David Dufenhorst might be most comfortable when he’s kicking up terroir on his work boots walking one of his three vineyards and pondering the future of his investments.
Since he retired as the Seattle-based CEO of a real estate development firm reportedly valued at $5 billion, Dufenhorst has been afforded more time to spend a stone’s throw from the Columbia River at Rocky Pond Estate Winery.
“Yeah, I don’t sleep much — five or six hours,” he said. “I just have so much going on in my head that I just wake up and have got to get going.”
There should be some peace of mind, considering the dream team he and his wife Michelle have recruited during the pandemic. Some came with perfection attached to their résumés.
John Ware — the new president of Rocky Pond Estate Winery — spent 20 years with historic Quilceda Creek, home to Washington state’s first 100-point wine.
Steve Leveque — Rocky Pond’s new winemaking consultant from California’s Napa Valley — made wine at icons such as Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Chalk Hill and Hall. Perhaps Leveque’s most famous wine has been the Hall 2008 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon, which placed No. 2 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2011 and garnered 96 points. As for 100-point scores, he earned three from Wine Advocate and a pair from Jeb Dunnuck.
Those scores, his time with global winemaker Michel Rolland and a background in viticulture, made Leveque the best fit for the Dufenhorsts and Ware.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt our brand, and I’m happy to work with him,” said Shane Collins, director of winemaking, viticulture and vineyard relations for Rocky Pond since 2017. “I’m not a man of ego. I just want to make better wines and learn some new tricks. Obviously, he’s made some great wines — and he’s from Napa.”
There’s a remarkable amount of buzz surrounding the rise of Rocky Pond on both sides of the Cascades.
▪ In the pipeline is the petition with the federal government to establish the Rocky Reach American Viticultural Area
▪ Just last fall, Rocky Pond moved its main Woodinville tasting room from the Warehouse District to the bustling Woodin Creek development in downtown Woodinville.
▪ Back in Douglas County, construction has begun on a 4,000-square-foot wedding pavilion for The Pond at Rocky Pond.
▪ On top of that, the Dufenhorsts have in the design phase of a mixed-use project a 50-room hotel, spa and restaurant.
Indeed, there’s no sleeping in for David Dufenhorst.
Cycling through Europe leads to Rocky Pond
It’s been a rapid rise for Rocky Pond. The seed was planted during a cycling trip through Europe that took the Dufenhorsts through vineyards.
In 2011, they purchased their first riverfront parcel, built a second home and haven’t looked back.
Two years later, they purchased 50-acre Clos CheValle Vineyard within the Bear Mountain Resort overlooking the south shore of Lake Chelan, opened tasting rooms in downtown Chelan and Woodinville, and established Double D Vineyard — as in ‘David Dufenhorst’ — in 2013.
They now own 390 acres, and acclaim for their wine program includes five Platinum awards from Wine Press Northwest in the past three years of the judging. Their latest was for the 11 Dams Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2017 vintage, the first with Collins as the winemaker as Rocky Pond continues to live up to the magazine’s award as the 2019 Washington Winery to Watch.
“We want to elevate our brand, and David has got a mission to get us where he wants us to be as quickly as possible — without cutting corners,” Collins said.
Proposed Rocky Reach AVA awaits commenting
If all goes as planned, the vineyards Dufenhorst planted near the Columbia River and Highway 97 downstream from Chelan soon will be nested within the Rocky Reach AVA.
Acclaimed geologist Kevin Pogue of Whitman College developed the petition, which the federal government accepted as perfected on Sept. 26, 2018. That petition was in the preliminary stages when Dufenhorst purchased the land for Double D Vineyard from Seattle-area automotive dealer Jamie Pierre.
“Jamie and I went in on the AVA petition 50/50,” Dufenhorst says. “He had 400 acres of ag land and sold me half of it. He still has 200 acres on the west side of the highway, and 160 acres on the other side — where the waterfall is.”
A year ago, a dozen or so petitions across the U.S. were in the pipeline ahead of Rocky Reach and awaiting the public commenting phase.
Most of those have since been established, including two AVAs downstream from Rocky Reach — the Royal Slope and Candy Mountain. Public comments on Pogue’s petition for White Bluffs north of Pasco, Wash., closed on July 27, 2020, so the window for input on Rocky Reach could open in early 2021.
“I’m confident that it will go through,” Collins said. “It’s just the amount of time that the process takes is frustrating.”
Rocky Pond began paying tribute to the proposed AVA with its 11 Dams tier, and the label features a map of the Columbia River that marks each of the 11 dams and the location of Rocky Pond — about 30 miles north of Rocky Reach Dam and 22 miles south of Wells Dam.
‘A significant investment’ made in culinary
At almost every phase of the business is an indicator of success or a sign of things to come.
In Woodinville, Rocky Pond opened a new tasting gallery on Oct. 19 as part of the long-awaited Woodin Creek Village development, and it will provide a delicious example of how the Dufenhorsts and Ware want to position the brand for consumers.
“There’s a significant investment on the culinary side with a focus on education, and the background of the team that we’ve assembled is pretty remarkable with five-star resorts and a Level II somm,” Ware said.
Managing that Woodin Creek Village tasting room is certified sommelier Holly La Porta-Jones, whose career includes restaurant manager at the Four Seasons Hualalai in Hawaii and a rep for Southern Glazer’s — the nation’s largest distributor.
Leading the cuisine is Douglas Setniker, who graduated at the top of his class from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. His résumé includes eight years as the director of catering for Microsoft and 14 years as executive chef of Guckenheimer.
A road map to the next level
Rocky Pond interviewed four high-profile winemakers from Napa for the consulting position. Among the candidates was a woman with Northwest ties and 100-point Cabs in her history, and Leveque wasn’t the only one to tour Rocky Pond.
“We were looking for someone from California who was a rock star with Cab, who wouldn’t get burned out on flying up here four times a year,” Dufenhorst said. “It’s nice that people like this have been willing to join us.”
Dufenhorst enjoys the farming aspect of the wine industry, and his wife, Michelle, has a penchant for hospitality, so they reached out to Deborah Steinthal of Scion Advisors in McMinnville, Ore., for a roadmap on how to reach the next level of the wine industry. Steinthal’s list of West Coast clients has included brands such as Adelsheim Vineyard, Cakebread, DeLille Cellars, Knudsen Vineyard and Woodward Canyon.
“She determined that we need to bring on a president and talent to run the business,” Dufenhorst said.
According to Collins, Ware checks off essentially every box in terms of qualifications.
“He’s easy to work with. He knows a lot about the business, and he’s connected to EVERYBODY,” Collins said. “He knows people on the sales side, in the restaurants and distribution — people in that part of our industry that I’m not connected with. He loves that stuff, and he’s great with people.”
As aspiring Bordeaux house
The Dufenhorsts let the Washington wine industry know just how serious they were about Rocky Pond when they hired Ron Bunnell to make their first wines.
Bunnell worked in Napa at Charles Krug, then Sonoma icon Kendall-Jackson prior to spending six years at Chateau Ste. Michelle as head winemaker. In 2005, he launched The Bunnell Family Cellar in Prosser and began making for others. His work with early Double D Vineyard fruit attracted awards and attention, but as Double D came online, Rocky Pond was selling more fruit to other wineries while growing its own production to 5,000 cases. Another estate vineyard was in the works, too.
“By 2017, we reached the point where we needed to hire somebody who would be full-time with us, so we hired Shane,” Dufenhorst said.
Dufenhorst is a traditionalist, and that’s reflected in something as subtle, technical and appropriate as the name of the winery brand. When starting out, the wines were made in Chelan at the old Vin du Lac facility rather than a production space Dufenhorst owned. Hence, the brand began as Rocky Pond Cellars rather than Rocky Pond Estate Winery.
In 2019, however, he built a production facility near Skeels Road — in the midst of a gated housing development Dufenhorst is building and the young Rocky Reach Estate Vineyard. That subtle but important step explains the rebranding as Rocky Pond Estate Winery. And the new building has given Collins, who grew up in a multi-generation farming family in the Lake Chelan Valley, complete control of his production.
“The wines were made under my direction at the Vin du Lac facility in Chelan, but I wrote the work orders and then they did all the work,” Collins said with a chuckle. “It’s different now. I just write the work orders for myself.”
Collins spent a decade doing delicious work for Tsillan Cellars in Chelan, so Dufenhorst created a bit of a stir in the community when he recruited Collins for the Rocky Pond project in July 2017. Two years later, a number of the wines Collins bottled helped Tsillan Cellars to earn Wine Press Northwest’s 2019 Washington Winery of the Year.
Along the way, Collins constantly would seek winemaking advice from his longtime mentor, Gordie Hill. There’s every indication that Steve Leveque can provide valuable advice from someone outside the Northwest.
“Steve is going to work with us to help take us up,” Collins said.
Two of Rocky Pond’s Platinum awards have been for Malbec from Double D, and Collins has described Merlot from Double D as “just phenomenal.” He’s also is smitten with Sèmillon, a white Bordeaux grape.
While there’s also been a Platinum for the tender Rhône grape Grenache and success with Syrah and Mourvèdre — the three components for the Stratastone — considering the arrival of Leveque and Ware and their backgrounds, this year’s Platinum for Cab is remarkable in its timing.
“I hope that in three to five years, people will see Rocky Pond as a Bordeaux house from the Columbia Valley — and hopefully the Rocky Reach,” Ware said.
Collins points out, “We’re still young as a company. The oldest vines on Double D were planted in ’13, and there was a lot planted in ‘17 with the expansion, so we don’t know yet what will be the shining star.”
Dufenhorst begins in wind down — a bit
A member of the Class of 1981 from Boise’s Capital High, Dufenhorst attended the University of Idaho, where he received a bachelor’s of science degree in business. A decade later, he earned a master’s in real estate development from University of Southern California, where he now serves as an executive board member of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. His volunteer work in Seattle includes Long Live the Kings, a nonprofit working to restore wild salmon and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest.
Dufenhorst climbed the corporate ladder at Security Properties to become CEO, overseeing a company with more than 25,000 multi-family housing units in 22 states. He retired in the spring of 2019, then he did some real estate work for a San Diego-based company that was set to run through the end of 2020.
“Now I’m spending about 100% of my time here,” he said. “This is a big business for us now.”
Construction set for 50-room hotel
Rocky Pond has 18 employees who are dependent in one way or another on the 390 acres owned and 30 acres leased by the Dufenhorsts, which include 66 acres of apple and pear orchards, with 115 acres under vine.
“And then we have a bunch of undeveloped land that we’re going to plant more on, and do some real estate on it,” Dufenhorst said. “There will be a 50-room hotel with a restaurant and spa, as well as 19 of these 1-acre lots in a subdivision, with 10 of those lots along the river.”
In 2019, the Dufenhorsts added 90 acres acquired from Auvil Fruit Co., in Orondo.
A centerpiece of those holdings is the namesake of the brand, the picturesque manmade rocky pond — created with stones from vineyard development — near the events center and wedding pavilion.
At some point, there will be a small amphitheater, another feature that’s reminiscent of the Bryan family’s project at Cave B at the Gorge — about 75 miles down the Columbia River from Double D Vineyard, which looks up at the Knapp Hill Tunnel. Dufenhorst gave away his youngest daughter, Danielle, at her wedding at Rocky Pond, and the Pepperdine University grad seems to be retracing his steps a bit by working in real estate and having earned a certificate in viticulture through Washington State University.
“This was all orchards at one point in time,” Dufenhorst said, and some of those fruit trees that remain will help outline the three-hole golf course planned for the development. The 1-acre riverfront lots are priced in the ballpark of $460,000.
“I think this is going to be a home run,” he said.
Demonstration vines with roots behind plexiglas
Before the pandemic-plagued 2020, Rocky Pond played host to a string of weddings and celebrations. The venue will be more attractive to brides with the 4,000-square-foot wedding pavilion and bandstand, much of it owed to Michelle Dufenhorst’s direction, although Soter Vineyards in the Willamette Valley also provided inspiration for the design.
Nearby, guests can stroll a demonstration vineyard, where an example of each grape variety planted at Rocky Pond will be showcased, all the way down to roots in the soil behind plexiglas. The Dufenhorsts found a similar educational feature during a recent tour of Concha y Toro in Chile.
“You will be able to see the vine growing in its environment, and the vines will surround an outdoor tasting bar,” Dufenhorst said. “It will be really, really nice, and I’m super excited about it all.”
Dufenhorst said the pandemic has only delayed their plans for the parcels they’ve acquired. He seems unfazed and undaunted, in part because of what he’s seen and experienced throughout his career in real estate. When he was still working in downtown Seattle, Dufenhorst would drive back to Chelan for the weekends. And these days, it’s not uncommon for him to be on the road by 4 a.m.
“We bought our first lot here in 2011 — 10 years ago,” he said. “It was definitely pioneering back then. In 2011, we were still in a really deep recession. I think the home lots that we bought have tripled in value since.”
A chef’s table of sorts in downtown Chelan
During the summer restricted by the pandemic, the Dufenhorsts reconfigured the conference room of their stylish Rocky Pond tasting room into an intimate restaurant along Chelan’s Woodin Avenue.
And despite the restrictions of the pandemic, their young new chef — Austin Harmon — provided a culinary experience unlike any other in the Northwest. Trained in San Diego and Seattle, Harmon works in delicious media that fits within a Lake Chelan theme. Guests can expect ingredients such as fresh orchard fruit, golden currants, black garlic, spring onion tops, locally foraged fungi, charred red cedar syrup and even phytoplankton.
“Austin’s five-course meals have been pretty exceptional,” Ware said. “Club members get priority.”
Harmon, who views Seattle chef Nathan Lockwood as his mentor, even cures meat and makes the butter for the bread served.
“Twelve for dinner is my magic number right now,” said Harmon, who grew up in Chelan, loves the lake and takes special pride in his stuffed pasta dishes. “That way, you will have that bond between your chef and your server and sommelier — and hopefully the people around you because it’s a very small dining room.
“I know there will be some there who just want to be by themselves to celebrate a special occasion and keep it intimate, and that’s fine,” Harmon continued. “For others, it will give them a chance to get to know the people around them. My dream has always been the community table idea.”
Winemaking, growing and grape sales
In addition to his winemaking responsibilities, Collins also oversees the three vineyards and handles grape sales to other wineries.
On top of that, Collins also was elected in 2020 as board chair of the Washington Winegrowers Association.
Rocky Pond has had as many as 17 customers for grapes, but on average it’s around a dozen, ranging from large producers to those who purchase half-ton bins. Some come from as far away as Utah.
Clos CheValle is 29 acres of vines across a 50-acre site. The young Rocky Reach Vineyard is 15 acres, and Double D stands at 64 acres planted.
“It can go to about 180 acres,” Collins said.
Rocky Reach focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.
“It’s hotter than Double D and very sandy,” Collins said. “Double D is rocky and hot. This is completely different, with six feet of topsoil on top of the cobblestones.”
At Clos CheValle, the vines of cool-climate varieties such as Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer must be hand-harvested. Among the products has been a new delicious Domaine CheValle Sparkling that’s a collaboration between Collins and regional bubbles producer Craig Mitrakul.
Because of its proximity to homes, Clos CheValle is farmed with Low Input Viticulture and Enology methods, as are Double D and Rocky Reach. L.I.V.E is a Northwest-focused non-profit membership group dedicated to sustainable farming practices.
“It’s definitely costly, but it’s the right thing to do,” Collins said. “We’ve stopped using chemicals to help with the fish habitat.”
Plans include adding 5 acres of Carménère, and more Sauvignon Blanc is coming online.
“We do have some at Double D, but not enough for our future plans,” Collins said. “We’re going to keep two to three wines in distribution, our Bordeaux red blend and then our Sauvignon Blanc.”
Woodinville-based business manager Jonathan “Kaz” Kaczmarek made wine at Soos Creek in Seattle prior to arriving at Rocky Pond, and he’s credited with the 2016 Malbec that proved to be best of class at the 2019 Platinum.
Kaczmarek remains involved with some of the club wine projects and spearheads the Merlot-led LaDomestique program.
And while there’s the Pinot Noir at Clos CheValle, the Dufenhorsts came up with a one-time Willamette Valley project with Brianne Day of Day Wines in Dundee, Ore., who earned a spot in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers in 2017. This past summer, Rocky Pond released the 2017 she produced for them.
“We made it to have a Pinot Noir reserve for our club members,” Dufenhorst said. “It was fun to go down there, meet her and see her in action. I don’t know when we’ll do that again, but it was another of our innovations.”
Building, developing a 5,000-case brand
As a brand, Rocky Pond Estate Winery is around 5,000 cases a year, and the plan is to stay around there, even with all of the vineyard growth, the two tasting rooms and the new housing developments for their emerging wine community, which includes a private airstrip that stretches 2,700 feet.
“Potentially, people can fly in and store their plane here, come up and dine at the hotel, use the spa and bring their friends, buy lots of wine and join the wine club,” Dufenhorst said. “That’s the hope.”
Back at the young production facility, there’s another feature in the works that will be available for private tastings only with a seating area walled off by glass.
“A cave is something that David has always wanted,” Collins said. “The soil types don’t allow us to do a traditional cave, but there will be storage for 424 barrels.
“That’s about 10,000 cases worth of wine. I don’t know that I will fill that up,” Collins said with a chuckle. “There’s a lot going on here.”
With a smile, Ware says, “The future here over the next two or three years is going to be pretty interesting.”
And while it’s small potatoes at the moment, there’s a chance that the Boise scion could see Rocky Pond wines poured in his hometown at Humpin’ Hannah’s — a popular, locally owned nightclub near the state Capitol.
“I’ve been wanting to get there forever because my aunt and uncle own Hannah’s,” Dufenhorst said. “It’d be fun to find something right downtown by them. We’ll see.”
ERIC DEGERMAN operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.