Unlike in Europe, the tapestry of the American wine story is still mostly comprised of people who are the first or second generation of winemakers and vineyard owners. Getting into the winemaking business in this country is therefore more entrepreneurial and less about taking on the family business. The stories of these entrepreneurs are, to me, always inspiring since I will count myself amongst the countless that have ever had a fantasy of leaving my day job to toil amongst steel fermentation tanks and oak barrels. Yet, here we are while folks like Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley live out our day dreams.
I met Chad quite a few years back on one of his many trips to Minneapolis to market his wine and admittedly, with full editorial disclosure here, I’m a fan of what Dusted Valley does and their wine. The story of how Dusted Valley came into being though I think wonderfully exemplifies the modern American wine story. Take a few kids from the Midwest, give them a dream, and with the right tools and resources with perhaps a dash of luck, they’ll set out and get to work. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago on one of Chad’s latest trips to Minneapolis for the Minnesota Food and Wine Show as well as the accompanying Washington State Trade and Media tasting that I finally sat Chad down to tell me the story of Dusted Valley. Of course I recorded it, and while there was a little more background noise than I would have liked, I have posted the full interview as an episode of the Wine and Food Experience Podcast which I will of course, highly recommend you listening to at the bottom of the page.
Chad met the other founders of Dusted Valley in his second foray into college at the University of Wisconsin – Stout. This was after a few years spent wandering around the West Coast in a youthful narrative that probably embodied some combination of Kerouac’s On The Road with a touch of Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test thrown in for good measure. But it was a time when California wine culture was taking a strong hold, and Washington and Oregon were on the upswing (Fun Fact: Dusted Valley became only the 52nd winery in WA in 2003). So while that culture may have honed his interest in pursuing a food science degree, the waitlist to get into UC Davis prompted Chad to look a little closer to home and he wound up at Stout. Whether wine was involved or not when Chad met his future wife, Janet, I didn’t ask but discussions about wine were certainly had as he got to know her and eventually her brother, Corey Braunel and Corey’s future wife. A wine business though wasn’t at the forefront of their minds since Midwestern values tend to focus more on what is practical first. So upon graduation, they all got respectable jobs and started to make lives for themselves. Yet the wine bug kept nipping at Chad. Coincidentally, Janet landed a job opportunity on the west coast and Chad was able to transfer out to the area in his pharmaceutical sales position.
Part of his week Chad would spend with his day job, and the rest he would spend touring around the burgeoning wine scene of eastern Washington learning all he could about the wine industry and the desire to start something sooner rather than later kept growing. Things moved fairly quickly after that through 2003 and 2004. The Braunels soon moved out to join the Johnsons and before they knew it they had a few tons of grapes and the help of a willing winemaker to show them the ropes. While Walla Walla, WA wasn’t necessarily chosen at random by Chad and crew, they were certainly fortunate to choose a place that had a fairly collaborative winemaking culture. Winemakers can be notorious for not sharing what they do behind closed doors. Even after the tutorials in winemaking though, they soon ran into the issue of how to sell the wine they’d made.
The pursuing years have been an education in how marketing and selling wine works. Simply by making good wine or even receiving accolades for it as Dusted Valley numerously has over the years does not guarantee that anyone will buy the wine. Chad and crew have been active students of the wine marketing world. Chad served a few years on the Washington State Wine Commission where he got to rub elbows with the likes of mega-wine producer Chateau Ste. Michelle and get further insight into how the wine world works. Additionally, they have struck up contracts with entities like Whole Foods for expansion opportunities of their Boomtown and Dusted Valley labels. Of course, they also spend a whole lot of time on the road getting their wine under the noses of whomever they can which has been made slightly easier these days now that their staff is expanding.
What I find most thoughtful about the how Dusted Valley approaches what they are doing is that they are constantly benchmarking themselves against wines that they themselves love whether it be Italian, French, or even other Washington wines and they’re willing to try something new. Then they’ll take something like a Rhone style Syrah heavy blend and fold it into what they’re doing. So in addition to having enough talent to make and sell some tasty wine, they’re also demonstrating that they have good taste as well. That combination of having good taste and enough talent to produce something that can measure up to good taste is certainly an enviable combination worth watching develop over the years to come.