WALLA WALLA, Wash. When Gordy Venneri and Myles Anderson launched Walla Walla Vintners in 1995, they thought they might be too late to the game.
After all, Walla Walla already had seven wineries including some of the state's luminary producers: Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon Winery and L'Ecole No. 41.
We felt like we were johnny-come-latelies, Venneri said. "We thought, Well, there's already seven wineries. Is there room for another? Are we going to be able to sell our wine?
Little did the two longtime friends realize they were still on the leading edge of a Walla Walla Valley wine explosion, a region that now is home to more than 100 wineries. And since that inaugural 1995 vintage, Walla Walla Vintners has been recognized as one of the finest producers in Washington, a winery with legions of fans who happily buy every bottle it makes.
Walla Walla Vintners' quality, history and place in the wine industry have earned it Wine Press Northwest magazine's 2016 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year, rising to the top of a list of producers that now approaches 2,000 in number.
The origins are humble and simple, a tale of two men who become friends, share a love for wine, hone their craft as amateurs, then take the leap into the business world and find sudden success.
Anderson began making wine as a hobby in 1978 and taught wine appreciation classes at Gonzaga University in Spokane before moving to Walla Walla Community College, where he was a counselor and administrator.
In 1981, Venneri began teaching business classes at Walla Walla Community College. He was 28 and wanted a job that could get him the summer off to travel to Italy and find his family roots. That summer, he traveled to Calabria in the boot of Italy, visiting the village of Serra Pedace, which his grandfather emigrated from two generations earlier.
There, he met his cousins, and they were home winemakers.
Over there, you have wine for lunch and wine for dinner. You get a liter of wine and enjoy it with food, he said. You dont go to Europe without coming back with the wine bug.
When he returned, he got together with Anderson.
We decided to find some grapes around here and make wine that fall, Venneri said. That was the roots of Walla Walla Vintners.
For the next 13 years, the two made wine and became good friends with Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon Winery, and Gary Figgins, owner of Leonetti Cellar. As it turns out, Figgins ancestors also were from Serra Pedace and Venneri and Figgins are distant cousins. Leonetti now has a vineyard in the southern Walla Walla Valley called Serra Pedace.
Anderson said Figgins and Small were instrumental in his development as a home winemaker.
They were very supportive, very helpful and taught us a lot, he said.
In 1995, Anderson and Venneri decided to turn professional. They weren't ready to make it a full-time gig, but they hoped to sell enough wine to support their hobby. They built a building on land east of Walla Walla, purchased barrels and prepared for a much larger harvest than they had been used to when they were making wine in a garage.
Unknown to Venneri and Anderson, the second wave of Walla Walla wineries was revving up. At the same time they were launching Vintners, wineries such as Dunham Cellars, Canoe Ridge Vineyard, Bunchgrass Cellars and Glen Fiona also were getting going.
We made 600 cases that first year, Venneri said. We were worried about whether we would be able to sell them all because we went from making a barrel or two a year of homemade wine to 30 barrels of commercial wine. It was never our plan that we would make so much money that we could retire. It was a fun secondary income.
The two developed a mailing list, just like other wineries were. As those first wines were patiently aging in barrels for two years, Venneri and Anderson talked to friends and wine lovers and began signing up potential customers. When the wines were ready, they sent out a brochure and waited for the fax machine to start accepting orders.
That first year, we pretty much sold out all of our wine within a month, Venneri said. There was a big demand for Washington wine, and 600 cases isnt that many to sell. We thought it was, but as it turned out, it wasnt. We couldnt ring the sales up fast enough.
The first couple of years, the two sold nearly all of their wine directly to customers, without the need to distribute any at wholesale prices to wine shops or restaurants.
In 2000, Doug Charles took notice of the Walla Walla Vintners wines and wanted to include them in a new business he was opening: Compass Wines in Anacortes.
Gary (Figgins) gave me a bottle out of his cellar when they first opened, Charles said. I loved the wines. There was a Vintners buzz in the late 90s and early 2000s. When we opened the shop, we bought up a bunch of Vintners stuff.
Venneri remembers meeting Charles and being uninterested in selling him wine. He knew he could sell his wine at full retail and saw little reason to give it to Charles for less. So Charles offered to buy 25 cases at full retail just to have the wine, which at the time was less than $20 a bottle. Venneri reluctantly went along with the deal, giving him a little bit of a discount.
He was one of the first guys we wholesaled to, Venneri said.
Through the years, Charles has remained a loyal fan and features the Vintners wines at Compass.
They age beautifully, he said. They have acid structure and are not as fleshy up front. Its a classic structure for aging. They seem to have kept that same elegant Walla Walla style. They havent become bigger wines. They've maintained that elegance.
In his Rare Washington Wines club, Charles typically features the Vintners Sagemoor Cabernet Sauvignon or Vintage Select and his customers love them.
Theyre one of the gems in Walla Walla, Charles said. Theyre not as famous as the other guys, but they consistently make great wines.
In the first 16 years of Wine Press Northwest's Platinum Judging a competition that includes only gold medal winners Walla Walla Vintners has earned 12 Platinum awards. Five of those came last fall with three wines from the vaunted 2012 vintage and two from 2013. The Walla Walla Vintners 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon was the No. 2 overall wine out of nearly 700 entries, having earned its way into the judging by winning double gold and best of show at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition.
In 2002, William VonMetzger joined the team at Walla Walla Vintners. He had been one of the first students at Walla Walla Community Colleges viticulture and enology program which Anderson was instrumental in starting in 2000. Through the years, VonMetzger was given more responsibility until he was named head winemaker about five years ago.
In 2011, Anderson was elected into the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame, housed at the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser.
Today, Venneri is 62 and Anderson is 75. Venneri retired from his day job about a decade ago the winery got so big that one of us had to retire, and I had a more flexible schedule and began to focus more on sales. Anderson has retired from Walla Walla Community College three times: He was brought back a couple of times to fill in for vacancies in the winemaking program, but his most recent retirement three years ago seems to have stuck.
Venneri and Anderson work closely with VonMetzger, participating in barrel tastings and blending and handling a lot of jobs during harvest. They remain the faces of Walla Walla Vintners while the more reticent VonMetzger is happiest while hiding in the cellar. Judah Pira Anderson's son-in-law works closely with grape growers.
Today, the team makes about a dozen wines each vintage, all reds. Theyre now getting fruit from their estate 11-acre vineyard, which rises up the hill behind the winery off Mill Creek Road. Theyve maxed out their facility at around 6,000 cases and dont have any great interest in growing bigger.
With all their successes, Venneri and Anderson remain earnest and honest about the way they run the winery. They seem in awe that they still have no troubles selling wine, and they don't take that for granted.
Its not about money, Venneri said. Its about what kinds of wines we like, as long as we don't go broke. Thats our business plan.
Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine (greatnorthwestwine.com) and wine columnist for The Seattle Times.