Marcus Miller crafts the wines at Airfield. Marcus earned a degree from Walla Walla Community College’s enology and viticulture program, and has worked at other Washington wineries, including Canoe Ridge in Walla Walla, before being head winemaker at Airfield. The Miller family has been growing premium grapes in Washington since 1960 and one of his grandfathers was even friends with Walter Clore, who is generally known as the father of Washington wine. After many years of solely growing grapes, Airfield Estates was founded by the Millers in 2007. Since that time they have achieved some incredible success and have even started a second, less expensive label of wine called Lone Birch. Airfield expanded from roughly 2000 cases in 2007 to 20,000 cases by 2012. Despite this expansion, the quality of winemaking is evident. Here is my interview with Marcus Miller, head winemaker at Airfield Estates:
WWB: Can you talk about your background as a winemaker?
MM: I was raised on the vineyard and when I was growing up it was more the diversified farm. We had asparagus, mint, grew corn and grapes. In the 90’s, during high school and college we began planting more and more grapes and now today that is all we grow. My dad was a farmer and didn’t really bring the wine culture into our house so growing up I saw grapes as another crop and had no real sense of the culture and the industry. I wasn’t all that interested in was into business and got my bachelor’s degree in business. I went into finance and worked in Plano Texas in finance. After high school I decided to attend Principia College in Illinois and traveled away for school. I ended up getting a master’s degree in finance from University of North Texas. My dad was saying that I was his only son and wanted to know if I was interested in the 1200 acre family farm. Out of courtesy to my dad I decided to come home and I told him that was going to take six months to make my decision. I came home after grad school so it is January and was having a miserable time working with the crew pruning wine and concord grapes in sub freezing temperatures and not loving it at all. When you get out on the cold it is on the tractor and that is not my cup of tea either. At the end of January my dad sent me to the annual conference WAWGG, the association of wine grape growers. The CEO of St. Michelle, Ted Baseler, was speaking on the fact that that year the Wine Spectator had 12 of the top 100 wines as Washington wines and he was saying that we were only .3 percent of acreage in the world. Being a finance guy it was easy for me to see that this was more than a commodity crop that we were growing on my family farm and grapes in Washington had potential to be world class.
My eyes were now open to what I had at my fingertips. I still wasn’t thrilled with the vineyard life but I got to know some of the winemakers and what they were doing. This would mean that I would be artist, part chemist and part businessman as well. I would be travelling around the country and sometimes around the world. I was thinking that the wine world was way cooler than I ever thought and I saw myself starting a winery with my father in about 8 years once I had worked for 2 or 3 established winemakers and learned their secrets. My plan for 8 years of winemaking experience would turn into 15 months as my Dad saw the time to begin making wine in fall of 2005. In the New Year I took spring classes at WSU Tri Cities and quickly learned that the best program in the state was the Walla Walla community college program. They built a 6 million dollar facility and there were just ton of internship opportunities. I appreciated the intensive science component of WSU but at that time they didn’t have any lab classes and you would learn how to make wine in a book. I consider winemaking an artisanal craft and you have to learn from a master winemakers, pick their brains and harness their best practices. In 2003 the only place to get an experience like that was at the WWCC program. So I really loved the opportunity that was going to be provided there.
I left attended Walla Walla Comity College’s enology program and worked harvest at Canoe Ridge. I worked under Kendall Mix the head winemaker there. I had a great opportunity to learn from him and get my feet wet for the first time with a true harvest experience. At school, everyone I know graduated in two years but thanks to my growing up in the vineyard family and having worked internships at Columbia Crest all through college my instructor Stan Clarke allowed me to get out of the viticulture classes and all of the general prerequisites and I was able to get through the program in nine months. Fortunately I found a job right away with Tsillian Cellars and worked there for two years, first vintage being the assistant winemaker for Katie Perry and then she left to have her own winemaker. I was given the title of winemaker after that and brought my roommate Peter Devison to help make the wine in 2005. That was when my dad said the time was right and with our contracts up we could make some fruit available and we should start making wine. Halloween was my last day at Tsillian and then I started the Airfield Project and been making wine here since 2005.
WWB: Talk about the diversity of terroir with this huge estate vineyard?
MM: Talking about the diversity of the ground, most of the estate vineyard has a moderate slope facing southwest and a nice balance throughout the day on the fruit. The soil structure is fairly similar and our soil is silt loam (Warden Silt Loam) and that is the predominant soil and similar structure in most of the grapes. Our farm is almost continuous and it is large but it is a short distance from one side to the other. Our farm is alpha numerical and it is about 60 blocks but having it alpha numerical a good way to manage the vineyard blocks. Our highest elevation vineyard site is 1250 feet range and most of our vineyards are from 930-1100 and the higher it gets the soil becomes more sandy. In terms of how the terroir affects the fruit is we are one of the cooler sites in the state. Yakima tends to have some of the coolest nights in wine country which leads to great acidity in our reds and whites. Our reds and white wines probably have 10-15% more titratable acidity then the average wines from Washington State.
Flavor wise, we have great purity of fruit from varietal to varietal. This is also very distinct from vineyard to vineyard. An Airfield Pinot Gris tastes nothing like the Airfield Chard or Viognier. A lot of stone fruit from peach to pear and the Riesling has the green apple, that spectrum in flavor profiles. Tannin structure wise, tannins are there but not too heavy. Other regions like Red Mountain have more tannin than we do and our biggest wines tend to be our Merlots. That is the wine that I have to watch the tannin structure on. Obviously growing practices is another thing that makes the terroir different. I do some pretty unique stuff with vineyard management and one of the things that I do is use a product called Extend-day and that is a product that is primarily used in the orchard industry. Extend-day works by getting more light into the canopy. It has been scientifically proven that with more light intensity you see an enhancement in Anthocyanins (color) as well as tannin concentration. Just tasting berry’s in the vineyard you can notice the difference between the extend-day and non extend-day fruit. The extend-day fruit has more turgidity really popping in your mouth. I have always felt that the skins feel thicker in the extend-day fruit. The extend-day is not cheap, costing over $3000 an acre, but is felt to be well worth the investment in helping craft concentrated high end wines. Basically the concept is you are trying to get more light into the canopy to get intensity of fruit and you do that by putting this cloth like thing that is extended to the vineyard row. That bounces the sun and that sees the orientation of the leaves changing. There is so much radiating and that sunlight has three effects and the least as which you see more ripeness and higher brix but three really cool thing is the skins. You taste the berry with Extendday and the skins are thicker. What you see in the glass that is different the color will be darker and the structure is bigger and the tannins are just more color and more tannins. You can make a bigger, bolder wine by using this product and we use that on Cab, Merlot and Syrah in the estate vineyard.
WWB: What are some of the more unusual varietals that grow well in the vineyard?
MM: That all dates back to Chelan. It is 2005 and I had just got done making my second vintage and I am working with Malbec, Sangiovese and Viognier and a lot of varietals that we weren’t growing on our farm. At the time we were growing Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet. As we were headed down the road wanting to use exclusively estate fruit what I decided is we don’t know what grows best because this is all we have grown. Secondly, I am going to have to get complexity from my one vineyard sites and I am going to get that complexity from bringing the varietals together and blending. I guess my timing was right and red blends have gone crazy in the past decade and I definitely love the experimental aspect of that. I love to experiment with the varietals. Our family ended up growing all 5 Bordeaux varietals and Counties, Barbara, Dolchetto, Sangiovese, Zinfandel and all kinds of whites like Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier. We even planted Moscato and it has been really fun to try these grapes and get to know them and see what they are capable of in the Yakima Valley. I had this plan to whittle down them and there was no way that they were going to be doing well on our property. I get close to eliminating one and Coinoise didn’t ripen and didn’t produce and then 2008 and 2009 gets back to back gold in the San Francisco wine competition. As soon as I get discouraged with a varietal it does well. We haven’t really changed the landscape much and pretty much what was planted in 2006 we still have. That makes it really fun and I think out club members really enjoy these obscure varietals.
All of our varieties (27):
Bordeaux Reds (5): Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot
Rhone Reds (5): Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre, Cinsault, Counoise
Sparkling Reds (2): Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier (I have never used this variety, sold to CSM)
Spanish (1): Tempranillo
Italian (3): Dolcetto, Barbera, Sangiovese
USA (1): Zinfandel (or Croatia)
Bordeaux Whites (2): Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc
Rhone Whites (3): Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne
Burgundy (1): Chardonnay
Alsace (4): Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Riesling
Aviation Series (6): Tradition blends that have been time tested from around the world
Aviator: Left Bank Bordeaux Blend
Dauntless: Right Bank Bordeaux Blend
Mustang: Rhone Blend
Spitfire: Super Tuscan
Hellcat: Tempranillo based blends with Syrah and Grenache (like what is done in Australia)
Rhone White: Lightning
Vineyard Salute (2): Non traditional blends meant to represent the flavors of the vineyard.
Bombshell red: Merlot, Syrah based with other bdx varietals and sometimes Sangiovese.
Flygirl: Pinot Gris and Viognier based blend that bring 10-20% barrel of (Viognier, Roussanne, or Chardonnay) sometimes Gewurztraminer is added.
WWB: I was hugely impressed with the level of richness and acid structure obtained in your 2013 Late Harvest Riesling. Can you talk about the winemaking for that exceptional wine?
MM: I will tell you that I can’t take a lot of credit and I think that the purity of the fruit and when it gets concentrated through the process of freezing in the vine, something magical happens. The wine that you tried and loved, I haven’t gotten a lot of huge scores but when I have it has gotten for that wine. I don’t take a lot of love to making it because you are just exhausted from this long harvest and you are putting these to press and the normal press cycle might take two days. It is a long process to try to extract that rich and intense fruit and juice inside the barriers and you have to be patient and take your time. The fermenting process for this wine is really slow and we are just watching it every day and you are just kind of waiting. There is nothing really special with how we process it but it is the fruit, our Riesling in particular, has resonated with the late harvest style. I would say that we have made three or four exceptional late harvest and I am always amazed by the reception from our customers and the press.
WWB: How did you decide to start the Lone Birch label?
MM: We started out with Airfield and been doing that since ’05 and then I think that it has been an evolution and since our first vintage in 2009. We saw an opportunity in the marketplace at a lower price point and wanted to capitalize on that. We did a red blend and a white blend originally. When we were coming up with the label, we wanted something that was not aviation themed. We didn’t want some spin off with Airfield and something that would be a standalone brand that didn’t have a lot of connection. So then to be able to sell it in the marketplace with two different distributors.
We did a red and a white and the story comes from the land of my great grandfather and this is now a 4th generation farming operation. Washington State has, the Airfield story. My brother in law came up with the Lone Birch idea. The founding father of our business, he had planted a series of Birch trees, some at his house and some at the farm, but there is one birch tree that sits at the main intersection that takes you to the farm. I have to think about the logic about planting the tree was kind of a directional side. You want to get out to us, you know you have arrived when you have gotten to the Birch tree. We didn’t have Google maps back then and growing up the Birch Tree was how you got there. I think about the brand today, you have for generation and each person is tending to these trees today. Just like the Lone Birch tree guides you to the property, we are guided by the farming legacy of our fathers. This tradition that is guiding us and now we are farming it and stewarding it. Hopefully this means leaving the land at a better place for our kids. I think about all these different aspects. If you come out Lone Birch tree is just right like it is on the label.
WWB: What are some of your favorite Washington wines and wineries?
MM: We are always trying to get better and we are changing our packaging and always tweaking our winemaking. I love how young our industry is and how vibrant it is. There are so many new people entering the wine industry right now. There are some great and strong graduates and it is a really fun time to be in the industry. Talking about wineries, we do comparative tastings and we are trying things from Washington and beyond. I have two small kids at home and going to the neighbors and tasting their wines isn’t happening a ton right now. Back in the day when I was in Walla Walla, a guy that I looked up to was Chuck Reininger, I liked his wines. Got to know Chris Figgins well, we were leaders in the state church group and Chris was a cool guy and a guy to talk to when I was getting started in the industry, so those were two men that I looked up to.
Today, being a Chateau St. Michelle grower, Chateau St. Michelle and Bob Bertheau. Our job at Airfield is to produce the best wines in Washington at every price point that we work at and what Chateau St. Michelle is able to do is just awesome. They are making some great wines. One of my favorite wines was the Tenet project. I was really impressed with that. I was sitting at the table next to Bob and each table had a bottle of Tenet and some of their other wines. I told him, this juice is killer and I shared it with everyone at my table. It was some of the inspiration that we use to do our GSM blend this year. We are really excited about what we have done and we really like our 2015 wines. My wine budget tends to be more in the moderate range. I have had Quilceda Creek Red Wine a few times and I really love Bob Betz and what he does and the textural elements that he brings with Syrahs. I am trying to assemble my team and so I have a lot of people that I look to in helping me in craft our style of winemaking. I don’t know if you have ever had Lobo Hills and the head winemaker there makes his wins at my facility. The original agreement was that he could work as my assistant winemaker and helps me make decisions. Tony has helped me.
My Wine Team:
Marcus Miller - Winemaker, 11 vintages crafting Airfield
Lori Miller - My sister, Wine Business Masters, University of Adelaide - great pallet.
Pamela Solis - Assistant Winemaker, VE Degree from Argentina, 4 vintages in Argentina, and 4 vintages in US at 3 different wineries. Started with us February 2015
Erica Orr - Consultant, UC Davis, Multiple Woodinville clients projects, comes over twice a year for blending. Is on speed dial if I ever have a question. Started with us Spring 2014.
Tony Dollar - Winemaker, Lobo Hills. Has made his wine at our facility since 2011 and has always has offered me his pallet and his help.
Not to leave any one out, three great cellar workers: Carlos, Fernando, and Juan.
This year we hired an assistant manager, Camila Solice. She is from Argentina, Mendoza. My dad passed away this last year and now I am not only winemaker but CEO of the farm and working on international distribution and I head that and the accounting office and it is just too much work. Airfield Estates is now at 40,000 cases and I needed to hire someone. I put out the application and I got 63 really qualified applicants. The three finalists that we had, we had her and the two others blend our 2014 Chardonnay. Hers was awesome and we knew that she had the knowledge and skill set but she also had the plate. She has been great to work with. We are also working with Erica Orr and she is great and she is down to earth and super cool. I don’t think I have had a bad wine that she has made. The way I look at it is get a good team together and together are going to make some pretty cool wines. I definitely bring an experimental approach.