“For me to be able to be a bridge for community? It’s a blessing.”
Meet David Rodriguez, Winemaker and Viticulturist at Dineen Vineyard. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, David spent much of his youth going back and forth between Tijuana and San Diego. Similarly, his career path also oscillated—between law and music—until he found wine, and shortly thereafter Washington. The moment he first discovered wine in Valle de Guadelupe in Ensenada—the highest wine-producing valley in Mexico—he knew he found his calling. “I didn’t know anything about chemistry. I didn’t know anything about science. But I knew I wanted to make wine.” Fast forward nearly a decade, and David has since found his home in the Washington State wine industry. “I’m like a pretty bad case of mealybugs for Washington wine, because I’m never leaving this place, man. You’re not going to get rid of me so easily. I came from California and I fell in love with this industry, so I’m just here now.”
Washington Wine: Tell us a bit about who you are, what area you’re in, and what work looks like for you in the farming world right now.
David Rodriguez: I’m from the city of Tijuana, Mexico. I was born and raised there. I didn’t have any contact with wine until probably 2012.
I began to drink wine, got a little bit of interest, and that little bit of an interest turned itself into a massive number of books that I was reading about the subject. I was just like, “Wow, this tastes so different than this.” Everything tasted so different to me, which created value to me. I then went to Valle de Guadalupe for the first time, which is in Ensenada, the highest wine-producing region in Mexico.
It was mind blowing for me. I didn’t even know that that existed. I didn’t know anything about chemistry. I didn’t know anything about science. But I knew I wanted to make wine. What the hell should I do, right? I was a music major before that. And before that I was a law major. It was a natural evolution.
WW: Once you knew that wine was for you, how did you transition into wine?
David: I began searching for schools and naturally my first option was UC Davis and Cal Poly SLO. I didn’t see the program at WSU at first, but I also wanted a change of scenery, so I decided I needed to go to Argentina. A little afterwards I left for Mendoza where I studied enology for about two and a half years. That time there gave me a lot of science background. The program was heavy on the Enology side of things. When I came back to Mexico and to the U.S., I lived for a year in San Diego, and I again wondered, what should I do? I researched other programs and came by the V&E program at WSU. Naturally, I began drinking Washington wine to get an understanding of the region. As it is, I immediately fell in love with the wines.
I decided to come to Washington State in 2017. Not knowing much about it, I enrolled in the Yakima Valley College Program first. I began knocking on doors, seeing who would take me to do an internship or something of that sort, and finally Dineen Vineyards took me in. After a couple of months of searching, they basically called me to pour in the tasting room. I was like, “Yeah I’ll do it”. Being able to pour some vino while studying Washington wine, that’s how I fell in love with the industry here. I found home here. Afterwards I transitioned into the vineyards and to making the wine at Dineen.
Mixed in the chronology, I began my own project—Enodav Wine Company—which is a winery with a concept based on a mix of everything I’ve experienced in the wine world up until now. My vision, as it is for this company is to attempt to appreciate the structural qualities that are formed somewhere in between vineyard specificity, the variables that can be controlled by the viticulturist and the logic and skill that the winemaker can portray. To me, there’s no such thing as the famous phrase “great wine is made in the vineyard”. There are other hands that mold it, too, Therefore, I don’t make the same style of wines every year, that’s not my cup of tea. My utmost priority is to showcase as much and as best as I can the growing season. I’m first and foremost a farmer.
WW: That’s how it happens, right? A little bit of curiosity goes a long way.
David: Exactly. I’m like a pretty bad case of mealybugs for Washington wine, because I’m never leaving this place, man. You’re not going to get rid of me so easily. I came from Baja California and I fell in love with the industry here.
Patrick Rawn, co-owner of Two Mountain Winery, is the vineyard manager of Dineen Vineyards. I needed an internship for a class at YVC, and I talked to my boss, Patrick Dineen, who referred me to Patrick Rawn, soon enough I began working in the farm, knowing nothing about the vineyards. Nothing, zero. I started learning from Patrick, who farms 13 sites and around 330 acres in the Yakima Valley. After working for him for some time I started to get way more interested in the farm than the wine itself. The vineyard adopted me.
It can get lonely and tedious and hard sometimes out there in the vineyard. Early mornings, lots of coffee, not minding the extreme temps, fixing a broken pipe at midnight while irrigating, etc. But it is very rewarding when you come back at the end of the year and after the grapes are picked all these great winemakers are just like, “Man, these grapes turned out fantastic.” Also when you get to drink the wine made from those grapes.
WW: With 13 farms, how big is that, relatively speaking?
DR: From the smallest guy in Woodinville to Chateau Ste. Michelle. A broad spectrum of clients indeed. We’re always very happy to work with the smallest winery to the largest.
WW: For people who don’t know what that area looks like, can you describe it for us? The landscape, and the terroir?
David: Versatility, consistency and elegance. Dineen supplies grapes to many wineries with significantly different styles of winemaking. I think Dineen specifically is a very well-balanced site overall. Delicate fruit, above 1200 ft elevation, which gives us really good frost-free conditions, located in northern Zillah under the Roza Hills. Dineen is currently 92 acres in total, but 76 under vine. We grow 12 varietals. As I was saying, Dineen holds a very special place in my heart. Recently I took the role of winemaker there and couldn’t be happier.
WW: Earlier, you mentioned being a music major. What kind of music and do you still play?
David: Classical and Jazz, I played the double bass, studied in both San Diego and Tijuana with a couple of professors over there. It was mostly classical music and a little b. I studied classical under Andres Martin in Tijuana and jazz under Rob Thorsen of University of California, San Diego, UCSD. I was also a law major at a University in Aguascalientes, Mexico back in 2008.
I’m looking forward to allowing myself some time to do that. I can’t imagine hearing myself playing the bass again, sounding terribly now because I haven’t practiced in so long, right? But I think I would enjoy it. I would like to do it more. Maybe this interview is persuasive enough for me to start again.
WW: Prior to working in the vines here, did you have any experience in the farming world or agriculture before that, or was it all fresh?
David: No agriculture at all, as a matter of fact, only on the enology side in Argentina. I didn’t have a lot of experience in the industry in general. My experience in this industry has come from Argentina and Washington.
WW: You said you’re here to stay. What made you fall in love with the farming life, and what keeps you going?
David: For the most part, it’s a very dynamic thing because you’re working hand-by-hand with Mother Nature, right? It’s not just what you have in place. Yes, you build models to target what you’re going to do throughout the year, and you prepare everything, we try to approach things on a systematic way to achieve consistency—basically a translation of efforts into what winemakers need; that way their wines can be a true expression of their ideas. Seeing models truth themselves and see them turn into systems, is just one tool in the toolbox of the broad number of tools that we use to target specificity of needs in the vineyard. Those things are very mathematical, but then you see the changes that you didn’t expect that Mother Nature sends you, and also the ability to adapt to those changes, is what makes you effective at your job.
I think that the ability of a grower to adapt and to change with Mother Nature and to still create valuable crops is essential, especially for winemaking purposes, because we’re not growing the grapes to eat them; we’re growing the grapes to make a specific thing, right? It’s not a final product. It’s not like cherries or asparagus that you’re just going to grow them, pick them and eat them. You got to go through that wine process, too. And to target the best wines possible, we need to tackle this differently adding more variables to the equation, winemaker’s needs, etc.
How can I put it? The problems that come with it may give you headaches, but finding solutions and learning from the problems and learning from your mistakes and not committing to them twice, you can write a book after 25 years of doing this. The older folks in the industry that have been here for a very long time, I think they all should write books. It’s pretty cool what you will learn every single year with Mother Nature, and all those changes. It’s a lot of information to keep it for yourself. You have to share that. For younger growers like me—a dumb farmer— that are learning, or still learning.
WW: That’s what makes our industry a community, right? Conversation?
David: Yes, having the ability to talk to lots of folks in the industry is what makes this industry better every single day, I think, and also the openness to sharing data and information. I think that is what separates us from other places and industries. A lot of people in other places I’ve experienced, they’re very jealous of their practices and they withhold information. And over here, that’s usually not the case. I’m not saying that that rule doesn’t get broken, but usually it’s not the case. You see all the time a flow of information and growers talking to growers, just learning from each other, right? It’s pretty cool. I found it creates a sense of community here in Washington State.
We really have some of the best researchers in the world here, specifically on vineyards. I mean, you have Markus Keller, you have Tom Collins, you have Michelle Moyer, you have all these big names that are doing fantastic research. WSU and the industry as a whole has done incredible things. The industry in general has done a fantastic job, too, to keep pushing for more and more research-based growing. It’s not just by hand; it’s also research based. Think about it: that’s the only way you’re going to give the industry the possibility to compete on a premium level. Research is a key factor of that. I think we are as a State doing a fantastic job.
WW: You also mentioned a possible life in law. What interested you about law, and when did that change?
David: Well, I jumped to law school after finishing high school. Law in Mexico is different than here. In the States, you got to do a pre-law, four-year degree and then jump into law school. Mexico is different. You just jump from high school to law school directly. I basically started law school in Mexico. It was mainly because my dad’s a lawyer, and so I was just like, why not? It’s a family tradition. I started law and I loved it, but there was something missing. I decided to change venues, to drop out of school and just move. I think I was too young to make a decision then, and I made a very hardcore decision when I was 17 years old. It’s a little too young to actually figure it out and have it all dialed in.
It’s just making and, boy, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so it’s going through those and learning from them, right? It’s kind of the way to go, I think.
WW: I’m curious about how your background—in terms of splitting time in Tijuana and San Diego, having lived abroad and in various states, and being bilingual—shapes your perspective coming into this industry and being a part of it?
David: I think that it’s just great to be able to communicate with everybody around you, because we’re very blessed over here that having great folks in staff and working for us that speak only Spanish or speak only English, and so on. For me to be able to be a bridge of communication and being useful that way, is a blessing. I’ve worked with people that really don’t speak any English at all, and the need sometimes for me to be able to help them communicate what they want to say in English to my boss or to somebody else comes up.
Our crew is fantastic. I love those guys. They’re super fun, and they really like what they’re doing. They’re chatting all day long while they’re working. I don’t know how they do it, man, because I just go into the vineyard and have to be super concentrated to be able to execute my job correctly, and they’re just laughing and chatting and looking somewhere else, but they just do the right thing all the time. I don’t know how the hell they do it, but it’s pretty cool to see. Having an experienced year-round crew is amazing for quality consistency too.
We are very blessed, that we’re not that small nor that large, that we can keep a crew year-round. Very few farms can do that: keep the same crew, the same people, every single year, every single week, for at least 320 days out of the year. Furthermore, I think making yourself useful to me is key. If that adds to the toolbox, bring it. If me speaking two languages helps, awesome. If I can help somebody learn some Spanish or learn some English, too, I will do it.
I appreciate those words, really. I think that I would be ungrateful to my parents and to the society that helped me learn two languages and being amazingly privileged to not use those tools to help others.
WW: A final random question for you. You are a past music major, so this question is probably more on the nose for you, but what is your favorite non-musical sound? You can choose up to three.
DR: Non-musical sound. Wow. This is fun. Probably, and you’re going to laugh about this, but I love to fly, so I’m guessing the engines of an airplane, the turbines sound, it just sounds so powerful. Another one would be when I get home, my dog is going crazy and just barking, like, “Hey, you’re home, dude.” That’s one of my favorite non-musical sounds. And I’m going to sound so cliche here, man, but the sound of the ocean when you’re laying down on the beach. It’s just the most relaxing thing in the world.
This interview being translated by our Translation Team, and will be available shortly.
For any questions about our Breaking Ground farmer ambassador program, please reach out to Bretty Rawson, Digital Programs Manager, at [email protected].