The wine community in the cradle of the Washington wine industry is in mourning after two of its longest-tenured winery owners and winemakers died in recent days.
Mike Wallace, 75, owner of Hinzerling Winery and one of Prosser's original winemakers, died over the weekend after complications from pneumonia.
And Scott Pontin, 53, died Monday, reportedly from a heart attack. He was the owner and winemaker for Pontin del Roza Winery in Prosser.
Wallace grew up in Seattle and moved to Prosser in 1972 to plant a vineyard with his father, Jerry. Together, they launched Hinzerling Winery in 1976.
Like many in the industry, Wallace was deeply influenced by Walter Clore, fondly remembered as "the father of Washington wine." Clore was a researcher at Washington State University in Prosser from the late ‘30s until his death in early 2003.
They met at an enology society meeting in California in 1971 while Wallace was in graduate school.
“I told him I was from Seattle and was thinking about planting a vineyard in Eastern Washington and asked him what he thought about that. He literally jumped up from his chair and said, ‘Yes, by all means, it can be done,” Wallace once told the staff at the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser.
He moved to Prosser the next year, planted his vineyard and worked for Clore at the research station for the next four years.
The vineyard, now owned by Kestrel Vintners, is home to some of the oldest Chardonnay grapes in Washington.
Wade Wolfe of Thurston Wolfe Winery remembered Wallace as a character and a leader in the local wine industry.
Wolfe arrived in the Yakima Valley in 1978.
“Hinzerling was one of the few wineries in operation at that time, so Mike was pretty prominent in the industry,” Wolfe told Great Northwest Wine. “It was the only winery here in Prosser at that time.”
Wallace was involved in helping establish the Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area — the first AVA in Washington when it was approved by the federal government in 1983.
And he helped initiate the Yakima Valley Spring Barrel Tasting weekend in mid-April, which today is one of the largest retail weekends in Washington wine country. The roots of the event go back to 1978.
“I didn't have any wine ready to sell yet,” Wallace told Great Northwest Wine in 2013. “I had wine in barrel and wanted to educate some of the locals.”
“It’s always been our best weekend of the year by any measure,” he said. “It’s financially successful and also has created goodwill for the industry.”
Scott Pontin started his winemaking career as a teenager. In high school, he was a member of Future Farmers of America, and he made wine as an FFA project. It turned out well, so he decided to start Pontin del Roza in the mid-1980s.
While his winery was perhaps best known for white wines such as Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris, he also gained a reputation with Italian varieties, including Sangiovese and Dolcetto, which he enjoyed making as a nod to his Italian heritage.
Pontin is remembered by April Reddout, wine program director for the Clore Center as straight-forward and opinionated and a man who had a soft spot for animals.
“He would have adopted every stray animal in Prosser if he could have,” she fondly remembered.
Pontin, who grew up in Prosser and no doubt was influenced by Clore. He was involved in the Clore Center from its origins more than a decade ago.
Reddout said he was on the center’s board of directors and was one of the few people who had been there since the beginning. He even was involved in the building’s architecture and building design.
Abbey Cameron, executive director of the Clore Center, said he was proud of what the Clore Center ended up becoming.
Pontin also was heavily involved in the Prosser Food & Wine Festival, an event that ended last year after more than 20 years.
Wolfe remembers Pontin as an energetic promoter of Prosser as a wine district.
“He did a lot of stuff with economic development here in Prosser,” Wolfe said.
Andy Perdue is a wine journalist, author and judge. www.greatnorthwestwine.com.