Eric Dunham's kindness and unassuming manner are almost as legendary as his award-winning wines. If you were sitting next to this guy at a bar, you'd have no idea he was one of Washington's most accomplished winemakers - not to mention a talented artist and cook to boot. One might consider him kind of like a boy next door - only if the boy next door had way more skills than Jagger.
Do you have any "most memorable" events that have happened at your winery?
There was one dinner where two people actually got married. This guy had proposed to this woman three different times! One of which he had a special room at the Vatican set aside to propose to her in - and she said no. Another one was visiting this Greek Island and he proposed to her at this big monument - and she said no. Well, apparently she finally says yes at Dunham that night. Kyle MacLachlan was there, everyone's having a great time, and we're just like - we're going to have a wedding! There was someone at another table who had just been ordained at the Church of Life online, so Jordan at the winery made a bouquet from flowers on the table, and the lady had Kyle MacLachlan walk her down the aisle.
My dad is a fan of your wine and told me a story about a Dunham Cellars winemakers dinner that included a man with a very large handgun?
Shit - your dad was there that night? That's hilarious because my dad and I were just talking about that story! How weird, because that was a long time ago. Well, the gun was a .50 caliber Desert Eagle - an amazing gun, HUGE - and it belonged to a friend named Tim King who was visiting from Montana with his wife Louise. Tim was a larger than life guy who designed and built guns. He had this enormous pistol that we would shoot in Montana and he brought it out to this winemaker's dinner. Keep in mind, this was before 9/11. So, we're up at the airport and my dad wants to shoot this gun really bad. So he gets in his car, with his glass of wine, and drives over to the airport, finds the airport security guard - still with his glass of wine - and asks if we can shoot this giant canon pistol. I mean, I'm like looking back on it and thinking, "Holy shit!" But my dad's like "C'mon, just one." So the security guard says yes - if he can come. And then we actually shot it off twice - my dad did one and my step-mom the other.
Tim was a really great guy and really did a lot for Washington wines in Montana. He was a big wine collector and dear friends with a lot of folks here. He actually passed away in a motorcycle accident about four months ago. It's really sad but he is remembered well. We have BBQ's around here that he built that you can put 17 chickens on at a time! Everything he did was bigger than life. Hilarious that your dad was at that dinner.
No, he passed away about five years ago. He was going on 14 years old so had a long healthy life - ate a lot of Kobe burgers and salmon. For lack of a better word, his "replacement" is Munch, the dog I have now. Munch really took care of Port in his older days though. Port couldn't get up much because his shoulder was out and so there was this semi-circle of sticks and toys and dead birds Munch kept bring him all day long to take care of him - it was kind of cool. Port was an amazing dog. I hope someday some of the proceeds from that wine can go to shelters or rescues. My dad has a rescued Border Collie, I have Munch - also a rescued Border Collie - and my mom's dog is also a rescue.
In addition to Dunham Cellars wines, do you work on a lot of side projects?
I do a few. One is called Pursued by Bear and it's a Cabernet we do for actor Kyle MacLachlan. We also do a Syrah called Baby Bear because his son was born in 2008 and we wanted to do a special run for that. Pursued by Bear is a Shakespearean production from A Winter's Tale so it ties into acting, part of Kyle's passion. I thought it was an interesting name and was worried about people not being able to remember it but that didn't happen. The Chicago Bears, the football team, are going to be using it in all their suites at their field because they fell in love with the wine - in of all places, a steakhouse in Philadelphia. Don't tell the Seahawks.
One other project we do is with Dale Chihuly. We do three different wines: a Chardonnay called Mazie, Martin is a Cabernet and Mighty is a Syrah. Those are named after Dale's mother, his brother Martin, and his son Jackson - who Dale calls Mighty. They are sold exclusively at the Space Needle and benefit different charities every year.
Is there a certain cause you like to support?
Most Washington wineries are big into Children's Hospital so we like to do a ton for them. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, cystic fibrosis both in L.A. and Seattle, and obviously lots of animal causes, lots of Boys and Girls' clubs, and a lot of cancer organizations. We're the featured winery at Swedish Hospital's auction this year for cancer - my dad's going through a lot of that nastiness now. We were also a Gracenotes honoree last year for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation with our Shirley Mays Chardonnay, which is our Lewis Estates Chardonnay. All of the proceeds go to Komen and we feature a different survivor on the back label. Unfortunately there have been a few non-survivors too. We do their stories on the back and try to get more awareness out there. I am sure there are lots of others I'm forgetting. There's always something.
You're also artist right?
Well, I like to paint a lot. All of our single vineyard labels are my artwork. It's been fun. I want to probably focus more on that someday. Getting home and having the energy to do it takes a little bit to get into it - you can't drink a bottle of wine every night. If I was a full-time artist I'd have more of a drinking problem than I already do.
The problem is, I always feel bad being around people who are amazing artists - who've studied and gone to school for it. I used to cook a lot with my friend Amy Glase and at the end of the night some people would play music and others would paint. One night someone put paints in front of me and - this was probably back in '95 - I started painting that night. I loved it and that actually became our first label on our Frenchtown wine.
Don't you think everyone has artistic ability of some kind? The challenge is just not caring what other people think about your art.
Yes. I have a bunch of friends who just started doing it and have all kinds of crazy good things coming out - great colors and perspective. I had a chance in the last couple of years - the first time in 18 years - to take time off, so I went to Italy and spent a week in Madrid and just seeing all these amazing artists you've always read about...I was like, "OK, I have a few more years of practicing to do." But I'm trying to develop a web site and get images up there. But I think I'm better at selling wine than selling art.
My only frustration now is I have friends that can paint from a photo in like five minutes and it looks like the photo and I can't do that. I always have pictures in my head and they just develop on the canvas. Like a negative Polaroid type thing. I couldn't paint a horse if I tried but if I see a horse develop in the canvas then I'm like, "Hey, O.K!" It's frustrating but I think I'm getting better. It's like you can do one or the other.
But in a way art and wine are similar, right? They're all about taste?
Absolutely. And like wine, unfortunately, some people think they should say too much. Even when you don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear it - I don't care if anyone likes it or not. They say wine is opinion in a glass - not wrong or right.
Seeing that you also like to cook - what dish are you most known for?
I think I'm notorious for my curries. I used to do it for the staff all the time - I don't use a recipe, it's just my version. And it's always different. I use Riesling - I fell in love with Riesling because of curry.
Why is Riesling good with curry?
It's, at least the one we make here, semi-off dry so it's perfect with spicy food. There's a restaurant in Vegas way off the strip that all the Master Sommeliers go to and it's got like a five-page Riesling list - it's just insane. It's a Thai place with lots of different curries- Lotus of Siam. I have to go there whenever I'm in Vegas. Rob Bigelow, he's the Master Somm at the Bellagio (previously of Canlis), really likes the place and my distributor invited me to lunch with them there. But Rob got stuck in a meeting or something and couldn't make it and his comment was "You can't go to church without the preacher!!!" Sorry Rob!
You're kind of an "old timer" in the Washington wine scene - how have things changed since you started Dunham Cellars?
My job as we've built the winery has gone from spending all my time in the cellar and doing sales to being part of all the focus blends, tastings and building the core wines. I don't do the day to day cellar work anymore. I guess our first vintage was a barrel of '93 and and barrel of '94 I made for my father and his friends. In '95, while I was working at L'Ecole 41, we finally went commercial. my father and I started our first label and made about 200 cases. Then '96 happened and we went down to 75 cases with the freeze, then the '97 was about 400 cases. Now, slowly, we've worked our way up to about 18,000 cases.
I don't have an ego and the most difficult aspect of wine was talking about it because trying to describe it sounded so egotistical. It was really difficult for me. It's the same with artwork. we have 2,000 people in our wine club and most of them don't know I do that labels so I need to be better at that. I do it for me really, so explaining it to others is hard. And, I never intended for my art to be a business, but people seem to like my work and I love doing it. Life can be crazy as a winemaker but being an artist is a lot of fun.
How was it starting a business with family?
It was tough. In the recent past we have another family we've partnered with which is nice - helping make judgement calls. But I think it was hard because for our staff it was like having three bosses - me, my dad and my step-mom - going in three different directions so was difficult. But, it was also a blessing in that I have friends who started wineries who had no one with them. And I am, for lack of a better word, and artist, so having someone do numbers and things I'm bad at, is great. And our staff is like family too, so it's great to see how we've grown together. We're in 20-something states and Japan and China so building from a couple hundred cases to this is kinda nuts.
What's been your proudest moment thus far - in wine, food, or art?
Wow. Well, I'll be a dad in August! But, I think just the aspect of what we do for a career is pretty interesting. My dad had a good statement about it - he used to sell life insurance said it's like you go to a party and someone asks you what you do and you say, "I sell life insurance," people are like, "Oh, look at the time!" When you can say you're a winemaker, no matter who they are it lowers a drawbridge because pretty much everyone loves wine.
I'm really blessed because the explosion of this industry in Walla Walla and Washington state has allowed me to meet some of the coolest people in the world and have some of the best conversations over the best wines in the world. So, I'm spoiled rotten When I go on the road I market Washington state wine first because people don't get it. You go to the East coast and say you make wine in Washington and they're like, "Which side of the Potomac?" They still think Washington state is all about rain and don't realize here we only get 5 inches of rain a year.
It's just still surreal to see where this town has come from and where it is now. It was always a solid community with good people and now we actually have restaurants - and choices! We can go out and eat food made by amazing chefs, see art made at The Foundry, go to shows with great actors who have settled here. Growing up here it was invisible and now because of the wine industry this momentum has been amazing. Historical and beautiful - I have friends who used to live in a house that was built when Lincoln was in office!
What do you think is the next big thing for Walla Walla or Washington wine?
That's one of the best parts of what wine has done is help this town diversify. In the 80's a lot of people, like my grandparents, lost their farms because of the fall in wheat prices. But with wine, but the diversification of crops has allowed the town to succeed. Most of downtown was at 50 percent occupancy when I first started winemaking and look at it now.
The other thing is Walla Walla is really not on the way to anywhere - we'll never be like Napa because so many people live within an hour - which I think is good. I think we'll keep building slowly as it is and with the revival of people wanting to live local - with local food and kind people - I think there's a lot of incentive for people to come out here. These days you can work from almost anywhere. WW has definitely held on to its value versus a lot of other places.
Not when you say it like that - it's too much pressure! We're just happy to keep tooting along like we are. There's amazing competition here, it's one of the best wine growing regions in the world and we're doing everything right in terms of being as sustainable as possible . The philosophy when I started here was "the rising tide floats all ships". So, the better one of us does the better we all do. It's not rocket science.