Originally from Tacoma, like many winemakers, Sean Boyd has taken an intriguing path to Rotie Cellars. Previously working as a geologist for ten years in oil and gas exploration, Sean worked his first harvest at Waters Winery in 2004. He decided to start his own winery 2007, focusing solely on Rhone varietals. Sean’s background in soil and mineralology has been a great asset for him. He tends to craft more Old World style Washington Red and White wines, focusing on minimal intervention. Sean started Rotie Cellars in Walla Walla but has recently opened a tasting room near Kerloo and Structure in the SoDo district of Seattle.
Some of his recent bottlings at Rotie are just gorgeous. His 2013 ‘Little g’ Grenache (WWB, 93) is a rich and layered effort that will cellar marvelously. I recently sat down with Sean and talked wine. He was just a delight to talk to as I really liked his straightforward and down to earth style. I think you will really enjoy hearing more about him. Here is my interview with Sean Boyd, owner and head winemaker of Rotie Cellars.
WWB: How did you decide to start Rotie Cellars?
SB: It started being enamored by Rhone wines. I liked the freshness, structure and range within the region then like many things a passion led me blindly into winemaking. I was working for two different winemakers learning 2 very different styles and was figuring what I liked and didn't (2004). After 3 harvest tasting barrels, friends barrels, and friends of friends barrels I started understanding what I liked/didn't out of vineyards and varietals in such a vast growing region with is Washington State/Oregon. In 2007 I convinced my employer to make my own for a reduced salary and Rotie Cellars was born. Walla Walla might be the best place to grow all Whites and Syrahs, and anywhere within the middle part of our state that's planted in rocky, steep relief, and next to a large river is probably the best place to grow Grenache and Mourvedre. Like any passion, or addiction, is that 1 contract leads to 10 and then into our own vineyards. I think we have found one of the best places in the world to grow Rhone varietals and as a region are in our infancy so the future is bright.
WWB: What intrigues you most about the Rocks region? I know you are shifting to having more of your wines from this region. Can you talk about your vine training style and how you expect this training style for the vines at your vineyard to increase extraction, minerality and intensity of your wines?
SB: For me it's the first fingerprint of terroir we have within the state. In blinds you can tell what has rocks district fruit. Many other areas have tell tails but are more focused on heat indices rather than the all-encompassing terroir. The money pit we call a vineyard is one of the best things I have ever done. I wasn't born a farmer or on a vineyard so learning the intricacies has been a challenge but paramount as wine is mostly grown not made. The Rocks District is not without its challenges. We are on low lying land which is susceptible to frost and freeze episodes so burying canes and keeping heads/wood low is how we have choosen grow. Both the Grenache and Syrah are on a hybrid head pruning system, hybrid being we have a trellis to support the weight of Syrah. Syrah is known for flopping and growing major canopies that cannot be kept up without trellising. More to your question the closer to the ground also helps us to grow less wood and focus energy into the ground rather than growing wood. The pruning is 1 cluster/shoot on relatively tight spacing so we are focusing on 6-8 clusters/plant which will develop the concentration and depth we want.
WWB: Your oak treatment in your wines tends to be very minimal. Can you talk about that style of winemaking and the problems that can be associated with using more new oak?
SB: If I won the lottery tomorrow I would buy all the cooperages I love and make my friends use them for a year or two. For me there's popsicle stick tannins in new wood that I can do without. When I'm drinking Rhones I don't want to be chewing on wood. Grenache and Mourvedre need little to no oak while Syrah can benefit from a little more. I'm liking to barrel ferment the whites but that's mainly because Kevin Masterman (Winemaker I work with) has shown me the way.
WWB: One of the best Grenache wines from Washington that I reviewed last year was your 2013 Rotie Cellars 'Little G' Grenache (WWB, 93), that showed incredible character and balance. Can you talk about this fantastic wine?
SB: Yes Little g is one of our favorite kids. Year in and year out this is from a site 40-50' up from the Columbia river just down from Goldendale. It's picked the latest possible in the state in the beginning of November and is hanging at 24.5 Brix. This translates to long hang time with incheck Alcs. Most of our Grenache is coopered in 500L Puncheons so we usually pull out 100-150 cases of this pure Grenache that looks more like a Pinot, yet it has the backbone of Grenache. Here you have the dichotomy between a rugged grape that needs the highest heat indices to produce which is comparable to a temperate varietal that requires the least.
WWB: You have now released some of your 2014 red and white wines. Are you excited about this hot vintage? Can you talk about how you feel this vintage turned out and how the vintage influenced the wines? How was this vintage different an then new, 2015 vintage?
SB: Number one is we have our estate coming online for Syrah within the Northern Red. We are starting the shift into what will be 100% Rocks District fruit within the 2015 vintage Reds. The barrels are getting darker and deeper so we cannot wait for this transition. Right now we are 70% Rocks District with the remaining 30% coming from higher elevation Walla Walla which helps the acidity. In 2015 we had a hot start to the year yet August and September were cooler than normal which saved us. Hope the same to be true for this year as we are 2 weeks ahead of last year on 5/31 as I write this. 2014 was hot but our Syrah and white vineyards in Walla Walla did very well and our GRE and DRE are from areas near steep relief, wind and large rivers. We are so far North that the diurnal shift helps us to retain the acidity naturally and there are tricks within management that can help retain acidity.