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.
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