WALLA WALLA, Wash. — If not for Stan Clarke, Tanya Woodley might have chickened out before she decided to dive into the wine business. And wine lovers would have been deprived of one of the most exciting young producers in Washington.
Woodley and Elaine Jomwe were living in Portland when they began exploring various wine regions around the Northwest. Their cellars began to expand, they started to make homemade wine, and the idea of making wine a profession instead of a hobby began to ferment.
Woodley, who had worked in the music industry for 15 years, enjoyed the artistry of winemaking, and Jomwe had a degree in business management and a background in accounting. It sounded like the perfect fit for running a small winery, so they began to explore which region to go to. Walla Walla quickly made sense for two reasons: The community college offers a top-drawer viticulture and enology program, and they gravitated toward the warm-climate wines of Washington.
"We love the Willamette Valley, don't get me wrong," Woodley said. "But they are limited to what they can make there."
In other words, she didn't want to make Pinot Noir.
In 2005, Woodley drove to Walla Walla to meet with Clarke, who was an integral part of the Walla Walla Community College wine program. The college wasn't admitting any new students for the upcoming quarter, which gave Woodley a chance to explore her options.
"He interviewed me and accepted me," she said. "I thought it was for the next quarter or even the next year."
But another student had dropped out, and that left an opening for Woodley.
"He offered it to me on the spot. I said, 'You mean in two weeks?' Wow!"
Two weeks later, Woodley had quit her job, put her house up for sale and moved to Walla Walla, living in a motel until she could find a place.
"It was one of those really fast decisions," she said. "I didn't have a chance to talk myself out of it. I didn't give myself that opportunity, and I haven't had any regrets."
While in school, she worked for Steve Lessard at Whitman Cellars, first as a volunteer, then a paid harvest position and finally as associate winemaker.
Woodley graduated in 2007, and she and Jomwe already had plans to launch SuLei. They acquired 3.5 acres of land south of town and began to plant grapes.
Two months later, Clarke died of a heart attack, leaving everyone in the Washington wine industry stunned.
"He loved what he did," Woodley said. "He took joy in helping people. I could always turn to Stan for help, and he never asked for anything in return. I miss him."
Their first wine, a red blend, was dedicated to Clarke.
Starting a winery in the crowded Walla Walla Valley just as a global recession hits could be a recipe for disaster, but Woodley and Jomwe smartly kept their operation small and their expenses low. They also began turning out dynamite wines and having little problem selling out.
Especially popular has been their Roller Girl label. Jomwe is a member of the Walla Walla Sweets roller derby team, and Woodley was a referee for a time.
"It's not just a sport," Woodley said of roller derby. "It's a group of women coming together."
And it's getting big, with teams forming throughout the Pacific Northwest. So the pair have created a second brand, with each wine highlighting a position in the sport. The first two wines are called Jammer Red and Blocker Rose. They are adding a third wine this year, a white blend called Pivot Blanc.
Thanks to the success of both labels, SuLei will likely grow to 1,000 cases this year.
"We'll probably stick with that for a while," Woodley said. "We didn't come out here to make a lot of money. We do this because we love it."