Someone named Robert Karl occasionally stops by Robert Karl Cellars in downtown Spokane.
He is not the owner.
Other customers claim to know “Rob” or “Bob.”
Sure you do.
Joe and Rebecca Gunselman conjured the “Robert Karl” moniker fearing wine lovers would trip over “Gunselman.”
“In all the research we did,” explained Rebecca Gunselman, “if someone can’t say the name of a wine, they don’t buy it. So ‘Robert’ is from my side of the family, and ‘Karl’ is from Joe’s side.”
When awards started pouring in, they wondered if their earlier concerns were warranted. Then they issued a Gunselman cabernet, “and I thought, ‘Whew, I’m really glad we went with Robert Karl,” said Rebecca Gunselman, who handles the winery’s business side.
Joe Gunselman, a physician, is in charge of producing handcrafted premium Bordeaux varietals and syrah from grapes grown in the Columbia Valley’s Horse Heaven Hills region, which includes the couple’s 8-acre Gunselman Bench Vineyard.
They discussed their boutique enterprise during a recent interview.
S-R: Why did you launch your own winery?
Joe Gunselman: We love wine.
Rebecca Gunselman: We love that it starts in the earth. The fermentation process – the smell of it, how the taste evolves as it ages. And the connection with customers – when someone comes up to us because they love our wines, and they want to talk about this thing we’ve made.
S-R: Do you remember your first batch?
JG: We picked the grapes ourselves down in Grandview and made it in our garage. It was a good home wine.
S-R: Where did you learn winemaking?
JG: Traveling to different wineries, talking with winemaker friends, and through UC Davis Extension – weekend and weeklong courses where you learn the nuts and bolts of winemaking.
RG: Joe’s the winemaker. And although he’s learned from all these places, he also has a wonderful science background. And that’s so important in winemaking.
S-R: What distinguishes you from other winemakers?
JG: There’s an old saying, you won’t hit the bull’s-eye unless you aim for the bull’s-eye. So that’s what we did – we aimed to make a world-class wine. We found land that would yield the best grapes and we control the growing. A lot of wineries are involved in their vineyards, but once the buds break, I’m down there weekly. Irrigation is key, pest control is key, making sure the grape clusters are exposed the way we want them – all those little decisions affect the wine.
S-R: You’re both from the East Coast. Is winemaking why you ended up in Spokane?
JG: That’s why we ended up in Washington. We ended up in Spokane because this was the best day job that I could get in Eastern Washington. We didn’t want to live on the West Side – we wanted to be on the side where the grapes were.
S-R: As a full-time anesthesiologist, how much time can you devote to winemaking?
JG: Rebecca is full time, because the biggest part of a winery is the selling part. I usually take three or four weeks off in the fall for the actual harvest crush.
S-R: What wine are you best known for?
RG: Claret, but cabernet is our flagship. We really started the winery to make cabernet. But people know the claret. It’s a blend – a softer wine than the cabernet. And it’s $20, while the cabernet is $30.
S-R: How has the local wine industry changed since you started in 1999?
JG: There are more wineries and way more tastings. So there’s a lot more public exposure than there used to be.
RG: It’s very exciting. People used to say, “Oh, we have to go down to the Napa Valley to taste wine.” Now they can stay right here.
S-R: What was your first big success?
JG: Our very first claret – 2001 – won best red and best of show at the (central Washington) state fair in Yakima.
S-R: What do you like most about winemaking?
JG: The whole process. I like growing the grapes, having the grapes in the tank, fermenting. Fall is one of my favorite times of the year – it brings you closer to nature.
S-R: Is there any one part of the process you could do without?
RG: The compliance paperwork.
S-R: What would surprise people most about owning a winery?
JG: The amount of manual labor is the biggest eye-opener for people.
RG: And all the things you have to know. Besides knowing how to make wine, you have to know plumbing, electrical.
S-R: Has the recession impacted your business?
RG: Our summer foot traffic is definitely down. Retail sales have been more stable than by-the-bottle restaurant sales. We sell most of our wine to regulars who come here to the winery, and that has changed the least.
S-R: Tell me about the Robert Karl Health Club.
RG: We think it’s beneficial to drink a glass of red wine every day. Our health club is a way to get a shipment of Robert Karl quarterly. And you’re treated with kid gloves when you come to the winery.
S-R: What are you most proud of about Robert Karl?
RG: It’s wonderfully gratifying to walk into a fine restaurant and see someone has ordered your wine, or to open a magazine and see you’ve gotten a great review.
S-R: Besides making great wine, what is the key to a successful winery?
RG: We always look at Robert Karl as a business. Before we started, we had a business plan. Any major decision we make, we ask if it fits our business plan, or do we need to change the plan?
S-R: Any other advice you’d offer someone who wants to start a winery?
JG: Build from the vineyard up.
RG: And you’d better understand the science – what makes fermentation happen.
JG: Or hire someone who does.