Interview with Mark Ryan McNeilly, Owner of Mark Ryan Winery
One of the truly iconic names in Washington wine, Mark Ryan McNeilly is a largely self-taught winemaker who founded Mark Ryan winery in 1999. Mark focused on constant study and learning from some of the best winemakers in the state.The first few vintages were actually made in garages and it wasn’t until 2003 that Mark Ryan settled in Woodinville. Mark sources from some of the best vineyards in the state and has gained a nationwide reputation for rich, voluptuous reds. He also makes some killer white wines and great Pinot Noir from Oregon in his Megan Anne Cellars project. I think you will really enjoy learning his story in wine. Here is my feature on Mark Ryan
WWB: How did you first become interested in wine?
MR: Well, basically I flunked out of college and was waiting tables and bartending. I was very interested in wine, and being a curious person by nature, I did a ton of research. I completely immersed myself and learned all I could about the entire wine making process. Then I started selling wine wholesale where I got great sales experience, deepened my knowledge of wine, and developed my palate. I was hooked, and decided to turn my hobby into a business. The first few vintages I produced out of garages of friends. I was selling wine for Unique by day, waiting tables at Yarrow Bay Grill in the evenings, and making wine every chance I got. This was 1999 and there weren’t the great local wine education programs like we have now. I did take a few courses down at UC Davis, and devoured books, but a lot of my education came from conversations with established winemakers and growers. I spent about 18 months as the national sales rep for Matthew Cellars, and was constantly chatting up their winemaker, Mike Januik. Chris Upchurch of DeLille Cellars was also very generous with sharing information and his time. Jim Holmes who owned Ciel du Cheval Vineyards was making wine for Kiona, and was my go-to for winemaking theory and any problems I was having during fermentation. Having access to these guys was amazing, and a truly one-of-a-kind education.
WWB: Can you talk about your decision to start Megan Anne Cellars? Talk about your new release wine, the 2016 Megan Anne Cellars Pinot Noir?
MR: In 2006 we started making a Pinot Noir for Mark Ryan with grapes were sourced from Lachini Vineyards in the Chehalem Mountains. My wife, Megan, and I love the area and spend it a lot of time there on wine business and for fun, we even got married in the Willamette Valley! In 2014 we were introduced to Isabelle Meunier who was leaving Evening Land and hired her as a winemaker—and Megan Anne Cellars was born. Isabelle makes the wines and Megan and I are involved as much as we can be from Washington. Isabelle is great at interpreting our stylistic vision and is fully in charge of the nuts and bolts of winemaking in Oregon. My full attention is on Mark Ryan and Board Track Racer. I am all about creating talented teams and forming partnerships. Mike MacMorran, formerly of DeLille Cellars, has been a part of the Mark Ryan wine program for years. Mike’s winemaking team and our vineyard partners work really hard to see that we have access to the best fruit. We have great winemaking teams and everything we do at Mark Ryan, Board Track Racer, and Megan Anne Cellars is a team effort.
WWB: What can we expect from your new brand, Board Track Racer?
MR: The first Board Track Racer vintage was actually in 2008, but we did open a Board Track Racer tasting room this year! Making ultra-premium wines for Mark Ryan it was important to me to have a declassifying program too. I wanted to make some wines that were a bit less serious. I wanted BTR to be more fun. I love motorcycles and I don’t know if wine and motorcycles necessarily go together but it works for me. We started out making The Vincent Red and we now have five wines all based on vintage motorcycles. Now it’s not really a declassified program but more a purposeful program. We are able to offer wines to a wide range of consumer. I come from a wine sales background and sold everything from $4 wines to $300 wines. I understand that a $60 Cabernet from Mark Ryan is not for everyone. But I love the opportunity to engage everyone at all pricepoints, and BTR is a great introduction to our brand. These are wines that are fun to be around and sometimes more approachable upon release.
WWB: A lot of your acclaim has been with the red wines like the 'Dead Horse' Cabernet Sauvignon but your white wines have been exceptional. Can you talk about the new 2017 Viognier?
MR: We have a lot of space in our new production facility in Walla Walla. Our approach was very similar with the 2017, but we were better able to achieve greatness with our larger space and the talented labor pool in Walla Walla. The 2017 Viognier was made with grapes from Olsen Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, where previous vintages used fruit from Red Mountain. Olsen is a great vineyard and the grapes are from a cooler site. This wine now combines Olsen with Red Willow Vineyards. We want to honor the fruit, texture, and aromatics but we went to have great acid and minerality too. I am not a fan of overripe Viognier— I like to walk that fine line between minerality and rich, peach and melon aromatics and flavors. As far as production goes, we are about 20% concrete and 50% natural French oak and then a touch of new barrels and stainless.
WWB: Can you talk about your wine cellar and some of your favorite wines of the world?
MR: Both Megan and I are big fans of Oregon Pinot Noir. For me they are the perfect wine for enjoying with good friend. They are fruit forward wines with a nod to the structure found in Old World wines. Some of my favorite Oregon producers are Shea, Lavinea, from Isabelle Meunier, and Beaux Frères, which are expensive, but are really good! We also love white Burgundy. If I’m not drinking Washington wines, I love a good Meursault. I love great Chablis and Raveneau is a favorite producer. I have a few bottles of that in the fridge now. Dauvissat is fantastic too. I can hedge my bets when it comes to white Burgundy. The village of Cornas in the Rhône valley holds a special place in my heart. The reds being produced in Cornas and St. Joseph are fantastic.