As you walk into the small and modern SoDo tasting room, you get greeted with a big ‘Hello’ and an electric smile. . . from owner and winemaker, Brian Grasso. Now that is just the tasting room entrance that you would like, coming from an industry that can sometimes push the limits of tasting room austerity. Such is not the case at Structure Cellars. Brian singlehandedly waits on you during your tasting as he encourages you to sit down and relax. While some winemakers prefer to be in the background, Brian prefers the foreground, catering to visitor’s needs. While I was visiting Structure a few weeks back, I had the chance to sit down with Brian and talk wine. He talked about his background in the service industry, and his first jobs in wine. I found him to be an overall awesome guy with a huge passion to produce the best wine possible for a decent price. Here is my interview with Brian Grasso, Owner and Head Winemaker at Structure Cellars.
WWB: What was your first few jobs like in the wine industry? What were some of your early inspirations in wine?
BG: My first introduction to wine was as a server in the restaurant industry. I was always good at selling just about whatever I believed in. I remember recommending quite a bit of DeLille, L’Ecole, Dunham, and McCrea wines. Working with Tim O’Brien at Salty’s on Alki, I began to gain a healthy appreciation for Washington wines. During the harvest of 2007, I won a wine sales contest that took me to Walter Dacon Winery in Shelton, WA. I was treated to lunch and plenty of delicious wine. Later, they even let me do a punch down. I remember looking around saying “I could do this.”
WWB: What was it like working at Darby and learning from Darby English?
BG: My first time working in a winery was a bit like being a kid in a candy store. It was so overwhelming that the memory is a bit of a blur. I had only taken one class at South Seattle and didn’t know much. I worked my ass off and hoped to prove myself as a value. The greatest thing I from my experience with Darby was gaining the network of people I was lucky to connect with; Leroy Radford, Erica Orr, Les Baer and Chris & Kelly Sparkman to name a few.
WWB: How did you start Structure Cellars? What was it like making wine at your house?
BG: Launching a winery is not an easy thing but that didn’t really matter to me. Paying for a minimum of 2 years worth of grapes, barrels, racks, and all of the other small costs (that most people don't see) is challenging, especially when you start with very little capital. A tasting room wasn’t possible at that time and that really slowed our early growth. We relied on one party a year to sell our wine. That’s how we survived…a small group of people who would later become our treasured “Foundation” Wine Club.
Making wine in our house was not optimum, but it was the ONLY way we could. The benefits outweighed the challenges at that time. Of course, I did have some “lively” conversations with my wife to convince her to have a winery in the house we had just moved into - and that was a pretty interesting part. I remember a time when I was able to do punch downs in my basement (while drinking coffee in my boxers) I felt like I had found the coolest thing ever!
Our basement was a standard size. Literally everything that came into the winery came through a man sized door: empty barrels carried in and juice pumped from our driveway, down the stairs and into the barrels was the only way to get 24 barrels of wine into our small space. I have memories of doing things that now seem almost impossible…but isn’t that the life of a winemaker?
WWB: What are some of your favorite Washington wine producers?
BG: I always wanted to grow up and be DeLille Cellars. I think they do such a great job at providing a nuanced product at every price point. Recently, I found Cairdeas in Lake Chelan, they are making some cool wine over there. Locally I really respect 8 Bells and Ward Johnson, who for years have consistently been making great wine, all the while being world class gentleman. There is a lot of good wine in Washington State…the wine that’s being made by great people means something to us.
Charles Smith wasn’t first in the SoDo/Georgetown area, but I admire his willingness to put something big on the map and lead the charge for smaller producers like Bartholomew who is making interesting wine from really unique varieties.
One of the reasons I wanted to make wine is being part of that experience: spectacular wine, good friends and the feelings that make a lasting impression. Last night, surrounded by friends, we opened a 3 liter bottle of 2006 Spring Valley Frederick. It was a wedding gift and every last drop was amazing and something I won’t forget.
WWB: I was very impressed with your Syrah bottlings. What is your approach to making great Syrah? What are some of the challenges in making Syrah from hot vintages like 2014 and 2015?
BG: I super seriously appreciate the question because my passion is Syrah - and it seems like we get our best scores and reviews for our Cabernet Franc (which is my wife Brandee’s passion). I approach Syrah almost the same as all of the other varietals that we play with, and that is really just showcasing what the vineyards create. Our 2014 vintage Syrah is sourced from Stillwater Creek, Destiny Ridge, Upland and Wallula vineyards. We could not be more pleased to be able to showcase how these amazing vineyards grow world class Syrah. Our goal is to not mess up what we get from some of the best dirt guys in the world. The key to making great wine in any vintage for us is to maintain a great relationship with the vineyard managers, lots and lots of communication. I have a tendency to lean slightly towards letting the fruit hang and gain varietal flavor characteristics. It is tricky like rocking a rhyme to balance fruit development and preserving acidity.