One of the big name winemakers in Washington, Ron Bunnell was the former head winemaker at Col Solare prior to starting his own winery, Bunnell Family Cellar. Originally from Memphis, he completed a degree in plant ecology from the University of Tennessee, and began working as a botanist. Like many eminent winemakers, Ron caught the wine bug and enrolled in the UC Davis viticulture program. He became enchanted by Napa Cabernet and then worked for famed wineries Charles Krug and Beringer before landing at Kendall-Jackson. Ron was then hired by Chateau St. Michelle in 1999 and took over their red wine program, including their Col Solare bottlings. Ron had wanted to have his own winery for many years, so in 2005 he took his chance and started Bunnell Family Cellar. Bunnell has tasting rooms both in Woodinville and Prosser. Their restaurant, Wine O' Clock (http://www.bunnellfamilycellar.com/Page.aspx?PageID=1003) is an absolutely fantastic stop for food in wine, with a marvelous outdoor patio to soak up the Eastern Washington sun. I recently had the chance to sit down with Ron and talk about his fantastic Rhone style wines, as well as his background in winemaking. Learn more about Ron and his winery at www.bunnellfamilycellar.com/ Here is my interview with superstar winemaker, Ron Bunnell.
WWB: You have incredible range in your winemaking career, previously working at Kendall-Jackson to Beringer to Chateau St. Michelle and Col Solare. Can you talk about how some of your previous winemaking experiences have made you a better winemaker for Bunnell Family Cellar? Are there any particular people in wine that have influenced you and your winemaking?
RB: I was very fortunate to work for progressive, research oriented wine companies, which allowed me a steep learning curve early in my career. For instance, Beringer, Kendall-Jackson and Ste. Michelle all had extensive barrel evaluation programs. That experience has served me well in the small setting of our family winery. As Syrah program leader for Kendall-Jackson, I began my long association with my favorite grape variety. While Head Red Winemaker at Ste. Michelle, I established relationships with many of the growers in Washington. This has been invaluable in deciding which growers to work with at Bunnell Family Cellar.
There are many winemakers who have had a significant influence on my career. Patrick Leon, formerly of Georges Duboeuf and Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and Jean-Louis Mandrau of former winemaker at Chateau La Tour were both consultants during my years at Beringer Vineyards. Ed Sbragia, Winemaker Emeritus at Beringer was my friend and supervisor. Randy Ullom of Kendall-Jackson, Piero Antinori and Renzo Cotarella of Antinori and Col Solare have all been important influences.
WWB: Your 2009 Bunnell Family Cellar 'ALX' Syrah was a stunning wine that landed on my Top 100 wines of 2015 (http://www.washingtonwineblog.com/top-100#/2015-top-100/). Can you talk about the winemaking behind this rich, layered and decadent Syrah, that is named after your son, Alex?
RB: Conceptually, we wanted to segue from the three “Rhone” style blends we were making to two blends, one of which would be modeled after the Southern Rhone, Grenache based, style and the other, a Syrah-dominant Northern Rhone style. The French might use the terms “feminine” and “masculine” to describe these divergent styles. We named the feminine wine “LIA” after our daughter, and the masculine wine “ALX” after our son, Alex. The winemaking of ALX is an aggressively extractive fermentation, utilizing a minimum of four punch downs daily. In addition, we employ saigner method to concentrate the skin: juice ratio of the fermenting must. The rest is no secret, it takes great grapes to make great wine.
WWB: You source from a range of vineyards, everywhere from Lake Chelan (Gewurtztraminer) to Snipes Mountain (Aligote) to Red Mountain (Bordeaux blends). Can you talk about the incredible range of terroir that you work with and some emerging regions in Washington that you think have good potential?
RB: My tenure at Ste. Michelle exposed me to grape sources throughout the Columbia Valley. I have drawn on this experience to select specific vineyards and growers to work with. Today, I am especially excited about two new viticulture areas. The first is a corridor immediately adjacent to the Columbia River, just south of Lake Chelan, near Orondo. This corridor is quite warm and so can easily ripen Bordeaux and Rhone red varieties, but benefits from the moderating influence of the river. This area has historically been planted to apples, but is starting to be planted to grapes by a few pioneering growers. I am very excited by the 2015 first crop reds from Double D Vineyard, my client in this new area.
The second emerging area which I am focusing on is Painted Hills Vineyard on the north facing slope of the Horse Heaven Hills, south of Sunnyside in Yakima Valley. The site is outside the boundaries of both Horse Heaven AVA and Yakima Valley AVA. Like the Orondo site, this land has never been planted to grapes before. I have never seen such young Cabernet vines perform so well. I am also sourcing Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah from this vineyard.
WWB: At Bunnell Family Cellar you have gained a nationwide reputation for producing high quality Rhone varietals. Can you talk about some of the recent vintages, 2013, 2014 and 2015 and how these varietals fared in these warm vintages? Do you have any concerns regarding the frost during the winter of 2014 and the heat during the summer of 2015? Out of these three vintages which one do you feel has the best potential for red wines and which one has the best potential for white wines?
RB: Generally, warmer vintages in Washington yield excellent results over a wider range of varieties unless the heat events occur during critical periods of fruit development such as flowering and fruit set. Having said that, there are some Rhone varieties which I believe produce more interesting wines in cooler seasons, such as Grenache and Counoise in 2010 and 2011. The cooler weather and longer hang time aids in color development and aromatic complexity.
Regarding cold events, I am always concerned about the long-term effects of cold events, whether they are early frost events which can harm vines not yet dormant or extreme winter temperatures which can kill the vines. It is not always predictable, even if vine and buds survive a cold event, what the long-term damage is.
I am always reticent to predict the ultimate potential quality of a particular vintage because I have seen too many exceptions to such predictions. However, of the three most recent vintages, I am especially excited about the 2014 reds and 2015 whites.
WWB: When you are not enjoying your wines, what is typically in your glass? Any particular wines of the world or regions of the world that you gravitate towards?
RB: I tend to drink more red than white, and am a long-time fan of French Rhones, and Italian reds from Tuscany and Piedmonte. In the New World, I am enjoying Argentine Malbec.