While drinking wine sets many a heart on fire, making wine can be the polar opposite. Farming the dirt, cleaning tanks, all-nighters during harvest, and possibly the headaches that come with owning a small business can make for frustrations galore. But these three Walla Walla-based couples are making their dreams come true one vintage at a time despite the challenges.
Amy Alvarez-Wampfler and Daniel Wampfler, Winemakers at Abeja
The first thing you notice about this couple is that they clearly love being together. Razor-sharp wit is Dan’s native language, and while Amy cracks up at his humor now, it took her a while to warm up. They met at Columbia Crest in 2005, when Dan was making wine and Amy came onboard as an intern.
“We worked together for two years before we started dating. I thought he was full of himself. I didn’t get his sense of humor,” Amy said. “But now I think he’s hilarious.”
Amy — “Daniel is funny and likes to be the center of attention. I’m more reserved.”
Daniel — “She is the center of my attention.”
The turning point for Amy occurred when she caught Daniel (only she calls him Daniel) busting out some surprisingly adept dance moves to a Justin Timberlake song behind a tank. In 2008, the couple moved to Walla Walla, where he made wine at Dunham and she commuted daily to the Tri-Cities — a miserable year and a half for Amy. In 2010, she transitioned to Sinclair Winery in Walla Walla, where she learned the ins and outs of small business management, making wine, managing the tasting room, marketing — all the hats. “It was very eye-opening.”
They always dreamed of working together, so when Abeja owner Ken Harrison, called offering the couple head and assistant winemaker positions, the Wampflers jumped at the chance. “We never thought it would be possible to make wine together,” said Dan.
They’ve seen enough to know they don’t want to own their own label. They’re just thrilled they get to do the thing they fell in love doing — making wine. “The best part is knowing someone has your back in all circumstances,” said Dan. Amy agrees, “We make a great team. Our skills complement one another in the cellar. Together we make better wine.”
Understandably, the hardest part is leaving work at work, and not continuing the work conversations at home. But the tradeoff is the privilege of being together. “Why wouldn’t you want to work with the person you say you love more than anyone else in the world?” Dan said. Indeed. abeja.net
Mike and Melissa Berghan, Gifford Hirlinger
Ask anyone in the Walla Walla wine community. The Berghans are the fun couple — maybe the “funnest,” judging by the width of smiles on faces when their name is mentioned. It’s hard to tell who is the “funner” of the two.
A Kentucky firecracker, Melissa joined the Navy after high school and was stationed in San Diego, where she met friends originally from Spokane. In 1998, she visited said friends, swinging on down to Walla Walla for the Hot Air Balloon Stampede, and never left. She befriended (and often bowled with) many burgeoning winemakers at the time. But her role within the wine industry was mainly as a wine consumer. Even now, she laughs saying, “Mike makes the wine. I drink it.”
Mike rolled onto the Walla Walla wine scene in 2000 after several years of vineyard labor work in Napa. He grew up in Sand Point, Idaho, where his grandfather and great uncle worked in the lumber industry and eventually founded Schweitzer ski resort. During college, Mike studied abroad in Florence, Italy, through Gonzaga University. The school was located on the second floor of the Renaissance home of the Antinori family, just upstairs from the Antinori wine bar. “I met Piero Antinori when I was an idiot knucklehead beer-drinking kid,” said Mike. The experience piqued his interest in wine, and upon graduation, he worked the vineyards of Caymus in Napa, where owner/founder Chuck Wagner offered him grapes from his special selection block when Mike expressed an interest in trying his hand at winemaking.
Ultimately, Mike knew Napa was too expensive to start his own winery, so he toured Washington with his dad. Within an hour of setting foot in Walla Walla, he knew he wanted to stay, and purchased the property that now houses his family, vineyards, winery, and tasting room.
Melissa was actually engaged to someone else when she met Mike. “I was more fun than the other guy,” jokes Mike. Some things are meant to be. Two kids later, they are “living the dream” managing every aspect of their wine production, from farming the vineyards they planted, to making the wine (if Melissa says it tastes great, Mike immediately changes everything about how he’s making it), to running the tasting room (Melissa’s forte). Melissa’s background in the military and corporate world have honed her ability to work efficiently — something “Melissa’s husband” (as Mike is often referred to around town) readily admits he lacks, along with a propensity toward distraction.
“We are invested in what we do,” said Melissa. “We are doers. At the end of the day, we just get stuff done. I like to give Mike credit — he had such a plan, and he stuck with it. And, apparently, I’m bossy enough to make it happen.”
“It’s a lot of hard work, but look where we get to live. We live right above the winery. When I take a step back and look at it, it’s kind of what 90 percent of people want,” Mike said. “This is our life and our livelihood. We are in it together.” giffordhirlinger.com
Jen and Tim Armstrong, Armstrong Family Winery
Bump, set, spike. Some couples have the admirable ability to execute plans, and the Armstrongs have demonstrated that again and again. Their move to Walla Walla in 2017, however, was a modification from their original plan to relocate near Jen’s family in North Carolina. The journey from their first wine “aha moment” to full-fledged vineyard residents has been full of challenges, but they are committed to each other and the legacy they are creating for their two daughters.
“We just sit around like this all the time … always making out,” said Jen nuzzling Tim in the restaurant booth, faint drip of sarcasm in her tone. Tim chimes in with, “Well, that’s when we’re not strolling through the vineyard with a glass of wine in our hands, eating cheese…al fresco lunches every day.”
“To have the best idea of what it’s like (owning a winery), you just have to check out our Instagram feed,” suggests Jen. Knowing laughter ensues.
The couple’s foray into the world of wine began when they were living in Chicago, pre-kids. Tim had experienced his first wine awakening over a glass of Opus One during a work trip to New York City before meeting Jen, so by the time they were married, he was already a self-proclaimed wine geek. They would work long hours and then come home to a do-it-yourself house remodeling project each day. When they finally knocked off late at night, they would open a bottle of wine and really take time talking about it — where it was from, what it smelled and tasted like, all the nerdy nuances. Side note: One of those bottles just happened to be from Walla Walla Vintners.
Tim decided to sign up for a UC Davis wine class — they shipped him DVDs, which the couple watched together. After passing the exams, he was offered a position with Microsoft that would mean a move from Chicago to the Seattle area. During the decision process, a friend showed Tim around the various towns they might want to settle in, including a tour around the Woodinville wineries.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. So, we could come here for a Microsoft job, they’ll move us out here, and we could make wine, like legitimately we could make wine.’ Everything was here, all the assets were here for us,” said Tim.
The plan at that point still involved eventually relocating to North Carolina near Jen’s family. “We had this plan. We’ll go to Washington for five years, learn as much as we can in a place where they’re making amazing wines and then go to North Carolina with all this experience (and make wine there),” said Jen.
“But once we realized the caliber of wines that we are making here in Washington on a world stage — which, we had been having wines from Bordeaux and Tuscany — and you come here…with all due respect, you’re not going to North Carolina. You have a chance to make world-class wines here,” said Tim.
As the name implies, the Armstrong brand is a family winery, and everyone is involved. Jen’s parents fly out during harvest, and help with childcare and in the winery. There have been family overnighters at the winery, kids included. Jen’s birthday is during harvest and she’s had the joy of receiving a forklift or other piece of equipment as her “gift” on more than one occasion. The costs associated with being in the wine business are not for the faint of heart.
Also, in light of the family aspect, the Armstrongs wanted to make the business a project with longevity — to raise their kids in a town with strong community, to let them grow up on their own land surrounded by vineyards, to attach themselves to the place that is on the forefront of this up-and-coming wine industry in Washington state.
“As much as we appreciated Woodinville and the amazing talent that is there, it was not a realization of our vision,” Tim said. “We wanted the whole shebang — the winery at the vineyard, the lifestyle, to have our house there.” armstrongwinery.com