WALLA WALLA — Mike Dunham didn’t plan to get into the wine business. But when it happened, he embraced the Walla Walla wine scene — and it loved him back.
The 69-year-old co-owner of Dunham Cellars died May 18 after a four-year battle with renal cell carcinoma, a form of kidney cancer.
In the 1980s, Dunham was friends with such wine pioneers as Rick Small, of Woodward Canyon Winery, and he would dress his son, Eric, in a tuxedo to help at wine events.
This early experience shaped the family’s future, as Eric Dunham jumped into the wine business after getting out of the Navy in the early 1990s.
The younger Dunham made his first barrel of wine in 1993 for his father, and two years later, they launched Dunham Cellars with 200 cases of cabernet sauvignon. It is one of the oldest and most respected wineries in a region that boasts more than 120 producers.
Dunham’s cabernet sauvignons and syrahs are highly sought after by collectors, and the winery has earned numerous awards, including Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2008 Winery of the Year.
For Mike Dunham, wine was a second career. After growing up in Walla Walla and graduating from Walla Walla High School, he attended Oregon State University on an athletic scholarship.
After college, he moved to Seattle, the city of his birth, to work for Standard Oil. Later, he entered the insurance business, which brought him back home to Walla Walla in 1970, then took him to Redmond in 1986 and later to Bellevue.
With the winery starting to take off, he returned to Walla Walla in 1997 and retired from the insurance business in 2001 to become Dunham Cellars’ full-time general manager.
“It was good,” Eric Dunham said. “I’m allergic to math, and he was good at it. He held things together. I was fortunate to have almost 20 years in the business with him.”
Trey Busch, owner of Sleight of Hand Cellars in Walla Walla, was one of Dunham Cellars’ first employees. Busch was working at Nordstrom in Seattle when he got the wine bug. He knew little about making wine, but the Dunhams recognized his passion.
“Mike and Eric gave me my first job in the wine industry,” Busch said. “Between Mike teaching me the business side and Eric teaching me the winemaking side, I had two great minds helping me.”
When Busch left in 2002 to a head winemaking position at a nearby winery, he felt ready, thanks to the Dunhams’ generosity.
“Even though I’d been with them for only two years, I felt I already had immense knowledge, thanks to Mike and Eric.”
Small, who started Woodward Canyon in 1981, knew Mike Dunham as much for his golfing prowess as for his winery.
“I knew Mike better as a golfing partner,” Small said. “He and I would always get paired together because he had the lowest handicap, and I had the highest.”
Dunham’s ability on the course started at a young age. When he was 17, he won the Walla Walla All-City Championship. In 1964, he played in the NCAA golf championships. He later won the Walla Walla County Club championship three times.
On the course or around the winery, Dunham was gracious to others.
“That was his specialty,” Busch said. “He was the consummate host at the winery. During event weekends, you could always find Mike, and there was always a crowd around him. He’s definitely going to be missed.”
Andy Perdue is the editor of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. For more information, go to www.greatnorthwestwine.com.