“I am as much of an entrepreneur as a winemaker,” shares Joe Dobbes. In Dobbes’ 30 year winemaking career this natural talent made an appearance at an early age and became a defining characteristic. Dobbes grew up on a 62 acre “gentleman’s farm” in Molalla, Oregon. His dad offered him a couple of acres to farm himself. “So I grew marionberries and sold them to Smuckers,” Dobbes mentions nonchalantly as though this is an ordinary enterprise for grade school children.
It is no surprise that when Dobbes decided to start a winemaking career, it would be filled with brave innovation. In 1999 Dobbes made the first commercial Viognier in Oregon – Griffin Creek Viognier for Willamette Valley Vineyards. He pioneered a semi-sparkling Muscat for Tualatin Estate – a wine served at the White House. Until recently he was the only producer of Grenache Blanc in Oregon. Among the first Willamette Valley winemakers to purchase fruit from Rogue Valley, he continues to craft vineyard designate Syrah, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier from Quail Run Vineyards.
“I took chances that scared people, including myself,” Dobbes chuckles in retrospect. Not the least of which was leaving his last “W2 job” at Willamette Valley Vineyards to launch Dobbes Family Estate and Wine by Joe in 2002. “Wine by Joe was daring from a market standpoint,” explains Dobbes. The concept of offering a serious yet value priced Pinot Noir was relatively new. In 2011, Wine by Joe was named the #1 Hot Small Brand of the Year by Wine Business Monthly.
Even though it was scary, when asked what he would do differently the response was, “Not much.” Dobbes actually would have trusted his gut more. He attributes much of his success to his team and advises those with entrepreneurial dreams to “hire the best people you can afford, even if you can’t afford them.” Surrounding himself with a talented team and partners has been key, including taking on equity partners, Bacchus Capital Management, to help take Dobbes Family Estate to next level.
The second thing that defines Dobbes’ career are his relationships, relationships that intertwine over distance and time. It was a recommendation from Dominique Lafon, with whom Dobbes apprenticed in Burgundy, that eventually lead to his pivotal position at Willamette Valley Vineyards. Jim Bernau, Founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards, still has Lafon’s letter of recommendation as a keepsake.
To celebrate 30 years as a winemaker, Dobbes recently gathered at Irving St. Kitchen with his family, his team, and his old friends and employers to share wine and reminisce. Of course the people who know you best don’t always tell stories about your finest moments. That is what friends are for. Joe Campbell of Elk Cove Vineyards remembers a young Dobbes who thought the ladies would like him for his good looks (legitimate assumption, for which there is photographic evidence) and winemaking skills. “I think the draw was really his Camaro,” laughed Campbell.
Many of the stories shared a theme – lost wine. Two hundred gallons at Elk Cove because the hose was not hooked to the filter. Three hundred gallons at Sylvan Ridge Winery because Dobbes forgot to close the valves after cleaning the filter. That wine backed up through the water system and made a reappearance in the bathtub.
Michael Moore of Quail Run Vineyards, which supplies Dobbes’ Rogue Valley fruit, said he had heard his own parents refer to Dobbes as their fourth son for years. Moore wondered “Who is this jerk stepping on the familial turf.” Moore’s love and admiration was evident when he too referred to Dobbes as family, calling him his brother. There were many heartfelt moments during this lunch. Dobbes caught the eye of his daughter Amelia Dobbes and choked up a bit while thanking the group. He recognized his wife Patricia Dobbes, nicknamed “Joe’s Boss,” for her support. Perhaps most memorable was Bernau’s statement. “My biggest regret is not being able to grow Willamette Valley Vineyards fast enough to keep Joe. I hold out hope that one day we will make wine together again.” Seems there are many ways Dobbes can measure his success.
To learn more about Dobbes Family Estate, Wine by Joe, Jovino and upcoming events celebrating Dobbe’s anniversay visit dobbesfamilyestate.com #cheerstojoedobbes
This story first appeared in the Oregon Wine Press