Co Dinn’s name is a familiar one in Washington wine country. An industry leader during his 17 years at Hogue Cellars, first as a winemaker and later as director of winemaking, Dinn often shared wisdom gained from his own experiences at a job he enjoyed, even as the company grew and changed hands.
But something was missing.
“My heart was in doing a smaller winery, more high-end wines,” he said. “I wanted to be more hands-on.”
Four years ago, Dinn decided to strike out on his own, setting up shop at a winery incubator facility at Yakima Valley College, focusing on longer barrel-aged wines to buy himself time to find a permanent home.
That home, Co Dinn Winery, opened in June, and Dinn is learning firsthand both the joys and labors in going it alone.
Water to wine
While pursuing his master’s degree in winemaking from University of California, Davis, Dinn worked for several years at Sterling Vineyards in the Napa Valley, followed by four years as an enologist at Trefethen Vineyards, learning the ins and outs of production winemaking.
He moved to Washington in 1996 to become the white winemaker for Hogue Cellars in Prosser, a position he held for 11 years before rising to director of winemaking, overseeing production of a half-million cases of wine annually.
During that time, Hogue Cellars was sold to Vincor International of Canada, which later was purchased by Constellation Brands, one of the world’s largest wine producers.
“It was big enough that I could still get out to the vineyards, but I couldn’t focus on it like I wanted,” he said. “And if I was going to do this, I had to get started while I still had the time and energy to make it work.”
Dinn’s attorney, who also represents the Port of Sunnyside, helped him locate a 1930 building formerly owned by the city’s Water Department, a 3,200-square-foot concrete bunker separated into multiple rooms, complete with an old ceiling crane, old fire doors and, thanks to renovations by the port after he signed a lease, new insulation, electrical and plumbing and three zones for HVAC.
He intentionally leased a site, rather than bought it, to cut costs, and bought lightly used equipment from another winery that had recently sold.
He also works at getting the grapes cleaned up in the vineyard to eliminate labor at the winery, given that he’s a one-man show. “So far, it’s worked out perfectly,” he said.
Sure, there’s opportunity lost from not having a professional winemaking job elsewhere, he said. “If I compare now to what I would be making as a head winemaker somewhere, this is clearly a bad idea,” Dinn said, wryly. “I’ve watched people start wineries and seen good decisions and bad decisions in how they spent money. I’ve learned.”
All about the grapes
Hogue Cellars sourced grapes from a number of Washington appellations, but Dinn is handling grapes from just one: the Yakima Valley. It’s diverse and moderate — “I’m not looking for the warmest or coolest area,” he said — and he finds that he likes what he gets in the Yakima Valley in terms of aromatics.
“There are wonderful vineyards throughout the state, but I can’t drive 200 miles a day as a one-man show. I think I can keep myself occupied and interested in just the Yakima Valley,” he said.
Joe Hattrup of Elephant Mountain Vineyard worked with Dinn when he was at Hogue Cellars, and now supplies four varieties of grapes — at much smaller volumes — to Dinn at the new winery.
“He’s just been a fun guy to work with, because he’s got a lot of deep knowledge and background,” he said. “He comes to the vineyard. He has a lot of good input. He spends time, watching the progression of the fruit by variety and going into harvest. He’s fun to work with because he’s engaged and available.”
Dinn is bottling just a handful of labels, including a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and a couple of red blends — one Rhone blend, featuring Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, and a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec. He plans to bottle about 700 cases in 2017.
“I initially started off making wines that would take time in the barrel, but I will probably bring in a quicker to market white now that I have a place of my own,” he said.
Now, with his winery set, Dinn is able to focus on sales and look to the future, not just for himself, but for the Washington wine industry overall.
“We are in a world-class wine growing region. If you look around the world to the truly great wine growing regions, they have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. That could be us: We have the climate and the water and the soil to be one of those. We’re just basically getting started,” he said. “What we have to ask ourselves is ‘What are we doing to improve, to protect our soil resources, our water resources, so that 200 years from now, 1,000 years from now, we’re still growing important wines?’ That’s really important to me.”
This could be a very long-term industry, Dinn said, and the industry isn’t talking about it that way. “These premium fruit growing regions are very special and unique, and we need to take steps to protect them for the future,” he said. “I’d hate to be the guy who abused something as precious as we have here.” •
Keys to success in the vineyard
So what does Co Dinn, a longtime Washington winemaker, look for in the vineyard?
Dinn said he primarily looks for grapes from vineyards with good elevation and slope — high enough they get air drainage, where soils are thinner and well drained — and from growers who will communicate well.
“There’s back and forth in this business, and I’m looking for a grower who’s excited about making a high-quality wine,” he said. “Not that everybody isn’t, but there has to be a spark.”
The most important thing growers should do well is correctly time certain horticultural practices, because when they’re on top of that, the quality shows in the grapes and in the resulting wines, he said.
The majority of growers handle more than one crop. Most often, problems arise because growers are producing multiple crops that compete for labor at key points in the season, he said, such as thinning apples and shoot thinning grapes.
“They always make the decision that’s best for them financially, and that’s good,” he said. “But that’s what’s the hardest, and that’s why communication is key. If I can pick up the phone and call them and make sure they’re on top of those things … I never try to tell them how to grow grapes. I just tell them what my concerns are, what I want and what I need. But ultimately, they have to make the decision.”
– by Shannon Dininny