Soldiers in the drink
Two veterans focus their second careers on making wine
Robb Zimmel’s first interest in winemaking is rooted in its mystery. He grew up watching the matriarchs in his family make wine out of all kinds of fruit. Berries are crushed, the juice is poured into a container and then some kind of alchemy magically transforms it into a potent drink.
Zimmel ’12 made his first batch of wine out of apples when he was in high school. He hid the concoction from his parents. His sister found it and secretly sabotaged the experiment.
“She never ratted me out, but she would sneak wine out and replace it with water,” Zimmel said. “So when I went to taste it, it was like, ‘that’s it?’ She only revealed to me what she’d done many years later.”
Decades after that first failed foray and with encouragement from his wife and then-neighbor Jon Unruh, a new wine label emerged.
From soldier to winemaker
After high school, Zimmel became a paramedic, served on an air rescue team and joined the Army Reserve. He was eventually called to duty, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 to 2010. Nearing the end of his tour, he expressed to his wife Chris, over the phone from the Middle East, how he had grown weary of the stress of being a combat medic. By the time they finished their conversation he was thinking about a second career—as a winemaker.
When he got back stateside, he and Chris moved to Vancouver. In short order, Zimmel befriended his new neighbor John Unruh ’97. The men had much in common. Unruh served in the Marines following high school, and when his tour was over, he studied at Clark College before transferring to WSU Vancouver.
Zimmel sometimes invited Unruh over to try his latest wine, which he kept in a cluttered garage. When Zimmel admitted he was dreaming of starting a winery, Unruh, who works in corporate finance, offered to look at Zimmel’s business plan and crunch the numbers. The pair formed a partnership, Zimmel Unruh Cellars LLC.
Learning the wine craft
Zimmel has dabbled in winemaking for years. His first date with Chris was a visit to St. Josef’s Winery in Canby, Ore. He swooned at the rolling hills, the barrels and all the memories of experimenting with fermentation.
Soon after, Zimmel called local vineyards until he found one that would sell him 200 pounds of grapes.
“It was so much fun,” he said of his first adult foray into winemaking. “But the wine I made then was absolutely horrible.”
Zimmel was perplexed. People have been making wine for 2,000 years, he thought, why couldn’t he master it? Zimmel read winemaking books. He drove to local home-brew stores with winemaking sections and sought advice. He practiced making wine out of all kinds of fruits and noticed that his wines were improving. He entered amateur competitions and started winning medals. He talked about his hobby constantly.
He took a handful of college courses at Clark and did some studying on his own before his Middle East tour, but it was after his return in 2010 that he decided to get serious about the wine business.
By 2013 he finally had the time and courage to start planning a business. However, his plan was fraught with uncertainties.
“I knew what I wanted to do, but I was no spring chicken,” Zimmel said.
He re-enrolled at Clark College in 2010. Zimmel went to the office of Chemistry Professor Amanda Crochet before the quarter started.
“He’d taken the first quarter of chemistry, then deployed, and then enrolled in my class for the second quarter,” Crochet recalled. “So he came to me saying, ‘I’m going to take your class but it’s been a while…’ I think I told him not to do it. But he said he was going to do it anyway.”
Zimmel excelled, Crochet said. When he told her he wanted to study vinology, Crochet invited him to McMenamins Edgefield Manor in Troutdale, Ore., where her soon-to-be stepfather-in-law, Kevin “Scruffy” McCarver, worked as head winemaker. They walked to the cellar, where McCarver spent the rest of the day showing Zimmel the operation.
It was Zimmel’s first glimpse into the life of a professional winemaker, and he still marvels at the memory years later.
“Who does that?” Zimmel said, “Who says, ‘I know what your passion is, I’m going to spend an entire Saturday—and (my relative’s) entire Saturday—just to give you a feeler here?’ It was incredible.” That day changed Zimmel’s life.
By the time Zimmel finished his coursework at Clark College and WSU Vancouver, he and his wife, a nurse, decided to “go all in” on Zimmel’s dream. They sold their home and moved to the Tri-Cities area in Washington in 2013, so Zimmel could study winemaking full time at WSU Tri-Cities. In 2014, Zimmel earned his degree. He and Unruh launched the wine label—Cerebella—in 2013.
“My professors thought I was crazy,” Zimmel said.
He doesn’t feel crazy, just a little tired given the demands involved with a new business, finishing up his Army Reserve commitment (he retired this year after 26 years), teaching horticulture at WSU Tri-Cities and managing its greenhouse.
Wooden barrel patent
He keeps perfecting his craft. Zimmel has a patent pending for a new system he developed to allow the entire fermentation process to occur inside a wooden barrel. Smaller wineries often use stainless steel tanks for part of the fermentation process. But keeping the grapes continuously submerged in a wooden barrel results in more tannins—suspended threads that add texture to the finished wine, Zimmel said.
Meanwhile, the partnership with Unruh continues to strengthen. Unruh files the taxes, keeps the books and takes care of the liquor control paperwork, so Zimmel can focus his expertise at what he does best—making the wine.
“It’s a perfect marriage,” Zimmel said.
They buy grapes from various vineyards and rent winemaking space from a winery, paying a per-case fee.
“It makes scale harder to attain,” Unruh said, “but it mitigates a ton of risk.”
The arrangement has enabled the company to ramp up gradually, Unruh said. Eventually, the partners want to own their own vineyard and tasting room.
Zimmel’s and Unruh’s families also help with the business, from hosting annual tastings for wine club members to pasting labels on bottles to pouring wax over the corks.
Unruh’s wife, Tiffany Williamson ’01 said the Cabernet and Syrah are her favorite.
“He’s really an artist,” she said, referring to Zimmel.
During a spring launch party, guests sipped a limited release wine called “Front, Back, Go Merlot.” They were treated to a story about the plum: It is named after a brutal exercise they endured during basic training. When a Marine drill instructor or Army drill sergeant yelled “front!” the recruits would do pushups; “back!” they would lie on their backs and flutter kick; “go!” they would run in place.
By the time the drill instructor finished switching between these commands, “your little patch of grass you were on would be dead,” Zimmel said. It seemed right to honor those memories with a flavorful merlot.
They donate 10 percent of proceeds from “Front, Back, Go Merlot” to The Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit that houses families of injured service members being treated at military hospitals.
Winemaking is no longer a mystery to Zimmel. But other parts of life continue to puzzle him.
“When I got back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I suffered from a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder and anger,” Zimmel said. His wife suggested that he use his new winemaking venture to keep making a difference, as he had as an Army medic.
“She said, ‘You saved so many lives and you sent people home… and I think you need to keep doing that. It’s good for you.’”
She was the one who suggested donating proceeds to The Fisher House Foundation.
“We can’t build a new building, but maybe we can buy new toothbrushes or shampoo for the families who are there to support their loved ones,” Zimmel said. “I mean, who wants to think about toothbrushes at a time like that? So maybe we can make a small difference.”
Winemaking is no longer a mystery for Zimmel or his customers. He’s trying to advance the development of tannins by fermenting his wines during the entire winemaking process in wooden barrels instead of steel. The flavors are getting noticed. Zimmel Uhruh Cellars won double gold for its 2014 Cerebella Cabernet Sauvignon and gold for its 2014 Cerebella Syrah from Taste NW’s 2017 Seattle Wine Awards. Zimmel and Unruh even added a second wine club membership to keep up with the demand for their wine.
Lily Raff McCaulou is a journalist living in Portland, Ore. She is the author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner,” which the San Francisco Chronicle named one of the best books of 2012. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.