Becoming a winemaker—never mind a winemaker in Walla Walla, Wash.—had never crossed Steve Brooks's mind. Then he stumbled upon a New York Times story about the fast-growing wine industry in the high-desert town near the Blue Mountains.
That chance reading came at an opportune time. Brooks, then a veteran TV producer at CNN in Atlanta, was growing disillusioned with the gloom of the news business and the strains of his perpetual travel schedule. At the end of 2001, after a 19-year career at the cable network, Brooks, at the age of 40, took a buyout. He had met his wife, Lori, at CNN and traveled the world covering news stories. "The finest part of those typically long days in the field was enjoying the local wine and trading stories with colleagues," Brooks recalls.
The article sparked a yearning in Brooks to make a change in his life and his family's. "I missed spending time with my wife and two daughters, then ages 2 and 7. In the back of my head, I knew I had to find something else to do. I didn't want to stay there for another 20 years and be grumpy and unhappy," he says.
Leap. Brooks had never before made wine or even studied winemaking. "Plus, I thought only multimillionaires could afford to own a winery," he says. Living in a town like Walla Walla, with 30,000 residents in the remote southeastern corner of Washington State, was further from his mind. He had never even heard of it. But after talking the scheme over with his wife, Brooks told everyone he knew that he was going to start his own winery. "That way, I couldn't back out of it," he says with a laugh. "At CNN, I was always confident that I could do as good a job as anyone else," he adds. "Why couldn't I take that faith in myself to another career?...Every other winemaker in the world started out at the same spot . . . knowing nothing."
So the couple quit their high-paying jobs, sold the family home, packed the kids into their Volvo wagon, and headed to the Pacific Northwest to start anew in a town where they knew nary a soul. Brooks enrolled in the local community college's Center for Enology and Viticulture for the hands-on study of every stage of winemaking, from planting the vines to harvesting, fermenting, and bottling. He worked as an apprentice to top-drawer winemakers in the region.
Finally, in 2005, he began to make his own wine, buying grapes from established Washington State vineyards. "I couldn't afford to buy land and still can't," he says. "That's a gigantic investment. It's not like growing carrots." Instead, Brooks finds the best fruit to buy and determines when the grapes are ready to be picked. Vineyard laborers harvest the grapes, and Brooks hauls them back to a leased building outfitted with top-of-the-line equipment to work his magic.
Brooks is a one-man shop. But he's quick to ask the advice of veteran vintners. "People here are very sharing of their information," he says. "I wanted to make a rosé. I called up a winemaker I admired and said, 'If I buy you lunch, can you tell me how you did it?' " He did.
"For the first syrah blend I put together, I changed my mind so many times it was silly," he says. "I asked a friend who has made plenty of well-received wines for his opinion—at least three times. Then, at the last second, I did what my gut told me to do and didn't listen to anyone else.... The syrah got 90 points [out of 100 from a respected wine reviewer]."
This year's production is expected to rise to 1,500 cases, triple that of three years ago. Retail prices range from $16 for a rosé of cabernet franc to $40 for a half-bottle of semillon ice wine. Brooks's wines are sold in roughly 125 outlets in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Later this year, he is starting online sales through Amazon.com and the winery's own site.
For now, Brooks pours all revenues back into the growing business, while Lori's income as a freelance TV sports director keeps the family afloat until the winery begins to turn a profit. And Brooks exudes a laid-back confidence that it will: "I feel like I will never ever know everything there is to know...but I have a good product, thanks to the training I had from winemakers at the top of their profession," he says.