Some wineries provide potato chips instead of crackers, to cleanse the palattes during wine tasting. But the chips offered for sampling in a Walla Walla, Washington, winery hold special meaning for owners Tim and Lori Kennedy.
Tim is founder of the beloved Pacific Northwest chip called Tim’s Cascade Style Potato Chips, a regional snack company that began in 1986 in a makeshift facility in Auburn, Washington. The kettle-style chips, unique at the time, quickly developed a cult like following and have grown into a $60-million-a-year business.
Tim sold the company to Bird’s Eye Foods in 2005 in the guise of retiring. But nine years later, he’s busy playing the roles of grower, marketer, and winemaker assistant in the couple’s estate winery called Don Carlo Vineyard. The vineyard and winery is in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, and the tasting room is in downtown Walla Walla.
The vineyard was all Lori’s idea, he said during a late fall interview in their tasting room located in the lobby of the Marcus Whitman Hotel.
“I came from an Italian family,” she said, noting that her grandfather and father made “basement” wine. “Making wine was a family affair, and we’d all go down to the Seattle train station to pick up boxes of grapes from Lodi, California. But it was nothing I ever thought I would get into.”
The concept for a vineyard started with a photo of Lori’s grandfather. “I thought his photo would make a great label for a winery,” she said. Later, during a visit to Tim’s parents in Athena, Oregon, a small town about 20 miles southwest of Walla Walla, the concept took greater shape.
“I always loved the vineyards that we’d pass on the way to Athena. On one trip, I casually mentioned ‘I think I’d like to have a vineyard,’” she said. “Tim embraced it right away.”
Becoming a grower was not totally foreign to Tim, who spent his high school years working for neighboring wheat and cattle ranchers in Athena. Also, during his chip years, he worked closely with potato growers to coordinate irrigation and harvest timing.
The Kennedys bought a 12-acre apple and cherry orchard with a small house in Milton-Freewater in 2006. Tim and Lori replaced the apples with ten acres of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc in 2007.
They left the cherries for three years to provide some income while the grapes were growing, but have since removed the trees and will be planting two more acres of wine grapes.
“Initially, our plan was to grow grapes, sell the fruit to wineries, and make a small amount of wine for ourselves,” said Lori. But after developing a business plan for the vineyard, they discovered they would need a much larger vineyard if they wanted a return on their investment.
It was important for them to keep the vineyard small, Tim said, because they wanted to do most of the work without hiring outside help. “So, we went the value-added direction with a winery,” he said. They converted buildings at the vineyard into a winery, releasing their first estate wines in 2009.
Lori is winemaker for Don Carlo Vineyard, which is named after her grandfather. Tim assists his winemaker wife with cellar tasks, but his main duties are in the vineyard and marketing their wines. They both help prune the small vineyard.
Tim and Lori have taken enology courses and seminars offered by the University of California, Davis, and Washington State University. Lori recently completed four years of study through Washington State University’s certificate program, two years each for the viticulture and enology programs.
“This is her dream, her venture,” Tim said, “but I’m 100 percent behind her.”
Wine and chips
Tim was prepared for the competitive aspect of the premium wine market, having worked nearly 20 years with distributors and brokers in the potato chip industry. However, he now works directly with consumers instead.
“It’s hard to break into sales in the wine industry because there are thousands of labels on the shelf,” he said. “With potato chips, you’re only selling against six or seven chip brands—though unlike wine, you do have short code dates of only nine to twelve weeks.”
The biggest difference he found between the two industries is the camaraderie and friendly competition of the wine industry.
“Many local winery owners have been very open and sharing with us—they want all Walla Walla and Washington wines to succeed,” Tim said, adding that even winemakers at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates are accessible for advice.
The potato chip industry is intensely competitive and revolves around Frito-Lay and several smaller regional companies. “There’s no camaraderie. Frito-Lay just wants to take you out,” he said. “It’s hard to compete against a company that has Pepsi behind it and can offer deals like buy one, get one free.”
For a small estate winery producing 1,200 cases annually, Don Carlo Vineyard is off to a strong start. In 2011, the Kennedys were one of the first of six boutique wineries to open a tasting room in the Marcus Whitman Hotel. One of the perks to being located in the hotel is that Don Carlo wines are poured at hotel conferences and events.
The winery has broken into the Portland, Oregon, market and sells wine in restaurants and grocery stores from Portland to Eugene and in five other states.
Additionally, Don Carlo wines are sold on the Internet through Amazon’s wine site.
Selling wine through Amazon involves filling out a lengthy form with detailed information about the wine, including things like cooperage manufacturer and harvest time of day.
“Amazon came to us,” said Lori, adding that Don Carlo wines have a huge following in Florida with folks that have never visited their Walla Walla tasting room, but are repeat buyers.
Every winery—especially a start-up— needs a story, a point of differentiation. “Our story is potato chips,” said Tim. “I’m known in the Northwest for my chips, so we prominently use potato chips in our tasting room.”
There’s a large painting of a bag of Tim’s Cascade chips on the tasting room wall and baskets of chip bags adorn the room. On some weekends, Tim fries batches of kettle chips for visitors at the winery, and if you’re lucky, he dips them in chocolate.
Don Carlo wines have something else in common with Tim’s Cascade chips. Tim’s Cascade chips are packaged in bright red and white striped bags so they will stand out on the grocery shelves. Don Carlo red wines share those attention-getting stripes—white stripes circle the red foil around the tops of bottles.
The white stripes helped identify the Don Carlo bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon poured during a 2012 episode of the television sitcom Big Bang Theory. Sales skyrocketed shortly after the show, and winery visitors wanted “whatever Sheldon was drinking.”
Walla Walla Valley has 125 wineries all competing for the same wine consumer, Tim said. “Down the road, we’ll be able to play down our chip connection, but in these early days, we’re doing whatever it takes to get noticed.”
The Kennedys’ prominent use of Tim’s Cascade chips is a fitting way to pay tribute to what helped establish the boutique Don Carlo Vineyard. •