Washington Wine History Interviews: Rick Small, Woodward Canyon Winery

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 6/05/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22740
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Richard Lewis (Rick) Small (b. 1947) grew up on a wheat farm northwest of Walla Walla and went on to become one of the founding fathers of the Walla Walla wine industry. He began his wine career by planting an acre of Chardonnay vines on the family farm and went on to launch Woodward Canyon Winery in nearby Lowden, in 1981. Small’s wines soon earned national acclaim. In 1992, The Wine Spectator magazine named him Winemaker of the Year and featured him on the cover. His wines became collector’s items. Woodward Canyon, along with Leonetti Cellar and L’Ecole No 41, were on the forefront of a huge wine boom in Walla Walla, which would later boast more than 130 wineries. Jim Kershner, historian with HistoryLink.org, sat down with Small at the Woodward Canyon Winery on May 23, 2023.

Growing up in Lowden

In the following excerpt from that interview, Small talks about his elementary school years in the building next door to the winery, the old Lowden Schoolhouse:

Rick Small: I went to Lowden Schoolhouse, where L'Ecole 41 is. Yeah, I'm a graduate of that. I mean, all of us graduated there, but when I went to school, when I attended that school, you went for six grades, through sixth grade, and then after sixth grade, you left that school. But it still was, when we were in there, a two-room schoolhouse. And there was a fabulous little downstairs cafeteria with bathrooms down there and a little stage. And so all of my brothers, my cousins, and a lot of my best friends, we all went to school there.

Here, Small talks about working on the family wheat farm during the late 1950s and 1960s:

RS: I started driving trucks, I don't know when I was like 12 or something, couldn't even get a license. But yeah, by the time I was about 15, I drove. But what I would do on trucks is I would spot trucks. So I would help move the trucks around on the hill and stay in the field. So I didn't do anything illegal. I didn't drive on the roads or anything like that. But by the time I got to be 15, just about the time I could have got a permit and driven wheat truck, I started driving combine. So I was driving combine by the time ... It wasn't a self-propelled combine yet until a few years later because we had a self-propelled combine by then, but we had Caterpillar tractors for the farm work, and then we still had some of these old pull machines.

In this passage, Small talks about an aspect of Walla Walla Valley wine history that predates the modern wine boom:

RS: Well, we have this history of wine. I mean, the state of Washington and Walla Walla has history of wine, especially with the Italian families that were here. And most of it was grapes that was loaded onto flatbed train cars and shipped up [from California]. And so the farmers here would buy grapes and make wine, but very, very few were growing grapes. And most of the grapes they tried to grow didn't survive the winters here. And it was almost typically Zinfandel. The old adage with the Italian farmers in Walla Walla at the time was, "If it was a good year, you bought enough grapes to make two barrels of wine. And if it was a really, really bad year, you bought enough grapes to make one barrel of wine, but you always made wine.”

Wine was not a part of his family’s life growing up. Yet right after he graduated from Washington State University, he had an experience that changed his life. He went to Europe and discovered the allure of wine:

RS: And this is where it gets interesting and where wine comes in. Because after I graduated from college, there were two other classmates of mine, one with the University of Idaho, and the other one was at Duke. And the three of us agreed, as soon as we graduated, we would go to Europe for two months. So we left in October. That would've been '69 because I graduated in '69. And so there is when we got to, landed in Amsterdam first, but got soon into more rural parts of France and Austria, Germany, Italy to some degree. And then we started being exposed to wine and started to learn about wine. And that's where, I guess you'd say it was exposure.

Wine Discoveries

It wasn’t just the wine itself – although he particularly loved the German white wines. What appealed to him was the wine culture and the brilliant conversations he had with German, French, and Italian students over wine. When he returned to the farm, he began to re-think his career plans in architecture – which he studied at WSU – and began to dream about wine. But nobody knew, at the time, that the Walla Walla Valley was even suited to wine grapes. Small’s father nudged him toward wine, and away from architecture, with an offer he could not refuse:

RS: So actually after getting accepted to the School of Architecture at WSU, I talked to my dad and I started talking about wine with him. And so one of the things that I think my dad realized is how interested I was in wine and grapes. So he said, "Well, if you got to plant a vineyard and maybe started making wine, would you consider staying in Walla Walla?" And I said, "Yeah." And so, I love architecture, I love design, I love the process of design, but that's pretty much how I did it. That's the story. And so, when my dad finally realized that I was going to stay, he gave me, he said, well, there was this one strip, a very shallow basalt land where he couldn't grow wheat. The wheat would always burn because it was so shallow. It was underlain with fractured basalt. So the first grapes I planted were there.

This was only the second vineyard of wine grapes planted in the Walla Walla Valley. Small had also helped plant the first vineyard, while helping out Gary Figgins, his fellow Army Reservist and one of his best friends. Figgins would later make acclaimed wines from those first vines, under his Leonetti Cellar label. Yet Small’s vines on the family farm faced some early challenges:

RS: Oh, it was awful. I mean, that was terrible. Well, you have to understand that grapes are really green and everything. And if you're out there where all the wheat is, by the time September comes around, all the wheat's harvested, and it was harvested probably in July, late July or August around there. So that means there's nothing out there for grasshoppers to eat but grape vines. And so some of the early pictures of our vineyard that you see show little milk cartons, little grapes coming out from milk cartons. But even then, what I would do is I'd cut pieces of screen about the size to fit inside the square of the milk cartons, stapled them in there so the grapes could grow, and the grasshoppers couldn't get in there. And that was before... I didn't have the... Well, I probably could have used some chemicals or pesticides to do it. You can use some baits on some of these things like wire rooms. But I went through all the same stuff that all farmers do, especially when you're introducing a new crop into a culture that has been wheat-dominated for a hundred years ... I got enough to make a gallon. Yeah, it was good. Yeah. But you have to remember, psychologically it would've been. And in my dream and my way of thinking ... But it was good. To be honest, it was good.

That vineyard would eventually grow in size and quality to become the Woodward Canyon Estate Vineyard, which produces many of the winery’s grapes today. But in those early years, Small was buying grapes from some of the established vineyards in the Columbia and Yakima valleys. His wines were soon attracting regional and national attention. Yet even while getting raves from critics, it was still a mom-and-pop operation. His wife Darcey Fugman-Small was helping keep the family afloat with her income as a Walla Walla County planner, and Small was managing his father’s grain elevator across the street from the winery. His friend Gary Figgins was doing the same thing, working as a machinist at Continental Can, and served as a role model. The Woodward Canyon Winery and tasting room was operating out of an old truck shed on U.S. Highway 12 in Lowden. Here Small explains how he juggled his two jobs:

RS: Watching how Gary's model worked for him, I was pretty impressed with that ... He had small children and it was a way for him to do this stuff on weekends and still have his day job for a while. So I did the same thing, and in fact, I can remember even after the winery was started, I was still ... And I had a wine to sell, I still worked at our family's grain elevator, and it was across the street. So if I saw somebody drive in – I'd leave the sign out – and when I saw that people were driving in, because I'm running grain in the elevator, I'd shut the gates off and run across the street and come in the back way, and I could meet somebody coming in.

Walla Walla Takes Off

It wasn’t until 1985 that he was able to devote full time to the winery. Both Small and Figgins were giving Walla Walla a reputation for world-class wine. They were competitors, but in the friendliest way possible:

RS: Because Gary and I were friends, we talked a lot and shared a lot of information with each other about what we were doing and stuff. We didn't have secrets. But I will also say, in anything, like tennis or skiing or cycling or anything else, if you cycle with good bike riders or you ski with good skiers or better skiers, you typically get better. And so Gary and I have talked about this, and I think he and I both agree that our friendship was a good one, a strong one. And I think we got to push each other through this whole process. And I think our wines both were better for it.

Over the next three decades, the Walla Walla wine scene exploded, with more than 130 wineries. Small and Figgins were rightly considered the founding fathers of the Walla Walla wine industry, but it did not seem like that to them at the time. Here, Small describes his complex feelings about being considered a Walla Walla wine legend.

RS: People have asked me and asked Gary, too, about Walla Walla, and, "How did we have so much foresight into how this was all going to be?" And they were giving us a lot of credit that was not due us. And I told them, I said, "I know you're trying to make this into us a story of how smart ‘Rick and Gary’ were. But the truth of it is, ‘Gary and Rick’ were best friends having a blast making wine. And we just lucked out and were good at it." But we didn't think about this. Later, we did. But what people were thinking is, we started this and this big industry was going to follow after – it was not. It wasn't like that at all.

As of 2023, Rick and Darcey Fugman-Small were stepping away from the day-to-day work at Woodward Canyon. Their daughter Jordan Small had taken over as general manager, and son Sager Small was the vineyard manager. Rick Small was pleased that Woodward Canyon would remain what it had always been: a family winery.

RS: That's been the children's decision to make. My wife and I are comfortable. We've loved being involved, but I think that it's going to be harder for them than it was for us. I do. Yeah. I just thought it was easy. I mean I just, I hate to say it that way and I don't mean to be flippant about it or whatever the right word would be. It just was just ... Sure, I did some mistakes and I did, but they were modest. I was able to correct them. I made great connections with distribution. I've traveled all over the world, selling wine.

Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of Rick Small by Jim Kershner

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