As a pharmacist, Debbie Hansen’s job was straightforward: Provide the right pill in the right dose to the right patient at the right time.
Winemaking is different.
“Scientifically there are things you can do to make sure your wine gets from grape to bottle in a very consistent manner,” she explained. “But when it comes to blending and whether our cabernet is going to be 100 percent cabernet this year, or do we add a little bit of merlot or malbec to the background to create a better tasting wine, that’s where you go from being analytical to being creative.
“That’s what I really enjoy,” Hansen said. “The creativeness of winemaking.”
She and her husband, large-animal veterinarian David Hansen, purchased a patch of grape-growing heaven in the Walla Walla Valley 32 years ago, and planted – what else? – apples: Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith and Red Delicious.
Eventually, thanks to a winemaking neighbor, they saw the light and replaced some aging apple orchards with 50 acres of grapevines.
Despite the Hansens’ modest expectations, their first cabernet sauvignon took top honors at the 2003 Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition, besting more than 400 California cabs.
Since then, the Hansens have racked up more than 100 awards and Wine Spectator recommendations.
Last September they opened a downtown Spokane tasting room, where they recently discussed their Cougar Crest Winery.
S-R: You began your careers as a veterinarian and pharmacist, respectively. What inspired your passion for winemaking?
David: Right after college we moved to the San Francisco area and occasionally visited the Napa Valley. That’s when we realized there was a big difference in well-made wines. Later we bought 125 acres of farmland in the Walla Walla Valley right next to the Seven Hills property. In 1996, a neighbor challenged us to compare his wine with the best California cabernets. One taste convinced us to plant wine grapes.
S-R: How did you learn about growing grapes?
David: We read a pile of books, but if you can grow a dandelion, you can grow a grape. The secret is controlling them. Grape vines want to grow into trees; they don’t want to grow along a wire.
Debbie: And they want to grow prolific amounts of fruit, which isn’t conducive to making wine you’d want to drink.
David: All of our apples were trellised, so we were used to the post-and-wire kind of thing. And a lot of the Hispanic kids who helped us in the apples had worked in California vineyards, so they knew about pruning.
S-R: When did you make your first batch of wine?
David: Probably 1997.
Debbie: We made a cab and syrah with our own grapes. It was our first production year, and the wine was very good.
David: That’s when we started taking classes at UC (University of California) Davis. They did a lot of extension classes that ran Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and we’d fly down for the weekend. Debbie also took some weeklong classes. We did that for three or four years before we decided commercial winemaking was the way to go.
S-R: Are you still active in your first professions?
David: Yes, I still work with horses.
Debbie: I went from full time to part time, and then in 2006 – when we built a new facility in Walla Walla – I had to go 100 percent into winemaking.
S-R: How many wineries were there in Walla Walla when you opened?
David: We were the 22nd. Now there’s something like 114.
S-R: What distinguishes your approach to winemaking?
Debbie: I think it’s important that we grow all our own grapes. We’re vested in the sustainability of the soil, because that’s where we derive all of our benefit. So it’s in our best interest to make sure we can sustain what we’re doing 10 years from now, and for our kids.
David: Also, we look at winemaking very scientifically. When we measure something, we’re very exacting. And we treat our winery like a surgical suite.
S-R: How do you divide the labor?
David: I handle the grape growing and anything that has a motor on it. Debbie has a really good palate, plus she has all the scientific background, so she does most of the winemaking.
Debbie: And we make decisions together about crop-load adjustment – how much weight to carry on a vine.
S-R: Was the winery successful from the start?
Debbie: We didn’t have very high expectations. But the first year we were able to sell wine, we won some pretty nice awards from the Los Angeles County Fair.
David: Our merlot and cabernet both won gold medals. Then they were both best of class. No other Washington winery had ever won two best-of-class categories. The next year our syrah was voted one of the top 100 wines in the world. Then our 2003 Cabernet and Reserve Cabernet were picked by Wine Spectator as two of the top 100 cabernets in the world. Those things really put us on the map.
S-R: Why did you open a tasting room in Spokane?
Debbie: I grew up here. I graduated from Cheney High School in 1974. And a lot of our wine club members are from Spokane. So it really made sense for us to provide a place they can come to taste wine and pick up their quarterly shipments.
S-R: Any changes on the horizon for Cougar Crest?
Debbie: We need to keep doing what we do consistently, and always looking for ways to improve. There’s lots of rock stars in the winemaking world – people who like the publicity they get from being in the wine business. I just enjoy making people happy and hearing the positive feedback.
S-R: What would you tell someone who wants to get into winemaking?
David: It’s way more work than they can possibly ever imagine.
Debbie: Do it if you enjoy it, because that’s what will sustain you through the hard times and bad weather.