Life is sweet

Washington’s 500th winery, Camas-connected Sweet Valley Wines, releases first vintage

Owners of Washington’s 500th licensed winery are beginning to taste the fruits of their labor.

Kevin and Heather DeFord of Camas have realized their long-held dream of opening a winery. They are part owners of Sweet Valley Wines, located in Walla Walla, and released their first vintage in mid-May to swell reviews.

The 2005 Double Barrel Red retails for about $20 and is available locally at Roots Restaurant, Salut! Wine Co., and Arawan Thai Cuisine.

Kevin DeFord is a real estate investor who continues to work part-time at Portland-based DSU Peterbilt & GMC Trucks, and Heather is a Keller Williams real estate agent.

This year, the winery produced 105 cases with plans to up production to 300 to 325 cases per year for the next three years, adding a cabernet or merlot as a stand-alone label.

Initially, more than 25 cases of the cabernet-merlot-syrah blend were set aside to sell for the first month, and that reserve has already been depleted, said Kevin DeFord.

Plus, an Oregon wine distributor has added the wine to its repertoire, with interest from distributors in New York and Arizona.

"The response has been outstanding," said the Walla Walla native. "We’re hearing that it’s really good for a first vintage, which is impressive. We couldn’t be more excited."

DeFord migrated to the Vancouver area 20 years ago, but never lost touch with his roots. He watched the now tremendous wine industry there grow from infancy, and two years ago, decided it was time to get involved.

Starting a winery takes passion for wine, patience and a lot of money. Although he wouldn’t cite specific costs, DeFord said a start-up costs a minimum of $100,000. From there, the sky is the limit.

Expenses have been paid for in cash as they’ve arisen, rather than taking out loans.

It will be three to five years before the winery is able to stand on its own legs, he said.

DeFord said they started the licensing and bonding processes last summer and were blown away to receive the rank of Washington’s 500th winery.

"We are blessed to be that lucky," he said. "I really have to say the other 499 before us paved the way, and we hope to continue to build on the tradition and quality of Walla Walla wine."

It takes a village

The DeFords were not alone in their mission for great wine – the passion of a number of people went into the ’05 vintage.

They own Sweet Valley with their in-laws David and Karen McDaniels and friends Rory and Laura Schilling, who live in Walla Walla. The DeFords are half owners and the McDaniels and Schillings are each quarter owners.

And when it came time to get down to business, they turned to friends and veteran Walla Walla winemakers Don Redman of Mannina Cellars, Rich Funk of Saviah Cellars and Gary and Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellar, a father-son winemaking team that produces some of the most sought-after wines in the state.

"We got lots of help from people who know what they’re doing," said DeFord.

"It’s a close-knit community and a small-knit industry – it’s a beautiful thing. They want everybody to succeed."

Sweet Valley is currently leasing space at Saviah Cellars to make and house the wine, and has a tasting room at Mannina Cellars. Not yet in the growing business – Sweet Valley’s grapes are sourced from the Walla Walla Valley – DeFord said he and his fellow owners have their eye on a 20-acre vineyard in the valley.

Within the next two or three years, they plan to remodel the downtown building where the McDaniels’ ice company, Crystal Clear Ice, is located to house a tasting room as well as the production and storage of the wine.

Redman of Mannina and Chris Figgins of Leonetti stepped forward for the winemaking process, offering to mentor Sweet Valley’s future winemaker, Josh McDaniels – who is set to graduate from Walla Walla High School on June 8.

Josh was recruited by college athletics programs but instead signed on at Walla Walla Community College to study in its emerging enology and viticulture program, which he will start in the fall.

His age posed a bit of a challenge with the program admittance process.

"You would never think that in this day and age, age would stand in the way of someone following his dreams," DeFord said. "A few eyebrows were raised, but Josh has been around wineries long enough and watched the birth of the industry there, and he has the beginnings of a pallet to recognize really fine wines."

McDaniels was part of the development process of the ’05 vintage and gave his input. Upon his graduation from the viticulture program, McDaniels has indicated he will take over as Sweet Valley’s lead winemaker, DeFord said.

DeFord said his distance from Walla Walla can be a challenge. He manages the winery’s marketing and sales, and David McDaniels handles the day-to-day responsibilities. The result – "we have the best of both worlds," DeFord said.

Six years from now, DeFord said he hopes the winery will produce between 3,000 to 6,000 cases of wine per year, as long as the quality remains high. The biggest challenge will be balancing supply with demand.

DeFord is genuine in his respect for his winemaking predecessors, having watched them grow up in the budding Washington wine industry.

"In our philosophy, wine is something you share with everybody," DeFord said. "It’s food-of-love juice, and we want to pass it along. You get blessed by the fruits of your labor."

Wine in Washington

Washington is the No. 2 wine-producing state in the country after California (home to more than 2,200 bonded wineries).

Washington’s wine industry – Eastern Washington’s in particular – has grown dramatically in the past 20 years.

In the ’80s, fewer than 20 wineries were established in the state. Washington’s 100th was licensed in 1997, and by 2006, the number had grown to 460, according to the Washington Wine Commission.

Now, wine grapes are harvested by 350 growers on 31,000 acres in nine federally recognized American Viticultural Areas across the state.