Over the past few years, four young Walla Walla dynamos have banded together, rising through the ranks with a shared sense of purpose — to make outstanding, world-class wines. They swap ideas, taste each other’s wines, pass on insights gleaned from experiences and mentors, and even work on their golf games together. And they do all this with swagger, as one might expect from a group dubbed “The Young Guns.”
Justin Basel (Foundry Vineyards), 31, and Josh McDaniels (Sweet Valley Wines and Doubleback Winery), 27, are both Walla Walla born and raised. They hatched The Young Guns in 2009 as a way of accepting the reins from the previous generation and to define themselves as serious contenders in the wine scene. As a result they have become lifelong friends who bring energy and fun to their joint ventures. Their first events included sold-out winemakers’ dinners in Portland and Tacoma. Clearly they have a good thing going. They quickly added two more guys to the mix — Greg Matiko (Skylite Cellars), 30, and Cameron Kontos (Kontos Cellars), 35.
All four winemakers were hooked by the business early on, most before they could legally drink. Basel began tinkering around in his parents’ winery during high school, completing his first crush at 18.
At 27, McDaniels had already worked his 12th harvest. During his senior year of high school, he bottled his first vintage as partner/winemaker at Sweet Valley Wines.
Kontos was volunteering at his father’s winery at 18 before furthering his education at other wineries, including eight years at Forgeron Cellars, before partnering with his brother to form Kontos Cellars in 2006.
Matiko is the one exception to the underage winemaking trend. He was the ripe old age of 23 when he volunteered as “harvest help” in 2005 for Forgeron Cellars, where he fell in love with the process and jumped into the industry.
The group dynamic relies on “strength in numbers” in an extremely competitive market. They are better able to promote their respective labels, as well as the Walla Walla AVA as a whole — a tradition they have carried on from their predecessors.
“This town is such a tight-knit community when it comes to wine,” says Kontos.
“The local wine industry has changed the economic situation of this town … because of that, we all feel like we are part of something larger than just our own separate careers,” says McDaniels.
Basel adds, “When people visit Walla Walla they don’t just stop at one winery. They visit multiple tasting rooms. The more people we get to Walla Walla, the better the wineries and community do as a whole. If we can get people to change their annual wine-tasting trip from California or Europe, and instead visit Walla Walla, we are winning a small battle.”
“I definitely feel that there is a sense of camaraderie among Walla Walla winemakers … We are genuinely proud to see our neighbor do well,” Matiko added.
Kontos concludes the community spirit by tying Walla Walla in with the whole state: “If we can work hard at building the Washington brand with other regions … we can become an area not to be taken lightly.”
The Young Guns are also interested in supporting their local community. Last year the group expanded from dinners and tastings into fundraising, donating time and wine for an event benefiting United Way.
So, how were these young bucks able to achieve success in the wine industry at such an early age? Well, quite frankly, it is largely because there was a well-established industry already in place — a community of experienced winemakers and vineyard managers with enough humility and kindness to lend advice to the next generation.
Meet the Godfathers
The Young Guns are quick to sing the praises of their mentors, the “Godfathers” of the Walla Walla wine industry. It is from these seasoned men and women that the third wave of winemakers is learning the craft, as well as the call to pass on the wisdom.
“I’m very heartened by this new generation. They are enthusiastic and will take our little valley into the next realm,” said Gary Figgins — the man who started it all back in the 1970s with an ambitious project called Leonetti Cellar.
Before the days of 10 dozen wineries and before the hillsides were planted with 1,600 acres of vines and 500 people would purchase tickets to a Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine event, there were two men with grit, determination, and who were hellbent on growing a wine industry in the Washington desert.
More than 100 years earlier, French trappers planted a small vineyard in Frenchtown (which is now occupied by Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole 41 — two of the oldest and most prestigious modern wineries in the valley). They produced enough to keep them happy through the winter months, but not much beyond that. Later, in the 1930s, northern Italian immigrants settled in the region, planting a few more grapes, followed later by the southern Italians. The Italians may have made a bit of wine, but their contribution to the region was in the business and farming sectors.
By 1970, the region was mostly planted with dry land wheat, onions, and apples. Of the few grapes growing, most were sweet white German varietals. No one was successfully growing red grapes. No one even thought it was prudent, given the harsh cold winters in Eastern Washington.
It’s a good thing Gary Figgins (Leonetti Cellar) and Rick Small (Woodward Canyon) were a bit foolish and young enough to envision only a successful outcome. With no local mentors and no community of wine-growing peers, the guitar-playing wine-tasting buddies managed to launch a multimillion-dollar industry.
“The reason we could do it is really because nobody told us we couldn’t,” says Figgins. Small has shared with younger winemakers that he never considered failure an option because he wanted success too badly.
The men were relentless in their quest to crack the Walla Walla wine code. Figgins read every book he could get his hands on, experimenting over the course of eight years before he deemed his wine good enough to sell.
“Small and I would talk ad nauseum about wine. No one around us knew what we were talking about. I drank a lot of mistakes,” recalls Figgins. Their passion carried them forward until it matured into a much more valuable trait — intuitive knowledge.
Curiosity and drive buzz from Small’s spry frame. He is still working constantly to improve. “If you stay the same, you’re going backwards,” is a motto he lives by when it comes to winemaking. His vineyards have been pesticide-free for more than 20 years. “Smell this dirt!” he implores, thrusting a handful of soil under the noses of several wine writers. It smells sweet, rich with flavor; possibilities to be absorbed by the vines.
“You must always push and push and push,” he says. “It’s like golf — you can always shoot a better score.”
In 1978, Figgins released his first vintage of red wine, a cabernet sauvignon that won national acclaim.
“I was ecstatic. Everybody needs that break. I was on a high for days,” he remembers fondly. A few years later, he came across a book that blew him away. Knowing and Making Wine, by Emile Peynaud, confirmed Figgins in his own mind, compiling all of the years of trial and error into a single volume of essential facts. The book is out of print, but still available online occasionally and for a pretty price. He admonishes young winemakers to “suck it up, and buy a copy.”
Figgins and Small were the pioneers who blazed the trail for the Walla Walla wine industry. They have happily dispensed advice for years on everything from whether to leave stems on during the crush, to how to present one’s self to the customers. But, they are not the only wise old guys in town.
“For me, the most helpful ‘Godfathers’ have been Myles Anderson and Gordy Venneri of Walla Walla Vintners. They were, and still are, more than happy to answer any questions I have,” Basel said.
Anderson was a clinical psychologist for 37 years back east before switching gears into the wine industry. He and Venneri practiced making wine for 14 years before they felt the quality was high enough to go commercial.
“The earliest wineries set a high standard for quality. As a result, we newer winemakers wanted to make sure our quality was as high,” Venneri said. “We are trying to grow a wine industry in Washington state and Walla Walla with high-quality wine. We want our competition and the industry to be very good.”
Hence, they are more than happy to help the next generation of winemakers. In fact, Anderson took it one step further. In 2000, he helped found the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. To date, there are more than 100 graduates, including McDaniels. The WWCC program features practical wisdom from enologists, vineyard managers, and winemakers as opposed to pure academics. It trains students to make region-specific wines.
“The more people we get to Walla Walla, the better the wineries and community do as a whole. If we can get people to change their annual wine-tasting trip from California or Europe, and instead visit Walla Walla, we are winning a small battle.”
— Justin Basel, Foundry Vineyards
Anderson stresses the importance of getting an education before jumping into the commercial arena. Then, he goes on, they should seek an internship at an established winery and/or become an assistant winemaker.
“Young winemakers should avoid practicing on the customers,” says Anderson. “Practice making wine privately, then when it is up to snuff, start selling to the public. And buy good grapes!”
The Godfathers seem to enjoy their role as mentors. Figgins appreciates the respect afforded by students and young winemakers seeking them out with wide, bright eyes. “Now I’m the old sage with a couple of things to say — it’s a 180-degree turnabout from when we first started.”