Taste of Their Own Medicine

Erstwhile pharmacists mix it up in Walla Walla’s vineyards. 

By Christina Kelly January 3, 2009 Published in the May 2008 issue of Seattle Met

FOR 27 YEARS, Deborah Hansen mixed drugs—enduring grueling hours, endless insurance paperwork, and a chronic lack of licensed pharmacist colleagues to help shoulder the load. An exacting scientist, Hansen studied biology, bacteriology, biochemistry, and inorganic and organic chemistry to earn her degree at Washington State University. She and her husband David then moved to San Francisco, where they both worked full time. But when the white coats were off, the Hansens were engaging in a different sort of blending. What began as a passing desire to acquaint themselves with regional wines quickly developed into a fascination, and they soon devoted their limited free time to refining their palates and experimenting with mixing methods at home. The Hansens had caught the wine bug, and they’d caught it bad.

Doctors, lawyers, restaurateurs…plenty of professionals come down with the grape grippe—that burning desire to plunge into the world of vines and casks, purple-stained hands, and perfect blends. But pharmacists seem particularly vulnerable. Former medicine makers now run six wineries in Walla Walla alone. In drug compounding, as in winemaking, a slight tweaking of ingredients makes a crucial difference, and Walla Walla’s pharmacist-vintners have earned a reputation for tenacious dedication to quality and insistence on getting blends just right. They also keep exceptionally orderly wineries, no doubt a side effect of years spent in sterile settings.

In the case of the Hansens, the precision has paid off. Burnt out on pills and prescriptions, the couple moved back to Eastern Washington in the late ’90s; they opened Cougar Crest winery in 2001. Success came quickly: The balanced acidity and long finish on Cougar Crest’s 2003 cab earned accolades from critics, and Wine Spectator awarded it an impressive 93 points out of 100.

Other area druggists-cum-winemakers include Brett and Denise Isenhower of Isenhower Cellars, retired vintner Paul Hendrickson of Patit Creek, and Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery, who worked as a pharmacist for 12 years while making wines commercially. Like Hansen, McClellan is known for exceptionally careful blending, and his Pentad, a Bordeaux mix with beautifully smooth tannins, is the ultimate reflection of the finesse and elegance of his style.

“Pharmacists are fanatically dedicated to quality,” says McClellan. That may be true, but while the wine-loving citizens of Walla Walla are lucky to have these master mixologists in their midst, you have to wonder if there are enough working pharmacists left to prepare their prescriptions.

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