A few years back I had the chance to interview one of the nicest guys in the Washington Wine industry, Morgan Lee, the talented winemaker at Two Vintners. Morgan crafts some beautifully balanced wines for that winery and has more recently partnered with Paul Zitarellii to craft Block Wines, a winery that focuses on crafting their wines from individual vineyard blocks. They utilize some of the great vineyards in the state, including the Boushey Vineyard as well as the Rothrock Vineyard and Morgan’s expressions of these vineyards are truly outstanding. Here is my interview with Morgan Lee, winemaker at Block Wines.
WWB: How did you connect with Paul Zitarelli and start Block Wines?
ML: I had a pretty psychedelic dream about this actually. Paul and I didn’t know each other that well at the time but I had this dream that I had a tasting room in his house which was on Bainbridge Island in the woods. Paul was there but people were drinking and there was a commotion out in the Sound and Paul wanted us to check it out. He drove his house into the water so the house was now part-boat. We saw whales and dolphins playing in the Sound. We checked all that out and then drove the house back into the woods. The dream was so vivid I had to send Paul an email of the dream. He told me later he almost didn’t open the email because he thought it might be spam. He told me the dream was surreal because he lives on Bainbridge Island in the woods. He mentioned to me that he was considering starting this project for Full Pull, so everything started with a dream, literally. Paul pitched the idea that he wanted to have a house brand that were single varietal, single vineyard and single block wines. And from that Block Wines was born.
WWB: How do you see these wines being different from your Two Vintners wines?
ML: I think that the aging and the winemaking process is all different. And some of the varietals are different, like I don’t make Semillon for Two Vintners. I certainly do have single vineyard wines for Two Vintners, but for the most part there a degree of blending. There are differences between the wines, for instance, the Block Wines Semillon is 100% concrete egg fermented which is made reductively and is fairly strong smelling throughout the aging process. I don’t really make a wine like that for Two Vintners.
WWB: I was absolutely enchanted by your 2017 Semillon, sourced from the Boushey Vineyard and their 'Tauro Block.’ Can you talk about this amazing new wine?
ML: This is a wine that we tend to pick at super high acid levels and very early on during harvest. We love the Australian Semillon wines from the Hunter Valley and we like to use native yeasts for our fermentation process. The Semillon has three days of skin contact which helps give the wine that extra color and texture. Then we age the Semillon in concrete. The block is called Tauro, is right next to their neighbors place and that is a north-facing aspect which makes the grapes a bit slower to ripen. We wanted to keep the wine picked at 19-20 brix so we have that freshness in the wine. In 2017 we only produced one egg of the wine, or 189 gallons.
WWB: One of the great value wines that I sampled last year that landed on my Washington Wine Blog Top 100 Wines of 2019 was your 2016 Block Wines ‘Golden Block Boushey Vineyard’ Grenache, a wine that was highly refined and had a silky texture. This wine is almost Walla Walla Rocks AVA in nature. Can you talk about the winemaking behind this epic value wine?
ML: There is a very small block of Grenache that the Bousheys grow is located near my Grenache Blanc. I believe this block used to go to Maison Bleue. It is only four rows so a half an acre and it is VR3 Grenache clone. But Dick [Boushey] has told me that this is an Italian derived clone of Grenache. The clone tends to be very thin skinned and almost looks like a Pinot Noir. There is very little tannin to this clone and also very little pigment. It is slow to ripen and I usually pick the Grenache in mid-October but the bunches are so tight you have to worry about moisture. We get the entire block and about half of it goes to Paul and half of it goes to my wine projects. The wine is native yeast fermented. The wine was also 50% whole cluster fermented in open top one ton bins. Punchdowns are done once or twice a day and after 17 days of maceration the wine was pressed directly into the concrete egg and then it was aged for 18 months prior to bottling. It is a really cool wine that we have and it is really showing nicely right now. If I do the wine blind half of the time they guess that it is Pinot Noir. I think that Juan at Columbia Crest says that ‘Grenache is Washington’s Pinot Noir’ and I couldn’t agree more.
WWB: What wines have you been gravitating towards recently?
ML: I have been trying too find inspirational bottles of Cru Beaujolais. Because. I would love to plant Gamay someday at our estate. Mostly my wife and I have been enjoying white wines lately and I have always had a love affair with Alsatian wines so definitely pick those up when I can. Producers like Domaine Zind-Humbrect would be one that I could drink something every day for the rest of my life. With my schedule I don’t have a chance to spend a ton of time seeking things out but I am in a tasting group with Chris Peterson and Bob Betz and we just did Grand Cru Burgundy and are doing Chateauneuf du Pape next month so that is good learning for me. I always love trying what my peers are doing, especially those who are working with similar vineyards. I am always thrilled to taste what Chris Peterson is doing because we get similar fruit to see h ow our styles are different. His ‘Valery’ at Avennia is at the top of my list. He doesn’t make the wine anymore but for a few years he made ‘Discovery Vineyard’ Syrah so I had a chance to taste that and we did a. Side. By side with the 2016 vintage Syrah from both of us. That was really cool. I love Oregon wines as well. Pinot Noir is one of those things where you are dropping a good amount of money to try something great.