Otis Kenyon: Man of Mystery
October 2, 2009 by Doug Haugen
When you look at a bottle of Otis Kenyon wine, you see a man’s dark silhouette (presumably Otis Kenyon himself), and burned paper, leading you to ask, “What’s going on here?” Who is this Otis Kenyon, and who’s been playing with matches? Turns out that the answers to these questions are rich, and will fascinate your guests as you sip on the wines.
Hang tight, we’ll get there.
In 2004, Steve Kenyon–vinophile and CEO of a Seattle law firm—received the surprise birthday gift of a lifetime from his wife: a few tons of grapes, still on the vine and nearly ready to harvest. While Steve and his wife had daydreamed about the idea of owning a winery, he wasn’t adequately prepared for the sudden reality of a dream come to life. He went into problem-solving mode, made a couple of trips to the Walla Walla vineyards where his grapes were reaching maturity, found a talented winemaker (Dave Stevenson), and made things happen. The result is Otis Kenyon Wines, a Walla Walla winery with a story more timeless than the winery itself.
In the early 1900s, a man by the name of James Otis Kenyon made a living practicing dentistry in the Walla Walla Valley. But, much to his dismay, another dentist opened up shop in the little town, taking half of his business, making it more difficult to provide for his family. Kenyon approached the other dentist, giving him a talking-to that I imagine was much like, “There ain’t enough teeth in this town for the both of us…If you ain’t out by sundown…” However, the competitor refused to close his doors, and soon found those doors, along with the rest of his office, burned to the ground. A long arson investigation ensued, and Kenyon disappeared from family life. His wife ostracized him, he was presumed dead by the rest of his family, and no one ever heard from him again.
James Otis Kenyon’s oldest son Robert Otis Kenyon grew up and started a family of his own in Walla Walla, rearing a son by the name of Stephen Otis Kenyon. Robert never spoke of his father to his children. Steve grew up in Walla Walla before moving to the Seattle area and building a career practicing law. He eventually took interest in his own lineage, and fifty years after the legend began, surprised himself and everyone else with the discovery that his grandfather was still alive, living off the grid on the Oregon coast. Steve made contact, reestablished the family ties, and built a relationship with his long-lost grandfather. James Otis Kenyon died at 101 years old knowing that his family loved him.
Today, Otis Kenyon wines pay tribute to the family’s rich–if a little sordid–history. Each bottle bears the silhouette of James Otis Kenyon, and the labels look as if they’ve barely survived a fire, both tributes to James. Also, when we visited the tasting room in Walla Walla this summer, we saw a decorating scheme marked by dentist chairs and bowler hats that gave the place a mystique worthy of Sweeney Todd once the story is known.
The winery is called Otis Kenyon because of the generational passing down of the name–Steve’s son Samuel is the fourth generation of Otis Kenyons–giving honor to the strong (and repaired) family ties. I sat down for lunch with Steve Kenyon one day, and he told me that while Otis Kenyon Wines has quickly grown to nearly 2,500 cases per year, he realizes that he’s not really building a business for himself, but rather he’s building something that will continue to be passed down through the generations. It will not just be his own legacy, but the legacy of all the Otis Kenyons that came before him and will come after him.
Today, Steve manages the business operations of Otis Kenyon Wines, and has been learning a lot about winemaking. He enjoys working next to winemaker Dave Stevenson doing punch-downs, crushing grapes and everything else, but he has no ambition to become the winemaker. He’s quite happy with what Stevenson has been doing with the wines, and so are we.
Horse Heaven Hills
Coming from the Triple-H, you’d expect this wine to be a schoolyard bully, but in all actuality, it’s a bit shy and reserved. Initially a little tight on the nose, it reveals sweet red fruit, red licorice ropes and a little heat, with a flutter (that’s right, I said “flutter”) of chocolate powder. On the palate, you’re immediately hit with a tannic mouthfeel, which passes the baton to a tangy acidity with nice fruit bringing up the rear. The wine opens up a bit in the glass over time, revealing chocolate covered strawberries jostled about in powdered sugar. This is a wine that will try to fit in at your party without overtaking the conversation with an active voice and a Type A personality. It’s casual and enjoyable without being loud—something many could aspire to.
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
Walla Walla Valley
Soft on the nose, the Cab reveals strawberry, plum, leather and a little bit of barnyard funk that I really like. The first sip is surprisingly lively with bright red fruit, acidity, and a zing from the 14.6% alcohol. The fruit makes room for earthy qualities like dark soil and mushrooms, and finishes subterraneously with the suggestion of edible roots just pulled up. All the while, the leather we experienced on the nose persists like a horse saddle that has seen many a journey across the prairie. The Cab is damn enjoyable like that favorite go-to, failsafe, mood-lifting song you listen to whenever you need pick-me-up (in my case, “Skokiaan” by Louis Armstrong), and after a glass (or two…) you will have rediscovered your purple toothy grin.