A new generation of winemakers gathered together during a Washington State wine convention. From left to right: Julia Hall, OS Winery; Mathew Gray, Coyote Canyon Winery; Markus Miller, Airfield Estates Winery; and Patrick Merry, Merry Cellars.

A new generation of winemakers gathered together during a Washington State wine convention. From left to right: Julia Hall, OS Winery; Mathew Gray, Coyote Canyon Winery; Markus Miller, Airfield Estates Winery; and Patrick Merry, Merry Cellars.

A new generation of winemakers is taking the reins at several Washington State wineries, combining their youth and vitality with enthusiasm.

The young winemakers are educated, taking advantage of several viticulture and enology educational programs now available in several Washington State colleges, and have gained valuable experience from internships and summer work in wineries.

“The new generation is coming,” said Victor Palencia, winemaker at Willow Crest Winery in Prosser and one of the youngest vintners in the Pacific Northwest. “We have stronger educational resources available than ever before, and the winemaking knowledge in the state has grown a lot in recent years.”

Many of the older, more established wineries in the state were started by growers who were self-taught or attended short courses in the area of enology, Palencia noted. But today, an abundance of educational opportunities is available, thanks to the coordinated efforts of industry and academia under the auspices of the Washington State Viticulture and Enology Education Consortium. The consortium helped develop and coordinate four- and two-year degree viticulture and enology programs at Washington State University and several community colleges, programs that are tailored to fit the needs of the Washington wine industry.

Young winemakers

Palencia is one of many young winemakers getting involved with Washington wines.

Andrew Gamache is another example of today’s determined youth.

Gamache, 28, joined Hyatt Vineyards as winemaker nearly two years ago. Before coming to Hyatt, he spent a year at Apex Cellars as assistant winemaker under Brian Carter. Hyatt Vineyards of Zillah, established by owners Leland and Linda Hyatt in 1985, produces some 25,000 cases of wine annually from 140 acres of estate-owned grapes.

Gamache, who grew up in Washington’s Yakima Valley, comes from a farm family that raised hops and grapes for juice and wine. He graduated from WSU with a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness and a master’s degree in agriculture, with an emphasis in wine and enology. He completed an internship at Hogue Cellars while working on his master’s degree.

Gamache works closely with Hyatt’s vineyard production staff in planning crop management for the year. The final wine style capped in each bottle is a result of a committee decision and suggestions from a hired wine consultant. Prior to bottling, Gamache prepares several different blends for each wine that are sampled by a team comprising owners, sales people, and others on the Hyatt management team.

When he hears a remark about how young he is—which is often—he smiles and tries not to dwell on it. “I know I have a lot to learn, but I plan to continue my education to stay on top of marketing and technology trends.”

His goal was always to be a winemaker, he added. “I just didn’t know it would happen so fast.”

New wineries

Several other young winemakers are making their mark in Washington’s wine industry in new, start-up wineries as well as established ones.

Marcus Miller, 28, son of long-time grape grower Mike Miller, is making wine from the 2006 crush for the family’s new venture called Airfield Estates Winery. They broke ground on the Prosser winery in October, with plans to open in 2007. Miller received his master’s in business administration from the University of Northern Texas before graduating from the viticulture and enology program at Walla Walla Community College. He completed an internship at Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and worked in New Zealand during grape crush in 2005.

Twenty-four-year-old Mathew Gray dabbled in home winemaking several years ago during a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps. While he was stationed in North Carolina, he made wine in his spare time from Syrah grape concentrate and frozen Viognier grapes delivered by air. When he returned home to Prosser, he attended viticulture and enology classes at WSU and completed an internship at Columbia Crest Winery.

The Coyote Canyon Winery opened in the spring of 2006 in downtown Prosser, and provides a lounge atmosphere for customers to sample their wines made off-premise. Gray’s family first planted wine grapes in 1994 in the Horse Heaven Hills Appellation. Today, 15 wine grape varieties are planted on more than 415 acres in the family vineyard.

Patrick Merry of Merry Cellars, at the eastern gateway to Washington’s wine industry in Pullman, began making wine in the start-up family winery in 2004. Merry Cellars, located in an old post office turned into a winery, wine bar, wine and cheese shop, and gallery, is the first commercial winery to open its doors in Whitman County. Merry, in his early 30s, earned a doctorate in computer science before moving from Montana to Pullman. He participated in the enology certificate program offered by WSU Extension to learn about winemaking.

Another young vintner recently beginning her wine career is OS Winery’s assistant winemaker Julia Hall. OS Winery is the new name for Owen Sullivan Winery, established in 1997 in the Seattle area. The winery produced 2,000 cases in 2005, according to its Web site. Hall joined OS more than two years ago when she was 22 after attending culinary school and receiving her MBA.

“The pressure is on us young winemakers,” Palencia of Willow Crest said. “For most of us, our first vintage—2005—was a gift from God. It was a great vintage for us to start on, and I think it’ll rock.

“Now, all we have to do is prove ourselves. We’re the future of the industry.”