Young Guns of Walla Walla

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by Viki Eierdam | Photo © Richard Duval

Collaborative is a hot catch phrase in industries across the board but it has been a very real quality among NW winemakers for decades. Even still, one group of Walla Walla winemakers took the concept a step further by forming the Young Guns Wine Society (YGWS).

Founding member Josh McDaniels recalls when he and Justin Basel were two young vintners trying to grow their brand and themselves simultaneously. They noticed other young men doing the same thing and decided banding together made sense.

One of those other winemakers was Greg Matiko who’d been building friendships in the industry since 2003. He, in turn, recruited Cameron Kontos who believed the idea was a sound marketing move that would allow them to share resources to expand their individual wine clubs.

The opportunities to come together, taste each other’s wines and provide honest feedback are indispensable to growing stylistically, and utilizing each winery’s assets to create a premium experience for group events is a huge bonus. Each year the YGWS draws from their respective wine club members to host about 10 collaborative events—from tastings to wine makers’ dinners to charity functions.

Since the YGWS was formed in 2009, the plan has been to hand down the Young Guns to the next rising young winemakers in the valley, according to Basel. As their mentors did for them, so they want to ensure future generations are equipped to succeed with the goal of showcasing Walla Walla as one of the best winegrowing regions in the world. Fortunately for YGWS fans, there are no plans to disband this vigneron brotherhood just yet.

Who are the Young Guns?

Justin Basel, winemaker at Foundry Vineyards
Street cred: Assistant winemaker promoted to head winemaker at Basel Cellars (a Walla Walla destination winery).
Walla Walla roots: Basel grew up in Walla Walla and moved onto the Basel Cellars property when his dad and local grape grower, Greg Basel, purchased the 87-acre estate. It was this intimate look into all facets of wine production that shaped Justin into the award-winning vintner he is now.

Cameron Kontos, winemaker at Kontos Cellars
Street cred: Eighteen years of winemaking. Son of Cliff Kontos, founder of Fort Walla Walla Cellars. Previously assistant winemaker at Forgeron Cellars.
Walla Walla roots: The Kontos family dates back to 1858 in the valley and is now in its 7th generation. “We grew up as farmers so appreciate the ground and the old town feel we have here. Chris (Cameron’s brother and business partner) and my dad continue to farm about 10,000 acres of wheat,” Kontos says.

Brandon Kubrock, proprietor at Ardor Cellars
Street cred: Newest YGWS member. Working closely with consulting winemaker, Aryn Morell, to become primary winemaker. Worked in the Walla Walla food and wine industry for 18 years.
Walla Walla roots: Graduated from the same high school as the other local Young Guns. “These guys are some of my best friends and yet we all bring something different to the table,” Kubrock says.

Greg Matiko, winemaker at Skylite Cellars
Street cred: Assistant winemaker to Robert Smasne (original winemaker of Skylite). Worked with Cameron Kontos at Forgeron Cellars for three years.
Walla Walla roots: Relocated from Woodinville to attend Walla Walla University. Fell in love quickly with the town and his now wife, Ashley (married in May). “Being able to get together with this group of guys and just talk wine makes me a better winemaker,” Matiko says. “These guys are like family to me.

Josh McDaniels, winemaker at Doubleback Winery (and his own Sweet Valley Wines)
Street cred: “Cellar rat” for Mannina Cellars at age 15. Worked for Leonetti Cellars out of high school. Established Sweet Valley Wines while still in high school. Internship with Paul Hobbs at Viña Cobos in Argentina in 2010. Assistant winemaker for Figgins.
Walla Walla roots: McDaniels is another Walla Walla lifer. “I wholeheartedly believe that Walla Walla is a world-class growing region and want to prove that to the rest of the world,” McDaniels says.