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Townshend Cellar founder Don Townshend dies at 64; vintner remembered for creativity, hard work

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 31, 2020

Though friends, family and colleagues say they’ve always been inspired by Don Townshend’s business sense, his flair for winemaking and his willingness to help others, most say what they really admired was his persistent courage to pursue what he loved.

Townshend died on Dec. 20 after falling from a roof in Montana during a construction project. He was 64 .

Townshend, a former engineer turned winemaker, founded Townshend Cellar and was one of the fathers of Spokane’s wine boom in the early 2000s. He moved to Spokane in the 1980s for a career in heating and air conditioning and made his first barrel of wine in his basement, later holding a tasting in his garage and leaving behind a thriving winery that produces thousands of barrels a year.

Townshend’s son, Michael Townshend, who along with his brother Brendon Townshend purchased the winery from their father in 2018, said his father approached everything in life with boundless energy, tackling problems as an engineer, mastering winemaking, learning woodworking and remodeling houses.

“I think the biggest thing he taught me and my brother that’s really important is if you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, don’t do it,” he said. “If you’re not finding joy, there’s no point in doing it.”

Townshend grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska and spent his early life on the campus of University of Alaska Fairbanks, where his father worked doing geological surveys. Townshend eventually attended school there, earning a degree in civil engineering before he started work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Townshend eventually got a job in heating and air conditioning systems, moved to Wisconsin for a year of training and then moved to Spokane to start his career.

Townshend eventually met clients connected to winemaking through that work. In the early 1990s, he began to experiment with making wine, brewing his first batch at home and eventually getting the whole family involved in every step of the process.

Michelle Townshend, Don Townshend’s ex-wife, said family had been a major part of the business since their first barrel of wine, and the children jumped into vats of grapes and stomped them down with their bare feet. The family went huckleberry-picking and worked together to purchase berries from other pickers to gather enough for a huckleberry port.

“It was very humble beginnings,” she said.

The Townshend winery now has a tasting room in Green Bluff and a large production facility in Spokane. The Townshends divorced when their sons were in high school, but still remained close, living down the road from each other for years.

Michelle Townshend said she believed her husband’s fascination with wine started with interest in the chemistry, the transformative aspect of taking a grape and turning it into a new variety of wine. She said he also liked to make the type of wine he enjoyed, and said that was the advice he would give at a tasting.

“If you were to come into the tasting room with Don behind the counter and were maybe embarrassed that you were talking to the winemaker and didn’t know, or have a sophisticated palate, he would say, ‘It doesn’t matter, drink what you like to drink,’ ” she said.

Townshend’s former colleagues said they also admired how approachable he and the wines he made were.

Mike Scott, former owner of Lone Canary Winery and a former co-owner of Caterina Winery in Spokane, said Townshend was known early on as someone who asked a lot of questions.

He eventually paid every question he asked about winemaking forward, helping out other wineries whenever they needed someone who was mechanically inclined and sharing the knowledge he gained over the years.

“When the need arose, he was one of the most generous men in sharing his insight, and if you had a piece of machinery go down, he would throw his in the back of his truck and bring it down to your winery so you could carry on,” he said.

Scott, now a wine distributor, said Townshend’s legacy can still be seen in Spokane’s wine community. He said several wines made by the Townshends, including their T3 blend, their red table wine and their Vortex wine, helped grow the profile of Washington’s emerging wine scene, and helped put Spokane’s wines on the map.

“Don’s energy, creativity and innate salesmanship really helped the Spokane wine industry take off,” he said.

Greg Lipsker, co-owner of Barrister Winery in Spokane, echoed Scott’s sentiment, saying the varieties of wine Townshend developed helped draw in new customers who maybe were intimidated by traditional brands and varieties, and wanted something that both tasted good and that they could afford.

“I think those wines, the T3 and the Vortex, introduced a lot of people to wine that may not have experienced it otherwise,” Lipsker said.

He said he also admired where the business is now, and the care and mentorship Townshend offered both his sons as they have worked to take over the business.

“He was there to mentor them,” he said. “It was fun to watch the second generation come along and see Don oversee them.”

Michael Townshend said one of his favorite things about his father was how hard he worked, even toward the end of his life. He said his father instilled that work ethic in him and his brother, and made sure all three of them understood every part of winemaking and business.

“It wasn’t delegate this and that, the jobs he didn’t want to do; he taught us a really strong work ethic, which is what I admire most about him,” Michael Townshend said. “It was just the way he was.”

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