Waliser, Kent (b. 1952)

  • By Ariana Heath
  • Posted 1/23/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22828
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Kent Waliser’s passion for the wine industry didn’t begin right away. In fact, he spent most of the first 50 years of his life growing apples and cherries. But after a series of life changes, he took a leap of faith in 2002 on a job at Sagemoor Vineyards, which was going through a company overhaul. Waliser had to quickly decide whether or not to jump onboard and help guide them. Through his hard work, he was promoted to Director of Vineyard Operations and oversaw key modernization. He also maintained important relationships, including with Sagemoor’s longstanding partner Chateau Ste. Michelle, while also keeping space available for smaller wineries to shape their own legacies. In 2014, Waliser helped Sagemoor transfer ownership and establish its first winery, Sagemoor Estates. 

Beginnings in Tree Fruit

Kent Waliser was born on December 30, 1952 in Walla Walla. Just days after he arrived his parents decided to return to Milton-Freewater in Oregon, just across the state line from Walla Walla. The oldest of four boys, Waliser spent lots of time on the family’s 16-acre fruit farm. Waliser was the third generation to grow up on the farm, which has been in the family since 1939.  

Starting around age 10, his parents paid him to help out around the property, even going so far as to have him and his brothers keep timecards. After that initial summer of hard work, he was able to save up enough money to buy his first bicycle. Waliser studied in a small four-room schoolhouse called Pleasant View, and graduated to a larger high school in the nearby town. After high school, he attended Oregon State University, where he secured a part time job working in a vineyard. He graduated in 1976 with a degree in horticulture and got married the same year. "So I guess I got the fruit disease when I was a little kid, and I never got cured from permanent crop agriculture my entire life," he said (Heath interview).

After college, he worked for his dad on the family farm, and then worked for his uncle on a larger tree-fruit farm. In 1978, he considered traveling to Iran for work, as the Shah needed help managing his large orchard, but the Shah was overthrown before Waliser got the chance. Instead, Waliser worked for his uncle well into the 1980s and began looking at properties to buy for himself. In 1982, he bought his first parcel and planted Granny Smith apples and later added Gala apples. His daughter Chelsea was born in 1982, followed by Erica in 1986, so he spent most of his time at home with his family and tending to his property. "And my girls spent time riding around in the orchards and doing things. So they had a more idyllic growing up fruit existence than I did because they didn’t have to work as much" (Heath interview).  

Waliser watched his fruit business grow slowly. He decided to connect with the Dole Food Company in Wenatchee to help him sell his apples. Around the same time, he joined up with his cousin Tom Waliser and their friend Norm McKibben to form a partnership called Pepper Bridge. They planted, grew, packed, and sold apples and grapes until 1996, when McKibben decided he wanted to lean into the grape side of the business and build a winery. Waliser’s cousin Tom gravitated toward the wine side of the business and there wasn’t really room for both of them. Waliser was left with a decision to make: apples or grapes? He chose apples. 

Before leaving the partnership, Waliser looked for other opportunities and took a recruiting job at Dole Food in 1994. In 1996, they offered him a sales job in Wenatchee, which was perfect timing. His wife Leslie was looking to leave the small town of Milton-Freewater and he needed a new job. In 2001, things began dramatically changing for Waliser. He and his wife divorced and his eldest daughter Chelsea left for college, while Erica was finishing high school. On top of everything, Dole Food Company decided to close its apple division. 

A Lifestyle Shift

After the recession in 1999, the Washington apple industry began to falter. State growers depended on selling Red Delicious to foreign markets, but when devaluation in currency began in places such as Thailand and swept through large parts of Asia, the demand for apples declined. Dole realized there simply wasn’t enough money to be made in the apple business anymore. Since there were only a few large apple companies at the time, Waliser wasn’t able to apply for the same kind of job he'd held at Dole. Additionally, Waliser and others were not offered jobs in other parts of Dole, but instead were forced to look for new jobs. It was the second time in 10 years that a job opportunity had left him and not the other way around.  

Since Waliser had been living alone, he was able to branch out further when job-hunting. He connected with a friend in Pasco, Todd Cameron, who had been working as a vineyard manager at Sagemoor but also needed help in sales at his nursery. So Waliser took a job selling trees, but then 9/11 happened and the nursery had to rescind the offer because trees, like apples, weren’t selling during the recession. "So I was just sitting there going, 'Okay, well, I have to go do something else. And interesting enough, at the age that I would’ve been, I was about 50, I had never applied for a job in my life,” said Waliser (Heath interview). He began to think about bartending or maybe going back to school and earning a master’s degree, or even just moving to a larger city for opportunities, but one thing was certain: He needed to get out of the tree-fruit business. He felt that two failed attempts at making apples work was a signal to try something new.

As it turned out, 2001 would be the only year that Waliser was not involved in the tree-fruit or grape business in some capacity. In 2002, Cameron was still working at Sagemoor and didn’t have the qualifications to move up in the company. He needed to hire his own boss, and quickly, so he thought why not ask Waliser, who not only had the experience but was a good friend. Waliser thought, "Well, Todd, its a little ridiculous. We’re friends. I don’t know that I can be your boss, but I’m flattered" (Heath interview). So he took a chance and went to visit Sagemoor’s vineyard north of Pasco, not knowing much about the company. The first thing Waliser noticed was the size and age of the vines. Many of the vines in 2002 were approximately 30 years old and thriving. "This must be sacred ground," Waliser thought (Heath interview). In his experience, he hadn’t seen grapes of that age survive freezing winter temperatures. Waliser recalled periods in Milton-Freewater, including 1955, when the temperatures dropped so suddenly below freezing, it killed every tree and vine for miles. "It went from 60 degrees and no frost in November to minus 15," he said (Heath interview).

As Waliser learned more about Sagemoor, he decided it could be a good fit. He was worried they might need his help as a viticulturist, but instead they needed someone in sales and marketing for both grapes and tree fruit. He thought, "I like sales and marketing. This is a great opportunity. Seemed like a really cool company built by some really interesting people" (Heath interview). Looking back, he thought it was a perfect time to enter the wine industry. Coming out of the recession in 2001, Washington wine started to take off. At that time, there were approximately 30,000 acres of grapes supplying 150 wineries. Today [2024] the acreage as doubled and there are more than 1,000 wineries in Washington. "I landed in the wine grape industry at exactly the right time to be who I was and what I was" (Heath interview).  

Sagemoor’s Beginning

Sagemoor was founded in 1968 by Seattle attorney Alec Bayless (1922-1991), who had been keeping his eyes peeled for a suitable piece of land to plant a vineyard. Once his real estate agent mentioned an apple and cherry farm near Pasco, he went to see it and immediately sought approval from Dr. Walter Clore (1911-2003), the leading scientist at the Washington State University irrigation research center in Prosser. After getting confirmation that the land would pair well with grape vines, Bayless partnered with Winslow Wright (1919-2014), Albert Ravenholt (1919-2010), and Sydney Abrams (b. 1927) to purchase the Sagemoor Farm.  

Shortly after, in 1969, Washington passed House Bill 100, also known as the California Wine Bill. This opened up Washington to both domestic and international wine sales for the first time since Prohibition and "forced winemakers to improve quality or disappear" (Veseth, "The California Wine Bill ..."). Abrams was one of the lead strategists behind the bill; he had worked in the California wine industry at E. & J. Gallo Winery. Abrams had been working in Olympia for more than two years to push the state to pass the bill. Once it passed, Washington wineries had more freedom to grow more grapes and to sell larger amounts of wine than ever before.    

The four Sagemoor partners suddenly had even more motivation to locate investors and grow their company. They kept the apples and cherries, and purchased additional plots of land nearby (Bacchus Vineyard) to plant the first 200-plus acres of grapes in 1972. They had high hopes for their grapes, since they had yet to secure a contract with any local wineries. But in December 1972, a heavy freeze descended on Sagemoor Farm and Bacchus Vineyard, killing more than half of the recently planted vines. They were forced to go back to their investors and start over. In 1973, they replanted everything at Sagemoor and Bacchus and added another 180 acres named Dionysus Vineyard. Their combined 466 acres was the largest block of varietals in the state at the time. John Pringle was hired as Vineyard Manager, although he didn’t have any experience as a viticulturist. "Reflecting back, Win Wright said of Pringle, 'To his everlasting credit, he laid out those vineyards, and he not only replanted Bacchus, he planted Dionysus in the same year, with no experienced personnel. At the time we didn’t realize what a feat this was'" (Irvine, 284).

During the 1970s, Sagemoor experienced growth but also experienced financial ups and downs so severe the partners considered giving up. In 1983, they were forced to leave 500 tons of grapes on the vine because they had no one to sell them to. A few years later, through luck and a partner company’s bankruptcy, they acquired a fourth vineyard, Weinbau, on Wahluke Slope. 

Weinbau was originally planted in 1981 with a drip irrigation system, instead of sprinklers like Sagemoor’s other three vineyards. This was done based on the growing knowledge published by Dr. Walter Clore and Dr. Bob Wample and their deficit irrigation experiments among grape vines. Sagemoor would sometimes get lucky financially during this time because many wineries had no choice but to purchase over-watered grapes since there weren’t many other options. When Sagemoor took over Weinbau in 1986, they were able to see and taste the difference in irrigation methods, which gave them further hope for the future. During the same period they landed a large contract with Chateau Ste. Michelle. Soon Sagemoor had more than 750 acres and was selling 95 percent of its grapes to almost 20 Washington wineries.

A New Era

By 2000, many of the original founders and board members were steering toward retirement. Bayless died in 1991 and their longtime general manager, Erick Hanson, died in 1998. These changes prompted an updated look at the business, beginning with modernization from the ground up and hiring a new general manager. In 2002, Waliser was brought on as the GM, responsible for selling grapes and the small amount of apples and cherries still being produced on the farm. He was hired alongside John Vitalich as managing director, both overseeing their friend Todd Cameron, who was the vineyard manager. They were fresh blood surrounded by employees who had been there 20-plus years. Waliser realized he would have to prove his worth before putting large changes into motion.  

He remembers working with Winslow Wright and how Wright's personality had influenced the company. "Winslow was kind of old school, Harvard grad in the '30s, kind of a tough guy, my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. When I first met him, he said, ‘'You know Kent, whatever you’re going to do here, you’re going to have to show me it’s going to work,'" said Waliser (Heath interview). As he got to know others at the company, Waliser began to see the vision that the owners had started with in 1972. His inspiration was short-lived, however, as Chateau Ste. Michelle announced it was phasing out its contract with Sagemoor. Waterbrook soon followed with a similar announcement. The main reason was revealed to be the continued use of sprinklers instead of drip irrigation at Sagemoor, Bacchus, and Dionysus. Much of the industry had already adopted drip irrigation, in some cases several years earlier.  

The senior members of Sagemoor maintained an old-school attitude that dictated if they were making money, there was no need to change anything, and up until then they had been making money. "We had to change our vision, our idea," Waliser said. "We had to respond to the wineries, what they needed, raise grapes differently, put all this in" (Heath interview). So Waliser and his associates immediately pushed for a new irrigation system at all three vineyards. They worked quickly to modernize Sagemoor’s systems so that they would have an opportunity to renegotiate the contracts that were about to be lost. At the time Sagemoor had only about 15 total contracts, so Waliser knew there was potential growth to be had with the new management team.  

Waliser also saw an opportunity to open the vineyards to new and diversified buyers. He gave extra attention to smaller wineries and would often sell just a few tons of grapes to get their foot in the door. Waliser had that unique ability to find wineries that would make quality wine and would expand alongside Sagemoor. One such customer was Mike Januik, who left Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1999 to strike out on his own. He began by purchasing one acre of grapes from Sagemoor (with the remaining acreage all going to Ste. Michelle) to start his winery. Today [2024] he purchases almost 150 tons of grapes. "So his winery grew, we grew with him," said Waliser (Heath interview).

Growing wineries also began demanding higher standards from grape growers. Previously, many vineyards would pick all of the grapes, put them in bins, and sell them in large quantities. Or the wineries would get a first-come, first-serve situation in the selection of grapes: whoever was the last one got whatever was left on the vine. As the industry started to shift, wineries would often ask for the same block or row year after year. Some vineyards weren’t comfortable with these changes because they hadn’t yet become industry standards. This included Sagemoor, until Waliser pushed for change, stating that their sales wouldn't survive if others were willing to offer specific blocks. Winemakers would also want to see the vineyard and have a hand in picking out which sections they would purchase or rent from Sagemoor. Coming from a sales background, Waliser knew it was important to cater to the customer and he didn’t see any problems with a more specific grape-selection process. He even started to put winery names on sections of the vineyard for its long-term partners.  

In 2007, Waliser married his second wife, Candace. Meanwhile, the tree-fruit business began to take off again, and subsequently the nursery business. Todd Cameron was drawn back to his nursery and left Sagemoor. Derek Way was hired as the new vineyard manager. He stayed on for almost nine years, until 2015 when Lacey Lybeck was brought on. Throughout the many personnel changes, many of the original employees opted to stay. As an example, Miguel Rodriguez started at the company in 1979 as a teenager, but became the vineyard manager for Weinbau and maintains his role in the company today.

By 2012, Winslow Wright was one of the only original partners still alive, and it was becoming clear that Sagemoor would need to start looking for long-term solutions for its succession. The team began doing research and came across the Allan Brothers Fruit Company, a third-generation tree-fruit company in Washington. In 2014, all of Sagemoor’s 60-plus partners voted (except Wright, who was in a hospital bed at the time, the only partnership meeting he ever missed). They chose to sell their four vineyards to Allan Brothers. Waliser had come across Allan Brothers before and believed this might be the best option they would encounter. "So they came in and they embraced our business model of selling the small wineries and provided financing and leadership and all that," said Waliser (Heath interview).  

Allan Brothers Fruit had been looking to enter the wine grape business, and managing Sagemoor’s tree-fruit division was something they were well-versed in. They were able to give Sagemoor the support it needed to continue into the next era of Washington grape-growing while preserving their long-standing legacy. By 2023 Sagemoor had 70 unique winery relationships between its six vineyards and a high standard for its grapes. "Within these partnerships, Sagemoor’s winemaker clients actively participate in viticultural decision-making within their preferred vineyard blocks in pursuit of their personal flavor profile goals" ("About Sagemoor Vineyards”).

Sagemoor Estates

During the switch in ownership, Waliser saw an opportunity to finally change career paths and focus on just wine. Waliser said that the Allan Brothers "managed to get me out of the tree-fruit business once and for all" (Heath interview). He asked his new boss, Miles Kohl, if they had thought about building a winery, since they already had the 40-year-old vines so many others coveted. "So he says, 'What do you got in mind?' I says, 'Well, I would stick around and keep working if you wanted to start a wine project'" (Heath interview). Although Sagemoor had never started a winery, Waliser had his eye on a certain block of grapes in Bacchus that he had always wanted to use for wine. The only problem was, someone was already using those grapes. "I had to wait for fruit to come around because one of our policies is we don’t take fruit away from a winery just to give to another winery," he said (Heath interview).

Waliser told his boss that he could take care of other tasks, like finding a winemaker, while they waited for grapes. He recruited an old friend, John Abbott, who had most recently worked at Abeja winery in Walla Walla. As luck would have it, Waliser had a winery reach out and say that the block of grapes weren’t working for them at the current price point and asked if he could sell them to someone else. It was the exact block he had been waiting for. "Eventually, we called that Cabernet Stars in a Row," he said (Heath interview).

In 2016, Sagemoor Estates hired more staff members and began making white wines as well as a new red called Miguel the Man, named after the vineyard manager for Weinbau. Soon after, Waliser started distributing their wines to local tasting rooms and restaurants. He was up for the task since they had been averaging about 1,000 cases per year of their limited selection. Waliser still had his mind set on growing the business, but he had to be patient. 

Five years later, Sagemoor Estates connected with Aryn Morell, a winemaker from Walla Walla who had space available. Sagemoor consolidated its winemaking with Morell and opened a tasting room in Walla Walla. Having a larger building gives Waliser the ability to grow Sagemoor Estates and provide as much wine as the market will allow, while still maintaining the sales side of the business. He estimates that Sagemoor Estates’ production is only about 2 to 3 percent of what Sagemoor Vineyards grows overall. Sagemoor has added two more vineyards to its catalog in recent years: Gamache vineyard in the Columbia Valley, planted in 1982, and Southwind vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley, planted in 2005. 

Sagemoor’s Future

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the wine business in Washington, almost overnight, with the exception of retail sales. "I think across the industry, whether it's growers, wineries, winemakers, or salespeople, I think they learned that you've just got to be able to adapt, be flexible," said Waliser. Many parts of physical winemaking were unchanged, but the day-to-day sales process was forced to adapt. Waliser saw much of the industry pull closer together to support each other. "It created an atmosphere of ingenuity" he said (Heath interview).

Looking back at other difficult times, including 2001, Waliser said valuable lessons were learned. He said another financial shift was happening today in the industry, with a subtle leveling out of sales and production, beginning around 2018. He compares his current sales tactics with those of the 1980s, when one had to essentially go out and sell door-to-door. When the industry took off, the grapes spoke for themselves and vineyards were purchased in full, but supply and demand have always fluctuated. Part of the challenge now is that many vineyards planted large amounts of grapes, expecting sales to continue to climb, creating an abundance. "You think it's going to keep going this way. So you plant more to meet demand and then demand stops, and so you've got supply," he said. He said we have grown more grapes than we can feasibly drink as Washingtonians. "So I've had this saying for a long time that almost all the grapes grown in Washington have to leave the state of Washington. They can leave as grapes or as wine” (Heath interview). Sagemoor sells some of its grapes to sources outside the state, known as satellite operations. He looks at these satellite operations with excitement; they represent another opportunity to get more Washington wine in the hands of people who don’t live here.

Looking back, Waliser recalls the first significant moment in his wine career, although he didn’t know it at the time. He was barrel tasting in Gary Figgins’s (Leonetti Cellar) cellar with Norm McKibben and his cousin Tom Waliser and thought, "Wow, this is an amazing experience” (Heath interview). That was in 1990, and Waliser wouldn’t leave the tree-fruit business in exchange for grapes for another 12 years. According to him, it’s never too late to start a career in the wine industry. And unlike other industries, you can often keep working as long as you’d like. He started at Sagemoor at age 50, and started Sagemoor Estates at age 63, when others are often retiring.  

Today [2024], Waliser is the Director of Wine Sales for Sagemoor Estates as well as Sagemoor's Brand Ambassador. He still owns his family farm in Milton-Freewater, growing apples and a few Cabernet grapes. He said he's proud of what he has accomplished. "The industry's been very good to me," he said. "The people in the industry are great to work with. The wines are amazing, and have only gotten better over the last 20 years ... I hope it continues. And the employees and the people involved in the industry, is one of the best things that you could ever do. Because the cool thing is just, I think the longevity of the people we have working in our company. It's amazing" (Heath interview).

More: Ariana Heath's interview with Kent Waliser


Kent Waliser interview with Ariana Heath, Seattle, Washington, June 22, 2023, recording and transcript available through HistoryLink; “Fast Facts,” Washington Wine website accessed August 22, 2023 (https://www.washingtonwine.org/fast-facts/); “History,” Sagemoor Vineyards website accessed August 22, 2023 (https://sagemoorvineyards.com/history); Emily Resling, “Right Place, Right Time, Right Man: The 45-Year History of Sagemoor Vineyards,” Discover Washington Wine website accessed August 22, 2023 (https://www.discoverwashingtonwine.com/right-place-right-time-right-man-the-45-year-history-of-sagemoor-vineyards/); Paul Gregutt, “Sagemoor Vineyards’ Wise Move Pays Off Handsomely,” The Seattle Times, June 25, 2008 (seattletimes.com); Ronald Irvine, The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History (Vashon: Sketch Publications, 1997), 281-284; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Sagemoor in Pasco Plants Washington's First Large-scale Commercial Vineyard in 1972" (by Trista Crossley), historylink.org (accessed August 23, 2023); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "F. W. Langguth Winery, First Foreign Investor in Washington Wine Industry, Releases its First Bottlings on April 14, 1983" (by Nick Rousso), historylink.org (accessed August 23, 2023); Andy Perdue, “How 2 Events 50 Years Ago Poured Life Into Washington’s Wine Industry,” The Seattle Times, November 2, 2017 (seattletimes.com); “About Sagemoor Vineyards,” Allan Bros Incorporated website accessed August 22, 2023 (https://www.allanbrosfruit.com/content_sagemoor_about.htm); Mike Veseth, “The California Wine Bill and the Birth of Washington State Wine,” The Wine Economist, December 2, 2007 (https://wineeconomist.com/2007/12/02/the-california-bill-and-the-birth-of-washington-state-wine/); Andy Perdue, “Longtime Washington Vineyard Sold to Apple Grower,” The Tri-City Herald, April 10, 2014 (https://www.tri-cityherald.com/living/food-drink/article32174781.html).

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