The Women Behind Walla Walla Wine Country

On my recent visit to Walla Walla wine country I sipped through 12 wineries and tasting rooms. Given there are about 120 in the Valley I know I made only a dent… But, at each winery – minus two – I had the chance to sit down and chat with the winemaker, which is pretty unique when visiting any wine region (even if you’re a wine travel writer). Of those I visited, four had female winemakers. While some of you may not think twice about that, it’s kind of a big deal. Especially since there are only eight female winemakers in Walla Walla, according to the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. So in other words, I met with half of the women winemakers in Walla Walla!

Women are definitely a minority in the world of winemaking but they’re coming into their own in smaller regions like Walla Walla, which claims eight female winemakers AND eight women-owned wineries, according to the group, Women Owned Wineries. What’s cool is that they’re not the same eight so we’re looking at even more influence from the women in Walla Walla.

One of those women pioneering the way for the region is Mary Derby of DAMA Wines. She is not only the lead winemaker, but also the co-owner, along with her business partner Judith Shulman. (DAMA is 100% girl powered wine!) Mary’s story is as colorful and bright as her wines, but I’ll let her tell you her story in our latest edition of Carpe Travel’s Interview with a Winemaker.

Interview with a Winemaker: Mary Derby, DAMA Wines

Mary Derby, female winemaker and co-owner of one of the eight women owned wineries in Walla Walla, WA
Mary Derby, Walla Walla

Tell us how DAMA was born.

The idea of DAMA began when I had decided to get back into the business after a two-year hiatus due to the death of my husband, Devin Derby in 2004.

We had moved together to Walla Walla in 2000 to help start up Spring Valley Vineyard, a now famous winery. We worked with Miles Anderson and Gordy Venneri (our consultants for two years), which I guess was our formal schooling… I have learned to continually have great people surround you. To understand your strengths and more importantly your weaknesses.

At the time that we came into the business, the Walla Walla wine community was very small and the amount of assistance we had through other winemakers was amazing. I think that because we were all so “young” and naïve and at this point we all had the “one for all” … “all for one” mentality.

Before moving to Walla Walla with my husband, I had been in the restaurant industry for 15 years in Minneapolis, San Fransisco and Chicago. Working in great businesses – Stars, Zuni Café and Spruce – as a waitress and then later as a wine buyer at Spruce in Chicago where I worked with Brian Duncan who became my mentor in all things wine. The knowledge and experience that I gained during this time was priceless.

Devin and I spent four years working in the trenches making wine together. So when he passed in 2004 I took a hiatus from the industry… Which brings us to 2006 and DAMA. I meet up a Dawn Kammer in 2006-ish. She had just finished an enology program and one thing led to another and we became a bonded winery in 2007.

The name DAMA came from our first two initials with then the word dama meaning lady in Spanish. It seemed a perfect union. Dawn has since moved on and Judith Shulman became a part of DAMA in 2010 as my business partner. The winery has always focused on being run by strong willed, minded and creative women. From our wines to our labels we have continually showcased the intensity of our passion that is behind creating not only beautiful labels but more importantly our wines.

Is there a community of female winemakers in Walla Walla? How do you work together to grow the region and support one another?

A few years ago I had created a women in wine calendar to highlight the great gals in Walla Walla that are in the business. It was beautifully photographed in black and white, I wanted each woman to be showcased artfully…like a Annie Leibovetz photo. I think we accomplished the feat. Other than that, I see a few of the gals once in a while. But you have to understand most of us do double duty…meaning we are Mothers too and it’s a completely different game for us then for the men even if they are Fathers. But that’s a whole other story!

Why do you think Walla Walla is attracting female winemakers to the area?

The Enology/Viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College is amazing and it’s a very reasonable program money wise and time-wise. It’s perfect for budding female winemakers. Plus life here – in Walla Walla – is simpler. If you are a single mom or not it is a great place to get your feet in the business and still maintain a life and/or livelihood.

I love the artistic paintings/images on the labels of DAMA Wines. What was the inspiration behind adding differnt art to each one?

We really try to “blend” the art to the wine…each label is unique and in ways represents the different styles of each of our wines… Once we had bought out Dawn, we knew that the brand/logo needed to be refreshed. Both Judith and I have been great supporters of the arts so it just felt right to go in this direction of finding beautiful pieces of artwork to use as labels. Luckily, I have had a number of artist friends who were happy to donate their work for as a label. We have also bought a couple of pieces and gained the rights to use.

DAMA Wines

Walla Walla is becoming a world-renown wine region, yet the area is still pretty young. If there is one thing you could tell people about the wine scene in Walla Walla, what would it be?

Over the 19 years that I have lived in Walla Walla the number one reason that truly makes our wine region special is that we are an amazing community of people. I am not saying this in a way that means “wow ..look how great I/we are” but more times than not you will walk away saying, “wow I got to spend time with the actual winemaker!” You will walk away with the sense of a community that cares not only about its vineyards and wines but about its people.

What do you think makes Walla Walla a unique wine region?

From our unique soils (loess, basalt, cobblestones) which provide good drainage for the vines to a 200 day  long growing season with hot days and cool nights.

Walla Walla wine country is a world renowned wine region not to miss.
Photo by Carpe Travel, in the Walla Walla Valley.

What is your winemaking philosophy?

My style is to try not to over manipulate the wines …to let them speak for themselves and I am there just to assist in the process.

What would you hope people say about your wine? 

I think that the more people know me as a person the more they understand my wines. My wines are not only a part of the terrior here in the great state of Washington but they represent me as well… my history, my stories, my tears, my joys. So, with that being said, I hope they say that the wines are interesting…with many layers to explore to elegant to perhaps even sassy! 

Downtown tasting rooms in Walla Walla

Your tasting room is in the heart of the downtown area, why did you choose to be here verses out among the vines?
We have had a wine tasting room downtown since the birth of DAMA and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I love our downtown and am so proud of the growth that is happening here and yet keeping the charm of a small town.

When did you fall in love with wine? Do you remember the wine that was “the one” that started it all? Is there a story behind it?
Oh boy, there are so many wines and so many stories through the years I really don’t know where to begin. But one of my favorites was in 1997 when Devin and I traveled to the Loire Valley to meet the now late winemaker Didier Dagueneau. His 1996 Silex was mind-blowing, like no other sauvignon that I had ever tasted. Both of us spoke minimal French and boy did we have to work it! But finally the common ground of us all being dog lovers broke the ice!

When people visit Walla Walla, what are the top three things you think they should do/go/see?

  • Fort Walla Walla
  • Bennington Lake for a good walk
  • Powerhouse Theater

Need more ideas on things to do in Walla Walla wine country? We have them on the Walla Walla Wine Travel Guide.

Want to sip in more on female winemakers? Take a peek at Carpe Travel’s article, The Women Behind the Wine.