After 30 years in the Washington wine industry, Rob Griffin is finally putting down roots.
Griffin started making wines at Preston Vineyards in 1977. He sealed his reputation with his first vintage, which earned him a Best of Show medal for his 1977 Chardonnay at the Seattle Enological Society’s Northwest Wine Festival. In 1984, the year he launched his own Barnard Griffin label, he moved to Hogue Cellars as winemaker and general manager. Since 1996, when his Richland tasting room was built, Griffin has devoted all his energies to Barnard Griffin Winery.
That’s a long career span by any standards, but it carries more resonance in Washington State’s winemaking business than it might in other fields. His work is nearly as old as the region’s most venerable vines. He is one of the Washington wine industry’s pioneers and has collected a healthy share of awards and accolades over the years. Barnard Griffin Winery, which Griffin owns with his wife, Deborah Barnard, is now the largest family-owned winery in the state. His 70,000-case annual production is distributed nationwide, helping carry the reputation of Washington wines across the continent.
For most of those three decades, Griffin had never put a vine in the ground, until recently, when he and a handful of investors formed a partnership called Vinagium and, in 2004, bought land and planted a vineyard on Red Mountain, near Benton City, Washington. They will crush their first crop in 2008, and Griffin will oversee the transformation of that fruit into wines bearing a different label than the one he has spent decades developing.
The group, which includes partners Coke Roth, Dr. Steve Ewer, George Dress, and Tom O’Brien, have planted their 120 acres to a cornucopia of wine grapes, including five different clones of Merlot, a variety of Syrah clones, as well as Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and "lots and lots of small blocks" of exotics, Griffin said.
"It’s significant that the vineyard investment I’ve made is on Red Mountain," he said. "I think that’s a very good place to have fruit, for multiple reasons, quality first and foremost."
Even though he’s now the proud partial owner of a vineyard, Griffin has no plans to live the life of a grower. Vinagium has entrusted management of its vineyards to Damon Lalande, a former viticulturist at Chateau Ste. Michelle who began his career in Barnard Griffin’s cellar. "I’m a winemaker, I’m not a grape grower, and I do understand the complexities of how much I have to learn," Griffin said. "At Barnard Griffin, we have as much interaction in the vineyard as we choose, but I think the wise move there is to leave that to dedicated professionals, and watch and learn, and advise and help where necessary. It’s going to take somebody who really cares about the intricacies to make Vinagium’s vineyard work because we’ve got so many small blocks. In a way, it’s a big research project."
As his winery has grown, Griffin has kept his business plan on a focused, yet flexible, course. "We are primitive but honest in our marketing efforts, and that works for us. There’s something to be said about putting out a superior product at advantageous prices that people recognize. It’s not always glamorous or flashy or sexy or whatever word you want to use. I think as a brand we get taken for granted a bit, and so be it, but people also take advantage of the quality."
Griffin’s consistency is one of his hallmarks, according to Vinagium partner Coke Roth, an international wine judge and attorney based in Kennewick, Washington, who has known Griffin since his earliest days at Preston. As a winemaker, Griffin has remained distinctive, Roth said. "His wine has been very opulent with fruit, very broad on the palate. You’ll find great value and great varietal character in every wine that Rob Griffin touches," Roth said.
"Over time, almost by accident we’ve become associated with a very good product at a very good price," Griffin acknowledges. "I was never an economy or bargain brand, and I’m not now, but we’ve always over-delivered what’s in the bottle versus what we’re asking for it. That’s another benefit of being lean and mean and not having anyone to answer to other than ourselves."
As for the future, Griffin is anticipating Vinagium’s premier release as if it were his first bottling 30 years ago for Preston Cellars. Like his wines, he expects to improve with age.
"There’s always room to get better," he said, adding that, "Better is a shifting target, very subject to fashion and style like any other business. It might move a little slower, but what was considered the paradigm of great red wine 20 years ago is different than what it is today."
Griffin is equally optimistic about the future of the industry he helped forge. He sees plenty of room for growth.
"Had I been crazily optimistic 25 or 30 years ago, I would have predicted the field today would be slightly smaller than it is now. There are very few restrictions on growth other than the obvious inability for markets to absorb more. There’s a whole lot of marvelous grape land that’s still unexploited. We aren’t running out of property the way the north coast of California could be considered to be, so the sky’s the limit. With plentiful water and the good agricultural infrastructure, it could double and double and double again. Success breeds success, and right now it’s very successful."