When Noel Perez was a teen growing up in the Walla Walla Valley, he realized he had two likely career paths — go to work in the area’s famous sweet onion fields or toil in its wine grape vineyards.
As the son of a farmworker family, it was a notion he pondered long and hard. His nose, a tremendously valuable asset in his new profession of winemaker, prompted his choice.
“You grew up in onions or in grapes,” he says of his perceived opportunities. “With onions, whatever job you do, you will smell like onions.”
So he went into the vineyards, a decision that ultimately led him to become the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year university. He didn’t just eke out his degree. He proudly notes he’s a summa cum laude graduate of Washington State University Tri-Cities in viticulture and enology.
It was an accomplishment that took nearly a decade to achieve when he finished up last spring. It started with a small step when he was 19 and enrolled at Walla Walla Community College not far from his hometown of College Place. A year later, he entered the college’s winemaking and viticulture program led by Tim Donahue.
“We’re going to Mattawa and J&S Crushing,” he recalls Donahue telling his students one day in 2012.
The highlight of the day was a tour of the cavernous custom crush facility, where each year thousands of tons of wine grapes are crushed and made into wines for an array of customers spread across the state.
The tour guide for the group was himself a graduate of the Walla Walla program, Victor Palencia, who was starting to make a name for himself by making wines made for one of the J&S partners, the Jones of Washington winery in Quincy.
That tour turned into a job at J&S working under Palencia. Perez jumped at the opportunity, gaining experience in an array of winery jobs.
“Tim gave me the confidence to go to J&S, so I took my backpack and clothes,” and off he went for a job he enjoyed tremendously, working and learning from Palencia and others.
As the months passed, Perez kept adding more responsibilities and more duties, Palencia said, working up to become a crush pad operator during harvest.
Perez might have happily remained there for years longer, but his father died in 2015.
“It changed my perspective,” he said. “He never got to see the fruits of what I’m doing.”
In 2017, he decided to enroll at WSU Tri-Cities after leaving his job at J&S, but his relationship with Palencia continued.
On his weekends home to Walla Walla, he already had been helping out at the then new Palencia Wine Co., operating from an incubator building at the Walla Walla Airport.
Palencia opened his second winery, Monarcha, in early 2017 at the Columbia Village Winery & Artisan Village in downtown Kennewick on Columbia Drive, and later relocated Palencia to West Richland. Perez joined both efforts.
“He’s got a good work ethic, one our many synergies,” Palencia said. “We’ve always done a good job as a team.”
Both are first-generation immigrants to the U.S., Palencia coming here as a child with his family from Michoacán, while Perez’s family came here from Oaxaca.
“We are two people with almost the same story,” Palencia added, noting, “I would bet there are hundreds if not thousands more.”
As the two work together to make wine, “there’s a little bit of magic, plus passion, plus a lot of hard work.”
Some of that magic has just been released to the consumer this fall, Perez’s first wine under his new Calvario Cellars label — a reference to the hard road traveled to reach his goal.
The 2016 Petit Verdot was made from grapes grown on the Wahluke Slope, a grape-growing area both know well from their time together at J&S Crushing. The 80 cases of the $36 wine mark the debut of a joint project that started even before the 2016 grape harvest.
His aim is to continue to release small, handcrafted lots of wine from select plots of grapes, with the next wine to be a 2016 Malbec, also from the Wahluke Slope.
Ultimately, Perez hopes to make wines from every one of the state’s recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
The small case lots are a far different approach from the work at J&S Crushing. Palencia recalls that in 2016, one of the busiest years of his time there, 24,400 tons of grapes were crushed. That scope gave him a sort of “30,000-foot view” and an understanding of where the best grapes are likely to be grown.
It’s a viewpoint that would have been hard to imagine back when he was 14 or 15 two decades ago and working in the Yakima Valley for Willow Crest Winery under David Minick, a longtime Yakima Valley grape grower who last spring was named Washington grower of the year.
And it’s a viewpoint shared by a couple of now-grown immigrant kids, Palencia believes, because people like Minick gave him an opportunity. And now, that’s what Palencia aims to provide for another promising winemaker.