Spotlight On: Dunham Cellars



By Kori ~ November 24th, 2008.

Dunham Cellars is a family-owned winery located in a remodeled World War II airplane hangar in Walla Walla, Washington. Eric Dunham began making wine under the Dunham Cellars name in 1995 in his spare time. By 1999, he decided to devote his full attention to his wines and together with his parents, Mike and Joanne, they opened the winery at Walla Walla Regional Airport.

Some of you may be familiar with Dunham Cellars from a Banner Bank commercial they did a few years ago. (Note: This is not an endorsement of Banner Bank; I just always thought it was a cute ad that stuck in my mind.)

“Eric Dunham, though still in his mid-thirties, has already acquired full renaissance man credentials. An accomplished chef, painter, and winemaker, he traces his interest in wine back to his early teens, when he perfected a variety of techniques for breaking into his father’s cellar.” –Paul Gregutt, Washington Wines & Wineries

Since Eric’s inaugural release of the 1995 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon I [his Columbia Valley Cabs are numbered with Roman numerals], his wines have garnered lots of attention. Well deserved attention. Eric has been the winemaker for Dunham Cellars since the very beginning. Earlier this year, Dan Wampfler joined Dunham Cellars as winemaker and now Eric’s official title is Director of Wine.

In July, we visited Dunham Cellars for the first time. Like most of the wineries located at the Walla Walla airport, Dunham Cellars is very unassuming from the outside. Inside though, Dunham boasts a good-sized tasting room and gift shop which opens into a much larger room known as the Hangar Lounge. The lounge is an eclectic space, decorated with some of Eric Dunham’s original artwork on the walls, which recently opened as a wine bar serving wines by the glass or bottle as well as offering deli snacks. Some of Eric’s artwork also appears on certain Dunham Cellars wine labels.

We recently had the opportunity to attend a Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon vertical tasting dinner at the home of our good friends, Ross and Alison. Ross had obtained seven Dunham Cabs (1998 through 2005, with the exception of 2003) for our wine drinking pleasure. None of them would be considered huge Cabs with big, bold tannins, but all of them were good, smooth, and well-balanced. Here’s a breakdown of those seven wines.

2004 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon X (Columbia Valley): Very distinctive nose with aromas of beef jerky, cinnamon rolls, and chile con queso. Black fruits and spice come through on the palate. Extremely smooth and well-balanced.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: De La Vin (Washington), $46

2005 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon XI (Columbia Valley): Aromas and flavors of black fruits, especially plums and blackberries. Smooth tannins. Opens up as it is paired with food.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $45

2002 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon VIII (Columbia Valley): Black cherry and spearmint dominate the nose. Blackberry, cassis, and black pepper come through on the palate. A bit of a funky finish.
Quality: 4 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Laurenti Wines (New Jersey), $37.88

2001 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon VII (Columbia Valley)
Quality: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 3 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $50

2000 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon VI (Columbia Valley)
Quality: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 3 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $50

1999 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon V (Columbia Valley)
Quality: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 3 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $50

1998 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon IV (Columbia Valley)
Quality: 3 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 1 bang for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Compass Wines (Washington), $59.99


Filed under: American Wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, Five-Bangs For Your Buck Wines, Red Wine, Spotlight On, Washington State Wine, Wines Over $25

Reader's Comments

  1. Paul Zitarelli | November 25th, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Kori -

    Wondering what your thoughts are on the 2004 vintage vs 2005, especially for reds. I feel like the conventional wisdom (at least from the reading I have done) is that 2004 was a tough year (because of the freeze), whereas 2005 was nearly perfect.

    But for me, I feel like the 2004 Washington reds that I have tasted have been consistently more interesting, terroir-driven, and generally better than the fuller, riper, fruit-driven 2005s.

    When you put the Dunham 2004 on top, it reminded me of this topic. I wonder if stressed grapes in 2004 made for lower yields but more mesmerizing wines. Your thoughts?

  2. Kori | November 25th, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Paul,

    In general, I have tended to prefer 2005 for Washington reds. However, I think you might be right that some of the stressed grapes made more mesmerizing wines as was the case with the 2004 Dunham Cab. Also, the freeze of 2004 hit the Walla Walla Valley the hardest so there can be considerable variation in the 2004 vintage depending on the wine’s region of origin within Washington.

    If the barrel samples that I have tasted are any indication, I believe that 2007 could be the best vintage yet in Washington.

  3. Walla Walla wine geek | December 10th, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Concerning the Walla Walla freeze of 2004… I think it is necessary to state here that the wines from Walla Walla Valley that year do not reflect “stressed” vines. There were no vines to be stressed! In fact, there were virtually no grapes at ALL that year, save for a few vineyards who bury their vines, a very expensive and labor intensive process. The freeze occurred in January. Temperatures were well below freezing for about two weeks, killing the vines even before bud break. Grapes that year (excluding the few vineyards I mentioned before) had to be pulled from elsewhere (Columbia Valley, primarily) to keep the industry above water. (Check Walla Walla labels from this year, you’ll see the trend.)

    The Cabernet from Dunham Cellars in 2004, utilized exclusively Lewis Vineyard fruit out of Prosser, since their other two estate vineyards, like the rest of Walla Walla, had no fruit to bear. Lewis Vineyard is slowly becoming a favorite of Walla Walla winemakers, generally expressing almost jammy fruit characteristics and beautiful round acidity.

    I will certainly agree though, that 2004 vintages from a few Walla Walla wineries have turned out to be my favorites, as even from the Columbia Valley, the grapes are not overripe, and are not your typical “fruit bomb”. I find these wines from the right vineyards far more elegant and intriguing than an average year.

    Can’t wait to see what ’07 will have to offer!

  4. Kori | December 11th, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    WWWG,
    Thank you for your comments and insight. Just to clear up any confusion:

    1. The previous comments were about the 2004 freeze in Washington, not only as it pertained to Walla Walla. You are correct in that Walla Walla was hardest hit by the freeze so there were very few wines made with Walla Walla fruit that year.

    2. The Columbia Valley fruit in 2004, including that used in the Dunham Cab, was stressing to get to ripeness as compared to the ideal conditions of 2005.

    In sum, 2004’s from some vineyards were great, but the overall vintage was not as good as 2005 in my opinion.