TPFI woke this morning thinking about Eric Dunham.

I’m not going to lie to you: I barely knew Eric. Was in his presence maybe six – seven times, ever. And yet, I woke up just unutterably sad and it’s gotten worse as the hours pass and now, it’s really hard to write this. So, Not Lying, Part Two: Let’s just call this post what it is – cheap therapy for me. Yeah, this post is about me, just like nearly everything written about those who have Gone On is for those Left Behind, because they’re beyond sadness and we’re just entering into the pain.

???????????????????????????????I want desperately to understand how the universe decides to reclaim the nexus of electricity, chemicals, proteins, and magic that adds up to what we all knew as Eric Dunham. I want to believe that this inscrutable universe is knowable; that our lives are not all hanging on random fate. I can make the case that I have no business mourning a man I hardly knew, but, even as I think that, I know it’s bullshit. If we didn’t feel the loss and feel personally diminished when people we don’t know die, why does this entire country sink into mourning when someone like a former president or an actor or a sports figure dies? I know damned well that I will be incapacitated on that day when Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins passes on and I’ve never met the man. But his work reached out and grabbed hold of my heart and has held on for four decades. And so it is with Eric.

Eric's Lewis Vyd. Syrah Label

Eric’s Lewis Vyd. Syrah Label

I love Washington; irrationally much. And I taste very few wines from this state that are just bad, wrong, and worthless. But those do tend to cluster. Two years ago, on an otherwise forgettable mid-week day at my office, I had visits from five wine reps and one winemaker. I tasted about 30 wines – against all odds, all from Washington. I was shocked. I found ONE out of the whole bunch that I decided to sell. ONE. Not that they were all bad (okay, three were) but just that they didn’t have…It. I went home that evening bummed. Opened the wine closet and saw a bottle of Dunham 2005 Cabernet. Looked at it, smiled, and grabbed it. Opened it. Sipped. Smiled some more. I remember the exact words that ran through my head as I swallowed: “Well…at least, if all else fails, there’s always gonna be Dunham.


Eric with Kyle Maclachlan, finding grapes for "Pursued By Bear"

Eric with Kyle Maclachlan, finding grapes for “Pursued By Bear”

Eric Dunham was a great guy. Those who knew him better will tell you that for hours. He was kind, good-hearted, talented as hell, focused, accomplished, fair-minded, warm, and approachable. The last time Judye and I visited Dunham Cellars, Eric took time out of his day to be our personal tour guide. Judye, who is much more reserved than I am about letting people in, took to Eric in a hot minute, as Eric did to her. There are people in our lives who seem to resonate with us; to tap that tuning fork within our breasts and produce a sympathetic vibration that may just be what true happiness is. (I’m no expert on happiness, so take that with a grain of salt. Or a salt lick.) I just liked the man. No real reason except fundamental human goodness…of which I am not an example but know it when I see it. I reminded myself many times to get to Walla Walla more often and maybe ask Eric if he’d like to have lunch with us. He was a guy after my own heart: creative. Winemaker, shockingly adept artist (his paintings became labels on many of the winery’s Reserve Series wines), dog-lover, and, I’m sure, had a ton of other skills and interests that his friends could tell you about. Creative, intelligent people tend to be interested in a lot of things simultaneously. I’m betting that was Eric. Whatever was at the root of my irrational affection for him, it was there and I planned to do something that I really try not to do, in his case: make friends.

More of Eric's art

More of Eric’s art

I deliberately don’t form close personal relationships with winemakers, brewers, distillers, etc., because I know me. I know that I may want to either buy for retail or review their products, someday, and I don’t want to suspect my own motives or conclusions. People ask me about conflicts of interest like that; about “appearances”. Hell, if I was worried about that, I probably wouldn’t spend as much time as I do pissing people off. I have a couple of close friends who are winemakers, both of whom I was already friends with before they made wine. I like a LOT of people in those three beverage trades, almost all of them, in fact. But I choose friends carefully and I would have bent that rule with Eric Dunham.

We all tend to fall back on clichés when somebody leaves us far too soon. “She/he is in a Better Place“, “…their pain is over“, “He/she is finally at peace.” I’m not going to dishonor a man as concerned with excellence and art as Eric Dunham with one of those. I cannot, despite my XL Ego, presume to say anything about what Eric is or is not as of today, less than 24 hours after he went Away. What I can say is this: I miss him already. The Washington wine community is not, in literal fact, a “smaller place” than it was this time yesterday. It’s just as big and alternately sublime/goofy as it ever was. But it absolutely is lessened, less joyful, a lot less benevolent, less artful and skilled and communal than it was…because a big part of its heart is gone.

Still more of Eric's art

Still more of Eric’s art

As I write this, pissed at myself because I’m 62 years old and sitting here with tears obstructing my view of the keyboard from of the loss of a person I barely knew, I just glanced over and saw that my cup of hot chocolate is sitting on a ceramic coaster, given to us by a friend, which has a portion of the label of the 2004 Dunham Three-Legged Red glazed onto it. Honestly, I get a little tired of the universe’s madcap sense of humor, sometimes. As long as I don’t open that wine closet, I figure to have no reminders of the name “Dunham”  this morning, so that I can possibly get through what is shaping up to be a frantic day without sinking again into the morass I’m in at this moment. And now that coaster.

Eric Dunham was better than his end. He was a literal Light within not just the Washington wine culture but the American wine community as a whole. No, I didn’t know him well at all…but I knew him, y’know? In the way that means the most to me. And his loss is inexplicable, numbing, explosive; like a latter-day Mt. St. Helens that turns these already-grey skies a lot more grey

14 thoughts on “Eric Dunham: On Mourning Those We Barely Knew…

  1. Thank you. Having met Eric a few times in Walla Walla, I think you described him perfectly and I had the same reaction as you did to his passing. May he rest in peace!


  2. I am so sorry to find you here again grieving another wine brother. I have like many in the industry, met Eric a handful of times at one event or other. It leaves my heart heavy and strained. It is always helpful to know you aren’t alone in grief so thank you for sharing. Perhaps Eric and Yancy are catching up and settling in with something good!
    Blessing, love and light to the Dunham Family
    PS-please pick up the phone


  3. I’ve never read anything you’ve written before, I didn’t know Eric, not even a little, and I don’t drink wine. I have stayed away from all conversations relating to the “gossip” surrounding his death. As his sister said “all the sterile facts” don’t concern me either. But as a fellow human being I was saddened to hear of his loss. Especially this month. 13 years ago this month I lost someone I loved with every fiber of my being who made that same choice, and my world came shattering down around me. My dogs kept me sane and alive back then, and from the picture it appears Eric also loved dogs, so he had to have a great heart. I am glad I happened to stumble upon this in my news feed, it’s interesting that I clicked on it when I have been ignoring all else. Thank you for your wonderfully written article. I didn’t know him at all and I’m crying while writing this. Loss is hard, and I feel for his family and friends. I’ve been there, and 13 years later I still remember the day, the moment, the shock of it all. Thank you for honoring him this way, as I said, I didn’t know him, but every life deserves to be honored and respected.


  4. I feel quite similarly. Met him a few times but it feels like someone I “know” passed. I’m so lucky that he was at the winery when I purchased a piece of his art. He was so kind and wrote a personal note on the back and signed it. I will cherish it forever and it will proudly hang in any home in which I live.


  5. This is so well written and captures what I am sure many feel.
    I barely knew Eric, well I didn’t know him at all actually. Only spoke to him a few times. But he provided me with some great laughs that I will hold in memory. Prayers to the family.


  6. I didn’t know Eric either. I only spent two days with him when he came to Nashville to promote his (excellent) wines. 2 days riding in a car together, visiting accounts and doing events – that’s all I got, but by the time he left it felt like we were friends. Eric was so real. So genuinely curious about people. He asked questions not to continue the small talk, but to really get to know you. I didn’t really know him, but I will not forget him. His death doesn’t make any sense…


  7. I knew Eric years ago when we were both very young. What an amazing man, even then! He drew people to him effortlessly and I don’t think he had any idea why. He was so adorable, so engaging, so talented, such a puzzle I could never work out. I’ve felt such tremendous, crushing sadness over his loss and I haven’t seen him in years. Your piece was exactly what I needed to read. Oh, Eric. I barely knew you and I’m stunned. I shudder to contemplate the grief of those who truly knew you well. Rest in peace.


  8. Thank you for this testimony of my brother Eric. Over the last few days I have read so many sterile facts about him, his life, and his death. I appreciate your words, and know he would too.


  9. Thanks for this piece… An honest attempt to make sense of something senseless and honor the grief we all feel for the man we barely knew but reached us all in his way through wine, art, love.


  10. I knew Eric much as you did, meeting him a handful of times……..In Walla Walla the year he took over the winemaking for Dunham, then in my hometown of McCall, Idaho for wine dinners four years in a row, and even being fortunate enough to be his golf partner at a winemaker’s tourney at Jug Mt. Ranch in McCall. Upon hearing the terribly sad news, I sent my girlfriend an email this morning stating “Wow, I didn’t even know Eric all that well, but the news of his death is really hitting me hard.” Seconds later she sends me your column….All I could say to her was “exceedingly well written, and it so reflects precisely what I (and many) am feeling today. Thank you for putting it into words that which I couldn’t have expressed more eloquently…..


Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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