Conference Comrades: Chance meeting leads to a lasting friendship

Wine is not only one of the world’s favorite beverages, it is also synonymous with sharing and bringing people together. What better than a WineMaker Conference to bring two fellow wine lovers together; one a winemaker with proven talent, the other, an aspiring vigneron with a new winery. Their collaboration resulted in seven medals (two gold, three silver, and two bronze) from the 2019 WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition.

David Sylling, a Washington native and frequent attendee of the WineMaker Conferences, who has won multiple awards for his wines over the past several years, first attended the 2014 conference in Portland, Oregon. “I really wanted to network with the attendees as well as learn how to make larger quantities of wine,” says Dave.

Dave Sylling on the left and Steve Kennard on the right, showing off the hardware garnered by their dedication to winemaking. Photo by Jacqueline Kennard

Upon retiring several years earlier, Dave’s desire to make wine led him to take several winemaking classes at a nearby community college. “In 2008, I made my first wine from a kit. It all took off from there,” says Dave. By 2009, Dave was purchasing 1,300 lbs. (590 kg) of quality grapes from eastern Washington to meet the demands of his rapidly growing passion.

Steve Kennard, on the other hand, had a deep appreciation for fine wine as well as a desire to be involved with winemaking, but he had no real knowledge in this area. However, what he did have was the ideal building for a winery. A current Florida resident, Steve had spent a long career in finance in New York City before discovering in the late 1990s that what he truly loved was landscaping and working on his 70-acre property just north of Seattle. (If Green Acres comes to mind, you’re close!) “We bought our property, Brooks Creek Farm, in 1996 with the idea of creating a family compound. The area was reminiscent of some of our favorite places such as the South of France, and the charming vineyards and wineries of Napa and Sonoma,” Steve explains. In 2011, he planted a vineyard of Pinot Noir and Siegerrebe, a Riesling-style clone. “To our surprise, the vines flourished and thrived. However, I needed more information and there was a huge learning curve, so attending the 2014 WineMaker Conference in Portland seemed the ideal place to start,” says Steve.

What better than a WineMaker Conference to bring two fellow wine lovers together . . .

Joining him were his good friends, Paul Braeger, a consultant who has commercial-scale experience in setting up large operations, and Charlie Blankenship, a retired nursery owner. Both were also fascinated with winemaking and are still part of the team today. “Before the conference started we were all sitting at the same table for breakfast. We hit it off and according to Paul, our friendship was set for life at this point,” says Dave. By the last day, Dave was expressing the fact that his ambition required more room but he wasn’t sure what his next steps would be. Dave said to us, “You can’t make your estate wine while living in Florida.” Our reply, “No, we can’t, but you can,” explains Steve. “The challenge was there to make larger volumes with upgraded equipment and surroundings in Steve’s new winery. I loved having the chance to do this with my new friends,” says Dave.

Their recipe for success: Communication, consistent winemaking practices, and of course, lots of fun. With respect to the future, Dave and Steve say they will continue making Bordeaux varieties where the results have been good. As for the challenges, they would like to make one or two varieties a year not previously made and also focus on making an award-winning estate Pinot Noir.