Victor Palencia is likely the youngest winemaker in the Pacific Northwest, hired as assistant winemaker before he was legally old enough to drink and receiving the title of winemaker (and business cards) on his 21st birthday last January. But his passion, formal education, and work experience match some of those who have worked for years in the wine industry.
As a teenager, Palencia worked in the vineyards of Willow Crest Winery in Prosser, Washington, where he now makes the wine. Willow Crest uses estate-grown fruit, creating unique wines like Pinot Gris, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah port and sparkling Syrah.
“I was 13 years old when I started working in grapes,” he said, adding that he met Dave Minick, Willow Crest owner, through his older brother who worked in Minick’s vineyards. “My friends all laughed at me for spending my summers and weekends working. I was 15 when Dave asked me to help work in the winery.”
Minick first started him hand-labeling wine bottles at the winery, opening up cases, putting bar-code stickers on the bottles, and replacing bottles in the cardboard cases. “When he was 16, I gave him the key to the cellar,” said Minick, who eventually tired of coordinating his schedule to meet Palencia at the winery to let him inside and go to work. “Looking back, I don’t know that there are too many 16-year-olds that I would give that responsibility to, but I felt very comfortable doing it with Victor and didn’t worry about it. He was enthusiastic about work.”
Minick, who saw leadership and self-motivation qualities in Palencia, gradually asked the teenager to take on more responsibilities, like cleaning floors and tanks. The youth was soon doing a variety of jobs around the winery.
But it was his education at Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture where things started “clicking,” Palencia said, and he began understanding why things are done in the winery. He graduated with an associate degree in June 2005, part of the first class to study in the college’s new wine center.
During his two years of course work at Walla Walla, he worked for several different wineries through internships. He also worked full-time at Saviah Cellars as assistant winemaker to help cover his college expenses.
“It was a huge advantage to already have experience in the vineyard and winery before starting college,” he said, adding that although he was still in his teens, many in the program were in their 30s or older, with some starting a second career.
“I was the only kid in the program to be working already in a winery.”
Palencia, the son of a vineyard foreman, is the first in his family to attend college. His family moved from Mexico to Prosser, Washington, before he was two years old. One of eight children, Palencia grew up in a house supplied by his father’s employer that was surrounded by grapevines. Though he wasn’t ashamed of his upbringing, he admits that things were tough and there was “not a lot of capital to go around.”
He received a scholarship from Walla Walla’s Leonetti Cellars to attend the viticulture and enology program, surprising his family in his decision to go to college to learn about grapes and wine.
“It was hard for them to understand why I wanted to go to school,” he said. “They couldn’t understand why I wanted to go learn how to make wine so I could work at a winery when I was already working at a winery.”
And his mother worried that winemaking would lead to alcoholism. “She thought I’d become an alcoholic from tasting wine out of barrels all day,” he said laughing.
After graduation from the Walla Walla wine program, Palencia returned to his roots in Prosser. He was impressed with the grapes and diverse wines made in the Yakima Valley. “That’s why I wanted to come back—so my wines would stand out and be unique.”
Palencia interviewed with his former boss Minick upon his return to Prosser. “Dave’s been more of a mentor and friend than a boss. He was my foundation. When I presented my résumé to him, it was almost like two total strangers talking to each other. I’d gained and learned so much in two years.”
Much had changed at Willow Crest during his absence. Minick had recently expanded the winery, building a new barrel storage and tasting facility in a wine development park in the town of Prosser. The winery now had two labels, with its second label, Piety Flats, still sold at the old tasting room and production facility. And Minick had plans to do more custom winemaking for others.
No longer could Minick manage the vineyards and be head winemaker at the same time. With the expansion and future plans, Minick found he could sustain a full-time winemaker and afford to pay a year-round position.
Today, Willow Crest annually produces 10,000 cases of wine, with 4,000 of that made as private labels. They handle around 600 tons of grapes each crush, making bulk wines for some customers, and providing custom pressing, fermentation, and custom winemaking for others to help spread the costs of having a full-time winemaker and the investment of equipment more efficiently.
“It’s a neat story,” Minick said of Palencia’s quick rise in the wine industry and one that was even written about in the New York Times. “I like to think that I helped him with a dream that he didn’t know he had.”
Palencia said that when he was hired at Willow Crest as assistant winemaker, he knew that his ultimate task was that of a winemaker. After serving as assistant winemaker for six months, he received the official winemaker title on his 21st birthday.
He is criticized for his youth, and admits that he doesn’t have years of tasting or winemaking experience. “But I’ve tasted and smelled enough to understand what I like. And surprisingly enough, many customers like my style.”