Rick Small is the founder of Woodward Canyon Winery, one of the two pioneering wineries in Washington State’s Walla Walla Valley. As such, he is considered one of the “founding fathers” of Walla Walla’s dynamic wine industry. Rick studied agriculture at Washington State University and is a self-taught winemaker. Today, along with his wife Darcey and children Jordan and Sager, he continues to make Woodward Canyon’s highly rated cabernets. Rick is a former President of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Growers Association and currently serves on the Walla Walla Community College Viticulture and Enology Advisory Committee.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Rick Small for WineSpeed in July 2019.
Karen MacNeil: Your family was originally in the wheat farming business in Eastern Washington. How did you find yourself in wine?
Rick Small: Yes, I’m generationally from Walla Walla Valley agriculture. Five generations on my Mother’s side and three generations on my Father’s to be accurate. In 1969 after I graduated from Washington State University with a BS degree in Agriculture, I traveled with several high school classmates to Europe. It was there that I was first exposed to good wine and of course, its civilized enjoyment with food. After that two-month trip, I knew that I would find a way to do something with wine. That was over fifty years ago.
KM: You never went to school for winemaking but instead, taught yourself by reading various books. Was having to learn on your own an advantage or a disadvantage?
RS: That is a great question and not an easy one to answer. Clearly, in the late sixties and early seventies, Washington State University did not have a school of viticulture and enology like it does today. If you were interested in wine growing and wanted to learn about it, you would need to go to California or Europe. Since that was impossible for me, buying textbooks from University of California, Davis was the next best thing. I bought the books and read them over and over. I believe that learning to grow grapes and make wine in this way gave me independence, freedom and respect. I can’t imagine doing it the same way today though.
KM: What was the toughest part of the early years of Woodward Canyon?
RS: The hardest part for me in the early years was growing the grapes and making wine while still managing our family’s grain elevator business. For the first three or four years, I did both of those. My wife Darcey, who was a land use planner at the time, was always helping in the vineyard or if we were bottling, running the filling machine on weekends. We didn’t have any money to pay anyone in those days so if we had helpers, we usually paid them with wine or cooked food for them after the work was done.
“[Wine is]…civilized and cerebral for me. I can’t imagine life without it.”
Karen MacNeil: You and your close friend Gary Figgins (of Leonetti Cellar) helped each other a lot in the beginning. How important was, and is, that friendship?
Rick Small: It was and still is an awesome friendship! In the very early years, we tasted wine and talked about it all the time. We would pool resources and buy several bottles of the best wine we could find and then on a Friday night, we would open one and discuss it. We’d talk about the flavors and the aromas and the structure, etc. trying to determine how those things got in there. Was it from the vineyard or the winemaking or both? The fact that we were good friends both making wine in Walla Walla made each of us better than if either had been making wine alone. It’s like cycling with a really good bike rider; you get stronger, faster and better. I think that’s what we did for each other, and I think that Gary would agree.
KM: What wine did you taste at the beginning of your career that has deeply influenced your perception of wine?
RS: The first truly memorable wine was white and it was Le Montrachet; I don’t remember the vintage. I was dumbfounded by its elegance and classic grace. The thing that I remember most about that wine was what it wasn’t. It was not big or oaky or fruity or alcoholic. It was such a beautifully balanced wine. That wine changed my life!
KM: What does your average day look like?
RS: Well I’m 72 years old now so my average day is very different than when Darcey and I first started Woodward Canyon. In the early days, I left for work in the dark and came home from work in the dark. These days, if I’m not travelling, I will try to be to work by 8:00 a.m. to check through email. I’m a bit of an international political junkie so I might turn on CNN International, France 24, or Aljazerra to see what’s up. Then it’s up to the vineyard to check on things. Our son, Sager, has taken over vineyard management in collaboration with our winemaker, Kevin, so it is just to see what’s going on, otherwise I try to stay out of their way. Then, sometime after lunch if there are no meetings, tours or visitors, it’s off to Walla Walla for a bike ride and a chilled glass of rosé.
KM: Who is the person you especially love to drink wine with? And why?
RS: I enjoy sharing wine with almost everyone because I love wine. I love everything about it! I love the history, the agriculture, and the way it’s made. I love the magic of wine with food and wonderful people and the brilliant conversations. It’s civilized and cerebral for me. I can’t imagine life without it.
KM: We’ve been told you are an avid baker. What is your favorite thing to bake?
RS: Kalamata olive bread in our wood-fired oven. When harvest is underway, I utilize native Woodward Canyon yeast, high protein flour, and well water (no chlorine) and sea salt. Nothing smells nicer when it’s baking.
KM: How do you describe your cabernets?
RS: For someone who has made cabernet for over forty years, the answer to that question will be different over the decades given changing climate, newer clones, rootstock, etc. That said, I’d like to think that our cabernets reflect a distinct sense of place. They are fruit-driven with complexity, balance, and structure, and they should be age-worthy. I love drinking Bordeaux and appreciate the restraint and elegance that the finer ones express.
KM: Besides wine, do you have another beverage that you truly love?
RS: Water! Since I enjoy being on my bike, I’ve always got my water bottle with me. Hydrate or die! Espresso comes in second.
KM: Besides Walla Walla, if you could also farm grapes and make wine someplace else, where would it be?
RS: I have had the chance to visit a number of great wine regions throughout my career but if I had to pick one, I would select France, specifically Saint-Émilion. I simply love the concept of wine growing rather than wine making. I also appreciate the relationship that wine has with food and family; the culture of wine if you will. And lastly, generally speaking, wine is not elitist there; really good wine is available to everyone for three or four Euros a bottle if you search for it. I love that!
KM: You’ve now been involved in the wine business in Washington for more than 40 years. When you think of your own success, what character trait do you possess that’s been the most helpful in getting you there?
RS: I think that I’m a pretty resilient person; and I tend to be an optimist. There are so many things in the growing of grapes and the making and marketing of wine that can be problematic. Examples like when something bad happens in the vineyard or you have an issue with a wine or someone has a bad experience at the winery. Being an optimist was vitally important in each of these cases because it forced me to address the problem, fix it and turn it into a victory. Psychologically, it’s the only way I know to stay focused and positive. I feel like this trait has served me well.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
RS: Having the incredibly great fortune to have met, married, and still be in love with my wife, Darcey, after nearly forty years. Everything good that has ever happened at Woodward Canyon, including the involvement of both of our children, occurred because I had the freedom and her support to pursue it. None of this would have ever been possible without her!