Winemakers, of course, are responsible for the art that goes in the bottle, but few create the art that goes on the bottle.
From its start in the late ‘90s, Dunham Cellar’s Lewis Vineyard wines have featured the paintings of co-founder and winemaker Eric Dunham. Fittingly, the interest in painting grew out of a appreciation for wine and camaraderie.
“I’d get together with friends who were painters and musicians. The musicians would bring their instruments and the painters would bring their paints,” Dunham said. It didn’t take much coaxing, or much wine, for Dunham to pick up a paintbrush.
Dunham grew up around wine. His father, Mike, an insurance salesman, would have wine at the dinner table and enjoyed entertaining friends, sometimes with a young Eric dressed in a tux and serving guests. After four years in the Navy and with a college degree in irrigation and fluid dynamics, Jeff Dunham found himself in a father-son conversation.
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“Dad and I were on a rained-out fishing trip, and he asked me what I was going to do, and I told him I wanted to make wine,” he said.
Dunham learned his craft at two of the bigger names in Washington winemaking in the ‘90s: He interned for seven months at Hogue Cellars, then landed a job at L’Ecole No. 41 as assistant winemaker under L’Ecole’s Marty Clubb. He progressed to making small lots of his own wine under the Dunham Cellars name, releasing a 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon in 1997, and then launching the winery in 1999 in a World War II-era hangar at the Walla Walla airport with the help of his family. His father and fishing partner joined him as co-founder.
Mike Dunham died last May, but not without taking part in his son’s success.
“It was his dream come true,” he said.
While the winery gets fruit from Walla Walla, Columbia and Yakima valleys, Dunham’s paintings are used on bottles of wine from the winery’s Lewis Estate Vineyard in the foothills of the Columbia Valley’s Rattlesnake Ridge.
When it came time to design a label Dunham had plenty of talented friends he could have asked for artwork, “but I didn’t want to open that Pandora’s box” of favoring one friend’s work over another.
So Dunham put his own painting on a bottle of Syrah.
“We still have the painting hanging in the winery,” he said.
Dunham’s paintings are abstract and impressionistic oils. Dunham doesn’t try to explain his art. Or can’t. “I’ll have people ask me what I was trying to say. Shoot, if I know.
‘I think I’ll paint;’ that’s what I was thinking,” he said. Dunham paints when he can find time. It’s an avocation that’scomplementary to his winemaking.
“They’re a little different. Painting’s more relaxing. Winemaking can be relaxing at times, but it takes more baby-sitting,” he said.
And just as the art helps sell the wine, the wine has helped sell some of the paintings to friends and others who appreciate the pairing of two creative pursuits.
Two decades later, Dunham has lost count of how many paintings have graced the Lewis Vineyard label. Starting this spring, three more releases, 400 cases each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot will be released through the winery, restaurants, wine shops and Dunham’s wine club.
Does Dunham wonder how his life would be different if, at one of those parties, he picked up a guitar rather than a paintbrush?
“My pace of life would be a lot faster.”
--Jon Bauer is Wine Press Northwest’s Salish Sea correspondent. The longtime newspaperman lives near La Conner, Wash.