By Diane Ballard
Ron Bunnell’s career has paralleled America’s intoxicating affair with wine.
He was unquestionably at the right place at the right time, starting out in 1983 in Napa Valley. In his 28 years at big-name California operations like Kendall-Jackson and Beringer, and now at his own boutique winery, the Bunnell Family Cellar in Prosser, Washington, Bunnell has been part of an industry that has made American wines better and better and American people thirstier for the product.
How did a guy from Memphis, who by his own admission “thrashed around” searching for a career path while he was a UT senior, splash down in such a sweet spot? He gives a lot of credit to professor emeritus of botany Ed Clebsch.
“Ninety percent of winemaking is just plain hard work.”“Ed inspired me by his enthusiasm for and dedication to his field. He was instrumental in my acceptance to and graduation from the [UT Knoxville] graduate program in ecology,” Bunnell recalls. The winemaker earned his graduate degree in 1978, topping off his 1975 degree in psychology.
From UT, Bunnell went to Venezuela, where he taught science in an American prep school and then worked in Puerto Rico before moving to California to take a job in the environmental regulatory field. In 1983, he added a second master’s degree—this one in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis.
Even while he worked in Napa for Charles Krug and Beringer, in Sonoma for Chateau Souverain, and in Monterey, Sonoma County, and Santa Barbara with Kendall-Jackson, Bunnell was aware that Washington’s Columbia Valley was coming along as a wine-producing region. In 1999, he decided to see for himself, signing on as head red-wine maker for Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington. Five years later, he and his wife, Susan, founded Bunnell Family Cellar. Though he describes it as a mom-and-pop operation—Susan helps out in the winery and runs an herb farm and a bistro where the family wines are featured—most small family wineries don’t score acclaim in Wine Spectator. Bunnell may be modestly downplaying his success.
The winery produces two labels—Bunnell Family Cellar and River Aerie. The former concentrates on traditional Rhone varietals, such as Grenache and Syrah. River Aerie, named for the family farm, includes other varietals and is more moderately priced. All the wines are handmade in small batches, aged underground on the River Aerie property, and bottled with minimal filtration.
A Typical Day
Bunnell says there is no typical day as a winemaker.
“During harvest, I am crushing or pressing fruit every day, but during the balance of the year, I could be finishing the wines in the cellar, tasting and blending the finished wines, or selling and promoting out in the market.”
Wine enthusiast Jim Harb (Knoxville ’68) visited Bunnell at harvest time in 2010. He says he was captivated by it all—the clear waters of the Yakima River, the olive and ochre chaparral vegetation, sweet grapes just plucked from the vine, even punching down the cap (skins and pulp floating on top of the juice) that forms in a red-wine fermentation tank.
“The entire process is exciting, laced as it is with the mystical, the magical, and the unknown,” Harb says. “It’s not all glamour and glitz, but it’s an opportunity not to be missed.”
Indeed it’s not all glamorous, Bunnell says.
“Ninety percent of it [winemaking] is just plain hard work. People often comment that it must be fun tasting wine all day, but when you’re facing a table full of samples during a blending session at 10 a.m., and your entire vintage rests on the results, it’s pretty stressful.”
It’s a life he loves though. He says being his own boss is infinitely satisfying, constantly demanding, and occasionally scary—“but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”