Rick Small

Woodward Canyon

By Leslie Kelly

Rick Small’s Woodward Canyon was the second winery in Walla Walla when it launched in 1981, just behind his buddy Gary Figgins at Leonetti Cellars. It’s an especially fitting milestone for a guy whose roots go back five generations. “My mother’s family, the Yeend’s, were among the earliest farming pioneers in the Valley,” said the animated Small, during an interview at the winery’s special event space, which now doubles as a dining destination, serving seasonally inspired dishes.

Though it’s impossible to imagine the Walla Walla wine landscape without Small, and his business partner/wife, Darcey, his career could have gone in an entirely different direction.

“I studied Ag at WSU, thinking that I would get work on the family farm after college,” he said. “I tried. I drove tractor, but it was so boring. I told my Dad I just couldn’t do it.”

He went back to school to study architecture, but about the same time, Small started becoming intrigued with the work being done at Chateau Ste. Michelle. “I made a deal with my father, who let me experiment by planting some grapes, out at Woodward Canyon,” he said.

It wasn’t exactly an overnight success, with many vines planted in a lower elevation block susceptible to freezing temps. The trial-and-error phase of Small’s career blossomed through his friendship with Figgins.

“We were drill sergeants in the Army Reserve, and Gary was like a surrogate brother,” Small said. “We’d get together every Friday night and drink different wine from around the world and talk about them.”

It was after taking his first trip to Napa Valley, in the late 1970s, that Small had an a-ha moment while sipping a 1968 Heitz Cabernet with Figgins and friends. “I remember looking over and locking eyes with Gary. We knew this was something special. It was like wow! This is the real stuff. It had such great fruit and nice oak. It was so balanced. It was a game changer.”

In those early days, when there were just a handful of wineries in the state, Small said he often consulted with Walter Clore and Charles Nagel, both at WSU. He read voraciously about viticulture, but conceded: “There were no rules. We were often just making things up as we went along.”

Woodward Canyon’s first validation was one Small says he remembers vividly. “I entered my first Riesling into the Pacific Northwest Enological Society’s competition in 1982 and got a bronze medal. I was so happy to get that, to have others recognize that I had made a commercially acceptable wine.”

The accolades haven’t stopped since and while awards and scores sell wine, Rick and Darcey are big believers in a hands-on approach to marketing the extensive lineup of wines.

“It’s very important for us to be there pouring at tastings,” Small said.

Over the years, Small has made adjustments to his approach to winemaking. “I think in the beginning, I was trying too hard,” he said. But the most dramatic change was hiring Kevin Mott in 2003. Small is now director of production, and can often be found at the computer, making extensive tasting notes as well as working toward making the operation more environmentally sustainable. Darcey came on board nearly 10 years ago as general manager.

“We have such a strong team. When somebody’s in the weeds, another person jumps in to help out. They could be working anywhere, but they choose to be here,” Small said.

The winery’s latest project is a nod to its agriculture roots, with a small farm store set up to sell summer produce from Woodward Canyon’s ever-expanding garden.

“It’s really just an extension of being a family farm, a way for us to integrate food with wine,” Small said.

And on that note, the seasoned vintner began brainstorming a meal he’d love to prepare when he eventually opens a wine from way back, a 1976 Woodward Canyon chardonnay. “I’d grill some steaks and make a peppercorn sauce, using some of that wine,” he said.  

Rick Small and his wife, Darcey, were frequent visitors at Gary and Nancy Figgins' home in the 1980s.
Shown here with Gary and Nancy's children.
Rick Small and his basket press