One of the iconic figures in Washington wine, Trey Busch has a longstanding history in the industry. Trey finally was convinced to start his winemaking journey in 2000, moving to Walla Walla and working under the late Eric Dunham of Dunham Cellars. Trey is a delightful guy to spend time with. I recently visited with him at his winery and he is truly producing some of the best wine lineups in the state. He also shares my love for Pearl Jam and great French wines. I think you will very much enjoy hearing his story of wine. Here is my interview with Trey Busch, Winemaker and Co-Owner of Sleight of Hand Cellars.
WWB: How did you decide to star working for Eric Dunham as his assistant in 2000? Can you talk about winemaking techniques or industry secrets that you learned from Eric?
TB: I met Eric Dunham in the late 90’s through my friend and fellow winemaker Jamie Brown (Waters Winery). Jamie and I met when he owned a record store in Seattle. We became friends, and in 97 Jamie closed his store and move back to Walla Walla, where he was born and raised. I went to visit Jamie and through those visits, met Eric. I had already fallen in love with Walla Walla as a town. I was, at the time, a buyer for Nordstrom, and I had a brand new baby girl. I was working way too many hours, missing seeing my baby girl grow up, and dreamed of a way to escape to Walla Walla. Jamie had introduced me to Eric at a dinner party in 1998, and we quickly became friends as well. In the spring of 2000, we were in Walla Walla on another visit, and Eric had us over for dinner. He asked me if I would ever consider moving to Walla Walla, and I told him “Sure, if I had a job. But what would I do in Walla Walla?” He simply replied, “Come and work for me”. I mentioned that I did not know the FIRST thing about the wine business or winemaking. He said, “I can teach you how to make wine. You can help me with sales and marketing”. And that was it. I asked my wife at the time if she would be willing to uproot our world and move to Walla Walla, and she said yes, so in July of 2000, I quit my corporate gig at Nordstrom, moved to WW, and went to work for Eric and his family.
The one big thing that I definitely took away from working for Eric for 2 years was the “art” of winemaking instead of the “science” of winemaking. Eric always said that you should know enough science to not screw things up. But he was an artist in so many ways, especially with his winemaking. He created wines using a wide array of vineyards, and he treated them like a palate of colors as if he were painting on canvas. By blending multiple vineyards, he could create these incredible layers of flavors, aromas, and textures in his finished wines, something you could not necessarily coax out of a single vineyard wine. That is something that I try to do today at Sleight of Hand. We work with multiple vineyards, and sometimes multiple blocks within a vineyard, to craft equally complex wines.
WWB: How did you decide to take a leap of faith and launch Sleight of Hand Cellars in 2007?
TB: I had been at Basel Cellars for 5 years after starting that project, and felt it was time to start my own project. I loved the wines I was making at Basel but always knew that I was just going to be an employee. I had met Sandy and Jerry Solomon while I was the winemaker at Basel, they loved the wines I was making, and I invited them out to Walla Walla in the fall of 2006. They fell in love with the town just as quickly as I had a decade earlier. I had a business plan already written, and Jerry said that he would look it over for me (he is an attorney with a practice in San Diego). After looking at my business plan, he was walking with Sandy down Palouse Street, and she said “OK, let’s do it. Let’s sell everything and move here”. She had no idea I had given Jerry that business plan for the winery, and I really did not give it to him with the intention of bringing him on as my partner. But he came to me and said he loved the business plan, wanted to be my partner in it, with the one caveat that I teach him how to make wine just like Eric taught me! So we launched the brand in June 2007, and here we are 11 years later!
WWB: What are some of the winemaking challenges when dealing with these recent hot vintages?
TB: Finding freshness and balance in the wines while getting the fruit flavors that we look for in our wines. We work closely with our growers on yields and canopy management. And we make sure that our picking decisions lean on the earlier side instead of the later side. We will often make multiple passes to get different levels of acidity, flavors, and tannins within one block so we have more tools (colors on the palate) to work with for blending a complex, balanced, and fresh wine.
WWB: Can you talk about one of the stars of your great lineup, the 2015 Sleight of Hand ‘The Psychadelic’ Syrah (WWB, 93). How do you capture the incredible range of flavors and aromatics in this sexy wine.
TB: That is one of our favorite wines to make every year. We love the Rocks District. And we are fortunate to be partners in Stoney Vine Vineyard where the grapes are sourced for the Psychedelic every year. As I mentioned earlier, we rely on multiple picks within a vineyard to capture multiple levels of flavors and aromas, as well as textures. We utilize quite a bit of whole cluster (we foot crush the grapes for stem inclusion, which provides aromatic complexity and tannins). We utilize native fermentation, the yeast that live down in the rocks district are very aggressive, and our fermentations only last about 10-12 days. Once dry, we go to a combination of mostly older barrels and lately, mostly large format barriques (450 and 500L barrels). The wine goes to barrel “dirty” (heavy lees) and is never racked. Other than some small Sulphur additions and topping, we leave this wine alone for 15-16 months before bottling. It is the wine we do the least amount to, yet is always one of the most complex wines in our portfolio. It has all the amazing savory aromatics that we love about the rocks, but a beautiful, floral note not found on wines further east on the rocks. Texturally it is lush, but still with good acidity and freshness. I have found that these wines age surprisingly well.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Washington wine, what are some of your favorite wines of the world?
TB: Wines from Chablis and the Northern Rhone.