Doug Gore just couldn’t see himself working in a cannery or a slaughterhouse. The San Jose native originally studied food science at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, back in the early 1970s, but after a couple of years, he wasn’t feeling the love.
“I decided to take a break and my brother, who was working for a vineyard management company in Healdsburg hired me to run a tractor,” said Gore, who is executive vice president of winemaking, vineyards & operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
From that first post, he was hired for a temp job at Chateau Souverain and an assistant winemaker recognized Gore’s aptitude.
“He took a liking to me and asked if I’d thought about going into winemaking,” Gore said. “Those were the Gold Rush days in Napa and Sonoma. It was otherworldly how quickly everything was moving and I wanted to be part of that.”
After he finished up his degree – taking each fall off to work the harvest – Gore landed a plum position when the late Myron Nightingale hired him to work at Beringer. Gore thrived for four years before applying to Chateau Ste. Michelle.
“I’ll never forget Kay Simon interviewing me at the Tip Top Café in Healdsburg,” he said.
He and his wife moved to Washington in 1982 and planted roots in Prosser, though Gore puts on big mileage numbers on his rig every year visiting Ste. Michelle Wine Estates properties across the state and in Oregon, as well as flying to California to visit Stag’s Leap and Conn Creek.
In those early days, Gore said he was fortunate to work with the man who has been called the godfather of the modern American wine industry, André Tchelistcheff, a consultant to Chateau Ste. Michelle for many years.
“He really impressed upon me the need to stay on top of the industry news of the day from around the world and to share that information,” Gore said.
A cluster of technological advancements in vineyard management and winemaking have come along since Gore first got into the business. The introduction of drip irrigation following research done by Dr. Walter Clore and others had a huge impact: “It really helped remove the vegetal quality from a lot of the red wines,” he said.
In the past few years, he and his team have embraced the practice of using sorting tables to remove the underdeveloped “shot” berries from clusters at harvest, a step that makes for a more elegant, refined red wine. “It’s not very often when you can introduce a new piece of equipment and see the quality improve significantly, but that’s what happens when you use a sorting table,” Gore said.
He’s also long been a champion of working closely with the ever-increasing number of contract growers that sell to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “Our first meeting, back in 1982, I think we filled up three tables at the Tillicum Coffee Shop in Sunnyside,” he recalled. “This year, there were more than 150 growers at the annual meeting. It’s a true collaboration. We have a full viticulture team that is out there monitoring and testing and working to make improvements.”
It’s hard to improve on landing at the No. 1 spot on The Wine Spectator’s Top 100, which is exactly where Columbia Crest found itself in 2009 with the 2005 vintage of its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. “Yes, that was pretty amazing,” said Gore, grinning widely.
That team effort was the culmination of decades of steady work on focusing on capturing the grapes’ varietal character: “There was a lot of pressure from the start knowing that Columbia Crest wines were likely going to be the first taste many people had of wines from Washington state and we wanted to make sure and get it right.”
“Getting it right” might seem more challenging at a 1 million case operation than at a hands-on boutique winery, but Gore disputes that notion.
“There’s really not a big difference between small and large operations,” he said. “We just have more hands. We still stir the Chardonnay every day, and monitor each barrel of Merlot and Cab.”
Gore heaps high praise on his longstanding team, especially Joy Anderson, who he worked closely with for years at Columbia Crest. “We encourage our winemakers to be creative and experiment, especially when making their club wines,” he said. “Sometimes, those projects take off and become part of the regular lineup.”
There is one nugget of unfinished business that’s been nagging him. A Semillon fan from way back, Gore would love to see that varietal get the attention it so deserves. “Oh, I tried. Our distributors in Boston were able to sell it, but it just never took off. I eventually just had to let that one go. But eventually people are going to come around to it because it’s just so good.”
During his downtime, the busy Gore said his focus is on family, especially his first grandson. “We just got to spend a week on vacation with him in Hawaii. My wife was over the moon,” he said. Both of his sons are in the wine business, one in sales, another working in the vineyards, while his daughter is studying to become a chiropractor.