WSU Alumnus Says Quality Winemaking Rooted in Good Agriculture

For winery owner Rick Small, the success of Washington’s wine industry can be traced back to one primary element – the land.

“I can’t imagine doing what I do without my degree in agriculture,” said Small, founder and owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, Wash., and current chair of the Washington Wine Commission. He graduated from Washington State University in 1969, and then spent time traveling in Europe.

“That’s where I was exposed to wine, the style of wine and the interconnection between wine and food,” he said. “It was a very important way to see vertical integration in agriculture. Now, we grow the grapes, make the wine, market and sell the wine and get it in the hands of consumers. The more I got involved in wine, the more I got involved in agriculture. They are totally connected.”

Rick and Darcey Small
Rick and Darcey Small

A member of the third generation to live and work on the family cattle ranch and wheat farm outside Lowden, Small was among the first in Walla Walla to enter grape-growing and winemaking in the mid 1970s.  Woodward Canyon, which is producing about 15,000 cases per year, is one of the oldest wineries in the state and one of the most successful. Its wines have earned national and international acclaim and helped put the Walla Walla appellation on the map as one of the most celebrated wine regions in the country.

Small has watched the industry grow exponentially the past 30 years. Currently, there are approximately 550 wineries in the state with some 34,000 acres of wine grapes in production.

“The growth of the industry is very exciting,” he said. “Besides the vineyards and wineries themselves, you’ve got the tourism that is bringing people from urban areas to rural areas to taste wine, have dinner and spend the night. I’ve loved watching it develop and change.”

The current economic situation will challenge the industry, but Small said its long-term future is still bright. “I’ve weathered several economic downturns over the years, but none quite as severe as this one seems to be,” he said. “But the good wineries, the ones that are lean and not buried in debt, will be OK. Of course, the wines have to be of good quality, and they have to be priced right, too.”

Small attributes much of his success to the lessons he learned at WSU.

“I have no academic training in winemaking per se,” he said. “But, my WSU education opened me up as a person and helped me to be more open, more receptive and more curious. I learned the basics of how to do research, how to learn, and how to be open to new opportunities.”

His memories of his time in college are happy ones. “Being a Coug means that you have some fabulous friends that you’re going to remember your whole life. It means you’re going to collaborate with these people professionally, even if you didn’t attend WSU at the same time or knew each other when you were there. It means wearing your old ‘Butchman’ coat at the football game and hanging out at the tailgate party.

“I wasn’t the most outgoing person when I came to Pullman, but living in a fraternity at a relatively small university, I just grew.”

By Kathy Barnard