Washington Wine History Interviews: Rob Griffin, Barnard Griffin Winery

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/21/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22733
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Rob Griffin (b. 1953) oversaw his first Washington wine harvest in 1977 and went on to become the longest-tenured winemaker in the state. After 45 grape harvests, he was still going strong as owner and winemaker of the Barnard Griffin Winery in Richland. His expertise and longevity prompted wine writers Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman to dub him “the dean of Washington winemakers.” Griffin, a California native, earned a degree in fermentation science at the University of California-Davis. He arrived in Washington at age 23 to be head winemaker at Preston Wine Cellars, north of Pasco, and later head winemaker at Hogue Cellars in Prosser. He and his wife Deborah Barnard launched their own winery, Barnard Griffin, in 1983. It soon became one of the state’s top wineries. History Link’s Jim Kershner interviewed Griffin at the winery on March 1, 2023.

Landing in Washington

Here, Griffin explains how he landed in Washington, after assuming all of his life that he would be making wine in his native California:

RG: Yeah. Well, but just to explain how that happened, Bill [Preston] being Bill, he was not one for reading and writing or doing things conventionally. He jumped in his station wagon and drove to California and was going to find a winemaker. He had heard of a gentleman who I knew. He worked at a winery right across the creek from Buena Vista [the California winery where Griffin was working]. His name was Steve MacRostie, and he had his own winery of very, very good repute for many years. But anyway, Steve had no interest in this, but he said, "You know what? Why don't you get in touch with this kid across the creek?" Because he knew I was chafing at the bit in a secondary position. So anyway, that caused the interview to happen and so on and so forth. And fortunately, because there had been another individual in the job who didn't last, I think Bill Preston understood that you can't tell a winemaker what to do in terms of the actual winemaking process. I think Bill was the kind of guy who felt like he knew just about everything, and in many cases, he was right. So that being said, I had a pretty free hand in the winemaking part of things.

Griffin describes what made him think that Washington, with its just-hatched wine industry, might be a fine place to start his career:

RG: Well, I saw with wisdom of a not-very-worldly 23-year-old that the potential for expansion of an industry here was huge. I mean, there was no end of land. But also, I remember discussing this possibility with one of my university professors because the idea intrigued me even back in '75. And I remember the professor I had the best rapport with telling me, "Look, I wouldn't do that. That climate's too cold, they're going to be wiped out every few years." And against sage advice, I came up anyway. And as it turned out, we have had our issues with cold winter climate occasionally, (but) it's been quite a few years since we've had a devastating nip.

Here, Griffin describes what it was like running Barnard Griffin in its early years, when he was working full-time at Hogue Cellars, and making wine under his own label during his off hours at the Hogue facility:

RG: Yes, and without a brick-and-mortar facility, we were up to, oh, at least 15,000 cases, maybe closer to 20. So running this out of the front seat of a pickup truck and having the wines bottled and shipped off to ... I've often said I could never have done what I did without two things, one was the first commercial warehouse that was permitted to hold wine under bond in Washington was a company called Tiger Mountain Services in Kent, and I was one of their first customers. And the wines moved there very quickly after bottling and then into the wholesale channel. From there, it was easy to get them transferred into wholesale. And then the other thing was just an Apple computer. I could keep track of everything and print the invoices and whatever. I'd sit down once or twice a month and do paperwork. And if you're in the wine business, you have a permanent partner in the federal government and a permanent partner in the state government you neither want nor like, but if you don't file reports and pay taxes and so on and so forth, it can be a real problem.

In the mid-1990s, the couple decided it was finally time to build their own winery. Here’s how that transpired:

RG: Well, '91 to '98, we actually had a pretty good growth spurt and we had been searching for a place to build a facility. I've always been conservative to the point of bearishness in terms of spending money and building buildings and so on and so forth. But we found this piece of property, and it was right next door to where Jerry Bookwalter had settled. And it satisfied a couple of my requirements. It's visible, it's very close to a freeway exit, especially on the road to Walla Walla, which even at that time had developed quite a following of tourism. So it just fit all the issues. And the owner said, "No, I really don't want to sell it. I'm going to put a machine shop there someday." And some months later, this little parcel just to the, let me get my directions right, into the east of us became available. And it's really not a very buildable site so we went back to this fellow and asked if he might consider selling us an easement to put a small road into it. He said, "Ah hell, I'll just sell you the whole thing." So here we are. And in a life of poor real estate decisions, this is the best one we've ever made.

One of Barnard Griffin’s big successes has been its Rose of Sangiovese. Here, Griffin describes how he came up with the idea – and how it took off in the marketplace:

RG: That's an interesting story. And we go back to talking about our friend Maury Balcom, who helped us get started by making grapes available to us. Well, he decided somewhere in, I can't even remember dates, but in the early to mid '90s, he was going to plant Sangiovese. This was a great play in the world of wine grapes and red wine and so forth. And some years later, he kind of showed up on the doorstep saying, "Rob, what are we going to do with these grapes?" There was really no demand for them. So my first response is, "We?" But I made the wine for him, and we ultimately got it sold through the Liquor Control Board system to his benefit. But I learned a lot about the variety. We had tried to make a red, it was really a little bit acidic, a little bit low in color, and most of its pleasant aromatics were dispensed with during the red fermentation process, the warmth just blew all the nice aromas out of the tanks. So I said, "Hmm, this might be perfect for a dry rosé." And this was somewhere around 2000. I would have to go back and find records to know just exactly when this happened. So we made a small amount of a dry rosé, which frankly wasn't a thing in the American marketplace. Pink wines were White Zinfandel, and they were half sweet, so on and so forth. If you wanted to play in that realm, it was very competitive. And the wines in general, with a few exceptions, were sweet. So we came out with a dry rosé at a time when the French were ramping up this huge business of rosé from the south of France. And anyway, we made a great product, we won lots of awards. It was available. Not everybody in the world was doing it. So we were able to grow that ... And it was still a curiosity when we got started, but within a few years it became quite a thing for us and continues to be. [It was] either a happy accident or a stroke of pure genius. I'll leave that up to you. 

Barnard Griffin is known for affordable prices, yet consistently high quality. Here, Griffin talks about his pricing strategy – its advantages and its challenges:

RG: We looked at opportunities for growth in, I'm trying to use the right word, leveraging the recognition we'd gotten with making more wine rather than with doubling our pricing or something, which is a model a lot of other small wineries took. It might have been the right model – a lot of them haven't survived, so, you know. So the honest truth is, and I can say this with a straight face, if I could do this and just give the wine away and live, I'd be happy. The sales side has never been my drive. My drive has been production side ... And also I think it's fair to say the quality level is several clicks above what it has to be to be at that price point ... So it's always a good play, both from a price and a quality standpoint and we pride ourselves on that. And ironically, the trade is more likely to punish that philosophy than to admire it. Everybody vested in the trade likes a high dollar and it's ... it’s a news story when somebody’s releasing their first wine and is charging $200 a bottle for it, but it's not a trade story. I don't see that as either viable, and like I've always said to family and anybody who will listen, I have to sleep with myself and wake up in the morning. I think there's a certain amount of overpricing and slightly deceptive sharp practice, if you would.

Here, Griffin talks about the immense progress he has witnessed in the state’s wine industry – and what he wishes he had done differently:

RG: When I look back, the only thing I fault myself for is not having a stronger entrepreneurial streak probably. But all of my thoughts in terms of my own career, but also the growth of the industry, have largely come true. I mean there are now vast amounts of fruit grown in Washington. We're still a very distant second to California. But all of that being said, it's a massive industry compared to what it was when I got here. And my whole career, from a representing the product standpoint, has been missionary work, was walking into a restaurant and saying, "We're from here and this is what we're doing." And often the response was, "You can't do that there." And we would have to overcome a great deal of immediate skepticism and cynicism. Whereas now, Washington wines are very well accepted. Now the problem is, it's enormously competitive. A restaurant can have so many wines in their list and they can't have a thousand, and that's how many brands there are in Washington.

Griffin talks about the Washington wine industry’s future, and its multiple challenges:

RG: I think yes, at least in my lifetime, there will always be some missionary work to do. I think we're well situated for some of the climatic problems headed towards us. We aren't going to be victim to fires the way, let's say, Northern California has been and will be. Drought, while it can be a concern here, it's not remotely the issue that it's been in California and I think they will not be talking about it this year, but two years down the road they might be. So in any event, you put those issues together, fires are not only just the grapes burning off the plants, but smoke, which gets into the tissue of the berry and becomes a real problem in the aromatics of the wine. We have had smoke here, but it's usually coming from such a distance that its ability to cause big problems is much smaller than that.

Further reading: HistoryLink’s biography of Rob Griffin by Jim Kershner

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