Weekly Interview: Dan Wampfler

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-30-2015

Dan Wampfler

Dan Wampfler

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week we continue our series of features on Walla Walla winemakers by interviewing Dan Wampfler, the winemaker at Dunham Cellars.

If you have been following our series on Walla Walla closely, you may recall that Reggie Mace explained how Dan initially got Reggie involved in the wine industry. We’ve observed similar dynamics over and over again in our interviews of Walla Walla winemakers. No doubt it is a testament to the cooperative atmosphere that Walla Walla winemakers have continually reported. Throughout its expansion, it seems, the place as remained a close-knit community.

Dan embodies that warm, welcoming community. As you’ll see, his personality shines through his responses to our questions.

Check out the interview below the fold!

What has been your career path to where you are?  How did you land the job at Ste. Michelle and then later the job at Dunham?

I grew up in the Midwest with a general interest in science and a head for chemistry. Most dads wouldn’t encourage their kids to brew beer in college but mine did. We took up the “study” together in pursuit of “science,” (of course), and it proved serendipitous. Not only did beer-making win me plenty of friends as an undergrad at Michigan State, it also piqued my interest in fermentation science. I graduated with both a B.S. and master’s degree in enology in 2001. At the time, Washington wine was coming into its own, and the idea of being part of an emerging world-class wine-growing region was exciting. When Ste. Michelle Wine Estates offered me an opportunity to join them first as a research enologist and later as an assistant winemaker, I jumped at the chance. SMWE really is “Winemaking U,” and I was privileged to learn from some of the finest winemakers in the industry during my tenure there. Providence directed my career path again when in early 2008 I called Dunham Cellars to tip my cap to Eric Dunham after trying my first Dunham cab in a blind tasting. Coincidentally, the winery had recently started looking for a winemaker to free Eric up so he could spend more time on the road. Before I knew it, Eric’s dad Mike had me brushing up my resume for a job I wasn’t interested in accepting. . . or so I thought.

Tell us about Eric Dunham — what he meant to you, to Dunham Cellars, and to the greater Walla Walla community.

I don’t know if it’s possible to adopt one’s self INTO a family, but if it were, Eric was a new brother and Mike a natural second father. Eric and I hit it off instantly. Eric had an amazing gift for breaking down barriers with people and making any situation a celebration. He got a lot of that from his father. The two of them loved what they did and weren’t afraid to share it at the winery, in the Walla Walla Valley, across Washington State and throughout the United States. I am one of many who loved those two so much.

What’s in store for Dunham in 2015?

2015 is a VERY big year for Dunham. It is our 20th anniversary. We will begin to release wines from 2013, a stellar growing season in every way; we will honor Eric and Mike’s legacy with some special bottlings; and we are excited to showcase where our investment in our vineyards and winemaking will take us over the coming years as we look towards the future.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I believe that winemaking is science applied to art. To be successful, a winemaker must understand chemistry and microbiology of wine, but ultimately it is the artistic ability that frames a wine and pushes it towards a specific style.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

My biggest challenge as a winemaker is probably keeping my excitement for new wines, styles, vineyards and ideas in balance with the rate at which we can make actually make the wine.  It takes years from the time a vineyard is planted to the first harvest, and then several more years before that fruit has been fermented and matured into a wine ready for release.  I have lots of cool ideas about wines I want to make, but it all takes time.

What makes Walla Walla special as a viticultural region?

There are amazing meso-climates in Walla Walla, with multiple vineyards that are a showcase in each area.  What really makes Walla Walla unique, however, is the camaraderie of the Valley. Each winemaker and grower here is willing to share and assist others, the mentality being a “a rising tide floats all boats.”

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

That’s a big question – there are so many I respect.  I believe the humble ones tend to be the best. Dave Munksgard at Iron Horse is up there. He and his team make the best domestic bubbly in the United States. Mike Dunn, and his dad Randy tend to knock it out of the park. John Abbott at Abeja is one of the best in the country. Ray Einberger from my days with SMWE is my most obvious mentor; I learned so much from him. I have great admiration for Ken Hart, Dunham’s vineyard manager, because of his passion for grapegrowing. And then of course, there’s Mike and Eric Dunham. Their legacy is their vision for making great wines while having fun and treating everyone like family. That is a constant inspiration.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

I have been extremely lucky to have amazing mentors. I only hope that I can provide similar encouragement to others, particularly those I have worked with over the years. Reggie Mace is one of those folks.  My wife is also an incredibly talented winemaker. She crafts small lot artisan blends for Sinclair Estate Vineyards. Anything she makes, I’m excited about!

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

Champagne! It’s my Desert-Island-Wine every day of the week.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

I believe that the wine leads to the event, not necessarily the other way around. My wife and I on our first date ordered a bottle of Super Tuscan years ago in a quaint Italian restaurant in Seattle that isn’t even in business any longer. I don’t remember the producer, the vintage or the price, but it doesn’t matter.  That was the best wine I’ve ever had. The most interesting wine would be a German barrel-aged Riesling that could peel the skin off the roof of your mouth.  I would have thought it wasn’t fit for human consumption, let alone fit to be bottled.  A somm that I won’t name opened it up for me as a quintessential example of the style.  That was interesting.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

I don’t have a particularly impressive cellar.  But I try to make friends with those who do. The oldest bottle is probably one that I’ve lost or forgotten. Good wine is made to drink. Many are made to get better with age. I don’t have the patience for that. The most expensive bottle I own is actually in my parents’ cellar (or should I say basement). It is a 1998 Frontinac.  It’s worth about $30,000, (coincidentally the cost of my undergraduate degree) as it is the last remaining bottle of wine I produced for my senior project.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

Rarely do my wife and I open a bottle and not finish it. But the last few wines we opened were John Albin Oregon sparkling rose, a Tulpen Merlot vertical, ’06, ’07, ’08, and Sinclair Estate Vineyards 2008 Chardonnay.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

For the white wine I would choose 1998 vintage Champagne.  I wouldn’t be too picky about the producer. Moet, Salon, Krug. I’ll accept any as gifts for the next month. And for the red choice, I will go with 1995 Dunham Cabernet. It seems like a fitting choice to start the year, our first vintage of Cab for our 20th anniversary year.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Ah, yeah! It gets warm in the summer here in Walla Walla. After mowing the lawn, a glass of red doesn’t cut it.

How do you spend your days off?

Wait, you’re telling me I get to take days off? Just kidding. I have two beautiful daughters, Jada who is 11, and Elise who is one-and-a-half. When not making wine or walking vineyards, I spend as much time with my three girls as possible. My wife Amy and I love to cook and spend time with good friends. We love to travel, and I enjoy fly-fishing, if time allows. And to vent steam, I’ll sit at the drum set and jam to some tunes. I’ve been drumming for almost 25 years now.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

The fact that I have a very outgoing personality is no secret.  I was never the class clown, but I was definitely writing his material for him. I’m very comfortable in social settings and often come across as someone who wants to be at the party. In reality, I do enjoy the social parts of life, but ultimately I’d rather be home with a small group of close friends or hanging out with the family. I actually appreciate the intimate settings more than the grand ones.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

I’d probably be brewing beer or distilling somewhere. I found my passion for fermentation science early enough in life. The 2014 harvest marked my 17th wine vintage, but I started out brewing and did a fair share of distilling early on. I’m an equal opportunity hedonist.

How do you define success?

My parents gifted me with some amazing advice at a young age, “Find something that you love to do and you will be successful.” They were always the first to remind me I would spend the majority of your life working, so I’d better enjoy it. For me, sharing and making isn’t a job, or even a career. It’s a way of life. When you catch the wine bug, it’s all-in to the extreme. Success is loving what you do, and even more importantly, loving those who work alongside you.

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