As part of our Washington Wine Month feature, we bring you another winemaker interview. Superstar winemaker Jason Gorski serves as the production winemaker at DeLille Cellars. Jason is a Duke University grad that fell in love with wine in college. He has worked a huge range of winemaking positions, everywhere from working at a rural New Jersey winery, to studying under Bob Bertheau at Chateau St. Michelle. Jason has a huge range of wine experiences, making everything from late harvest Chenin Blanc to rich and layered Syrahs. If you try the releases from DeLille, you will see his talent in the glass. Talking with Jason was such a pleasure. I found him to be humble, extremely hardworking and highly knowledgeable, having an extensive background in the Washington wine industry. Here is my interview with Jason Gorski, winemaker at DeLille Cellars.
WWB: Can you talk about how your education at Duke University prepared you as a winemaker? What were some of your inspirations?
JG: When I was at Duke I started as a pre-med but I decided not to do that. While at Duke I was really loving the biological sciences. But more than that, I was first introduced to wine in college. I actually fell in love with Walla Walla and wines of Washington right away and wanted to learn more and more about wine. The more I learned about wine, the more I wanted to be a winemaker. As college progressed, I began to have it firmly in my head that I was going to try my hand in winemaking. My mentor was my professor of some of my favorite classes like anatomy. My mentor was a great guy and introduced me to wine because he was previously a somm in California. He helped me learn about wine through bind tasting. It was really intimidating doing some blind tasting with him because he was so knowledgeable but it was a great experience. I learned about winemaking from him. One thing he told me is to take a career in wine seriously. He told me that I needed to jump in head first and so I took that advice to heart and tried to get into any winery that I could.
I was able to find a winery that was about 45 minutes away from where I grew up in New Jersey. That was in 2002 when I had graduated from college. I went to Costa Rica with my mentor and studied animals down there but then came back and started making wine. I had always been interested in biology and I studied plant anatomy. But I also had a history of studying beer and wine and even brewed beer in college. We grew mushrooms, made sauerkraut and it was interesting how food is related to biology. I had a good background of the physical sciences of it but having a strong science background helps you have a scientific approach to things. There is a lot of craftsmanship to things but the science background really helps me with my current winemaking abilities.
WWB: Can you talk about your first winemaking jobs in Washington?
JG: After a few years I moved to Chateau St. Michelle and started making wine from them. They handed me a lot of the smaller lots and I was able to work with some of the really exquisite late harvest wine projects. I started making wine at Chateau St. Michelle in 2004. I was on the Chenin Blanc project that was scored so high by Wine Spectator, it got some massive scores. Working on the late harvest wines as a huge success, as we were able to produce some excellent and really high scoring wines. I also worked on the TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese) select project that was managed to ferment this nectar into 7% dessert wine. That was a lot of fun working on that project. It was really precious stuff and I can remember getting every drop with a squeegee. The wine was like a dollar each drop.
I was afforded many great winemaking opportunities at Chateau St. Michelle. It is a really large production company where you are doing a lot of things. You work a little on everything, which helps make you a well-rounded winemaker. During harvest I was doing the must adjustments, helping with racking and working on getting the wine ready for the barrel. I also worked with a lot of filtration. During blending season I was helping to grab samples for the winemakng team. I was not making winemaking decisions but was trying to help with that while I was there. After some time there I decided to leave St. Michelle and then moved on to Spring Valley. The winery planted some new vineyards in 2007. I really enjoyed learning about that project. I started at Spring Valley in the beginning of 2008. They utilize 100% estate fruit and are one of the few projects in the state like that. When I first started there my job was scouring for problems and doing the not fun things and counting buds and crop estimates. But that was useful because you are literally where the vines grow every single day. It was a great experience to go with the growing season each day. That was pretty rewarding to go out there and see the vine pruned all the way through and then harvesting the fruit that turns into delicious wine.
Besides being around the vines Spring Valley was very hands on in terms of the size. You have the chance to wear a lot of hats and then made a lot of Merlot and Cabernet Franc there and developed a love and appreciation for that. They have a good reputation for those varietals there and Washington is a state known for Merlot. Cabernet is still the blue chip though. It was very unique story of Spring Valley there as they first came out in the late 90s. They produced one of the wines that put Washington on the map because the first two vintages made the Wine Spectator Top 100. I can remember that being a really big deal. When I was in college I went and bought every Top 25 Wine Spectator wine I could find at the time. One of them I bought was a ’99 Spring Valley Uriah, a really memorable wine. Being able to work there and making wines for them brought things full circle for me. Spring Valley was a great operation and a family business that had been here for a long time. It is not only the quality of the wine it is making the connection with the people that drink it. A lot of the people that came there year after year made it like a family experience. I try to translate that at DeLille. The interaction that I have with people is significant and I want them to feel like there is a family experience here. My last vintage in Spring Valley was the ’07 Uriah. I been able to have made two wines on the Top 100 list from Wine Spectator. I had one wine while I was at St. Michelle and then the ’07 Uriah on the Top 100.
WWB: I was highly impressed by the 2013 DeLille Cellars Chaleur Estate, which was my #2 wine of last year. Can you talk about that bottling and what you enjoy about the wine?
JG: I always joke that the Chaleur Estate Blanc is my wife’s favorite wine that we make. The winemaking team really likes this wine as well because the vast majority of what we make is red wine. We didn’t create the concept of a Bordeaux blanc but we execute it really well. We put a lot of effort into this wine and we barrel ferment 90 percent of the wine. We have like 200 barrels of this wine and every single barrel is treated separately. Each ferment has a different climate and each barrel are separate living things. We have to smell, taste and test every barrel. Many times during the harvest the Chaleur Estate Blanc program is getting as much attention or even more than the other wine that we make. We are testing every barrel by smelling and tasting and evaluating constantly. We want to see what might be struggling and we are constantly trying to identify the needs of every single barrel. Then we are waiting for malolactic fermentation to go through. Every barrel will be different and we want to have a lot of complexity. When you bring the wine together, the Sauvignon Blanc and the Semillon, you get massive complexity which is what we want. The Chaleur Estate Blanc is so compelling and there are a lot of details that go into this project. We stir the lees every week which is a big project. Every Monday we do that until the wine is pumped off. The use of oak is significant as well. So you get this bright wine that makes you mouth water and you have the creamy aspect from the lees and the sweetness from the oak. It is really a fun and complex project but when it all comes together it is really rewarding and undeniably delicious. It is very easy to justify why one blend is better than another but we try to trust our palate and think about delicious here, which is one of the mantras here at DeLille.
WWB: I recently had the chance to review the dense 2013 DeLille Cellars Signature Syrah. Can you talk about that vintage and the winemaking behind that wine?
JG: I think first of all that the Syrah turned out really great that vintage. We have a less complex Syrah program than Merlot and we don’t source from as many vineyards or blocks. But we try to find different elements. The blocks vary quite a bit and we will have a lot of blending options. Sometimes we will go to press with a native ferment which is slightly behind the other ferments. Sometimes that takes time when it is just sitting there and there is more spoilage than the natural fermentation. Being pressed at the same time as the native ferment, the wine gets some extended maceration flavors and some earthy flavors. The juicy flavors are really nice and the native ferments will have some sweetness left. This is a nice range of flavors based on the different expressions. After elevage you have some interesting characteristics. This is how we can get some of the complexity of the blends. 2013 was nice because we had some Syrah come before Merlot which is not traditional. I think I made some of the better Syrah from that vintage. There was a bit of a slowdown from the first Syrah that was getting pressed and then getting it into traditional Syrah season. Stylistically we had a bit of both worlds that year. Some of the longer hanging fruit was shriveled and rich and then some was picked earlier and had the red fruit flavors that was nice as well. Overall I thought our Syrah grapes were exceptional in 2013.
WWB: You guided me through a number of 2014 release wines in the barrel, including the highly impressive lineup of red wines from DeLille. Can you talk about the 2014 vintage and some of the challenges with the hot vintage? What are some of your favorite varietals that you worked with that year?
JG: 2014 was a warmer vintage. The biggest challenge because of the heat, everything came almost all at once. Normally for Washington you have Cabernet slowing down with its development in the fall and nature helps keep the fruit on the vine. In 2014 we got almost everything early and almost everything right at once. The challenge is there and you have to have enough powers in the vineyard to pick and truck drivers to get us the frit. We had to take good care of the fruit. That was one of the biggest challenges is that the growers almost couldn’t keep up. The varietals overlapped quite a bit which can be a problem with picking. That can have a snowball effect and it is harder keeping things on schedule. Having the agility to change our plans because that is what happened that year. I felt like in 2014 the whites did a good job. The flavors came on appropriately. It is concerning when you get a lot of heat in August, and you might not get the flavor development with the sugars but the white wines turned out really beautifully. I think Cabernet was a great performer in 2014 and might be the star of the show. Our growers did a great job showing things down in the vineyard and we got into October and the added hang time really helped things with the cabernet. The Cabernet that we picked in October was really nice.
WWB: Many people have been concerned about the heat of the 2015 vintage. What are some of the vineyard management techniques that you had to take that year?
JG: The thing about 2015 was although it was warm it was one of the most consistently warm vintage. We had to remind ourselves that everything was happening quicker than normal. We had bud break early, harvest early and everything was very quick. It was warm but there wasn’t a weeklong period where it was a lot warmer from one week to the next. You want to keep everything propped up and protected from the sun. We are so much into the fruit and managing the tannins can be a big challenge. Normally we have to manage tannins through irrigation and you have to manage not watering the vines. You want them to struggle and the irrigation can develop the tannins. But if it is really hot you can have all the leaves fall off if you are not careful. Our vineyard managers balanced irrigation in a tough year. We are blessed that in Washington we can use that. We have a good access to water and much better than California. I think we did a good job last year. The only challenge was it was early harvest and compressed. The growing season ended early and didn’t stretch into October which is what we ideally would want with the Cabernet. We didn’t get the later season fruit but we are still really happy with the fruit that we got. It was a sprint last year but we kind of knew. It was like 2011 that we knew it was going to be late. We knew 2015 was going to be early picking for the fruit.
As far as the wine quality I like the whites but I am more impressed with the reds. These are broad on the palate. We have tons of fruit from this warm vintage but these wines are extraordinarily complex as well. We are not worried about flavor development and the fruit is not in your face. They are broad and complex on the palate. For young wines they seem incredibly compelling and we are cautiously optimistic that they might be better than the 2012s. These 2015 red wines are showing beautifully right now. They are lower acid and the natural acidity is lower than average but the wines show every indication that they are going to be extraordinary wines. If they are not long lived then they will only be exceptional for a decade and will provide early drinking enjoyment.