We might be a bit biased, but our winemakers and grape growers are everyday legends. They have a deep love for what they do, and what their wine can do: bring people together. From biostatisticians to scientists, professional snowboarders to quarterbacks, cattle ranch hands to geologists, bartenders to English teachers, masters of wine to aeronautical engineers, oceanographers to actors, and so many more. There is no shortage of personalities in Washington State, which means there is no shortage of stories. We’re so excited to (re-)introduce you to the character, and characters of Washington State. Below, get to know Dennis Murphy, owner and winemaker of Caprio Cellars.
Washington Wine: First, congrats to you, Dennis, on being named as one of the “Most Inspiring People” by Wine Industry Advisor! What did that mean to you, and the whole Caprio Cellars team, to get that bit of recognition?
Dennis Murphy: Being named as one of the Most Inspiring People by Wine Industry Advisor was a huge win for Caprio. The team is very excited and of course it is an honor to be named with such a prestigious title. We will do our best to be a good steward of the wine industry and continue to be a thought leader in the space.
As we say out here, a rising tide floats all boats. The Walla Walla Valley has a genuine sense of community. The camaraderie and synergy between winemakers and wineries is real. If a fellow winery needs to borrow a piece of equipment or any materials, there is always someone willing to share. This is a special place in a special time of the evolution in the wine industry in Washington State.
WW: Speaking of community, how do you go about creating community through wine?
DM: Most people want to be in a space where you feel welcome. There’s challenges, purpose, and collaboration. Being a winemaker and having a winery is a fairly independent—and if you will, lonely—journey or existence. It’s almost part of the makeup to yearn or seek out some mentorship or collaboration. Since I’ve been in Walla Walla, it’s just been that way: “Come on over, bring a bottle, and let’s see what’s going on in your world.” Your wine is your craft, it’s an expression of what you’re doing. I think it immediately provides some dialogue for that evening of, “Hey, this is what I tried on this vintage. And tried new varietal or new oak program,” or whatever it is. It’s hard not to be part of that.
Fortunately, there’s like-minded people who are doing that often. I have my circle, but I know that there’s other circles of people experiencing the same thing. I think we’re all part of that same community, even though we may not be tasting each other’s wine as much as some of us.
WW: I wanted to ask about your business model of giving back, because I know that’s one reason you were named “Most Inspiring People.” Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve created, and how you enact that sense of charity and philanthropy through your winery?
DM: Caprio started off with the saying of, “Every sip changes lives.” This mantra has been at the fabric of the culture and strategy of Caprio Cellars. Caprio has evolved into a leader of hospitality in the Walla Walla Valley and the giving has grown as a result.
We truly embrace the “Give As You Go” philosophy, and make it a part of our everyday activities. It always rubbed me the wrong way when I heard somebody say, “We’re going to give back.” It didn’t resonate with me because I gave all the time. When I heard people say that, and not disrespectfully, I’m like, “Well, if you have to stop and give back, then why did you take so much in the first place? If your plate was full, why did you get more?
I could never articulate it, but it was just a feeling I had. Fortunately, on my day job side of it, we had all sorts of brilliant and wonderful consultants to come in and help us out. There’s a guy named Simon Sinek who made it big on a TED Talk. Simon’s group came in and helped us figure out our purpose at Hayden Homes, where I worked then. I was in the middle of this seminar, and we were digging deep. Going for it on what is the purpose and why do we exist? In my head it just came to me, “We give as we go.” That’s the differentiator. I just raised my hand and I said, “I got it. We give as we go.” From then on, it was our mantra and it’s been part of my fabric as a human to, every day, do something that’s going to help somebody else. If every business leader would focus, and be intentional and mindful of their giving, there would be less need for social reform, and many social programs. If everyone would pick two or three things that they could make an impact, and things that they are passionate about, not only would they focus their giving but they would do more because it meant something to them.
In my early days, I found myself being solicited for the hot lunch program, the Boys & Girls Club, the soccer team, the this and the that. Over the years, I’ve formulated my giving to be mindful and focused on families and children. Through Big Brother/Big Sister, of which I was a Big Brother, and still am, my little brother is 29 years old now, but we’ve been together for 19 years. I was the president of the board, so not only with my finances, but with my time and my expertise have donated to make a difference in that organization. And First Story, which provides housing for families and children across the Northwest, is a huge passion of mine. It was created by my company and I’m on the board of that, so those are the two main ones. There is half a dozen other that get attention, and then there’s more that get financial donations. The purpose and drive behind my giving, and Caprio’s giving, is very intentional and it’s supported by the whole team.
WW: For those who haven’t experienced Caprio Cellars, tell us a little bit about where you are located, and how y’all landed where you did?
DM: In the year 2003, I found a wheat field just east of the Pepper Bridge Vineyard. Not knowing much about farming, I figured that if the Pepper Bridge Vineyard was a good vineyard, I had a good chance of having a good vineyard a few thousand feet to the east. It worked out, as in 2005, I planted our Eleanor Estate Vineyard, and it has been a beautiful and productive site. In the year 2019, we finished the construction of our hospitality center (tasting room) and launched a new approach to hospitality in the wine industry.
WW: I love how you foregrounded “hospitality center.” We know “in-person” looks different these days, but tell us a little bit about the vibe and atmosphere of Caprio Cellars. If someone were to tell their friends about their experience, what would you hope they would say?
DM: Well, funny enough, we went through an exercise of writing 5-star Google reviews prior to opening to manifest the experience we were launching. You can go for yourself and review the now 1,000+ 5-star Google Reviews, and they are spot on with what we set out to achieve at Caprio. The experience starts with a greeting accompanied with our proprietary sparkling wine, we then invite you to find the appropriate and comfortable area for you to start your journey. We offer 3 to 5 wines to taste along with 3 food pairings from our Executive Chef Ian Williams. The Caprio experience is like none other, and our tasting room program is meant to be disruptive. In a good way, of course.
WW: Disruptive in a good way might be our new favorite phrase. Tell me a little but more about that disruption, how it started, and what it looks like for you.
I had no interest in opening a “tasting room.” I have spent lots of time in tasting rooms watching the customer’s journey. I don’t want to criticize others in the industry, but my criticism of the current tasting room experience is that you don’t know who’s coming, you’re not staffed appropriately, and if you get slammed—I used to bartend—you’re swimming the whole time, trying to figure out who’s on the Shiraz, who’s on the Merlot, or whatever.
The tasting room model has evolved to where visitors come with three friends for example. Everyone pays $25 to taste, so the four have committed $100 for this wonderful experience. What I often see happen time and again, are these four guests sitting in the corner saying, “Okay, we got $100 invested here. If we buy something we get our money back. You don’t like the Shiraz, you don’t like the Chardonnay. What can we agree on to get out of here whole?” There’s no other industry that does that. It doesn’t seem like a fun experience, and I think as an industry we can all do so much better.
We’ve evolved that way because people don’t want to give away free wine and I get that. It’s a part of the economic model. But it seems almost punitive to have that occur. The example I use is that if you’re walking down the street and somebody said, “Hey Brett, come over to my restaurant. You and your friends give me $25 each. I’ll give you an appetizer. If you like the appetizer and you order a meal, I’ll give you your money back.” It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t meet my commonsense sniff test.
I wanted to open an experience, a hospitality center. I want to know who’s coming, and I want to be staffed appropriately. So even pre-COVID, we have four groups per day, 20 people per group, so we have 80 guests per day. We ask you to set aside 90 minutes for your customer journey and your experience, and we’ve mapped out the 90 minutes for you. You don’t know that, but we have a choreographed execution of your arrival: when you get your first red wine, when the food pairing comes out, when we talk about philanthropy, when we talk about the soil types and vineyards.
On top of that, we don’t charge for wine tastings and we don’t charge for our food pairings. People go, “Well, you’re crazy.” And I say, “Well, somebody had to try it.” Food availability at tasting rooms is the next frontier. If you go to Napa, lots of places have food and snacks available. In Walla Walla, nobody has figured out the food game. Caprio Cellars has a full-time executive chef and sous chef on staff whenever we’re open, and we provide beautiful food pairings. Since we don’t charge for the wine and food tastings, we just ask you to buy a couple extra bottles if you had a good experience. For example, if you were going to buy six bottles, take eight bottles home instead. What happens is, the extra purchase effectively pays it forward for the next people to have the same experience you just enjoyed. Because I have visibility at the other wineries, I know that our sales per person are higher, the model’s working, and we’re being rewarded for it. But we had to take the risk to have the chef, put in a kitchen, all of the things essential to the model that we do, but there’s nothing like it. So that, to me, is disruption.
What’s interesting is nobody’s really followed. I don’t know if they’re just waiting or if the existing model is rewarding them the way they want to be rewarded. But I have no interest in just doing what the status quo is. I’ve never been that way.
WW: It’s so great to get insight into the experience, but I’m also curious about the wine. What style, character, or personality are you going for in your wines? What makes your wines yours?
DM: I only make wines that I like to drink. If you like my style, we will get along wonderfully. My style is to let the fruit and vineyard do most of the speaking. I do not use a ton of new oak. Our flagship with the Eleanor Red Blend is very much a Bordeaux style Cabernet Sauvignon based wine.
WW: How long ago did you know, and realize, you would be making a life in wine? Where did that interest take root, and when did it become your life?
DM: I started to enjoy wine in my mid-twenties. I have always enjoyed the union between wine and food. I traveled a lot for my construction company, so I found myself driving into Eastern Washington and discovering Washington State red wines. I fell in love with L’Ecole No. 41 winery and started collecting their wines. In 1999, I decided to move to Walla Walla to meet wine industry people and start my own wine journey.
WW: Who were some of the first people you met when you got to Walla Walla? On that note who was influential to you in starting your winery?
DM: The place that I stopped the most was L’Ecole, and at that point, Marty was around, and some of the people in the tasting room were actually cellar people and assistant winemakers. Back then, you didn’t have Tasting Room Associates. It was great to meet those people. Really that echelon of Marty Clubb and Gary Figgins, they were it. There were maybe 10 wineries bonded at that point. When I decided to move here, it probably was 20 or 25 bonded wineries.
When I moved to the Walla Walla Valley, several people told me that I needed to meet Norm McKibben. I had the good fortune of meeting Norm and becoming friends with him. It turns out that Norm is the Jess Jackson or Robert Mondavi of the Walla Walla Valley. To my fortune, Norm and I are both civil engineers by education, and we both went the construction route. So Norm and I became immediate friends. He’s been my mentor since 1999, and was definitely a huge influence on me.
Norm, at that point, hired a winemaker from Napa Valley, a guy by the name of Jean-François Pellet, who was new to the area and so was I. Jean-François and I became friends. I worked several harvests over at Pepper Bridge in the early days. It all came full circle, and last year I was invited to be a partner in Pepper Bridge and Amavi, so now I’m involved at an ownership level at both of those wineries.
I’ve always been thinking long term. Not looking for a short-term gain, but understanding a game plan, strategically thinking and planning out long-term viability. Norm’s very much the same way. He’s very patient and very pragmatic. That bodes well to longevity of a brand. I think that’s a commonality between Norm and I. Obviously, Jean-François was a huge influence on me. I think he’s the best winemaker in Washington State. I get to see him often and am still good friends with him, and now business partner with him. He’s a treasure to the valley.
It was just the basic business philosophies that I had just got reinforced, and then the odyssey of learning the wine industry, which is a never-ending quest. It’s very complicated and you can’t ever say, “Okay, I checked all the boxes. I’m done.”
WW: You mentioned your mom as a huge source of inspiration in terms of that sense of giving and philanthropy. What were some of those early memories where she made that deep impression on you? Were there things she said that you just couldn’t forget?
DM: My mom gave birth to 5 children in a 7-year time frame. She comments that she had 3 kids in diapers at the same time. It was in her nature to be a care giver and she has great maternal instincts. My mom would give you the shirt off her back, she was very selfless in her actions. I learned this at an early age from her. One example is when my brothers or sisters had a birthday, I would wrap up my favorite toy and give it to them. I was the youngest of the 5 children, so they were probably not too excited about my gift, but they knew it meant a lot. This has translated into me having what I call the “Abundance Mentality,” meaning that there is enough for everyone, we just need to figure out how to share and take turns.
WW: Outside of wine and work, what makes Dennis Dennis? Are you a book or puzzle person, big into the outdoors, or a Survivor or Bachelorette fan? Don’t worry, your secrets are safe with us (and Twitter).
DM: Outside of wine and work, I love to hike, mountain bike, ski, cook and be around the people and passions in my life. I am equally left- and right-brain driven, so I appreciate creativity and art as much as a complex puzzle or solution.
WW: What’s one of your favorite places to visit in Washington State?
DM: I love the San Juan Islands. I have been there a few times and always discover something new.
WW: If you had the eat & drink the same thing for the rest of your life, what would they be and why?
DM: I really miss my grandmother Eleanor Caprio, she was a true Italian chef. I would eat her homemade meals and drink our Caprio Eleanor red blend, that would truly be a match made in heaven.
WW: Odyssey is such a great word for it. You strike me as a very creative person. I’m curious: what’s your approach to creativity, or creative solutions in general, in the wine industry?
DM: I’ve come to the realization that I believe that I’m equally right and left brain balanced. I think with that, and the ability to picture things and remember things, is a huge advantage for me, and my ability to execute and be creative. I remember things that I see. I remember dishes I’ve had vividly, and I can describe them and draw them, and whatever. So my creativity is usually spurred by the word no or that’s impossible. That’s when it becomes fun to see if it is possible.
I think that curiosity is what allows you to be creative. My saying is, “Set no limits.” Some people say, “Sky’s the limit,” but if you get to the sky, you can’t go any further. Set no limits. There’s no limits to creativity. There’s no limits to what you can do with your imagination. It helps with the model that we’re executing right now. It helps when I’m taking a risk on a blend and I have a hunch. I’ve been pretty good about that.
I don’t want to get too boring, but it’s usually backed with a lot of facts. I pay attention to those facts, which a lot of people can’t correlate. They think it’s a coincidence. But the reason we have 1,000+ five-star Google Reviews is because we’re executing the vision and the strategy that we’ve set out to execute. Creativity is what gives me energy. And it’s definitely a source of inspiration. It self-feeds and then you get some momentum. That’s when the magic starts to happen.
WW: Love it. Final question, which isn’t about creativity per se, but let’s see what creative answer we’ll get: what’s your favorite non-musical sound, and why?
DM: The wind. The wind has so much power and energy, it is invisible but can make a lovely array of sounds.
WW: The perfect place to end.
Are you a winemaker or have your hands in making Washington Wine? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch with Heather Bradshaw at [email protected]. We’ll set up a time to chat so we can share your story with the world.