “Cabernet!!!” It was a ten-acre block, so they put in six acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, and an acre each of Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. There was no Petit Verdot, Cab Franc or Malbec available at that time in the valley.
Working with the Brown’s planting vineyards has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this entire adventure.
WINE LIMO: You make a lot of different varietals, a lot of wine, is there a particular wine you are most proud of?
RF: If I had to only pick one varietal it would be Syrah. The reason is the range of styles. Syrah is the one grape that challenged me the most when I was starting to learn about wine. Stylistically, they were all over the board. Rhone, Aussie Shiraz, Washington, California all different down to parcels from which they were grown. My first epiphany with terroir was Syrah from The Rocks here in the Walla Walla valley. Syrah is one of those varietals that expresses sense of place better than most other varietals. But it wasn’t easy to sell in the early years. We now grow and sell quite a bit of Syrah, as Saviah has become known for being a consistently good producer of Syrah.
WINE LIMO: What do you and your wife drink on a typical night at home?
RF: I love wines from the Rhone valley and always have them in my cellar. Recently we have been drinking a lot of Rhone-style wine out of California’s Central Coast. I am really inspired by Rhone varietals at this stage in my life and that’s where I see the future for Saviah. I am keenly dedicated to showcasing unique terroir-driven Syrah from our Funk Estate vineyard and The Stones Speak vineyard in The Rocks District.
WINE LIMO: Speaking hypothetically, you have 24 hours to live. What bottle in your wine cellar do you have to open?
FUNK: Just one bottle? That is a tough one… I’d open a bunch of bottles. Ha! (laughs) Twenty-four hours? I could polish off a few at least. I’d open a lot of bottles, pulling corks and having a splash! But as far as specific bottles, I’d probably go back to our first ten vintages because those are wines I kept so few of because I had to sell everything. I have a very skimpy library of our first vintages. Ultimately though, I’d like to polish it off with a bottle from our estate vineyard in The Rocks. So, I would open a 2016 Funk Estate Syrah. Reflect back to the year 2000, when I first tasted a Syrah from The Rocks, back to when all of this was just a dream.
WINE LIMO: Here’s a question you might not have heard before. Walla Walla wine is thriving pretty well, there don’t seem to be a ton of problems. But the one issue I tend to see at many of the tasting rooms around town is significant turnover in the tasting room employees. You seem to have done a good job of avoiding that, as you have a number of people that have been with you a significant amount of time. What are your thoughts on what wineries can do to avoid having so much turnover?
FUNK: First and foremost, you can’t micro-manage. You have to let your employees become the master of their expertise. I provide guidance. I am very precise on how I want things to be done. I keep a tight ship, but I don’t nitpick. If I see something, I take care of it. How you make people feel is so critical. Ultimately, I think it is important to empower people and be grateful for the time they are willing to commit to working with us.
WINE LIMO: I love that! That’s a great approach.
FUNK: The golden rule is to treat people the way you’d want to be treated. I don’t want anyone looking over their shoulder and I trust everybody to use their best judgement, to communicate. The beauty of cell phones these days is that I don’t have to be at the winery all the time. That’s a beautiful thing. I am so thankful for that. I can be out in the vineyards, at our cabin, out on my bike, on the road selling wine, and I feel completely confident that business is getting done. I am fortunate.
WINE LIMO: So what’s the best part about being a winemaker?
FUNK: I enjoy the entrepreneurial aspect. One of my first memories is my mom buying me a little snow shovel because I wanted to shovel the neighbor’s walks. I was always that kid in the neighborhood, a poster child for child labor. I had a paper route. I would mow lawns. Help bring in the hay and irrigate. I helped a neighbor build a log house. I started working in the woods cutting down trees when I was fourteen and then I formed my first LLC in college, bidding jobs with the U.S. Forest Service to thin old logging units. I was always willing to work hard at anything and everything.
Being a winemaker is work. Fortunately, I have always enjoyed work. But more so, this has allowed me to enjoy the practical application of all the science I studied, as well as enjoy the artistic and creative aspect to this craft. My mind is never in neutral. I am always thinking of how we can get better at this. I love working with Anita on this endeavor. She’s a hard worker, and we work well together. That’s all you can ask for in life.
WINE LIMO: What’s the worst part about being a winemaker?
FUNK: Probably my least favorite thing about being a winemaker is going on the road to work the market when there is so much work to be done at the winery and in the vineyards. I am really happy to wake up in my own bed, have coffee with my wife and putter around doing what I do.
WHAT WE'RE DRINKING AT WW WINE LIMO HQ
WHAT WE’RE DRINKING AT WW WINE LIMO HQ THIS MONTH
Saviah Cellars 2014 The Stones Speak Syrah
Brook & Bull Cellars 2016 The Few and Far Between (Red Blend)
Locati Cellars. 2005 Sangiovese
Chateau Bellevue 2015 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru (France)
Dutcher Crossing. 2015 Proprietor's Reserve Syrah (Sonoma)
WHAT WE’RE DRINKING AT WW WINE LIMO HQ
Garrison Creek Cellars 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon
Dillon Cellars. 2014 Wrought Syrah
Devona 2016 Chardonnay
Ardor Cellars 2014 Red Blend (GSM)
Alta Vista 2015 Malbec (Terroir Selection)
Justin Basel, 33, has been in the wine industry in Walla Walla since the age of 12, when he began helping out with chores at his family’s vineyard and he eventually advanced to become Basel Cellars’ head winemaker in 2005 – at the ripe old age of 21! When his family sold the winery in 2009, he left to work at Corliss Estates for a year before becoming head winemaker at Foundry Vineyards, where he remained until starting his own winery, Solemn Cellars, early in 2017. Born and raised in Walla Walla, Justin has seen his hometown evolve from a small town with little to do to the hub of a well-respected wine region producing some of the best wines in the World. Justin sat down with us in December for an in-depth interview.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: You opened your own winery, Solemn Cellars, in August. How much planning went into it?
JUSTIN BASEL: I’ve been talking about it for the better part of ten years, mostly as an idea. I’ve always talked about starting a small-production winery, even back before my family sold Basel Cellars, but I’m glad I waited. All the planning and hard work has paid off. We opened August 12th. The wine club is at capacity. We only made 800 cases the first year and we’ll go up to about 2,000 cases in 2018. Most of the wine is not distributed, although about 30 cases goes out to restaurants in Seattle, restaurants that I’ve built relationships with over the years. We’ll expand that a little bit in ’18, with a few cases in Portland and Boise and then perhaps some to Spokane/Coeur d’Alene, but I don’t want to do tons of distribution. I’ve spent half my life on the road selling wine. I enjoy it, but at the same time, my son’s 2 ½. I want to be there for my family, sticking around locally.
We want to be a wine that you can’t get in every wine shop and you definitely can’t get at a grocery store When you buy wine at the grocery store, it’s just about the wine. I want my wine to be something special, a package deal. You come to the winery and taste the wine, it’s an experience. You taste the wine, you meet me and my wife [Bree], who works in the tasting room with me. You can ask us anything you want about the wine. We’re doing Somm events and wine dinners. With all the experience I have working at different places in the Valley, what I tried to do with my own winery was take the best of everything and put my own twist on it. We’re still in the honeymoon phase and it’s still super exciting.
WWWL: You’ve got a great winery/tasting room in the old Waters Winery spot. Tell us about it.
JB: The space was originally built in the mid-2000’s for Waters and it had been sitting vacant for a while. Being raised just up the hill it’s cool to come back to a spot that’s so close to my roots. We’re leasing the space, but I expect we’ll be here for a while. At some point I may want to build a winery on my property [next to Northstar], but if we do end up making that move, it’ll be only ¼ mile away! Anything on the Southside feels like home to me.
WWWL: It seems like things have been going smoothly since you opened last August.
JB: The first day was a little stressful. People didn’t know we were open yet and we weren’t on Google Maps yet. We only had four people that first Saturday and it was a little concerning, but by the next weekend the word spread and we were packed. Word of mouth is a great part of the wine business and I’m grateful that people like our wine enough to send people to us.
WWWL: Your wine is great, but to me the biggest reason I like to bring our tour groups in to Solemn is because they get to engage with you and learn about your wine and the winemaking process when they come to taste. It’s a better experience than they’re getting at most places in Walla Walla and I believe it really adds to the experience for our guests.
JB: I really enjoy being in the tasting room. It’s fun meeting people and hearing their stories. But again, you can go into a winery and taste some amazing wine, but have a terrible experience and never buy wine and never go back to that winery. I think it’s important to have both. You’ve gotta have good wine and you’ve gotta offer a good experience. I’ve been in wineries all over the place, whether it be here in Walla Walla, Napa or elsewhere and if the person in the tasting room is in a bad mood that ruins the experience. One of the tougher tasks running a winery is hiring the right people to work in your tasting room. You want knowledgeable people who are excited about the industry and you can train them. But personality is a big part of it and you can’t train someone on personality. It’s not easy to talk to group after group about the same wines and remain bubbly. You just have to find the right person to do it.
WWWL: Let’s talk about the first vintage of your Solemn wines. They’re all estate wines, right?
JB: Yes, they’re from Pheasant Run just up the road. That was originally the estate vineyard for Basel Cellars, but when we sold the winery the vineyard didn’t go with it. It’s a great location, right next to Pepper Bridge. You get that big fruit coming through and great balance too. We do fight the freezes there, but that’s part of farming. The ’17 vintage won’t have any Syrah or Merlot due to the freeze, so I had to source grapes from other places for ’17, some Rocks Syrah and a Cabernet from a neighbor.
The first vintage we did four different wines. I don’t do any blending, so everything stays single vineyard, single block. If it doesn’t make the cut, I sell it off. We did a Cabernet Rose, which is pretty rare. To be honest, in ’16 we had a bunch of extra Cab. I wanted to make a Rose and I wanted to do something different. Right after I pressed it, I threw some skins from Syrah on the Cab Rose ferment for about 24 hours and then pressed it again. So there’s no Syrah juice in it, just the skins. What that does is it changes the texture a little bit in the mid-palate and it also changes the color. It’s a really easy drinking wine and it’s a good wine for pairing with food. It was a fun, first release Rose for us.
Then we did a Block 1 Cabernet, which is actually from the top of our vineyard. The acid’s not going to be quite as high as our Block 3 Cab, so it’s softer and more balanced. The Block 3 Cab, which I call the Walla Walla Cab to make it a little less confusing, is more of a traditional, big grippy style Cab. They’re right next to each other, same soil, same oak, same yeast, picked a day apart. On paper the two wines should taste the same, but because of the microclimate they are completely different wines and I like to show that off. When I was working at larger wineries, we’d have to blend those Cabs together for distribution reasons, but now I don’t have to do that.
The fourth wine of my first vintage was the Estate Syrah. Pheasant Run has been known for its Syrah for a long time now, as its older vine Syrah. You get more of that fruit-forward style Syrah, still some of the Earth components, some of the dill. I try not to overdo it on the maceration. If it gets too big, it can be too much of a fruit bomb and then you can’t even really tell it’s a Syrah. You’ve got to find that fine line and not overdo it. I think we did a good job on the ’14 Syrah. It’s definitely one of my favorite Syrah’s that I’ve produced and one of the fastest selling – it sold out in less than four months! It’s also one of the most palate-friendly Syrah’s. Very elegant, soft and easy drinking and you can definitely tell it’s a Syrah. We put some American Oak on it to make it a bit sweeter, but not too much.
WWWL: What do you like to drink when you’re at home on a typical night?
JB: It varies. A lot of wine sure, but definitely beer and an occasional cocktail. One of my favorite table wines in the world is the Stateline Red from Mike Berghan [Gifford Hirlinger]. That’s been my go-to lately – what a great wine. I’m always discovering new local wines. Aluve is one of my new favorites. When I travel to Seattle I try to check out wines that aren’t from here. I’ve got a couple hundred bottles in my cellar and it’s a bit Walla Walla heavy, but there’s wines from all over the World.
WWWL: Hobbies? What do you like to do when you’re not making wine or in the tasting room?
JB: During the summer, I like to take the boat out to Lyons Ferry, right by Palouse Falls. In the winter I’ll go up to Tollgate and go skiing and snowmobiling. January is our slowest month, so we can hop up there in about 40 minutes. No cell phone service, which is nice sometimes. Just unplug a bit. We have a landline if we need it for emergencies. Those are the two things I like to do the most. I did have a great time on one of the rafting trips Andrae [Bopp] does – that was a lot of fun and I’m gonna do another one in 2018. I really like the outdoors; we’re in the Northwest, so we may as well utilize what we have.
WWWL: What’s the best thing about being a winemaker?
JB: Enjoying what I do for a living. I think that’s pretty rare. When I talk to most of my buddies about work, they usually complain about their jobs. I don’t ever feel that way, especially now that I own my own place – because if things go wrong the only one I can blame is myself. It’s a great feeling to have that full control. I truly, truly love what I do. I love the farming and the production aspects of the job, but I’d have to say I probably like the farming better because without the farming, the winemaking really doesn’t exist. Having control of my product from the vine to the bottle is amazing. 2017 was a challenging year with the freeze issues -- you definitely earn your money on the winemaking side in years like '17! One of the best days of the years is the day when you finish harvest, but the first day of harvest is also one of the best days of the year!
WWWL: What’s the worst part of being a winemaker?
JB: The selling part of it and the stress that comes with it. Opening the winery has been stressful, but fortunately we’ve gotten off to a good start. We didn’t go in with a ton of overhead, because I’ve seen wineries start up that way and it just adds to the stress. We decided to start small, lease a place, not build something right away. We custom crush at a facility in town, so I didn’t have to buy all that equipment for the first couple of years. That allows us a couple of years to bring in money, make a profit and then start to invest it. One of the most frustrating things was dealing with all the licensing that was required. We were anxious to open and it seemed like it took forever.
WWWL: Tell us about the Young Guns Wine Society.
JB: There were four winemakers when it started and we were all in our early 20’s, quite a bit younger than your average winemaker. When we started out it was Cam Kontos [Kontos Cellars], Greg Matiko [Skylite Cellars], Josh McDaniels [Sweet Valley Wines] and myself. Being that young it was tougher for us at the time to get wine dinners and tasting events set up. So we decided to band together and offer tasting with “the next generation of winemakers” all at one tasting. So instead of tasting wine from one winemaker, people that came to our events would get to taste wine from all four of our wineries and we called it “The Young Guns”. That really helped us get more events. We set it up with the intention of eventually handing it off to the next generation of young winemakers.
WWWL: But at 33, I think you’re still eligible for the Young Guns, no?
JB: I suppose. I feel older I guess because I’ve been in the wine industry for half my life. I think we’ve accomplished what we wanted to do with it, so it’s time to pass it on to others who can make use of it. We’ll always still do wine dinners together, we’ll always hang out.
WWWL: You’ve got 24 hours to live. What bottle from your cellar do you have to open?
JB: That’s a hell of a question! But hey, if I’ve only got 24 hours to live, I’m gonna open as many bottles as I can and go out in a drunken blaze of glory! I’ve been saving an ’88 Woodward Canyon for my son; I want to hand that down as an heirloom, so I couldn’t open that. I have some ’95 Leonetti Reserve -- that would definitely be up there. I still have some of the ’01 Merriment that Trey [Busch] made [at Basel Cellars] and the original ’03 Inspired blend; those are both among my favorites. I think I would just open as many bottles as I could drink till I passed out. If I have to die, I might as well go in my sleep! Maybe I’d even just start blending wines, make one giant dump bucket and siphon it off!
WWWL: Let’s talk history. You grew up in Walla Walla. What was that like for you?
JB: Walla Walla was a great place to grow up for me. It was a lot different than it is now. There wasn’t quite as much to do. Most people that were raised here couldn’t wait to get out…It’s nice to see that a lot of my friends that moved out of town want to move back now! Way back when we had the Blue Mountain Mall, where as kids we used to hang out at KB Toys and the food court. I think the biggest change for Walla Walla has been the renovation of downtown, as the small, family-owned stores started moving downtown. That really gave us the central hub of the town. Downtown was already beautiful, but the renovation really took it to the next level. I think the tourists that come to Walla Walla enjoy the beauty and the history of our town.
WWWL: What was your earliest exposure to wine?
JB: I was about twelve years old when I started working in the vineyard. We weren’t getting paid, but my dad let me and my friend Byron plant vines with the crew. We’d survey the land to get the lines straight, running a string through and setting up a trellis system. We weren’t working full-time at twelve years old, but we were definitely helping out for a couple hours every day. I actually hated it back then because we were doing it in the summer heat and it wasn’t the most fun job for a twelve-year old. All our friends would be hanging out at the pool and we’d have to work for a couple of hours and then wait for a ride into town. That was my first real exposure to the wine industry.
WWWL: When did you first start getting to taste the wine?
JB: Right around the same time I’d get my first sips of wine during the holidays or at dinner. Perhaps even earlier than that I remember going up to our cabin in Tollgate and my Dad would put a Budweiser in a pint glass and dump a little salt in it. That was confusing to me, but he would always say “You’ve got to do something to make Budweiser taste good!” It was just a sip here or there. That was the first alcohol I tasted. When it came to the wine, he would give me a bit more knowledge about it. It wasn’t just taking a sip – it was understanding the wine and that it was the finished product of all the hard work we put in.
WWWL: Were you parents wine connoisseurs before they started Basel Cellars?
JB: Not really (laughs). I’d say my mom drank a bit more wine than my dad, who was more of a whiskey/bourbon guy. Once we planted the vineyards, my dad would drink more wine because he was proud of the finished product. These days he’ll drink more wine, but it’s still kind of a new experience because he wasn’t raised on it. He comes from a farmhand family that traveled around to wherever they could get work.
WWWL: Interesting. I’m curious why he got into wine with such a major project after not being involved in the industry at all.
JB: He retired from construction and we moved back to Walla Walla and bought a bunch of land here. We had water rights and alfalfa growing, but my dad saw this new, exciting crop and wanted to be a part of it. All farming is hard, but he saw a challenge in growing wine grapes and decided to go for it.
WWWL: So Basel Cellars started up in the early 2000’s?
JB: We got bonded in 2000. Our first vintage was in 2001. We had a VR label and the Basel Cellars label. Trey Busch from Sleight of Hand was our first winemaker. I was in high school at the time and started helping out at the winery, racking, washing barrels, janitorial services, washing dishes. Anything they needed I would do to make a little extra money. Eventually I became the assistant winemaker and when Trey left to start Sleight of Hand in 2005 I took over as head winemaker. I was just finishing up the Viticulture and Enology program at the Community College under Stan Clarke at the time. Trey was an amazing mentor and we had some great times. I was head winemaker at Basel until 2009, when we sold the winery. I stayed on for a couple of months and then I left to work at Corliss for a year and then took over as head winemaker at Foundry Vineyards. I was at Foundry until January  when I left to launch Solemn Cellars.
WWWL: Tell me about the first wine you ever made.
JB: That would be the ’05 vintage at Basel Cellars. The Inspired and the Merriment. To this day, the Inspired is one of my favorite wines because it was inspired by the Right Bank Bordeaux wines. Two of my favorite varietals are Merlot and Cabernet Franc and I loved blending that wine. One of my favorites to work on. I always enjoyed blending the Claret, which was sort of our red table wine at Basel. Not the most expensive wine, but you actually put the most work into it. A lot of people think table wines are just made from putting a bunch of leftover wines together and throwing them in a bottle, but that’s not necessarily true. We had our set lots for our higher end wines, but we would meticulously go through and set the blends. And if something didn’t make it in there, we’d either sell it off or do custom bottling with it.
WWWL: When did you get seriously interested in drinking wine?
JB: High school actually. As bad as that sounds – hopefully none of my teachers [from high school] are reading this…we’d have our get-togethers and some people would bring beer or mixed drinks, but I’d show up with a brown bag with wine in it. I’d usually keep a brown bag around because otherwise I’d get a hard time, with people saying “Oh you’re too good to drink beer?” Getting into wine, that was when I started to really appreciate all the hard work that went into making the wine. The big thing at that stage was noticing the differences in all the varietals and how the wine was produced. There’s thousands of ways to make wine, but there’s no exact right way, so it was interesting to me to see different people’s visions and how they made their wines.
WWWL: Besides Trey [Busch], who else do you consider your mentors in the wine industry?
JB: Tom Glase [Balboa], was great to work for. Stan Clarke at the Community College was a big, big part of my wine education. Eric Dunham was always great too. One of the things I remember most about Eric is when I’d show up at wine events as a younger kid in my early 20’s, it was pretty intimidating. Eric and Trey were always very inclusive and supportive when we were out on the road. There’s a lot of people who have influenced the style of my wines and how I make them. Just the community as a whole, that concept of family. Even though you’re not related, you’re still part of the same industry, basically it’s us vs. the world.
WWWL: The community among the winemakers here really stands out to me. It’s not that it’s not competitive. Of course you want to get better scores than your winemaker buddies, but it’s just not cutthroat like it seems to be in some other wine regions.
JB: It’s important to be competitive, because if you lose your competitive nature I don’t think you’re going to better yourself. You can always improve and make better wine. I don’t think anyone out there has made a perfect wine yet! Those friendships and relationships are important because when something goes wrong you can call someone to ask for help. For example, this year was the first time I’d ever worked with Rocks Syrah. Our Estate Syrah froze out, so we’re using two different elevation Syrahs from the Rocks instead. I called a few people and everyone said, “Definitely don’t add acid”. When I got the grapes in hand, ran the numbers and tasted it, it seemed like it needed some acid. But once we went through fermentation it was fine. So without that assistance, I probably would have added acid. If I had, I doubt the wine would have been as good as it turned out to be. Getting together and having benchmark tastings is helpful, getting opinions on your wines from people you respect is really helpful. It definitely makes this a stand-up community, but we are competitive and we always should be.
WWWL: Walla Walla has really grown a lot since you were a kid growing up here. But it seems there’s still room for more growth. How big do you think the wine tourism can get here?
JB: We definitely have room for more growth. The thing that I’ve always been concerned with having been born and raised here is not getting too corporate. More stores is a good thing, but the more mom and pop type stores the better. Keeping that small-town feel is very important, but we’ll never be able to develop into another Napa. We don’t have San Francisco in our backyard; we’re in the middle of nowhere – we’re four hours from Seattle and Portland and you have to spend at least one night here. I’d like to see Walla Walla keep the same that small-town feel while at the same time continuing to grow with more world class restaurants and nice places to stay.
Diligent. Savvy. Shrewd. Insightful. Astute. Crafty. Dedicated. Discerning. Resolute. Ethical. Caring. All of these words accurately describe Ashley Trout, a veteran of nearly two decades in the wine industry in Walla Walla. Trout founded her first winery, Flying Trout Wines in 2006, focusing almost exclusively on Malbec. She sold that winery to TR Wines in 2010, but stayed on as the winemaker until 2015, when she left to start two new wineries, March Cellars (now Brook & Bull Cellars) and Vital Wines, a non-profit that donates all its profits to the SOS Clinic in College Place to help people in the Valley without health coverage, including seasonal vineyard workers. Ashley was kind enough to sit down with us one morning last month for an extensive interview about a variety of topics.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: Let’s talk background first. So you grew up in the Washington DC area and you decided to go to Whitman College in the late 1990s. Were you aware of what was going on with wine in Walla Walla before you came to Whitman?
ASHLEY TROUT: Well there really wasn’t too much wine here at the time. To put it in perspective, when Whitman accepted me they sent along a bag of onions(!). Because at the time, this was Onion Country. Walla Walla had gone through several iterations of being “pea country” and “asparagus country” and “wheat country” and what they were really glomming onto at the time was onions. When you think about 1998 and 1999, there really were only eight wineries. Legally, there might have been a couple more, but as far as who was up and running and who was producing wine at the time, it wasn’t a lot of people. And even though there had been some good scores coming through for Walla Walla wine, nobody was resting on their laurels. They were hard-fought wins during those years.
WWWL: So you went to Whitman and early on in your freshman year you saw an ad for part-time work at Reininger Winery [the seventh winery in Walla Walla, which opened in 1997].
TROUT: People in the wine industry looking for help didn’t have a great place to look for help at the time. What I mean by that is that when you’ve only got eight wineries in a small town in the middle of nowhere, it’s not like über-qualified staff members from around the world were moving here. That wasn’t happening back then. And the Community College wasn’t yet up to speed with their enology program, they certainly didn’t have graduates en masse yet. I’m not sure they had any graduates at all by 1999 in the enology and Viticulture program. There really wasn’t anywhere to look to find qualified candidates. So Chuck [Reininger] sent out emails to all the colleges just like you would for any other job. I saw one of those emails come through and I jumped at the chance.
WWWL: So what was the experience like at Reininger when you started? Were you working just a few hours a week or more than that?
TROUT: Right off the bat I fell totally in love. I loved it. It was just a week after I’d started college so I didn’t feel like the responsible thing to do was to jump in and work full-time – and Chuck didn’t really need me full-time that first year. My main duties at first were nighttime punch downs, which could be anywhere from 8 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on where you were in the season. On top of that, pretty quickly I also got involved in inoculations and other lab work, driving a forklift, packing up boxes of wine to be shipped out by UPS and manning the tasting room on Saturdays. One thing led to another and by the following year I was working a 40-hour a week part-time job!
WWWL: How many employees did Reininger have at the time?
TROUT: It was just Chuck, Raul (Morfin) and myself for a long time, several years. We were the three amigos and it was great.
WWWL: At some point you became the Assistant Winemaker at Reininger.
TROUT: That was a few years in. Chuck was very methodical about how quickly he grew the winery and in what way. I think that very smart of him. What that also meant was he was able to wrap his brain and hands and time around that wine for that much longer. So he was the main winemaker and there really wasn’t an Assistant Winemaker for many years. Raul and I were the crew and Chuck was the winemaker and that’s how it was the first few years. Again, I was 18, 19, 20, 21 at the time. It didn’t make any sense to hand over any dramatic titles.
WWWL: I want to talk about your time in Argentina, but first I’d like to ask you about the rock climbing accident in Japan. That must have been terribly traumatic.
TROUT: By the time I graduated from college, I realized that wine was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I didn’t want to look back at my life at age 90 only having done one thing since I was 18. So I took one year off to go work in Japan and do something unrelated to wine. So I was there doing pottery, learning Japanese, teaching English and doing rock climbing. The climbing accident certainly was traumatic. I had over a month of hospitalization, a bunch of broken bones and five surgeries. But I couldn’t have hoped for it to have gone any better than it did. I was very lucky. I broke unimportant bones -- I didn’t break a head, a neck or a back and I loved the care I got while I was there.
WWWL: As I understand it, the rock climbing accident led directly to you ending up in Argentina working harvest.
TROUT: Yes, it very directly led to me ending up in Argentina. I had always wanted to go there because I had had some people in my social circle in high school who were all from Argentina. I had heard all about it and I had always wanted to go. I missed harvest up here that year because everything was broken, so when my body was back online and usable I wanted to go do something. That was right when Argentina was coming online for its harvest, so I jumped at the chance to kill two birds with one stone – jump back into harvest and get to see the country that I had been wanting to go to for so long.
WWWL: Tell me what you loved about Argentina once you got there.
TROUT: Everything. I loved the wine and the food and the vistas. I loved the music and the culture. There’s such a focus placed on family and friends and enjoying the details in life. To me a lot of those priorities are spot-on and things that we miss on occasion here in the U.S.
WWWL: So after six or seven years at Reininger, you decided to start your own winery. Tell me how that came about.
TROUT: I was doing the harvest in Argentina and the U.S. and I was losing money doing it the way I was doing it, which was fine by me because that was my Enology program per se. By that point in time the Enology program was up and running but I was appreciating learning everything the way I was learning it. I was in two different hemispheres, with very different styles of making wine and I really appreciated that body of knowledge. So I didn’t mind paying for it that way, but what made a lot more sense to me given the connections I had in Argentina was to stop losing money and at least break even. Starting Flying Trout allowed me to know that the wines I was making both in Walla Walla and in Argentina were mine, that I had creative control over the wines and that it was a built-in sustainable plan.
WWWL: What would you say is your winemaking philosophy?
TROUT: Balance. I think that’s it’s really hard to do a great balanced wine. For me it’s important because you can be a “big” wine with big tannins and big alcohol and big dark fruit. As long as it’s balanced – great, do that. Or you can be a wine with a very low oak profile, more of a food-friendly wine, a little more acid. And that’s great too, but to me balance is really important, which is part of the reason why I tend to steer clear of a whole lot of oak usage. It’s not always easy to balance those behemoth oak profiles.
WWWL: At Flying Trout, most of the wine you made was Malbec, but with Brook & Bull, you’re making a bit of Malbec, but also many other varietals. Is that a challenge for you?
TROUT: So I’m a mom with young kids and the analogy that springs to mind is what one of my “mom-friends’ told me, that her first child took up 99% of her energy and that the rest of the children took what was left. You sort of try to recalibrate so that it works out as close as you can get to 50/50. In my case, it is somewhat true that Malbec is what I do. It’s in my wheelhouse. I focused on it for a decade and nothing else for that decade. I get it. Malbec speaks a language that I understand a lot more clearly than some of the other varietals that I’m working with now. But ultimately your attention span as a winemaker is gonna be used 100% on your portfolio. The question is how widespread is your portfolio. I don’t think at this point that I’m paying more attention to one wine than I am to the others.
WWWL: Tell me about your first tasting room, on Palouse Street. It was a Flying Trout tasting room first, then you shared it with Spencer Sievers and El Corazon and all these years later they’re still at that location.
TROUT: It was a really magical time. Anybody’s first company and first business location is really magical. Any entrepreneur is a dreamer by definition and it’s the first time that you’re ever putting the pedal to the metal. It was such a magical and exciting time. I remember we would have drywalling parties where we’d put up drywall and paint it and stay up to all hours of the night working on the visual of how that place looked and how it felt. And that was awesome. I’m glad that I got to do that and I’m glad that I don’t have to do that going forward. It was a special time and place. I was in my 20’s and I had more energy and I didn’t have kids and we could pull those all-nighters. There’s something really fun about that, but there’s also something special about not being stuck in that zone forever. Part of the fun of having a small winery is the joy of going through different phases and feelings. It was a special time that I’m glad I got to be part of.
WWWL: One of the things I admire most about Walla Walla is the community among the winemakers and the wineries here. It’s competitive, but it’s not cutthroat like it can be in some other wine regions. For example, if someone’s in the middle of harvest and a key piece of equipment breaks, they can usually go to another winemaker or winery in town and find someone to let them use their equipment.
TROUT: I think it does happens less in other places. I think the closer you are to the farming side of things – farmers in the middle of nowhere with equipment that nobody else knows how to use or “up against nature”. When you’re sort of that raw, everybody helps because they need to. Because everybody’s gonna need that help along the side of the road at some point. Your car can be broken down in New York City and tons of people might pass by and nobody stops. But if you’re in the middle of nowhere, one out of the first three people that pass you will stop. That’s very comparable to what we’re going through as an industry here. There’s very little economy of scale in what we’re doing here. There’s very little expertise here in terms of fixing mechanical equipment. And it’s not like we have firms that are based here that manufacture this equipment or that manufacture barrels or forklifts. And so we’ve all gotta be all of those things for each other because the structure as an industry on a large scale doesn’t exist in Walla Walla.
WWWL: Tell me about starting March Cellars (now Brook & Bull Cellars) and Vital Wines.
TROUT: I was really excited to start March once the kids were old enough that I was sleeping through the night and I knew I had my head on straight. I really wanted to be back at the helm again. I sold Flying Trout in 2010 and stayed on as the winemaker for a few years. But I didn’t own the company. I like running the show and having creative control and knowing what’s going on with the business side as well as the wine side. I wanted to get back in that realm, but I also wanted to take advantage of the things I know now in my 30’s that I didn’t know in my 20’s. And I also think Walla Walla is such a magical place and it’s a magical time to be doing what we’re doing. I just couldn’t sit back any longer and not take the reins on a project again.
WWWL: Almost simultaneous with your launch of March, you started a second label, Vital Wines, which is a non-profit, but not your typical non-profit. With a lot of non-profits, it’s a bit misleading because people may pay themselves large salaries to run the non-profit, leaving very little actual profit for the people that need it. But with Vital, 100% of the profits are donated to the SOS Clinic [to help vineyard workers who don’t have health coverage] and Vital doesn’t pay any salaries to your employees.
TROUT: 100% of the profits go to the SOS Clinic. We do hold onto the operating costs, which is why we don’t say “all proceeds”. But we really try our hardest to make sure the operating costs for Vital are as low as possible, which is why we’ve had no salaries go out the door for Vital. It’s one of the reasons why we launching March simultaneous to Vital because we needed a staff to sell the wines and you need that staff to be paid. Having both brands launched in the way that they were launched was really the only way we could have done this and done this properly. If we had launched Vital by itself the operating costs to pay the employees would have been such that the clinic wouldn’t get much money at all.
WWWL: Way back when, when you first came to Walla Walla, could you have imagined it would become a world-class wine destination?
TROUT: No, not at all.
WWWL: In your opinion what were the major components that have gone into making Walla Walla a world-class wine destination?
TROUT: I think it’s a confluence of different things. The wine has always been great, it’s a great location for making wine and Walla Walla was lucky enough to have some really great winemakers early on. That’s probably the biggest and most important aspect to all of it. That’s been the foundation. But on top of that we had a couple of good winemakers who in addition to being good winemakers, were really helpful in the marketing department, knew how to sell wine and knew how to get the information about their wines disseminated nationally. That was very helpful. Another thing is that simultaneous with the growth of Walla Walla as a region has been we’ve had 26 consecutive years of the growth of wine sales in the U.S. That’s insane. The timing was very fortuitous for Walla Walla.
WWWL: Besides Chuck Reninger, who are some other people you consider to be mentors to you as a winemaker?
TROUT: Chuck isn’t just a mentor to me in the past. He continues to be a mentor and always will be. He’s a great guy and a great winemaker and a perfect mentor for many of us in Walla Walla. I tend to look to different people in the industry for different things. Some winemakers are really great technical winemakers, while others are really, really great at the logistics; they have an amazing understanding of what those spreadsheets are supposed to look like. Six months down the line everything’s running smoothly and all your bottling or whatever has been ordered. I would love to have that brain, but I don’t, so I look to other winemakers to see how they’re doing those things so much smoother than I am. There are other winemakers and winery staff who are great at branding and marketing. It’s good to look at the Valley as a whole and see who’s doing a great job with that. There are other winemakers who are also winery owners and are trying to balance raising a family too. There’s even a few winemaker couples – that’s its own balancing act even without kids. There are a lot of mentors here in the Valley that I pick and choose from because those people are better than I am at certain things and I can learn from them.
WWWL: What’s your go-to wine on a typical night at home?
TROUT: There aren’t many typical nights at home these days (laughs). I certainly don’t have a go-to. I like mixing it up a lot. Lately I’ve been geeking out a lot on the techniques and technical side of Cab Franc. And also Rosé. Not Cab Franc Rosé, but Cab Franc (red wine) and Rosé. Malbec always plays a role. I also really enjoy taking a break from reds and drinking a Sancerre or something bubbly. Occasionally I like to drink a really great Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a Pinor Noir. To me, those are fun because it kind of turns the brain off in a sense because I’m not going to be making those wines. At no point am I going to be making an earthy Pinot Noir.
WWWL: So you can just sit back and enjoy those wines for what they are rather than judging them critically.
TROUT: Exactly. I tend to gravitate towards a lot of non-Washington wines for that same reason. It’s fun to drink wines from all over the world, it’s fun to turn the brain off and it’s fun to drink something beautiful.
WWWL: Speaking hypothetically, you’ve got 24 hours to live. What bottle in your wine collection do you have to open?
TROUT: Probably a Merry Edwards Pinot from the ’90s.
WWWL: What’s the best part about being a winemaker?
TROUT: Everything. The best part about being a winemaker is you get to put a roof over your head with art. There are very few artists out there who get to do that. And in addition to that, it’s so all-encompassing of your body and your senses that you’re physically exhausted and dirty and there’s so much beauty involved in all of that artistically. To boot, the fact that you can do it and make a living from it. To me, that’s crazy and I feel so fortunate to be able to do that.
WWWL: What’s the worst part of being a winemaker?
TROUT: Definitely bottling. Bottling is terrible. Once you’ve bottled you can’t tweak that wine anymore. Bottling is hard. It’s all logistics and it’s physically exhausting and not in a good way. Things can only go wrong on the bottling line. But if everything goes right with bottling, all you’ve done is hit net-neutral, you’ve accomplished everything you wanted to. But everything else that day can go wrong – maybe you didn’t order enough capsules or something went wrong with the filter. Bottling is terrible.
WWWL: Talk to me about the challenge of raising two young children while at the same time running two wineries and a tasting room.
TROUT: I think it’s really important especially as the mother of a daughter to show that hard work, ownership, strength and power are all things that can be accomplished and should be if that’s what you want to do. Not everybody should be a business owner, not everybody wants to be a business owner. That’s fine. I think it’s great that I’m able to model that for my daughter especially, but for both kids I think it’s empowering for the kids to know that they have two parents who are both high-functioning individuals. Time management is definitely the biggest challenge – sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything you were planning on doing.
WWWL: Your husband is a winemaker as well [Brian Rudin, founding winemaker at Canvasback]. How helpful is that to you?
TROUT: It can be a major blessing and a major curse at the same time. The major blessing is we’re always trading thoughts about wines, tasting notes, barrel ideas and vineyard locations. There’s all sorts of discourse between myself and Brian [Ruding, winemaker at that ends up being very, very beneficial. But the curse is that his busy season is my busy season. And that would be less of a problem if we didn’t have the kids, but we do, so the timing on that is pretty rough. The dead season is nice because we get to enjoy that downtime at the same time together and that’s nice. And it’s not just harvest. It’s also hitting the road for market travel. When distributors need us, sometimes it’s all happening at the same time too.
WWWL: What would you say are your long-term goals for your wineries?
TROUT: Over the years I’ve learned to focus more on the journey than so much on the destination. Obviously you have to have a destination in mind as far as what wines you’re going to make, how many cases you’re going to release each year and how many staff members you’re going to have. You have to have projections and that’s very important. But if all you’re ever doing is focusing on the destination, you run the real risk of not enjoying the journey along the way. Like I said, logistics don’t come naturally to me, so I don’t foresee either of these brands becoming huge wineries. To me that’s not super-fun and it’s not a fun way of winemaking either. I think both labels will stay pretty small. The goal is for all of us to enjoy the journey for as long as we can.
WHAT WE'RE DRINKING AT WW WINE LIMO HQ
Kontos Cellars. 2014 Cabernet Savignon
Adamant Cellars 2013 Nalin (red blend)
Spring Valley 2015 Nina Lee (Syrah)
Beresan Winery. 2014 Carmenere
Gundlach Bundschu. Mountain Cuvee (NV)
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