Rocky Pond Winery: How Owners David and Michelle Dufenhorst Have
Changed the Landscape of Winemaking in the Sleepy Hamlet of Orondo, WA.
In addition to tasting rooms in Chelan and Woodinville, the Dufenhorsts have a third one in the works in Leavenworth (scheduled to open in October) and a wedding venue in Orondo complete with an airstrip for people who want to fly in.
By Sebastian Moraga
Something big is brewing (or in this case fermenting) in Orondo, WA.
Nestled near the shores of the Columbia River and with the iconic U.S. Highway 97A tunnel easily viewed with the naked eye, David & Michelle Dufenhorst’s Rocky Pond Estate vineyard is transforming what was once a barren, rocky, dusty, wasteland into a destination, one project at a time.
First came the land, then the removal of said rocks, then the first plants. With time came the first vintages, the tasting rooms, the weddings, and now, if Dufenhorst’s plan bears fruit, a state-of-the-art indoor event facility that will forever transform the perception of Orondo from sleepy little hamlet to place-to-be.
It all hinges on the vision set forth by Dufenhorst, an energetic, passionate 58-year-old man, whose venture, Rocky Pond Winery, has gone from a hobby to a business and from a family affair to a company with 40 employees, tasting rooms on both sides of the state, and enough clout and resources to forever change the landscape of winemaking in central Washington.
All of this became possible thanks to the creation of a new AVA: Rocky Reach, which Dufenhorst spearheaded with his friend Jamie Pierre of Seattle’s Pierre Ford dealerships’ fame. Pierre also owned acreage in Orondo but sadly passed away in January of 2021 and did not live to see the new AVA get approved.
A real estate developer in a past life, Dufenhorst has by and large left that behind to focus on wine, a passion into which he dove headfirst, with annual trips to Italy and France with his wife Michelle.
“Michelle and I Just fell in love with the wine industry,” Dufenhorst said of his first trip to Italy a decade and a half ago, and which they repeated every year for a dozen years. “We said, ‘ We need to find a world-class grape growing area close to Seattle where we can plant grapes.’”
In addition to the trips, he consulted with some of the top American experts in the field, like Ron Bunnell from Prosser, WA., who brought to the table years of experience with names like Mondavi and Chateau Ste. Michelle. Bunnell served as Dufenhorst’s first winemaker.
The post is now occupied by Elizabeth Keyser (KEE-ser), one of a growing number of female winemakers in Washington.
“She’s a rockstar,” Dufenhorst said of Keyser. Having grown up on a farm in Idaho, Dufenhorst says his roots are in the farming side of things, and thus he is happy to let his rockstar lead the way when making reds, whites and blends.
“I could’ve learned how to become a winemaker, but I really like the land,” adds Dufenhorst. “I like the farming and I’m glad we hired someone talented like Liz to be our winemaker. Liz has a great palate and passion for world-class wines, a masters in Enology and an attention to detail that will elevate our wine quality and showcase this unique terroir here in the Rocky Reach AVA.”
The name Rocky Pond hails from a particularly low spot on the topography of the area, which made planting grapes there a dicey proposition.
“We could not plant here because we knew it was going to be a frost pocket,” Dufenhorst said of the low spot. Instead, Dufenhorst dug some more, made it even lower, lined it, and filled it with 1.1 million gallons of Columbia River water. Rocks from that very soil circle the pond, giving it and the winery their name. The pond serves as the source of water for all the fruit, he said.
In addition to tasting rooms in Chelan and Woodinville, Dufenhorst has a third one in the works in Leavenworth (scheduled to open in October) and a wedding venue in Orondo, complete with an airstrip for people who want to fly in. Both of Dufenhorst’s daughters got married there. The older one, Cydnee, is a nurse and the younger one, Danielle, works for Dad running the Rocks Society wine club. In the fall of 2023. the site will have a 4,000 square-foot indoor wedding and concert venue, complete with a full indoor commercial kitchen. Future plans include a 64-room hotel, restaurant and spa, with plans to open in 2025-26.
“We are trying to create exceptional experiences for our wine club members,” Dufenhorst explains. The pandemic put a crimp in plans to move forward more quickly, but things are moving forward again.
“It’s a labor of love,” he added. So is the new AVA. Asked why it was necessary to establish a new AVA, Dufenhorst said the topography of the nearby Lake Chelan AVA is totally different from the landscape in Orondo. That uniqueness deserved to be represented by a new AVA designation, he said.
The day-to-day operations of the winery are handled by John Ware, who Dufenhorst hired to serve as President of the company in February of 2020. Ware spent 20-plus years at the renowned Quilceda Creek Winery in Snohomish, WA. where he served as Vice-President and General Manager before moving to Rocky Pond. Ware’s first crush was in 1986.
“It’s an honor to be serving as President of Rocky Pond Estate Winery,” says Ware. “The Dufenhorst family has quietly been building an undiscovered paradise in one of the most beautiful and soon to be discovered corners of Washington. I am excited to have the opportunity to offer guidance to an already dynamic team of experienced professionals as we continue to elevate our winemaking, vineyard management, event offerings, and overall high-touch consumer experiences.”
“The unique terroir of the new Rocky Reach AVA, in which two of our three estate vineyards are located, differentiates us from all of the other AVAs in the state,” Ware added. “In addition, we are very proud of our commitment to sustainability. All our vineyards are LIVE Certified and Salmon Safe. With the release of our 2022 vintages, Double D, Rocky Reach Estates and Clos CheValle vineyards will be also certified SustainableWA. They are among the first vineyards in Washington to receive this third-party certification. We can’t wait for the world to discover the quality of the wines that we will producing in the years to come.”
In addition to being President of Rocky Pond Winery, Ware was appointed to the 12-member Washington Wine Commission this past July, “I have only been a member of the Commission for a short while,” Ware explained. “But with a winery and vineyard operations background, combined with consumer sales, marketing and national distribution experience, I am enjoying the work with the other commissioners to increase the brand awareness of Washington wines and educate the consumer about the unique climate conditions — and terroir — of this beautiful state.”
”The heart of Dufenhorst’s Rocky Pond Winery is, of course, the rows upon rows of vineyards planted with Grenache, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Malbec, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon wine grapes, among others. The climate is best suited for Rhone and Bordeaux reds, so he grows his whites in the Chelan area, where he owns another 30 acres, but at almost twice the altitude.
In the beginning, Dufenhorst planted a lot of different varietals to see which ones the land would like the best. Always a good question when you’re planting grapes on the former site of a pile of rocks. Rhônes won that first race, but now he says it’s neck-and-neck between Rhônes and Bordeauxs.
Asked to name a flagship wine, he picked the Syrah and the Merlot. The list of outstanding wines, and names, only starts there.
“We have a wine named 11 Dams, named after the eleven dams in Washington located on the Columbia River,” he said. “It’s a Bordeaux blend with a heavy concentration of Merlot and the rest Cabernet and Malbec. And we have a blend named Stratastone. My daughter Danielle named it that; she loved geology in high school. It’s a GSM blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre from the Double D Vineyard.
The website for Rocky Pond Winery features a 2019 Double D Syrah, a 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon, the 11 Dams blend, 2019 Malbec, the 2019 and 2020 Stratastone, a 2020 Grenache, a 2019 Mourvèdre (currently sold out, says the website) a 2020 Clos CheValle Syrah (members only) and a 2020 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
To Keyser, what sets the wines apart is, first of all, the fact that as an estate winery, most all the fruit comes from that spot in Orondo, in the Rocky Reach AVA.
“Our quality is just different than the wines that are grown in the Lake Chelan region and further south in the Columbia Valley AVA,” she said. “We are on a completely different profile. The bedrock of most of the Columbia AVA is basalt. Here in the Rocky Reach AVA we are sitting on this gorgeous blend of quartz-silica. It just provides different nutrient sources for the vines.”
The winery sells fruit to 30 other wineries, and annually produces about 7,000 cases, and despite the litany of projects on his to-do list, Dufenhorst does not hesitate in saying that the winery is growing to meet private member demand.
“Our goal is to be around 15,000 cases,” he said. ““Our five-year plan has us strategically growing our core wines from the estate and continuing our 3-tiered distribution success with a wine called Proprietary Rock.
“My prediction is that the Rocky Reach AVA will be one of the premier growing AVAs in the state,” he said.
Having worked in California, Keyser pointed to a variety of factors that led her to trade the wine capital of the nation for a nascent spot like Orondo. The people she works with, the community that surrounds her, the energy that’s pushing the region forward, all led her northward.
“It’s really exciting as a young winemaker to have the opportunity to leave my fingerprint in a way, to be a contributing force to the prevalence of this region,” she said. “That aside, the wines are absolutely gorgeous.”
This past August, the winery received confirmation that its wines are among the best in the business. At the Las Vegas Global Wine Awards, Rocky Pond’s 2019 “Stratastone” red blend was honored as “Best In Show” while earning a 94-point rating from the panel of world class judges.
In addition, Rocky Pond’s 2019 Double D Vineyard Syrah (earning a rating of 97 points) and 2019 Malbec (earning a rating of 98 points) won Best In Class awards, and its 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon won a Gold Medal while earning a rating of 93 points.
Fall is a great time to visit Rocky Pond Winery’s tasting rooms in Chelan and Woodinville. The Chelan tasting room is located at 212 E. Woodin Ave, Chelan, WA. The Woodinville tasting room is located in Woodin Creek Village at 13479 N.E. Village Drive, Suite 1010, Woodinville, WA. You can reach either tasting room by calling (425) 949-9044.
Check the Rocky Pond website (www.rockypondwinery.com) periodically for information about the opening of the winery’s new tasting room in Leavenworth, which is scheduled to open in mid to late October.
If you don’t plan on traveling this fall, you can purchase all of the winery’s current releases by visiting: www.rockypondwinery.orderport.net/wines/Current-Releases.