When Rick Small (’69 Ag.) planted his first wine grapes “by and large,” he says, “people thought it was a joke.”
It was the second half of the 1970s, Small was in his late 20s, and the soil quality on that particular plot was second-rate. “It was very poor land, with a lot of basalt underneath. It was not good for wheat. That’s why my father was willing to let me take care of an acre of it—and try to learn something.”
Small, who comes from a family of dryland wheat and cattle ranchers, learned that basalt-rich soil was great for wine grapes. And he experienced even more success as he planted more vines farther up the same ridge, now covered with myriad varietals, from cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon to sauvignon blanc, merlot, and several experimental Italian and Rhone varietals.
“I was hopeful,” Small recalls. “I was out to prove to my father that this could be viable, but I didn’t know for sure that it would be or that it could be. I was just so pleased to have the opportunity, and I ran with it.”
Today, Woodward Canyon Winery, established in Lowden in 1981 as the second winery in the Walla Walla wine region, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary with a limited-release premium red blend, made mostly from estate-grown cabernet sauvignon. And Small and his wife, Darcey Fugman-Small—he’s a Coug, she’s a Husky—are preparing for the next generation of leadership. Their children, part-owners in the winery, have been taking on more and more responsibility.
“I’m proud of our winery and the quality of our product and our reputation,” Small says. “What we did wasn’t easy, but it’s nothing like what our children are facing today with the virus and the lack of sales in restaurants because of the shutdowns.”
Jordan Dunn-Small, director of direct-to-consumer sales operations, created Woodward Canyon’s wine club and has been working on boosting online sales. After college in Portland, she returned home to work in the wine industry, joining the family business after several years at other wineries and wine-related businesses, including the Walla Walla Wine Alliance. Today, she’s an alliance board member.
After attending culinary school in Seattle, Sager Small spent ten years working there as a cook. Since coming home and completing a community college viticulture program, he’s taken over management of the certified Salmon-Safe, 41-acre Woodward Canyon Estate Vineyard, focusing on organic and bio-dynamic practices.
Part of the winery’s original chardonnay planting remains. In addition to estate-grown grapes, Woodward Canyon also sources fruit from other acclaimed vineyards, including Champoux and Sagemoor. It typically produces some 10,000 cases per year and is known for consistently producing premium, age-worthy, Bordeaux-style red blends, including its cabernet sauvignon-based “Artist Series,” an annual release featuring labels with the works of different West Coast artists. Its famed “Old Vines” cabernet sauvignon was the first Washington wine to break into the top 10 of Wine Spectator’s annual top 100 wine list in 1990 with its 1987 vintage.
The Smalls have been supporters of the WSU Alumni Association’s Wine-By-Cougars Wine Club since its inception in 2007.
When they established Woodward Canyon, there were only about 30 wineries in the state. Today, there are more than a thousand. “The biggest problem we had was getting access to good science,” says Small, who was instrumental, along with his wife, in the process of obtaining federal approval of the Walla Walla Valley appellation in 1984.
Today, Small, a former chair of the Washington Wine Commission who has also served on the joint WSU and University of Idaho Food Science External Advisory Board, is pleased to be passing the baton to his son and daughter.
“We didn’t ask them to come back,” he says. “But they both made the conscious decision to make this a generational family business. That’s where the true legacy will be—with the second generation.”