By Veronica Sandate Craker
On any given afternoon, visitors at the Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser are greeted by a handsome pup named Chance, a once homeless dog rescued by the winery owners Wade Wolfe and Becky Yeaman.
Chance is so beloved that the winery even has a Rosé named after him.
“We decided to call it Second Chance Rose,” Yeamen said. “So his face is on the bottle and every bottle we sell a dollar goes to Our West Pet Rescue.”
The couple has only had Chance for three years, but they’ve been the proud owners of Thurston Wolfe Winery for the past 25 years.
“We actually got married and started the winery in the same year so we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary too,” Wolfe said.
That milestone was enhanced when the winery was named the 2012 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest magazine.
In 1985 Yeaman worked for Quail Run Winery, now known as Silver Lake, when her boss, Stan Clark, introduced her to Wolfe.
“So we dated and Wade always wanted to have a small family winery,” Yeaman said.
Twenty-five years later, the winery isn’t so small. The couple produces about 6,000 cases annually. About a third of their wine is a white wine blend of Pinot Gris and Viognier and the remainder is an assortment of red wines.
Wolfe and his wife Yeaman started Thurston Wolfe in 1987 and it was the first winery in downtown Yakima.
“We were there for six years and then we relocated down here to a leased building off the other Prosser exit and we were there ten years,” Wolfe said.
Thurston Wolfe opened up the tasting room in its current building in the Prosser Wine Village in 2006.
Wolfe grew up in Davis, Calif. before moving to the northwest to work for Chateau St. Michelle when they developed the Paterson Vineyards. Wolfe left to start his own winery in 1991 and went to work for Hogue’s Cellars.
“There was an opening there and I knew the owners, Mike and Gary Hogue,” Wolfe said. “They were a great family to work for, but in 2004 we decided we needed to spend more time in the winery so I left Hogue and that’s when we built this location here.”
Today the Prosser winery sits on one and a half acres at 588 Cabernet Court and has five part-time employees, while Wolfe and Yeaman working full-time.
“When we originally built this location, we were planning on doing about 7,000 – 8,000 cases maximum production — so we’re pretty close to that,” Wolfe said.
And the winery continues to expand. This year they added new distributors in Minneapolis, Tennessee and New York. The winery is already distributed in Virginia, New Hampshire, Illinois, Michigan, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
“With the addition of three new ones we’re probably going to be on hold for a while till we see how that goes,” Wolfe said.
Despite their success, the winery owners admit they have seen their fair share of struggles during the economic downturn. While the company grew almost 10 percent from 2000 to 2008, it did see sales flatten in 2009 before business kicked back up in 2010.
“So far we’re seeing additional growth this year both in the retail room and in our distribution so it looks like as the economy appears to be recovering, that we’ll be able to take advantage of that,” Wolfe said. “One of the things that we based on my experience working with Hogue Cellars through that period of time is that you anticipate how recessions are going to affect you and you make some preemptive adjustments to how to accommodate that.”
To combat the recession, Wolfe lowered prices in 2008.
“That seemed to position us quite well going into the recession so we didn’t see the decline that some of the other wineries did,” Wolfe said.
He also wasn’t forced to deeply discount his wine nor did he create a backup in inventory.
“I think having been around for a while and having this experience helped us to figure out how to best get through those challenging times,” he said.
Wolfe and Yeaman are now concentrating on a 10-year plan that should allow them to retire, he said. While they would love for their only child, Josh Wolfe, to take over the family business they understand that that may not be his life plan. Josh Wolfe, 21, is studying hospitality business management at Washington State University.
“We would like to give him five years of getting out and getting some work experience and seeing whether or not he may want to get involved in the winery at that time so there’s that possibility,” Wolfe said.
If their son decides not to run the business the couple has considered building up the brand in order to sell.
“I think that’s going to be really important that you have an established brand that’s wildly distributed rather than very local or dependent on retail,” Wolfe said.
And building the Washington wine brand seems to be getting easier. On a recent trip to Southern California, the couple were surprised to see wineries taking an interest in Washington wine.
“We went to a winery and said we were from Washington and she said ‘Oh my gosh, Washington has such great wine!’ You start to hear that a lot now,” Yeaman said. “When we use to go there, they’d say ‘Oh you’re from Washington?’ It was a whole other ballgame. Now we’re playing with the big boys in California. So it’s a nice feeling — a big accomplishment.”
It’s as big of an accomplishment as running both a successful business and family for 25 years. After a quarter of a century of hard work the couple plans to spend some time relaxing this summer with an anniversary trip planned to the Red Mountain Resort in Utah.
“I’ve always wanted to see Mount Zion National Park,” Yeaman said. “So we’re really looking forward to that.”
Thurston Wolfe is at 588 Cabernet Ct. in Prosser. The tasting room is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The phone number is 509-786-3313 and the website is www.thurstonwolfe.com.