About a quarter-mile east of Lewis & Clark State Park, midway between Waitsburg and Dayton, you’ll come upon the Dumas Station winery and tasting room. Despite the snazzy new signage out front, it’s a rather spartan, no frills place, whose exterior gives little indication that a warm welcome and complementary tasting awaits any modern explorers.
Dumas Station is the only winery in Columbia County, and it’s steeped in history. The name honors James L. Dumas, who planted an orchard here in the late 1800s. The abandoned apple packing shed still stands on the property, and the winery’s fermentation room is built with timbers saved from some of the original structures. The tasting room counter is fashioned from a single large plank re-purposed from the apple loading dock, and black-and-white photos of Columbia county businesses from back in the day line the walls.
On a chilly October afternoon, Minnick and Dwelley vineyard Merlot is fermenting, along with a bit of Cab Franc. The sweet, musky fermentation smells fill the room. Asked to recount the story of how the winery came to be, co-owner and winemaker Jay DeWitt explains that his grandfather homesteaded around Moscow. He farmed wheat and peas, and was a “big train buff” who built his own model trains during the Depression, hence the train-themed wine labels. Jay grew up in the Walla Walla valley, living on a wheat ranch and studying agronomy at WSU. He worked as a crop advisor in California after graduation, and among the crops he worked with were wine grapes. That lit the winemaking torch.
“I can remember the exact moment I had an emotional reaction to wine,” he recalls. “At a business meeting at a cafe in Napa, someone poured me a glass of wine and I had an ‘aha’ moment. It was a 1976 Jordan Cabernet, and it piqued my curiosity. About 20 years ago I helped some friends here in Walla Walla establish vineyards, and in 1998 my wife, Debbie, and I made our first wine, in a garbage can. It was good enough that we did it again the next year.”
Their annual hobby wine production soon reached 10 barrels, and DeWitt and his business partner Doug Harvey (his business card reads Chief Engineer) bought a small press and decided to go commercial. The old packing plant, originally purchased to store wheat, seemed the perfect place to set up shop.
“Our intent was to make a little Cabernet Sauvignon,” says DeWitt, a ruddy-faced, 60-ish man with an obvious affection for sharing his wines and the stories that go with them. “It has gotten completely out of hand!” he adds with a chuckle. “This year is our 15th vintage, and we’re up to about 3,000 cases.”
Though the winery location is just beyond the border of Walla Walla county, the grapes all come from established sites within the AVA. “It’s worked well to be here,” DeWitt confides. “Anybody who finds their way out here has done a bit of research, so they are customers the minute they walk through the door. And you have the opportunity to connect one-on-one with people. Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple from Annapolis wandered in, and I was here and spent an hour and a half with them. If it was downtown Walla Walla it would have been too busy to do that.”
Prominently displayed in the cozy tasting room is a framed poster promoting Pomona Ranch, the original name of the J.L. Dumas orchard. In a region where a handful of founding wineries have been around for just a few decades, it’s fun to tie into some history, even if it’s apples and not grapes. Current releases include about a dozen different wines, mostly reds.
The tasting room offers by-the-glass pours from a changing menu, often including a library wine. There is also a wine club, with limited release offerings and a 20 percent discount for members. These are sturdy, no-nonsense wines with big flavors. They’re built for immediate enjoyment, though some of the reserve-level offerings will certainly age nicely for another decade or longer.