Nearly a year since the death of Eric Dunham, those he left behind are picking up the pieces and forging ahead with a new vintage at Dunham Cellars. Last week, as the pace picked up on the earliest wine harvest ever in eastern Washington, I paid a visit to Dunham Cellars' "family"—both actual relatives and colleagues who had become part of what they think of as an extended family.
Such a process would be tough enough. Adding extra layers of grief is that Eric's death was self-inflicted.
"When we lost Eric, the earth cracked," said Dan Wampfler, Dunham's winemaker since 2008. "We sent everyone home. We came back the next day and knew that the best way to honor Eric's life was to keep everything going."
I visited Eric often in the 1990s, the early years of the winery next to Walla Walla Regional Airport. Dunham and Reininger were the first of dozens of wineries to start out in the industrial park, a repurposed World War II army air base. Though many have moved on to build larger quarters elsewhere, Dunham remains. The cramped 2,000-case winery I first saw continues to expand and accommodates a 27,000-case production.
Led by Wampfler, the winemaking team has a good handle on the Dunham style. Wampfler described it as "fruit-forward and balanced, with an Old World structure to New World flavors." As Merlot grapes trundled past a new optical sorter on their way to the crusher, Wampfler pointed out an array of air filters inside new sections of the winery, designed to keep material such as cork taint and miscellaneous microbes from affecting the wines.
"We're after the same target, just with better tools," he added.
"Having Dan gave us a big advantage," said Joanne Dunham, who founded the winery with Eric's father, Mike, and stepson Eric in 1995. She seemed subdued and thoughtful as we talked and tasted some special bottlings. "Each day gets a little easier and more normal."
One of the wines we tried was the Founder's Blend 2009, available primarily to wine club members. The cuvée was made to honor his father, who died in 2013. It is being released this year, on the winery's 20th anniversary, to honor both Mike and Eric. The components of Lewis Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah display the richness of flavor and graceful balance that have always characterized Dunham wines.
Another wine club bottling showed how Eric was always eager to try something different. Aged on its lees for 18 months, this Syrah developed so much chocolate character in the barrel that it's known around the winery as "Fudge Brownie." It certainly has more density and tannins than most Dunham wines.
Another example of Dunham's exuberance is a joint venture with actor Kyle MacLachlan, another son of the state of Washington. A bit more full-throttle than Dunham's wines, the signature Pursued By Bear (a Cabernet), has the winery's familiar plush texture and generosity, just amped up a bit. A Syrah called Baby Bear has similar dimensions, and a new dry, crisp rosé, to be labeled Blushing Bear, is coming next year from this vintage.
It may not be the same without Eric, but it's clear his gung-ho spirit remains in place.