Talking with Victor Palencia

By Andrew Collins

Celebrated local winemaker Victor Palencia, the owner of Tri-Cities’ Palencia Wine Company, has watched Washington’s vineyards—and the surrounding agricultural area—evolve since he was a young kid. Born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Palencia and his family soon relocated to Prosser—just 25 miles west of Tri-Cities—when his father found agricultural work in the area.

At that time, in the 1990s, this prolific agricultural region produced a wide range of crops, but as the years progressed, he watched as more land went to apples and wine grapes. “I saw how the valley transformed, and how the wine industry has just boomed over the past two or three decades.”

He was on board from the start. “Like any kid who looked up to his dad, I loved hanging out in the vineyards with him,” says Palencia, “although it did involve a lot of hard work. Even back then, I knew I wanted a career outdoors, but I also knew I had to earn a living.” While still in middle school, the industrious and ambitious teenager landed his first job working part-time in the vineyards of his neighbor, Willow Crest Winery (which closed a few years ago). By the time he was a senior in high school, in 2003, Palencia had earned the title of assistant winemaker.

Eager to further expand his horizons, he enrolled in—and quickly earned a degree from—the acclaimed Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. “That was just an amazing experience,” he says, “getting the full understanding of the winemaking process and the entire wine industry.”

He graduated before turning 21, and as an underage student, he wasn’t even permitted to taste wine in class (Washington has since passed a law permitting 18- to 20-year-old students enrolled in viticulture, enology, and culinary arts classes to taste, but not consume, wine). “I still managed to do a lot of after-school ‘studying’ with my classmates,” he says, with a chuckle.

Palencia quietly began making his own wine, and he soon landed a position at the respected custom-crush operation J&S Crushing/Columbia River’s Edge Winery in Mattawa, which he managed for 15 years. There, he made wine for a number of wineries around the country. “That gave me a real sense of the region’s winemaking strengths,” he says. “I launched my company, Palencia, in 2012, as a side hustle. My dream had always just been to become a winemaker, but being naturally very motivated, I decided to really shoot for the stars and start my own company. It was kind of a longshot, but it’s been a tremendously humbling experience to see the support I’ve received over the years.” That support has included accolades from The New York Times, which called him a “vineyard prodigy,” and being named a Top 40 Under 40 Tastemaker by Wine Enthusiast magazine, among others.

Pictured Victor Palencia showcasing his wine at the Auction of Washington Wines
Pictured Bottling of white wine at Monarcha Winery in their Columbia Wine Village facility.

In 2022, Palencia left his job at the custom crush, and since then has been focused exclusively on his own company and its two labels, Palencia Wines and Monarcha Wines. “The style of wines we make boils down to our amazing soils, and the diversity of these soils. I can make white wines that will be very minerally, refreshing, and aromatic sourcing from our vineyards in the Ancient Lakes AVA, or in the opposite direction, dense and complex full-bodied red wines using grapes from Red Mountain and Wahluke Slope.”

Palencia notes that it’s a tremendous boon producing wine from such a diverse range of vineyards. “It means we can really attract a wide variety of palates,” he says, pointing out that some of his newest plantings are from small parcels of vineyard with amazing definition and character. “We’re still at a sense of discovery, and that excites me as a winemaker.”

For a chance to sample Palencia’s exceptional and eclectic wines, you can visit two different tasting rooms in Tri-Cities. At Bodega Palencia, which is located in the hills of West Richland, the focus in the tasting room is on the company’s flagship Palencia Wines, which are produced in relatively limited quantities, because they’re sourced from very small and specific vineyard locations that yield only so many grapes. Palencia describes these parcels as some of Washington’s most ambitious vineyards. Bodega Palencia is open on weekends and serves charcuterie boards.

Open daily and with an attractive riverfront setting at Columbia Gardens Wine Village in West Kennewick, Monarcha Winery’s tasting room primarily pours and sells bottles from the company’s more price-conscious Monarcha label, which is also distributed in greater quantities. In developing this tasting room, Palencia sought to improve on the old model of winetasting, which often entailed guests crowded around a bar and sometimes feeling either rushed or unattended to. “I thought, there’s gotta be a better way to organize this experience, so at Monarcha we set out tables to make it feel more like a restaurant or lounge.”

Pictured Chef Frank Magaña showcases his paella in the Culture Shock Bistro food truck, located next to Monarcha Winery.

Visitors can relax and linger during their tasting, and although Palencia says this approach may result in serving fewer customers, it allows them to have a more leisurely, enjoyable experience. On that note, he strongly encourages visitors to make reservations at either tasting room, although they do their best to accommodate walk-ins. Next to Monarcha’s tasting room, Palencia has also partnered with chef Frank Magaña to create the food truck Culture Shock Bistro, which serves a fusion of Spanish and Pacific Northwestern food—including mouthwatering paellas—designed to be paired alongside Palencia and Monarcha wines. It’s typically open Thursday through Saturday and also does occasional pop-up dinners and private events.

Since his boyhood days working the area’s local farm fields with his dad—to running his own increasingly acclaimed winery—Palencia has been busy following his passions just about every day of the year. He delights in continuing to hone his craft and discover new vineyards, and he clearly enjoys sharing his love of winemaking with others. “We get so many first-time wine tasters in our tasting rooms,” he says, “and that makes me really happy.”

Article by Andrew Collins

Published Online for the 2024 Tri-Cities Visitor Guide