Duane Wollmuth went from growing grapes to hawking their valuable final product. As the director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, Wollmuth brings valuable inside knowledge to a difficult market but it's his creative strategic thinking, and ability to build partnerships, that is truly rooting Walla Walla valley wines in the national palate.
He's got the Washington wine world in his hands
What's the goal behind the Alliance?
The mission is to market the member wineries but obviously, when we're marketing the region, everybody's benefitting from that.
So how did you get involved with the Alliance?
Well, to backtrack about 12 years, I was actually on the original founding board. We started Three Rivers winery in 1999 and around that time we started talking about how, all of the sudden, six wineries went to 20 and then to 30. At that time, and still today, everyone got together and talked and shared ideas about how best to promote what we were doing in the Valley. My wife and I had bought Biscuit Ridge vineyards, which we still have today, and was one of the original four or five wineries in the valley too. Anyway, that summer we all got together and a number of us were saying, "You know, we really need to work together and we need something a little more formal to do that." So we talked about forming an alliance and a lot of the wineries in the valley got on board and wanted to be a part of that. So 2001 is when we formally formed the alliance and now is our 11th year.
In 2009, we sold Three Rivers to the Foley Family wine group. Obviously, as most deals go, I had a non-compete, so couldn't really go into another winery. I did some economic development work for a couple years and then this job opened up. I got to thinking this would be a great way to get back into the industry and be involved with and enjoy the people so I applied and was lucky enough to get it.
I imagine it's exciting for the member wineries to have someone who really knows the business inside and out leading this marketing charge
Well, and I've told a number of people, I wouldn't want to be in the position not having been in the industry. Because there's so many inside idiosyncrasies to this business, whether it's compliance or distribution or whatever. It has helped immensely to have come from the industry. I knew a lot of the people, so that helps with rapport, and for them to know I understand what they're going through -- from financing a business and marketing and sales -- is helpful.
One of the first things I focused on was contacting Alaska Airlines, because I had been in touch with them in my previous job, to put together the Alaska Airlines Taste and Tote program. In 10 years of owning Three Rivers I heard countless times people in the tasting room, when it came to buying wine, saying, "Well, I'm flying and I don't really want to pay the extra money to check it as baggage." It's kind of funny because it was $20 a case to ship, which doesn't seem like a lot of money, but people had spent $250-$400 on a case of wine so flying really did prevent people from buying wine.
You oversee some really interesting events, such as Taste Walla Walla. Do you have any favorites?
Yes, this past year we were in Portland, Seattle and New York City. This year we're not doing New York but instead trying to set some things up in Bend because some great relationships are developing there. It is a great market for us, a lot of good fans but it's a market that's close but not easily accessible. There are some really great markets out there as well: Texas, the Bay Area, L.A., Miami. Miami really is a very different world from the Pacific Northwest!
Brian Rudin, the winemaker at Cadaretta, once told me he was shocked by Miami because they love red wine there -- his guess was because everything is air conditioned
Yeah. And with the mix of nationalities and cultural influences, the food scene is so unique. It's a neat world and I really enjoy it. I wouldn't want to live there but it's always fun to go to places like that.
So, do you have a favorite event?
Well, I don't know if one really stands out. But, you know, it's surprising how the venues are a such big parts of events. Looking at it from the other side of the table, the big challenge with these events is having the right venue. If your venue is too chopped up and the interaction and flow don't go well, it affects the event. Also, I especially enjoy events where we have great restaurants involved. I always loved doing the winemaker dinners.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
I like wild game meats a lot and good Syrahs and Cabs with those. I had a great dinner in Houston, Texas, that I did when I was at Three Rivers that I've never forgotten because of the dessert. One of the wines we had at Three Rivers was a late harvest Gewurztraminer that comes from Biscuit Ridge. The chef put together a roasted red bell pepper cheesecake with flakes of roasted peppers in it and, it sounds really odd, but was the most amazing pairing. Everybody that had the dessert had never tasted something that way before. It really reminded me that when you have a good chef who really knows how to pair food with wine it really will enhance the dining experience. I've had the opposite end too, where the wine and food just canceled one another out.
How did you get into the grape biz in the first place?
I originally came to Walla Walla in '95 with the cellular telephone industry. I had been at McCaw in Seattle, which got bought out by AT&T, and the opportunity came up here with Kyle Mussman at Cellular One. About four years later, that company was sold and Kyle was very generous with all his employees so we got together with some people and as three couples, started Three Rivers. It made sense because my wife and I had bought a house that also had a vineyard. About 9 months after we moved there, Celluar One was sold and I figured I was too young to retire and needed to do something else. I did the winery thing because you could see at that time it was starting to take off. There were new wineries starting to pop up every month or two and a lot of talk in town about the wine scene starting to get a lot of press so I just kind of jumped on the wagon.
A case of the sought after "Right place, right time"!
It was. When we originally moved here in '95 I was at a rotary luncheon and a gentleman named Earl Roberge gave a talk. He was a photographer and had done some great books, the most recent was on Napa Valley, and in this talk he said Walla Walla is going to be the next Napa Valley. Of course everyone at the time was like, "Yeah, right", but if he could see what it is today, what he said has pretty much happened. I mean it's not and will never be Napa Valley, per se, but he really had some foresight.
Speaking of foresight, what do you foresee for the area?
I think we're kind of at another major stepping stone, not only for the wineries in the Alliance, but for Walla Walla in general. Walla Walla has come through this economic downturn pretty well and obviously tourism has been a big part of that and wine's been a big part of it. Not that it's going to explode but I think it's going to go to that next level, not only on the wine front but in terms of the performing arts with the Powerhouse Theatre, the lodging is coming along and the restaurants are quality. The one thing that all of us involved in tourism in the Valley don't want is to grow at a pace that is going to destroy the quality of life here. We want to maintain that quality so I think there will be growth and development, but it will be quality development. All of us live here, none of us want to ruin what we've got.
Also, the one thing I hear from people from Seattle, or pretty much anywhere, is they get here and didn't realize the quality of the experience. I mean, many of us are from somewhere else, and we came here because of the quality of life; the wine, the food, the arts and the whole experience. They get here and want to relax -- and you can here. What wine country is to people is coming to a lifestyle where you can slow down and relax for a period of time -- whether it's a weekend or a longer vacation. I think now people are realizing that there's a lot more to do than just 2-3 days of wine tasting. You can fill up week pretty well.
One final exciting thing is we have had the Vintage Walla Walla event for 10 years and we're going to be expanding that beginning June 20, 2013. We're planning an enhanced event called "Celebrate Walla Walla Wine - the World of [a specific grape variety]. In 2013 it's going to be Cabernet Sauvignon. We've always talked about what one variety really stands out, and we've realized that there's not just one -- Cab is fantastic here, Merlots, Syrahs, the white wines, Malbec, Tempranillo, they all do really well.
So we're going to take those three main red varieties and alternate the focus on them every year. We will pour the other wines, but to help bring attention to that chosen variety we're going to have guest winemakers come in from two different wine growing regions of the world that also showcase that variety. Cabernet will be someone from Napa and someone from Bordeaux, Syrah probably Australia and the Rhone, and Merlot maybe Sonoma and Chile. We will taste those wines and the Walla Walla wines to compare and contrast -- it's not about competition, it's just about comparing and contrasting the unique styles of those regions and how Walla Walla compares to them. We can show that Walla Walla really does stand up to all the leading wines in the world. It will be a great opportunity for people to experience something unique in terms of an event. We're excited and think it's going to be a great way to collaborate. Together we can tell a better story -- it's all about the whole experience so it's important that we work together.