Cameron Rushton is happy to sip other winemakers’ whites. But when it comes to crafting his own wine, he sticks to his specialty: robust reds.
Rushton (’10 Hort.), co-owner and assistant winemaker at Five Star Cellars in Walla Walla and creator of Cougar X, makes the wines he especially enjoys pairing with a juicy steak. Cabernet franc tops his list of varietals. Merlot is right up there, too. He also likes tempranillo, malbec, and sangiovese—big, bold, highly ageable reds.
“I don’t make a lot of white,” he says. “I’d rather drink everybody else’s”—Poet’s Leap by Long Shadows Vintners, for example. “I like sticking to the stuff I’m good at. Rhône varietals are always fun.”
Rushton landed a job at the family-owned Five Star upon graduation from Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology Program and has been there ever since. He was offered a partnership about five years ago. He also leads wine production at Ragaire—formerly Raptor—Cellars, his own family’s winery, started by his parents in 2003.
“My whole family are Cougs,” he says—from his parents Leslie (Stewart) Rushton (’84 Ed.) and Keith Rushton (’12 Gen. Phys. Sci.) to his sister Christine (Rushton) Hanon (’14 Comm., Music) and her husband Tristan Hanon (’14 Econ. Sci.).
His wife, chiropractor Catelyn Webber, is not a Coug. But, he notes, their infant son is “a future Coug.”
Rushton grew up in Kent and graduated from Kent Lake High School in 2006. Whenever he was home on break from WSU, he gained experience at DiStefano Winery in Woodinville and Esquin Wine and Spirits in Seattle.
He’s lived in Walla Walla since he started working at Five Star. “My parents were among their original wine club members. They were waiting for me,” he says.
Five Star, founded in 2000, is a small family-owned winery. Founder Dave Huse made 120 cases of cabernet sauvignon for its first vintage. Son Matt Huse joined as head winemaker in 2002. His wife, Traci, manages the wine club and serves as financial director.
“Dave set up all the foundations for my success in the wine industry,” Rushton says. “Matt is great to work for and gives me lots of freedom and influence, and Traci is a great CFO. We are all owners and continue to grow as a team. They are big Coug supporters.”
Today, Rushton’s parents live in Walla Walla, too. Ragaire and Five Star share tasting room space in both Woodinville and Walla Walla. And Rushton earned an additional degree through Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture.
“The wines I make are not light. They are big wines,” says Ruston, who was in the second graduating class of WSU’s Viticulture and Enology program and is planning a trip to Spain this spring for research and development. “I plan on tearing through tempranillo while I’m there and just educating myself and furthering my knowledge.”
Cameron Rushton’s wine-tasting tips
- Be open to the experience. “The biggest mistake people make is they assume they already don’t like a certain wine. People need to be open-minded and try everything. In Washington, we have a broad range of wines because so many different kinds of grapes grow so well here. We are very blessed to be here.”
- Use appropriate glassware. “It really makes a difference.”
- Hydrate. And eat. “Make sure you drink plenty of water and food to get yourself through the day. That can really impact the experience.”
- Wander off the beaten path. “It’s always fun to go to a few wineries you know, whose wines you’ve had and like. But make sure you try new places, wineries you’ve never been to before. Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone. Washington has so many wineries.”
- Once isn’t enough. “If a restaurant has a great following but you have a bad experience on your first visit, you should go back. Same goes for a winery. You should give it another try. You should always go back and not give up. I like to give everything two or three chances.”
Cougar X tasting notes
“Bold magenta color with a sultry appearance. This wine has a great spice box and seasoning salt aromas. Hints of white pepper and jalapeño. Flavors of cinnamon doughnuts and plum tease the palate. Lots of dense flavors and long savory notes, with chocolate elements and beef jerky. If you’re not drinking it with red meat, you are doing it wrong!”
Read more about Wine-By-Cougars in “Cougs + wine” (WSM, Summer 2023)