WALLA WALLA — Much of the Washington wine industry put harvest on hold Friday to contemplate the loss of one of its most celebrated winemakers.
Eric Dunham, 44, died Thursday in Cannon Beach, Ore., reportedly of a self-inflicted gunshot, according to Cannon Beach police.
Mr. Dunham was the owner and winemaker for Dunham Cellars in Walla Walla. He launched it with his father, Mike, during the 1995 vintage. Mike Dunham died May 18, 2013, from kidney cancer.
Eric Dunham grew up in Walla Walla and was surrounded at an early age by winemakers who were family friends.
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“I’ve wanted to make wine since I was 10,” he said in 2008.
After serving in the Navy, Mr. Dunham began making wine as a hobby, producing his first barrel in 1993 for his father. In 1994, he worked for seven months as an intern at Hogue Cellars in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser. After that, he came home to the Walla Walla Valley, landing a job as assistant winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden.
“Eric was incredibly creative,” said Marty Clubb, owner of L’Ecole No. 41. “He was gregarious and friendly with everybody. He was the kind of person who made close connections.”
In 1995, father and son launched Dunham Cellars together, producing 200 cases of cabernet sauvignon at L’Ecole. Those early wines were highly prized when they were released, and word quickly spread about their quality.
Doug Charles was getting ready to open Compass Wines in Anacortes in 2000 when he began to hear rumors about Mr. Dunham’s wines.
On a scouting trip to Walla Walla, he made time to visit Dunham Cellars amid stops at Woodward Canyon Winery and Leonetti Cellar.
“I showed up there, walked in, tasted the ’98 cab and bought a pallet on the spot,” Charles said. “They had no idea who we were.”
Mr. Dunham and Charles became fast friends, and Mr. Dunham often would travel to Anacortes to pour his wines after Charles opened Compass Wines.
“Dunham was a pivotal winery when we opened the shop,” Charles said. “Eric was a key element in helping us get rolling.”
Mr. Dunham also was an important part of the burgeoning wine industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was trying to gain respect.
Steve Burns, who was executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission then, said Mr. Dunham would never hesitate to jump on a plane and pour his wines somewhere around the country.
“He was always positive, always a team player, always willing to go,” said Burns, who now owns a public-relations company in Sonoma, Calif. “That was important to Washington’s success. He was right there in the trenches with us. We had some amazing times together. It was a magical time. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
After the 1998 vintage, Mr. Dunham left L’Ecole to focus all of his efforts on Dunham Cellars. Mr. Dunham relocated to a former World War II airplane hangar at the Walla Walla Regional Airport, being among the first to establish a winery in what now is an area of town teeming with wineries.
Through the years, Mr. Dunham grew the winery to more than 40,000 cases, making it one of the largest in the Walla Walla Valley. While he earned his reputation with cabernet sauvignon, he also crafted critically acclaimed syrah and began producing an inexpensive red blend called Three Legged Red, named for his dog, Port, Mr. Dunham’s border collie, which lost a leg in a fight with another dog.
He is survived by his wife, Kanae; son, Hikari; stepmother, Joanne; and sisters Michelle Sikma and Katy Dunham.
Andy Perdue is the wine columnist for The Seattle Times’ Pacific NW magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.