Dunham Cellars was created in by Erik Dunham 1995 and is one of the older and most prestigious wineries in Walla Walla. The winery has evolved in recent years with the change at head winemaker. A few days ago I had the chance to sit down with Dan Wampfler, of Dunham Cellars, one of the most highly regarded winemakers in Washington. Dan is a native of Michigan, who achieved undergraduate and Master's degrees in enology from Michigan State University. He then worked for Chateau St. Michelle Wine Estates as a research winemaker, and also worked with whites and premium red wines as Assistant Winemaker at Columbia Crest.
Here is the transcript of my interview with the Dan Wampfler of Dunham Cellars:
Dan Wampfler mentioned that at Columbia Crest he was working as an assistant winemaker he was working on reds and whites. He described his journey into winemaking and noted “I left Michigan State with a graduate in enology and moved in 2001 and took the job at as a researcher. And then I was the research wine maker and we had an amazing thing. We were basically making 20 plus thousand cases from the research perspective and would blend all things to Chateau St. Michelle reds and internally taste them. As all great things tend to fade it did and then I was transferred into a senior production at their red facility.” Dan stated that at Chateau St. Michelle he was working on red wine production. Then he worked for Columbia Crest and worked on barrel fermented white wines, working with Semillon and Chardonnay as well as Luxe (sparkling wine). Dan mentioned “Helped out with the winemaker on those and then assisted on all reds. Did that for a few years and then focused on reds. To come full circle I handed off the barrel focused to my wife and she is now a head winemaker in Walla Walla. I left Columbia Crest as an assistant winemaker and then took the position of Dunham in December 2007.”
Regarding the transition to Dunham Cellars, a boutique winery Dan explained “You go big and the better you go the better you are off. You learn more at the big wineries and you can apply all those principles and can move from making 4 million cases vs 10 thousand and you can’t make the leaps the other way. The difference is not necessarily the winemaking but you have a sales department a marketing department. We have those at Dunham but for the most part it is all of us at staff changing our hats. I think to have your arms around the ownership of more is really what was enticing for me [at Dunham] and at St. Michelle I didn’t do any packaging and time in the vineyards as I am now and now I am in there all of the time and working closely with the vineyard manager and other managers. As well as making all the packaging orders and steer the decision making along with support from the owners. And managing my own team. On the production side. The ownership of all winemaking practices that is enticing.” Dan mentioned of the major perks of his job is the high degree of autonomy that he is afforded and the “hands off” approach by management.
Dan described his time spent at St. Michelle and Columbia Crest as “Winery U. you go there and it is a tidal wave of knowledge and experience that you absorb slowly after a number of vintages. Chardonnay is an example. The difference between 20 barrels at Dunham and 20 thousand barrels. How many years would it take to learn that and at Dunham? And at Columbia Crest we would do stacks of yeast type and one malolactic bacteria strain and one temperature variation and you are just a percentage point times all the different vineyards that you source from. At one vintage you get 20 years of experience at a small facility.”
Dunham has significantly increased the quality of their Chardonnay in the past five years. Dan mentioned that in regards to his Chardonnay he is “Trying to create is White Burgundy and to me that is one of the finest things in the world and I think that what I am trying to create with all our wines is balance and for me chardonnay is typically 60 stainless steel 40 barrel aged for roughly 6 months. That depends on the vintage. And so I am trying to create crisp and clean fruit forward chardonnays that are age-worthy and that become more white burgundy. Intriguing as you age. The barrels that I chose they don’t offer chateau 2x4 and I am looking to add texture. It is 100 percent new oak. Choice of barrel. French barrel.”
With regards to his winemaking style in making red wines Dan mentioned “We [he and Erik Dunham] both approach winemaking that we want to accentuate what the variety and vineyard offer. I think that the context is different. When Erik [Dunham] was making the wine it was much smaller production and he had more freedom to do whatever and it could be pushed through the system. Now we are a larger winery and we are a wine club only wine and I am expressive with and doing fun and exciting thing and I have brought a safety factor to the arena. One way that I joke around is I am the pocket protector and he is the artist and I think that I brought things to do the table like larger fermenters and sterile filtering the wine and cold stabilizing the whites and there is a production element that has a negative err to it but in reality it is still artisan but is more protective and allows the wine to have more longevity.”
Dunham Cellars has recently achieved some very high scores (even scores of 96 points) from both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Regarding the recent Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast ratings Dan explained “I hate the scores and it is one person’s opinion in one point of time in one point in the wines life. Someone’s palate evolves and to have that convergence be one number is not a fair judgment but I understand the scores as well and they are important. Trying to align someone’s wine purchasing habits on a more knowledgeable wine writer but as an artist to have your art subjected to a number. It is like movies. There are tons of movie writers but there are only a few famous wine writers and you have five people, only two in the US, making or breaking a win that you put your heart and soul into that you are a slave to mother nature on. But the scores sometimes do really well with scores and sometime they are scores that you don’t agree on.”
The 2011 vintage in Washington State is regarded by most experts to be the most challenging in decades, due to the low summer heat which developed generally under-developed fruit. Regarding the 2011 vintage Dan noted “2011 was the most challenging vintage that I worked with in Washington State. From 2001 to 2014. Having said that 2010 was challenging and we learned a lot that we immediately applied in the 11 vintage. And I think that we adjusted pretty rapidly a third of the way learning what not to do and what to do and how to react to fruit that was coming in under-ripe by 7, 8, 9 vintages standards. Like leaving fruit on the vine longer to extract more body and creative ways to mask or reduce any vegetative flavors that were less than optimal and immediately began applying them from when we were receiving fruit and what is exciting is that I had a gloom and doom opinion of 10 and 11 and 10 surprised me at every tasting. 11 is doing the same thing. And I think that my perception of quality Washington wine has changed. It is like raising kids and every kid that you have takes time to meet their own maturity. Perfect example is their 2011 Truitina and 2010 Columbia valley cab. Those are my favorites in the two toughest vintages that I made. The marketing is they are more food friendly but in reality they are more elegant. I even adjusted the winemaking so that we don’t bring in the overripe vineyards and try to keep a consistent style and you don’t have the huge peaks and make it worse by a ripe 13 and 14 and 11 was the most ripe. 14 is looking like it is riper than 13. Has the potential. The trick is to have balance in the vineyard and in your opinion of the wines and that