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Inspiring
Perseverance

From Army medic to up-and-coming winemaker, Robb Zimmel has done what most are afraid to do: He took a chance and pursued his dream.

quote – Corvette

“What I like about the winemaking process is it’s a completely different contrast of what my past life was. Being in the medical field, there’s not a lot of joy involved with being a paramedic. With winemaking, you come to an event, and there are smiles. People are happy, and I love it. I get to be a part of a celebration.”

Saving lives in a war zone

It was a rainy evening in 2010 in a swampy region of southern Iraq, and Washington State University alum Robb Zimmel was slogging through mud so thick it nearly swallowed his combat boots. A sergeant first class in the U.S. Army Reserves and leader of a 10-member forward surgical team, Zimmel was getting chores done in the medical tent after a busy day.

Wind whipped its way through the tent, causing the new soldiers to worriedly glance around. It almost sounded like gunfire.

A team of Navy SEALS burst into the tent with several sailors severely injured. A medic with more than two decades of experience in the military and as a civilian, Zimmel jumped into action. He and his surgical team fought through the night finding emergency transport and performing blood transfusions to save the sailors. All of them made it, though one nearly died.

Zimmel serving in the Army

As the Iraqi sunrise capped another sleepless night of nonstop, adrenaline-fueled battle to save his fellow Americans, Zimmel knew one thing with certainty. He needed a change.

Within a year, Zimmel would find himself at WSU as a wine science student. Four years later in 2014, Zimmel would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology. Just a year later, Zimmel would release his first four wines under his own label.

Perhaps it might sound odd to go from deployment in a war zone to studying the chemistry, agriculture, and business behind winemaking. To Zimmel, it was natural… and necessary.

2 Image – A Change in Career

2 quote – A change in career

“I was a public servant for the longest time, and I felt like I’d done my part. Now, I have to heal and take care of me. I need to be surrounded by people with smiles on their faces. I need to be surrounded by people with laughter, and my gosh, that happens with wine.”

A change in career

“I can’t do this anymore.”

Kristine Zimmel knew something was wrong even from more than 6,000 miles away in Vancouver, Washington. She could hear it in her husband’s voice as he called her from Iraq covered in mud and blood. It was the morning after he’d helped save the Navy SEALS.

Zimmel serving in the Army

Robb Zimmel was nearing the end of his second 18-month deployment to the Middle East. He had previously served in Afghanistan. He had spent a combined three years away from Kris and their three children, the youngest of whom was only a few months old when he left for his first deployment. He’d seen the worst of what humans can do to each other as injured civilians and soldiers passed through his medical tent with injuries ranging from lacerations and bruises to blown-off limbs.

Unlike his work as a flight paramedic in the civilian world, Zimmel’s Army medic responsibilities were a 24/7 gig. There was no time off, mentally or physically.

“You kind of get a certain detachment. I’m sitting across the breakfast table with someone having eggs, and I’m looking at them with a hollow sort of look,” Zimmel says. “I’m enjoying their company, but I can’t help but think that in a few hours they could be on my operating table with their chest cracked open.”

With his post-traumatic stress disorder worsening, Zimmel knew he needed a change from working in the medical field, but he had no idea what to do next. His wife suggested winemaking.

Zimmel hesitated. He’d made wine on his own as a hobby for years, but committing to it as a career? It seemed out of reach. So many wineries had been family-owned for generations. He didn’t have that history, nor did he have any connections in the industry. Where would one even study winemaking? California?

“I found a wine science program in Washington,” his wife told him. “It’s through Washington State University.”

Kris gave him contact information, and Zimmel emailed a couple professors and told them his story. Using spotty Internet connections from Iraq, Zimmel researched WSU’s viticulture and enology program. He was very interested, but he was concerned about being too old to go back to school.

One day, while Zimmel was still debating whether to change careers or not, he worked with a nurse anesthetist to treat an injured person. The nurse, whom Zimmel describes as a hero, was a physically fit man in his 60s who’d served in Vietnam, Desert Shield, and Desert Storm. As they worked, Zimmel confided to his colleague that he was thinking about changing careers to winemaking.

“Well, what’s stopping you?” the nurse asked.

“It’s my age,” Zimmel replied. “I would be 42 by the time I got my degree.”

The nurse burst out laughing.

“Alright, let me explain something to you,” he said. “You’re going to be 42 no matter what. Now, you can be 42 with the degree, or you can be 42 without the degree. You choose.”

Then and there, Zimmel realized the man was right. It was time to take the leap.

He was going to become a professional winemaker.

“I was a public servant for the longest time, and I felt like I’d done my part. Now, I have to heal and take care of me. I need to be surrounded by people with smiles on their faces. I need to be surrounded by people with laughter, and my gosh, that happens with wine,” Zimmel recalls thinking to himself.

3 quote – Education at WSU

“Consider this my mid-life crisis. I didn’t want a new car or a beachfront property. I wanted an education.”

An education at WSU

When Zimmel arrived home in Vancouver in 2010 after completing his deployment in Iraq, he didn’t waste any time getting started at WSU. He completed his first two years of core classes at WSU Vancouver and then moved with his family to the Tri-Cities to begin coursework focused on wine science.

“We sold the house, we moved in August, and haven’t looked back since. It’s been incredible, and the staff here at WSU has been so supportive through this entire process,” Zimmel says.

School wasn’t always a positive experience for Zimmel. He had tried community college before his deployments, but life got in the way. In high school, Zimmel struggled with ADD and often felt lost in his classes. But winemaking at WSU was different. He was passionate and excited about the topic. He knew his family was depending on him. There was no turning back.

When Zimmel walked into his first class on the WSU Tri-Cities campus, he saw other people who were just as passionate about winemaking as he was. He discovered professors who understood him, appreciated his background and life experience, and went the extra mile to help him succeed.

“It was nice because I had people I could relate to when I showed up and, not to mention, a lot of the instructors were my age,” he says, chuckling. “They knew I was serious, very serious. How could you not be at this age, going into a program like this?”

In order to make ends meet, Zimmel went to school full time during the day and worked 12-hour night shifts as part of an internship with Hogue Cellars in Prosser, about 30 miles west of the Tri-Cities. He’d get off work at 5:30 a.m., go home and crash on the couch for two hours, then head to campus for classes.

Zimmel laughs when he describes one morning when he nodded off in a horticulture class taught by Bhaskar Bondada.

“All of a sudden he goes, ‘Robb!’ I was thinking, ‘How long was I out for?” He goes, ‘You’re going to fall off the chair. What were you doing last night?’ And I was like, ‘My internship,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh,’ and you could kind of see him think, ‘And you’re still here?’ He understood completely at that point that, ‘You’re putting forth this much effort? I’m going to put that much effort toward you as well, alright?’ That’s where the relationship really started. He’s a good man,” Zimmel says.

Bondada, whom Zimmel considers a mentor, still likes to tease him about that day whenever they see each other. Usually the light-hearted jesting is accompanied by a bear hug.

“To be successful as a viticulturist or a wine maker, it requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and strong motivation. I saw all those qualities in Robb, and because of these qualities, he is a successful wine maker today. I think he is a good model for us at WSU and for future winemakers and students,” Bondada says..

As a student, Zimmel took advantage of every opportunity. If there was a special project, he was on it. If there was a club, he was in it. If there was an internship, he signed up.

Toward the end of his college career, Zimmel was heavily involved in the Blended Learning class at WSU. Along with about 10 other wine science students, Zimmel gained hands-on winemaking experience, from concept to bottling and distributing. Created by Thomas Henick-Kling, the director of the viticulture and enology program, the Blended Learning class offers students a chance to talk with regional vineyard managers, work closely with local wineries, and create their very own wines before they even graduated.

Many students find employment at the wineries they worked with and make important industry connections.

Zimmel’s Blended Learning class bottled 100 cases of a dry-style Riesling and later, 100 cases of a red blend in partnership with local wineries. The Riesling sold out quickly after it was released in May 2013. The viticulture and enology program has released several more wines since then. Zimmel still has a few bottles of Cougar wine displayed in his family’s dining room.

4 Putting WSU on the map

4 quote Putting WSU on the map

“This is going to be the new Napa. That’s just fact. Give it 10 years, this whole place is going to transform.”

Putting WSU on the map

If you marked Zimmel’s house in West Richland on a map, you’d find about 400 wineries within a 75-mile radius. He studied in the heart of Washington wine country, surrounded by the best and brightest in the industry.

Now, with the new Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center (dedicated in June 2015), WSU’s ability to advance the state’s wine grape industry has been multiplied many times over.

“We’ve had this great growing region, and now we have this wine science center that is state of the art,” Zimmel says. “It’s a huge temptation for fantastic talent. The students will benefit so much.. “I don’t like to use this analogy, but this is going to be the new Napa. That’s just fact. Give it 10 years, this whole place is going to transform. Every year you see acres upon acres of grapes continuing to grow. And this is the heart, the wine science center. And it’s cool to be on ground level to watch it, and to be a part of it.”

5 quote – winemaking

“It was like a science experiment. I was so fascinated.”

Winemaking through the years

Wine has been a part of Zimmel’s life for as long as he can remember. He was first exposed to winemaking when he was 9 years old living in Mandan, North Dakota. His mother and her friends would gather in the kitchen and create wine out of anything they could find, including chokecherries, strawberries, and rhubarb.

Zimmel remembers the entire house smelling like jam and seeing kitchen counters full of one-gallon jars covered with balloons. While his 9-year-old brain associated balloons with fun and parties, he quickly learned the balloons were crucial to the fermentation process. The balloons filled with carbon dioxide released during fermentation, and when they fully deflated, the women knew fermentation was complete.

“I was so fascinated by the work they were doing. It was like a science experiment,” Zimmel says..

Things didn’t always go smoothly, though. Zimmel, now 44, recalls waking up and walking into the kitchen one morning to discover mashed fruit, water, yeast, and sugar plastered all over the walls and the ceiling. A couple of the bottles had exploded during the night sending the ingredients flying.

One of Zimmel’s first sips of wine came from a bottle of homemade rosé crafted by his mother’s friend, Irene.

“It was the same color as strawberry Shasta soda, and it was one of the tastiest things I’d ever had,” Zimmel remembers. “There were four- or five-foot snow drifts outside our house in the middle of a blizzard, but that wine was like a taste of summer.”

During Thanksgiving 2015, Zimmel ran into one of his mother’s friends, Bertie, who is now fighting cancer. She, like many of the matriarchs he observed back then, has tried his wines. She asked him if she had any influence on his winemaking now.

“I laughed and said, ‘Of course you did,’” Zimmel says..

Zimmel’s first wine creation was a disaster. As a high school student, he knew he couldn’t legally purchase wine, so he decided to make his own. He mixed crushed apples with water, sugar, and bread yeast before bottling the concoctions and hiding them in the laundry room.

“I called it a science experiment, but my mom was too smart for that,” Zimmel says, chuckling.

The wine might have turned out all right if it hadn’t been for Zimmel’s younger sister. Unbeknownst to Zimmel, his sister had found the bottles and poured some of the wine for her and a friend. She added water to the bottles to avoid alerting her brother, but didn’t realize that would ruin the winemaking process. Zimmel got a nasty surprise when he later tested that first batch of wine.

“It was horrible, absolutely horrible,” he says.

Zimmel also dabbled in making beer while his wife was pregnant with their first child. But the smell of hops made her nauseous, so he stuck to winemaking.

“I would like to someday see my wines on a national basis. I would like to be at an airport in Chicago, and walk into a duty-free shop and say, ‘That’s mine. I made that.’”

From then to now

After years of practice and education, Zimmel is now an up-and-coming winemaker in Washington. In summer 2015, he released his first four varietals: a chardonnay, a Riesling, a malbec, and a merlot. All were released under his own label called Cerebella, a testament to his 25-plus years as a medical professional.

Cerebella allows Zimmel to weave together his past and present in a unique and constructive way.

Kristine Zimmel encouraged her husband to use the name Cerebella. While he wanted to forget much of the horrific trauma he’d seen as a civilian flight paramedic and Army medic, she believed that was an important part of him. Using the name Cerebella—a more feminine sounding version of their original idea, Cerebellum—allows Zimmel to weave together his past and present in a unique and constructive way.

It was also Kris’ idea to customize the label, which features a Leonardo DaVinci-inspired profile of a human head, with each varietal featuring a different colored brain. Merlot is purple, malbec is red, chardonnay is gold, and the Riesling is black.

The winery under which Cerebella is housed is called Zimmel Unruh Cellars, named for Zimmel and his business partner, Jon Unruh. Zimmel and Unruh first met in Vancouver, where the two men were neighbors. When Zimmel was serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, Unruh, a former Marine, would help Kristine Zimmel with things that needed to be fixed around the house.

Unruh, a WSU alumnus with degrees in finance and accounting, saw Zimmel’s passion and drive and wanted to be involved with the winery. He handles all of the business and legal elements of Zimmel Unruh Cellars so Zimmel can focus on winemaking.

“He’s very passionate about what he makes, and he takes a great deal of pride in it. His desire is to educate people about winemaking, not just sell wines,” Unruh says.

“Winemakers are a very small circle in this area, and they’re all just fantastic. There have been so many connections.”

Making connections

On the surface, one would never know Zimmel has seen the horrors of war and trauma. His bubbly personality and quick grin are contagious, and it doesn’t take him long to get a group of people laughing. He projects the air of someone who is living his dream.

Zimmel also has the unique ability to connect with people. When he walks into the WSU Wine Science Center, he can barely go five seconds without running into someone he knows. He can strike up a conversation with anyone of any age at wine- tasting events. The employees at Cheese Louise, a wine and cheese bar and restaurant in Richland that carries his wines, know him by name and joke with him when he stops by.

And even though it’s been 8 years since Zimmel served in Afghanistan, he can still flip through the pages of two photo albums from his deployment and recall the names and stories of almost every person pictured (American, Afghan, or otherwise).

His ability to connect with people has served him well in his winemaking endeavors. As he quickly discovered as a student, the wine industry in Washington is huge. It’s nearly impossible to get started alone. That’s why Zimmel took the lessons he learned in his classes at WSU and began trying to implement them in the real world before he’d even graduated.

Besides completing the internship with Hogue Cellars, Zimmel was a founding member of the WSU Tri-Cities student wine club, formed by students to expand their winemaking knowledge. In 2013, a year before he graduated, Zimmel officially established his winery with Unruh. This occurred around the time Zimmel walked into the office of Charlie “Wine Boss” Hoppes, owner and winemaker of Fidélitas Wines, based in Benton City (about 14 miles from WSU’s campus in Richland).

“I’m waiting for that individual. But yeah, that is something that I’m going to do for Charlie.”

Hoppes, who makes wines for several other Washington labels besides Fidélitas, had previously opened his facility to WSU students in the Blended Learning winemaking course. Zimmel told him who he was, what he wanted to do, and asked Hoppes for his help. Hoppes, an Italian man whom Zimmel affectionately describes as being like a character out of the Sopranos, told Zimmel he would help him with one condition.

“I busted out laughing,” Zimmel says. “I’m like, ‘Charlie, listen, I’m 43… I don’t write blank checks at this age, alright? I just can’t do that.’ And he’s like, ‘You will if you want me to help you.’”

Zimmel agreed and asked what Hoppes’ one condition was.

“Listen, I wouldn’t be where I’m standing right now if it wasn’t for somebody who helped me. I’m going to help you in the same way, but you have to pay it forward,” Hoppes said. “And when the time comes when someone as energetic and as passionate about winemaking as you are comes to you and asks for help, you help them.”

Zimmel wholeheartedly accepted Hoppes’ terms.

“I’m waiting for that individual. Hopefully, I can get a little bit more established before the individual shows up to my doorstep, but yeah, that is something that I’m going to do for Charlie,” Zimmel says.

“I’m able to give back what I can to the students that are here now, and hopefully in the near future, as I get more established, I can bring those students into my cellar, and I can give them the knowledge that has been bestowed upon me with all the other professors that have been here, who have taken their time and given me what they’ve got.”

Learning from mentors and giving back

After making his wine at Hoppes’ facility for a year, Zimmel moved his barrels to Purple Star Wines, a custom crush facility in Benton City owned by WSU alumni Kyle and Amy Johnson. Kyle hired Zimmel to his staff during harvest and Amy, a marketing whiz, taught him the ins and outs of marketing wine.

“Ninety-five percent of winemaking is marketing, honestly. You can make the greatest bottle in the entire world, but if no one knows about it, what good is it? Kyle and Amy have helped me tremendously. They’re an incredible family,” Zimmel says.

After graduating, Zimmel worked in the tasting room of Barnard Griffin Winery in Richland where he learned all about wine sales. He credits Rob Griffin with teaching him the art of blending. He also bought grapes for his wines from Kitzke Cellars in Richland.

“Winemakers are a very small circle in this area, and they’re all just fantastic. There have been so many connections,” Zimmel says.

At WSU, Zimmel forged connections with his professors and fellow students. Henick-Kling, the director of the viticulture and enology program, even helped Zimmel make his first batch of chardonnay for his Cerebella label.

“I wish Robb the most of success in his new business. He’s already proven that he can make excellent wines,” Henick-Kling says. ”I’d love to see him back interacting with students. His enthusiasm is infectious. I think students would enjoy learning from his experience, and get some very good ideas as they make their own way.”

Zimmel also bonded with Rasa Vineyards co-owner and WSU instructor Billo Naravane. Like Zimmel, Naravane changed his career to winemaking later in life. Naravane earned bachelor’s degrees in applied mathematics and computer science from MIT and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford. He worked in the computer industry for more than 15 years before calling it quits and transitioning to winemaking.

“I think that common thread really brought us together. And the guy’s so wicked smart. I always laugh. I tell all the students here at WSU, I’m like, ‘Listen, if you’re going to walk that stage,’ I said, ‘And you’ve been through Billo’s class, you earned that degree, ’cause you really have to put forth effort in his class.’ One of my proudest moments at WSU was when I passed his class,” Zimmel says..

“He’s one of those guys where he’s a text away if you have any issues. And he’s a vineyard manager to a lot of different vineyards in this area. He’s a wealth of information. He wants you to succeed. It’s one of those things where I think he believes a rising tide floats all ships.”

Bhaskar Bondada, Billo Naravane, and Thomas Henick-Kling
Bhaskar Bondada, Billo Naravane, and Thomas Henick-Kling

“I have no doubt in my mind that Robb is going to be an extremely successful wine maker and have a very successful label,” Naravane says. “His inaugural vintage of wines are excellent. The Malbec has a great mouth feel, great length to it, excellent complexity. Robb is just an extremely generous person in nature so I can very easily see that he’d be giving back to the community, to the WSU program, and being a mentor to other students in the future.”

“It’s one of those things where I think he believes a rising tide floats all ships.”

Zimmel already has begun paying it forward. He’s currently serving as a teaching assistant for Desmond Layne in the horticulture program at WSUTC.

“I’m able to give back what I can to the students that are here now, and hopefully in the near future, as I get more established, I can bring those students into my cellar, and I can give them the knowledge that I’ve been bestowed upon with all the other professors that have been here, who have taken their time and taken me seriously, and given me what they’ve got,” Zimmel notes.

“My time here at Washington State University has been absolutely priceless. It saved me in many ways, mentally, physically. The connections that I’ve made here will last a lifetime. The professors I’ve met, my mentors, those within the wine industry… priceless. And I thank each and every single one of them for getting me to where I’m at today.”

A life changed for the better

Zimmel can visualize the path his life may have taken had it not been for WSU and that fateful decision to change his career to winemaking. It’s not a pleasant thought.

Luckily, Zimmel has never been one to back away from a challenge. He faced life and death situations every day for nearly 25 years as a medical professional. Through it all, he maintained his humanity and seemingly endless supply of compassion. Once when he was a paramedic, he responded to a serious car crash on Christmas. As he approached the mangled car, he braced himself for the worst. But the elderly driver, though scared and confused, survived because she was wearing her seatbelt. Thankful for a happy ending, Zimmel bent down to her car window, smiled kindly at the woman, and said “Merry Christmas.”

That’s the type of person Zimmel is, and he’s carried that attention to detail and persevering attitude into his winemaking. With support from his family, friends, and all of the relationships he’s built at WSU and beyond, Zimmel turned his passion into a career. After years of hard work, he’s now on his way to fulfilling his dream of making wines and eventually distributing them nationally.

“What I like about the winemaking process is it’s a completely different contrast of what my past life was. Being in the medical field, there’s not a lot of joy involved with being a paramedic. You’re always called at the worst of the worst. People are hurt. They’re injured. They’re sick. You learn a lot about what humans can do to one another in a bad way,” Zimmel said. “With winemaking, you come to an event and there are smiles. People are happy, and I love it. I get to be a part of a celebration, and my wines get to reflect that sometimes, whether it be a wedding, a birthday, a graduation. I get to be a part of that in some way, shape, or form.”

“My time here at Washington State University has been absolutely priceless. It saved me in many ways, mentally, physically. The connections that I’ve made here will last a lifetime. The professors I’ve met, my mentors, those within the wine industry… priceless. And I thank each and every single one of them for getting me to where I’m at today.”

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