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Washington wine pioneer, Rick Small
If you know anything about Washington wine, you know about Rick Small. He and his wife Darcey founded Woodward Canyon

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Washington Wine's Salt of the Earth: Rick Small of Woodward Canyon

rick small.JPG
Washington wine pioneer, Rick Small
If you know anything about Washington wine, you know about Rick Small. He and his wife Darcey founded Woodward Canyon Winery in 1981 and, as Walla Walla's second winery of record, immediately began producing intense, consistently award-winning wines. Not one to rest on his laurels, Small is constantly looking for ways to better his wine and his business, even stretching his commitment to sustainability to encompass the physical and financial well-being of his employees.

See also:

Fermentation Fascination: Northstar Winemaker David "Merf" Merfeld

Sharing Secrets with Walla Walla Vintners Co-Founder Gordy Venneri

Kevin Pogue: Washington Wine's Most Wanted "Terroirist"

Of late, an overwhelming abundance of produce from the garden has inspired the Smalls to open their Reserve House for seasonal lunches as well as offering fresh-picked produce from the on-site Lazy S Arrow market. It's easily apparent that 30-something years into the business, Small's passion for making amazing wine, building a healthy community, and advancing sustainability have not waned. That's true salt of the earth, y'all.

You've been in the biz for 30-something years, right?

Yeah. When I started I had a ponytail! It's been one of the greatest things I've ever done. From an agricultural point of view, I've especially loved it. Being from Walla Walla, I have five generations of family agriculture on my mother's side and three generations on my father's side. It gives you more of a sense of place, I think, than if you came here from somewhere like Microsoft, for example, and chose to start making wine in Walla Walla. Being from a farming family, I just look at it differently.

The winemaker's mantra seems to be "You can't make good wine without good grapes". Do you feel your agricultural background has given you special insight into that part of winemaking?

Yes, that's how I feel. I feel like some winemakers underestimate the importance. I mean, obviously, when you first get started you need to have a source of fruit. I was the same way -- you just do whatever you can to get good grapes and align yourself with good growers. But at the end of the day I think growing grapes is the best way. Even though it may cost more. It's usually cheaper to be a winery and just buy grapes than it ever is to buy property, try to develop the property, pick the right clones, the right root stocks, the right slopes, the right irrigation, the right density and all of that. It's much cheaper to buy grapes -- but it's not the right way if you like to have control.

How did you move from the agricultural side into winemaking?

Well, Gary Figgins (Leonetti) and I were good friends -- we were both in the Army reserve together. He was making wine first and I was just blown away by some of the wines he was making because they were fabulous. Even his fruit wines were extraordinary. They were just pure fruit and done in a way I'd never seen before and it was just like, a game changer.

Were you a fan of wine at that point?

Not really. I was just intrigued by it. I was in agriculture, I studied it in school, and that's what I knew. I never thought about a career in wine, honestly, until I tasted some of Gary's early wines and I started reading a lot and studying more and it just kind of happened. It wasn't like a light came on or anything like that, I was just intrigued. It's kind of like when you meet somebody and you're intrigued enough with that person to want to pursue it more? It's almost like dating. It's curious that you're asking me these questions right now because I have to do a deal where I am on a panel with some newer winemakers on why we chose Walla Walla. But see, I'm not in that same zone. I was here before - and it chose me!

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Woodward Canyon's Reserve House
I notice the paperwork from 1983 for the original Walla Walla Valley AVA application is displayed in your Reserve House. What was your role in that?

It was a group effort. I think Gary was involved, I was involved, Scott Hendricks was involved, his wife Becky, and my wife Darcey. She's the one who actually wrote it because of her land use background. Herb Hendricks was also very involved in it. He was one of the owners of Seven Hills vineyard with Casey McClellan's father Jim. They were both Doctors and probably were a couple of the first people -- because they were professionals -- to bring this awareness to Walla Walla valley.

We sure do still have that paperwork -- it's important! I mean it's part of our history and I think at the time we didn't think about what it meant so much as it just being important. There was a discussion at that time about dictating quality within the Walla Walla appellation, back in 1983 and '84. We thought, "Boy, that would be such a progressive thing for the United States to do and we in Walla Walla could do it first!" But we just felt like nobody would buy into that. We liked the quality designations in Bordeaux and other places like that but it never happened. Sometimes I almost wish we would have followed through on that.

How did the establishment of the appellation change things?

Well, the appellation was a really neat thing for us to do but the importance that I see right now and going forward with it is it's our brand. We need to protect the value of our brand and our name and be sure that we don't do anything to dilute it or devalue it. That's why people are here -- because of the name and the reputation we have developed over the years.

There are some people, I think, who are probably willing to ride coattails a little bit and that's OK. Eventually the market sorts that out. I think about the value of being here but I also think about sustaining that and continually building the brand. I fear sometimes that there are people who come here from another place and they don't see the bigger picture -- which is that Walla Walla has a lot of social capital. What I mean by that is we have a lot of people who are here because of this place but they're also willing to put a lot back in to help drive that value and make sure it is the best it can be. At the same time there are other people here who are willing to take a lower road. And in some cases, like taking names from Europe or things like that, that basically make me think we could do better than that. I would love to see us always, always take the high road. We don't need to bad mouth anybody, we don't need to beat anybody else down, we don't need to copy France, we should just be Walla Walla and be really proud of it and do everything we can to make it stronger.

On that note, over the years you've gone from being focused on making wine to overseeing an entire business. Is there anything you miss or like best?

I like it all. Every bit of it. Some things are better at different times of the year -- I always like crush and the energy of it. I think the hardest part, which I tell people all the time, is that making the wine is easy -- it's fun, it's creative, but you still have to sell it. You have to sell all of it and you have to sell it the right way. Something I am particularly liking right now also is this thing that we've done kind of moving over into food -- it has been fascinating.

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Cellar of dreams
Right -- you recently started serving lunch at the Reserve House as well as selling produce through your seasonal market, the Lazy S Arrow Market?

Yes! A few years ago, we were in Napa visiting friends at Spottswoode, Duckhorn and Shafer and were so impressed with the hospitality there. Yeah, we're just Walla Walla winemakers, but we were treated so graciously, they weren't condescending, and they treated us as equals. I was very impressed with that as well as with the structures, the spaces and the meals -- they were all very special. Having lunches and dinners with these people made us even better friends and when Darcey and I came back we realized that was one of the parts of our business that we still didn't have in place -- a reception area where we could really entertain people and receive them well. So that's how the Reserve House evolved.

The garden came as a result of our LIVE certification, Walla Walla valley's Vinea program and the whole sustainability thing. One of the key cogs is making sure the social aspect of sustainability is taken care of -- that employees are paid good wages, they're on your healthcare and pension plans, and everybody is in it as a communal thing. I kinda learned that stuff from my father, but it's a key aspect to being a sustainable company and a sustainable vineyard. But Darcey did this garden on the other side of the sustainable thing and we just had more produce than we could ever eat ourselves, even though everybody was taking home everything they could -- potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, everything!

It sounds like the Reserve House has become as much a destination as the tasting room?

We love the wine business but the wine business is not only just about the wine -- it's about food and a relationship and an experience. We felt that one of the things we were hurting for in the West end of the Walla Walla valley was this: people would rush in from Portland or Seattle, they'd leave the city in the morning, maybe not stop for lunch so they can just blow right into Walla Walla wine country. So they get in Lowdon, around 12:30 or 1, then they're in a hurry to get into Walla Walla for lunch, and totally miss out on this end of town. So we thought, at least during the season, we're going to try and do food. Our chef Heidi has just been fabulous -- but it's really Darcey's idea. She was the driver behind it but because we focused so much on the restaurant maybe our little market didn't get all the attention it deserved. And this year was a lousy year for produce too, it came so late this season. We're just starting to get tomatoes now. It sucks! But it is what it is. They are wonderful.

But so anyway, wine is very important to us and we think we can do that well. We've always marketed out wine in the context of food, so moving forward with this idea is very exciting for us. When I go to New York or Atlanta or Miami or Portland I am going to talk about how Woodward Canyon wine and Nelm's Road wine fits at the table and that we are making the wines to be consumed and enjoyed with food as much as possible. That you can have regionally. The idea of farm to table is important and we love that but the idea of regionalizing a place and I love the idea of, as much as possible, having our food sourced as closely as we can. If you know that the potatoes were in the ground or the tomatoes on the plant 2-3 hours before they're on your plate, that doesn't suck. That's as good as it gets for me and I take a lot of pride in that. So that's kind of our little thing, is to make that kind of food. And then when the season stops and the produce stops we'll stop doing food. And it feels good! As a farmer, I can't tell you how good that feels. My father would be very proud. He's passed away but he would be very pleased to know that food from Woodward Canyon and the Lazy S Arrow ranch is coming down here and giving people pleasure and enjoyment -- it's very cool. And it just FEELS good! It's probably as good a thing for a farmer as I can think of.

I am always an advocating for vertical integration in agriculture because we don't have a lot of it -- a farmer grows their wheat or product but they don't typically ever get to know the end user. They don't ever get to make a relationship with that lady or that couple or that man that came in and wanted to taste wine or have a light lunch -- and we get to do that here. It's just the best. It's fabulous! It's like Jiminy Christmas, if I would have known I could have done this as a farmer, I would have done this sooner. Except I probably wouldn't have had the confidence to do it sooner. Or the reckless abandon. Or both. You have to be a little crazy to do some of this stuff!

Well things would be really boring if we weren't all a little bit crazy, right?

Yes. And you know what Zibby? You also have to be willing to fail. And that's the crazy part. I gotta tell you honestly, at my age, I'm a little more conservative about that stuff than I used to be. Socially I am still the same person, always will be, but a good friend of mine told me once that you don't become a conservative until you have something to conserve. I've never forgotten that and I always give Scott Hendricks credit for it because I like it so much. It doesn't mean you have to be conservative in your politics, it just means that once you start to have things there's more riding on it. I have a group of 20 employees I have to think about and I have to provide jobs -- good jobs -- for them. So the idea of stepping out into these other facets is a little bit of a leap of faith, but it sure has been fun.

I think considering this was just our first year and the way people have embraced it, we're doing well. I know we could have done things better but I have been one in my business, I think, to never, ever be satisfied. No matter how good things can be or how well you've executed, I'd like to think there's always still room to take it higher. No matter what it is: from the vegetables we grow or the flavor qualities in our fruit or the quality of wine or the quality of plant material we put in the ground. The beauty is we haven't made our best wine yet, we can always do better in everything. We can always do better.

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