Wine Maker, Owner Of Beresan and Balboa Wineries
This interview involved sharing a bottle of 1998 St. Innocent Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Mackncheeze: Tell me about the kids and playing music?
Tom: They both grew up playing instruments. My son played trumpet for a year and didn’t really like it. My daughter, Amelia, played Cello. She had her great-grandmother’s Cello. She played cello for a couple of years and is pretty good.
A couple of years ago I thought, I’m going to buy Winston drums. I bought him a drum set for graduation; he loved them.
It was really strange because my buddy Jared, I was out to dinner with him one night, and he asked me, do you know anyone who wants to buy a bass? I said I would. Two hundred bucks and a case of wine later, I got a bass.
I already had a Stratocaster and acoustic guitar. So we have electric guitar, bass and drums. Winston and I would start playing a little, and my daughter started playing bass. It’s one of the most awesome things in the world to come home after work and have my children be there. I walk into the basement and I say, oh my God, I love my children. They love it.
I bought Amelia her own bass. I didn’t know what to get her for her 18th birthday, I just didn’t know. I was perplexed; I was in Spokane and I went to the guitar store, and said, “Hey, I’m getting her a bass.”
I figured she would like a black one, it would be cool for her. When I gave it to her it was the best thing in the world. She was so happy and so excited. I gave her a bass amp. She can practice at home and also play at my house. It’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. I love it
Mackncheeze: For you, what sparked your interest in playing music?
Tom: I started playing piano when I was in second grade. I really didn’t like it but at the same time I liked it. In sixth grade I started playing trumpet. I liked trumpet a lot but then my music teacher quit. Then I did shop and pottery.
My former music teacher came back and he asked me why I quit band. I said, “Because you left and I didn’t like the other guy.” He asked, “Will you come back? I don’t need a trumpet player but I do need a baritone player.” I said okay and I went back to band class.
When I went to high school I didn’t see any baritone players in jazz band. So the band instructor told me he would buy me a valve trombone. In my freshman year of high school I played valve trombone. The next year he told me I needed to play regular trombone. So my sophomore year I played regular trombone and my junior year he bought a bass trombone. By my senior year I said, I’m just going to smoke weed and play Hacky Sack.
Mackncheeze: ( Gut Laugh ) How did you become intrigued with wine?
Tom: I got married in 1995 and moved to Walla Walla seven days later, no job. I started working at the Walla Walla Country Club. Mornings I mowed Greens, afternoons worked the pro shop (this is pre children) and I worked the clubhouse at night. Finally the golf pro asked me to work full time. I passed my players test and entered the PGA as a Club Professional.
Tom: And then he got fired. I said to myself, I don’t want to work for anyone else and I don’t want to do this anymore. So I got a job as a commercial loan officer at Banner Bank. In that time I met Eric Dunham. He was living on the top floor of L’Ecole 41. It was a small world thing because I gave Marty and Megan Clubb and their daughter golf lessons. I also gave Megan’s parents golf lessons, so I knew them all. When I was in between jobs, Eric called up and asked me if I could help out at L’Ecole. Eric was beginning to open Dunham Cellars.
When I worked at the Country Club, part of my job was to act as the host part of the winemakers golf tournament. There were only eight wineries at that time. I started at L’Ecole in 1998. Rick Small, Chris Doucet and John Abbott would come out and play golf. Jean Francois played as well, so this got pretty big.
I was helping out at L’Ecole and Marty asked if I knew anyone who would want to work there and I said I would.
I hooked up with Mike Corliss. We started talking and he said if I ever wanted to do a winery let him know. That was a great opportunity . That was in 2001 that I started with Mike. In the process of ordering fruit, I contacted Tom Waliser, he has a vineyard in the Rocks. Andrew Will had to back out of a fruit purchase, so I called Tom and he said, “Come down and pick up some fruit.” He then asked if I would be interested working for him making wine.
For two full harvests I was making wine for both Tom Walesir and Mike Corliss. There wasn’t a production facility for either winery. The first vintage of Corliss and Beresan were made at L’Ecole 41, which was great because I was helping Marty out and simultaneously making my own wine. We did that in 2001 and 2002. In 2003 I left Corliss and started with Ash Hollow; that was a short-lived brand.
Mackncheeze: I’ve never even heard of it
Tom: I got to manage 50 acres of vineyards so that was good. I learned a lot about growing grapes and vineyard management.
Mackncheeze: So you just fell into this?
Tom: Yeah the whole thing.
When I worked at L’Ecole they sent me to school at UC Davis. When I first got there I had no idea what they were talking about. When I went back the next year it kind of made sense. Year three, I got it; between schooling and practical application is what set it straight.
Mackncheeze : So you have no degree? Practical experience is the whole thing?
Tom: Yep, at that time, most people in Walla Walla learned how to make wine by making wine.
I was at Ash Hollow in 2003 to 2004. In 2004 my dad passed and I said to myself, I’ve got to do my own thing. I was tired of working for other people. So I quit and found an investor who helped me start my winery. I was just about ready to pull the trigger on that deal and my buddy Mike Sharon, who was the winemaker at L’Ecole 41 said, “Why don’t I help you out.”
In 2005 we started Balboa Winery with $40,000.
Mackncheeze: Really, that’s nothing.
Tom: Tom Waliser helped a lot. He created space for me so that I could vinify wine. We were the first people to use screw caps in Walla Walla.
Mackncheeze: Really? I haven’t seen any of your wines with screw caps.
Tom: I have four wines with screw caps.
I like the concept. I think it’s a much better capsule. The wines age fine. That’s the big thing, before it goes in the bottle, you have to make wine correctly.
Mackncheeze: That’s what you’re all about, making wine correctly.
Tom: Two and a half years ago we merged Beresan Wines and Balboa Wines.
I was thinking about this earlier. I love my job now more than I ever. I get to hang out with really great folks. I love playing golf, I love playing guitar, I love making wine, these are things which will never be perfect. I can always try to be better.
This is my 22nd year of wine making. I love walking through Vineyards and tasting grapes and running the numbers. I love the group of people who go through a harvest together, it’s seven days a week, 12 hour days, you become extremely close with that group of people. Some of my closest friends are people I have worked with during harvest.
I could go on for days.
The whole relationship between sunshine and dirt and plants and temperature, I mean, it’s different every single year. You have to be able to adapt. You can’t make wine the same way every year. That’s what I love about wine, we are always trying to capture wine at its peak regardless of vintage. Last year was tricky. It was a cooler; the fruit was ripe but sugar levels were low. Physically, the grapes were ready to go, so we picked. A lot of wineries did not.
Mackncheeze: The wine was more complex?
Tom: Yeah it was. I like cooler vintages. The 2011 vintage wines are still great. They will be great longer than the wines from 2015. I would never say one vintage is necessarily better than the rest, it’s always a reflection of what that year was. That’s why we make wine the way we do. Our wines reflect vintage; this is what we were given.
Scores are very challenging. How are you supposed to score wine if you haven’t been part of the process? You weren’t there, how do you know? You don’t know the soils, you don’t know the harvest, you don’t know the vineyards. There could have been six 100-point wines in that release because that’s the best you could have done with both grapes and vintage. It’s extremely difficult to judge a great wine unless you know how it was made.
You want to talk about the art side of what I do? It truly is an art; I mean, we’ve decided to use as few of commercial products as possible. That decision we made because we feel our wine is more like a wine should be. A lot of wine making is just a job; some winemakers make a wine because its profile is predetermined.
As a young winemaker, I was geared towards younger wines, but now I think it’s much more fun to drink older wines. I have wines I made in 98 and 99, it’s so fun to try them.
Mackncheeze: How you feeling about them?
My office is in a wine library. In that room I’m surrounded by every bottle of wine I’ve made for Beresan. I remember the sense of all the work, this is where I was, this is what went on that year. It’s great, I love it.
End Of Part One
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