Elephant Seven is an exciting new winery out of Walla Walla. A few weeks back I had the chance to run through their awesome new lineup of red wines and was hugely impressed. I had to get their winemaker on the phone and chat wine. The winemaker, Josh West, is a downright awesome guy who has a background in investment banking and has only recently been in wine on a full-time basis. His wine background includes the prestigious Whitehaven winery out of New Zealand and has also worked at Figgins, Cadaretta, and Dusted Valley in Walla Walla. Finally Josh got the nerve to start his own winery. I think you will really enjoy hearing his wine story. Here is my interview with Josh West, winemaker at Elephant Seven.
WW: How did you first gain interest in winemaking?
JW: For me it started several years before I was officially into the wine business. It happened gradually, there was no one moment for me. I was formerly in commodities trading and followed the Wall Street Journal’s wine editors. I started reading books on wine and wanted to learn more. This wine education spiraled out of control and I started traveling the world only for the purpose of enjoying and learning about wine and food. Early in 2012 I decided to be in the wine business full time. I quit my job at one of the world’s largest investment banks and a month later I was working for Whitehaven in New Zealand. I worked there for the eight week harvest. It is a massive production and we crushed seven thousand tons of grapes that year. Not all of the wine goes to their label and they sell some of it all over the world. I also saw some funny things there as they bring in freight containers. They line them with giant baggies then fill them up and ship them out somewhere. That was my first exposure to commercial winemaking. I spent 95% of my time cleaning and moving things around, but a couple of the assistant winemakers and other interns taught me a few important things. Prior to leaving to work in New Zealand I met one of the owners of Dusted Valley at a tasting. I got in touch with him and then emailed him a few months later. I met him when I arrived in Walla Walla and they gave me my first job working as a cellar rat. I worked at Dusted Valley for about a year including harvest in 2012. After that I worked at Cadaretta just before the 2013 harvest. Then I started working for Figgins family at their Figgins wine studio. During that time I got a degree in enology and viticulture from the Walla Walla program. Then after that I realized that I had learned enough to be dangerous in the Washington wine industry.
WWB: Can you talk about your winemaking philosophies?
JW: This is my first job as a winemaker here at Elephant Seven. I try to let the grapes speak for themselves and I don’t do too much with the grapes. It is not that a winemaker doesn’t know there are things that you can do, but rather I choose to be very minimalist and only do those things when absolutely necessary. It’s actually harder to do less and keep it simple than it is to do more. All my wines are unfiltered and unfined. You want to intervene as little as possible to have the wine reflect the place that it comes from. When you commit to that then you have to stay on top of everything. That forces you to be much more careful and do things properly. I like being as hands on as possible. In vineyard management I sought out managers that I knew and tried hard to find vineyards that I wanted to work with. They know my philosophy and we have that working relationship where they understand my approach. We both want to be aligned with that.
WWB: Can you talk about your lovely 2014 Elephant Seven ‘Telegram’ Syrah (WWB, 93) bottling?
JW: I was really trying to reflect the place that it comes from. The Rocks is unique and I wanted to emphasize the earthiness and the savory tones as the primary characteristics then let the plush fruit compliment that. I didn’t want to use too much new oak, I think it is about 30% new French oak. I didn’t want a high PH or low acidity with this wine. Hopefully you’ll see it has some really great acidity. I wanted to keep the Syrah lively and fresh, as a good food pairing but reflective of the Rocks. I wanted the wine to have the earthy character. The vineyard, River Rock, is an awesome site. It is right there in the heart of the rocks. Charles Smith has most of the vineyard and I was lucky to get one acre. It is a gorgeous and a warm site, typical rocks and cobblestones all over the vineyard so it has that nice minerality. The clone was Tablas Creek clone. Yields were naturally very low at less than 3 tons per acre. We only made 114 cases of this wine, a tiny production.
WWB: What are some of your favorite Washington wines and producers as well as wines of the world?
JW: Washington wines are really impressive. Of course Figgins is fantastic. I think their wine is underrated. I really like Dunham wines and Gramercy. Rasa is another favorite. I have a wine collection and unfortunately it is slowly dwindling. I drink a lot of Barolo, Rinaldi, Conterno, Clerico and others. I love Northern Rhone reds. My everyday wine is Cru Beaujolais. It is crazy that you can get premier cru quality wine for under 20 bucks a bottle. My favorite white wines are Loire and Chablis from Burgundy, typically the higher acid stuff. I went to Burgundy and stayed in Beaune for a week. I rode my bike around the vineyards there. I was like a little kid staring at the grand cru vineyards like Romanee Conti. So I drink a lot of Burgundy but it’s getting harder as prices keep going up. I went to Rioja and I love old school Riojas, CVNE, Tondonia and the like. Those are really nice, especially the older ones.