Washington wine community mourns, remembers Eric Dunham

By on October 24, 2014
Eric Dunham was the head winemaker for Dunham Cellars.

Eric Dunham of Dunham Cellars is remembered by the Washington wine community as a talented winemaker, a gregarious personality and friend to all. (Photo courtesy of Dunham Cellars)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Most of the Washington wine industry stood still in shock and sadness Friday upon hearing the news that one of its most creative and cherished winemakers died.

Eric Dunham, 44, died Thursday morning in Cannon Beach, Ore. Cannon Beach police are investigating it as self-inflicted.

Dunham was winemaker and co-owner of Dunham Cellars in Walla Walla, which he started in 1995 with his father, Mike.

He grew up in Walla Walla and was exposed to wine at an early age. His dad was friends with Gary and Nancy Figgins of Leonetti Cellar and Rick and Darcey Small of Woodward Canyon Winery, and Dunham would recall his father dressing him up in a tuxedo to help at local wine events.

“They let me taste some of the wines,” Dunham said in 2008 for a story in Wine Press Northwest magazine. “I started asking questions. I’ve wanted to make wine since I was 10.”

Eric Dunham’s path to winemaking

Eric Dunham was the head winemaker for Dunham Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington.

Dunham Cellars is in an old World War II airplane hanger at the Walla Walla Regional Airport. (Photo via Flickr/click for credit)

After serving in the U.S. Navy, Dunham took up winemaking as a hobby, making his first barrel in 1993. The next year, he worked for Hogue Cellars for seven months as an intern before being hired as assistant winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden.

“Eric was an experimenter,” said Marty Clubb, owner of L’Ecole No. 41. “Eric had the winemaking creativity. He learned to make wine under our roof, and he was confident in what he was doing.”

Starting with the 1995 vintage, Dunham and his father launched Dunham Cellars, crafting 200 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, all made at L’Ecole. Dunham Cellars was part of the second wave of wineries in the valley. Along with Canoe Ridge Vineyard, Walla Walla Vintners and Glen Fiona, Dunham Cellars gave the Walla Walla Valley its first 10 wineries. Today, there are more than 130 wineries in the valley.

That first Cabernet Sauvignon gained quick critical acclaim. The second vintage, 1996, was a short year because of a deep winter freeze that devastated vineyards across Washington’s Columbia Valley. The Dunhams scrambled to find grapes but did manage to produce 75 cases.

In 1997, they added a Semillon called Shirley Mays to honor Eric’s grandmother, who died of breast cancer. The Shirley Mays, which now is a Chardonnay, raises money for breast cancer research.

By 1998, the Dunhams were ready for their own place. They left L’Ecole after harvest, moving into a former World War II airplane hangar at the Walla Walla airport – among the first wineries to locate in an area that now is home to dozens of tasting rooms.

In 1999, Dunham added a Syrah to its lineup, a red wine that turned out to be one of the best in Washington. The 2000 vintage won a Platinum in Wine Press Northwest magazine’s year-end best-of-the-best competition, and the 2001 won a unanimous Double Platinum. The 2002 won a Double Gold, and Dunham made two Syrahs starting with the 2003 vintage, both of which earned high acclaim. The 2004 won another Double Platinum and finished first in the Platinum Judging in 2007.

Also in 1999, the Dunhams launched a second winery called Trey Marie, which would focus on a blend called Trutina. While the wine enjoyed critical acclaim, the winery concept never caught on. Ultimately, the operation was dissolved, and the Trutina red blend was added to the Dunham Cellars lineup of wines. Ironically, it became one of the winery’s top sellers after that.

Not long after, Dunham came up with a new red blend called Three Legged Red, a blend that usually includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. It is named after Port, Dunham’s dog. Port was a border collie rescued by Dunham when he worked at Hogue. Port had been attacked by a pit bull. Dunham saved the the dog and financed his recovery, but Port lost a front leg.

Port was Dunham’s constant companion until he died in 2008 at age 14.

Fame comes to Dunham Cellars

Compass Wines is in Anacortes, Wash.

Doug Charles, owner of Compass Wines in Anacortes, Wash., was an early proponent of Dunham Cellars and said Eric Dunham helped him in the early days of his wine store. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

After Dunham’s first couple of vintages, word began to leak out about the talented young winemaker. In 2000, Doug Charles, a longtime Washington restaurateur and wine aficionado, was preparing to open Compass Wines in Anacortes, north of Seattle. He got wind of Dunham and on a trip to buy wine to stock his new retail store, fit in a visit to Dunham Cellars amid visits with Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon Winery.

“I stopped and saw Gary (Figgins) and bought a pallet of wine from Rick (Small), then went to see some of the new guys,” he said.

He bought several cases of wine from Walla Walla Vintners and Glen Fiona, then dropped in at Dunham.

“I walked in, tasted the ’98 Cab and bought a pallet on the spot,” he said. “They had no idea who we were.”

But the young Dunham quickly got to know Charles and would regularly make the 350-mile trek to Anacortes to pour wine when Compass Wines opened.

“Eric was one of the first people who poured there,” Charles said. “(Dunham) was a pivotal winery when we opened the shop, a key element in helping us get rolling.”

Charles remembers Dunham as a talented and energetic man.

“He was nothing but a happy-go-lucky guy,” he said.

When Dunham Cellars began, the Washington wine industry was at a crucial crossroads, large enough to start making noise but too small to have much of a national force.

Steve Burns, who served as executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission from 1995 to 2003, remembered Dunham as one of the wine industry’s hardest workers and finest ambassadors.

“The best thing about Eric was he was always willing to work,” said Burns, who now owns a public relations firm in Sonoma, Calif. “We often had trouble getting a critical mass (of Washington wineries) to pour at tastings. Eric was always a team player, always willing to go. That was important to Washington’s success.”

In the early 2000s, the wine commission was visiting as many as 10 cities a year for trade and consumer events, and Burns said Dunham never hesitated to get on a plane and pour his wine.

“He was right there in the trenches with us,” he said. “We had some amazing times together. It was a magical time. It was a great time. The family was so small at that point. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”

Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, said Dunham’s talent as a winemaker was critical to the growth of the valley’s wine industry. He said one of the main reasons for the explosion of interest in the region between 1999 and 2002 was “the emergence of several young and talented winemakers who had learned under the tutelage of the valley’s wine industry founders,” he said. “Among those young assistant winemakers who branched out was Eric.”

Eric Dunham’s artistic outlets

Eric Dunham made Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and other wines.

Two Dunham Cellars wines include a Syrah with original artwork by Eric Dunham and a 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

In addition to his winemaking, Dunham also found an outlet for creativity in painting. His Impressionistic style began when he had friends over for music, cooking and wine drinking. At some point in the evening, Dunham became inspired to paint.

After that initial outburst of imagination, he became more serious. Soon, he created artwork that adorned labels, and his works graced the winery’s walls.

In recent years, Dunham settled down, got married and had a son. Last year, his father died after a long battle with kidney cancer.

“I was fortunate to have almost 20 years in the business with him,” Dunham said at the time.

Everyone who knew Dunham liked him. Clubb said that was his personality.

“He just made friends with everybody,” Clubb said. “He was the gregarious face of the industry. He was always happy. He connected well with the wine community.”

After news of his sudden death trickled out Thursday afternoon, hundreds wrote about it on Facebook and Twitter, expressing their shock and grief.

“That’s why you see this massive outpouring of comments,” Clubb said.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

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