Abeja Winery and interview with head winemaker, Rob Chowanietz
One of the most picturesque wineries I’ve ever visited in the Walla Walla valley is Abeja. They have been producing some of the best Chardonnay in the state for many years and I can’t think of a more relaxing place to sample that and the rest of their excellent wines than their beautiful tasting room, set over a small creek outside of town. This expansive property also has an Inn that overlooks the valley. I recently had the chance to interview the head winemaker at Abeja, Rob Chowanietz, and he talked about his winemaking, as well as some of the recent vintages which impressed during the tasting. Rob is a thoughtful and approachable guy that has a long history of making wine. Rob studied at both WSU and UC Davis before working for Woodward Canyon as cellarmaster and Zefina as head winemaker. He has recently taken over as head winemaker at Abeja and his recent releases are wonderful varietal expressions that combine great fruit with Walla Walla terroir. Here is my interview with Rob Chowanietz, followed my review of the recent Abeja releases. These wines can be found at Total Wines, as well as online at www.abeja.net. #abeja
WWB: One of my favorite Washington Chardonnays is the 2013 Abeja Chardonnay. Can you talk about making that wine, as well as the 2014 which will be released later?
Rob C.: The best way to describe it is we love White Burgundy and we love Chablis and we aren’t Burgundy but we are trying to mirror a style that is in that style. It is important that you have a distinct style. Sonoma is tried and true and the KJs [Kendall Jacksons] of the world and they are loved by people. But that is not what we are going for. Balance is one of our favorite words and not only with the wines but in the vineyard. Not only the visual appearance but doing our best to understand the growing season and balancing the farming too and you are predicting what the weather is going to continue to be like.  ‘14 we were sure I was going to be warm and as it progressed it was one of the warmest years in record and we balanced that by keeping more canopy and in other years we would do more crop thinning. With the oak, there is between 30 and 40 percent new [oak] and then the rest is old [oak]. French and tight grain and medium more elegant toast barrels. We do use a mix of two and three fill barrels and that is a vintage to vintage decision. With the 2013 I give a lot of credit to the Celilo [Celilo vineyard] and how we handle it in house starts with the press and the press cuts were very regimented. Every sample goes in and we always check the PH and if it get above the PH then it is going in a different direction and some of that will go into the lower tier and then it will go to someone else.
WWB: Can you please talk about the winemaking in the 2014 Viognier?
Rob C.: This is a lighter style of Viognier and we like to bring out that starfruit and that clean and crisp flow. There is zero new oak on it and it is barrel aged but we don’t do any battonage with that and rack it very early and get it as clean as possible because it has a natural tendency to be reductive. You can also get the skin issues and if you aren’t careful with that you are going to impart that and we see that as interference. This all starts with the press. We are very careful about how we press the Viognier and the PH changes astronomically with each and usually only the first couple of section makes it into the blend. The other stuff will be more bold and a Chardonnay style if you will. Those are the pieces that we say goodbye to. We bring in about a third more fruit than we actually use. We tier our wines down and make the quality level that we are used to and that is part of our style and approach. That’s what we were looking for when it was started in 2000 and we wanted to hold true to that and not grow exponentially and not compromising quality just to get numbers. That is part of the reason why you saw so much of a small crop for 2013 and 2014 and we had to tier down a lot of gallons [of wine] that works for others
WWB: Many experts in the wine industry have felt that the 2012 vintage was an incredible vintage. What are your thoughts on the vintage?
Rob C.: We go back to the normal vintage [pattern with 2012] and coming out of ’10  and ’11  where it was cold and a lot of stuff to learn. We were very excited about it and we knew that we were going to have a full fruit profile and back to the lush mid palate fruit. That is what we are known for the aromatics and a little bit of tannin on the back end, whereas ‘10 and ‘11 has beautiful acidity and less weight on the mid palate.
WWB: Do you have any other favorite Walla Walla producers or wines?
Rob C.: Back in the day I would really like Canoe Ridge and now locally I know there are a few Tamarack wines that are really fun. Always been a supporter of Dunham and I like their Syrah, their Lewis [Lewis Vineyard] stuff. L’Ecole’s whites are great. The way they have transformed. I just had their Luminscence and that was really nice. Chennin [Blanc] has gone drier and my wife and I love that wine. It is really approachable. I also like getting imports and Malbec. We drink a lot of whites but they are imports as well. We get spoiled here and a lot of White Burgundy is a part of them. I recently just bought a few Cabernets like Dominus and it is a really fun style and a completely different approach. And different fruit, not like Walla Walla and not Washington State style. Also a huge fan of bubbles. My go to Champagne is Deutz. Krug also makes an amazing Rose Champagne.
WWB: 2013 was considered to be another excellent vintage by most experts. Can you talk about the 2013 vintage and how it worked out with your red and white wines?
Rob C.: ‘13s [2013s] I love. ‘12, ‘13 and ‘14 have been so similar and progressively warmer and ‘14 was the second hottest year on record but it is close enough to traditional weather that we get the full ripeness that if we tweak the vineyards correctly. There was a learning process from ‘10 and ‘11 and that helped. Loved the 10s for what they are but we love the ‘11s. ‘13s, they are going to be nice wines and will have nice weight.
Here are the new releases from Abeja:
2014 Abeja Viognier- Honeysuckle and green apple on the nose. Tangy palate with cantaloupe, green apple and green papaya. Mouthwatering and refreshing. Finishes clean. -93
2013 Abeja Chardonnay- Nose has mushroom, golden delicious and pear. Palate has butter, pear, red delicious and starfruit. Just rich and delicious. Mouthfeel is excellent. -93
2012 Abeja Merlot- Figs and blackberry with chocolate on the nose. Spice box in there too. Palate has mocha, black cherry, and raspberry. Delicious and plush wine. Drink in 2016. -92
2012 Abeja Cabernet- Anise and blackberry on the nose. Palate has blackberry, anise, and black cherry. Delicious and open. Drink after 2016. -92
2013 Abeja Syrah- Blended with 3% Viognier. Smoked meats, black pepper, anise and spice box on the nose. Palate has nice balance and depth. Black cherry, anise, blackberry with nice acidity. Drink after 2016. -93