Winery won’t take flooding lying down

CAVU is holding a “Disaster Relief Party” on what should have been a celebration of its new locale.


WALLA WALLA — The move from the Port of Walla Walla wine incubator complex into a new tasting room was always going to be a momentous occasion for CAVU Cellars.

But the owners hardly expected it to be disastrous, too.

A mere three weeks after opening in the completely renovated building at 175 Aeronca Ave. at the gateway to the Port of Walla Walla’s airport industrial park, a head on the brand new fire suppression system malfunctioned. The system spewed water at 300 gallons a minute for upward of a half-hour on Sept. 14, winemaker and co-owner Joel Waite said.

“It just rained down,” Waite said Thursday over a concerto of reconstruction noises filling the 10,000-square-foot space. “Of course it just couldn’t come down on the concrete portion.”

No, it doused the ceiling, drywall, insulation and wood floors, destroying months of work in a hasty but thorough downpour that’s created an insurance fiasco and dismantled the tasting room, hallway, bathrooms, utility room and kitchen just as the thick of harvest roles in.

The one room that wasn’t destroyed — a new event space created for parties, wedding receptions and other special events — will be the location this weekend of what the owners have billed a “Disaster Relief Party.” Wine, appetizers and music are meant Saturday to take the edge off the unfortunate turn of events. The free wine tasting, 5-9 p.m., will include discounts on case purchases or purchases of six bottles or more.

“We thought, ‘What do we do to get people in here now?’ We don’t exactly have a tasting room,” Waite said.

CAVU’s owners — Waite and his parents, Jim and Karen — aren’t asking for donations; they simply want people to try the wine and see what’s happening at the building.

In the meantime, Five Star Disaster Services, which was sucking out water and had fans and dehumidifiers turned on an hour and a half after the flood, remains mobilized on cleanup and repair duty.

“They’re still tearing stuff down, but they’re also hanging drywall already,” Waite marveled.

The twist is a heartbreaker in an otherwise fairy tale of a business story.

Waite, who had previously worked as a private chef and caterer, graduated from Walla Walla Community College’s Enology & Viticulture program in 2007. Right after that he accepted a position at Maryhill Winery. In the summer of 2008 he returned to Walla Walla, where his parents had relocated from Virginia, to turn their dreams of owning a winery into reality together.

CAVU — which pays homage to Jim’s career as a pilot with the aeronautical acronym for “ceiling and visibility unlimited” — became a tenant at the Port of Walla Walla’s winery incubator complex, designed for startup wineries on a six-year lease. By the sixth year, tenants must vacate to make way for the next lessee.

The move into the new space — half of the 20,000-square-foot building formerly occupied by Le Chateau Winery — was a step out of the incubators.

The Port of Walla Walla was still under contract with Cascade Fire when the sprinkler system malfunctioned a mere 10 days after installation, said airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund.

“It’s just a sad deal,” she said. “They had just moved in after working all summer.”

The Waites had their personal property covered by their own insurance. But there are a lot of details to determine.

Damage to the property is estimated at $180,000 to $200,000, Skogland said. Work is expected to be complete in about three weeks. But it could be a long time before the insurance on the property is resolved. The Port is taking the lead on that end and will cover those costs until the problem is resolved, she said.

In the meantime, the family is looking forward to showing off the space that is complete, and sharing the wines for which CAVU is known, Jim Waite said.

“We’ve had some real sleepless nights here,” he said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at or 526-8321.


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