There has been some exciting news from Dunham Cellars in the past few weeks as they have promoted their assistant winemaker, to head winemaker. Rob Campisi has been working in the wine industry since 2007. Studying from one of Washington’s great winemakers, Dan Wampfler, Rob now has the opportunity to take over one of the outstanding lineups in Washington wine. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with him and chat about his recent promotion. These are very exciting times at Dunham and I am eager to see Rob’s deft touch in the wines. I think you will enjoy hearing more about Rob Campisi, the new head winemaker at Dunham Cellars.
WWB: How were you first interested in winemaking?
RC: Honestly, I had no idea about winemaking when I was younger. I became good friends with Dan Wampfler when he was at Columbia Crest, doing a lot of work on the west side. We got along really well and eventually became best friends. It was wild to see that he was the winemaker there because we were doing very different things. I was in the financial industry doing portfolio manager at entry level position there. The work was not really exciting. This was back in 2007 and the timing was a little depressing being a part of that industry. As soon as Dan took the position in the beginning of 2008 Dunham was half the size of what it currently is. They were a lot smaller back then so Dan hired his brother and myself, it was the three of us in the beginning. Dan promised the position taking me under his wing and show me the technical side of winemaking - beyond just tasting the wine. I literally started as a cellar rat just dragging hoses and cleaning tanks but used every opportunity I had to learn. I wanted to understand the importance of every bit of the process. I got more responsibility and then was promoted to Assistant Winemaker. A huge part of my experience was having some overlap with Eric Dunham and tasting wines with him. He was one of my best friends but as far as taking me under his wing and the style that he started, Eric had a great influence on me.
WWB: What was it like learning from Dan Wampfler? What are some of the challenges of taking over after such acclaimed winemakers?
RC: Learning the technical side of winemaking from Dan was major part of building my foundation. He not only introduced me to winemaking as a career but also something that becomes a lifestyle. It can be a tough job, especially during harvest, with long hours. If the passion isn’t there then this can a grueling job.
I don’t see a particular challenge from necessarily taking over after Dan but I think the biggest thing is the Dunham name itself. What Dan and Eric accomplished was really great. It’s an honor to have this opportunity but these are some really large shoes to fill. We are nationally distributed and have experienced great reviews and accolades. The expectations are high and it will always be that way. The challenge that any winemaker has to keep in mind is that you don’t want too get comfortable. We have to use every vintage as an opportunity to do it over again and being better than the last time with careful examination from the last one. It demands creativity and the ability to constantly adapt to changes.
WWB: Dunham has one of the best overall lineups in Washington wine. What are the biggest challenges in making everything from top Riesling to Chardonnay to Syrah?
RC: When you are making all these wines it is a real challenge. It demands a lot of time to figure out the wines and revisiting them. You want to be proactive about tasting. You might want to reach out to other winemakers. I like to hear other ideas and be open for discussion. I think that Riesling has its fair challenges. There is a simplicity of the varietal but stylistically you can bring it so many places. Like most white wines there is little room for error and anything off is obvious. There are not a ton of options with it, it is all stainless, no barrels. It’s all about maintaining aromatics but also balancing acid and sugar. Plus we are only working with one source.
Another challenging wine would be our Three Legged Red, Red Blend. There are so many wines and blending options to make this every year. This take some serious time to dial in and it’s usually our largest produced wine. Everything else has a longer barrel maturation plan so you can pencil the plans out. This red blend will only see a few months and you really want to deliver serious value for a $19 bottle.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Dunham wines, what are some of your favorite wines and wineries from the Pacific Northwest?
RC: I love wines of the world. I hate to be cliche but I love great Cabernet. With the local wines I love going tasting. Trey and Keith make great wine over at Sleight of Hand, Sean Boyd at Rotie, there’s Tamarack, Dusted Valley, I can go on and on. Then there are the wineries that have been there for a long time. Pepper Bridge for instance, Jean-Francois is an amazing winemaker. With Abeja, Dan Wampfler is up there and I have a lot of respect for that guy and his wines. Their Chardonnay is amazing. Amy, Dan's wife and partner in winemaking, has one of the sharpest palates out there.