Had it been left to Russell Creek Winery owner Larry Krivoshein to learn about his best-in-show win from last weekend’s Tri-Cities Wine Festival in the headlines, things might have been a little tricky.
The longtime-funeral-home-director-turned-winemaker has a hard time seeing the small print these days because of macular degeneration.
But if conventional wisdom holds that the other senses become more acute when one begins to fail, it might explain a bit about Krivoshein’s nose for wine and how he keeps racking up wins for his varietals.
“I don’t know how he does it,” marveled his son, Scott Krivoshein, a Walla Walla financial planning consultant. “I don’t have the nose to tell if something’s going bad or if it needs more oak. But it’s fun to watch him do it.”
Russell Creek’s 2008 Sangiovese was the grand-prize winner during the 32nd annual Tri-Cities Wine Festival, where six West Coast judges awarded 285 medals after judging more than 400 wines. This is Krivoshein’s third best-in-show since 2003.
During a visit Friday at his tasting room on Aeronca Avenue, the 72-year-old winemaker attributed his success to some basic tenets he’s learned since Russell Creek became bonded as Walla Walla’s 14th winery in 1998.
He buys grapes only from established vineyards. “I don’t believe in buying grapes that are on sale,” he quipped.
He tries to replace at least half his oak every year. The barrels that aren’t replaced are used on a rotation.
“If I made a $20 bottle of wine in $400 barrels one year and the next year use the same barrels, then I should reduce the price of the bottle of wine,” he said. “A lot of wineries don’t do that.”
He also believes in sticking, for the most part, to single varietals. His only blend, he said, is the table wine he named “Tributary,” which nabbed him a silver medal, along with a gold for his 2007 Syrah, at this year’s competition.
If all else fails, Krivoshein said a lesson he learned in his more than three decades in the funeral business continues to ring true.
“I’ve always had in my head that the customer is always right,” he said.
“I’m not out there to make a bad wine,” he said. “If you don’t like a wine, you’ll never go back to that winery.”
The commitment to the quality reflects what he describes as a passion for being in business. That also explains how someone who has attempted to retire twice continues to work as what may be Walla Walla’s oldest winemaker.
Though Krivoshein sold his Groseclose Garden Chapel in 1992 – the business is now known as Herring-Groseclose Funeral Home – he mastered his knack for winemaking at home before going back into business with his tasting room.
In the early days of his wine business, his history as a funeral director remained such a huge part of his identity that his first wine was dubbed “Diggers,” a nod to a nickname that has stuck with Krivoshein all these years.
The label included an outline of the state of Washington and a shovel sticking out from where Walla Walla would be on the map. Soviet Union, Canadian and U.S. flags were flying across the top as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Krivoshein’s cultural and economic background.
Incidentally, Russell Creek was the first winery to charge a fee. Guests paid $5 at the door, but got to keep the glass – a tradition that’s since been adopted by numerous wineries.
A couple of years ago it looked like Krivoshein might be gearing up for another retirement. He remained the winemaker but sold a portion of the operation to new owners. He has since returned to the forefront of the operation as owner and winemaker.
The operation has changed a bit over the years, particularly as Krivoshein’s ability to see fine details has deteriorated. The trips he used to take to Seattle with his rig loaded with cases of wine to sell to shops are a thing of the past since he doesn’t drive on those highways.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is his gratitude for the recognition his wines receive.
“It’s just sort of unbelievable,” he said. “They taste all those wines and pick mine.”