Billo Naravane, Rasa Vineyards
Interview with Bilo Naravane, Head Winemaker at Rasa VIneyards
This Walla Walla wine story begins with two wine collectors and oenophiles, Pinto and Billo Naravane. These guys decided to quit their jobs in the computer industry and move to Walla Walla, where they started Rasa Vineyards in 2007. What they’ve created is some exceptional, terroir driven wines. The new releases from Rasa are some of the most compelling red wine new releases from Washington that I've had this year. The 2012 Rasa 'Creative Impulse' in particular is one that shines and is made from DuBrul vineyard fruit, possibly the most famous vineyard in the state.
Billo Naravane serves as head winemaker and is one exceptional man, having a bachelor’s degree from MIT and a master’s degree from Stanford. His wine education is the one of the best out there as well, completing the wine program from UC Davis. It’s no wonder that this incredibly smart man makes some great wine. I found Billo to be incredibly friendly, knowledgeable and approachable while I visited Rasa. It was a great pleasure spending time with him and talking wine. Here is my interview with Billo, followed by my reviews of his wines #rasa #rasavineyards
WWB: Can you talk about the style of your wines?
BN: The style of our wines lean towards France. While we cannot make French wines here in Washington, we can tilt our winemaking towards France. There is nothing wrong with Napa or Australia but we prefer the wines of France like Bordeaux and Rhone. The name Rasa means essence in Sanskrit and it is the terroir aspect of the winemaking that we are in love with. We strongly believe that the vineyard’s character should speak as well as the vintage character. If I were to pour you a vertical of our wines and describe the vintage growing conditions, I bet that you could easily identify which wine corresponded to which vintage.
WWB: How I got turned onto Rasa was in a blind tasting where I blind tasted the 2007 Rasa QED 95 points. It was one of my highest scoring Rhone style Washington wines I’ve ever reviewed. Can you talk about the wine?
BN: 2007 was a warm year and very much like 2009 except we got a little bit of a cold front coming in September and October and we got more hang time and it is one of my favorite vintages. It was in the middle of the spectrum between the cold vintages and the warm vintage. We got a beautiful range of complexity of flavors. And then we made a complete wine just from the get go. That was one of my favorite vintages. The 2007s are aging beautifully and are just entering their early phase of maturity.
WWB: I have noticed that you are able to create a beautiful texture with both Rhone and Bordeaux varietals. Can you talk about how you are able to create that lovely mouthfeel that is distinctively Rasa?
BN: As a winemaker it is difficult to have to make a wine that tastes great young and has the capacity to age and improve. We are careful to watch the mouthfeel of the wine, particularly the phenolics. The tannins come into solutions differently and you can exploit that aspect of temperature and timing of punch downs and that will influence what kind of tannins come into solution. Also with the press there is some point where the phenolics turn bitter and aggressive. You have to train yourself for that. You have to look past that sugar and hone in on the phenolic characters. That is a skill that you can only learn at the press. You can read about it all you want but you can only really learn that skill at the press.
WWB: I recently had the chance to review your 2011 vintage releases. This was a vintage where a lot of critics downgraded the vintage. But there were a couple of wines that you were able to create a rich flavor profile, despite the coldness of the vintage, particularly the 2011 Rasa ‘Creative Impulse’. Can you talk about that wine?
BN: 2011 was one of the coolest vintages on record and we tend to like those vintages. The fruit is not as voluptuous and ripe but that is never an issue at the DuBurul vineyard which is a cooler climate vineyard site. In 2011 we were taking steps in the vineyard to accelerate the ripening. In cooler years one must make a tradeoff between flavor development and yield. We had a little bit of botrytis issue to contend with as well. We took the yields down drastically (up to 60% in some cases) to ensure proper ripening. From DuBrul we got about half the yield that we normally get. This is our most expensive fruit and like and getting half the yield made it financially painful. But we had to sacrifice the yield to get the quality and it turned out to be the right call. In the end you get this wonderful texture from a cold vintage. 2012 is a warm year that you know from the start is going to make tasty wine. But 2011 to make something outstanding that year, you have to know your stuff. That was a year that differentiated your winemaking talent. For each vineyard I have sense of oak profile that I like. In the past in Washington most winemakers would use too much new oak. If the wine was red then it would go into 100 percent new oak. In my opinion this was almost always the wrong decision. I want oak to be a supporting player, not the dominant one.
WWB: You are a big fan of the 2011 vintage. Can you talk more about the vintage and how it compares to 2010?
BN: I think out of the two vintages, ’11 was definitely the colder one of the two. The fruit, I think people gravitated towards the ’10 because the fruit was riper. It is more opulent in the fruit character but in the ’11 there is this beautiful sense of finesse and sheer balance. You were able to get this razor edge of balance between the fine acidity and the tannin without having the jammier profile of fruit. We got ripe by taking the yields down drastically, and for the people that did that, they were able to get this elegant and focused flavor delineation. If you have the ’11 and ’10 side by side, you will notice that the ‘11s, generally speaking, have better finesse, elegance and more precise balance. There is a beauty in the ‘11s for the wineries that really did a good job; it is probably the best I’ve seen in Washington. I talked with a bunch of winemaker friends who were disappointed with the 2011 vintage because they didn’t get their 26 or 27 brix that year. But to me if you have wonderful flavor development, and great phenolic ripeness at 23.5 Brix, what is the problem? You have this amazing balance and flavor at lower alcohol potential. I would take 2011 every year.
WWB: Since you style of winemaking tends to be more Bordelaise, what do you do in 2013 and 2014 to have that tension.
BN: It starts in the vineyards and I go back to the quality in the vineyard. In the warmer years you try to achieve the balance in the grapes. So we actually take great steps to slow down ripening. We did that by managing the water aspect of the vines, as well as taking the canopy back drastically. We cut back the canopy about 30 to 40% and still maintained the leaf structure in the fruiting zone. The reason why we did that is it naturally slows down the vineyard. Each leaf on the plant is a sugar accumulating factor. So if you have less leaves then you have less sugar accumulation. If you take off too many leaves then there is too much sunburn. But if you take some off then it works great. In a year like 2015 where there was so much sunlight I know the grapes are going to be ripe. But how can I slow it down? The hormonal trigger in the plant gets triggered for flavor production relatively late in the cycle. If you don’t take the steps to slow it down then you have super sweet grapes but no flavor and complexity. I think vineyards that didn’t take steps to slow it down will be a little disappointed with the resulting wine. I think that you can make great wines in the warm years as well if you are paying close attention to the vineyard. I track the heat accumulation for the year, adjust the canopy and crop load. You just have your best guess at the moment and then have several passes to dial it in and get the great complexity that we want. There are a lot of winemakers that hardly ever step foot in the vineyard. They will go taste the fruit it once or twice and then bring it in. But if you never go to the vineyards during the season, I think that you are missing a huge aspect of quality control. At Rasa we let the vineyards dictate the style of the wine in a given year. We respect the vineyard’s individuality as much as the year’s individuality.
WWB: Are there any wines in the area that you find compelling or producers that you enjoy?
BN: I do love the Cote Bonneville wines and the DuBrul fruit. They make great wines across the board. I also like the Reynvann wines. You know, Christophe [Baron], I think that when he nails it, he nails it; I have had a lot of compelling Cayuse wines. Also Gramercy is excellent, all of their wines are very solid. Greg and Brandon are very talented and do a fantastic job. This is one of the wineries that we regularly trade wine with.