Ryan Crane is the hardworking mastermind behind Kerloo Cellars. His super impressive new releases showcased some of the fantastic vineyards in Washington. Ryan has trained under some big names in Walla Walla wine, including being a cellar rat under Maria Forgeron of Forgeron Cellars and moving on as assistant winemaker under Justin Wylie of Va Piano fame. Kerloo’s first release was 2009. Since that time Kerloo Cellars has been a remarkable success. Kerloo has two tasting room locations, one located in SoDo in Seattle and another in Walla Walla. Ryan is an incredibly busy guy and has been working on expanding his production because he continually sells out of his wines. That fact that these wines sell out quickly tells you about the quality of the winemaking. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ryan and talk wine. He talked about his successes and his training in the industry. Here is my new interview with Ryan Crane, head winemaker and owner of Kerloo Cellars
WWB: I was very impressed with your 2013 Upland Vineyard Grenache. Can you explain some of the winemaking behind the Grenache and why this was such a successful release?-
RC: I like the fruit from the Upland vineyard. I have been playing with that vineyard for a few years. The vineyard comes from the Sunnyside AVA and Todd Newhouse grows at Upland Vineyard. Todd is really good at what he does and I am excited with his work and the Grenache from Upland. Grenache is a weird varietal and it is very difficult to work with. Grenache doesn’t like heat but it needs it. Grenache tends to set pretty heavy and it is a very compact and big cluster of grapes. What we do is shoulder thin it, so we cut the shoulders of the cluster off to balance tonnage in the vineyard. It is a tough varietal to work with because it tends to have sporadic ripeness per cluster. Grenache has a late bud break so you have to worry about freeze with the grapes. You also have to worry about sunburn and the cooler nights we get those cool dips and then moisture and that can be a bad situation. Some Grenache sites can get botrytis due to how moisture impacts it, so you have to be careful with vineyard management when working with Grenache.
Grenache in Washington State can change from 23.5 brix to 26.5 brix in a week. If you have too high a brix you lose the structure and the wine becomes too heavy and lacking acidity. That is not our style of wine that we want to make, as we want our wines to have finesse. I really focus hard on Grenache in the vineyard as I try to use a ton of vineyard management with that varietal. I pick based on the flavors that I get when tasting the varietal. We tend to pick that around 25 brix or 25.5 brix and then we use dry ice that sits with it all the way back to the production facility to keep it cold. In the past few years we have been dividing the fermenters and doing some whole cluster fermentation. Then with others I will do like 50% whole cluster fermentation and then some berry ferment. This gives us a variety of things to examine when they are in barrel. We try to ferment Grenache as cool as possible so our Grenache doesn’t get above 70 degrees. That lets me manage phenolics in the wine but also lets me manage a prettier style of Grenache. The last few years we have been doing some cold soaks with the varietal and dry ice it for a while. We have also been working with a bit more color with that wine by using the cold soak technique.
WWB: I was very impressed with the polished texture of your wines. Can you talk about how you are able to obtain that texture?
RC: I think it is both by using the cool ferment and the proper pick time. Those things make a big difference. It is also probably due to being gentle during the pressing of the wine. We stir on lees which also helps with improving the overall mouthfeel and gives us the velvety feel that we try to obtain with Grenache. You can taste that difference in the glass, the small details can lead to the right mouthfeel. We are really happy with our 2013 Upland Vineyard Grenache because it has the structure, the fruit and the mouthfeel that we were ideally hoping to achieve.
WWB: I was impressed with how you have utilized Tempranillo in making a Washington style of Tempranillo. Can you talk about your bottling and the Washington style of Tempranillo?-
RC: There is a distinct, Washington style of Tempranillo that I am looking for. I began making my wines in ’07 with just Syrah because at the time I only had enough money to do Syrah. But I wanted to do something different and work with other varietals. I love drinking Spanish wine and am really attracted to Rioja. I love the terroir from that region and the fruit, as well as the aromatics of that wine. So I had to think about what I wanted to do with that varietal in Washington. The Stone Tree vineyard was a good site for making Tempranillo and that kind of wine, so I started making wine from that vineyard site in 2008. In years past we were working with fruit from the Les Collines Vineyard but I didn’t like the fruit as much as from the Stone Tree Vineyard in terms of the wine we were making. Stone Tree just allowed us to make the right wine. As a vineyard, Stone Tree is a really hot site and a really stressed site. Everything in the vineyard looks like it was planted yesterday and it was planted in 1999 and 2002. The site’s Tempranillo is early one to bud break and the first varietal that we pick. The Stone Tree Tempranillo produces some big berries. While the berries grow not quite as big as Grenache, they can become overripe. You have to be careful with the dropping acid levels of Tempranillo. We pick on the early side, around 24 brix which is leaves the clusters bright, tannic and fruit driven like Rioja. We ferment Tempranillo cold so we don’t over-extract it and we want to be careful with the ripeness levels. In making the wine I want to balance American oak with the Tempranillo to pay homage to the best of Spain. We also use some remaining French barrels in blending for our Tempranillo. We also tend to do earlier racking to balance the tannins.
WWB: You have achieved considerable success in a short amount of time. How are you balancing selling out of your wines and also wanting to increase production?-
RC: Running out of wines and bringing them to bottle is a challenge in the wine industry. That is a big part of being in the wine business. If you can put a perfect world together you release a vintage and then sell it throughout the year and then the next year release the next one. We bottle wine now and we move them. That is a good thing and I would rather do that than sit on vintages. That is a tricky part, right now is that our location in SoDo has been going through the roof. We have been selling a lot of wine there and that are in general has become very popular. The press has been helping with getting people in our doors and learning about our wines. Our Walla Walla tasting room has been going really nicely too. It is my job to try to balance everything and that is not always easy. Right now we are in that in between stage with the ’13 vintage and getting ready to bottle our white wines and roses and then we can release them before summer. In May we will do our new red bottlings for fall release. The reality of all that is I am doing the best job that I can with running winery and the team. We are about 2500 to 3000 cases right now per year and I am looking at adding a little more tonnage to make everything else work. It is a challenge in so far as making things work. I would like to increase production a bit in the next coming years.
WWB: You had a lot of experience working in Walla Walla under some big names in winemaking, such as Maria Forgeron and Justin Wylie. Can you talk the knowledge that you have gained from others in the Walla Walla wine industry?-
RC: I am humbled by the good press that our winery has received. Getting to this point has been a remarkable journey for me. I started with six barrels of wine and now there are 250 barrels back there [in the winery]. Diving in and believing in something was really exciting for me. I was fortunate. I worked my ass off when I was in Walla Walla and met as many people as I could. I think my personality drove some of that because I am a gregarious guy that enjoys being around people. I really enjoyed the people I was around in Walla Walla. My first job was with Maria Forgeron. At Forgeron I was the cellar rat which meant cleaning bins and scrubbing. Maria is a very talented winemaker and her husband, Gilles Nicault works at Long Shadows. I had the chance to meet him and learn from him, as well. Working under Maria Forgeron, I was trying to learn her process of winemaking. She was working with larger volumes of wines and that opened my eyes to the complexities of fermentation and how she makes her white wines. I think she is an excellent winemaker. I learned about temperature control with fermenting and dialing in with those wines. After working at Forgeron I learned that I wanted to work with a smaller winery, so I joined Va Piano and became their assistant winemaker. Working under Justin [Wylie] at Va Piano was a fantastic experience. I told him that I wanted to eventually make my own brand. I had a business background and was going to help him open his wine club and I helped him with that and with the winemaking. Justin has a custom crush facility and that helps covering cost for a new winery. That was a great chance to make wines at his facility.
Now I make my own wines at Kerloo. A lot of people in the Washington wine industry feel that our styles [his and Justin’s] of winemaking are quite similar. I had a chance to see each different vintage and what the winemakers did with their wines each year and that was a big opportunity to learn from them. I learned how the winemakers do things from the managing the fruit to oak profiles to fermentation and barrels. And alcohol levels obviously play a huge role. All these parts were such a big eye opener for me. It is hard putting everything together to make a wine. I tell a lot of people that I am always learning how to make wine which is always a process in each vintage. Once I learned how to see every component working together, I was able to obtain the tools to do it. While working in Walla Walla I was able to source from some great vineyards in Washington State and that is really cool. When I was in Walla Walla I saw 30 different vineyards that came through the winery door and I was able to taste like 200 different wines. These great opportunities gave me the chance to hone in what I do now.