Growing up in the Midwest, Morgan Lee never planned to make wine.
But during his senior year at Purdue University, where he was in the hospitality management program, he took a wine appreciation course.
“I loved that class,” he said. “And I started changing my mind about what I wanted to do after school.”
In 2005, Lee headed to Michigan, where he worked his first wine grape harvest. The next year, he landed an internship at Columbia Crest, where he worked alongside Juan Muñoz-Oca, now the Washington wine giant’s head winemaker.
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After the internship, Lee started looking for work.
“I drove around the state and dropped off résumés.”
He interviewed at wineries in the Columbia Valley but ended up landing at Covington Cellars in 2007.
Covington was started by David and Cindy Lawson in 2002 in Covington, a town east of Kent. David wasn’t a wine drinker when the two met, but Cindy was. He fell in love — with wine as well as Cindy — and they began to travel all over the West Coast to visit wineries. As a hobby, they began to make wine at home. It got more serious when David began taking extension classes at U.C. Davis from 1999 to 2001 and bonded their winery a year later.
They moved to Woodinville in 2005 — then just the 19th winery there. By 2007, they were ready to add an assistant winemaker, since they both still had day jobs, so Lee joined the company. That was the genesis of Two Vintners.
The primary focus at Covington Cellars is Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and the Lawsons wanted to keep it that way. But as a way to explore different varieties, they decided to launch a second winery. In 2008, Donavon Claflin joined the team, and in 2009, Lee was promoted to head winemaker of Covington Cellars. That year saw the launch of Two Vintners, which was named after Lee and Claflin.
Though the Lawsons own Two Vintners, they are hands off in just about every aspect.
“I’m doing all the marketing, sourcing and winemaking,” Lee said. “I get to be an entrepreneur. I just didn’t dole out the money.”
Success has come quickly. In the past two years, Lee’s wines have earned four Platinum awards from Wine Press Northwest: three for Covington Cellars and one for Two Vintners.
In 2011, Lawson retired from his full-time career and now focuses all of his efforts on Covington Cellars. Last year, Claflin left the operation to pursue new interests outside of winemaking.
While the Covington and Two Vintners wines are made in the same facility, the Lawsons opened a separate tasting room for Two Vintners. Covington has grown to 3,500 cases, while Two Vintners is a solid 1,000 cases.
“I let him do whatever he wants with Two Vintners,” Lawson said. “The only rule is we don’t make the same wine at both wineries. We don’t want to compete with ourselves.”
Lee and Lawson have secured superb vineyard sources, quite a coup for such a small and relatively new operation. They are bringing in grapes from such vineyards as Seven Hills, Pepper Bridge, Olsen, Klipsun, Dineen, Kiona and Discovery.
“We get some really great fruit,” Lawson said.
And they are turning those grapes into some high-quality wines, which is a feat for Lee, who has little formal winemaking training.
“There’s a lot to be said for friendship,” Lee said. “There are a lot of people I can count on as mentors.”
Lee has always been a hands-on student who relies on natural talent and learns from mistakes.
“I love being in the vineyards and working closely with growers,” he said. “The more I learn about the soil and land, it’s enthralling. I try to learn something new every year.”
The Lawsons could not be more pleased with the direction their former hobby has taken.
“Things are going really well,” he said. “We’re really proud of Morgan and the job he’s doing.”
For his part, Lee, 33, can’t believe how fortunate he is to be in Washington making great wine.
”The most exciting thing is being blessed to be able to make wine — and make it well,” he said. ”Growing up in the Midwest and moving out here on a wing and a prayer? It’s been awesome.”
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