It didn't take long for young Eric Dunham to gain fame as one of Washington's top winemakers. While still an assistant winemaker at L'Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley town of Lowden, Dunham crafted 200 cases of cabernet sauvignon in 1995. At the time, there were fewer than 10 wineries in the valley (today, there are more than 150), and wine lovers quickly made Dunham's cabernet highly collectible.
From there, he slowly built up his production, moving to a World War II-era airplane hanger at the Walla Walla airport in 1998. A year later, he left L'Ecole to spend all his energy on Dunham Cellars.
Through the years, he has built a reputation of not only crafting great cabernet sauvignon, but also being one of the state's finest producers of syrah, merlot, red blends and a number of white wines. Today, he and winemaker Dan Wampfler produce more than 15,000 cases of wine annually, with much of the fruit coming from Lewis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.
His most popular wines are Trutina and Three Legged Red, two nicely priced red blends. The latter is named for Port, a dog Dunham rescued in 1994. Port lost a leg in a fight with a pit bull, hence the name of the wine. Port lived a long and happy life as Dunham's constant companion, passing away in 2008.
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In addition to his artistry in the cellar, Dunham also picks up a paintbrush to create many of the labels that adorn his wines.
Dunham also produces a wine called "Pursued by Bear," a cabernet sauvignon he makes with actor Kyle MacLachlan. The Desperate Housewives star grew up in Yakima and met Dunham in New York. They eventually became friends and decided to collaborate on a winemaking project.
Here are some Dunham Cellars wines we've tasted recently:
Dunham Cellars 2006 cabernet sauvignon XII, Columbia Valley, $45: Two vineyards -- Lewis in the Yakima Valley and Double River in the Walla Walla Valley -- are blended for a rich delivery of red currant, black cherry and blackberries. Tucked into the corners are notes of gingerbread, mint, coffee and Earl Grey tea.
Dunham Cellars 2006 syrah, Columbia Valley, $35: A variety of rich and sweet notes come packaged, primarily blackberries, smoked bacon and gingersnap cookie dough. It's a plummy drink that's ready to roll now because of its low acidity and mild tannin.
Dunham Cellars 2008 Three Legged Red, Columbia Valley, $19: This is a fetching drink made in a lighter style, providing tones of blackberry, cherry pie and coffee. Chocolate-covered pomegranate makes for a lengthy farewell.
Dunham Cellars 2007 Trutina, Columbia Valley, $26: A trio of vineyards -- Double River, Frenchtown and Lewis -- came together for a mix of cabernet sauvignon (55 percent) syrah (23 percent), merlot (17 percent) and cabernet franc. The result is a food-friendly and stylish drink loaded with cassis, cola nut, raspberry and Craisins. A pinch of tannin merely adds complexity, giving way to a finish of Whopper and milk froth.
Dunham Cellars 2008 Lewis Estate Vineyard riesling, Columbia Valley, $22: The Dunhams long have relied on this Yakima Valley site for many of its wines, including their off-dry riesling, which settled at 2.5 percent sugar. It's a tasty serving of Granny Smith apple, apricot, jasmine and Frosted Mini-Wheats with a lemon/lime finish.
Dunham Cellars 2008 Lewis Vineyard Late Harvest riesling, Columbia Valley, $19: You breathe in aromas of orange marmalade, créme brûlée, diesel and lemon zest. It's sweet but not syrupy, bursting with apricots, passion fruit and more orange. Acidity shows up in the finish along with butterscotch button candy. The residual sugar is 23 percent.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.