A winemaker with serious pedigree, Todd Alexander serves as head winemaker at Force Majeure winery. Prior to coming to Washington, Todd served as winemaker at the famed Bryant Family Vineyards in Napa Valley, where he was crafting cult-worthy Cabernets. Todd learned from some of the brightest minds in wine there including legendary consultant Michelle Roland and eminent vineyard manager David Abreu. Todd has been in Washington since 2014 and I recently had the chance to visit with him at a dinner. I found him to be incredibly knowledgeable, and well-spoken as he is clearly passionate about Washington wines. I am very excited to see how this very cool winery, Force Majeure, continues to develop. Todd recognizes the immense potential of great Cabernet on Red Mountain and is very excited about the future of the Washington wine industry. Here is my interview with Todd Alexander, head winemaker at Force Majeure Vineyards.
WWB: You have a wide depth of winemaking experience in Napa Valley, previously working at Plumpjack/Cade. How did you first land in Napa and eventually move to the esteemed winery Bryant Family Vineyard?
TA: I actually began making wine in Texas, of all places. I have family there and after college, I wanted to get into winemaking. For some reason, going to California at the time seemed a bit daunting, so I wanted to go somewhere and get some cellar experience and more education before making the leap to California. I found a winery there and worked in the cellar for a couple of years, at the same time getting an education in viticulture and enology. After a couple of years, once I got comfortable and had some experience, I was ready to jump into the middle of California winemaking and get serious, to really challenge myself. I was hired on at Plumpjack and I worked there on the winemaking team, and also worked at CADE on Howell Mountain at the same time (CADE is owned by Plumpjack). I did that for a couple of years, really absorbed a lot and deepened my knowledge and experience. Then I heard about an assistant winemaker opportunity at Bryant Family Vineyard from an acquaintance in Napa, and I submitted by resume there. I did a few interviews and hit it off with them, so I was hired on. The rest, as they say, is history…
WWB: What are some of the differences in terroir that you notice between growing great Cabernet in Napa and growing great Cabernet on Red Mountain?
TA: Soils types are an obvious one. And Napa gets that nice blanket of fog during the summer that keeps mornings nice and cool, but they also get serious heat there too, not unlike what we get here. The days are longer here in Washington and our season can be a little shorter. I do think in some ways the areas are similar. The Cabernet that comes off our Red Mountain vineyard does tend to remind me a bit of Howell Mountain in Napa. We have structured wines with good acidity, and a rusticity in the tannins that I think you sometimes see in Howell Mountain wines. Nice complexity in the aromatics. That said, Cab that I’ve been producing from Red Mountain has fine tannins that eventually become silky and layered with time. There is finesse, not just power. The wines will age well if grown and made properly. I think the wines in Red Mountain and in this region can be as good as anywhere, or I wouldn’t be here.
WWB: What are some of the challenges with making red wine in very hot vintages like 2014 and 2015? Are there any vineyard management techniques that you're using to manage the heat?
TA: In hot vintages like 2014 and 2015, canopy management becomes even more critical. You want to shade the fruit, just allowing dappled light on the clusters rather than direct sunlight, so shoot positioning is important, and having a healthy canopy that’s the right size, balancing the vine, is critical. For us, irrigation is also very important in those vintages to get the vines through, as well as good nutrition with things like compost, and pest control. So, there are a number of factors and things you have to pay close attention to, but that’s just like every year. If you get those elements right, your juice chemistry won’t be out of whack. You’re going to see elevated sugars and alcohol levels in hotter vintages, that’s just the way it is, unless you’re going to manipulate things heavily or pick too early. I don’t do that, I like the vintage to show through, I’m not trying to make the same wines every year, that’s not interesting.
WWB: Many Washington winemakers that I've spoken to are excited about this vintage, which could mean another early harvest. What are your thoughts on this vintage thusfar (July 26, 2016)?
TA: I am always optimistic that we can make great wine every year, I don’t get scared, I am confident in what we do and I know what my team is capable of doing. I don’t lose my composure if things aren’t perfect with the weather, because you can’t control that, you just deal with it. 2016 got off to a nervous start with early bud break and some early heat, but then things leveled off in June and July, until the end of July anyway, where we had a heat spike, but that was bound to happen. Things slowed down a bit with temps in the upper 70s and low 80s, like a lot of June and July were, so that was nice. This year our vineyard looks the best it has looked since I have been up here, and I think 2016 will be a great vintage if things go on like they have been. We made some terrific wines in 2014 and 2015 despite the heat. Next year we are supposed to be in a La Nina pattern, so it may be cooler. That’ll be interesting if that comes to pass.
WWB: Do you have any favorite Napa producers or any other favorite Washington producers that you particularly enjoy?
TA: Napa - Bryant Family, Pott Wines, Keplinger, Myriad, Lagier Meredith, Colgin, Dunn, Outpost, Hourglass, Failla, Relic, Abreu, Vine Hill Ranch, Peter Michael, Kongsgaard, Hudson…there are more. My love for California wines extends far beyond Napa though. Washington (and Oregon side of Walla Walla) - Mark Ryan, Avennia, Betz, Reynvaan, Gramercy, Analemma, Syncline, Delmas, Rotie, Leonetti, Figgins, Cayuse to name some I enjoy. I had a terrific Syrah from II Vintners also. There are still a lot of producers here that I haven’t tried yet.
WWB: Can you talk about a winemaker that has particularly inspired you?
TA: I couldn’t pick just one. I have gotten inspiration from a number of winemakers and growers, some of whom are friends of mine - Laurent Charvin, Vincent Maurel, Henri Bonneau in Chateauneuf du Pape, Helen Keplinger, Manfred Krankl, Justin Smith, John Alban, David Abreu, Clare Carver and Brian Marcy, Maggie Harrison and others - lots of people in this profession inspire me for different reasons. There are different elements, philosophies and aesthetics of different people that I get inspired by. It could be winemaking, could be philosophy, farming, or more practical matters. I am always discovering people and things that inspire me, thankfully. I tend to gravitate toward people who are a bit iconoclastic, but not over the top with ego, or who go out of their way to be wild and crazy to the point where it’s a gimmick. At the same time, I appreciate people who understand the value of history, tradition and longevity, and I like people who are inspired and passionate, visionary.
WWB: You're exceedingly well-traveled. Do you have any particular winemaking regions or producers that have inspired you?
TA: I wouldn’t say I’m exceedingly well-traveled! There are still many places that I haven’t been and want to explore. I have way too many influential producers to list, I wouldn’t know where to stop. But definitely the Rhône valley, Burgundy and Bordeaux, I could travel to those places endlessly and never tire of them. I like the history there, as well as the wines, people and way of life. Spain and Italy I also love, I really want to go explore Bierzo. I really enjoyed touring Hungary, and I’m intrigued by some of the eastern European producers and what they’re doing there. I need to carve out some time to get over there and check it out more. I love Oregon, Washington and California too, everything has its place.