Demand created before wine’s time

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STATELINE — When PBS NewsHour told the story of budding Walla Walla winemakers Jeremy Petty and Jody Middleton in a segment last September, the broadcast created one very happy ending.

Almost immediately the two were flooded with requests from all over the country for wines from their J&J Vintners.

But there was one hitch: The winery had not yet had its proper beginning.

Petty and Middleton had been making wine since 2010, but they weren’t licensed to ship their product. They had little more than a rudimentary website, and a lot of work was yet to be done by the time PBS made them virtual poster children for Walla Walla Community College’s Enology & Viticulture program.

It was, in a way, the best kind of problem.

“We were just kind of amazed at people coming and wanting it,” Petty said. “They didn’t know what it tasted like, looked like, smelled like — but they wanted a case of it.”

Demand was there, but supply was still six months out. That is, until this weekend.

On Saturday, a little more than half a year after the world caught wind of J&J Vintners, the owners were able to make their first retail sale, starting the latest chapter in the chronicle of their journey.

The gist of the PBS NewsHour piece was the community college’s driving effort to build the Valley’s wine industry through education and work force training.

Petty, 34, and Middleton, 35, have been in the two-year program for five years, juggling their classes with full-time jobs, families — they each have two sons — and getting a new business off the ground.

“During harvest, we’d be coming in for punchdowns at 4:30 or 5 a.m., get to work at 6 a.m., head off to school at 10 a.m. Go back to work again. That’s what we had to do,” Petty explained.

At end of a curve on Stateline Road that comes just when it feels you must be lost and have driven miles past the business, J&J Vintners produces wine in a shared warehouse production space with Locati Cellars and Garofalo Family Wines.

To get to it, you must drive between a cluster of big metal shops on the property. Petty and Middleton acknowledge it is not the most accessible location for a winery. Locati Cellars, after all, has a separate tasting room in downtown Walla Walla, likely for this very reason.

But for a start and thanks to the helping hand of longtime Petty acquaintance Mike Locati, they couldn’t have asked for more

“If it wasn’t for Mike we probably wouldn’t be here right now,” Petty said as his boys took turns playing with 4-month-old rottweiler pup Lincoln on the shop floor.

Relationships, ingenuity and hard work are the guiding forces behind a pair that to many of their friends might have seemed the unlikeliest of winemakers.

The friendship of the Walla Walla natives goes back to eighth grade, when they both played on the offensive line for their middle-school football team. They found themselves working side by side again when they both were hired on at private-label juice manufacturer Cott.

The opening of an actual winery wasn’t necessarily the motivation when the two enrolled in the community college’s wine program in 2008.

As supervisors at Cott’s manufacturing plant off Dell Avenue, “we make grape juice every day,” explained Middleton, the bespectacled partner of the two. From brix, to acid levels, to pH — the study and analysis of grapes and their compounds and chemistry had applications in their regular work as well as in what was yet an untapped interest in wine. For a while, the company even offered tuition assistance.

Somewhere during the first quarter, Middleton said, a switch flipped that opened his eyes to the wonders of wine.

“Everything was fun and super interesting. I just started trying different wines,” he said.

Before then, Petty said, his beverage of choice was more likely a Coors Light.

“We were bonfires, barbecue and beer,” he said.

Around 2010, they got their hands on their first fruit, some “extras” from the vineyard at the college. They decided to try making their own wine. They also decided to plant their own vineyard — rows of merlot and cabernet sauvignon at Petty’s house, which was incidentally the childhood property of Middelton’s youth.

“We wanted to learn about it all,” Petty said.

Community college wine instructor Tim Donahue continued to serve as a guiding force, the pair said.

For this weekend’s tasting they have a semi-sweet riesling, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, a malbec and their pride and joy, the 4 BOYS Red Blend.

They source fruit from Les Collines Vineyard, among other places. Their wines retail at $14 to $24 a bottle, a price range intentionally set to try to appeal to budget-conscience wine drinkers.

Their 4 BOYS is a tribute to their children, who help pick and stomp grapes at the winery. A portion of proceeds from sales of that blend will be dedicated to their children’s college funds.

“We have a newly found appreciation for education than we had before,” Middleton said.

In addition to the legacy they hope to build for their children, they also believe their roots and backgrounds could help serve as a bridge for newcomers to the wine in an industry often associated with high-priced dinners and fancy events.

They plan to have six events of their own each year. As a followup to Saturday’s release event, they’ll have a tasting event Tuesday at The Bank & Grill in Milton-Freewater.

“A lot of people we know aren’t into the wine scene,” Middleton said. “We really want to find ways to include all segments.”

They believe this is just the beginning of their demonstration of what can be done with commitment and hard work.

“If you do it smart, you can get something accomplished,” the multi-tasking Petty said. “You don’t have to have a million dollars to start a winery.”

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