By Paul Vigna
Manage people in a profession for 25 years, as Chris Upchurch has done as the head winemaker for esteemed DeLille Cellars, and you will see some of your best apprentices find better jobs.
Mike Macmorran left Upchurch and DeLille in 2008 to join Mark Ryan Winery, where he works as the head winemaker and also anchors the cellars for Manu Propria, his own label. In 2009, Dr. Kit Singh ended a two-year internship at DeLille by founding Lauren Ashton Cellars. A year after that, Chris Peterson departed to help launch Avennia and, later, to also join the Passing Time label that includes former NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino and Damon Huard. Louis Skinner worked as an intern at Betz Family Winery before staying in the neighborhood and joining DeLille in 2011, bottling four vintages before returning to Betz, where he’s now the head winemaker.
Kit Singh, Chris Upchurch, Jason Gorski (DeLille), Chris Peterson and Ross Mickel at 2015 legacy dinner
Add in Ross Mickel – who started Ross Andrew Winery in 1999 – and the late Lance Baer – who founded his own label in 2000 – and you have a legacy tree that has collectively helped a thousand-strong Washington state wine industry continue to evolve on the world stage.
All of which, Upchurch noted, has added to the satisfaction of what he seen happen at DeLille since it was founded in 1992.
Upchurch: “People ask me, are you tired of people leaving and moving on and stuff like that, and I say, ‘First of all, I’m not stupid, I hire good people. I expect people to bring something to the table.”
Upchurch drew an analogy to Pete Carroll, who has won two conference titles and a Super Bowl in eight successful seasons as the Seattle Seahawks head coach. The result has been an exodus of assistants, including Dan Quinn, who left to coach in Atlanta in 2015. His Falcons went to the Super Bowl last year.
Upchurch’s said his reaction to his personnel losses mirrors how Carroll has responded to the departures from his staff.
“They asked Pete [whether he was tired of people taking his coaches] and he said, ‘Two things. First of all, they are friends, I know their kids, I know their wives. Some of them worked with me at the Jets, some of them worked with me at USC. Some have been with me for years. I want nothing but the best for them and they’re friends of mine.’ ”
Skinner, for one, can identify with those sentiments as it relates to his old boss. The Betz Family winemaker said that he values the strong relationship he has with Upchurch, a bond centered around wine. “We speak a common language. I think we communicate more now than when I worked with him,” he said. “He was more than anything happy for me, proud of me. Every time we’re together, working somewhere, he’s more proud of me than anything else.”
Upchurch said Carroll’s other response might be the most important of the two answers. “They don’t take coaches from the lousy teams,” Carroll has said. Upchurch segued off that thought. “It’s kind of the same thing [with me]. I’m very proud of the fact they’re coming after my assistant winemakers, then that means that we’re doing a good job, and people are seeking what we’re doing. “
Peterson called his eight years at DeLille Cellars a pivotal time in his wine education. “We talked at length all the time about tasting wines from the barrel and thinking about how they may fit in a blend,” he said. “About how no matter what kind of wine we were making, the goal was balance, concentration, and complexity – how all the parts needed to fit together.”
Perhaps the most important benefit of his time there, he added, was being able to travel to many wine regions in France. “Chris always saw his wines in the context of wines he had tasted from around the world, and I appreciate him sharing that gift with me,” he said.
Skinner sentiments were similar. Working at DeLille, he said, provided a time to travel and taste the best the world has to offer in food and wine, and he credited his former boss with, among other things, persuading him to make his first overseas wine trip.
“Anyone who has worked for him, he’s really rushed those folks to come outside of their comfort zone and spend a lot of time on wine appreciation, whether it’s knowing the wines in our region or other regions,” Skinner said. “I was probably the most passionate person in the cellar when it came to wine, so he would let me kind of steer in those directions. Because of that, we took trips to France together, to the Rhone Valley and Burgundy. He’s always out there in the world looking at what’s going on.”