Victor Palencia isn't just living the American dream. He's embracing it.
The young winemaker for Jones of Washington in the Columbia Basin is crafting some of the state's best wines but never letting it go to his head.
In fact, when Palencia, 27, even thinks his ego might inflate a bit, all he needs to do is think about his roots.
He was born in Mexico, and his parents immigrated to the Yakima Valley when he was a child. He grew up near vineyards around the town of Prosser, and his father worked in orchards and vineyards. This quickly led to his interest in being around the wine industry.
"I worked in vineyards," he said. "As a kid, that was my after-school job. In my teen years, I enjoyed the outdoors, so the vineyard was a good fit."
It didn't take long for the job to become a hobby, then an obsession and finally an occupation.
After graduating from Prosser High in 2003, he began to work at nearby Willow Crest Winery, owned by David Minnick, and worked his way up to assistant winemaker even before he was old enough to drink.
That led him to Walla Walla Community College's viticulture and enology program. Stan Clarke, a former winemaker in the Yakima Valley, was an instructor there, and Palencia spent a lot of time with Clarke.
While in school, Palencia got to work for several Walla Walla wineries, including Bergevin Lane, Basel and Saviah. Each experience provided him with a little more perspective and new techniques. Palencia graduated in 2005. Clarke died two years later.
"He was my mentor going through the whole experience," he said. "He provided many life-touching moments."
After graduation, Palencia headed back to Prosser, where he worked for Willow Crest for two years. After a brief stint at nearby Apex Cellars, Palencia got his break, hooking up with Jones of Washington in 2008. The winery, owned by the Jones family, started in 2002, and all the grapes come from the family's three estate vineyards: Lewis & Clark near Benton City, Jones on the Wahluke Slope and Two Gun near Quincy.
For the first few years, Jones of Washington was a small-production label, but it began ramping up in 2006 and has grown to 10,000 cases under Palencia's watch, with the winery in Mattawa and tasting room in Quincy.
And the awards have come streaming in, too. In 2010, his 2009 Rose of Syrah earned a Platinum from Wine Press Northwest. In 2011, his wines earned numerous gold medals and best-in-class awards, both at regional and national levels. His remarkable year was topped in our 2011 Platinum Judging, when Palencia's 2010 Viognier was the best wine of the competition.
"I never thought it would get that much attention," he said. "You work with a vineyard all year, then to see it all come together is heartwarming and fulfilling."
The success has not gone unnoticed by his bosses. Allen Williams, director of sales and marketing, fields calls weekly from new markets wanting to carry the Jones wines.
"It makes my job darned easy," he said with a laugh. "Victor is an incredible winemaker," he added. "Every day, I'm just impressed with what a poised and humble young man he is. He's amazing."
In addition to the Jones wines, Palencia also oversees the company's custom-crush operation, which he says is many times larger. While he cannot reveal whose wines he makes, Palencia has a sense of pride whenever he walks down a grocery store aisle and sees his wines behind others' labels. Palencia has a crew of 10 on the custom-crush operation.
The winery is not taking any time to bask in its success. Williams wants to open a second tasting room, probably in Wenatchee, where the community is embracing the wine culture. Look for that to happen sometime this year.
This story was originally published March 15, 2012 5:22 PM.