When Molli and James Martin started making wine in 2002, they figured it would be an engaging hobby to go along with their real careers as orchardists. Born and raised into cherry-growing families in The Dalles, they’d moved away for college and jobs. Following 15 years in Portland, they returned to take over the family farm. But when James really threw himself into the new pastime, their lives took a very different course.
The couple launched Quenett Winery, a traditional small-batch winery with a tasting room in Hood River. Soon, however, they saw an opportunity in the outdoor beverage market, and added a line called Copa Di Vino, which creates single servings of wine sold in plastic cups, a concept the Martins pioneered in the United States. Copa Di Vino is sold at concerts and outdoor venues where glass is not allowed. By 2012 Copa Di Vino had the second-largest sales of any winery in the state of Oregon and was the first Columbia Gorge winery ever to make the top 25. “This is something that no one has done before. You never get the opportunity to be first in the market — and we did,” Molli says.
The Martins’ success not only changed their family’s future but is changing the face of their hometown. The company is headquartered at the east end of The Dalles on the former site of a 100-year-old flour mill that sat vacant for years, a visual reminder of the town’s economic misfortunes. When James heard that the city-owned building was slated for demolition, he got interested in its fate and eventually submitted a proposal to buy it. The acquisition required the Martins to sell the family cherry orchard and commit full-time to the winery business. Molli says it was a big step. She and James involved their three children and made the decision as a family. “The kids were supportive of us,” she says.
The Sunshine Mill campus now houses the Copa Di Vino production line as well as the Quenett tasting room. On a sunny day the aged white silos rise up into the blue sky, and the Sunshine Mill logo stands out in a clear coat of fresh paint on the main building. The rolling, dun-colored hills of Washington are visible just across the Columbia River from the parking lot. All is quiet but for the hum of a train heading west toward Portland. Inside the cavernous building, a visitor is arrested by the golden light flowing in through the windows and warming the repurposed wood furniture. Molli says when she first set foot inside, it was impossible to envision the beautiful space she’s now created. But once she applied the first coat of paint, the transformation began. “Then I started seeing everything,” she says. “It’s fantastic to take this old building and bring it back to life,” she says.
The Martins left the giant belts and chutes of the flourmill in place and painted them hues of red and gold. Ancient packing crates were turned into rustic bench seats and broad tables. Huge fan blades became cocktail tables, and wine crates morphed into high-backed stools. On weekends and afternoons, the room fills with locals and visitors enjoying Quenett wines. The white flight runs from chardonnay to viognier, and the red includes a zinfandel, a barbera and several blends. Copa Di Vino wines are also available on-site. A food menu offers hearty snacks ranging from an antipasto platter to cheese fondue.
Beyond a heavy wooden sliding door, tables and chairs set amid the enormous cement footings of the silos create an industrial yet elegant banquet room. A door leads out onto the sunny patio, soft green lawn and sandy bocce-ball court as well as a private tasting area in the old boiler room. This outdoor setting hosts live music in warmer weather, as well as family-friendly movie nights on the silos. The Sunshine Mill has become a wedding destination for couples from as far away as Texas and New York — people with no ties to The Dalles who simply love the rustic space set in the wild backdrop of the Columbia River Gorge. It’s inarguably a part of The Dalles’ growing reputation as a sunny, charming destination, as illustrated by its landing on True West magazine’s Top Western Towns 2014 list.
The family company continues to thrive. “It’s a big project with a lot of moving parts,” James says. Copa Di Vino produces about 135,000 cases of wine per year and is sold in 42 states in grocery stores, stadiums and at outdoor concerts. Quenett, whose wines are sold exclusively from the tasting room, bottles 2,500 cases a year. They’ve won many awards to date, but the one Molli is most proud of is the Best of Show that the Copa Di Vino pinot grigio won in a blind tasting by a six-judge panel at the 2012 Northwest Food & Wine Festival. “They were stunned,” she says. “The industry has a perception that [Copa Di Vino] is not as good. [That award] validates our product as a premium wine.”
The Martins aren’t done yet. Someday they’d like to turn the nine-story silos into round hotel rooms. James dreams of putting a crush pad on the roof and running a filtration system down and around the silos, so visitors would be sleeping inside a working winery. “That will be the final feather in the cap,” he says. For now, the Martins are well on their way to creating a thriving business to replace the family cherry farm. Their oldest daughter Natasha, 27, is chief business development officer for Copa Di Vino and general manager for the Sunshine Mill and Quenett Winery. Griffin, 18, and Ethan, 14, help out in the vineyard during the summer. “Our goal is to make something for our children to have in the future,” Molli says.