A Washington winemaker that needs no introduction, Aryn Morell is originally from Western Washington and was a top golfer growing up. He attended the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), for their golf program and also studied Chemistry at the UNLV. Aryn felt inspired following a weekend trip to Napa Valley and realized that wine industry might be for him. He then had his start Napa Valley in late 2003. Aryn worked for some prestigious properties there including Golden State Vintners, Edgewood Estates, Silver Oak and also worked for a company that consulted for Joseph Phelps, Quintessa, Hartwell, Chimney Rock, Caldwell Vineyards, Vineyard 29, Chappellet, Rutherford Hill, Spring Mountain Winery, Stags Leap Winery, Turnbull, and many others. Following his four years in Napa, in 2007 Aryn moved back to his home state, working at Matthews Winery as winemaker. Since that time he has founded other winery projects including Alleromb, Morell-Pena and also consults for Tenor, Mullan Road, Gard and Ardor projects. HIs wines are focused, balanced and superb. I recently had the chance to sit down with him for a three hour tasting and chat wine. His vast knowledge of winemaking and the wine industry was apparent. He was a delight to converse with as I admired his candid and precise approach to making wine. Aryn is a superstar winemaker in Washington wine and I hope you enjoy my interview with him.
WWB: What was it like starting your wine journey in the Napa Valley and working for storied properties like Silver Oak? How has your experiences in Napa made you a better winemaker?
WWB: At the time, I didn’t think much of whether starting in Napa or anywhere else made much difference. I was young (22) and wasn’t a huge wine person although I enjoyed wine it wasn’t a huge part of my daily routine. I went there because my brother was there and in visiting I enjoyed the vibe, the beauty of the valley and the general combination of science and art. I’ll admit at the time I was more interested in the science aspect as I’m wired to look at things critically. Over time you begin to see the art in it but that came much later. Working at Golden State Vintners and then Silver Oak was educational to say the least; I got to see the very large side of the industry at GSV and was actually there when The Wine Group bought them in 2003. When I went to work at Silver Oak it was a harvest/intern position and I started out taking vineyard samples and then transitioned into the cellar as harvest came closer and filled in literally everywhere as I was given the freedom to go wherever they needed me. I stayed on after harvest and went and did what they asked which was a little bit of everything. I’m not sure that Napa by itself made me a better winemaker, but it certainly gives you perspective on how a very established region operates. Getting to see so many wineries and operations you get the sense of how much money and time is involved and how many people are actually involved in making wine. Coming to a region like Washington was eye opening after being in Napa, it was like stepping back in time. Small wineries, small budgets and an apparent lack of inter-winery competition. On my first trip to Washington I was told about a late night by winery X, because they had gone to help another winery finish harvest, it was something I couldn’t comprehend at the time. I grew up as an athlete and find a way to compete at everything I do (including winemaking) so the passiveness was certainly something new for me as I found Napa to be far more competitive. Another thing in hindsight that drives the way I operate now is that the correlation to how many people are involved in making decisions at a given property dramatically affects the resulting quality. And that relationship is generally the opposite of what you may think. The places that had fewer voices involved tended to make wines that saw higher highs and more distinction as far as quality and places with more people made wines consistently but not necessarily great wines and also without much of a signature. There are certainly larger wineries that make great wine, but those places are seeing direction being dictated from only one or two people. There is certainly a conscious decision at many wineries to go one way or the other. The bigger brands erred on the side of consistency while sacrificing some quality and individuality and the smaller guys by size not budget...erred on the side of letting fewer people be involved so as to allow a more singular focus and style to define the wines. That concept drives the way we interact with our clients every day.
WWB: Your winemaking talents touch everything from Sauvignon Blanc to Merlot to Malbec. Do you have any varietals in particular that you most enjoy working with? What new Washington grapes or regions make you the most excited?
AM: Sadly my answer is pretty generic, I love working with everything (except maybe Roussanne…) and for me the challenge is to understand what each varietal is good and bad at and create a plan to maximize its chance for success. Every vineyard, varietal and clone have unique properties so it’s trying to gather enough knowledge to make decisions about what needs to be done to get from A to B. Each winery we work with has a unique style so making the same varietal for each winery entails dramatically different protocol to achieve their distinct signature. Too many consultants make the same wines for every winery they work with, some times intentionally (because they feel you hired them for their style) and other times because there is no desire or capacity to make unique wines for everyone you work with as its time consuming and very detail oriented. Right now I’m most excited about Pinot Noir because we’ve never had it in the winery and we planted a vineyard a few years ago after years of weather mapping and choosing the right location. It’s also the newest project so it’s like having a new child and everyone is interested in seeing what it’s going to look like, be like etc… I’m not good at staying still so there is always some new “side” project that we just can’t resist trying. Can you say sparkling wine…;)
WWB: Last year your wines from Tenor were hugely impressive, including the stunning 2013 Tenor Sauvignon Blanc (WWB, 92), which was one of the best new world Sauvignon Blanc wines that I reviewed last year. Can you talk about this fantastic wine and also about some of the challenges with making Sauvignon Blanc in Washington?
AM: I think that wine specifically is one of the more unique wines we make. Its Sauvignon Blanc that is macerated on the skins for 12-36 hours depending on the vintage, then pressed, settled and racked to barrel for fermentation. We have been using more new oak than most would expect in Sav Blanc but in larger formats, tighter grain and lighter toasts. This year we will be going to 600L’s after a few years in 300’s. It’s certainly not a shy wine, but as most Tenor wines it’s meant to showcase a single varietal in a ripe and opulent style but still with good freshness, which is key to maintaining some sense of balance. It’s ok for wines to be big and ripe but they still need to be drinkable and that comes with balance and for me balance has nothing to do with alcohol solely, it’s the sum of the parts and how they work with each other. I think the 2016 version will be the pinnacle of what we are trying to achieve in that style. Sauvignon Blanc is perfectly suited for the Columbia Valley as long as wineries control yields and exposure. The biggest issue with all whites in WA is exposure, we have such long exposure times on the west side of the plant so it forces many growers who didn’t plant off axis to heavily shade the west side and leaf the east. The problem then is the ripening is uneven which can have some complexity benefits (as long as the burn and sun degraded fruit is dropped) but it’s always easier to grow more uniformly and change your picking times to create complexity in your wines.
WWB: One of the best wines from the Walla Walla Rocks region that I sampled last year was your gorgeous 2014 Ardor Cellars ‘Stoney Vine Vineyard’ Syrah (WWB, 94) which was a sexy Syrah that showed massive range and Rocks character. Can you tell us more about this fantastic wine.
AM: I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the “Rocks” so this is the only fruit we pull from there and it’s because the Kubrocks who own Ardor love it. My goal in making any wine for a client is to give them what they want but to also maintain some sense of restraint when it comes to areas that tend to skew out of my own personal taste. There tends to be the desire to take what is already a unique area, with its own unique growing conditions and try and magnify what it’s already going to do naturally. The amount of complex sulfides, high pH and green notes from the long vegetative cycle that are generally created from those growing conditions and then winemaking to amplify them seems counter intuitive. I chose to allow the wine to show the classic Rocks profile but in a more understated way. Our winemaking style is clean, pure and delineated regardless of the brand and we try and allow what the site wants to do naturally to take over after that. That wine was one of the more feminine rocks wines in its youth that I’ve had the chance of trying and in my opinion is what I would hope more vintners in the area would attempt. The “Rocksiness” is still going to come out with time and air but the wines would show so much more range and development in their youth rather than going right for show from the start.
WWB: The releases from your winery, Alleromb, were hugely impressive across the board. What are some of the challenges with running your own winery and also doing a great deal of consulting winemaking? What were some of your favorite recent Alleromb releases?
AM: The easy answer is capital; obviously wine is not an inexpensive hobby so it’s making sure you plan well and budget, especially if you’re on a more limited budget. The second thing is setting aside the time to go sell it. The easy part is we make all the wines in the same facility so I’m not going from place to place wasting time and energy with travel and having different staffs at each place. Our staff knows what we’re trying to achieve for each wine and every year that goes by we all get better at each aspect of the process. The problem is we make almost 70 different wines and nearly 40,000 cases at this point so having extra time is relative. The new Grenache’s are my favorites at the moment, the first few years we blended Syrah into our Grenache to put some weight on it while the vineyard was getting older. Now I love the expressiveness we’ve seen in the last few vintages as we’ve transitioned into a pure Grenache and have removed the barrel fermentation in favor of concrete and stainless steel. The wines are fresher and move better across your palate and as a result are just insanely drinkable.