Superstar winemaker Chris Peterson is a winemaker is performing right in his sweet spot. If you have had the chance to sample any of his new release wines from Avennia and Passing Time, you will see the attention to detail in the glass. Chris has a long history in the Washington wine industry. He was the first graduate of the Walla Walla Community College’s Enology and Viticulture program. Chris admits that he was hooked on DeLille from a young age and finally got his shot to work there after completing his degree in Walla Walla. He worked at DeLille for eight years and learned under legendary winemaker Chris Upchurch. From there Chris launched Avennia with Marty Taucher in 2010. Avennia has been a huge success as they have produced stunning releases that span everything from bright Sauvignon Blanc to inky Syrah. More recently Chris was hired to be head winemaker at Passing Time, a winery founded by former NFL quarterbacks Damon Huard and Dan Marino. His 2013 Passing Time Cabernet (WWB, 94) is a gorgeous and rich effort that will is one for the cellar. Recently I had the chance to sit down with Chris. He was incredible humble and articulate about his successes. He talked about his wines, his background and some recent great vintages in Washington. I think you will really enjoy learning more about him. Here is my interview with superstar winemaker, Chris Peterson, of Avennia and Passing Time
WWB: What inspired you to become a winemaker? What were some of your early influences in wine?
CP: I started to have a passing interest in wine in the mid-‘90s, not much more sophisticated than finding reviews in Wine Spectator and trying to get the best rated wines I could on my limited budget. Then in 1997 I did a study abroad program in Poitiers, France while studying at the University of WA. While not in great wine country per se, the supermarket shelves were lined with cheap Bordeaux. This, along with the lifestyle in France, planted a seed, and I started to take wine a little more seriously after that. As I explored wine more in Washington, I found the wines of Cayuse early on (while they still had a tasting room, and Christophe was pouring in it—I guess that dates me), and DeLille. The wines of France were always an interesting subject of study, especially Rhone Valley wines, as they are very terroir driven—and affordable, which was essential at that time. I began to buy a few books on the subject, and got pretty obsessed with all the wine regions of France.
When I started my studies at the Walla Walla program, I thought I might get into importation, or distribution, and continue to learn about all of these wine areas, and hopefully travel to them. But as I began to do the work, at various internships, I found that I really loved the blue collar, hard work aspect. The craft and care was meaningful to me, so at that point I was hooked. So I guess early influences were DeLille, Cayuse, Woodward Canyon, and Chinook locally, and definitely Dagueneau, Nicolas Joly, and Henri Bonneau were fascinating figures early on.
WWB: A number of wines that you produced landed on my 2015 Top 100, including the gorgeous value bottling, the 2013 Les Trouves Red Wine (WWB, 91). Can you talk about how you decided to make that wine and what having that wine adds to your profile of impressive red wines?
CP: Thanks! I was really excited about that wine as well. We had always thought a second label could be a good opportunity here, because there is so much good wine in this state, and many values to be had. But we wanted to be very careful to protect any reputation that Avennia had garnered along the way. I feel like we make wines that show an individual purpose, and share a voice. So to make an anonymous “tank wine” and throw it out there with a hip label at a price point was less interesting to me. I still wanted the wines to express a purpose. The way I see Les Trouvés is using our expertise and voice, if you will, to give context to some very good wines from around the state. Even in the Avennia lineup we see the blend as a way to create complex and complete wines that have their own identities. With Les Trouvés the only difference is that we didn’t ferment the wines. We gather samples from around the state and do strict selections and blending trials to try and reflect our values and quality standards.
WWB: What was it like being assistant winemaker at DeLille for 8 years under Chris Upchurch? Can you talk about what you learned at DeLille and how you apply that to your current wine projects at Avennia and Passing Time?
CP: Working at DeLille was an amazing opportunity, of course. I could probably write a novel on everything I learned and experienced there. When I started there, they were making about 5000 cases and had five wines total. When I left there were 12-15 wines, over 12,000 cases, and two or three different labels. I started as the cellarmaster, fresh out of school, and left as the Production Winemaker, with a decent amount of say over the styles of many of the wines. Chris Upchurch was a pretty influential mentor because he let me free in the cellar. I was always tasting different barrels, experimenting with blends, yeasts, etc. We were often tasting wines together and talking about how we taste and experience wine. He taught me how much you can guide a winery not with science, but with your palate, and with a vision. It was a lot of hard work in between, that’s for sure, but I definitely see the benefits from it these days.
Another thing we both thought was important was traveling to France and visiting with winemakers there, and tasting wines with them. While I was at DeLille I was lucky enough to visit nearly all of the major wine regions there. That was very generous and open-minded of them, and I think extremely valuable.
With Avennia, I feel like we took that passion for showing place, and having a vision, and shaped it to my experiences both here and abroad. Chris Upchurch always said, if you start a winery, bring something to the table. I really tried to take that to heart, and I strive to do it with every wine. In Washington, we have some of the best growers and vineyard sites in the world, in my opinion, so I just wanted to show them as clearly as possible, in the best context possible, and have it come from a place of passion, not from a spreadsheet.
WWB: You have incredible range as a winemaker, making everything from Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet to GSM wines. Can you talk about how your background in winemaking, everything from being the first graduate of Walla Walla's School of Enology and Viticulture, to your time at DeLille, and how that has prepared you to work with such a wide range of varietals?
CP: See above, really. I absolutely feel that to make great wine, you have to know what it is. I try and taste great wine as often as possible. I am in an incredible wine group in Woodinville that includes some of the top established winemakers in the area, and taste often with other winemakers, both out of their barrels, and ours. My wife Lauren and I are always vacationing in wine country. One of these days I should probably take her to a beach or something. So when I want to make a Sauvignon Blanc, I think of it in a context that includes Didier Dagueneau, Smith-Haut-Lafite, and the best wines of Marlborough, and compare our wines to that. When I am working on our Rhone blend, I definitely have Domaine du Pegau and Vieux Donjon in my head as reference points. But I am inspired by what makes those wines taste like they do, and try and let our wines say what they want to. I think of Washington wine in that way: that we can hang with the world class wines using a number of varietals and blends. It’s not about tasting these wines and saying, “if we can taste like that, we will be world class.” It’s more like, what makes a wine great, and what sets this wine apart. Then taking your wine, and saying, “what makes this great? And what sets it apart?”
WWB: Many winemakers are excited about their new 2013 releases. I was wondering about your thoughts about the vintage and if you could talk about how 2013 shapes up against 2012 and 2014? How thrilled are you with your 2014 red wines in the barrel?
CP: The last few years have been very interesting, from the cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, to the four month furnace that was 2015. I’ve found it interesting that even the warm vintages definitely all have their own character. 2013 was quite warm, warmer than 2012, but due to the fact that the heat came in extremely warm spikes, it almost drinks like a cooler vintage. When it gets above 95 degrees, the vines tend to shut down, so even though the total heat was higher, we found overall the grapes had lower sugars. This follows through to the wines themselves, which show a lot of elegance and varietal character, rather than being the big bruisers that the warm summer would suggest. I also have found that the wines are really improving in bottle already, gaining body and complexity rather quickly.
2012 and 2014 seem to be a little more similar to each other, with both being really outstanding vintages in Washington. The 2014s we are about to bottle are some of the most exciting wines I can remember, and I am looking forward to seeing what these wines can show in terms of the world stage that Washington is poised to stand on. It is a truly exciting time in Washington wine right now, and we are proud to do the best we can to support this great region.