As part of Washington Wine Month, we bring to you another winemaker interview with an exciting new wine project out of Walla Walla. Jason Fox founded Lagana Cellars in 2013 (http://www.laganacellars.com). He incorporates a different business model than most Washington wineries, focusing on high quality white wine production. A recent graduate of the Walla Walla Community College Enology and Viticulture program, Jason is able to source from some of the best vineyards in the state, including Sagemoor vineyards. I had a chance to try his 2013 Rousanne, sourced from the Sagemoor vineyards and I found it to be lithe and dense, beautifully showcasing the varietal. Jason has just recently started his winery but I think he has a highly promising future, as he will only continue to improve as a winemaker. A few weeks ago I had the chance to sit down with Jason Fox, owner and head winemaker of Lagana Cellars. He talked about his story in wine and how he started a winery. I think you will really enjoy hearing his story. Here is my interview with Jason Fox, owner and head winemaker of Lagana Cellars.
WWB: Can you talk about your background in food and wine in Indiana and how you became interested in winemaking? What were some of your first experiences in wine?
JF: A brief history is that in Indiana I worked my way up from a line cook to assistant kitchen manager in a restaurant called "Cheeseburger in Paradise", within the Outback Steakhouse family of restaurants. At that restaurant was an enthusiastic bartender who decided to work his way through certifications in the alcohol side of the industry having previously worked in the kitchen at that very restaurant. We became great friends (and still are), and I helped him study and taste for his level 1 and 2 with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I had been a wine drinker since turning 21, but had followed the standard pattern of cheap sweet whites, then go drier, and then finally drink cheap reds! It was in those tastings that we did that I discovered what wine was about, what drove the study/service/appreciation of wine, and finally what premium wine is and can be. I let the idea of sommelier certification rumble in my brain, but ultimately decided to side with production since I am a self-described science nerd. My friend and I moved to WA State in the fall of 2011, where I came to Walla Walla to attend the WWCC Enology and Viticulture program. He continued west to Seattle, where he is now Wine Education Director for Wild Ginger and the Wine Director for their Bellevue location. Many people ask what was the wine that "did it" for you; I have two: a 2005 Chateau Croix de Gay Pomerol (God Merlot can be delicious!!) and a Terra Barossa Shiraz. Obviously on two ends of the spectrum, but those are the ones that did it.
WWB: Walla Walla Community College School of Enology has gained a national reputation for educating some of the best winemakers in the United States. Can you talk about some of the key aspects of learning there? Any particular instructors or mentors that have helped you along your way?
JF: The best way to learn any hands on profession, or even languages for that matter, is direct experience and immersion. That is the goal of education as well as the reason why the WWCC E&V program is so good and respected. From the day you start until the end, you are in the wine and grapes. First quarter, you are picking fruit, crushing, pressing, making additions, and the ever important cleaning like a beast. The students likely have little understanding why they are doing what they are doing yet, but they are doing it. Then in the winter and spring, you learn about the life cycle of vineyards and grapes, learn about insects and pest, irrigation, prune the vines, train/plant vines, and ultimately watch them grow and maintain them through the summer. Then the first quarter of the second year is all internship. You work for harvest at a commercial winery and learn their techniques/house style. You learn their beliefs and views, which are likely different from the scientists teaching the classes at school! Then the hardcore chemistry and lab work is that winter and spring, ending with bottling the very same wine you created at the beginning of the classes. You work full circle making and caring for the vines and wines at the school.
That is the key to the success of the program. Immersion and direct experience. Instead of showing pictures of a crossflow filtration machine and how it works or a pump or press, you just walk downstairs and see it yourself and use it yourself. The placement rate is very high, and obviously, we have been churning out some great students as they are all over the industry in many states! As for mentors or a specific person that specifically helped me: Tim Donahue, Director of Winemaking at WWCC. He is quite science based, as I am, and he latched on to my desire to make white wines and taught me exactly how to make delicious and clean white wines. My internship was with Walla Walla Vintners, and Gordy and Bill certainly influenced me in my reds, but I have also influenced them in their cellar techniques during harvest! I am also convinced that I have Sagemoor fruit only because I worked with Walla Walla Vintners, and the vineyard guys got to know me.
WWB: Can you talk about some of your vineyard sites, such as Airfield Estates and Sagemoor Vineyards? What are some of the vineyard management steps that you've taken in these recent hot vintages like 2013, 2014 and 2015?
JF: I only got Airfield Estates in the first year, so it was a one-off. Therefore, I will forget that one. Sagemoor Vineyards is, I think, one of the best sources for white wine grapes in the Columbia Valley, especially for young winemakers. The prices are on the cheaper side and the quality is great. The vines range in age from the early 70s to more recent plantings, and they are very well cared for. They enjoy constant input from the winemakers and are looking for any specific directions we are looking for in terms of vineyard treatment. All of my whites come from there for the three vintages I made wine. As for the reds, I source from Minnick Hills for Syrah and Breezy Slope for Pinot Noir, both in the Walla Walla Valley. They are good locations for both of those varietals and for the style I am looking to make. In 2015, I added Patina Vineyard for Syrah (Minnick got frosted but is back this year) and Seven Hills Vineyard for Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, and Carmenere. Trying to expand the red offerings for both wine club and consumers now that the tasting room is open. I like the Minnick Syrah for its added minerality, acid, and not so ripe flavors. I like Pinot Noir, so the pickings are pretty slim in the WW Valley; Breezy Slope is the one I knew and was able to acquire fruit from. Seven Hills is pretty expensive, but well respected and greatly cared for. Lastly, I added Patina for the riper and more fruity blending opportunities as well as the reputation of the vineyard. Waters has championed that vineyard.
The hot vintages required a little less attention, to some degree, and here is how I will explain that. Fruit exposure is what we want for thicker skins, better tannin and color, and reduction of green flavors. We also like to see nice VSP-trellised rows that look beautiful and photogenic. But, in a hot year, by doing these things as usual, we will destroy the crop by sunburn and heating the fruit to high temperatures. We want the shade and canopy when its 100 degrees out! So, in hot years, we need to be a little "lazier" and not pull leaves too excessively, not meticulously train the canopy vertical, and not overexpose the fruit. But, we still need to do some of that. Also, the water demand is higher as the vines are being baked out there. More water when it is hot doesn't necessarily mean the vines will grow more leaves and shoots. We need to keep the tendrils alive so that the vines don't push laterals. Sagemoor does some overhead sprinkler cooling, so that helps as well.
WWB: I was particularly impressed with the 2014 Sagemoor Vineyards Roussanne that had lovely structure and weight. Can you talk about the winemaking behind that wine? I'm also interested in your business model, building it on crisp and aromatic white wines. How did you decide to do that?
JF: I believe we don't see enough wines, and I mean whites here, that express time and place. In other words, whites with clear terroir, showing the difference between vineyard and vintage. In recent years, these wines are becoming more popular among the boutique wineries so we are making progress! Also something I champion is letting the wine speak for itself: for the Roussanne specifically, I did not run the wine through ML or barrel age it so that the varietal characteristics would shine through. Yes, this wine never saw a barrel! This was fermented and aged in stainless steel with Radoux ProNektar tank staves. 6% light toast, 6% medium plus toast, and 13% medium toast. I think the oak is too much in the 2014 so I dropped it from 23% to 18% for 2015, but I'm my own worst critic. It was whole cluster pressed with the addition of SO2, ascorbic acid, enzymes, and powdered tannin to the juice. It was fermented with QA23 yeast for 23 days at about 52 degrees before going dry. SO2 was added to stop ML from occurring, it was heat and cold stabilized, and sterile filtered to bottle.
As I mentioned before, I prefer to make whites because there is more science behind it and they are difficult but rewarding. Also, Walla Walla does not have many whites to choose from. I am attempting to fill that niche, make aromatic and crisp, clean whites, and also make some reds that the people really travel to Walla Walla for.
WWB: Do you have any Washington wines or wineries in particular that you gravitate towards? Any international wines that are your favorite?
JF: As for Washington, I love Maison Bleue, Trust, and Kontos. Those guys make great wine and I am drawn to a few wines at each place depending on what varietal I am looking to drink. As for international, I love Chablis and Alsatian Riesling. Those are my go-to whites. For reds, Vacqueras and Burgundy are where it's at.