Trying to track down Morgan Lee during harvest is a challenge. After trying his awesome new release wines, I was finally able to grab him on a drive to Walla Walla where he was traveling check on the vineyards. A highly talented winemaker at Two Vintners Winery, Morgan has roots in the Midwest and was inspired by a wine appreciation class that he enjoyed while attending Purdue University. Previously interning at Columbia Crest, Morgan talked about the process of starting a winery, and discussed details behind fantastic new release wines. I found him incredibly approachable and laid back as he was a delight to talk wine with. Here is my interview with the Morgan Lee, head winemaker of Two Vintners and Covington Cellars.
WWB: How did you first decide to become a winemaker? What were your first inspirations?
ML: I grew up in the Midwest in Indiana and Purdue has a small enology program. They have a wine appreciation class and seniors took it because Monday night and you can drink in class. But I thought that it was a really fun class and I knew I could learn something from it. I became inspired from this class and I would hang out in the enology lab and ferment things. I also started doing some fermentations in my basement and gave the wine away to friends and family. The wine was made by using ridiculous varietals and the wine had residual sugar but this process of winemaking got me really excited. I took a semester off and the professor of the wine appreciation class, amazingly named Dr. Vine, ended up writing a letter of recommendation to have an internship working a harvest (2005) at a winery in Michigan. At the time I was on the track for culinary school and taking the semester off was great. I loved working in the winery, getting up early and getting dirty. I didn’t have any winemaking formal education so everything I have learned has been hands on. The first harvest in Washington was working an internship at Columbia Crest which is how I ended up in Washington. We decided to leave our families in the Midwest which was a really big change. My job at Columbia Crest was 11 dollars an hour, and we were very isolated moving to the middle of the desert and knowing nobody but the decision to come to Washington really paid off.
WWB: What are some of the biggest challenges with starting Two Vintners?
ML: I was hired at Covington in 2007 and later they partnered with me to start Two Vintners. The winery came naturally to me. I wasn’t initially asking to start a winery but I have always felt that the best and my favorite grapes in Washington are Syrah and Merlot. I think personally think they are the varietals that have the best expression state. At the time Covington didn’t focus on the varietals and I have always some wine on the side but I was thinking that we should be making Merlot and Syrah. There wasn’t initially a name or concept but they thought about it and said I should start my own winery and use the equipment and we will finance you to help get it off the ground. That first vintage was just 300 cases total and it was Syrah, Merlot and the ‘Lola’ red wine. The winery really took off from there.
At the time I thought we were going to keep it mailing list and do small releases. Demand grew and we got the scores and then now seven years later we are up to 4000 something cases. The challenge at the time was that Syrah and Merlot were a hard sell in the industry. These varietals weren’t selling well but they were hiding in the blends. I have seen Syrah turn around in a big way over the years but Merlot still wasn’t really selling well. I feel that it deserves its place and we want to make believers out of people. I have always prided myself in doing things that other people don’t do whether it is experimenting or working with different varietals and fermentation methods. We are always interested in trying to do ridiculous things like crafting one of the only Zinfandels in the state. I think that has been good for the brand as well. I try to be different and I want to have a unique product, which is one of the biggest challenges in the industry today. I have been able to work with some of the best vineyards in the state and the better relationship with the farmer the better fruit you get.
WWB: I was hugely impressed with your 2015 Two Vintners Grenache Blanc (WWB, 91), a wine that shows nice balance from a hot vintage. How were you able to get that nice structure in an extremely hot vintage?
ML: Being so far away firm the vineyard it is hard and you have to get out there and pick all of the time. You need to taste the grapes constantly and I am not really a numbers guy, I am more of a tasting guy. I pick when it tastes right. I have always been one of the first people to pick, no matter what varietal and this was the case with this 2015 Grenache Blanc. The farmer always says that I am a bit early with picking the fruit but you want to get the acid right and the addition of the Roussanne helps. I like the palate of this wine and I have moved to native yeast fermentation which I think that adds to the structure of the wine as well. A little bit of battonage on the lees also adds to the mouthfeel. There is no new wood used in aging but we have utilized two thirds neutral French oak for six months. Those elements help build structure over time with retaining the acid.
WWB: You make a great, one of a kind Zinfandel, as I was extremely impressed with your 2014 Two Vintners Zinfandel (WWB, 92). Can you talk about making this wine and the challenges with making great Zinfandel from Washington?
ML: Zinfandel wasn’t a plan and I was trying to get into the Stonetree Vineyard. I have really enjoyed the fruit from there but the problem is that the farmer is not going to have exactly what you want. That was the case with Stonetree. The farmer had this fruit and I wanted to make the wine. The fruit is really good from this vineyard. I have always liked the Stonetree fruit and we wanted to add the Zin to the lineup. I had no idea what to do with it and I didn’t have any peers to talk to about it because nobody was making it at the time. Zinfandel ripens unevenly even the best years. I have talked to people in California and the problem with the varietal is the ripening. You will have always normal grapes, raisins and green berries in the cluster. I have chose to put everything into fermentation which I have learned over time. The first year when I got the fruit it looked so bad. I was really worried about it. I called on people to help about my concern was that Zinfandel is not pretty fruit and I have learned to embrace that part of Zinfandel. Zin holds its acid and gives you the intense flavors. I think that the 2014 Zinfandel wine turned out great. I am not out to make a dainty Zinfandel and it is a hot weathered fruit that produces some big wine. This has become an important part of my portfolio and I love the challenge in making this wine. I don’t care if somms like it or not, but I love it. There are not many Zins in the state and I am proud that we make the best.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Two Vintners wines, what is in your glass?
ML: If I could choose one wine every day I would choose white wines from Alsace. Those are just thrilling to me. I think that you can get white wines that are that interesting and there is only one place. The funny thing is I make Gewürztraminer and I don’t really dive into Pinot Blanc and Riesling. I appreciate the hell out of those wines. I try a lot of wines which builds my education as a winemaker. I think that Syrah from Cornas is one of my favorites. That is likely my favorite Syrah in the world. There are just so many that it is difficult to choose from. Washington simply has great wine. I know I am biased but there are exciting things going on here in our backyards. The first wine I ever had from Washington was Abeja. I tried that was when I was living in Indiana. I love the nostalgia of Abeja but those wines are also fantastic. There are so many people doing awesome things in our neighborhood like Savage Grace, Michael is making some great wines. The best part is there is very little bad wine in Washington anymore. That really raises the bar for Washington.