One of the exciting young talents in Washington Wine, Seth Kitzke is the co-founder of Upsidedown Wine with his wife, Audrey. Seth has a strong agriculture background and is a graduate of the Northwest Wine Academy program at South Seattle College. Before starting his own winery he worked for K Vintners under Brennon Leighton. Seth is a delight to talk wine with and he produces some really good wines for his own label. I think you will very much enjoy hearing his story in wine. Here is my interview with Seth Kitzke, winemaker and co-owner of Upsidedown Wine.
WWB: What was it like growing up in a winery household with your parents founding Kitzke Cellars? Is it fair to say that wine has always been in your blood?
SK: So this is kind of funny and not going to be at all what you expected. I remember the first time I saw beer in a fridge at our shop on our 150 acre orchard. It was during a cherry harvest and was probably 100 degrees out. I thought to myself oh my Lord my parents are sinning! Side note: I was raised in a conservative faith filled family where alcohol was never seen. That was the first time I saw Bud Light (Dilly Dilly) and I think there was some Franzia in there as well. Probably white Zin!
Anyways I’ll get back to the question of wine while growing up. It was really non- existent. Everything was looked at as fruit. I grew up bagging apples and cherries, then when I was 11-12 years old was when we started planting our small vineyards and when I started working in the vineyards every summer. We had some wine grapes that were planted back in the 80’s below the orchard that were overgrown and not cared for but my dad always wanted to plant grapes ever since he managed Rio Vista Orchard on the Columbia River and drove by Bacchus Vineyard on the way to work each day. He will tell you the thought of making wine was never in the picture and they planned to just sell the grapes until some people tried the Cabernet Franc and convinced them they needed their own label.
WWB: Can you talk about the education you received while attending the South Seattle College program? Who were some of your initial inspirations in wine?
SK: The Northwest Wine Academy was great! The people and friends I made there during my time will be around for life. Regina Daigneault was a great help when it came to sucking me into the program and guiding the initial teaching of my pallet. Peter Bos and Linn Scott were both great instructors when I was there. They taught me some very important things when it came to production and wine science. That being said winemaking is a balance of the artist side and science. I would say I am pretty heavy on the artist side.
As for initial inspiration there was a lot of people with in the Washington Industry that really inspired me. Way too many to list them all but Robert Takahashi, Mark Fiore, Damon Lelande to name a few and some more recent ones like Ryan Johnson and Andrew Schultz that continue to spark the fire in Washington. When you talk with them you can feel their passion and that’s one thing I always hope to have and that people will find with me. Washington is young and I want to create some of the top wines in the world from this state one day. I think a lot of those vineyards are not even planted yet!
WWB: You decided to work at K Vintners before starting Upsidedown Wine? How did that and other winery experiences influence your winemaking style?
SK: I think more than anything working at wineries will show you what you don’t want to do and spark ideas of what you would do different. Working at K Vintners was a serious eye opener for me. I wanted to work there strictly because the wines scored well and the equipment they had. It showed me the obsessive side to winemaking that I hadn’t experienced. It was probably the best thing that ever could have happened to me and the worst at the same time. Only because it showed me the amount of money I will likely never have to make wine! Haha. It taught me that science isn’t always the best route in winemaking and opened my eyes to some possibilities. I remember Brennon saying in the beginning alright now you just have to forget everything you learned in school.
I would say the single thing that really influences my winemaking style though is wine! I know that sounds boring or cliché but nothing will inspire you more than drinking wine. Washington I believe has endless possibilities, most of which haven’t even been tapped yet. This state has so much diversity and possibly, but with that being said we are young and have been set in a path of “this is how you make wine.” Instead of looking at a certain area or terroir and then finding the style in which it wants to be expressed. So ultimately, I look to regions of the world that have been doing it for generations for inspiration. Drinking their wines and learning as much as I can about their winemaking style and terroir along the way. Then I take what I enjoy and apply it to my wines.
WWB: You make some downright killer Rose and fantastic Rhone style wines for Upsidedown Wine. What is your process for making your Rose and what is your process for working with Rhone varietals (Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre)?
SK: Thank you! I guess I got ahead of myself on that last question. I am going to vent for a second on rose… I love rose and obviously the public does as well with its insane growth rate in the states. That being said there is so much bad rose in the market because people are uninformed and companies know they can sell it. A lot of rose is straight up red wine juice that they bleed off before fermentation (saignée) then add a ton of water, acid, copper, and whatever else to. It’s an afterthought to them and involves capitalizing on a trend. The more additions you do in your winemaking the more you take away from the wine. You alter the flavor, terroir, and perception of the wine. (Yes I used terroir when referring to rose.)
When I set out to make a rose I took what I liked about Provence style roses and applied it to a varietal that I thought would do well in Washington, Nebbiolo. After tasting Sangiovese rose from the state and already seeing how Nebbiolo developed in the vineyard I thought we should try it. Nebbiolo holds acid really well and is known for amazing aromatics, two things you want in rose. So from there I just work on growing for it in a different training system that is tall and higher in density so it really protects the grapes from the sun because it also sunburns really easy. We pick at the right time and press wholecluster to minimize the skin contact and amount of oxygen getting to the juice. Nebbiolo has thin skins that pack a lot of tannin and can overwhelm a rose really quick. Then we do some lees contact to build mouth feel and help stabilize the wine naturally without using additives that strip flavor.
For the Rhône wines it changes depending on the vintage. This is one of my favorite parts about being a vigneron because you really are in the vineyard day to day making the wine in tune to what the vintage and land is giving you. Some vintages we will strip more leaves to expose the fruit and some vintages we will leave more to preserve some of the peppery earthy aromas and keep the alcohol down. When it comes to fermentation we are fermenting everything with native yeasts and including a decent amount of whole clusters anywhere from 100% to 30% depending on the vintage and varietal. With some varietals we use good old feet to do all the work and no machines at all, so it all kind of depends on the vintage and wine. Fermentation lengths vary depending on the wine and tannin composition. We age on the lees without racking our wines and use extremely minimal amounts of so2 in the cellar before bottling unfined/unfiltered (if possible). This is a perfect example of what they teach you not to do in school but is a common practice with some of the top wineries of the world.
WWB: You have a strong social media influence with @usdoingwine on Instagram and your Upsidedown Wine pages on both Facebook and Instagram. How much of a challenge is it to balance the social media and winemaking aspects? What is it like working side by side with your wife, Audrey Kitzke?
SK: The response to @USdoingwine has been crazy. Something we definitely weren’t expecting but it is really cool. We lived in Seattle for 7 years after getting married and when we moved back to the vineyards some of our friends suggested we start a video blog about wine on youtube. We kind of wrote it off, because that would have been far too much work. We actually were planning on both giving up social media for a month at New Years last year (2018). But then, one thing lead to another after a dinner with wine, a lot of wine, and @UsDoingWine was born.
We spend a lot of time on social media, and people can say what they want about it, but overall it’s been very positive for us and our business. Sure, at times it’s hard to get all your work done, and try to document it at the same time (especially winemaking), but we make it work. We’ve been able to really connect with our audience in a very real, genuine way that I don’t think we’d be able to do otherwise without the IG handle. When people hear I make wine they think I sit around and taste wine all day. While that might be the case for some winemakers… it’s definitely not what I want to do. For now @UsDoingWine, makes the 12+ hour days at harvest more enjoyable because people ask questions and are involved. Consumers want to know what all goes into their product and want to educate themselves on wines they are drinking. In a way I feel responsible to educate people on wine and open their eyes to what goes into each bottle that they sit down and crush on the couch or around the dinner table. Instagram is such a cool platform to share that and connect with other producers from Washington to France. I often find myself talking with people about their production wherever that are located. As for working with my wife Audrey, it is the best! She is everything that I am not. She helps balance me and does so much behind the scenes its crazy. She also reassures me in times that I struggle and encourages me to chase the dream! I definitely got the better end of the deal.
WWB: When you are not enjoying your Upsidedown Wine portfolio what are some of your favorite Washington wines that you enjoy? What are some of your favorite wines of the world?
SK: My favorite Washington wines are usually Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Cayuse is one of my favorite producers in Washington for Rhone varietals. His wines just have so much identity in them and the viticulture shows through. I also really enjoy a lot of wines coming out of the Columbia River Gorge from different producers. Cerulean off of underwood produces some of my favorite whites in the state. Washington State Cabernet Francs continue to blow me away as well. One of the few places in the world that I think a 100% Cab Franc can shine. As for wine abroad I love wines from Barolo, Priorat, Chateauneuf-du-pape, Cornas, Hermitage, and Condrieu. Burgundy whites have been a hole that I love but rarely get to indulge! Haven’t gotten into to many of their reds yet because well I can’t afford them. Haha