BY LESLIE KELLY
Rob Griffin’s fascination with the wine business started early, when he was a high school student in California’s Bay Area.
“My uncle bought an 80-acre property as a retirement project, a site that he planted with all sorts of grapes including Pinot noir, Riesling and Gamay. It all intrigued the hell out of me,” said the owner/winemaker at Barnard Griffin.
That lead him to the University of California at Davis, and after graduating and a short stint at Buena Vista in Sonoma County, he landed Washington State in 1977, when he went to work for the late Bill Preston.
“I’ll never forget when I came up to interview, there was an epic windstorm in the Tri-Cities. It was like the Gobi Desert,” Griffin said.
The foul weather didn’t deter him: “I was excited about the prospect of getting in on the ground floor of a new industry. Making wine in an area that was more European was very appealing.”
At the time, Preston was the second largest winery in the state and it wasn’t long before Griffin made a big impression. “We won more awards and medals than just about any other winery in the state at that time,” he said. “The industry owes Bill a debt for making so much wine that we had to find places outside the state to sell it. Selling it was nothing but missionary work back then, when nobody outside the area knew anything about Washington wine.”
In 1983, he and his wife, Deborah Barnard, started their own label as a side project, and Griffin left Preston to work at Hogue Cellars. “Mike Hogue was a farmer who really got the art of marketing and promotion,” Griffin said. “We experienced a pretty meteoric rise.”
That elevated profile included taking the top prize at an international wine competition in Atlanta in the 1980s, for a Cabernet Sauvignon that was started by Latah Creek’s Mike Conway. “That was important because it showed us there was more in the world than Chenin blanc, which was the wine we had hung our hats on,” Griffin said.
When he went full time with Barnard Griffin in 1991, it was a relief to no longer work two jobs. “It was like I got half my life back,” he said.
While Deborah worked on the “nuts and bolts” of the operation, Griffin focused on honing his winemaking style, including being one of the first in the state to barrel ferment chardonnay. He continued to forge relationships with a network of growers: “I always thought it was a good plan to buy fruit from people who know a whole lot more about it than I do, though through osmosis, I’ve learned a lot,” said Griffin, who is now partners in a couple of vineyards.
Along with growing in production – now making 60,000 cases a year, Barnard Griffin has gradually upgraded its facilities and tasting room, now all housed in a expansive space that includes a special events venue and Deborah’s glass-blowing studio. “She picked it up about 12 years ago and just kept getting better and better at it,” Griffin said. “She’s the resource center for Bullseye Glass in Portland, one of the biggest of its kind in the country.”
The winery has also grown to include two important employees: the couple’s daughters, Elise and Megan.
“Elise has been helping us with marketing and Megan, who graduated from WSU, is working in the lab. She’s our crushpad oenologist,” said the proud Dad. “It’s been great, though there are times when they have to put up with this old codger pointing out that they don’t work as hard as I used to.”
Griffin’s mission of producing quality wines at affordable prices is unwavering, though he does stretch his creative powers making very limited release wines exclusive to club members. The lack of respect for some wines based on price point is something he has always found baffling.
“It used to make me angry, but now I’m mostly entertained by it,” he said. “We’ve always chosen to keep things lean and mean. We don’t spend a lot of money on marketing. And our wines consistently come out on top in blind tastings. But that changes when people see the price.”
Does Griffin ever miss his home state?
“When I came up to Washington, I thought I’d be here two or three years, but now, I cannot imagine going back to work in California,” he said.
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