Fall 2011

A toast to a one-of-a-kind man

Let us pause a moment to honor a man who helped make a lot of things possible in the Northwest wine industry.

Bob Woehler, Wine Press Northwest's tasting editor since the magazine's inception in 1998, passed away Aug. 24. He was 79, and he left us way too soon.

We called him "Big Woe." He was 6-foot-6. He lived life in a large way. He embraced it all and rarely held back. He bellowed with a loud, gruff voice, but he was a puppy dog once you got to know him.

Bob did not grow up appreciating wine. Instead, he sort of fell into it. As the agriculture reporter for the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash., he was assigned to cover the opening of a new winery in 1976. It was Preston Premium Wines north of Pasco. Back then, Washington had fewer than a dozen producers, and the modern wine business was barely in its infancy.

But that assignment sparked something in Bob, and he had a vision for what the nascent industry could become, so he added it to his beat.

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Two years later, Bob talked the paper into letting him start a weekly wine column, and "Woehler on Wine" was born. He wrote it from 1978 until 2010. He tended to look for the good in people, and he wanted to recommend wines rather than trash on them. In the '70s and '80s, a lot of wine was being made throughout the Northwest, and Bob tasted it all. He would find the few good nuggets and focus on them and not dwell on the swill.

Bob wasn't exactly an industry cheerleader, but in a way, he was its public spokesman. While others were writing about Northwest wine, Bob was based in the heart of the Columbia Valley. He knew all the vineyards and all the people who ran them. Everyone was in his Rolodex -- and he was in theirs.

While he focused on Washington wine, he didn't ignore Oregon, British Columbia or Idaho, traveling to those regions several times and becoming acquainted with such legends as Dick Erath, Harry McWatters, Dick Ponzi and David Lett.

I got to know Bob well over the past 22 years. I arrived in '89, not long out of college. A few months after I got to the Tri-City Herald, I was invited to a dinner party and was tasked with bringing the wine. Seeing as my favorite winemakers were Bartles & Jaymes, I turned to the resident wine expert for help.

I don't think Bob really knew who I was at that point -- he was winding down his newspaper career and didn't bother to learn someone's name until he knew they would stick around and it would be worth his effort. But he commanded me to go to a grocery and purchase two bottles of Merlot from a young Yakima Valley winery. At that point, I wasn't sure if Merlot was red, white or otherwise, and I had just a vague idea where the Yakima Valley was. But I followed his recommendation, bought the wine and took it to the dinner.

It was the first wine I ever tasted -- since coolers hardly qualify -- and it was astonishing, a revelation, a thunderbolt. It was supple, fruit-driven and approachable. I can still taste it. And while I didn't drop everything at that moment and turn my life's pursuit into wine appreciation, the genesis for what was to come was planted in my subconscience.

Bob didn't realize it until years later, but that simple wine recommendation nudged me down a road I might not have otherwise have traveled.

For the next several years, I continued to come back to Bob for more wine recommendations and more thoughts about the wine industry. I even dabbled with the occasional wine article for the paper. Bob retired from the Herald in '94 but continued to write his column on a twice-monthly basis. And through that time, our friendship grew.

In late 1997, Eric Degerman and I came up with the idea of launching a magazine that focused on the wines of the Pacific Northwest. The first person we brought in to brainstorm was Bob, and he provided several ideas that remain the bedrock of Wine Press Northwest.

Bob was an old dog in the wine journalism game, but he had no problem learning new tricks. When he retired from writing his column last year, he picked up a digital voice recorder and launched a weekly podcast. It hearkened back to his news radio days in the late '50s in Omak, Wash., and it gave him the opportunity to talk to everyone in the industry. He equally loved interviewing industry veterans and winemakers releasing their first vintage. Bob produced 61 podcasts before he died.

The last two columns he wrote about wine appear in this issue of Wine Press Northwest. One is called "Bargain Bob" and focuses on inexpensive wines; the other is called "Vintage Musings" and looks at wineries that have been around awhile.

One way we plan to honor Bob is with a scholarship in his name. It will benefit students in the Viticulture & Enology program at Washington State University's Wine Science Center in Richland. You'll read more about this in the near future.

So let us all raise a toast in honor of Bob Woehler. His legacy will live on in every word we write about Northwest wine.

Andy Perdue is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.

This story was originally published September 15, 2011 5:54 PM.

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