Eric Dunham, a pioneering winemaker in Washington's Walla Walla Valley, whose Dunham Cellars wines consistently earned outstanding ratings, died Oct. 23. He was 44 years old.
His body was found in Cannon Beach, Ore., 340 miles from the winery in Walla Walla. Dunham had been listed as a missing person. Local police told Wine Spectator that officers arrived at a motel he was staying at on the morning of the 23rd. Officers heard a gun fire shortly after knocking on his room's door. They have classified the cause of death as a self-inflicted gun shot.
“This is beyond horrible news. It's knock-down, shocking, crazy news,” said Kyle MacLachlan, the actor who partnered with Dunham in 2005 to make his Pursued By Bear Cabernet Sauvignons and Baby Bear Syrahs.
“He was incredibly creative, and incredibly impulsive,” MacLachlan added. “He threw himself into any situation with gusto, including the relationship we had with the wine we made together. When I asked him if he was interested in making wine together, there was no 'Let me think about it,' it was just, 'Let’s do it.' That’s part of what made him so wonderful. He had this wonderful, young, impulsive energy.”
Dunham grew up in Walla Walla, the son of insurance man Mike Dunham. Eric survived several childhood illnesses, including a brain tumor at age 4, to serve four years in the U.S. Navy and earn a degree in irrigation and fluid dynamics at Walla Walla Community College in 1994.
On a fishing trip with his father, Eric said he wanted to make wine. He worked briefly at Hogue Cellars and moved on to L’Ecole No. 41 as a winemaking assistant. He started Dunham Cellars while employed at L’Ecole, making 200 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 200 cases of Syrah from purchased grapes in 1995. The Dunham label debuted in 1997, and in 1999 Eric and his father converted an old airplane hanger at Walla Walla Regional Airport into a winery, still Dunham Cellars’ home. Several dozen wineries have since set up shop in other old buildings at the airport.
Eric’s stepmother Joanne, who married Mike in 1982, is Dunham Cellars’ managing partner. She was said to be on her way to Cannon Beach Friday and did not respond to telephone calls. There was no comment from the family or winery staff.
Ron Coleman started his Tamarack Cellars in a nearby building around the same time as Dunham. “Everyone’s devastated,” he said after visiting the winery Friday morning. “I kept hearing how everyone just felt hollow. Eric was so young when he started. He had a spirit that energized us all.”
Dunham’s wines included Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, red blends, Chardonnays and Rieslings, all made from grapes purchased from longstanding sources. He also made bottlings for comedian Jeff Dunham—no relation—since 2008, the lineup including Bubba J Cabernet and Peanut Riesling.
Aside from winemaking, Eric was an avid painter and cook. His original artworks adorn labels of vineyard-designated and special bottlings. The winery’s website contains a treasure trove of both his images and his recipes, organized by year. Among the most recent are Eric’s Pork Candy Ribs and a Chicken Pesto Pea Salad.
He also had a soft spot for dogs. Port, a beloved three-legged mutt who listed to the left, is pictured on Three Legged Red, the Dunham red wine blend he inspired. Maysy, who came along after Port died in 2005, has been the head dog ever since.
Long before starting his Sleight of Hand Cellars, Trey Busch was Dunham Cellars’ first employee. “We met in Seattle, found we shared a lot of the same background, were the same age, and we got to be great friends,” said Busch, who had no experience in wine before he joined the winery in 2000. He called Eric his mentor, and recalled a moment that illustrated his generosity of spirit.
“He would excuse himself from the table, quietly find a waiter to pay everyone’s tab, and then he would leave,” Busch said. “Eric was notorious for ducking out of social situations without saying goodbye.”
Family played an important role for Eric. His father and stepmother were his partners, and on the winery website all of the partners and employees are listed as “winery family.” MacLachlan became part of the family in 2002, when he approached Eric to buy some of his Syrah to pour at the reception for his wedding to Desiree Gruber. “When I met him in New York I ended up inviting him to the wedding,” MacLachlan said. “That’s how it started. A few years later I asked him to partner with me with and our first vintage was 2005.”
Eric Dunham is survived by his wife, Kanae, son Hikari, and sisters Katy Dunham and Michelle Sikma.
With reporting by Aaron Romano.