Sharing Secrets with Walla Walla Vintners Co-Founder Gordy Venneri

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A true Walla Walla original
Gordy Venneri, along with business partner Myles Anderson (one of the founders of Walla Walla Community College's esteemed Center for Enology and Viticulture), has helped build Walla Walla Vintners from one of the state's first wineries into one of its most respected. Quick with a smile and a handshake, Gordy is affable, approachable, and always prepared with a joke. This personal charm is reflected in the manner in which Walla Walla Vintners itself operates -- as a business looking to truly connect with its customers, "compete creatively" with its peers, and foster a collaborative learning environment for those new to the craft. A trip to Walla Walla would seem incomplete without a visit to Walla Walla Vintners -- and if there's a guy there telling really amazing bad jokes...well, you've just met Gordy Venneri.

You started making wine as a hobby right?

Yes, in 1981 -- I was 28. I had worked my whole life to that point -- as a kid it was every summer. My grandfather came here in 1906 from Italy and we were the kind of family where you had summer jobs -- you worked in the onions. God, when I was 6 years old, talk about slave labor, I had a summer job picking up onions and putting them in a box. You got like two cents for every box and that was a lot of money for a kid! When I was 28 I decided I wanted to take a whole summer off from work and I wanted to go back to Italy where my grandfather was from. So I found a travelling partner, kind of a strange bedfellow, a young priest who had studied in Rome and was living in Walla Walla. He wanted to go back to where he had studied in Rome. He needed a travel buddy to share expenses with so we actually ended up going all through Europe and Northern Africa, but when we got to Italy we went down to where my family was -- a small village called Serra Pedace in Calabria -- and they were all making wine. So we met them, they had us for dinner and we drank their wines. Everywhere we went in Europe we'd have a bottle of wine with dinner -- a long dinner and talk about our day, and the significance of it, and I really liked it. So when I came home that summer -- I had a job teaching at the Community College so I could have summers off -- I said to my friend Myles Anderson, who was also working there, that we should make some wine. At that time Woodward Canyon had started, Leonetti had started, and people were starting to plant grapes all around Washington State.

Did you already know a lot of the folks who were making wine at that time?

Actually believe it or not, Gary Figgins (Leonetti) and I are actually distantly related. Our great, great grandmothers were sisters. Their name was Rosutti - there are some Rosutti's in town - so it's a Walla Walla Italian name. And they were from the same village. In fact, in 1997 I made Gary get a passport and I took him to Italy to this little village where our families were from. But I also knew him from church and school here. We knew the Small's (Woodward Canyon) because they were farmers and the L'Ecole people because they owned the local bank, Baker Boyer. So when I got back from that first trip to Italy I became a customer of all those folks because I wanted to try their wines. So we decided to find someone who would sell a little bit of grapes to us as home winemakers -- just for fun.

Myles was a wine drinker. He had been drinking wine way before me, so when I came back and told him how I had gotten into wine over that summer, he said he was into it too. Then we got two other guys, the guy from Bunchgrass Winery, Roger Cockerline, and another teacher who's not around here anymore, we all teamed up to make homemade wine.

Did you have an idea of what kind of wine you wanted to make based on what you had tasted on your European trip?

Yeah, like we had in Italy. We knew we wanted to make dry table wines because we knew white wines were harder to make than reds, because you needed all this equipment like tanks and filters that we couldn't afford. So we figured a dry red wine was the thing to do -- all we needed was for someone to sell us a barrel.

We also knew that there were no red Italian grapes growing here so we figured we'd try and make Merlot and Cabernet because they were being grown in the area. Myles, who had drank wine, knew what good wine tasted like. So where he helped out a lot was, he wasn't so great on the science part of it, but he had the palate to figure out the difference between a good dry table wine and a mediocre one. We would drink some out of his cellar and compare it with ours but his wines weren't really from Washington so there really wasn't a comparison. But because we were on the wine lists at Leonetti and Woodward Canyon we could drink their wines and have something real, and good, to compare ours to.

When was the first time you made a wine that you felt was "it"?

Well, you're going to laugh about this but...the first year we bought some Cabernet was in 1981, from a little guy that had a vineyard close to where Basel Cellars is now. So we pressed it and did all the work and got about three or four really nice 15-gallon carboys of wine. And oh my God, we just thought it was absolutely wonderful! And I actually think it was. We were like, "this is like a Lafite - like a really high end French wine!" It was our very first batch too! And I don't think now, looking back, that we were kidding ourselves. Like I said, I was a Catholic, so I'm one of those people who's always looking to see where you screw up because that's the way you're trained. I don't know if you have any religious background but as a Catholic, when anything goes wrong you have to see what you did to screw it up first before you blame everybody else.

The problem was, after we crushed it, fermented it, and put it in the carboys, we didn't know what to do. We thought you just aged it in these carboys. But it eventually started turning to vinegar. There are some things we know now we were supposed to do - rack it, put SO2 in it, keep it cool, keep it topped and all that. It was like leaving a bottle of wine out on your countertop. So we learned a lot. It was great for six months but then we were always taking the top off to taste it and if you don't have any sulfites in it, that makes it even worse because...well, we were just knuckleheads. Eventually we figured it out and in '84 we made a really nice Cab and in '88 another really nice wine.

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Checking out the Estate fruit
It sounds like after that initial triumph/disappointment you caught on pretty fast.

Yeah, we had a lot of books and were all self-taught. After a while I got a job working in financial services so I could take time off and I went down to Davis for a couple of week-long seminars. So we picked up stuff and talked to other winemakers and read books then realized we were at the point when we needed to get serious about this.

Here's the other thing though -- kind of patting myself on the back here -- but we practiced for 14 years before we finally got a license. A lot of wineries now do it a couple of times and all the sudden they have a license. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that --maybe it just says we're slow learners -- but we did make a lot of mistakes in those years and definitely learned from them. But our goal was never to have a commercial winery. That just sort of happened.

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How did it happen?

People just kept saying, "you oughta sell this stuff!" We'd share it with friends and they encouraged us so we got this one partner, who bought this place we're now in, and we said, "let's sell some wine and use those sales to get more equipment." So, we did.

We made a label -- we've had the same label for 17 years -- and we paid like $2 to have it done. In the old days all the fancy French Estates, like Chateau Margaux, have their Chateau on the label. Well this is our parody of that -- the barn is our Chateau. We even signed our corks as a parody of Opus One. We thought, "these are really important people -- Robert Mondavi and Baron Lafite Rothschild. Myles and Gordy are nobody's so let's sign the cork and pretend we're somebodies!" We never took ourselves that seriously -- but now everyone looks for the barn with the red roof and it's become sort of an icon for us.

Did things really start to snowball for you after that?

We were just selling wine because people were coming to town -- it was really informal. They might stop at Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole, Leonetti, and there were only two or three other wineries who would then say there's a new one called Walla Walla Vintners so people just started coming by. Well, we were only making 500 cases and selling out in a month or so. As we got more and more wineries, the pie was getting bigger and bigger, and you didn't have to do a lot of fancy marketing or anything to sell wine. But then around 2007 with the recession all the sudden there were 100 wineries and even for wineries like us, we were the eighth, we had to start working more at it. You want to make sure you are one of the wineries people are coming to visit because there's no guarantee and you can easily get missed.

The newer you are the harder it is, and you need more marketing and help. Let's say you're the 90th winery in Walla Walla, why would anybody want to go to you? What do you have that the other 89 don't? You have to communicate that with people. So in the old days we encouraged people to start wineries and just told them to make really good wine and people will find you. Now it's you have to make really good wine, but you also have to be the best at explaining to people why they need to seek you out. What's your draw? That's really where things have changed. Even old guys like us wonder if we are doing everything we should be doing to toot our own horns? We went from being blenders to now, in 2008, planting all these vines to do some Estate wines. So how will we differentiate those new wines from everything else out there?

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How will you?

Well, I think we have two things going for us. Number one is this part of the valley is really pretty. So if you are a wine tourist from the concrete jungles of Seattle, Portland or San Francisco, you want to spend time in a pretty setting. We encourage people to come out there, sit on this beautiful lawn, under the trees, with the vines. And the second thing we do is we're open on Friday afternoon and Saturday but also by appointment. And when you come here, we are actually here. Myles and I are the original winemakers but our production winemakers, Bill and Judah, are actually here. Judah's in charge of the vineyards and Bill's in charge of the wine. They are the ones here tasting people so when people come here they get to talk to -- whether this is a treat or not -- they get to talk to the owners or winemakers, not someone we just hire to man a tasting room. And we are very people-oriented because we like having people here.

We think one of our secrets to success was as we started to grow, instead of delegating everything like the marketing and customer service, we delegated the winemaking. We hired talented people and trained them so Myles and I could spend more time with our customers and truly get to know them. We think it's a secret but...I guess now it's out! We're really in a people business and we really enjoy it.

From the hobby days to now do you feel like you've stuck to that same original style you set out to achieve or has your style has evolved into something else?

We're pretty much the same. We still do a lot of things we did when we were homemade but whenever we have a chance to improve we do. We don't change for the sake of change. We handle and process the fruit the same way we did in the old days. We crush it, barely break the skin, destem it, ferment it in open-top fermenters, we still punch down by hand, we press it into a tank for one day to settle it, then we pump it into barrels and let it go through the malolactic fermentation in the barrels -- which is very old-fashioned, hardly anyone does it anymore. But we think by putting it in the barrel on the dirty leaves it's sort of like gives our wines a kind of a polish - but it's a lot more work. Wait, I think that was a secret.

What's changed for us is we use a lot more science and pay more attention to the chemistry of the wine. And now we have the ETS lab at the Community College to double-check ourselves with. It's on our way home so we just drop it off and get all these results the next day so...there's a lot more science in analyzing our product. We've really come a long way in that aspect of it.

Did you struggle at all with a kind of "founder's syndrome" switching over to being out there selling your wine versus making it?

Actually, it's been fun! It's kinda weird because, like I said, in the early days when we were only making 500 cases, we sold everything through the winery. As we grew and decided to do the vineyard and make more wine, first it was easily to sell it and then we saw it was time for us to get out there. I saw that the other folks were doing events and winemaker dinners and thought we should have more of a presence "out there". I like doing events and, once again, it's a people thing. The idea of doing a winemaker dinner is to hopefully get to know some people that will be in your wine club and part of your winery that way. They buy your wine because they like it and they have a connection with you too. I want people to remember us. But I still have a hard time thinking that I didn't screw it up and the wine is that good!

Being from Walla Walla, how do you feel about the explosion in the wine industry in and around the area?

As a person that grew up here, went away to college, and came back in my 20's, I think it's great. You know, first of all, you never want to come back when you're from a small town. But when the hobby of making wine popped up, then it was OK to live in Walla Walla as compared to before. All of the sudden, it was kind of cool to be from Walla Walla! But I think it's great. I sense that, from reading Letters to the Editor, there are some people that don't like the change in tourism that the wine industry has brought. But I don't get that. I've never given a lot of credence to petty jealousy. I mean, if you're not in the wine industry, why can't you be happy for the people that are and the business it brings to our entire community? I mean look, our downtown is cool, there's a Starbucks, places to bring friends to visit, art and music -- things there weren't before.

We're all benefiting from it. When I was even in my 30s there was nothing like that going on. You couldn't go downtown to socialize and there was only like one coffee place. It's not like going to Ballard on a Friday night -- but for Walla Walla, it's a little more exciting than it was. And if you don't want to do it, stay home. It's a free country! Why do you get mad at people that want to hang out and have a little more fun and see our downtown be a little more viable? I think the change is great, it's great to be from Walla Walla, and it's a great time to come visit Walla Walla.

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