Rob Griffin (b. 1953) has been a winemaker in Washington since 1977. He arrived at age 23 from his native California to be the winemaker at Preston Wine Cellars near Pasco. He had a degree from the University of California, Davis, in fermentation science. He later became the winemaker at Hogue Cellars in Prosser. In 1983, he and his wife Deborah Barnard launched their own winery, Barnard Griffin. The winery became one of Washington’s best-known labels, and in 1997, Barnard Griffin opened a modern tasting room and production facility in Richland. In 2020, the winery opened a satellite tasting room in Vancouver and another in 2022 in Woodinville. With more than 45 vintages under his belt, Griffin is often referred to as "the dean of Washington winemakers" (Degerman and Perdue).
Rob Griffin was born Robert R. Griffin on August 27, 1953, in San Francisco. The family lived on a farm in Martinez, California, which had been purchased by his grandfather in 1868. Griffin spent his childhood on the farm, located in the middle of California’s early vineyard country. Decades earlier, it was the original site of The Christian Brothers, a pioneering California winery. By the 1950s, most of the Martinez vineyards had long been converted to Concord grapes and other non-wine varieties. Wine was not part of life for most Americans in that era, nor was it for Griffin’s family – except for his grandfather late in life. His grandfather’s doctor prescribed him a glass of wine every night. His grandfather would buy jugs from Italian immigrants.
The Griffins' farm had no grapevines. Most of the family’s 70 acres were leased to a farmer who grew pears and tomatoes, and raised cattle. Griffin’s father was not a farmer – he was an executive of a distribution company for truck parts, a job Griffin called "very unromantic" (Kershner interview). Yet Griffin, at an early age, was given a tantalizing glimpse of a more romantic profession – winemaking – in the burgeoning California wine industry. His uncle had bought a ranch in the nearby Napa Valley, which included a wine grape vineyard. "So I was exposed through regular, if not weekly, visits to his place and got very intrigued," said Griffin (Kershner interview). By the time Griffin was in Alhambra High School in Martinez, he had developed two consuming passions. The first was music – he was a devoted French horn player. "Thank God I didn’t have a lot of talent, because that would have meant a life of starvation," he said, with a laugh (Kershner interview).
Fascinated by Fermentation
His second passion would determine the course of his life. "At a certain point – probably about sophomore, junior level – I got very interested in winemaking," said Griffin. "Most kids that age who would get interested in this sort of thing are doing it for the alcohol. And I have to say, honestly, that part didn't interest me. There was just an innate fascination with the idea of converting something into something. It fit right into the back-to-nature ethos that was a big part of that period" (Kershner interview). He credits his grandfather and his uncle with providing the spark. Griffin had fond memories of accompanying his grandfather to buy jugs of wine in the basement of Italian immigrant winemakers, and also of walking through the vineyards in Napa Valley. Fermentation in general he found fascinating, and he made some beer on the kitchen counter. Mainly, he fermented grapes.
"I made various kinds of wine, most of it probably hideous," he said. "The irony is that the information available then, even at our rather good Contra Costa County Library, was horrible. I mean, there were books by British housewives about how to make wine out of hedgerow fruits – that kind of thing. I don't think until a little later they actually had a technical volume, and even those were pretty spare" (Kershner interview).
His solution to that problem resided just down the highway. He resolved to attend the University of California-Davis and study winemaking. By 1971, when Griffin enrolled, the college had earned a reputation for exceptional programs in all things related to fermentation. "In fact, my degree at Davis at that period was called fermentation science," said Griffin. "And in theory, graduates were able to be winemakers, they could become brew masters, they could run sewage-treatment plants. It's all a conversion of one thing into another through biological means. Now they have, of course, refined the names of the degrees so they're much more appealing" (Kershner interview).
He already knew that winemaking would be his path, but hardly a common one at the time. "I appreciated the uniqueness of it, at least in my little circle," said Griffin. "It was a small town ... I had this all kind of mapped out, and I didn’t really divert from it too much" (Kershner interview). As part of his course work, he made wine in the UC Davis production lab, which was half pomology – apples and similar fruits – and half viticulture and enology. "The building was built in 1923 and equipped then," said Griffin. "It was very, very primitive by the standards of what they have today, which is world-class" (Kershner interview). Yet it was as fine an education as you could get in wine, and Griffin took full advantage. In his dormitory, he led a weekly tasting group. "It was an opportunity for me to try a whole lot of wines I hadn't tried," said Griffin. "But also, I guess I'm a frustrated professor, so I liked to share what little I knew at the time" (Kershner interview). He developed a lifetime love for Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Cabernet Sauvignon. He had assumed that his wine career would keep him in California, but through those tastings, he found European wines more interesting than California wines. This tasting group also led him to discover wines from what was then a little-known wine region: Washington.
"One of the wines I picked up was an oddity from the state of Washington, from a winery called Chateau Ste. Michelle," said Griffin. "And you might recollect, if you were paying any attention all that many years ago, they had a back label with a map of France and a map of Washington, showing the continuity of the latitude between the two places. And anyway, that image really hit me" (Kershner interview). Since he loved the European wines of that more northerly latitude, he began to wonder if Washington might produce wines of that caliber.
North to Washington
He made a trip to Washington for a spring break of his junior year, 1974, and "just sort of puttered around," checking out a tiny wine industry. There wasn’t much to see, but it planted a seed in his mind. The jobs, however, were still mostly in California. After he graduated from UC Davis in 1975, he worked several harvests at the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, gaining experience in secondary positions. "One thing UC Davis doesn’t teach you is how to drag a hose or wire a pumper, all of the practical things that are incredibly important to survive in smaller wineries," he said (Kershner interview).
About this time, 1977, Bill Preston of Preston Wine Cellars near Pasco had just lost his winemaker, who quit and moved back to California. Preston Wine Cellars was the second largest winery in Washington after Chateau Ste. Michelle. Preston was not the sort of person to "do things conventionally," said Griffin. "He jumped in his station wagon and drove to California and was going to find a winemaker" (Kershner interview). Preston pulled into a Sonoma winery and tried to lure its star winemaker away to Washington. No deal. But that winemaker told Preston, "You know what? Why don’t you get in touch with this kid across the creek?" That kid was Griffin, at neighboring Buena Vista, and he knew that Griffin was champing at the bit to run his own show. Preston talked to Griffin, invited him up to Pasco for an interview in February 1977, and offered him the job. Griffin accepted with no hesitation. "The prospect of being in on the ground floor of what might be an industry, appealed to me," said Griffin. "... I saw, with the wisdom of a not-very-worldly 23-year-old, that the potential for expansion of the industry here was huge. I mean there was no end of land" (Kershner interview).
He was well aware that not everyone believed in Washington’s wine future. "I remember discussing this possibility with one of my university professors, because the idea intrigued me even back in '75," said Griffin. "And I remember the professor I had the best rapport with, telling me, 'Look, I wouldn't do that. That climate's too cold, they're going to be wiped out every few years.' And against sage advice, I came up anyway" (Kershner interview).
Even Griffin wasn’t certain that his future was in Washington. "I figured I’d invest a year or two, get my name on the marquee and come back to California in a blaze of glory," he later said (Gregutt). What he found at Preston Wine Cellars was a "cellar full of flawed, but fixable, wines" (Kershner interview). He corrected and bottled most of that wine, and then began reshaping Preston’s wines in his own image. His early successes were with Chardonnay and one of his longtime favorites, Sauvignon Blanc. He was also making fine Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, and experimenting with Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, though Preston’s estate vineyard was hardly in the right location to make fine reds. In any case, reds were not what the market expected from Washington in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In 1978, Griffin hit paydirt with a blend called Desert Gold, a blend of Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer. Bill Preston bragged to the Spokane Chronicle that much of his winery’s success was due to his 25-year-old winemaker from California. "I’m lucky to have Griffin," Preston said ("Preston in Pursuit"). Griffin, for his part, told the Chronicle that "this is the chance of a lifetime for someone my age" (Spoerhase). He was using grapes from Preston’s own estate vineyard, but also buying from vineyards that were developing fine reputations, including Sagemoor Farms, which included the Dionysus and Bacchus vineyards, managed at the time by Jerry Bookwalter, who would become a longtime collaborator.
"Winning the Academy Award"
In 1979, Preston’s Chardonnay was given the Grand Prize at the competition of the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest, the region’s most prestigious contest in that era. "I felt like I was winning the Academy Award," Griffin told reporters at the time. "... Particularly because the experts said this area would never produce even a good Chardonnay" (Rose). The award was particularly gratifying because it was the unanimous Grand Prize choice of an international panel of judges, including European experts. "This is no backyard county fair where the wines are considered along with somebody’s pickles," said a clearly ecstatic Griffin (Rose).
After a number of increasingly successful Preston vintages and piles of awards, Griffin had established himself as one of the faces of a Washington wine boom. Even California was beginning to take notice. The Los Angeles Times featured Griffin prominently in a 1982 front-page article about the surprising new Washington wine industry – a story Griffin would later characterize as a "Who’d a thunk it?" piece (Kershner interview). In that story, Griffin predicted that Gewurztraminers and other whites were soon "going to go goose-stepping out of the Northwest and capture the marketplace" (Curry). He also saw potential for reds, saying that "in time, the Pacific Northwest, the Yakima Valley, and the Columbia Basin, will have the kind of clout of Napa" (Curry). But he was also a realist about the current state of red wine in 1982. "Our reds are no better than California’s," Griffin told the newspaper. "But with a large number of whites, we do better" (Curry). In that interview, Griffin playfully called himself "one of the gray-haired old winemakers of Washington" (Curry). He was 29 years old.
From Preston to Hogue
His time at Preston Wine Cellars came to an end in 1983. His goal had always been to start his own winery, and he had received tacit approval from Bill Preston to start bottling some of his own wine under his own label. But right about the time Griffin was ready to start bottling, Preston had a change of heart. He told Griffin he should look elsewhere if he wanted to continue on that track. Griffin didn’t have to look far. Mike Hogue of Hogue Cellars in Prosser needed a winemaker for his small but growing winery. He hired Griffin as Hogue’s winemaker in spring 1984 and granted him full approval to use the Hogue facility to make and bottle small amounts of his own wine under his own label: Barnard Griffin.
The name was a natural choice. In 1980, Griffin had married Deborah Barnard, a former UC Davis classmate. After college, they had kindled a stronger relationship when she was doing graduate work in her field, hospital administration, at the University of Washington. After they married, she kept her maiden name. Since they were going into the winery as a jointly owned family business, they decided to call the winery Barnard Griffin. "I will take credit for deciding that Barnard Griffin had a more euphonious, easy to remember sound than Griffin Barnard," he said (Kershner interview). The name did have one unintended effect. For the next 40 years, people called him Bernard or Bernie, thinking that was his first name.
During his time at Hogue Cellars, from 1984 to 1991, the winery grew from a small operation into one of the state’s largest. His title and responsibilities also grew – by the time he left he was the general manager and head winemaker at Hogue. He had a big success right out of the gate collaborating on the Hogue 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, which he blended and bottled. In 1985 it won Best of Show at the Atlanta International Wine Festival, a remarkable achievement for a Washington red at the time. The larger wine world was beginning to recognize that Washington could make top-class reds.
Meanwhile, Griffin was making his own Barnard Griffin wines in his off-hours at Hogue. He was soon making a splash with those wines. In 1986, two influential Northwest wine writers declared him the "hero" of the increasingly important Tri-Cities Northwest Wine Festival (Holden). He came home with two gold medals and four silver medals. This was just the beginning of a haul of awards for Barnard Griffin over the years. The label’s big successes were Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (which he called Fume Blanc), and increasingly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. And he was doing it all without a brick-and-mortar winery. He was "running it out of the front seat of a pickup truck" (Kershner interview).
Ramping up at Barnard Griffin
In 1991, that was about to change. By this time, he was making at least 15,000 cases – "maybe closer to 20,000" – of Barnard Griffin wine (Kershner interview). It was time to leave Hogue and fulfill the dream he had nurtured since high school: making wine at his own winery, full-time. "I was ready," he said. "But what I didn’t have was a winery" (Kershner interview). Griffin bartered knowledge for space at the winery operated by Bill Powers, whom Griffin would later consider one of Washington’s influential wine pioneers.
Griffin moved into a big industrial building near the Tri-Cities as his storage and production site. The Barnard Griffin label continued to expand and Griffin’s own reputation continued to grow. In 1995, Seattle wine writer Tom Stockley called him the "master of Semillon" (Stockley). When Griffin would later name his red blend simply "Rob’s Red Blend," most Washington wine lovers knew exactly who "Rob" referred to.
Barnard Griffin had a hefty growth spurt between 1991 and 1997, which Griffin credited to the winery’s solid reputation, and to deliberate decision to keep the prices reasonable. His philosophy, he said, was to have a lower profit margin and a higher volume. He had seen this model succeed at Hogue, and said he was able to accomplish this by having relatively frugal costs, compared to say, a California red priced at $20, of which $10 is "sales commissions and whatnot" (Kershner interview). "So the honest truth is, and I can say this with a straight face, if I could do this and just give the wine away and live, I'd be happy," said Griffin. "The sales side has never been my drive. My drive has been production side. And also I think it’s fair to say the quality level is several clicks above what it has to be at that price point" (Kershner interview). He said he has accomplished this feat by having always had excellent relationships with the managers of the best vineyards in the Columbia Valley, which meant access to quality grapes.
In 1997, with Barnard Griffin making more than 25,000 cases a year, it was time to build a winery and tasting room. "I've always been conservative to the point of bearishness in terms of spending money and building buildings," he said (Kershner interview). But he and Deborah found a piece of property on Tulip Lane in Richland that satisfied all of their requirements. It was highly visible, right off an Interstate 185 exit; it was on the tourist route from Seattle to Walla Walla, which had developed a wine tourism industry; and it already had a fine winery next door, the Bookwalter Winery, owned by Jerry Bookwalter. "So here we are," said Griffin. "And in a lifetime of poor real estate decisions, this is the best one we’ve ever made" (Kershner interview).
The winery and tasting room opened in mid-1997 and proved to be an immediate hit. By this time, Washington red wines were taking off in popularity and even Syrah was beginning to establish itself. Griffin dived into those and other varieties, including a highly rated Zinfandel and later Petit Verdot, Barbera, and others. "A benefit or a curse of being a winemaker and owning the place is that nobody can tell you, 'No, you can't make that. We have too many wines as it is'," said Griffin (Kershner interview). Around this time, Deborah Barnard retired from her hospital career and began devoting full-time to helping run the winery. The couple was also raising two daughters, Megan and Elise. Deborah Barnard also handled the building project, and that job was not quite finished. Over the years, they would add more additions to the winery.
The building wasn’t the only thing expanding. Production continued to go up, partly because of his strategy to pursue higher volume and moderate prices. Sales were also heading upward, thanks to a big hit from an unlikely grape: Sangiovese. A vineyardist friend, Maury Balcom, had planted a lot of Sangiovese in the 1990s, and ended up with a surplus. "He kind of showed up on the doorstep, saying, 'Rob, what are we going to do with these grapes?'" said Griffin. "There was really no demand for them. So my first response was, 'We?'" (Kershner interview). Yet Griffin took the grapes and made some reds with them, but not to his satisfaction. Around 2000, he had a brainstorm; he said to himself, "Hmm, this might be perfect for a dry rosé" (Kershner interview). The result was Barnard Griffin’s Rosé of Sangiovese, and it was a sensation – drier and more aromatic than most rosés. Yet rosés were "frankly not a thing in the American marketplace" – at least, not yet. Griffin introduced his Rosé of Sangiovese as more or less "a curiosity." But then, rosés suddenly became popular, and this wine helped lead that charge in Washington. "Within a few years, it became quite a thing for us, and continues to be," said Griffin. "[It was] either a happy accident, or a stroke of pure genius. I’ll leave that up to you!" (Kershner interview).
Into the Future
Rosé of Sangiovese was soon tied with Barnard Griffin’s ever-popular Chardonnay as the winery’s top seller. Barnard Griffin solidified its reputation as a family winery in 2010, when the couple’s daughter, Megan Hughes, took her place on the management team. She had just graduated from Washington State University with a degree in viticulture and enology. She was soon overseeing much of the winery’s white wine production.
In 2010, Griffin was named Honorary Vintner at the annual Auction of Washington Wines, one of the industry’s highest honors. In 2012, Deborah Barnard launched a new venture centered on another one of her passions, fused-glass art. She built a spacious fused-glass studio, dubbed the db Studio, across the courtyard from the tasting room. She not only produces her own glass art in the studio’s numerous kilns, but also holds workshops and classes for glass art students.
In 2016, Rob Griffin oversaw his 40th harvest. He had already become the longest-tenured winemaker in Washington, and now he was routinely labeled the dean of Washington winemakers. As of 2023, he had extended that record and, with Deborah, was thinking about retirement and handing the business over to his daughters. But he also said he would probably never completely retire, "even if they change the locks" (Kershner interview). Barnard Griffin was making more than 65,000 cases a year as of 2023. The winery had been operating for four decades, and Griffin was proud of one particular accomplishment. "We've been profitable every year – almost every year – since we started," he said. "We had to be in the early days. We wouldn't have had anything to back it up. It was definitely a roulette game. We've left the bet out on the table and it's worked for us" (Kershner interview).
Further reading: Jim Kershner's interview with Rob Griffin