Tasting Notes: The Family Way

Winegrowers-turned-winemakers bring family legacy to their vineyards and wines.

Category: Tasting Notes


More and more of Washington’s longtime farming families are moving away from traditional crops and into growing wine grapes, and are now seeking the Holy Grail—that chalice filled with their own premium Washington wine. After years of tasting the delicious, award-winning wines other winemakers have made from their grapes, these families—some with a century of wheat, fruit, and hops farming and now decades of grape growing under their boots—are bringing their passion for tasting great wine to the glass, trying their hand at producing wines themselves. And for many, like Spring Valley Vineyard’s Dean and Shari Corkrum Derby, the transition from wheat farmer to grape grower to wine producer seemed as natural as the weather.

The Derbys farm the Walla Walla wheatfields that have been in Shari’s family for six generations. But in the mid-1990s, when wheat prices were failing, they, like many other family farmers, looked to growing wine grapes on some of their acreage and selling them to supplement their income. By 1999, they started making their own Spring Valley Vineyard wines. “We realized that winemaking is farming,” says Shari. The Derbys’ son, Devin, produced their wines until a tragic car accident took his life in 2004. Devin’s assistant winemaker, Serge Laville, took over winemaking operations, but Devin’s spirit is still a vital part of this nearly 2,000-acre family farm. The Derbys still produce wheat, along with approximately 40 acres of coveted grapes, which, under the direction of Dean and his brother and vineyard manager Gaynor Derby, are used in Spring Valley’s five red wines as welll as other wines produced around the valley. The Derbys’ determination and attention to quality is a model for other longtime Washington farmers who have recently begun using their own grapes to make top-notch wines.

In 1908, Martin Olsen settled on 10 acres of land near Prosser, where he planted an apple orchard. One hundred years later, the Olsen farm has grown from that 10 acres to 2,000 acres, and Martin’s grandsons, Richard and Larry Olsen, have continued their family’s farming tradition of growing apples, hops, cherries, blueberries and, increasingly, wine grapes on their family’s farm in Yakima Valley. Although they’ve grown grapes on 765 acres of their farm for Washington and Oregon wineries, it wasn’t until 2006 that they jumped into the winemaking business themselves, establishing Olsen Estates winery and hiring former Chateau Ste. Michelle Canoe Ridge Estate winemaker Kyle Johnson to help them create their first releases of Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris. These wines show the finesse of the Olsens’ experience in growing the best fruit for other wineries. Their refreshing Chardonnay, for instance, showcases the fresh citrus and apple character of the grapes they’ve grown for many years.

Since 1982, another pair of brothers, Bob and Roger Gamache, has also been growing grapes for some of the state’s top wines, such as Columbia Crest, Abeja and Longshadows. And in 2004, they released their first vintage of Gamache Vintners estate-grown single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. These elegant wines, made with the assistance of one of the state’s most experienced winemakers, Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas winery, almost immediately joined the ranks of some of the best in the state, gaining awards (including Best Syrah Over $20 in Seattle magazine’s 2008 Washington Wine Awards) for these brothers who have so recently added winemaking to their résumés.

Shannon’s Wine Picks

Olsen Estates 2006 Chardonnay ($28)
This is a surprisingly fresh, aromatic Chardonnay with citrus, light tropical fruit flavors and crisp acidity. Lightly oaked, this is the perfect summer wine for picnics.