Adamant Cellars has been making some of the finest wines in Walla Walla since opening in the airport area North of downtown in 2006. Our favorites are the Nalin red blend and the Cab, but try them all – there’s not a bad wine in the bunch! Adamant winemaker Devin Stinger was kind enough to sit down with us for an in-depth interview in February 2017.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: Tell us how you got interested in wine in the first place.
DEVIN STINGER: I grew up North of Willamette Valley and when I was a young wine taster back in my 20’s, I started drinking Pinot Noir and I wanted to start a Pinot Noir winery. That was my goal for about twenty years. Then I started making wine in Portland in my basement. Pinot Noir was my very first wine that I ever made and I made that for a couple years. Then somebody introduced me to Cabernet Sauvignon from Yakima Valley. So I searched out some Cabernet grapes in about my third year of making wine and I’ve never made Pinot Noir since! Then I went to Bordeaux styles and I started with Syrahs and Merlots and I’ve stuck to the Bordeaux styles ever since we started the winery in 2006. It was a 20+ year adventure to get to the point where we decided we could start a Walla Walla winery.
WWWL: What kind of work were you doing before the winery became your full-time job?
DEVIN: I did high tech jobs in the Portland area for twenty-three years before coming to Walla Walla.
WWWL: Did you have any formal kind of winemaking education?
DEVIN: I had a love for Pinot Noir, but I didn’t know anything about how to make Pinot Noir. I had just tasted wine from the various wineries in the Walla Walla Valley and in California. So one day I just looked at myself and said, “I should just try to make this”. It was kind of a timing in life thing. I had the space and the time. I was working at a company where I was working from home a lot and I said “Lets just figure out how to make wine.” So I got in touch with my dad, who was semi-retired at the time and said “Let’s figure out how to make some wine.”
WWWL: This was pre-internet?
DEVIN: I think there may have been a little bit of internet at the time, but I didn’t really search the internet for how to do it.
WWWL: I imagine these days you can go on the internet and find all the information on how to make wine pretty easily.
DEVIN: That's true. You can find a wealth of information about how to make wine on the web.
WWWL: But while someone today who’s a wine novice like you were when you first started can go on the web and read a million different things about how to make wine, it’s not necessarily going to be good wine!
DEVIN: Oh yeah, you could get the recipe, but there’s no artistic sense that you’re gonna bring to it. So at the start we just basically read books. My background is as an engineer and my dad is a former chemist, so we kind of figured it out and started making some wine. Our first batch was actually pretty good! And we got better with time – in about our third or fourth year we began to enter amateur winemaking competitions and started winning them.
WWWL: Was there a label name for the wine you were making at the time?
DEVIN: There was -- it was called Gam. G-A-M which if you’ve ever read Moby Dick, when two ships come together in the open sea, they kind of tie up and have a gam, a party of sorts. My secondary term for Gam was God Awful Mess. But really the wine wasn’t too bad. We started fermenting in my basement and we mostly used these little tiny 13-gallon barrels.
So to answer your original question, we didn’t take any formal education classes to make wine; we just read some books and talked to people who I had gotten to know in the wine business down in Oregon. Around that same time, my wife and I started to come to Walla Walla for wine tasting. We got to know some of the winery owners and some of the winemakers here, so when it became time to do this for real, we decided quickly on Walla Walla. We did our due diligence and looked at Yakima and Sunnyside and a few other places, but it was always going to be Walla Walla.
WWWL: What’s the best thing about being a winemaker?
DEVIN: It’s a good lifestyle. It’s a good life, ya know? You have some intense work periods and you have to deal with the whims of mother nature, but it’s a good life. Where else can you walk into your place of work at 7:30 in the morning and taste wine? Plus you get to meet fantastic people and it’s just a great life to live. It’s not too stressful. You can make it stressful, but its not too stressful for us because we decided to stay small. I don’t have to feed three or four families, we don’t have any partners. It’s just my wife and I. And we really enjoy the lifestyle of having a business just the two of us. It’s a great partnership between Debra and I.
WWWL: You mention the possibility of stress in this business and thankfully you haven’t had too much of it. But has there been a particularly stressful time in the history of the winery?
DEVIN: I would say the most stressful time for us was when we were first getting up and running, because it takes at least three or four years to get your legs under you in the wine business. You have to hang on to a lot of inventory for a couple of years before you can start selling it. And while we got into the business because of our shared passion for wine, it took some time to get our heads wrapped around the idea that it really is a business and you have to run it like a business. That was probably the biggest stress point that we had, making sure that we ran the winery like a business. There was a point about six years ago where we were at about 2,500 cases a year. And that’s one of those points where you have to decide if you’re going to jump up to the 5,000 to 7,500 case level or not. But when you make that jump you’ve got a lot more wine that has to be sold away from the tasting room. You’ve got to deal with a lot of distributors and build relationships in other states so you can sell that kind of quantity. That was a real big decision point for us when we decided to stay small. We looked at each other and we said, “We don’t want to work that hard.”
WWWL: I understand that you actually scaled back production from 2,500 cases a year to the current production level of 900 cases a year.
DEVIN: Yeah, we made a conscious decision to go backwards. The reason we did that is if we had continued to grow, we would have had to hire staff, we would have had to be on the road all the time selling. Our margins would have gone to nothing. Debra and I both came out of the corporate world and we agreed that we didn’t want to do that again, even if we were doing it for ourselves. We now sell all the wine we make either at the tasting room or to our wine club members and we don’t have our wines in distribution anymore.
WWWL: The first wine you made once you started Adamant was a Rose, right?
DEVIN: Yes, it was a Rose just so we could get something on the shelf and we did 25-30 cases. And that same year (2006) we also made Syrahs, Cabs and red blends, released them in 2007 and 2008.
WWWL: Did you have a wine mentor like a lot of winemakers seem to have?
DEVIN: About the closest thing I had to one was a boss at one of the tech companies I worked at who had a Pinot Noir business. Unfortunately though, all he drank was Pinot Noir and he didn’t understand why anybody would drink anything but Pinor Noir!
But he had a passion for wine and we would talk for hours about wine and winemaking and that’s what really got my juices flowing as far as making wine. But I never worked under a winemaker or had any internships. It’s just been 100% myself and my wife.
WWWL: Awesome. So how did you decide to name the winery Adamant? The definition of adamant is “refusing to be persuaded or to change one’s mind.”
DEVIN: [Laughs]. It has several other definitions as well. An adamant stone is a dark diamond and it means a very hard substance; it also means focused and it has all kinds of good wine connotations. It even has mythical connotations --- if you own an adamant stone then you have the keys to wisdom and knowledge. So the definition of adamant has sort of evolved over time into focused, forward, and steadfast, which is how we approach the wine. We’re looking down the path and we’re not looking back.
WWWL: So what’s the harvest process like for you?
DEVIN: It’s about a month or a month and a half of trying to figure out when we’re going to pick and tasting at the vineyards and talking to the vineyard managers. It all starts mid-summer. I’ll start talking to the vineyard managers about what the crop is looking like and how they’re pruning it and how they’re watering it and what kind of damage that’s come through. And then I’ll start tasting grapes probably about a month in advance just to get a baseline for how they’re tasting. If we have a good harvest the weather will cool down by mid-September and then we can kind of stagger things and keep our winery at capacity the whole time that we’re processing without getting over-capacity.
WWWL: What’s the typical timetable for you from the time you decide that you’re going to make a particular wine from a particular vineyard to the day that wine is made available for sale to the public?
DEVIN: For us, it’s a two-year cycle. That’s fermentation into wine in the barrel, racking the barrel and then aging it for nearly twenty-four months. It’s continuous topping, keeping the barrel full, keeping the SO2 levels up, monitoring the acid levels. And then there’s the process about a month before bottling to determine if the wine is ready. We’ll taste it 3-4 times throughout the two-year process and my wife Debra and I will both make notes on it. About a month before bottling we’ll taste it one final time and make the decision that’s what we want to use for the bottle and then we spend about a week to a week and a half determining blends – and we actually blend right before we bottle. We do it a little bit differently than other winemakers as we have a bit more labor-intensive process for aging and blending. It seems that a lot of winemakers actually decide what their blends are going to be ahead of time. We don’t know what the blends are going to be until about a month prior to bottling and we don’t have the labels printed up until we’ve decided what will be in the blend.
WWWL: Back when you first started I’m assuming it made things easier because you were able to get into Walla Walla’s incubator program (the program, started in 2006 and funded by the State of Washington and the Port of Walla Walla, offers a handful of startup wineries subsidized, below market leases for their first few years of operation).
DEVIN: We were very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. In February of 2006 I happened to call the Port of Walla Walla to see if they had any buildings for rent. I had been looking for a while and I had not been able to find anything in town to rent that was reasonable enough to put a winery in. And they told me that coincidentally, earlier in the day that I called them they had signed an agreement with the State to build the incubator buildings for the wine industry. They asked if we wanted to apply. Of course we did! We were the first applicants, we were accepted and the rest is history. It was a perfect way to start. A nice building and low rent – about half what you would pay anywhere else to get started – with increases of 10% each year.
WWWL: What’s your favorite wine that you’ve made and why?
DEVIN: Our 2008 Merlot. It’s held up so nicely. Dark fruit flavor, very rich. The 2012 Merlot is very similar to it. Good acid, good tannins, but this big fruit component up front, so it’s a nicely balance wine with a big flavor.
WWWL: What kind of wines do you like to drink when you’re not drinking your wines?
DEVIN: We tend to drink a lot of Walla Walla wine. The other night we had a 2009 Tamarac Cabernet Franc and it was delicious. We also really enjoy champagne, mostly French champagne and we’ve been drinking a lot of Rieslings lately. We have some subscriptions to a few French and Italian wine clubs.
WWWL: Last one. What’s the most expensive bottle in your cellar?
DEVIN: Hmmm. I’m visually looking at my cellar in my head…. I don’t think it’s more than $60-70 and it’s a local Walla Walla wine. Not sure if it’s Corliss, Garrison Creek or Pepper Bridge, but I think it’s one of those.
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