You know how people in love always have that "glow"? Like they're privy to some special, salacious secret that's just too luscious to let anyone else in on? Well, winemaker Tom Glase has that glow - and will let you in on his secret. This is a guy with a quick smile and big love for life: his family, his craft and his community. As one of Walla Walla's more experienced winemakers, Tom has put in time at some of the state's top shops - including L'Ecole 41 and Corliss Estates - and has honed his craft into a larger than life-style the common man would envy. The highly-rated wines he produces from the twin barns of Balboa and Beresan Wineries are testament to his drive to create exceptional wine - and enjoy every minute of it.
No grumps here
You're originally from Bainbridge Island - how'd you end up in Walla Walla?
Let's see, Bainbridge, Seattle, Bellingham, Seattle, Longview, Seattle, Longview, Seattle, Pullman, Seattle, Walla Walla. But I stayed in the state - 45 years of Washington! Been here in Walla Walla 17 years now.
Did you come out here because you knew you wanted to get involved in wine?
I came out here because I knew I wanted to get out of the bar scene - I was a bartender in Seattle - and just got tired of the late nights, smoky bars and drunk people. Good switch right?
Yes. Now you've got clean, fresh air, early nights and drunk people!
Exactly. My wife had a job with a local company that we ended up buying, then selling, and she's still in that business - the clothing business - and has a shop in downtown Walla Walla. I had no job and I finally got one at the Country Club and I worked on the grounds crew. I mowed greens and fairways and then I got a job at the Pro Shop. So I'd go do the greens, then work in the Pro Shop until about five, then I'd put on a shirt and tie and go to the Clubhouse where I was the host. So I was working seven days a week. And then that kinda developed into a full-time assistant golf professional job. Which was good. So, then I got to meet all the winemakers, because part of my job was to put on the post-harvest golf tournament - there were only maybe eight or nine winemakers here at that point. So, a pretty small group of people, all about the same age - really good people - and we became friends.
We met Eric Dunham at a party and we thought he was cute and became best friends with him. He lived at L'Ecole 41 - there was an apartment upstairs - so we spent two or three nights a week hanging out with Eric and that was really my first education with wine; tasting different wines, different barrels, and it was really great. We learned that we didn't like Woodbridge very much anymore after we started that deal. We moved up to the Woodward Canyon table wine because it was only $9, and of course the L'Ecole wines, then I ended up getting a job at L'Ecole in 1998. That was a fun deal too. So I started that in '90 and in 2001 I started Corliss Estates with Mike Corliss and that was fantastic because I got to design and build that winery.
Wow, how did that come about?
I dunno, it was just like, "What's your idea?" So, that was fun and then I started making wine for Tom Waliser in 2001 too. I had called him to see if he had fruit available for Mike Corliss' deal and he said, "Yeah, come down to my vineyard and check it out!" So I went down there and was like, "OK I'll take a ton of that, two tons of that and a ton of that." And he's like, "Great! Would you be interested in making some wine for me too?" And I was like, "Uhhhhhh....sure!" So, that worked out well. He asked, "What would you say your style is?" and I was like, "Well, pretty much it would be a Walla Walla style, because that's all I know." And he was like, "OK!" So, I made wine for Tom, Mike and L'Ecole that year. And then we started working on the Corliss building downtown, moved all the wines there, and in 2003 I decided that I wanted to try something different.
I got a job with the Ash Hollow people and I made their wine and managed their vineyard for a couple years, which was a great experience - and a good education on what you don't want to do. Doing the whole wine thing and the vineyard deal was rough - and we had two little kids - so yeah, it was fun but a little rough. So I did that for a couple years and then at the end of 2004 my dad passed away and it was just a weird transition part of my life and I thought, "You know, I want to see if I can try my own thing." So I met this guy who was a potential investor, we ran the numbers, and we were going to do it. Then Mike Sharon, who is the winemaker at L'Ecole, said "Don't go with him, I'll give you the money." I was like, "Oh! OK. Sorry Steve, but I'm going with Mike." So Mike chipped in some money, we got a bank loan, and started Balboa in 2005. And then last year brought on some new partners and we're kind of expanding. We have an estate vineyard now that we work with and it's really been an educational, fun ride.
The Balboa lineup - note the label for the Balboa Constrictor, designed by Tom's 9-year-old daughter.
It seems you have had the opportunity to do a little bit of everything?
Yeah, which is great. I think it helps. If you use the knowledge you've acquired then hopefully that makes the wine taste better. And I love what I do. It's really great. I love my job.
If you had the choice between being a golf pro and doing this job what would you do?
I'd do my job. Easy. There's no way I'd want to do that - mostly because I physically can't. I'd rather sell wine to golfers.
I noticed golf's pretty big around here
Yep, people seem to like it. I play at Wine Valley mostly - and make their wine for them.
What DON'T you do?
I don't really play much golf.
It seems to me the best part of golf would be the drinking part?
Oh no, I really enjoy the game too, but I don't know how many rounds I've played and NOT had something to drink. But this whole deal really is a lifestyle. It doesn't really seem like a job because we eat and drink and sleep the winery. Even my wife and kids, a lot of the things we do are kind of wrapped around my job.
Do your kids help out?
They do. My daughter swept the driveway the other day. My son will get the mail and they'll do different things. There are a few things they like to do - mostly those involve wanting to drive something. They like it out here - they've been here their whole lives so it's cool.
What's your favorite time of year?
Harvest. Harvest is just great because that's my opportunity to practice my art form, you know? It's when you do the picking decisions and fermentation and really watch the wine grow.
Yeah, that's really how they start.
Do you ever get stressed out watching them grow?
Well, if you go look at these right here, most of them died last night. It got to 29 degrees last night. So this means we probably won't be getting a lot of fruit off those. And it's really amazing because you know this one's fine - this one's dead, this one's dead, that one's fine. So does that have something to do with the fact that it's closer to the source or...? Yeah, it's really sad. I got up at two this morning and turned the wind machines on.
Those wind machines are scary - like standing in front of a big airplane, and give you visions of the blade coming off and slicing you in half
Kind of. They are loud. It's a 454 motor with big old blade. And those blades do come off.
Someone got sliced in half???
NO! They haven't sliced anyone in half, but they do quite a bit of damage. I mean, they are going pretty fast. It really depends on what happens. So if the wind starts blowing and your fans are on what happens is it takes those blades and it'll push them against the tower. So if they start hitting the tower, it'll take that whole top off. That's why I'm just involved with starting them. After I start 'em, I'm gone.
So who has to turn them off?
Tom Waliser. And his kids. I just help get 'em going.
Are there any other dangerous aspects of winemaking?
Don't fall into a fermenter. We punch down by hand, and you're talking about 4x4x4 stainless bins that you have to stand on the edges of when you're doing it. The crusher/destemmer moves 'em pretty good and you don't want to get caught in that. Fermentation is actually really dangerous too, because if you have a closed room and 28 bins fermenting wine you're creating a lot of CO2, which eliminates oxygen, so a lot of people have actually perished from that. Yeah, getting into a tank that's fermenting grapes in it, there's no oxygen, and you don't really know until you get in it. We try and open up the doors and let them new air come in before we work. And a lot of people have CO2 evacuation systems too - which have a CO2 sensor and when it hits a certain level it turns on the fans and blows it out.
Speaking of danger, why are all these bees bugging me?
Yeah, bees are very dangerous too. Come around during harvest, you'll see a lot of them. They teach you not to wear clothes that are similar colors to flowers [I am wearing a flowered shirt]. Tom Waliser puts dryer sheets in his pockets. Apparently they don't like dryer sheets.
Pretty much every winemaker I have talked to has said Harvest is their favorite time of year - why is it so great?
It's amazing fun! I think last year was 54 days in a row of 12 plus hours a day. It depends on the harvest - the last two have been very compressed because the year started late, and then you have the issue of if it gets cold then you have to have someplace to put your grapes - so it's very based in logistics. But you become very close with your crew. I mean here our crew is very close - you have three meals a day together and everyone's involved in pretty much the exact same thing. It seems to be getting better too, which is just phenomenal. I mean better like, it's almost more fun. I don't know why that is - but last year was just so fun. Well for me - it's hard on the families being away so much though.
But we just have a great group of people for harvest. Last year we ate really well and we did a cleanse for half of it - so no drinking, no coffee, no sugar, no gluten, no anything. It was like meat, chicken, fish, vegetables and fruit. One of the women that helped us - Tracy - she actually did all of it for us so you'd go up and she'd be like, "Here's your smoothie and take these pills!" and we all did it together. Really cool.
Do you know before harvest comes if it's going to be a short or long one?
It can be a surprise. We've been really, really lucky. But you just kinda have to get a feel for ho it's going to be and once you do, you know what you need to do. As long as we're ready to go, and we're not scrambling to get ready, it's a lot easier. Everything's clean, your fermenters are ready, you have all the tools you need for harvest, you have a full crew, and then you just pull the trigger and start making wine.
And working with Tom Waliser is a huge benefit because he grows all of our grapes for us. I like to pick my fruit in the morning so it's cold when it comes in and can cold soak for a day or two. So, being first on the pick sheet is great.
Another winemaker,Ali Mayfield, told me she cried when her first harvest was over
Sure. We call it PHD - Post-Harvest Depression. And it happens, it's a real thing. It's like you spend all that time with everyone and then you all just kind of go your own ways and it's like, "Wait, where did everyone go?" It's a real thing. I'm sure that's a common term, I didn't make that up, but I use it.
If someone were to approach you and ask you to do a reality show on winemaking would you do it?
I dunno - but I think Charles (Smith) is doing one. I just don't know if I would want someone in my life that much. I don't think so. Though I am surprised it hasn't happened - especially just to film a whole harvest to see all the crazy shit that happens - whoops, I better not swear. I guess it would depend on what the parameters were, so I might not be the right person for that.
You definitely have to be a showperson for that kind of thing
Yeah. Trey could do it! We were hitting golf balls at each other the other day [Balboa Winery is just across the street from Sleight of Hand Cellars]. Trey would be perfect. Charles would be great - people would watch it. I think a sitcom would be better. With real winemakers.
What would happen in this sitcom?
People would get to see what we do.
And what would you do?
Get up, take my kids to school, come to work, and then it just depends on what's going on. Talk to distributors, try and sell wine, sell wine, clean, budgets, spreadsheets, paperwork, licensing.
Sounds REALLY exciting
It is SO glamorous. And then usually we taste wine too - got to make sure it's still good!
Speaking of selling wine, do you have to be on the road a lot to do that?
Yeah - a lot. I'm driving to Seattle Sunday morning to do an auction dinner for Doctors Without Borders, which I think is a really great cause. I have two amazing chefs - Larkin Young and Kyle Cole, who both worked here in Walla Walla at 26 Brix before it closed down - and we're doing a dinner for six people. It's crazy. So I just take some wines and we decided we'll make a really amazing meal for us - and then just make sure there's enough for the six people in the other room!
Yeah. Yeah. A couple times. OK, it USUALLY happens. You know, you put a bunch of really good food and really good wine in people and it's amazing what happens. And then usually there's tequila or something. It makes people think they are invincible - which is great, as long as you're having a good time. But you do have to watch out though. Generally we try and get people home by 10 if we can but...you know, I have a couple kids and like to get to bed early.
When you finally put all that wine in the bottle, it's such a relief - it's like sending your kids to college or something. DEEP BREATH! Every bottle is a piece of art and it's the only chance you're going to get to have that one experience. I mean, sure you can buy a case and have it 12 times, but really, each vintage is so different.
I guess the thing I want people to know is winemaking really is an art form, and here we're involved in the entire process. I spend a lot of time in the vineyards, I actually make the wine, take care of it, rack it, do all the blending, put it in the bottle and sell it - so it's a start to finish deal. I think that's really important for what we do in this day and age - as an art form. It is a business, but I think if you practice it as an art form and be successful with that then the business will work. I think that's pretty important for people to know.
Also, I want the wine to taste like I love what I do. That would be important. Grumpy people probably don't make good wine. Happy people make good wine. I'm happy. Want a glass of wine?
If you'd like a glass of wine, Tom will be pouring his creations May 24th at The Met Wine Bar in Renton.