Washington Wine History Interviews: Kent Waliser, Sagemoor

  • By Ariana Heath
  • Posted 1/23/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22829
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After a long career in the tree-fruit business, Kent Waliser (b. 1952) has spent more than two decades contributing his knowledge to the Washington wine industry. Starting out in 2002 as the general manager at Sagemoor, a collection of vineyards north of the Tri-Cities, he worked to keep the company’s vision alive as it confronted various challenges. Waliser was able to engage with both new and veteran Sagemoor employees to maintain existing contracts with the likels of Chateau Ste. Michelle while also forming special relationships with smaller wineries. He played a large role in the creation of Sagemoor Estates, the winemaking arm of Sagemoor, after the company was purchased in 2014 by Allan Brothers Incorporated as part of a larger succession plan. In this June 2023 interview with HistoryLink contributor Ariana Heath, Waliser talks about the life changes that led him into the wine industry, and the many enjoyments that kept him coming back. 

From Tree Fruit to Grapes

Waliser grew up on a tree-fruit farm in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. His first exposure to the industry came from working with his brothers on the farm, even keeping a timecard so his father could pay him for his work. He spent several years in the tree-fruit business during and after college, and got married in 1976 and started a family. His two daughters had the same idyllic childhood that he did, growing up on a fruit farm. As Waliser looked for the next professional challenge, he began his first, albeit short, stint in the wine business.

Kent Waliser: So Norm McKibben, my cousin Tom Waliser and Bob Ruper and myself started a partnership called Pepper Bridge. And that would've been probably about 1990, and we started planting apples with them and grapes. And we had a small packing plant that we sold fruit through Dole. And then about '96, we needed more capital on the apple side of the business. And Mr. McKibben decided he wanted to build a winery, which as we all know now is Pepper Bridge Winery. So he didn't really want to grow the apple side of the business. So I was sort of left with a decision to make. The apple side of the business was kind of just sold out of the partnership.

Soon after, Waliser took a sales and marketing job at Dole Food Company and moved his family to Wenatchee in 1996. As luck would have it, Dole decided there was no money to be made in the apple business, and shut down that part of the company in 2001. Once again, Waliser was left without a job. He was now nearly 50, going through a divorce, and had never applied for a job in his life. He took some time to think, travel and see family, and eventually found a new opportunity with a vineyard company that had been around since 1968.

KW: So I thought about bartending, I thought about going back to school and getting my master's degree. I definitely was going to get out of the fruit business because it had sort of done me wrong twice, and I thought, "Okay, I can go do something else." I thought about moving to big cities, I thought about a lot of things. But, as it turned out, my buddy Todd at Sagemoor needed to hire a boss because my eventual boss there wouldn't promote him to a general manager position. So he calls me up one day. I really didn't know what he was doing exactly, but he called me up one day and he said, "You need to come down and check this out. I can't get this position so I decided I need to hire my boss and I just said you were my boss." I go, "Well, Todd, it's a little ridiculous. We're friends. I don't know that I can be your boss, but I'm flattered." I had nothing to do.

Hired at Sagemoor

After touring Sagemoor and its vineyards, Waliser was impressed with the age and growth of the vines. He wanted to try something new, so he took the job. 

KW: I went to Sagemoor and there were these old gnarly vines that were planted in 1972 ... And there were old cherry trees with trunks bigger than you and I could reach around, and they were healthy. And I looked at that site and I thought about my entire career in the fruit business. And I thought, "If these vines have not froze to the ground after 30 years, this must be sacred ground." And it would be so fun to be involved in something that doesn’t freeze and die ... They really didn’t need a viticulturist to raise grapes, but they needed somebody to run the company and sell grapes. And I thought, "I like sales and marketing. This is a great opportunity." Seemed like a really cool company built by some really interesting people.

After Waliser started at Sagemoor, the Washington wine industry picked up and the business took off, and he considers that a very lucky happenstance. It was almost like a second generation of Washington winemakers had moved in to help revamp the business and keep the legacy going. Sagemoor itself was looking to change its management and was searching for a succession plan, as many of the original team had retired or died.

KW: Part of the opportunity came about because they had a long-time general manager by the name of Erick Hanson, whose name is on the Washington Wine Growers Grower of the Year Award. So it's named after Erick Hanson. So he was the general manager through the '90s, but he passed away in '98. So that prompted kind of a turn in management. A fellow by the name of John Vitalich came on board to replace Winslow Wright as a managing director. Winslow at that time was 78 in 1998 ... so he was trying to retire a little bit. And all the original partners were about that age.

Waliser learned to work alongside many of the employees who had been there since the beginning. He learned to work with differing personalities and attitudes, but also built lasting relationships with anyone and everyone he could.

KW: A whole bunch of other people who had started with the company around 1980 were still there 20 years later. So I got to know all those people and how they ran things. And we just re-envisioned the vision because Winslow was kind of old school, Harvard grad in the '30s, kind of a tough guy, 'my way or the highway' kind of guy. When I first met him, he said, "You know Kent, whatever you're going to do here, you're going to have to show me it's going to work because I kind of see the glasses half empty. And I'm kind of like, you're going to have to prove it to me." I'm like, great. I said, "Okay, fine."

From the get-go, Waliser had some larger challenges, including the loss of their largest contract, with Chateau Ste. Michelle. He worked to salvage that relationship while also diversifying Sagemoor's customer base with smaller wineries, which helped create opportunities for smaller companies that may not otherwise have broken into the industry.

KW: We actually had our contract with our largest customer cancel in 2001 with Ste. Michelle. And so we negotiated with them and got a new contract, but it also opened up the possibility of selling grapes to a lot of other wineries. And so, many of them I can rattle off now that we grew from a few tons to a lot of tons, just building a relationship. We had about 15 customers when I started in 2002. And now Sagemoor Vineyards sells to about 120 customers in Washington. So we grew that side of the business a lot and very specialized attention to wineries, small wineries.

Sagemoor Changes Hands

In 2014, Sagemoor was acquired by the Allan Brothers Fruit Company, a Yakima Valley fruit-tree giant. It was hard for some folks, especially original founding member Winslow Wright, to watch the company be bought out. Waliser has a large amount of respect for Wright, as well as the other founders he was lucky enough to get to know.

KW: When they talk about that generation as the greatest generation, you have to give some credence to that, because they were all born around 1920, went through the Depression, World War II. And you would ask yourself, "Why would business people in Seattle in the late '60s start a vineyard project in Eastern Washington when they aren't farmers?" There's no wine industry.

When Wright and partners Alec Bayless, Albert Ravenholt, and Sydney Abrams decided to buy up land for a vineyard, others were surprised. They took a big chance before the proper legislation had even passed to allow them to have a hand in making wine. Sagemoor had financial ups and downs throughout its history, even contemplating giving up on the project a time or two. One of the big challenges was whether or not to switch their irrigation systems. Many other vineyards jumped at the chance to switch, after WSU published research proving less was more when it came to water. Sagemoor, however, wasn’t so sure, and that was part of the reason it almost lost its largest contract.

KW: Then this little recession happened in 2000, 2001, it hit the wine grape industry. So if you look at sales, there's a little blip right there around that time, and our contract came up for renewal after 2001. So they took that as an opportunity to cancel our contract because we wouldn't fix the grapes. We didn't take all this research and put drip in and control the vines. And so by then, the industry knew enough about good quality that those who couldn't do it or wouldn't do it, in the case of Winslow, they canceled their contracts.

Sagemoor switched to drip irrigation in 2001, after Waliser and many others began to make other changes and look at the reasons wineries were canceling contracts. After switching irrigation systems, earning new contracts and selling the business, Waliser began to think about having Sagemoor make its own wines. He talked with his new boss, Miles Kohl, to see if it would be possible to create a new branch of Sagemoor for winemaking.

Expansion into Winemaking

KW: We already have the grapes. They're from old vines. So he says, 'What do you got in mind?' I says, 'Well, I would stick around and keep working if you wanted to start a wine project.' And so I did, I started the wine project for Sagemoor starting in 2014 but ... We didn't have a winery. We didn't have a winemaker. I'm not a winemaker, but I decided I could be a winemaker maker. So I thought real hard and deep about what wine we should make and where they should come from and why we would make those, largely to showcase what we do well and what we grow well. But I had to wait for fruit to come around because one of our policies is we don't take fruit away from a winery just to give to another winery.

KW: I told Miles, I said, "Well, we're going to have to wait. First I have to find a winemaker and then have to decide what to make, and then I have to get the grapes." So in 2014 as luck would have it, a good friend of mine, a good winemaker, John Abbott, who had built up Abeja, great Cabernet winemaker, I talked him into making Cabernet for us. Then I needed grapes, and I had one block of grapes that I had always coveted – Bacchus Block 3, planted in '72 – but there was nobody leaving the block. But that summer of '14, one of the wineries that was in that block called me up and said, "These grapes aren't really working for me at this price point for the wines I'm making. So if you can sell this to somebody else, I would give up this fruit." Well, that was it, right?

After the perfect alignment of opportunities, Waliser and his team decided to call that first vintage of Cabernet, Stars in a Row. They kept working to put out a few new wines each year, aiming for quality over quantity. They made about 1,000 cases of wine during these years. 

KW: So that's where the wine project that we're doing now took off. We added more wines and winemakers in '16. Miguel The Man became made by Chris Peterson from Avennia. And the white wines, primarily Without Rehearsal, a Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux-style white wine, Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, made by Ali Mayfield, who was working for The Walls. And we kind of just went along like that, were still looking for a tasting room. 

To help get the word out, Waliser would self-distribute the wines and talk with customers he delivered to. You often find him below the HistoryLink offices at Seattle's Pike Place Market delivering to places like the Tasting Room. In 2021, Sagemoor consolidated its winemaking when it enlisted the help of Aryn Morell and his facilities in Walla Walla. Today [2024] Sagemoor owns six vineyards: Sagemoor, Bacchus, Dionysis, Weinbau, Gamache, and Southwind, with more than 1,300 acres of planted vineyards. Gamache and Southwind were added after 2016. Looking toward the future of Sagemoor, Waliser said he is hopeful. 

KW: I feel like sometimes, at this point, I'm along for the ride. I would hope that, because the future of Sagemoor will probably not be mine much longer, although I'm not leaving ... So I would like to see them maintain a business model that's been very profitable for the last 20 years and maintain the relationship with the wineries in Washington, because that model isn't going to stop anytime soon. And I'd also like to see some incredible wines made by Aryn Morrell and brought to the forefront, showcasing the vineyards more precisely. I mean, we sell grapes to a lot of wineries that make vineyard-designated wines.

Although he began his wine career at age 50, Waliser said he's had a lifetime of experience filled with good friends, great memories, and delicious wine.

KW: I would like to say that the industry's been very good to me. The people in the industry are great to work with. The wines are amazing, and have only gotten better over the last 20 years. That's totally for sure. Growers have gotten better, wines have gotten better. It's been a fun ride to be involved in all that stuff. I hope it continues. And the employees and the people involved in the industry is one of the best things that you could ever do. Because the cool thing is just I think the longevity of the people we have working in our company. It's amazing.

More: Ariana Heath's biography of Kent Waliser

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