Mackenzie Parks, El Gaucho
Mackenzie Parks is the head sommelier at the iconic steakhouse, El Gaucho Seattle. She has a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales University and had worked in fine dining from Miami to Seattle. Last year she completed her Level 3 Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers and she aspires to someday be a Master Sommelier, one of the highest distinctions in wine (219 of them in the world!).
I recently had the chance to interview her about her background in food and wine and she had some wonderful and candid responses. Having known her for more than a year, she has made some excellent wine recommendations for me and her experience in the industry really shows. She helps craft one of the best wine by the glass list in Seattle (list: http://www.elgaucho.com/Menus/EGT-Wine.pdf), a list that is particularly strong with Washington Red and White wine selections, and she always finds the perfect wine to compliment some great steakhouse favorites. A visit to El Gaucho Seattle is a must for food and wine lovers. Here is my interview with Mackenzie Parks. #elgaucho
WWB: Can you talk about your journey in the food and beverage industry? How did you end up at El Gaucho Seattle?
Parks: When I was very young, I would cook macaroni and cheese (yes, from a box) and set up the dining room table with our finest china- I would look up how to fold napkins and make fancy napkin folds for everyone and serve macaroni and cheese to my family in the fanciest way you could ever imagine- I have always been fascinated by service, food, beverage, hospitality and the restaurant industry in general. I have worked almost every position in a restaurant- busser, expeditor, dishwasher, server, hostess, line cook, manager, beverage director, bartender and Sommelier… I have never been a General Manager, been a Chef and I have never owned a restaurant- that’s all just a bit too masochistic for me. I became fascinated with the food production side of things when I was a hostess- I was a terrible hostess, because I was always in the kitchen. I attended Johnson & Wales University where I attained a degree in Culinary Arts. I was lucky enough in my final year at Johnson & Wales to be sent to Germany to learn about wine. At the time I was happy to be getting a chance to drink in Europe and earn credits at the same time- but it ended up changing my career path altogether. We travelled throughout all of Germany’s many vineyards, visited Alsace, Switzerland, Austria, Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhone Valley. It was nothing short of the most epic introduction to wine ever, and I absolutely fell head over heels in love with wine- the many stories behind it, the many appellations and lands that it originates from, the endless possibilities of flavors, aromas, terroir, its ability to pair with food and make a truly unique and memorable experience- and the fact that I could study this world every day for the rest of my life and still not know everything. I immediately came back the US and got a job as an Assistant Sommelier at Emeril’s in Miami Beach. I moved on to work at Michael’s Genuine as their first head Sommelier, then went to Sushi Samba as their Miami Beverage Director for their location in South Beach as well as their offshoot restaurant, Sugarcane, in the Design District in Miami. I moved back to Denver to be closer to my family and get to know my niece and worked for Frank Bonanno while I was there. While working with all of these amazing people and getting a very well-rounded experience career-wise, I was working towards my Advanced Certification with The Court of Master Sommeliers. I had been through the test several times and not passed- and not passing was just not an option any more. I looked at cities that I could move to where I could be in a community of sommeliers that would help me to attain the goal of eventually becoming a Master Sommelier, but first passing my Advanced- and nothing made more sense to me than Seattle. It was a quick decision, and I moved up here without even having a job secured. As luck would have it, Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue was hiring for their Sommelier Team and I landed a Lead Sommelier position with them a week and half after I landed in Seattle. It was great being able to sell more First Growth Bordeaux than I had ever sold before- but Cooper Mills (The General Manager of El Gaucho) had sat down with me when I first landed in Seattle and told me that he was very interested in hiring me at El Gaucho once a position opened up. A year later, a position happened to open up and I was able to start working at my favorite restaurant job I have had to date. All of the restaurants I have worked in before were wonderful, the people all taught me things that I will forever hold dear, and the many personalities I have had the pleasure of knowing will never be forgotten- but I feel that El Gaucho is truly the culmination of all of my experiences in this industry.
WWB: Can you talk about the differences between the level 2 and level 3 sommelier exam? What did you find to be the most difficult part of the level 3 sommelier exam?
Parks: The difference is huge. The first time I went through the Advanced Test with The Court of Master Sommeliers, I was amazed at how much more intense and detailed the knowledge they required was. It also inspired me- I went through the test four times before I passed, and even though I did not get a pin the first three times I always came out a better Sommelier. The best way to really understand in detail the differences, you can reference their website- but I look at it like this- Level Two is something that both industry folk and folks who are passionate and interested in wine should take and pass. The Advanced is something that unless your career is involved with wine intimately, you might not have the endurance to get through it- unless you are gifted with photographic memory and you think that enduring days of intense amounts of stress and anxiety is an appropriate part of your hobby. The tests are ever-evolving to keep up with the growth and change in the wine industry itself- the things that people tell me are being asked in Level Two these days are way above the level that I experienced when I went through that test.
WWB: El Gaucho has crafted one of the best wine by the glass lists in all of Seattle. Can you talk about crafting that list and some of your favorite selections by the glass?
Parks: James Parsons is really the man who crafts our list of wines by the glass. I very much agree with him on how he goes about selecting what goes on that list- we have a few wines on there that we personally really enjoy, we have more wines by the glass that we know that our demographic will enjoy, and we have a few that we were able to work out some great deals with our suppliers that fit into both of those previous categories, but also offer some great value to our guests as well. First and foremost, we are a steak house- so the Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet/ Merlot based blends dominate our selection both by the glass and by the bottle. These are wines that folks tend to want to enjoy with steaks, and we are happy to supply a variety of choices suited for every type of palate out there. If you look through our selections, you will also notice that we carry more wines from the Northwest than anything else by the glass- we are huge supporters of Washington and Oregon wines and are happy to take advantage of the plethora of wonderful and delicious wines that are produced around here.
WWB: There are some fantastic new Washington wineries. Can you discuss some of your favorite up and coming Washington wineries?
Parks: I’m a big fan of Avennia- great Syrah and Bordeaux blends. W.T. Vintners is really exciting as well. For summer I am really enjoying some fine roses as the temperature warms up- one being Coral Wine’s rose which is delicious. II Vintners is something I always enjoy letting people know about- their wines a big success whenever I sell them on the floor, and their “Some Days are Stones” Syrah is a terrific value.
Chris Peterson, Avennia
Interview with Chris Peterson, Head Winemaker of Avennia and Passing Time WIneries
Superstar winemaker Chris Peterson is a winemaker is performing right in his sweet spot. If you have had the chance to sample any of his new release wines from Avennia and Passing Time, you will see the attention to detail in the glass. Chris has a long history in the Washington wine industry. He was the first graduate of the Walla Walla Community College’s Enology and Viticulture program. Chris admits that he was hooked on DeLille from a young age and finally got his shot to work there after completing his degree in Walla Walla. He worked at DeLille for eight years and learned under legendary winemaker Chris Upchurch. From there Chris launched Avennia with Marty Taucher in 2010. Avennia has been a huge success as they have produced stunning releases that span everything from bright Sauvignon Blanc to inky Syrah. More recently Chris was hired to be head winemaker at Passing Time, a winery founded by former NFL quarterbacks Damon Huard and Dan Marino. His 2013 Passing Time Cabernet (WWB, 94) is a gorgeous and rich effort that will is one for the cellar. Recently I had the chance to sit down with Chris. He was incredible humble and articulate about his successes. He talked about his wines, his background and some recent great vintages in Washington. I think you will really enjoy learning more about him. Here is my interview with superstar winemaker, Chris Peterson, of Avennia and Passing Time
WWB: What inspired you to become a winemaker? What were some of your early influences in wine?
CP: I started to have a passing interest in wine in the mid-‘90s, not much more sophisticated than finding reviews in Wine Spectator and trying to get the best rated wines I could on my limited budget. Then in 1997 I did a study abroad program in Poitiers, France while studying at the University of WA. While not in great wine country per se, the supermarket shelves were lined with cheap Bordeaux. This, along with the lifestyle in France, planted a seed, and I started to take wine a little more seriously after that. As I explored wine more in Washington, I found the wines of Cayuse early on (while they still had a tasting room, and Christophe was pouring in it—I guess that dates me), and DeLille. The wines of France were always an interesting subject of study, especially Rhone Valley wines, as they are very terroir driven—and affordable, which was essential at that time. I began to buy a few books on the subject, and got pretty obsessed with all the wine regions of France.
When I started my studies at the Walla Walla program, I thought I might get into importation, or distribution, and continue to learn about all of these wine areas, and hopefully travel to them. But as I began to do the work, at various internships, I found that I really loved the blue collar, hard work aspect. The craft and care was meaningful to me, so at that point I was hooked. So I guess early influences were DeLille, Cayuse, Woodward Canyon, and Chinook locally, and definitely Dagueneau, Nicolas Joly, and Henri Bonneau were fascinating figures early on.
WWB: A number of wines that you produced landed on my 2015 Top 100, including the gorgeous value bottling, the 2013 Les Trouves Red Wine (WWB, 91). Can you talk about how you decided to make that wine and what having that wine adds to your profile of impressive red wines?
CP: Thanks! I was really excited about that wine as well. We had always thought a second label could be a good opportunity here, because there is so much good wine in this state, and many values to be had. But we wanted to be very careful to protect any reputation that Avennia had garnered along the way. I feel like we make wines that show an individual purpose, and share a voice. So to make an anonymous “tank wine” and throw it out there with a hip label at a price point was less interesting to me. I still wanted the wines to express a purpose. The way I see Les Trouvés is using our expertise and voice, if you will, to give context to some very good wines from around the state. Even in the Avennia lineup we see the blend as a way to create complex and complete wines that have their own identities. With Les Trouvés the only difference is that we didn’t ferment the wines. We gather samples from around the state and do strict selections and blending trials to try and reflect our values and quality standards.
WWB: What was it like being assistant winemaker at DeLille for 8 years under Chris Upchurch? Can you talk about what you learned at DeLille and how you apply that to your current wine projects at Avennia and Passing Time?
CP: Working at DeLille was an amazing opportunity, of course. I could probably write a novel on everything I learned and experienced there. When I started there, they were making about 5000 cases and had five wines total. When I left there were 12-15 wines, over 12,000 cases, and two or three different labels. I started as the cellarmaster, fresh out of school, and left as the Production Winemaker, with a decent amount of say over the styles of many of the wines. Chris Upchurch was a pretty influential mentor because he let me free in the cellar. I was always tasting different barrels, experimenting with blends, yeasts, etc. We were often tasting wines together and talking about how we taste and experience wine. He taught me how much you can guide a winery not with science, but with your palate, and with a vision. It was a lot of hard work in between, that’s for sure, but I definitely see the benefits from it these days.
Another thing we both thought was important was traveling to France and visiting with winemakers there, and tasting wines with them. While I was at DeLille I was lucky enough to visit nearly all of the major wine regions there. That was very generous and open-minded of them, and I think extremely valuable.
With Avennia, I feel like we took that passion for showing place, and having a vision, and shaped it to my experiences both here and abroad. Chris Upchurch always said, if you start a winery, bring something to the table. I really tried to take that to heart, and I strive to do it with every wine. In Washington, we have some of the best growers and vineyard sites in the world, in my opinion, so I just wanted to show them as clearly as possible, in the best context possible, and have it come from a place of passion, not from a spreadsheet.
WWB: You have incredible range as a winemaker, making everything from Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet to GSM wines. Can you talk about how your background in winemaking, everything from being the first graduate of Walla Walla's School of Enology and Viticulture, to your time at DeLille, and how that has prepared you to work with such a wide range of varietals?
CP: See above, really. I absolutely feel that to make great wine, you have to know what it is. I try and taste great wine as often as possible. I am in an incredible wine group in Woodinville that includes some of the top established winemakers in the area, and taste often with other winemakers, both out of their barrels, and ours. My wife Lauren and I are always vacationing in wine country. One of these days I should probably take her to a beach or something. So when I want to make a Sauvignon Blanc, I think of it in a context that includes Didier Dagueneau, Smith-Haut-Lafite, and the best wines of Marlborough, and compare our wines to that. When I am working on our Rhone blend, I definitely have Domaine du Pegau and Vieux Donjon in my head as reference points. But I am inspired by what makes those wines taste like they do, and try and let our wines say what they want to. I think of Washington wine in that way: that we can hang with the world class wines using a number of varietals and blends. It’s not about tasting these wines and saying, “if we can taste like that, we will be world class.” It’s more like, what makes a wine great, and what sets this wine apart. Then taking your wine, and saying, “what makes this great? And what sets it apart?”
WWB: Many winemakers are excited about their new 2013 releases. I was wondering about your thoughts about the vintage and if you could talk about how 2013 shapes up against 2012 and 2014? How thrilled are you with your 2014 red wines in the barrel?
CP: The last few years have been very interesting, from the cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, to the four month furnace that was 2015. I’ve found it interesting that even the warm vintages definitely all have their own character. 2013 was quite warm, warmer than 2012, but due to the fact that the heat came in extremely warm spikes, it almost drinks like a cooler vintage. When it gets above 95 degrees, the vines tend to shut down, so even though the total heat was higher, we found overall the grapes had lower sugars. This follows through to the wines themselves, which show a lot of elegance and varietal character, rather than being the big bruisers that the warm summer would suggest. I also have found that the wines are really improving in bottle already, gaining body and complexity rather quickly.
2012 and 2014 seem to be a little more similar to each other, with both being really outstanding vintages in Washington. The 2014s we are about to bottle are some of the most exciting wines I can remember, and I am looking forward to seeing what these wines can show in terms of the world stage that Washington is poised to stand on. It is a truly exciting time in Washington wine right now, and we are proud to do the best we can to support this great region.
Dr. Kevin Pogue, Whitman College
Interview with Dr. Kevin Pogue, Professor of Geology, Whitman College
Originally from Kentucky, Whitman College Professor, Dr. Kevin Pogue, is one of the foremost experts in Washington terroir. Dr. Pogue moved to the Pacific Northwest following the completion of his bachelor’s degree at the University of Kentucky and has been enchanted by the unique geology of this region ever since. Dr. Pogue has his PhD from Oregon State University and has been teaching at Whitman College since 1990. While I never took classes from Dr. Pogue while at Whitman College, I have several colleagues that raved about him and I did not actually meet him until recently. He is a downright awesome guy to talk wine and terroir with and I think you will very much enjoy his story. Here is my interview with Dr. Kevin Pogue, Whitman College Professor of Geology
WWB: What were your initial inspirations in Geology? How did you decide to pursue your PhD in Geology?
KP: I actually knew that I wanted to be a geologist in fourth grade which is very unusual. Most of my students at Whitman College didn’t know they wanted to major in geology until their sophomore year, which is more typical. I became interested in geology growing up in Kentucky when I found pockets of crystals in the local limestone. I was also fascinated by the different layers of rocks that I saw in the road-cuts on family trips throughout the state. I developed a sizable mineral collection that I would display at local gem and mineral shows. I even had geologic maps on my bedroom walls in high school. That’s how intrigued I was by geology.
I knew that I wanted to major in geology in college. When I was working on my BS at the University of Kentucky, most geologists were being hired by the oil industry. However, the Arab oil embargo ended just before I graduated, and suddenly there were many unemployed geologists. I decided, based on the shortage of job options, that getting a graduate degree was the best plan. I didn’t initially plan to pursue a PhD, but I knew that I want to get my graduate degree and that I wanted to live in the western US, since skiing and mountain climbing were my recreational passions. For my MS degree, I attending Idaho State University where my tuition was waved in exchange for teaching laboratory classes in introductory geology. I had a fairly heavy teaching load of about nine contact hours per week. So at age 22 I was already teaching college classes, and I loved it. My students gave me great teaching evaluations and I then realized that perhaps teaching was my true calling, and if I wanted to teach at the college level I needed to get a PhD. I applied to a bunch of PhD programs and Oregon State University’s offer was the most attractive since it provided me with research and teaching assistantships and gave me the opportunity to conduct research in the Himalaya of northern Pakistan. So I moved to Corvallis and lived there for seven years, working mostly in Himalayan geology.
WWB: You began your professorship at my alma mater, Whitman College and have been teaching there for almost 3 decades. Can you talk about how you became an expert in Washington terroir for wineries?
KP: I moved to Walla Walla in 1990 and became familiar with the wineries here. I was initially unfamiliar with the concept of terroir, but I became much more interested in wine as the wine industry was changing in Walla Walla due to the influence of Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and other great wineries. In 1998, geologist James Wilson’s book “Terroir”, which focused on the geology of French wine-growing areas, was published. I think 3 different winemakers gave me copies around this time.
This book made me realize that the French were very far ahead of us in terms of understanding the physical aspects of their vineyard sites and how their growing conditions were affected by variations in geology, soils, and climate. We were like the wild west out here, in that a property owner might choose a site for a new vineyard simply because the land was cheap, or they happened to already own it, and they’d choose the cultivar based on what they liked to drink, not what was best suited to the site. In many cases it seemed that very little consideration was being given to the climate and soils and which (if any) varieties were most suited. Most of this sort of site and varietal selection was worked out in Europe by trial and error over the last 2000 years. I figured we could short-cut that by doing some more detailed research that integrated climate, soil, and topography and use that to figure out where particular varieties would best suited. German immigrants planted Riesling in Washington as early as the mid-1800’s, but not until Walter Clore was there any sort of research-based approach to site selection. Today we much even better tools and access to databases that allow us to determine where and what we should plant. I decided sometime in the early 2000’s that I wanted to make this the focus of my research.
WWB: One of the most exciting emerging regions in Washington state is the region along the North Fork of the Walla Walla River. Can you explain how this unique terroir in this emerging region contributes to novel and complex wines? How does this terroir influence the wine?
KP: The North Fork is steeply sloped and south facing and features shallow soils. Hors Categorie and Tertulia Cellars are currently making wines from there. Force Majeure recently acquired a stunningly beautiful piece of land up there and I’m beyond anxious to see what winemaker Todd Alexander does with the fruit from this special site. It’s somewhat similar to Ferguson Vineyard [owned by L’Ecole No. 41] because it features thin soils on fractured basalt at relatively higher elevations. At the North Fork I’ve created maps that integrate elevation, slope, and aspect and show were the best attributes overlap. The North Fork just checked all boxes for me for the sort of site characteristics that are shared by vineyards in some of the world’s great wine regions – think Cote Rotie or Priorat. I’m confident it will be a unique new terroir for the Walla Walla Valley.
WWB: Living here in Seattle and noticing the obvious climate change that has impacted this region for more than a decade, many wineries on the west side have been more and more intrigued about potential growing regions for Western Washington. What strikes you in terms of unique geography for this region that would be excellent terroir for grape growing?
KP: Climate change certainly opens up intriguing possibilities for expanding vineyard plantings and experimenting with new cultivars in western Washington. I know that in 2007 there was a large GIS-based study of the viticulture potential of the Olympic peninsula l that was based on the extrapolation and interpolation of climate data. That study showed that there is already some potential in the rain shadow region northeast of the Olympic Mountains. I think that there are some potentially good growing areas in the Puget Sound AVA but you would want to look for areas where the soils are warmer, well-drained, and would dry out sooner. You would also definitely be looking for southern aspects that allows the soils to warm up more quickly in the spring. I think there is great potential right now for the Swiss grape Chasselas. A major problem is that it is difficult to find affordable agricultural land near expanding urban areas, and the Puget Sound area is growing like crazy right now.
WWB: What are some of your favorite terroir-driven wines in the world?
KP: Great terroir only asserts itself if the wines are derived from uniform conditions and they are not overly manipulated, so I prefer single vineyard wines that feature minimalist winemaking. I enjoy Cornas and Hermitage. I also certainly love a lot of the great wines from Burgundy. I enjoy Bordeaux wines and how they taste, but the wines I most appreciate are derived from a single vineyard and single varietal, because that’s when you can really detect differences related to site. There are certain varieties that show terroir better. I think Syrah shows the most terroir. Many sommeliers I’ve met have agreed with me that Syrah shows its terroir better than any other grape. I love Rieslings as well and Alsatian wines and I love great Rieslings from the Mosel and Rheingau. I really enjoy Tempranillo from Rioja as well. Of course, there are plenty of wines that I enjoy that are just flat out delicious and I appreciate them just because they’re delicious and well-made.
Ryan Raber, Tertulia Cellars
Interview with Ryan Raber, Winemaker at Tertulia Cellars
A self-described hedonist, Ryan Raber describes his winemaking as “art.” He notes that while science is imperative in the wines, intuition, experience and trusting one’s palate is paramount in winemaking. Ryan crafts his Tertulia Cellars wines from three exciting and unique vineyard sites. I have recently visited Tertulia, as well as area vineyards, and was really impressed with the new lineup and how each wine showcases the unique terroir of each vineyard. Ryan has crafted a very strong lineup of new releases that impress from stony Marsanne to bright Rose to rich Syrah. If you haven’t had a chance to check out their new wines, the range of vineyards and terroir is absolutely worth seeking out. Thoughtful and easy to approach, Ryan has a great story in wine. He also shares my love for Domaine Tempier. Here is my interview with Ryan Raber, winemaker at Tertulia Cellars.
WWB: How did you first get interested in winemaking? Who were your initial inspirations?
RR: I was 23 years old when I first became interested in winemaking. It was the artisan/creative aspects that interested me. I come from a family of chefs and artists on my mother’s side of the family plus my father was always building something in his woodshop. I would say it was my family that inspired me. Creating something tangible and pleasing to the senses made me think originally I would be a fine artist. I was also interested in food. I would taste something and try to recreate it. What was interesting about winemaking is you can never recreate the same wine twice. It is more like sculpting, chipping away at the pieces till the marble begins to take on a life of its own.
WWB: How do you describe your winemaking style?
RR: I tend to make wines lower in alcohol, more old world acids and tannins. I am trying to make wines that are an expression of the land and varietals. My co-worker and friend Kristine says it best “we make elegantly approachable wines for the sophisticated palate”. We accomplish this by using tried and true old world winemaking techniques.
WWB: You produces a gorgeous 2017 Tertulia Cellars Rose (WWB, 90) that showed nice astringency and purity of fruit. Can you talk about the winemaking behind this gorgeous, stand-alone Rose?
RR: For our Rose we pick the grapes between 18-21 brixs depending on how they taste each year. I believe that is lower than most domestic Roses. This makes for bright acids and low alcohol wines. Since making our first Rose in 2007 we have cut down on the skin contact. Now we crush the grapes and go directly to press. I think having a little Tempranillo in our blend adds a little bit of astringency. Heck maybe this next vintage we will try pressing one lot with whole clusters to get a little lighter color. It’s always fun to try new things as long as it’s in moderation.
WWB: What are the challenges with making wine from three very different estate vineyards?
RR: Every vintage offers its own challenges. Having the three vineyards in different terroir means you have to really be dialed in on what is going on at each site. One vineyard may have some issues with winter damage while another might be over vigorous. Having Ryan Driver and his team is a blessing. He really knows what we want out of the vines each year and how to coax the best out of them. Each year both of us gain a little more experience and hone our craft to make better wines. My favorite things is when I taste the grapes and say, hey this block is ready can you pick tomorrow and Driver says, we can pick today if you want. Timing is everything. We are getting the grapes in at the perfect ripeness for our style of wines each vintage. We are also really lucky blocks seem to come in about every three days so we can give each lot of wine all the love they need in the cellar.
WWB: What are some of your favorite producers of wines from the Pacific Northwest and wines of the world?
RR: I really love Woodward Canyon. They make wonderful wines and have had years of experience working with the same fruit. Not to mention they are very gracious people. I was once asked early in my career, how do you get to be like Leonetti or Woodward Canyon. I said ask me again in 30 years after making great wines and having a wonderful relationship with customers just like they have. Fingers crossed I am on that path. My favorite producers in France would be Domaine Tempier in Bandol as I have found those Bandol wines to be rustic and beautiful. I also love producers in Saint Emilion. I once visited Cheval Blanc and got to taste their wine. It was a once in a life time opportunity. I felt like I was on holy ground! I may have snuck an extra taste when no one was looking.
Brooke Robertson, Delmas
Interview with Brooke Robertson, Delmas Director of Viticulture
One of the great Washington wines, the Delmas Syrah, originates from the SJR Vineyard located in the Walla Walla Rocks AVA of Milton-Freewater. If you haven’t had this wine yet, it is a must buy for not only Syrah lovers but those seeking excellent typicity of this exciting region. The SJR Vineyard is a majestic sight and is overseen by Brooke Robertson who serves as the vineyard’s director of viticulture. Having visited the vineyard on several occasions, it is a very special site with vines set on huge cobblestones. Brooke is a wonderful personality. Full of knowledge and humble, she has created a very special mini-head trained system at her vineyard. I think you will enjoy hearing more about her story in wine. Here is my interview with Brooke Robertson, Delmas Director of Viticulture.
WWB: How did you decide to study winemaking and viticulture?
BR: Life has a funny way of delivering you right where you need to be, when you need to be there…Even though you may not be able to see it at the time... It all ends up being for a reason. Being a kid in the Napa Valley, running amuck through the head trained Zinfandel vines at Hayne Vineyard, and then having the ability to play a role in the management of those same vines as an adult; was the moment for me when I thought, Yup… I’m going to play in vine rows my whole life. It’s fantastic. My undergrad is in Philosophy (OSU), and when I declared, I read through a list of possible careers for that particular degree. “Winemaker” was the first. After SJR’s inception, and while my father was leading The Rocks District AVA approval, I went back to school at WWCC for an AAAS in Enology and Viticulture. After which, I headed to Napa Valley for, what was supposed to be a 3-month internship working for Barbour Vineyard Management.
Five years later, after working harvest in Australia for Torbreck, working for other truly great Vineyard Management companies in the Napa Valley, and studying for a Master’s degree in Viticulture at Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo); I returned to Walla Walla. What I love about this business, is that there is always some uncertainty in it. By that I mean, there is no black or white... you live in the grey areas. Mother nature can change on a dime, and you’ve got to roll with her. You never feel as though you’ve mastered the vineyard because the mark is always moving. There is always something new to learn, and I love that.
WWB: What was it like serving as Viticulturist for The Napa Valley Reserve?
BR: t was like reaching Mecca. I developed a long-running dialogue with Mark Griffin (Vineyard Manager; TNVR) years prior to receiving a job offer. Every so often I would check in with Mark and see how the current season was going… Always, ending the conversation with “If you ever need an extra hand, let me know!” They gave me a shot, and it was by far one of the best experiences of my life. I was entrusted with considerable responsibility and was provided the tools to deliver on the highest level of expectations. Whether that was in the rows, or in the winery. Having the opportunity to operate under the terms of a “200 Year Plan” similar to that of my own family, was priceless.
WWB: Can you talk about how you have been developing one of the Pacific Northwest’s great vineyards, the SJR Vineyard?
BR: At SJR Vineyard, we are fortunate to be able to think in terms of longevity. Our goal for Delmas has always been world-class, distinctive wines that showcase “place”. Viticulture in the cobbles of The Rocks District demands specialized farming practices. Creativity, investment and critical adaptation(s) of current farming practices are essential for SJR. One example of that level of creativity is the MHT system of vine training. This Mini-Head- Trained system is basically a goblet vine with a trellis; a very low, single trunk vine structure with an open head. It allows for us to more evenly regulate crop load, and most importantly, to be able to bury the entire vine post-harvest over the winter. This allows for ultimate protection against killing freezes, as well as creating a perennial wood structure. No more burial canes!
Previously, our burial cane experience at SJR resulted in cutting the entire vineyard to the ground (due to killing freezes), three times in the last decade. For us, this method was not sustainable. Hence the development and implementation of the MHT; an entirely new training form arriving out of necessity, given the specific climatic/geological realities experienced within this region. With the MHT, someday we will have old, craggily vine structures, just like those old-world eccentric vines that look so majestic… I can’t wait until the vineyard hits 50 years old!
WWB: The 2016 Delmas Syrah (WWB, 96) is one of the best wines from Washington that I have sampled all year. Can you talk about how this amazing wine is made and the 2016 vintage?
WWB: Thank you Owen! The 2016 (10th leaf for SJR) was a wonderful vintage, and a fairly even growing season. We harvested mid-September, and the fruit spent six (6) days in a cold soak. Ferments for Delmas run fairly smooth given the, higher than average, YAN that comes off of SJR Vineyard. Our Syrah style targets roughly 8% Viognier in the co-ferment.
Depending on the year, (and how lignified the stems are at harvest) we adjust the percentage of whole cluster fermentation (33% for 2016). The balance of Syrah, and all of the Viognier is destemmed. Our oak profile is more aggressive than most Syrah producers given SJR’s unique ability to seamlessly absorb oak tannins: 60% new and 40% one-fill barrels. 14 months in barrel and bottled in December. The terroir of SJR directs our Delmas winemaking expectations. Soils are finer at SJR due to the location of the Vineyard on the edge of the SW corner of the AVA. This is where all the energy (and Rocks) from the Walla Walla River fell out. These fine soils help to provide the distinctive aromatic range of Delmas. As well as the wines textural qualities and length on the palate.
WWB: You have recently concluded harvest at the SJR Vineyard. Can you talk about the growing season and the fruit that was harvested? What will we expect from the 2018 Delmas Syrah?
BR: 2018 was a truly fascinating season. We experienced just about all aspects of extreme weather! The winter was more temperate than 2016/17, which was nice given the first full winter for the MHT! Even then, however, we had some hail and lingering snow in February. Spring, while a bit more wet than normal, arrived with a bang, and the vineyard rushed through bud-break and bloom fairly quickly. Fruit set was even, and the crop was bountiful. The MHT did a fantastic job, balancing canopy/cover of the fruit zone and providing just the right amount of dappled light and air flow.
Summer was extremely hot, with 16 days in a row over 100 degrees. The smoke that settled in early August, prevented UV light from penetrating, and slowed phenological ripening. We ran our overheads quite frequently during this time to cool things down. By the end of the month, however, the heat subsided, and the day/night temperature shifts helped to preserve acid and develop flavor. September was ideal for Harvest, no rain all month, and brilliant days of 70-80 degrees with nights in the 50s. We harvested on September 10th. New winemaking protocol this year! We did our first barrel fermentations and used puncheons to barrel ferment 1/3 rd of the fruit. Already the wine is showing even more complexity and seamless integration. In a string of solid vintages, this one was truly exceptional, with loads of aging potential. 2018 is also the first year Delmas will be producing a varietal Viognier, and it is currently resting in puncheons after completing ML. We are very excited about producing this new wine. Condrieu is the inspiration. Keep an eye out for Delmas Viognier in 2020!
Steve Robertson, Delmas Wines
Interview with Steve Robertson, Owner of Delmas Wines and the SJR Vineyard
On a trip to Walla Walla I had the chance to visit with Steve Robertson at his prestigious SJR Vineyard, located in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA. A cobbled contribution to the wine(s) from this vineyard is evident; an elegant, saline, earthy, savory influence is experienced with Delmas Syrah. The SJR Vineyard has some pretty prime-time neighbors, including Reynvaan’s In the Rocks and several of Cayuse’s vineyards. Steve and Mary’s plan for developing a wine estate of distinction grew out of having formerly lived in Napa Valley (where their daughter Brooke was born). Both Mary and Brooke share the middle name Delmas. The Robertson family moved to Walla Walla Valley from Bend, Oregon to realize what had become a family vision/passion by 2009. SJR Vineyard was planted in 2007. Steve completed the Walla Walla Community College Enology and Viticulture program in 2011. Steve understood thatthe potential for crafting a world-class wine from ‘The Rocks District’ was possible with Syrah, but only if you could control each and every operational element. The size of SJR Vineyard is not large (9.6 acres) and Delmas Syrah consists of what amounts to a field blend between the Syrah and Viognier (another one (1) acre of Grenache will find its way to bottle in a few more years). The Robertson’s are committed to a hands-on, estate vineyard operation. The vineyard is the underlying foundation of their efforts to establish a sustainable brand. While awaiting vine maturation, and given the opportunity to directly understand the specific nuances of each block, the Robertson’s determined to sell some of their fruit to other leading Syrah producers; Gramercy, Rasa and Rotie in order to gain further insights into leading- edge “practices”. Force Majeure will also receive fruit beginning in 2016.
Steve is not one to cut corners. He assembled a professional support team from the on-set that was committed to the family’s vision of a world-class, estate wine. A walk in the vineyard highlights the incredible attention to detail that he manages with the support of Banek Winegrower Management. During the growing season he is always pushing each block to its optimal potential...building on plant energy flow, with the overall goal being balance and consistency...and, with the understanding that you cannot rush the pursuit of the highest quality. Having superstar winemaker Billo Naravane (of Rasa Vineyards) on board as Delmas lead winemaker doesn’t hurt. If you haven’t had the chance to try the absolutely sensuous 2013 Delmas Syrah, it is an absolute treat to savor. Delmas speaks of this site, its distinctive terroir and the Delmas Team’s studied approach/pursuit of a wine worthy of world-class positioning. It is exhilarating to learn of this level of commitment and foresight. Steve’s belief in the potential of ‘Rocks District’ fruit is further evidenced by his spearheading the AVA petition effort to the TTB, while gaining consensual support throughout the Walla Walla Valley; a three plus year effort with the support of Dr. Kevin Pogue. Brooke Robertson joined us for the interview at SJR Vineyard. Brooke will be taking over as lead winemaker in the future, is being mentored by Billo and is currently completing her master’s degree program in viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California. Steve clearly has some very exciting plans for the future; including the development of one smaller vineyard in the ‘Rocks District’. This year SJR Vineyard is pushing its 10th leaf: the vineyard is mature. The fruit will only get better. It was a great pleasure talking wine and viticulture with Steve. Steve is a people person that is kind, passionate and incredibly articulate. His strong background in wine and business is apparent, which serves Delmas very well. Here is my interview with Steve Robertson, owner of Delmas and SJR Vineyard.
WWB: Can you talk about your plan to set up SJR Vineyard?
SR: Our mission was first and foremost to locate and secure a vineyard site where we could craft a truly distinctive wine; where the wine had something truly significant to say, spoke clearly of its “place” and was pleasurable. An important, and particularly rich, reference point for us is Napa Valley. Not too long ago, in the 1980’s, Napa Valley had as many wineries as Walla Walla Valley has today...vineyard land was plentiful and many of today’s iconic Napa vineyards were not yet planted. Of course, the fine wine marketplace has grown exponentially since then. How does one producer differentiate itself from another given today’s playing field and tomorrow’s promise? Today’s fine wine consumer enjoys a multitude of choices and the highest quality wines must speak clearly of “place”. Further, the process from vineyard to the bottle must be very carefully administered with a clear vision of your desired position in the marketplace. There is simply no room for short cuts. After some “local” diligence (wine tasting), we knew where we would focus our wine estate-building efforts: the ‘Rocks District’. At that time the region was referred to as the ‘Rocks’. As mentioned earlier, and like Napa Valley, we knew that you had to assert a larger vision of distinctive quality to the consumer. This vision must reverberate way beyond any individual producer if you are to grow, and then sustain, a larger sphere of influence. It did not take us long to determine to petition the TTB for a new AVA. The very successful Walla Walla Valley AVA was approved in 1984. We had personally witnessed very positive consumer acceptance (even demand for) the so-called sub-AVA’s in Napa, Sonoma and Willamette Valley. This level of consumer demand was/is based upon authenticity and craft; understanding “place of origin” in food and wine beverage products. Ultimately, the AVA (or AOC, DOC, etc.) is a critical component in that pursuit. The ‘Rocks District’ would only enhance the unique character of the Walla Walla Valley, via the only AVA in the United States whose boundary lines were drawn based upon only one (1) soil series and only one (1) land form. How cool is that! (Our next level of focus has been to support a new vision forward for the town of Milton-Freewater; which resides in the middle of the ‘Rocks District’.)
WWB: How did you acquire the land for the SJR vineyard?
SR: Before answering your question, and as suggested previously, wine tasting pointed us towards the ‘Rocks District’. Specifically, we had enjoyed Cayuse wines and were excited about the wine quality prospects that could be achieved from this region; the gift of these little cobbles and high-touch farming. There is a very high level of viticulture and attention to detail that is required to achieve that level of wine quality. There is another important, often unappreciated, contributor to the highest levels of quality; the ability to experiment...to learn. We knew that this would be a journey and we were happy to pursue it within the ‘Rocks District’. I put out some “feelers” in the Valley with grower/producer pals for small parcels within what would become the ‘Rocks District’. We knew that we were going to eventually stumble upon something fantastic. Myles Anderson of Walla Walla Vintners sent me an email one day and said that we might be interested in a parcel that had crossed his path. I was in Napa Valley at the time doing some consulting work. I called Mary and told her about Myles email. Mary drove down from Walla Walla to look at the parcel, called me and said “This is it”. I said “Write it up”. Literally, an hour later we were working on deal points. It was somewhat providential for us. This 9.6 acre parcel of land we named SJR Vineyard has a fabulous well. That is really important given ‘Rocks District’ incredible drainage capability ( a cobbles and gravels depth of 200-300 feet) and the importance of being able to deliver water to the vines. We “pressure bomb” leaf structure every day post-veraison to assist us in determining irrigation needs. The ability to bring water to the vines immediately (within 13-14 bars atmosphere) is paramount; at 15 bars the plant is dying. The ability to bring water to the entire vineyard when you walk an irrigation tight wire is a luxury.
BR: We are able to turn on every single row of every block at the same time if we wanted to. Of course, each varietal has its own requirement for water. We turn the valves and done deal. We get to work with a fine edge at SJR Vineyard; all to the inevitable benefit of wine flavor. That is a very rare thing. More often vineyard compromises must be made affecting the ability to deliver water to the vines in a timely fashion. I wish I had our capability in many of Napa Valley’s iconic vineyards I have been fortunate enough to work in. Thankfully, there is plenty of clay in Napa soils and, therefore, water holding “buffer” capacity.
SR: Interestingly, there are some striking disparities between the ‘Rocks District’ and Chateauneuf du Pape having to do with water. ‘CNP’ is the poster child of cobble strewn vineyard and is often referred to when discussing the ‘Rocks District’...albeit ’CNP’ cobbles are 24” deep before clay and other sub-soils take over. Unlike Chateauneuf du Pape (which cannot legally irrigate other than to establish plants), we have the ability to irrigate. However, we must irrigate in short sets of water due to the tremendous drainage capability of our deeply cobbled soils (which also serves our purposes for establishing root structure). The last two vintage years of excessive and steady heat made timely irrigation a critical element.
With climate change, we can expect water issues to become primary considerations. Fundamentally, water is already problematic if you don’t own the vineyard. Water is a huge advantage for us. Once again, the ability to administer timely control of the operational process goes hand-in-hand with producing the highest quality fruit/wine.
BR: I think it is also important to be good stewards of the water right and not abuse it. It is really important to bring a sustainability ethic to your farming practices. That is something that I have learned throughout my time in this vineyard as well as others that I have had the opportunity to work.
WWB: I was hugely impressed with the 2013 Delmas Syrah with its ripeness, texture and seamless quality. Consumers will be excited to hear about the 2014 Delmas Syrah. What are you expecting with this wine and what are you expecting with the 2015?
SR: The 2014 Delmas Syrah shows a complex bouquet, exquisite balance and a seductive texture with a protracted finish and sits between the 2012 and 2013. The 2014 will be released this October. Ripe tannins and lively acidity provide the framework for aging. We now have six vintages under our belt. Finesse and elegance are two watchwords for Delmas Syrah. We experience more classic Northern Rhone-like aromatics early in the life of the wine. As the wines mature the aromatics lean more towards Burgundy. The 2014 is 14% alcohol (vs. 14.5% for the 2013 and 2015), and it is the first vintage that we were able to use our #470 clone Syrah in the blend along with the Joseph Phelps clone. As far as we know, we are the only ‘Rocks District’ grower utilizing the #470 clone of Syrah. This gives us a broader flavor profile and another layer of complexity to enjoy. We use three cultured yeasts for the primary fermentation and enjoyed an ideal fermentation curve with the 2014. We incorporated slightly more Viognier in the co-ferment (8.3%) and, like the 2013, utilized 50% whole cluster in our open top fermenters. Also, worth noting with the 2014 vintage, and after four years of cooper experimentation, we have arrived at our “house oak program” for Delmas; which, given SJR Vineyard’s unique ability to integrate oak tannins, allows for 60% new French oak...via three coopers. In an effort to truly bring something distinctive to the marketplace...that is recognized as Delmas...we are willing to take our time and invest our resources as required. We know that today there are 120 wineries in Walla Walla and that there will twice that many in the not too distant future. We know that the 280 wine grape planted acres of ‘Rocks District’ land will one day be 1,200 planted acres. We know that we better be able to stand out in this competitive environment, particularly given our legacy intentions; with Brooke eventually in control of the endeavor. That is why we initially chose to focus on vineyard development and producing only one (1) wine. Our business model further allows for a total of three (3) wines; a Viognier to be released to our allocation list in 2020 and a Grenache, which is scheduled to be released in 2022.
Finally, we are very excited about the 2015 [Delmas Syrah] in barrel. Our yields were off 30% in 2015, given a fall freeze event and summers excessive heat. So, this is a really limited production Syrah. For Delmas we realized 1.6 tons/acre of grapes! We were really selective. We will just barely be able to take care of our current allocation list from that vintage. Billo and I are blown away with how early the wine is seemingly integrating its oak and the pronounced flavor profiles. We have a 15 month barrel program for the Syrah...bottling in December. Oh, and we are particularly excited for the 2016 harvest...when we will double our production and be able to attend to many more prospective customers who have signed up on our waiting list.
#steverobertson #sjrvineyard #sjr #wallawalla
Ed Sbragia, Sbragia Family Vineyards
A man not needing any introduction, today we have one of the most exciting interviews I have done for Washington Wine Blog. Ed Sbragia is one of California’s iconic winemakers. An innovator from the start, Ed played a huge role in transforming Beringer into one of major world players for not only their entry level wines but their high quality Private Reserve Cabernet and Chardonnay bottlings. I have long admired these wines and absolutely love the aging potential of both wines. A delight to talk wine with, about a week ago I sat down with Ed and talked about his illustrious career, as well as his namesake winery, Sbragia Family Vineyards. I think you will very much enjoy hearing his story in wine. Here is my exclusive interview with Ed Sbragia, owner and winemaker of Sbragia Family Vineyards.
WWB: What was it like stating out at Beringer?
ES: Before starting at Beringer, I was in graduate school and had the chance to meet Mr. Myron Nightingale, who was one of the iconic winemakers in the wine industry at that time. He had been working at Beringer for 30 years. I was really impressed with Beringer’s location and the winery, particularly the direction the winery was headed. I found out that Callaway winery had hired Beringer’s assistant winemaker. One of my friends was the enologist at Beringer so I decided to apply for the winemaker position because my friend said he wasn’t interested. I got the job and started in 1976 and didn’t start my own winery until 32 years later.
At the time, Beringer was a winery of about 40,000 cases, a moderate size for a Napa Valley. They had gone through multiple Beringer generations and when I started there, had been sold to Nestle. This was avgood thing for me because Nestle wanted us to focus on making high-end wines, and I began buying grapes out of Howell Mountain with plans to buy more grapes from the best locations in Napa. We hired Bob Steinhauer in 1979 to be our vineyard manager and then from then on we were able to build the premium vineyard sources we wanted. In retrospect it seemed like Camelot! Beringer was a great place to be and I used mostly company owned vineyards with some great outside growers to make our wines. I believe we made some great wines while I was there.
WWB: How did you start the Beringer ‘Private Reserve’ label which became one of the iconic wine brands in California?
ES: That is a good question. At the time we owned a vineyard called ‘Chabot’ located on Glass Mountain, previously called the Lemon Ranch the first year because it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lemon. What was great about this vineyard was its 30-year old vines. We were very excited about this. We put it in the bottle and let it age for a year and a half. Initially the Private Reserve was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. I didn’t get any Cabernet Franc until the mid-80s so it was 100% Cab until 1986. I was able to select wines from the best sites and blend them together, which was a fun challenge for me! We were making Chardonnay from the beginning of when I started and that didn’t really come to be Private Reserve until later in my tenure. We made our Private Reserve Chardonnay from Oakville AVA vineyards.
The idea behind the Private Reserve Chardonnay was my understanding of how great white Burgundy was made. These wines were aged in new barrels for 18 months and had batonnage, so we started doing the same thing. I liked the way the wine turned out and essentially the technique was fun. We experimented with new barrels when most people were using only stainless steel, making some less than spectacular wines from being aged in stainless steel. The Burgundian barrel fermentation and battonnage technique created incredible flavors and textures. We learned that you can greatly enhance the Chardonnay through malolactic fermentation, barrel aging and lees stirring, as all of those things make the wine richer and give it more complexity. The wonderful thing about sitting on the lees, is the Chardonnay becomes extracted with a lot of character from the wood and the malolactic fermentation - you ended up getting a balanced wine that ages beautifully. That was how Private Reserve Chardonnay started. The thing was, I was not trying to make a French wine but I was using Burgundian techniques that had worked across the world to make great California wines. I still do that with my Sbragia wines.
WWB: How did you finally decide to start your own winery, Sbragia Family Vineyards?
ES: I left Beringer as winemaker emeritus in 2008 and did a few things for them for a few years thereafter. I also had the chance to work in Asia with Beringer before I left and that was great. Demands in terms of my own winery took over and my son, Adam, who is a really talented winemaker, started helping out a lot in the winery. So right now I am not working as hard as I used to, which is nice. It was a scary thing starting my winery, yet I got a lot of support from Adam who worked for me at Beringer. They also helped sell the wine for me for a while, providing national marketing and sales support.
We left them in 2012 but Beringer has always treated me well. It was finally time for me to start my own winery and Adam helped make this decision easier, as he’s turned into a great winemaker. Sbragia became a family winery for me and I always wanted to work with my family. My youngest son, Kevin, is working as a bookkeeper and Adam is now responsible for all production and winemaking. All family members have worked here at various times, and my wife, Jane, works all of the events with me and Adam. We are very excited about celebrating our anniversary soon, 15 years here at Sbragia Family Vineyards. And I’m very excited about a new project Adam launched this year called Home Field, a red blend from Dry Creek vineyards. The name Home Field refers to him growing up in and knowing all the best vineyards in Dry Creek valley.
WWB: I have always been highly impressed with your Sbragia Chardonnay lineup and I recently had a chance to taste through your new releases. Can you talk about your incredible new wine, the 2015 ‘Gamble Ranch’ Chardonnay (WWB, 94) a wine with tremendous richness and texture?
ES: I am very familiar with the Gamble Ranch and crafting great Chardonnay from that site. The Gamble Ranch Vineyard has deep clay soils, almost black soils. I have been crushing these grapes since the 1970s. These are old vines and they have produced truly outstanding Beringer Private Reserves. I continue to acquire this fruit from the Gamble family for Sbragia Family Vineyards - 2015 was a drought vintage with small berries and concentrated flavors. Gamble Ranch produces grapes with bright citrus and apple characteristics. The barrel fermentation adds layers of butter and also nutty tones. With time you develop richness and the flavors, oak, richness and acidity all integrate beautifully. This is how I wanted to make that wine, a delicious wine for our customers and friends. I personally best enjoy the Gamble Chardonnay when it gets older and the caramel, butterscotch and creme brûlée flavors emerge.
WWB: What is your cellar like?
ES: I have lots of Beringer wine from my many years as winemaker there. I also have Burgundy and Bordeaux in my cellar, which I relish for special occasions. I tend to sip the Gamble Ranch Chardonnay often and I love the Monte Rosso and the mountain fruit - I always have loved that wine! We make a wine out of Howell Mountain fruit that I like a lot; it’s a slightly bigger wine then the Monte Rosso. I also enjoy Italian wines and worked for Gabbiano as a consultant for many years. I had a great time working with the winemaker there and I have many of these wines in my cellar. I tend to drink wines from Sonoma and Napa, as well as a lot of my Sbragia wines because I need to check them out and watch their progress as they age. My favorite old Bordeaux in the cellar are the Chateau Pichon-Lalandes and Chateau Lynch-Bages wines.
Matt Seigel, Eleven Madison Park
Interview with Matt Seigel, Bartender at Eleven Madison Park, New York
While in New York I had the chance to stop by one of the nation’s iconic restaurants, Eleven Madison Park. Sitting at the bar there was an eye opener for me, as I watched craft cocktails be poured alongside Chateau Haut Brion. This was clearly the upper echelon of the New York bar scene. My tourguide for the night was bartender Matt Seigel. Matt had recently completed his Level 1 sommelier certification so we talked wine, cocktails and fine dining. A former DJ in LA, Matt has found his sweet spot with bartending and creating some incredible cocktails for Eleven Madison. I recently had the chance to talk wine and spirits with him and found him incredible interesting and insightful. For those interested in the Level 1 Somm Certification, he shed some light on obtaining his certification and also talked about the details in some of the incredible craft cocktails at Eleven Madison Park. For more info check out http://www.elevenmadisonpark.com/
Here is my interview with Matt Seiegel, bartender at Eleven Madison Park
WWB: You have a background in music and were integrated in the LA music industry. Can you talk about what that was like and how you started getting interested in bartending?
MS: Absolutely, I was in the music industry as a record producer and DJ for over 10 years but have always had a strong passion for food/beverage/hospitality. I can recall years ago living with my brother and we were always into different spirits and finding aged rums and bourbons to sip on. Eventually we got sick of drinking rum and cokes and started doing some homework and teaching ourselves how to make proper cocktails. However, I didn’t really learn anything until I got my chance to be part of the incredible team at Eleven Madison Park.
The story of how I got the job is a really long one so I won’t bore you with it, but I still to this day am shocked that they hired me, considering I had absolutely no experience whatsoever. That being said, I do have an incredible work ethic and I think they saw that in me, that’s the key to working at a place like that, if you can’t push yourself to work harder than everybody else, it’s just not going to work. Being that I was self-employed in the music industry (which is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding career choices anyone could make) I had no problem pushing myself to work extremely hard, I knew I had a huge mountain to climb especially since I had to start completely from scratch. Even the most basic things were all brand new to me, however once I worked my way through the dining room and got to where I wanted to be which was behind the bar, which was when I really saw the light. To me the idea of putting a song together and putting a cocktail together are exactly the same process. It’s the same part of the brain and calls for the same amount of science, math, style, creativity, and history. That’s what I love about it, the blend of both the creative process as well as the precision, but even more so than that is my truly genuine love of hospitality. Seeing the look on someone’s face as you are making their day is seriously the best feeling. That is something that I just wasn’t getting from music, yes you have that feeling when on stage, but it’s just not the same. That sort of desire to nurture and give is something that can’t be taught, you can be taught how to do it better but that natural instinct is either inside of you or it isn’t. Whether it’s going in their ears or their mouth via a song or a drink, it’s all the same.
WWB: You mentioned that you have recently passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 Sommelier Certification. Can you talk about that process and the challenges that comes with learning about the world of wine?
MS: It’s funny, I decided to do it with a co-worker of mine very last minute as sort of a test of how much we have really learned just by being around all of the wine and intelligent people at EMP. I didn’t study much and was actually really surprised at how hard that test was, fortunately I passed but it was a lot more in depth than I originally thought. I was naïve enough to think, “Oh, I can do this, I hear about wine every day.” It’s definitely not that easy and I apologize to anyone in the Court for even having that thought. Furthermore to even begin to think about what some of the guys (and girls) on our team put themselves through to study for Advanced and then Masters meanwhile working at a restaurant as demanding as EMP is unfathomable to me. I really have to shine a light on how absolutely incredible our wine team is. They are so supportive of the whole staff, they even teach classes every Wednesday for whomever on the staff wants to show up, each week a different sommelier picks whatever topic they want and we taste, discuss, learn, etc. Since I have been at the bar, I was guided by my fellow bartenders to really put my head down and study more spirits, classic cocktails, history, etc. and that trying to do that coupled with studying for my Certified was going to be too much to handle. With that in mind I decided to go for more of the spirit and cocktail route and am very happy that I did as it allowed me to prosper more in my actual job, but that being said, I have really learned to love and appreciate wine. Before working there I really had no idea about wine other than just white vs. red, but just being around it really helps you learn. I seriously picked up so much just through osmosis, but I feel like once you start to learn a little bit and you can break through that initial wall which seems so incredibly daunting it really becomes easier. If you truly enjoy it, then you remember grapes, regions, producers, etc. that you like and it is enjoyable rather than feeling like studying. I do plan to study for and take my certified exam some time in the near future, and I’ll definitely have to dedicate some time and really study for that one!
WWB: At Eleven Madison Park you offer some signature cocktails such as the 5th word and the Empire Cocktail. Can you talk about the attention to detail in these fantastic craft cocktail and the challenges with making these perfectly?
MS: Since we met our menu has changed, as it changes every season congruent to the food menu and even mirrors the flavors and ingredients. Since we are now onto our spring menu I’ll discuss some of those cocktails (if that’s ok) in an attempt to keep things current. The way our cocktail program works is we are incredibly seasonal and use our incredibly talented kitchen as inspiration. What I mean by that is we base a number of our cocktails on dishes that are on the menu, as well as doing our interpretations of classic New York cocktails. Those are the two staples of our program and what just about every cocktail on our menu is based upon. Let’s take for example The 5th Word and The Empire Cocktail.
The 5th Word is essentially a Crème Fraiche based Piña Colada. There is a dish on the menu right now that is Mushrooms and Crème Fraiche, so with that in mind I decided to use Crème Fraiche which I fortified with an Agave Syrup in lieu of traditional Heavy Cream coupled with our Coconut Syrup (like a normal Piña Colada) as the sweeteners. However, instead of all Rum I decided to go for a bit of a darker, more savory route to emulate the umami you get from mushrooms. To do that, I used a touch of Amaro Averna and then a split base of Cognac and aged Cachaça (Brazil’s version of Rum made from Sugarcane). I even added a tiny bit of Lemon juice, which is not normally in this type of drink, but I felt it needed some acid to cut through all of heavy flavors (just like Chef does in the kitchen) The result is still full bodied and round like a classic Piña Colada, however this version is a touch more savory, then tart from the Crème Fraiche and the Lemon, and a little less sweet than the classic. The toughest part of this cocktail aside from carefully balancing all of those potentially dominant flavors was making the Crème Fraiche Agave. Using Crème Fraiche on its own was a bit too tart/lactic/savory so fortifying it with some Agave gave it some body and roundness, also made it easier to use (which was as important as the flavor and texture). Too much Crème Fraiche and its too tart and savory, too much Agave and it’s too viscous and sweet, fortunately it didn’t take too long to get it right, but when making proprietary ingredients as we tend to do a lot of, you have to be very careful and incredibly exact.
The Empire is our take on a classic originally crafted by Patrick Gavin Duffy at the Ashland House which was on 24th & 4th (which is now Park) so almost exactly where EMP now stands. The original recipe simply calls for French Vermouth, Dry Sherry, and Orange Bitters, that’s it, essentially a wine cocktail. So with that in mind, when deciding where to go with that particular recipe we had a fair amount of leeway, we also always have a section on our menu for Aperitif cocktails so that one just seemed perfect. In old cocktail books when they mention “French Vermouth” that normally means Dry where “Italian Vermouth” means Sweet. I decided to take that a bit further and use both a Dry and a Blanc Vermouth from France, Fino Sherry, and then for a touch more Orange note as well as some body a bit of Combier, as well as Orange Bitters and a dash of Absinthe. All of these together make for my favorite aperitif cocktail that I’ve ever crafted. I am a huge fan of Vermouth and the way that all of these ingredients work together is just so light and delicate that the execution is crucial. Too much dilution and the cocktail is instantly dead. We serve it in a double rocks glass with a large block of ice to keep the wine nice and cold without over diluting. Since all of the ingredients are very low in alcohol they can’t stand up to the heavy icing that say a Manhattan would get, so we do a very, very short stir and then straight into the glass and garnish with an Orange twist to finish the whole thing off with that beautiful Orange note.
WWB: You have some very strong sommeliers on staff at Eleven Madison Park? What has been the process in learning from them? How can having the sommeliers around you improve your beverage and bartending abilities?
MS: As I mentioned in the previous question, our sommeliers are insanely smart and talented, but above all are so willing to teach and share. That is what sets our wine team apart from everywhere else. Being that I am not part of that team I feel as though I can gush about them without sounding conceited. We (the bar and wine team) work very close and try very hard to make sure the rest of the dining room and even kitchen staff have ample knowledge of everything that we are doing. Not just for the sake of the guest so that they can have the best experience possible (yes, that is the ultimate goal of everything) but also just for the staff themselves, we all strive to have as much knowledge and information as we can because we truly care and are actually interested.
We also keep a large amount of our white, sparkling, and sweet wine behind the bar so we (the bartenders) are literally forced to be aware of what wine is in there. I also will use our somms palates for cocktails I am working on all the time. Every time I make something I have one of our sommeliers taste it and give me feedback. They have the best palates in the building and I love getting as much input as possible when I’m crafting a drink, I don’t think that just because I like it that it’s perfect, absolutely not. Clearly the bar team tastes everyone else’s cocktails, that is how we make our menu, but having the luxury of some of the best palates in New York tasting things with you and talking about flavors, balance, mouth feel, and food pairings is absolutely intangible. I wouldn’t be even a quarter as knowledgeable about anything beverage if not for the incredible wine team at both EMP and The NoMad.
Joe Shebl, Renwood Winery
Interview with Renwood Director of Winemaking, Joe Shebl
A master of Zin, Renwood Director of Winemaking, Joe Shebl has been crafting intense yet balanced Zinfandel wines for many years. Joe has a degree in biology and chemistry from Sacramento State University. He later caught the winemaking bug from wines he tasted from the nearby Sierra Foothills. Soon after college he went to work in the cellar at Renwood Winery in Amador County. Joe worked his way through all phases of winemaking and would ultimately become one of the key players in winemaking in the region. Joe is currently Director of Winemaking at Renwood Winery, as well as owner of Fiddletown Cellars and consulting winemaker for Borjon Winery. He has served on the Amador County Vintners Board of Directors for a number of years. I recently had the chance to sit down with Joe and sample the new Renwood lineup of red wines, as well as discuss his style of winemaking, and was very impressed with the balance and intensity of these wines. Joe’s wines showcase a bright, vibrancy that Zinfandel can be when treated properly, there is an elegance to these new bottlings. I found him to be incredibly knowledgeable and approachable. Learn more about this awesome lineup of wines at
http://www.renwood.com/ Here is my interview with Joe Shebl, Director of Winemaking, Renwood Winery.
WWB: Can you talk about how you became interested in winemaking? How does your background in chemistry make you a better winemaker?
JS: I didn’t go to medical school but I considered going because I was pre-med at Sacramento State. Then the summer before my senior year of college I went wine tasting to Napa. I was taking all sorts of science classes and I thought that the winery lab was really cool. This was an outdoorsy profession and I love being outside. The blend of these two things and the science behind it made this a great fit. I came back and saw an ad for a cellar worker positon in 1999 at Renwood. I sent my resume in and showed up in a suit and tie for the interview. The winemaker at the time basically hired me on the spot. I told him I was going to graduate, then take a few weeks off and then show up for work. I basically fell in love with the job. I have held every position at Renwood from entry level cellar rat to working in the lab. Having had previous lab experience I was familiar with much of the equipment and knew how to use it. I finally made it to assistant winemaker at Renwood and then I left in 2009 to start my own brand.
I currently consult for 5 or 6 wineries in the area. In 2010 there was new ownership at Renwood and I became friends with the management. In 2013 they offered me the position of Director of Winemaking and General Manager which was an exciting opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I’ve come full circle at Renwood. This is a great position to be in and we have a global presence with this brand. My daily job here at Renwood is really fantastic. It is my responsibility to ensure that the wines are stable, safe and biologically sound. I think we have the best winemaking team anywhere. A lot of people are very tenured here. My assistant isn’t really an assistant, he is a winemaker. I interface with upper management and ownership. I take care of putting the winemaking and vineyard budgets together. This means a lot of spreadsheet time but that is part of the gig.
During Jan-May the job involves a lot of market visits, so I’m travelling to meet with people and tell our story. Being the head winemaker at Renwood, you are called upon to wear a lot of different hats and also find time to be a brand ambassador. We have a killer team and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. You have to be hyper-organized and that keeps me successful where I can leave for a week and feel confident that things are dialed in at home. Unless a meteor hits the winery we should be fine. We work on the blends and are always tasting not only our wines but wines of the world. We do competitive tastings all the time. We have a feel for one wine and then we might do something different with another one.
WWB: I recently had the chance to review your 2013 Renwood ‘Grandmere’ Red Wine (WWB, 92) which was a silky and seductive wine that will cellar beautifully. Can you talk about the winemaking and blending of this wine, as well as the 2013 vintage?
JS: That is usually one of the more fun wines to make because the blend is different every year. We watch the different lots mature over 15 months and then decide how each component will play with the other. Some years it might be more Zin heavy or Petit heavy or Syrah heavy. It depends on how they are performing in the blend. This year the Zin, Petit and Syrah percentages developed these harmonious nuances and is intensely fruit driven. But, this wine also has the complexity and weight and layers. My goal in mind is to produce wines that have energy and vitality and convey a sense of place. The vitality and the freshness is paramount. We want energy because these wines are alive. That is a fun thing to develop and share. Not a lot of wineries make this kind of wine.
The 2013 vintage, in terms of harvest, was a pretty typical year here in Amador. We had some consistent daytime highs and nighttime lows. We did experience a few heat spikes, one in early July and one later in July. Ripening was pretty darn optimal across all varieties and we saw the results in the bottle. The results were well-balanced wines with excellent flavors and textures. We also had (scientifically speaking) perfect numbers and set of parameters in terms of wine health. We have been lucky. 2011 was wet, but the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015’s have all been solid vintages. I think ‘13 was maybe a bit better than the others but across the board these have all been rockstar vintages. 2013 was a great vintage in general for Amador County a lot of the wines were just amazing. They all have this uncanny juiciness and freshness.
WWB: Can you talk about the range of aromatics and flavor profiles Zinfandel has as a varietal and how America has been infatuated with jammy, dense Zinfandel?
JS: I think America’s infatuation with Zinfandel is due to it being a marvelously adaptable varietal. It can produce a myriad of flavor profiles from jammy to bright, mouth-watering fresh fruits depending on the growing site, weather conditions, and winemaking techniques. We are always looking for the nuances or different aspects of our vineyards that highlight what we feel are some of the best characteristics of Amador County. We have blocks that accentuate the sense of place and region very well. We want to showcase the typicity of the variety as it grows here in the Sierra Foothills. I am always walking the vineyards and the key factor for us is picking at night during the coolest portion of the evening. This means harvesting at 2 or 3 in the morning. We are always very careful when destemming the fruit. We don’t crush the fruit. We actually put the fruit in the fermentation tanks as whole berries. We want the essence of the fruit to shine through, and to limit the bitter seed tannins. We co-ferment everything. We might do a short cold soak to get the most out of the variety.
We are also fermenting cool, at about 68 Fahrenheit, which contributes to the freshness. We also add a bit of sulphur to the fermentations, which is something that doesn’t kill the yeast but it stresses it a bit more. When you stress the yeast you get yeast that genetically produces more glycerol. This maintains the freshness but gives you tension and a mouth-coating factor without having high residual sugar in the wines. This gives you a sweet and sour balance but you retain the purity of the true fruit sweetness. We are very lucky in Amador County because of the diurnal temperature swings. We get 30 degree swings in a few hours and that is a recipe for producing marvelous tension and structure. That is what you get to enjoy in the glass!
WWB: When Renwood is not in your glass, what are some of your favorite California Zinfandels?
JS: I love Zinfandel and I obviously make it and drink a ton of it, but I am a sucker for good Napa Cabernets like Chimney Rock, Duckhorn, and Paraduxx, the rich stuff. I love good Bordeaux as well, one of my favorite producers is Cotie Roboef. I also really like Albarino from Uruguay and love the wines from Bodega Garzon. Barbera is a favorite and to be honest… I’m just passionate about very good, well- made wine in general. I never let myself be pigeon-holed into one thing because I like to keep an open mind to wines from all over the world. It totally depends on my mood. Last year I had a Black Rock Zin that was given to me and was great. I have a lot of winemaker friends so I keep my mind and my palate totally wide open. My buddy makes some exceptional Pinot Noir for Storm Wines which are always nice. My glass is rarely empty… as I love a myriad of different wines.
Kathy Shiels, Cote Bonneville
Cote Bonneville Winery and Interview with co-owner, Kathy Shiels
Cote Bonneville is a premier Washington producer of red and white wines, located in Sunnyside. The winery owners, Kathy and Hugh Shiels, set up their tasting room in the old town train station. This historic building is the perfect place to sample some of their critically acclaimed red and white wines. The Shiels daughter, Kerry Shiels, is their superstar winemaker. While Bonneville has made a name for themselves through their excellent red wines, their whites impress as well. In fact, their 2012 Chardonnay is one of the best Washington Chardonnays that I've tried in the past year. I was able to interview co-owner, Kathy Shiels, who has many years of experience in the Washington wine industry and vineyard management at the famed DuBrul vineyard, the source of fruit for Cote Bonneville wines. Here is my interview with Kathy Shiels, followed by a review of the excellent Cote Bonneville wines.
Can you talk about some of the other excellent Washington wines that you enjoy?
I prefer balanced and more elegant wine such as Chaleur Estate (a DeLille Cellars wine). At the time we founded our winery, they were the only winery who focused primarily on Bordeaux Blends. Most wineries at that time focused on varietals. DeLille was a role model for us. I also enjoy Owen Roe wines and are happy they have chosen to locate in the Yakima Valley. This speaks volumes on the quality of Yakima Valley fruit. Co Dinn will be releasing the first wines from Co Dinn Cellars this summer. He is making a beautiful Chardonnay and vineyard designated wines from vineyards he has identified as being premier sites.
What do you think about the differences between 2011 and 2012 vintages in Washington?
2011 was a challenging year. It was a cool year similar to 2004. 2004 was a bit warmer at the tail end of the growing season. We have an advantage that we have a spectacular site and were able to make the appropriate adjustments throughout the growing season to ensure full maturation. In 2004 our Côte Bonneville DuBrul Vineyard was chosen Wine of the Year by SEATTLE Magazine. 2011 will be very similar. Cool years in WA approximate Bordeaux, warm years California. There will be more savory notes in the wines vs the fruit forward wines of warmer years.
2012 was a beautifully balanced year. The heat seemed to come at all the right times. This vintage stands out as an exceptional vintage for Washington.
You make an exceptional Chardonnay. Can you talk about the wine and how you make such high quality Chardonnay?
Shiels: We introduced Chardonnay to our lineup of wines in 2004. It was ABC (anything but chardonnay) at that time. I have always loved Burgundian style chardonnays. If you are in this business long enough you see varietals come in and out of favor. Now there is a resurgence of Chardonnay and that is good. Our chardonnay is made in the classic Burgundian style, made in the barrel, sur lees, complete ML and bottled unfined and unfiltered.
I am particularly impressed with 2008 and 2009 bottlings of Carriage House, considering the price point. Can you talk about the Carriage House wines and what flavor profiles you are going for?
We let our wines express the site. We have two distinct growing areas within DuBrul. The Carriage House block is alluvial. Rocks and siltation have been carried through flooding from the hills over time. Our hillside is part of the Ellensburg formation. Comprised of fingerings of basalt, floods and volcanic eruptions. Washington State has own-rooted vines. Chile is the only other place in the world where you have that on a large scale. Own rooted vines express their site without the influence of grafted rootstock. The sense of place is the Holy Grail of wine.
Carriage House wines are characterized by bright cherry, red current and cassis. Our tannins are soft and approachable. The wines are balanced, complex and food friendly.
The hillside vines make up the Côte Bonneville DuBrul bottling, our flagship wine. They are often described as classic DuBrul cherry, more indicative of that ripe bing bursting in your mouth cherry. The berries are small, the clusters are small and the yields are low, resulting in bigger, well-structured and complex wines. Approachable while young yet continuing to mature and develop with age.
We source our wines from the same rows in the vineyard each year. It’s interesting to follow the vintages through a vertical of Côte Bonneville wine. You can tell they belong to the same family but reflex the nuances of the vintage.
Can you talk a bit about the 2008 and 2009 vintages in Washington? I know they were both excellent vintages but did you see any major differences in the vintages and the structure of the wines?
There are always subtle differences in vintages. I can remember in 2002 thinking that if it never got any better than this it would be ok. 2003 came around and it was even better. In 2004 we were chosen as Wine of the Year and Vineyard of the Year, for the second time, by SEATTLE magazine. 2005 Wine Spectator picked us as one of the 10 Rising Stars of American Wine. 2006 and 2007 were classic Washington vintages. 2006 was the first year that we made a Cabernet Sauvignon from a very tiny area of the vineyard that differentiated itself. 2008 was similar to 2003 and 2005. 2009 comparable to 2002. ’10 and ’11 more like ’04. Kerry (head winemaker) has a Master’s in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis. She has experience in California, Australia, and Argentina. Her philosophy is to celebrate the vintage, and make classic wines that let the vineyard speak for itself.
Kerry Shiels, Cote Bonneville
Interview with Kerry Shiels, Winemaker of Côte Bonneville
Today we have a very exciting interview with a rockstar woman in wine. One of the great winemakers in Washington, Kerry Shiels, is the daughter of Kathy and Dr. Hugh Shiels, who founded Côte Bonneville and planted their famed DuBrul Vineyard. Kerry received her Masters degree in Viticulture and Enology from U.C. Davis, then assumed the winemaker title in August, 2009. She has been immersed in DuBrul Vineyard and Côte Bonneville since 2005, under Stan Clarke’s tutelage and Co Dinn’s mentorship.
Kerry is not only a superstar winemaker but she is a downright awesome person to talk wine with. I recently had the chance to sit down with her and talk about her background, as well as her recent great releases. I think you will very much enjoy hearing more about her. Here is my interview with Kerry Shiels, Winemaker of Côte Bonneville.
WWB: How did you first become interested in winemaking? What was it like learning from some of the best wine educators in the world at the UC Davis school of viticulture and enology?
KS: I grew up around the wine industry, knowing growers and winemakers from a young age. When I was looking for a science project in 7th grade, making wine seemed like a fun one! I’ve always been interested in learning how the world works and creating something. I have been lucky to have amazing teachers and mentors from middle school, through college at Northwestern University and grad school at UC Davis, up to today. They have always encouraged me seek out the best education and experiences, and helped me apply what I’ve learned with critical thinking to whatever I’m currently trying to do.
When I changed careers from engineering to winemaking, it was thanks to many of those middle and high school mentors that I knew I needed to go to UC Davis. It was pretty amazing to be in class with professors who helped establish the California wine industry as a quality region. Every single instructor was at the top of his or her field globally. The depth and breadth of knowledge in Davis is phenomenal. I also made a lot of great friends, both fellow students and in the faculty. The people I worked with during my harvest experiences were also wonderful teachers. Each winery has a unique philosophy, which means different ways of doing things, and different reasons for why they do them. It is important to understand distinct decision-making styles, especially when coupled with different vineyards, vintages, and regions (I’ve made wine on 3 continents). The combination of academic understanding and experience is how one learns good judgment. I am excited to see the WSU program growing. It bodes well for our industry to have more trained professionals to continue to improve quality of Washington Wines. Our region is young, and there is so much potential to discover.
WWB: What are some of the challenges with growing a range of varietals in the DuBrul Vineyard, from Riesling to Merlot to Syrah?
KS: We view the diversity as an advantage, not a challenge. When we planted DuBrul, we dug big pits all around the vineyard to study the soils and aspects. We laid out the vineyard to take advantage of the natural variation inherent in the site. The Cabernet, for example, is on the steep south facing slope for the most heat accumulation and rockiest soils. Chardonnay is planted on a north westerly facing aspect, where there is more loess. This block is cooler, and the increased water holding capacity helps the vines develop the canopy needed for this varietal. If the vineyard were uniform, we couldn’t grow the range of grapes all at the high quality point that we do. The hillside Cab planting would be too hot and rocky for Chard, for example. Another great attribute of the diversity of grapes is that it helps us to keep our all female crew working consistently. Timing of work in the vineyard is important. With the different varietals, it ensures that the vines are not all at the same point of development at exactly the same time. So just as we finish work in one block it is time to start work in the next. The ladies can work steadily, not rushed one week and bored the next. It is important to us to take care of the people who work in the vineyard, along with the vines and fruit. In the winery, the fun part of growing all these different grapes is that we get to make such a diverse set of wines. As an estate winery, it is really cool to be able
to make Riesling and Syrah. We have something for everyone, and almost every occasion, from refreshing whites to full bodied reds.
WWB: Do you feel that some varietals grow best depending on vintages? What were some of your favorite varietals from the hot vintages of 2014 and 2015?
KS: The Yakima Valley is a moderate growing region. In cool years, we approximate more elegant Bordeaux style wines; in warm years, we tend more towards rich California-esque fruit. I truly believe there is no such thing as a bad vintage in a great site like DuBrul Vineyard, but we do have to adapt to the year we’re given.
This year is the 25th anniversary of DuBrul Vineyard, and we know our vines well. We can use various viticultural and irrigation practices to optimize each vine. This helps us achieve even ripening, no matter what type of season Mother Nature has given us. Our winemakers (not only myself, but all those who source fruit from DuBrul) then have the flexibility to make harvest decisions that best fit their style and goals. I really like the 2014 Chardonnay, which has lovely lemon pie notes. Our 2014 Syrah combines boysenberry and cherry with violets and spice. For the Cabernet blends, I think the 2014s are too young, so they are still waiting in my cellar. Our wines are intended to age, so I’m currently enjoying the 2010 Carriage House or 2007 Côte Bonneville.
WWB: You made one of my favorite Rose wines in Washington, which landed on my Top 100 Wines of North America last year. Can you talk about your special 2015 Rose and the upcoming release of your 2016 Rose?
KS: I love Rosé! Ours is special, in that we grow the grapes specifically for rosé. So much of the viticulture and winemaking around rosé isn’t serious, as producers just don’t spend the time and energy here. Not only are whites and rosé wonderful wines, but attention to detail is so important for quality, flavor, and balance in these wines.
We take the designated rows of Cabernet Franc in the vineyard, and farm for the desired flavors, brightness, and intensity. The grapes are harvested and cared for in the winery to highlight the complexity, aromatics, and elegance that our wines are known for. It’s completely dry, and pairs well with a wide range of food. The pale copper color is gorgeous in the glass. At home, my back patio faces northwest, overlooking the Yakima Valley towards DuBrul Vineyard. My favorite place to enjoy is a glass of rosé is on the patio, watching the sun set behind Mt Rainier. The colors evolve across the evening sky and the desert hills like the flavors in the wine. It’s a perfect way to end a summer day.
WWB: When you are not enjoying your delicious Cote Bonneville wines, what are some of your favorite wines of the world? What is your personal cellar like?
KS: I enjoy wines from all over the world, and believe it’s important to continue to explore what’s out there in the greater world of wine. Call it competitive analysis, or not getting a house palate, but it is part of the job to taste and drink other wines! Having lived in Italy for a few years, Piemontese wines are my enological home away from home. I love Arneis, Barbera, and of course, Nebbiolo. Champagne is always fun, and has become more interesting, with the explosion of grower producers that are focused on a sense of place. Our philosophy is very Burgundian, and I feel a kinship with those wines. I appreciate the meticulous attention to site, farming, and winemaking. And the Chardonnay is amazing. It’s important to continually benchmark Bordeaux blends and Syrah from other areas, so I seek those out from important regions. It’s tough work, but someone has to do it, right? ;) My cellar is divided by variety/ type, but also by ageability. In the section I’m trying to be patient and lay down for a long time, I am really excited about the Rieslings. Aged Riesling is so spectacular, so in 10 or 20 years, that is going to be fun!!
Kit Singh, Lauren Ashton Cellars
Interview with Dr. Kit Singh, Co-Owner and Head Winemaker of Lauren Ashton Cellars
Today we have a very special interview for you from a great name in Washington wine. Dr. Kit Singh is a highly talented winemaker and his wines are gaining more and more national recognition. Dr. Singh first became introduced into the wine world in college and he learned more throughout his travels to Napa and Sonoma. Dr. Singh had a thirst for knowledge and began taking viticulture and enology education at South Seattle Community College and then furthered his education from the illustrious University of California at Davis enology program. He then interned at South Seattle Community College, Seattle and spent two years interning at DeLille Cellars in Woodinville, one of Woodinville’s finest. These internships greatly helped in his education as winemaker. Like many winemakers, he began his winemaking journey making wine in his garage, but he knew that would lead to something much bigger. With his background in science, he has an upper hand in the winemaking process, as he is constantly measuring the wine and tasting for variances. In 2009 Dr. Singh made everything official by founding Lauren Aston Cellars, naming the winery after the names of his two children, Ashley Lauren and Ashton Troy. I think you will really enjoy hearing more about his story. Here is my interview with Dr. Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton Cellars.
WWB: How were you first interested in winemaking?
KS: I think both tasting wine and making wine go hand in hand. My college friends were into wine. I attended undergrad at the University of Washington and I grew up in Trinidad, which doesn’t have much of a wine culture. I wasn’t initially involved in wine but the college friends got me into wine. They were all sort of coming from backgrounds where their parents liked wines and so they were exposed to wine growing up. The interest in making wine started when my wife and I did a trip to Napa in 1987. The first love was really the vineyards and looking at the vineyards and I enjoyed straight things and orderly things, which is probably why I am a dentist. The vineyard repents this. That was something that looked fun and I came back and was still trying to get into dental school. I went to dental school at UW and so you are trying to keep your head above water. I graduated and had all this debt so had to get my practice going. I focused on building my practice but my interest in wine never waned. I was looking at Washington and our wine scene was starting to grow. I think that I had the interest and I didn't want this time to go.
I wanted to succeed in my wine career so I decided to take classes at UC Davis and also at South Seattle Community College. During the classes I learned as much as I could. I was in a wine tasting group too and in dental school a lot of the students were into wines. You run into a lot of people that have great wine collections. I ended up teaching the wine science class at South Seattle Community College. I did the wine science for DeLille Cellars for two and a half years. It was at DeLille that I learned the theory and the theoretical work in winemaking. I learned how to press grapes and hoses to tanks. At DeLille I learned how to run and operate a winery at some kind of scale. At that point in time I felt I was ready. Our first vintage for Lauren Ashton Cellars was 2009 and the first release was in 2011. I had those reds in barrel for two years and then the 2011 vintage I made white wines and red wines. Then I was able to start the winery with a combination of whites and reds.
WWB: How does your career as a dentist give you an advantage as a winemaker?
KS: I think this gives me a huge advantage. There are several things that help with my undergraduate work in chemistry. To get this degree you need at least as year of biology and physics and several years of math. I had a good understanding of the sciences which is basically the same for an enology degree. You have to learn about fermentation and have an understanding the PH and keeping your wines healthy. Food safety is key. The wine science and how to do a titration and understanding the acidity and measuring the alcohol in the wines. The math part is important, so that gave me a good grounding to be able to do this. I also have an artistic part in me and I feel like I am able to express that in wine. My dad is a writer and I think probably some of his genes passed on. I express my passion through the wines. I also have their business background from my practice and I am somewhat of a risk taker. It is a huge risk and wine is a crowded market. I could have done something else with my time but my love for wine is what made me do it and applying the business aspects of what I had learned before. I wanted to do this and do it well.
WWB: I recently had the chance to try your 2013 Lauren Ashton ‘Proprietor’s Cuvee’ Red Wine (WWB, 93), which was a dense and intense wine that showed beautiful poise in this warm vintage. Can you talk about this great new release?
KS: Washington State gives us some of the best grapes to work with. I really like flavors that we get in Washington compared to other places like California. Part of what I did with this wine is trying to establish my style. I worked with DeLille and I know their wine style and how they make their wines. When I was done I had to ask myself what kind of style are you going to do? Are you going to make something similar to DeLille? I felt like I wanted to have my own style. I wanted to have something a little different and I wanted to think about what would work. One of the things that I learned from Chris Upchurch is that blending was a challenge. He told me that when you make wines like that it is like making wines by committee and you make the most boring wines. He said that it was best to do the blending himself. That is one of the big lightbulbs that went off for me and I had to do the blending by myself. I thought about it more and really what that translates to is making wines that you like and you are proud of. This wine represents what I am and hopefully you have an audience that likes that style of wine. Going back to your question about the 2013 ‘Proprietor’s Cuvee’ I get a lot of my fruit from Red Mountain and then I blend it back from other areas in the Columbia Valley that add to the flavors. This might not be the biggest and boldest wine but blending with cooler areas I get more acidity in the wines and lean it out vs being too big. The 2013 vintage I employed that strategy.
WWB: I personally think that your winemaking style is improving, as you are developing a signature textural style. Can you talk about your signature style of winemaking?
KS: Sometimes people come out to the tasting room and will say ‘I don't drink whites’ and you tell them that its might be different. They try it and they like it. I think what is different with the whites is there is a textural mouthfeel that I am able to create with these wines. How I accomplish that is doing a combination of barrel fermenting the fruit and then tank fermenting some of the same fruit. I add layers and I add some that are leaner and then have some that are stirred on the lees. I have a little bit of an oak component. I put the components to gather just as you would with blending the red wine. Here I have at least three or four components from the same grapes picked on the same day from the same vineyard. I do my blending trials and get the best wine out of that.
WWB: What is in your cellar and what are some of your favorite producers and wines of the world?
KS: I do not have a wine cellar right now and I have a good reason for that. Over the past few years I have moved several times. I was collecting wines and having a cellar and I found that I was moving the wine and herding the wine all of the time. Finally on one of my last moves I would drink what I had and then give away some of it. I do spend a lot of time at tasting groups. There are various tasting groups that do high end wines. Some do wines that are really old Bordeaux and high end wines. I spend time with wine and learn about wine that way. I think I get more about that and i have my own thought about the wines and then other people at the table. I also have groups that I attend and get involved in and we get a different perspective with that. That will give me exposure to the other wines. I really only need a little of the wine to do something different. Eventually I will have a larger cellar. My favorite wines are Burgundy and I think this year I might consider doing a Pinot Noir from Oregon which might start in the fall. I have always wanted to make Pinot Noir from Oregon as there are some great producers out there.
Louis Skinner, Betz Family Winery
Firmly at the helm at storied Washington winery, Betz Family Winery, Louis Skinner has a downright awesome story in wine. Louis took time to gain interest in wine and was inspired to learn more by a friend who was an avid wine collector. Like many people in the wine industry, Louis changed careers and became all-in, learning everything he could about grapes, tasting and winemaking. A graduate of the South Seattle Community College program, Louis has trained under legendary winemakers, Chris Upchurch and Bob Betz, MW, prior to taking over for Betz at his namesake winery. Having tasted through his new lineup of wines, I have found Louis’s wines to be highly precise, showing a good degree of minerality and varietal typicity. He also makes a beautiful wine from the stony terroir of the Walla Walla Rocks AVA, as Betz now owns a vineyard there. Here is my exclusive interview with Louis Skinner, head winemaker of Betz Family Winery.
WWB: How did you decide to switch your career to wine?
LS: There was a moment where a friend of mine who originally got me into wine. We had become good friends in my 20s and our friendship actually had nothing to do with wine, we were both car enthusiasts. My friend was obsessed with wine and his house had a lot of classic Bordeaux as he had a deep wine cellar. He would always lay out some amazing glasses of wine for us to try. We did dinner about once a month for about a year. One day he put me on the spot and asked why I wasn’t drinking his wines that he poured. He mentioned that there was no reason why I shouldn’t gain an appreciation for wine of the world.
That same week on a Saturday he opened some beautiful wines for me to taste through. There were stunning wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy as well as Rhone wines and California. This tasting was an eye-opener for me,. We tasted about eight bottles of wine and the next morning I woke up thinking about these marvelous wines. I was blown away that there was so much diversity in the wines. I was quite shocked and I went to the grocery store that same day and walked around the wine aisle.
Prior to that wine had no meaning to me. It was a drink that I would occasionally have at wedding receptions but I had no connection to wine whatsoever. I went from not even knowing about wine to becoming very interested in it. Within a month of this tasting I was going to the library and avidly reading books about wine. That learning process spiraled from there and I would become more and more inspired. My friend helped my learning as he possessed the high end collectable side of wine, even up to Domaine Romanee Conte.
A few years later I enrolled in South Seattle Community College to start their wine program. About a week before I started I wanted to do a wine retail position as well which would help my education having the ability to taste wines on a regular basis. It was only about a week until my instructor found me a wine retail job in Redmond and I got a job on the spot right there. My four years working at the wine shop in Redmond really helped me meet people and taste the wines. I was doing a tasting group there and also was a part of a great tasting group at Wild Ginger. My world in the wine industry has grown exponentially since that point. That is the great thing about wine is it brings people together from all walks of life.
WWB: What was it like training under legendary winemaker Chris Upchurch at DeLille Cellars?
LS: It was a great experience learning under Chris Upchurch. When I look back at my time in DeLille I wouldn’t trade my time there for time anywhere else. Chris was a friend of mine when I applied for the position, because we were both fans of Burgundy and collectors of those wines. My relationship with him began before I was working for him. That was a really natural progression and by the time I was working with Chris in 2011 he knew who I was and had told me a couple of times that he would like me to work in the cellar. We had that on the horizon and the whole team at DeLille had been changed and Chris Peterson had left to start Avennia and then Jason Gorski was starting there. Everyone was new other than Chris Upchurch. Jason and I were new people at DeLille which was a great experience. I had previously worked with Bob Betz, MW, prior to coming to DeLille, as an apprentice and I knew some of the details about making wine. Bob Betz had taught me a lot, and had spent some time learning about winemaking in France in 2011, so when I was at DeLille it was almost a clean slate and I was able to take some of my knowledge and help build a program working with Jason. My job was to help run the quality control aspect as well as help with the laboratory work. I was able to help design the lab there. My relationship with Chris was about studying other wineries and how we could apply that to making wine at DeLille. This past year I had the chance to visit Chateau Latour. That was really interesting because I had seen how Chris Upchurch had modeled his winery through learning about practices at Latour. Chris seems very relaxed and as far as winemakers or people I have met, but Chris was very motivated to travel the wine world from France to Spain to Germany to Australia and visit wineries and learn about how they get from point A to point B in their winemaking process. He has learned a great deal from his vast travels to the great wine regions of the world.
WWB: What were some of the challenges with becoming head winemaker at Betz Family Family and taking over the program from someone who is such an iconic name in Washington wine?
LS: Bob works with us in a consulting role. He tastes with me and we try to create our best vineyard program and how we can improve the wines. The transition from Bob to myself has been really comfortable. I think Bob is comfortable with getting behind my ideas with winemaking, and I do a lot of tasting. Tasting for me is front and center for winemaking and developing the palate. Without tasting the wines that we idolize or love, it becomes challenging to understand what direction you want your wines to go. As a winemaker you have access to the great wines of the world. When I was working for Fine Wines in Redmond I had people who would get together and taste the great wines of the world and split the costs. To be able to taste the wines and be able to see how they contrast the other wines, I think that helps Bob feel comfortable with what we are doing with the Betz Family Wines program. That is the main driver is I want to see what the producer was doing with the style, the region and the vintage.
If you look at the Betz program when I started in 2014 the Bordeaux wines and the Rhone wines were made in a similar way. Betz has a house style which is preservation of the fruit and a reductive handling of the grapes, a lot of oxygen usage to get richness and minimal racking to protect the wines and preserve that. Maceration is usually six or eight days and all the fruit was de-stemmed at that time. Betz had a great thing going when I started but where I push the program is having a bit more time in the skins, whole cluster fermentation on the Rhone wines and the framework behind the Betz wines is the same. We have a lot of detail and a lot of time in the vineyard.
WWB: I was enchanted by your 2016 Betz Family Wines ‘Domaine de Pierres’ Syrah (WWB, 94) which sourced from your estate vineyard in the Walla Walla Rocks region. How did you decide to purchase that vineyard? What style of wines do you craft with your ‘Domaine de Pierres’ Syrah?
LS: This was a very exciting new wine for our lineup. The first vintage from this was the 2016 vintage which you tried and that vineyard was originally called the Ancient Stones Vineyard. The vineyard was originally planted in 2006 and we bought the vineyard in late 2014 and there were some issues with the name because there were many names called ‘Old Stones’ and we decided that we didn’t want any part of a dispute over names. At the time the vineyard needed a lot of careful management and it had been about four or five seasons since someone had taken good care of it. A lot of the wires had fallen down, and even posts were dislodged so that was a challenge. Walla Walla has seen a lot of frost damage so there were a lot of freeze issues in the vineyard and there was many freeze damaged vines. There were some plantings that we wanted to change including Viognier and Malbec as well as Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Grenache which were planted. Because it is in a low spot in the valley the vineyard unfortunately wasn’t a good spot for Grenache.
In 2015 we tore almost the entire vineyard out and left a few blocks of Syrah, roughly one acre in size. One section of the vineyard was planted to Phelps clone and the other was Tablas Creek clones. We also left a few blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon for interest but doing Cabernet in the Rocks just wasn’t our thing. Over the last few years we have been trying to plant three acres a season to Syrah. In 2018 we were able to bring online a few more blocks of Syrah so today we have 4 different blocks of Syrah, including the 2006 plantings and then also our Spring 2015 plantings. We have done some research on clonal selections and had also spoken with someone who had been working on the vineyard side with Christophe Baron.
I have done a lot of tastings from wines in the Rocks and Christophe Baron pioneered this outstanding style of wine and Matt Reynvaan also has done a lot of great things in the Walla Walla Rocks AVA. I think there are a lot of styles of wine sourced from The Rocks District AVA, all based on location. I look to our vineyard showing similar to the wines from the River Rock Vineyard, which is adjacent to us. In general, I think the early years where we harvested fruit in 2015 and experimented with whole cluster inclusion and the 2016 we were still in the learning process. We ran a number of trials with 100% whole cluster fermentation and some with 50% whole cluster fermentation. As the seasons evolved we have learned that we prefer the wine to be made undergoing 100% whole cluster fermentation. We had skin contact for about two weeks for our 2016 ‘Domaine de Pierres’ Syrah. Now we have contact for about a month. For the wine I look at it as I look at the other wines at Betz. These wines are not exactly like the wines of Cayuse, Horsepower or Reynvaan but we look at the icons in the Rhone Valley as well. I look to the wines of Cote Rotie, and the savory and textural qualities of Jamet. I would love to make that style of wine, the savory fruit profile and textural profile.
WWB: You made some beautiful wines in 2015. What were the challenges presented for you making wine in 2015?
LS: 2015 was a challenging vintage. Everything 2013 and beyond you have had to deal with a lot of heat. 2013-2016 have all been warm vintages and that makes it harder to how we accumulate heat and dealing with the challenges throughout each vintages. I don’t mind a hot vintag. I think we have done well in these hot vintages but you have to be a bit apprehensive about making your wines to not achieve too much sugar accumulation without the phenolic ripeness. In 2015 we had to move quickly to make sure our wines were not overripe. In 2014 that was a problem as well and we started picking September 3rd and finished about a month later for the reds. In 2015 I think we picked 115 tons from 40 different blocks in about three and a half weeks. It was hard getting to the vineyard and sampling enough of these wines because everything was coming in at the same time. The pickers worked very hard because we had to get everything back to the winery. Merlot started ripening in the last week of August and everything else was ripening after that so it was a struggle with making wine that vintage and making the picking decisions. We had to figure out what varietals could have more hang time.The great challenge for us is getting the fruit off the vine quickly enough.
Benjamin Smith, Cadence
Originally starting with the famed Boeing Wine Club, Benjamin Smith began learning more about wine through making his own beer and wine more than 20 years ago. Together with his wife Gaye McNutt, Ben produces some outstanding red wines from the Red Mountain AVA for their Cadence Winery, located in Seattle. Ben and Gaye also both own their own vineyard in Red Mountain, the Cara Mia Vineyard. Cadence has gained a nationwide reputation for crafting a sterling minerality in all their wines —regardless of vintage. I found their last releases, largely from the warm 2014 vintage, to be really outstanding across the board. These wines evoke a Bordealise feel while maintaining the classic Washington red and dark fruit profiles. I recently had the chance to sit down with Ben and chat wine. Highly knowledgable, Ben has now been in the Washington wine industry for more than 20 years. I think you are going to really enjoy hearing his story in wine. Here is my interview with Benjamin Smith, Owner and Winemaker of Cadence.
WWB: How did you first become interested in wine and winemaking?
BS: I moved to Seattle from Columbus, Ohio in 1986. There wasn’t much in the way of wine culture at that time, though honestly I wouldn’t have noticed anyway being a poor college kid. However, Seattle was different – it already cared about fresh, local, handmade and artisanal crafted products. I took notice, started drinking the locally produced beers (they were good!) and eating the food (it wasn’t from a can!) Then I began brewing beer, which segued into my first grape harvest – a 1992 Cabernet/Merlot blend from Dick Boushey’s vineyard – and then it was off to the races. I joined the Boeing Winemaking Club, became its head of grape procurement, won the competition three times in a row, the last time in 1997. In 1998 my wife and I founded Cadence.
WWB: I have enjoyed your signature style of mineral-driven, Bordelaise type winemaking for many years. Can you talk about how you have crafted this Bordelaise style at Cadence?
BS: Our goal has always been to produce wine that shows a sense of place, hence vineyard designation. A key, though, is that I believe that the riper wine becomes (after a point) the less it reflects its site. In other words, riper and riper leads to similarities of flavors between sites, and ultimately between grape varieties, that obscure where the fruit comes from. This line of thought directs me to pick at lower potential alcohol levels than do many of my peers, and leads to wines that are brighter in acidity, more compact in style, and carry flavor components that have been baked out of riper wine (like the minerality to which you refer). In short, my wines are more Bordelaise than many, as a direct result of how we wish to show off the vineyard.
WWB: Your 2014 releases were outstanding across the board. Can you talk about the challenges with making wine and maintaining your style of winemaking in the warm 2014 vintage and the 2015 vintage that saw severe heat spikes?
BS: Yes, they were very challenging vintages! Growing Degree Days (GDD) is a measure of the heat accumulated throughout the growing season, and an easy way to characterize the vintage. On Red Mountain the average heat accumulation is about 2900 heat units (GDD). 2014 ended up around 3200 GDD and 2015 topped 3700! So yes, those years were extremely hot. Another way to look at the growing season is the number of days between flowering and harvest. 2014 started cold but warmed dramatically. We probably lost ten days between flowering and harvest compared to normal years. 2015, on the other hand, started warm, so budbreak and flowering were early. Harvest was early too, but overall the season was closer to a normal length than in 2014. This goes a little way to explaining the tougher tannins in 2014 versus 2015, and also the brightness that 2015 carried into bottle that belies the heat of the vintage. Data and comparisons aside, I just pick when the fruit tastes ripe and ferment according to gut instinct tempered with data.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Cadence wines, what are some of your favorite wines of Washington and wines of the world?
BS: We just opened a vertical of Andrew Will Sorella (his flagship Bordeaux blend) back to its first vintage, 1994. The tasting was divine, even the oldest wines were lively and pure. Chris Camarda is definitely a hero of mine! Outside of Washington we gravitate to Piedmont, Italy because of Barbaresco and Barolo. These regions combine beautiful fruit, bright acidity and enormous tannins to make incredibly age-worthy wine meant to be paired with the wonderful cuisine of the region. Nebbiolo also profoundly reflects its site, another plus.
Charles Smith, K Vintners
Interview with Charles Smith, Owner and Winemaker of K Vintners
Friends, today is a special day as we bring you one of the iconic figures in Washington wine. Charles Smith brought his rock star persona on the Washington wine scene starting in 1999 and the rest has been history. A remarkable, self-made man, Charles talks about starting his winery as well as his life as a rock band manager in his previous life. I think you will very much enjoy hearing more about his story in wine. Here is my exclusive interview with Charles Smith, Owner and Winemaker of K Vintners.
WWB: Some of the wine community may not know that you spent several years as a successful rock band manager. What was it like working with the Cardigans, one of the awesome bands of the ‘90s? What was the rock and roll road life like?
CS: I just started managing bands out of necessity. I was bartending at a little Rock-n-Roll bar in Copenhagen and started booking bands. People that eventually got their careers kinda started there. When I stopped working at the bar, I started to be their manager and that is what took me through the ‘90s. It was a lot of fun. I traveled around the world, saw a lot of great shows, met a lot of interesting people and formulated the ‘do it yourself’ attitude. Not so much attitude but the idea that I could do whatever I set myself out to do and that really related to the fact that I decided to make wine. I created something out of nothing with the music because I needed to eat. I started something out of nothing with my wine because it is what I wanted for my future and for my life.”
WWB: How did you decide to launch K Vintners in 1999 and later Charles Smith Wines?
CS: It really came back to a road trip on how I started K Vintners in 1999. I went through Walla Walla and was invited to a BBQ. I was encouraged to start making wine and was offered the opportunity to do so by the way of some free grapes. I found that this was the thing that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. One thing led to another and next thing I know I found that I was pretty good at selling and making wine, so I decided why not bring the wine to the people. Most people can’t afford the $35-$55 bottles of wine so I started Charles Smith Wines because I think everybody should have access to good wine no matter how much money they have. So, the idea here was simply take all the skill sets that you have, the ability to communicate the language of wine to everybody because not everybody speaks wine and put out varietals that I think people will find delicious. I was somehow redefining the way and perspective that people see things. For example, some people think that Riesling equals sweet. I started Kung Fu Girl… to me Riesling equals delicious and that is how I started Charles Smith Wines.”
WWB: I have enjoyed many vintages of your absolutely stunning K Vintners ‘Royal City’ Syrah, one of the great wines made in Washington which has landed on my Top 100 on multiple occasions. What was it about the Stoneridge Vineyard that first enchanted you? What kinds of flavor and aromatic profiles do you like to get from this beautiful wine?
CS: Agreed, Royal City Syrah is really something special. I didn’t plant the vineyard there, but I discovered it after it been never been harvested in 2005 from the 2004 vintage because the man who had it, passed away. I just felt there was something magical about the site and the soil. It was just completely isolated. The family that owned the vines worked really hard in the vineyard. I don’t know, it was just maybe some fairy dust and I was supposed to be there to make this wine. Turned out to be the first wine I produced that received 100 points. The flavors and aromatics of the wine are very much like if you took a shovel full of dirt, dug in and tossed (flipped) it over. It smells of this loamy, earthy, mineral-driven, complex, decomposing soil of things that are alive and undergrowth. It really has so much of this ‘not like anything else’ character about it. Wine is magical. It is something that you really can’t describe or quite understand and just accept that in some ways it’s a miracle and take it for what it is.
WWB: I’ve heard from several wine industry colleagues that you have an absolutely epic wine cellar. What are some of your favorite wines of the world that you have opened in the past year?
CS: am not so sure I have an epic wine cellar but I do have a lot of delicious wine. I am not a collector; I am a drinker. You might look at some of the wines I have and think ‘are you collecting these?’ No, the idea is that all the wines in the cellar are ready to drink. And it can be everything from a somewhat inexpensive German Riesling to German Rieslings that are 40 or 50 years old. It can be fresh, ripe mineral-driven white wines but what I really have is a cellar full of absolutely delicious wines that you could basically close your eyes, put your hand out, pick a bottle and it would probably be something that you would really fancy drinking. God, wines that I have opened in the last year... I would almost be bragging by mentioning it but I think when you find delicious wines, you drink them. I just happened to have a Magnum of 1961 Chambertin at dinner about three or four months ago and the wine was very pale, but color is not everything. The wine was full, delicious and super finesse driven. I do have my favorite things that I love to drink and I do love to drink Meursault, Chablis… I love Chateauneuf du Pape with roasted meats but one of the wines that really has my heart is Chianti. I love the idea that you put this on your table, pour it in your glass drink it with pasta, sauces or roasted meat. The thing is there is nothing else you want on your table more than this. It’s highly drinkable and you always know that there is more room in your glass for one more glass. That is what Chianti does for me.
Garrett Smith, Daniel NYC
Interview with Garrett Smith, Sommelier at Daniel NYC
Daniel NYC is probably best known for their two Michelin stars, but has also received incredible acclaim for their wine program. So not only is Daniel one of the top restaurants in the United States (and world!) Wine Spectator has awarded them with their highest distinction, their Grand Award, for many years. Boasting a 2000 bottle cellar, Daniel’s wine list is very strong in Burgundy and Bordeaux but falls short a bit in the Washington selections. Check out their full wine list at http://www.danielnyc.com/. As you will see, the selection wine is outrageously good (and pricey).
The wine service at Daniel is impeccable. While dining at Daniel I was fortunate enough to be served by Garrett Smith, CS. Garrett has an extensive history in fine dining and has also served as a sommelier at the famed French Laundry restaurant. The attention to detail during his wine service was one of the best I’ve ever seen. A few days after our amazing dining experience at Daniel, Garrett was thoughtful enough to sit down with me for an interview. I think you’ll enjoy his candid responses about his extensive background as a sommelier. Here is my interview with Garrett Smith, certified sommelier from Daniel NYC.
WWB: Can you talk about your background in wine and what made you decide to become a sommelier?
My father had been a wine steward on Cape Cod in the 1970s, and though we never had any expensive wines around the house as a kid, he instructed me on how to open a bottle from around the age of 5, and I had my own tasting glass at the dinner table. Wine was served with every dinner, so I never saw it as something to be abused, only appreciated. I took note of when my father would ask our favorite wine store owner what he thought would pair well with pheasant, or with salmon. Different wines meant different things!
I went to college to try to follow my father's path as an engineer, only to discover that calculus is much harder than I ever imagined. I returned home from my first year and began painting houses to earn a few bucks. When I realized just how incredibly boring that was, I decided restaurants were a good fit for my need to be around people. At my first restaurant job, the head bartender took a shine to me and I quickly rose out of the busboy ranks to become a barback, and eventually a bartender, whose job it was to maintain the cellars. I learned a little about wine, what its flavors were like, and a few facts about different types, such as that white burgundy was chardonnay.
I spent some time working in a small retail shop in Litchfield, CT, where I was forced to do research to learn about our products. There, I also got to taste a lot more wine. I was working also at a 5-Star inn called the Mayflower Inn as a server and a bartender. My manager found out that I was somewhat interested in wine, and allowed me to help him with inventorying the wines in the cellar. I took this on as a regular task, and before long, was included in tasting wines for the restaurant, printing lists, and was able to confidently recommend wines to guests.
Around this time, the inn was purchased by a hospitality company, and my boss approached me to tell me that this was going to be great for my career. How would this be good for my career, I wondered? He told me, that if I wanted to become a sommelier, this would allow me the ability to travel to other restaurants within the company and see California and other wine regions. I had never even heard of the word in Connecticut. I was fascinated.
I spent the next two and a half years saving money to move to California and become certified as a sommelier, through a great course I had found at what was then the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell, CA. I made the move in September, 2010. I had to set up housing before I got there, given my budget, and it was horrible. I slept in a room with three walls, the fourth was a sheet, some filing cabinets and a sliding door. Single pane windows made it excruciatingly cold in the mornings. I biked to classes, and to my job in San Jose later in the day. But I got to spend my day around Master Sommeliers, tasting, decanting, learning about all these wine regions that were brand new to me. It was worth the poverty and the poor living situations.
A classmate approached me one day, saying that the French Laundry had posted a job, looking for a "Vintern," a cellar sommelier. Several people pushed me to apply. So, I whipped together a resume overnight and shipped it off, with my cover letter promising that, "Though I may never be the most talented or smartest person in the room, I will outwork everyone else in it, and should you give me the chance, I promise not to disappoint you."
WWB: What was it like working at the French Laundry? What kind of wine education did you receive there?
GS: After receiving the call to join the French Laundry, I felt victorious. I had been using their list to draw ideas for wines for my classes at the Pacific Culinary Institute, so was familiar with some of it. The depth, and length to be honest, were astounding and intimidating. I bought every book I could find that covered the regions they favored most. Nothing could have prepared me for the level of information awaiting me.
What's it like working at French Laundry? Imagine combining a drill sergeant-led boot camp with a culinary arts master class. The level of exactitude is beyond anything I've ever seen. For example: Our sommelier station, which consisted of five drawers to the side of a low-boy Sub Zero, on top of which was a three foot wide by twenty inch deep slab of granite, had to be "taped down" daily. This entailed getting a small linen tablecloth, folding it to leave a five inch gap for our spit bucket and pen holder towards the back, and folding the sides to fit tightly against the walls on either side. Then, cut ten equal length pieces of TK's famous green painter's tape. Note that I said "cut". Yes, cut with scissors, this masking tape, at exact right angles so that when you place two pieces perpendicular, they make a perfect square. These ten pieces would be placed equidistant, and opposite each other, and stretched to tighten the cloth. I would then spray it with a water mister, to smooth it out and allow it to be stretched tight like a drum. I still think mine looked better than anyone else's.
I also oversaw the transition to the iPad wine list, an unheard-of thing before this time. It was a bit clunky at first, the communication between the system and the devices, but before long I had perfected the science of it. We even eventually built a spirits list, and used mini iPads for that, building in a secondary platform to run those from.
The cellar sommelier's main tasks involved the organization of all three cellars; two on premise, and one warehouse in Napa. Through the brilliant system now known as Binwise, every bottle had a bin, a spot where you could immediately track it and find those bottles, and barcodes to scan at inventory time. The cellar wasn't in disarray at all when I started, but I set my goal to be able to find every wine faster than anyone else, and have the order so exact that a numbskull could walk in and find any bottle within thirty seconds. The other three sommeliers, after about a month and a half, really just had to walk in and tighten their tie. I had the rest covered.
Three cellar books – and an up-to-the-minute inventory - were printed daily, so we could see from every station in the restaurant how many of each wine were in what locations. New boxes of wine would be stacked from the floor to the ceiling starting on Tuesday, my first day in of the week, and I would have them all processed by Sunday. I developed a pretty standard rubric for processing: White wines, keep six (three in the main cellar, two in the inner cellar, one in the sub-zero) unless expensive white burgundy, then keep three to four, and ship the remainder to our warehouse. Reds, keep six of Pinot Noir, everything else three to four, and the rest gets shipped. Oh, and I did the driving to Napa, as well. We called the warehouse "Siberia," since it was far away and cold. Here were shelves of bottles perfectly lined up in alphanumerical order. Thomas' cellar was here too, and I also managed that. In short, there is a lot to do, and a lot on my plate.
I worked as the cellar sommelier for four months, though they tried to get me to stay. The GM thought I was superfluous, a luxury item at the time, the fourth sommelier. So, I went down the street to Redd [restaurant], where I learned to become a floor sommelier. Eight months later, I was able to return to French Laundry. My boss told me he had had to cut back his ordering because they couldn't a) process the orders quickly enough or b) find the wines anymore without me there. A huge compliment, and testament to my abilities as a cellar manager. Now, I finally got to serve guests at this wine palace....and still do all of my other chores, too.
Wine service at French Laundry is pretty spectacular. No drips allowed. No backhanding (showing the back of your hand to a guest), always a smile, formal behavior but not up-tight and stuffy. It was natural but no-frills, no mistakes. I broke a glass on the terrace once and was sat down to make sure I could continue service. "Of course," I answered. "Could you please just ensure that no more of the branches from the tree will drop on my arm in the middle of service?"
Over the course of my two total years at French Laundry, I learned how to gauge guests' interests in wines, how to pair wines quickfire (daily menu changes meant daily talks about pairings; I learned to trust my gut and read a dish instantly and have the kneejerk pairing), how to be elegant in service as well as how to lead a guest to what they didn't even know that they wanted but would be eternally thankful for. Oh, and I tasted more wine, and more of the best wine on EARTH than anyone should ever be allowed to. I kept records of everything over my two years, every single drop I tasted. It's fun to look back and see the wines that changed my palate and my passion.
In short, The French Laundry is the height of the wine-food relative universe for me, as it is indeed a "mecca" of cuisine, perfectly located in Napa Valley, the most spirited wine region in our country. A destination for foodies and wineos alike, with a list of wines and spirits thousands deep. It was the first time someone truly took a chance on me, and allowed me to prove myself worthy, which I hope I did. I wish I could have stayed there longer sometimes, but the east coast beckoned me home.
WWB: How did you decide to come to Daniel NYC?
GS: Daniel was on my radar for a long time. I had first met him [famed chef Daniel Boloud] when he came to eat at the Mayflower Inn, in Washington, CT, early on in my career there. All I remember was that we kept the kitchen staff around and the dining room open late in the afternoon for this big-shot chef, and I got to serve him along with my manager. I remember his old-school Ferrari, too.
I left the French Laundry when I did, because they had asked me to step back from the sommelier position to learn all of the other positions, from bottom to top. I agreed, as it seemed to be in my best interests to know every facet of the place I loved. I already was in charge of so much, and was one of the trusted few to drive guests around at night, to maintain the outdoor heating equipment, and so many other everyman tasks. I picked up the food running position quickly, and anxiously awaited my next promotion. For whatever reason, there was a small exodus, and a number of food runners quit within a few weeks of each other. Short staffed, I relented and kept working. I knew this stuff cold. It continued for six months, and I heavily missed the wine side of things. I was allowed to work inventory and take trips with the sommeliers to vineyards to meet winemakers, and so on, but I missed the wine service. Between that and family, I decided a move was worth it, and Daniel popped up again on my radar. Head sommelier Raj Vaidya reached out, and I flew to New York CIty to work a night.
WOW. What a space. It's breathtakingly massive compared to The French Laundry, a cathedral. The wine cellar, a complete shock. Massive, everything in one space, and super-duper old school, with bottles nested on top of each other. Printed wine lists, comprising a bible, sectioned into reds and whites enough to think that it could indeed be old and new testaments. A bit more "traditional," shall we say. A new challenge.
Raj sealed the deal. He was so blunt and honest, I couldn't say no to him. He knew I had something to prove, and was hungry for the chance to do so. I was opening wines on my "stage" night, even. It felt natural. A whole new lot of producers to research, though!
WWB: Daniel's wine list is very strong in Burgundy and Bordeaux but is a bit weak in Washington in my opinion. Can you talk about some of your favorite wines from Washington and is there any movement for expansion with Washington reds?
GS: Your opinion could not be more correct in this fashion, sir. I believe the most wines of Washington origin we've ever had at one time is perhaps three: I recall having Leonetti Reserve 2009, Gramercy Cellars John Lewis Syrah 2009 and a magnum of Figgins 2006 all on the list at once. Compare that to French Laundry, where a litany of wines from Cayuse, Quilceda Creek and Andrew WIll made for a strong selection of Washington State wines. To be quite honest, I've never gotten the request for many Washington wines. Selling the John Lewis Syrah, for instance, was as a result of a question from a guest as to whether or not we had any wines that a Master Sommelier owned or made. You can see how "SOMM" has impacted our profession!
Now, that is not to say we don't deserve to have more wines from Washington State. I just fear they would not get the proper attention from our clientele. From my perspective, wines like Quilceda Creek are a good likeness of Bordeaux, often times much more so than the wines of Napa Valley, as the earthiness is more pronounced in Washington. Cayuse, well, that's a bit different. They're lavishly textured and hugely aromatic, always fascinating to me. I find them divisive, however. That's the beauty of wine, though. People love what they love. You see that on a list like Daniel's, in that we have a pretty good idea of what our clientele desires. You have to expect that heavier, oakier Chardonnays aren't necessarily a sommelier's best friend, but look at our list and you'll see many that I would put in that category. We try to pick the best of them, like Aubert, Lewis, Kistler, but you get the idea: we have them because it's in demand. I think in New York, the understanding of Washington wine is lacking. Sadly, even the understanding of Oregon Pinot Noir is less than what I'm used to. I do believe that they have a place with Daniel's food, though. Someone like Cayuse or Leonetti should have Daniel Boulud cook a dinner to pair with their wines, invite some wine writers, and celebrate it. I think the Syrah and Grenache wines are perfect for DB, as he loves his Chateauneuf-du-Papes, and the Merlot and Cabernet-based reds with his beef duo would be dynamic as well. The wines just need a Champion in NYC somewhere, I think.
WWB: Can you talk about some of your favorite tastings that you've had a Daniel and how being at a restaurant with that pedigree can improve your wine education through knowledge, blind tasting, etc.?
GS: The beauty of Daniel, as opposed to say, The French Laundry, is it's more organic in our knowledge. Being more "old-school," we don't force-feed knowledge with quite the fervor of TFL, or other top restaurants. Here, our passion is present and the quest for knowledge is expected and understood. You'll be called out by your peers for not knowing something. It is, in many ways, a self-policing unit. The wine team is similar. For example, out west, I could not have carried on at TFL unless I was pursuing my MS diploma, despite the cost and stress that come along with studying and taking these exams all over the bloody place. Not that I don't want to pursue it, but at my own pace and when I have the cash to spare. At Daniel, I am actually the only sommelier to be Certified. Nothing against the Court of Master Sommeliers, but our Head Sommelier, Raj, I would place him next to someone like a Larry Stone or Paul Roberts in his knowledge, passion and respect. He's been around this business for ever, has a phenomenal palate, and when someone like Aubert de Villaine walks into the room and addresses him by name, well, you know the sort of respect he carries. We are all immensely lucky to do what we do, where we are, with the wines we have access to.
One night, we had a dinner which had been auctioned off for charity, a dinner with a collector of fine wines. Well, this collector, whom we knew well, brought Bordeaux from first growths dating back to 1901. Where the heck else am I ever going to taste those again?
He later had a whole slew of 1982 Bordeaux paired against each other, then ‘89 Haut Brion versus La Mission Haut Brion, at one point several 1985 Burgundies, and so on and so forth. The unique thing is the ability to form in our memories a taste, associate it with a label, a picture if you will, and let that algorithm form and adjust or adapt over time. I think sometimes that people want to be a sommelier just to taste these wines, which I 100% understand. The point behind tasting so much is to be able to, without consulting your library - and I do have a library of wine books about fifty deep, all of which I've read cover to cover - be able to clearly and concisely convey to the guest what they should experience from a certain wine. If I hadn't tasted both DRC and Noellat from the mid-1960's, and read about the vintages in Burgundy from that decade, how would I be able to conscientiously give a description of Rene Engel's 1969 Grands Echezeaux? I've never tasted it, but I know the cellar it came from, I know the producer, the vineyard, and the vintage. I can give a great estimation of how it should taste. If it's an off bottle, then we won't serve it. If I'm completely off base, I shouldn't be doing my job. It's a tough learning curve, especially for the newest member of our team, who hadn't been a sommelier anywhere before. We tried for a while to get him as involved as possible, and he just loved wine, and absolutely inhales hordes of information with ease. He's easy. Once in a while, though, you see him get really excited about something and it doesn't taste the way he thought. That's just experience. Sometimes I have to put it in context. We tasted a whole bunch of 1959 First Growths (Latour, Lafite, Mouton) and he wrinkled his nose at the Mouton. Yes, compared to the Latour and Lafite, which are COMPLETE aberrations, like just plain mutants considering how fresh they are at this point, the Mouton needs to be put in context. Think that this wine is Fifty-six years old, dude. Feel the texture, the balance, the grace on the palate, The aromatics were a little funky, so it wasn't a perfect bottle, but the structure was immaculate, and the tastes sensual and slightly savory. For a lesson on Terroir, google the old Baron Philippe Mouton Rothschild joke about when he asks for his wine and the waiter insists it is his wine, but the old man knows it is not. This will tell you just how much difference a few feet can make, and the Lafite and Latour of the same age were rockstars, while this Mouton was dynamic, but maybe just a 98 out of 100!
So, when you see sommeliers tasting, remember, it's so that we can help you! Remember that sommeliers are generally paid much less than the Head Waiters, even though it is considered an elevated position, because as I say, sommeliers are paid in "experience" - these tastes are golden. Our education is also quite fun. It's not every restaurant where these opportunities of this magnitude are available, and many will sacrifice to work at a restaurant of Daniel's caliber. It's been a splendid two years.
Rollin Soles, ROCO
Interview with Rollin Soles, Owner and Winemaker of ROCO Wines
WWB: What were your first initial inspirations in wine? How did you decide to found Argyle in 1987?
RS: My Texas A&M biochemistry prof set me up with a cousin’s Pinot Noir vineyard in Canton Thurgau, Switzerland. Hans Uli Kesselring was farming sustainably back in the mid-70’s. After some time I decided to help start Argyle as a result of a visit to Willamette Valley in 1979. I fell in love with this region and Argyle was also the first foreign investment (Australia) into Oregon.
WWB: How did you decide to create a sparkling wine program at Argyle? Did you really that you would nearly singlehandedly help create one of the iconic spiraling wine producers in North America?
RS: With viticulture as it was, sparkling wines represented best opportunity to produce high quality wines vintage after vintage. The Willamette Valley really is the new world’s best region for high quality sparkling (traditional method) wines. We can’t consistently ripen warmer climate varieties like Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. At our above 45 degree latitude, we have opportunity to grow fruit that has ripe fruit flavors without losing high natural acidity. I actually thought that there would be well known sparkling wine producers here by now. I have been enjoying the new interest in producing sparkling wines by our existing producers! I’ve been now making Oregon sparkling wines for over 30 years and continue to discover layers of complexity and definitions of balance. Making sparkling wines has made me a better winemaker, and certainly has made me a more fun one.
WWB: Can you talk about the challenges with starting ROCO? Are you happy with how your winery has developed?
RS: I believe ROCO is has steadily been gaining brand recognition across the United States. Production has progressed in opposite fashion to Argyle, by introducing red wine first, Chardonnay 5 years later, and now introducing my sparkling wines. Working with Corby has inspired me to a higher level of creativity.
WWB: One of the great wines that I have sampled out of Oregon in the past year, your 2016 ROCO ‘RMS Rose’ Sparkling Wine is a simply magical new release wine. Can you talk about this absolutely irresistible new bottling?
RS: It was interesting that it turned out the way it did as the growing season was one of the warmer ones. The “window” for picking sparkling wine grapes at peak flavor is extremely narrow. It becomes even narrower for a vintage like 2016. I think we were lucky to nail the harvest. Then, the craft of working out the best dosage is a lifelong pursuit of mine. With this 2016, I think we found a lovely solution. I’m still gobsmacked when I try this wine in a finished state, considering the many hurdles that we had to jump through to create this.
WWB: What are some of your favorite champagnes of the world that you have sampled? How do you see Oregon sparkling wines being different than Champagne wines?
RS: Yikes! Naming names……. I’ve been helped along and inspired by large to small producers in Champagne. Everyone has been so very generous with their time, and they’ve not been afraid to open a lot of beautiful wines that should have been enjoyed by a roomful of buyers! During my early days: Bollinger by far and continuing, Billecart Salmon, Roederer, and Dom Perignon Today: Vilmart, Pierre Peters, Geoffroy, Goutourbe, Jean Milan, Pehu Simonet and so many more.
It seems that sparkling wines made at higher latitudes have a common theme of ripe fruit base wines with high natural acidity. The possess lovely apples, pears, plums, citrus while showing spice and flowers after second ferment. We look like cousins to our French friends in many cases. It becomes challenging to point out the true differences when the Willamette Valley because it is barely a generation into its sparkling history. There are so many more places to explore in the Willamette Valley, and so many more cuvees to make before we can truly define the Willamette Valley for sparkling wines. Time will tell. I hope we see our “cousins” come over here and discover the Willamette together like we seem to be doing with Pinot noir and Chardonnay!
Like with Willamette Pinot Noir, the wine buyer will begin to seek out our better Methode Champenoise wines, and also know that they are expensive to make here, and worth the price. The demographic for American wine drinkers has NEVER been broader. Additionally, Americans are catching up with the Europeans, British, Australians, etc. for sparkling wine appreciation. This will certainly drive folks to the Willamette Valley for their fizz!
Christian Sparkman, Sparkman Cellars
Interview with Christian Sparkman, Director of Winemaking and Owner of Sparkman Cellars
As part of our tribute to Washington Wine Month, we have another fantastic interview with a big name in Washington wine, Christian Sparkman. It is an arduous task for a winemaker to make both excellent red and white wines but Sparkman Cellars is one of the few wineries that can make quality wines from Riesling to Cabernet -- and everything in between (http://www.sparkmancellars.com/). Chris Sparkman has a huge hand in the Washington Wine Industry. Sparkman holds a Master’s Degree in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, he has worked a wide variety of jobs, from being in the Peace Corps, to leading a group of students in building a school in Gambia, Africa.
Sparkman boasts an impressive a history of working in high end restaurants and served as general manager of Seattle’s Waterfront Seafood Grill from 2003-2011. In 2010 he was named ‘Sommelier of the Year’ by Seattle Magazine. Previously, Sparkman headed service teams at Olives in Washington, D.C.(1999-2000), The Orangery in Knoxville, TN (1991-94), Michael’s in Santa Monica, Calif. (1986-87), and the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans (1984-86) which has received worldwide acclaim for their wine list.
While at the Waterfront Seafood Grill, Chris Sparkman and his wife, Kelly, decided to start Sparkman Cellars in 2004. Since that time the winery has expanded exponentially. Sparkman has an impressive range of wines from Washington and even produce a Pinot Noir from Oregon. Christian currently serves as Chairman of the Washington State Wine Commission’s Board. He also currently sits on the Boards of Directors of the Auction of Washington Wine and Visit Seattle. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk wine with him. Here is my interview with Chris Sparkman, co-owner and director of winemaking at Sparkman Cellars.
WWB: I think you have hit a home run with your 2012 ‘Evermore’ Cabernet. I was very impressed with the structure and purity of fruit to this wine. Can you talk about that wine and that great vintage?
CS: I have been pursuing fruit from Dionysus Vineyard fruit for a few years and have been a fan of old vine Washington Cabernet. This is one of the oldest vineyard in the state and was planted in 1972. For many years I have wanted a chance to get the fruit from Dionysus and in 2012 we were able to procure some of their Riesling, which I called our ‘Birdie’ Riesling. That Riesling ended up being the number seven wine in the world from Wine Enthusiast and we were really proud of the project. There is something special about old vine wine from Washington. This ‘Evermore’ Cabernet, comes from two different blocks in the Dionysus Vineyard -- one planted in 1998 and one planted in 1972. We already had two Cabernets in our Sparkman lineup and our intention was not to make a new wine with Cabernet. But there were six barrels that sat in new wood and they all stood out to such a degree that we started bringing in colleagues, wine club members, and industry folks to taste this great wine. We thought we had something different and exciting with this wine.
I have a background as a sommelier. The restaurant guy in me said that we needed to have the quality in the bottle to sell for this at a high price. After folks kept on telling us ‘yeah this Evermore is special stuff’ we chose to give this one a higher price. Linn Scott was in charge of the 2012 Evermore Cabernet and is in charge of producing all of the wines. He did a fantastic job. At the end of the day I say whether we need a little more of something or not in the wines. We made 150 cases of this wine and have had very nice support for it. I thought somewhere along the line someone was going to call me a greedy bastard but people wanted more of the wine.
The 2012 vintage in Washington was the most average growing season that you can ask for, which means that it was perfect. If you can’t make wine in this vintage then you should think about going something else. With the picking we let it sit a bit and we believe that there are some things that you can measure and some of the things you can’t taste. PH and sugar and acid are all great markers but flavor is the only thing you taste. If the flavor is not wall there then we don’t want to pick it. That is sort of our overriding philosophy. We try to do that with all our Bordeaux varietals. We have four old blocks of Cabernet and this is sort of our firs go around with this. People tend to really enjoy the old single vineyard blocks. We source from Upland Estate which was first planted in 1971, the Bouchey Vineyard, planted in 1980 and the Klipsun Vineyard which was planted in 1984. At Sparkman we now have four different blocks which were all 30 years or older. In the future we are considering doing four different wines, all called ‘Evermore’, and so far in the barrel the wines are telling us this project might be a good idea. Each wine has their own personality. These individual wines tell the story of the place which his really cool. This Evermore idea is really compelling and it is not out of the realm of imagination that we would have four old vine Cabernets with the 2015 vintage.
WWB: I recently had the chance to run through a number of your impressive white wine releases and was impressed with your 2014 white wines, including the excellent ‘Luminere’ Chardonnay. I was very impressed with the structure in those wines, despite the heat of the vintage. Can you talk about how you were able to obtain such nice structure in those wines?
CS: The Stillwater Creek vineyard is the key to the ‘Luminere’ Chardonnay. We find that vines from Stillwater Creek produce wonderful minerality. This is not near Chablis but Chardonnay from Stillwater Creek tends to act differently than some of the hotter sites in Washington, like Cold Creek. I have to give the vineyard a lot of credit. We also do a native fermentation on that and have experimented with multiple yeasts for that wine. The flavors and profile are drawn from the yeast in the winery. It is difficult because the fermentations that we do take longer and are unpredictable but what they yield at the end of the day is what we want. The 2014 vintage I think was really a piece of cake with the winemaking. We have now been wrestling with 2015 vintage white wines and I am interested to see how this thing turns out. What happens is other things come in there with the vintage and you have to control it the best you can. I think we are going to have some really great Chardonnay in ’15, even though ’15 was less easy to work with. People have said this to us, forever, before we got into making wine -- that white wine is way harder to make than red wine. I think that is true. We have noticed that with Washington Sauvignon Blanc, as we have had to track down balance and structure to the wines. But in other, more cool, vintages, white wine is made more easily. It is also bizarre how varietals and barrels that will be in the same yeast and treatment will decide to do things differently. That keeps you humbled. You are on your toes when you work with white wines.
WWB: You make an Oregon Pinot Noir from the famous ‘Temperance Hill Vineyard’. What got you interested in making Oregon Pinot Noir? Can you talk about some of the challenges of working with that varietal and the challenges that you faced in the 2013 vintage in Oregon?
CS: We are privileged to work with some great vineyards at Sparkman Cellars. Not everyone gets into Klipsun or Dionysus vineyards. Our friend, Rob Stewart, helped us out with getting some good Oregon Pinot Noir. We were sold some really good Oregon Pinot in 2009 and it turned out to beautiful wine. It is starting to peak right now and is exactly where you want to drink Pinot Noir. Pinot is finicky to work with. In 2010 it was a really tough vintage down there and we were unable to get any fruit from Oregon. We declined to do it and it was hard to find supply that year. We had a cold growing season in Washington and wanted to focus on the Washington fruit in 2010. 2011 was also a hard vintage in Oregon and I was able to secure a younger block, [Dijon] clone 777, and we wanted to work with that. In 2011 we cold soaked the Pinot Noir for eight days just to make it have some color in the wine. There was even some dry ice involved and we had to watch out what was going on there. The 2011 Pinot turned out to be some really nice wine, like a Beaune wine from Burgundy. The wine is something more light and elegant. As it rounds in form here we are curious what happens to this wine. In the near future we will take a harder look at that wine and will re-release the wine later. I know a lot of people did that in Oregon with the 2007 Pinots. The 2012 Pinot Noir from Oregon made itself and the alcohol was low, only 12 percent. I think that the wine might be cresting right now. My opinion is that the alcohol levels are not that important with wine. 2013 in Oregon was really a nice and easy vintage. The fruit was as fine as we have seen but the last two vintages, 2014 and 2015, have been really good as well. Temperance Hill [vineyard] is at 750 feet. It is a cooler site for Pinot and it makes more elegant and earthier wines than Ribbon Ridge in Dundee. Folks are digging it. The 2013 Pinot Noir tastes best early than any of the Pinot that we have made.
WWB: Other than Sparkman Cellars wines, what other Washington wines or wines of the word do you enjoy?
CS: I enjoy the wine in my glass! Being in the wine industry makes me kind of ruined and you can’t drink crap wine when you are ruined. We had a bottle of Grand Cru Champagne last night for our anniversary which was fantastic. We just signed with Noble wines and that is our new distributor. We have been revisiting Italian wines and have been able to try some great Brunello. We like checking out Noble Wine’s impressive portfolio and doing some research on those things. We like a lot of white wines. Erica Orr’s wines are fantastic. She makes an old vine Chenin Blanc that is just delicious. She does a great job at Baer. If it is well-made then I want to taste it and I don’t have any prejudices. I think Washington has so many great flavors in their wines. One of the things that we are trying to capitalize on, being the chairman of the Washington Wine Commission, is that we have a wide variety of high quality wines. It is not one producer or one vineyard or one varietal. Washington has a dizzying array of world class wines. Some of the wines from Kevin White are great. W.T. Vintners are great as well. It is nice to see a new wave of winemakers, trying to figure it out and some of them have already had some great success.
Dave Specter, Bells Up Winery
Interview with Dave Specter, Co-owner and Winemaker of Bells Up Winery
A relatively new winery, first started in 2013, Bells Up Winery in Newberg, Oregon was started by winemaker David Specter and his wife, Sara Pearson Specter. I was hugely impressed with the past two Pinot Noir releases from this estate as both wines had wonderful feminine characteristics, ripe red fruit flavors and tons of terroir. I had to sit down with Dave and talk wine. He was a delight to speak with, as he talked about how he initially caught the wine bug from his life as a Cincinnati attorney. I think you will really enjoy hearing his story in wine. Here is my interview with Dave Specter, winemaker and co-owner of Bells Up Winery.
WWB: How did you decide to start Bells Up?
DS: I started making wine as an amateur 11 years ago. When developing my own style I looked to other wines I liked, and what I really enjoyed was the elegance of certain wines. The only way to achieve that, I think, is to let the fruit do its thing and not try to manipulate it into something big, heavily extracted, or over the top. So on my wife Sara and my five-year wedding anniversary we started making wine together. We bought a box kit that comes with the juice and yeast. At the time, I was still an attorney, but what I loved about winemaking was that it gave me the opportunity to experiment and try different things. I could produce something physical and tangible—very different from my career as an attorney. Over time we transitioned into making wine from grapes, and I became associated with the Cincinnati Vintners’ Club. It’s an amazing group that sources from all over California, bringing in primarily Bordeaux varietals—mostly to make Cabernet- and Merlot-based blends. For white wine, I was able to get some local Seyval Blanc grapes in Ohio. It’s a
French hybrid that you see quite a bit in the Midwest, because it has been bred for cold weather hardiness. It has Sauvignon Blanc parentage and produces a dark yellow colored wine. This is the varietal that won my first amateur wine competition, so when we moved to Newberg, in the Willamette Valley, we decided to plant Seyval Blanc in our estate vineyard; it’s the only planting in the valley and we’re looking forward to having that in the tasting room when it comes online in a couple of years.
WWB: How did you decide to start a winery?
DS: In 2008 Sara and I had just returned from our first visit to Oregon wine country. We had fallen in love with the Willamette Valley and the feel of the place, particularly the concentration of small, craft-style wineries. These were folks who got into the business because they enjoyed making wine, not because they thought it would make them billionaires.
Upon returning from vacation, my firm started pushing me to go partner track, and Sara’s professional mentor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—having just turned 40—and she died a few months later. We were also new parents. We decided we didn’t want to continue on that corporate path, but instead to set an example for our daughter about following your passion. We were also in our mid-30s at the time and felt like we were still young enough to take a financial risk, yet still have the energy to pour into it.
I took a leave of absence from my law career, and spent three years interning at an urban winery in Cincinnati—Henke Winery—from 2009 to 2012. Joe Henke became my winemaking mentor. He makes 2,000 cases a year in the basement of a 100-year-old house with 8-foot ceilings. Nothing fancy, just a lot of attention to detail and to the basics. He makes a lot of different wines, but not Pinot Noir, even though that’s one of his favorites. I learned a ton from him.
During that learning process my own winemaking improved to the point that in 2011 I won a couple of national amateur winemaking competitions. We put the house in Cincinnati on the market, and when it sold in 2012 we moved to Newberg, rented a condo, and started networking and looking for properties. I did a harvest internship at Alexana in Dundee, Oregon, that fall, and Sara found the unlisted property that we own today.
WWB: Can you talk about your vineyard?
DS: We are located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, on a 10-acre site that includes our house and the barn that we converted into the winery and tasting room. It has about 8.5 plantable acres; we have five acres planted now. We started by planting three acres in 2014 of Pinot Noir Pommard and Dijon Clone 667. In 2015 we added the Seyval Blanc, and in 2016 we planted three more Pinot Noir clones: 113, 943 and Wadenswil. We have a little more space to plant sometime in the future.
The vineyard is on Jory soil, a red-colored clay and loam and it rises from about 450 feet to 650 feet in elevation, facing fully south. It holds water wonderfully, so we have never had to irrigate, and the soil and elevation play well with the style of wine we are aiming to create. We’re excited to make our first estate Rosé of Pinot Noir from our own grapes this fall, in 2017.
WWB: Both the 2013 and 2014 releases of the “Titan” were excellent (WWB, 91) and showed marvelous poise, elegance and pretty red fruit flavors. Can you talk about the differences that you noticed between the 2013 and the 2014 vintage?
DS: What we personally love about Oregon Pinot Noir is that the grape itself is so expressive of each unique growing season. That allows us to bottle the story of a season in a very tangible way. In 2013, we had weather that was slightly warmer than average through the summer. But then September brought two separate rain events that dumped 8 to 10 inches of rain in the valley. Sara and I had a lot of “what the heck have we gotten ourselves into” moments. Especially when the valley was covered with vineyards that were overcome with mold and rot issues because of the rains.
However, because we are a micro-boutique winery making such incredibly small lots and limited quantities, we specifically try to work with micro-growers who have 5 acres or less under vine. Small growers, in our experience, are doing this because it’s a passion for them—not a profession—they just love tending a vineyard. Keeping up with the maintenance, thinning the fruit, and staying on the details is easier in a smaller acreage site, and it’s what makes the difference in a year like 2013. That meant our fruit was exceptionally clean, and we were able to pick after the rains, when we felt the flavors had developed to their maximum potential.
That said, most of the 2013s we’ve tasted have been lighter because of the rain influence. As a winemaker, you have to decide what you’re going to do with that. Some tried to bulk up flavor and color in their Pinot Noir through various extractive means. I decided to just run with it because our flavors were great and I don’t worry about color—it doesn’t make the wine taste better. I’m more interested in creating elegant Pinot Noir.
Then 2014 was completely different than 2013. I like to think Mother Nature owed us one after 2013. We had consistently warm daytime temperatures, some nice, cool nights that helped to round out the acids, and no September rains, so we could pick when we wanted. That brought out more berry flavors in the 2014 Titan than our 2013 Titan, in my opinion.
In general, I find that the warmer the year here in Oregon, the bigger the berry flavors are going to be in the finished wine. In the cooler years, it seems to be harder for those berry flavors to come out. Usually there are more floral elements in the cool vintages for Oregon, which we’ve noted in our 2013. Again, our 2014 Titan Pinot Noir is lighter in color than many other producers’, but I like to say that once the wine gets in your mouth, you aren’t going to care about color. Interestingly, the pick dates were just one day apart between 2013 and 2014.
Looking ahead to our 2015 Titan Pinot Noir, which we will be releasing later this year, it was definitely a hot vintage. It was the hottest year on record in Oregon, which produces bold wines. For me, that was a tremendous winemaking challenge because my personal style is to aim for balance and elegance.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Oregon Pinot Noir, what is typically in your glass?
DS: Sara and I have always loved the small, off-the- radar producers. I personally love Washington Reds. I taste a lot of the varietal characteristics in Washington wines across the board. That’s one reason we source Walla Walla Valley AVA Syrah fruit—from Milton-Freewater, Oregon—for our Firebird wine, as opposed to sourcing from California.
I spent time in the Prosser area when I did a distance enology program with Washington State University, and visited the local wineries, from larger producers like Hogue to smaller producers like Davenlore. Gordon Taylor at Davenlore is one of the coolest people I have met in the wine industry, and he makes some great wines. He’s built a winery brand that’s similar to ours, and he’s been a wonderful resource.
Spencer Spetnagel, King Estate
Interview with Spencer Spetnagel, Winemaker at King Estate
Happy Monday to you all! Today we have another exciting interview from a very big producer of Oregon Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. A winemaker with a passion for great Pinot Gris, Spencer joined King Estate for the 2012 harvest and in two short years has moved up the ranks to winemaker. Spencer has a background in marketing and has previously worked at Ravenswood before going back to school and working on an enology degree at Lincoln University in New Zealand for three years. He then returned to Ravenswood, serving as contract winemaker. In 2009 he took an assistant winemaker position at Bargetto, the oldest winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he met his wife.
Spencer talked about his interest in aging Pinot Gris, which was really cool considering the recent King Estate retrospective that I enjoyed a few months back. Spencer was first drawn to wine through fine dining and has found his niche making high quality Pinot and Pinot Gris in Oregon. I think you will really enjoy hearing about his journey in wine. Here is my interview with Spencer Spetnagel, winemaker at King Estate.
WWB: Can you talk about your first winemaking jobs? What was it like working at Ravenswood in Sonoma during that vibrant period?
SS: I moved to Sonoma, CA in 2004 for my first Harvest. I had just finished my Undergrad work (Marketing) in Atlanta. I had decided during the last few semesters of school that I was going to move out West and try my hand at making wine. I got interested in wine from waiting tables in fine dining in Atlanta during University. I knew I was never going to be able to work at a cubicle. Being so closely tied to Mother Nature really appealed to me… Now to the actual Harvest. I moved everything across country to be a seasonal intern for Ravenswood. I decided that since I was moving my whole life out there that I was going to work so hard that Ravenswood would have no choice but to offer me a full time position at the end of Harvest. As soon as the fruit started rolling in that year I knew I had made the right career choice.
I loved the long hours and extremely physical work that it takes to make it through a Harvest successfully. I loved the team atmosphere of everyone being tired and drained, but working together for the benefit of the wine. The smell of Fermentations and barreling down fresh wine into brand new barrels is extremely intoxicating for me. Ravenswood was a phenomenal atmosphere to learn from. They had a great team that I loved working with. Since I came out West with no real idea about winemaking I decided to stay at Ravenswood for 3 years to see the process from start to finish for a few vintages (they offered me a position after Harvest). Over the next few years I tasted more wine, met more winemakers and learned as much as I could in Sonoma and Napa. I was hooked. After that time I knew for sure that I loved the industry and this was going to be my career. Then I decided to go back to school to get my Oenology/Viticulture degree. Instead of going up the road to Davis I decided to see a completely different side of winemaking and decided to attend Lincoln University in New Zealand. Partly to travel, partly to learn about cool climate winemaking and work with new grapes for me.
WWB: How much more complicated is it working with Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir than Zinfandel?
SS: I worked for the first time with Pinot Noir and Gris down in New Zealand. Pinot Noir is quite a finicky grape in that as far as red grapes are concerned it has quite a thin skin which makes it quite susceptible to disease pressure during the growing season. That is compounded by the fact that most growing regions for Pinot Noir can have more frosts in the spring and more wet conditions closer to Harvest, since it is grown in cooler climates than what Zinfandel needs.
Zinfandel on the other hand is pretty thick skinned grape and is much more hearty as far as withstanding disease pressure. Couple that with the fact that I was working with Zinfandel in California, where rain events at time of Harvest are extremely rare, The Zin grape was easier to grow and ripen fully.
Oregon is a phenomenal growing region for Pinot Noir, specifically because of the Climate, but in years like 2011 disease pressure can wipe out huge amounts of your fruit before you ever get the grapes picked. I have been quite lucky since I moved up to Oregon. We have had numerous warm, almost too hot, summers and the rain has stayed away during most of Harvest. So I’ve had the pleasure of working with lovely clean fruit throughout my Oregon career. The threat of inclement weather during any Harvest is always in the back of my mind though.
Once the grapes have survived Mother Nature and are in the winery the changes in complication slow down. You treat the Zin and Noir grapes differently as far as Cap Management and barrel regiment, but as long as the fruit was ripe and clean, winemakers should become glorified babysitters. You don’t have to do too much to the wine when you start with fantastic grapes.
Gris is very similar to Noir as far as growing is concerned, but since you pick earlier the disease pressure can be less intense. Frosts and wind/rain can be issues in the spring. And since we make white wine from it there is no cap management or barrel regiment.
WWB: I recently had the opportunity to do a retrospective of Pinot Gris bottlings from 2005-2012. I was very impressed with how some of the older bottlings matured. Can you talk about the aging ability for the varietal?
SS: The first thing I would point to is the acid content. Acid has long been known to preserve whites for long aging. Acid is something we do not lack in Oregon, especially in our very own King Estate Vineyard. Our vineyard is quite a cool site, even by Oregon standards. The elevation in our vineyard ranges from 800’-1200’ and I think the elevation definitely helps keep our vineyard cooler with larger diurnal temperature variations, which help develop more flavor and retain the acid content.
The second piece to the aging puzzle that I would point to is our Sur Lies program. Once Fermentation is finished we leave some Lees in the tanks of Pinot Gris. We stir these tanks on a weekly basis to keep the Lees suspended in the wine. There is a dual effect here. Suspending the Lees gives more contact with the wine. This process can help increase mouthfeel and even soften some of the sharp edges that the high acid content can have. The other effect we have is that the contact between the Lees and the wine increases the mannoprotein content which also helps in the long aging ability.
Pinot Gris is not often thought of as an ageable grape, there are areas of the World where it has been used as such for a long time. My favorite representation of this is the Alsace region, which makes plenty of Pinot Gris built to age gracefully.
WWB: The 2012 'Domaine' Pinot Gris (WWB, 93) was a highly impressive and dense bottling of Pinot Gris. Can you talk about this fantastic release wine?
SS: 2012 was a welcome warm, clean vintage after the more difficult vintages of 2010 and 2011. All fruit that came in was ripe and disease free. It was warm enough though that holding onto the traditional acid content while allowing the flavors to fully develop could be a touch of a challenge. Again, enter our site. Being higher elevation and having larger diurnal temperature variation than much of the Willamette Valley. This allowed our grapes to ripen a touch slower than the rest of the Valley allowing flavors to fully develop while still retaining a nice fresh acidity. All of the fruit that year came in extremely clean with hardly any disease pressure. Our Domaine bottling is always picked from our favorite lots of wine in that vintage and once it is blended together it has the longest time of Sur Lies. All of those aspects came together to create a fantastic wine that is built to withstand the test of time. We pick the cleanest and best grapes/wine from our vineyard, with the most Lees contact to richen, soften and lengthen the body of the wine, along with our sites ability to hold onto nice acid, even in warm years. Combine all of this and you get the end product which is a brilliant representation of what a World Class site can do to craft a World Class wine.
WWB: What are some of your other favorite producers of Oregon Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir? What are some of your favorite producers of wine from around the world?
SS: A few of my favorite producers in Oregon are mostly Pinot Noir driven. Soter, Beaux Freres, Antiquum, Antica Terra to name a few. There are plenty of others that are making gorgeous wine, but these were the first few I thought of. As far as other Pinot Gris producers, I don’t actually search out Pinot Gris when I taste. We taste other Producers in competitive lineups, but I taste so much Gris at work I don’t tend to drink it once I am away from work. I do drink King Estate often enough when I need a Gris with dinner. I feel like King Estate has been setting the standard for Oregon Pinot Gris long before I arrived and I hope to continue that tradition while I am here.
As far as favorite producers worldwide, I like well-made wines of most all varietals. So I drink French, Spanish, Italian, there will always be a special place in my heart for New Zealand since I lived there for a few years, Chile, Argentina, Australian, Washington, Oregon, and CA, plus more. I couldn’t begin to name all my favorite producers from each region. Variety is the spice of life. And there are brilliant winemakers around the world crafting phenomenal wines of all varietals. I have definitely not tried all of them or even most of them so to pick a few is really difficult for me. Unfortunately/Fortunately I always tend towards the wines that I cannot afford to drink on a regular basis.
Sean P. Sullivan, Wine Enthusiast
Interview with Sean P. Sullivan, Washington Wine Reviewer for Wine Enthusiast Magazine
One of the famed wine writers in the Pacific Northwest, Sean P. Sullivan is a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast covering Washington and Idaho. He is also the founder of Washington Wine Report, an on-line publication dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. The site is a four-time finalist for ‘Best Single Subject Wine Blog’ from the Wine Blog Awards, winning the honor twice. Sullivan also writes regularly for Seattle Metropolitan and Washington Tasting Room. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Sean over the past several years. Sean is analytical, conscientious and committed to producing great wine writing and wine reviews. He’s a downright awesome guy to chat wine with. Sean talks about his background and discusses his commitment to blind tasting. I think you will enjoy hearing more about his story in wine that mirrors mine in many ways. Here is my exclusive interview with Sean P. Sullivan, Washington Wine Reviewer for Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
WWB: How did you first start writing about wine and what made you decide to start Washington Wine Report?
SS: I honestly started writing about wine entirely by accident. I always took notes when tasting wine and also had developed a home-grown five-point rating system to keep track of what I liked and what I didn’t. In 2005, I travelled out to Yakima Valley with a friend and visited a number of wineries. Afterwards, my friend asked if I could send along my notes as he hadn’t taken any. I dutifully typed them up and sent them along. His friends subsequently asked where we had gone and what we had liked. He forwarded them my notes. I was completely mortified frankly. But what I discovered was that there was an interest. At this time, in the mid-2000s, there was an explosion of new wineries in Washington and not necessarily a lot of information about them. People were hungry to learn more about these wineries.
Inspired, later that year, I started sending .PDF reviews and write-ups to an email list of friends and family who would then share them with their friends. These started out short and informal but soon became 50+ page tomes. You can still find them on my site. They are pretty hilarious to look back at, at times well done and at times a bit embarrassing. I used the name Washington Wine Report because that was what it was – a report on Washington wine. Two years later, in 2007, I started the blog with the same name. If my friend hadn’t asked me to send him my notes way back when, I doubt any of this would have ever happened, and I wouldn’t be doing what I am today.
WWB: You have a scientific background, previously enrolled in an MD/PhD program. How does your background in science make you a better wine writer?
SS: I think the biggest impact my science background has is the way that I approach evaluating wine. I try to do so in a systematic manner. For me, that means controlling and tracking as many variables as I can. Of course, there is always a subjective aspect to wine tasting, but I want the approach I take to be both as objective as possible and as repeatable as possible. This has made me regimented about the temperature that I taste wines, the stemware that I use, the time of day I taste, and the setting. It’s also made me track a lot of information. For example, for each wine I review, I can tell you what the temperature of the wine was within the range I taste at, what time it was tasted, what the ambient temperature was in the room and even whether this temperature was achieved naturally or via heating or air conditioning. Now some of these things might turn out to be superfluous, but I track them in case they do matter so I can refer back to them.
I’ll give you an example of one of these variables and when it did matter. A long time back I tasted a white wine at a winery and found it to be quite disappointing. I asked the winemaker if I could take the bottle home as I wanted to confirm my impression. I tasted it several hours later when the wine had warmed up and found it to be beautiful. I was quite surprised.
I put the bottle in the fridge to get it back to a normal serving temperature. When I tasted it again at that temperature, my impression was the same as it was when I had first tasted it at the winery when the wine was chilled. I had two very different opinions of the wine, and the only thing that had changed was the temperature. Since that point, I’ve made sure to evaluate wine within a very tight temperature range. I always tell people, if you disagree with my take on a wine, try chilling it down or warming it up. Most people drink their wines way too warm in terms of red wines and way too cold in terms of whites in my opinion. Certainly, having a science background influences my writing as well. Way back when, I was writing research articles for journals, which requires a certain approach to writing as well as a somewhat detached voice of the author. Both still inform my writing style today, although I would argue that that is my voice.
WWB: You’ve been a strong proponent in tasting each wine that you review blind. Can you talk about the pros and cons for evaluating wines this way?
SS: The biggest benefit of blind tasting is that it removes potential producer bias. For example, you expect if you are tasting a bottle of wine from a highly regarded producer, that it should be a high quality bottle of wine. This expectation can permeate your thinking and bias your review. Blind tasting removes this bias. I also think it’s important to evaluate wines in a consistent manner. When I was reviewing wines for Washington Wine Report, I tasted wines non-blind. I did a mixture of tasting and reviewing at wineries and at home. I did this really out of necessity. Now that I’m at Wine Enthusiast, I still visit wineries and taste wines with winemakers, and I keep notes and score wines as I go. However, all my Wine Enthusiast scores and reviews are from wines sampled blind at home.
What I’ve noticed comparing my scores at wineries and my scores at home is that there is, as you might expect, a ‘winery effect.’ When tasting at a winery, scores tend to go up compared to when they are tasted at home. In my experience, they go up a point or two on average but occasionally more. This just makes sense. Winemakers are excited about their wines and they are trying to get you excited about them and guess what? It works. Now this might not be the worst thing if you are tasting all of your wines at wineries because at least everyone is getting the same shot even if their salesmanship skills will no doubt be different. But if you’re doing what I used to do at Washington Wine Report and what a number of reviewers at other publications still do, which is tasting some wines at wineries and others at home and still others at mass tastings, some wines are potentially getting a leg up by being tasted in front of the producer whereas others are not.
Additionally, if you’re doing mass tastings, is the first wine you’re tasting really getting the same shot as the 100th? Doubtful. Moreover, when you taste at home, you can taste and re-taste a wine as many times as you like. You can even pair it with food if you want. Obviously you can’t do any of these things for wines tasted at wineries. When tasting in an inconsistent setting, you also don’t have control over wine temperature or stemware or the other variables I’ve mentioned. This sets up a situation where the scores for an individual reviewer are not comparable to each other. You might think they are but they are not, and if you compare scores across settings, this becomes obvious. If that’s the case, how valid really are the scores? Bottom line, for me it’s imperative to taste wines in a consistent setting and also to remove potential biases. Blind tasting allows you to do both. This is not to say, however, that blind tasting is perfect. It is not. I can tell you for certain Washington wineries, I have tasted every single wine they have ever made. I know how they open up after a few hours or days and I know how they evolve as the years go by.
Unfortunately, all of that information is out the window when tasting the wines blind. That is the drawback. However, in my opinion, this is a small price to pay for removing the bias inherent in tasting in an inconsistent setting and tasting non-blind. I also think blind tasting helps reduce score inflation, which has become a pretty significant issue. You’re not giving out dozens and dozens of 95 to 100 point scores each year if you’re blind tasting, at least that’s been my experience. Personally, I think some non-blind scores tend to be reputation based because I taste the same wines blind, and my impressions are quite different. That said, of course no two palates are the same.
WWB: You’ve been writing about wine for a long time. What are some of the biggest trends in the Washington wine industry that you’ve noticed? What are some of the biggest positives and negatives as this industry moves forward?
SS: Certainly the biggest trend in Washington has been the overall growth of the industry. When I first moved to Washington in 2000, there were less than 200 wineries. Today there are over 940. Of course, where those wineries are located and where their vineyard sources are have evolved as well. Growers and winemakers are constantly seeking out new areas and new varieties. It’s part of what makes Washington such an exciting region to cover. Recently there has been a lot of experimentation with different types of fermentation vessels. It started with winemakers using less new oak and then using larger format barrels for their wines. From there it’s evolved to concrete tanks and oak uprights and, much more recently, amphorae. Winemakers are looking for ways to still have controlled oxygen exposure to assist with development while minimizing overall oak impact on the wines. I think that’s a very positive thing, as you want the focus to be on the fruit. Certainly, if you look at Washington Syrah now compared to 10 or 15 years ago, qualitatively, it’s like night and day. The wines are, overall, much, much better. Part of the reason for that is people being more judicious with oak usage. I would say that, along with a diversification of styles and the elevation in quality that we’ve seen over the last decade have been the biggest positives.
On the negative side, the industry remains bottom heavy with a large number of small producers, with a few large producers and very few medium-sized producers. The example I always give is L’Ecole. They make about 50,000 cases per year, which is not a lot really, but it makes them one of the larger producers in the state! The relative lack of medium-sized producers making higher volumes of wine across a range of price points makes it very difficult to get moderately priced wines, say $25 and under, into distribution nationally and internationally. This creates a bottleneck in growth of the Washington wine industry. For example, if you ask me to recommend a great $30+ bottle of Washington wine, I can give you scads of them. But it’s unlikely you’re going to find many of them on the retail shelves outside of the Pacific Northwest and maybe not even here because the productions are so low and the price is relatively high. If you ask me to recommend a great $20-$25 bottle of Washington wine that people can find all around the country, the list gets much smaller because there just aren’t as many large and medium-sized producers.
To me, to get people across the country and around the world excited about Washington wine, you have to be able to march them up the price ladder. You start out by getting them excited about wines that are, say, $10. From there, you say, well if you liked that, try this at $20. Then this at $30 and so on. Right now, that’s a bit difficult to do. It’s a real problem for the industry if you need to start people out at a $30+ bottle of wine, because first, it’s a lot more money than some people are willing to spend on any bottle of wine, let alone an unknown one. Second, due to lower production, they probably aren’t going to be able to find the wine in the first place unless they order it from the winery. Few people are going to do that.
To me, if the Washington wine industry is going to continue to grow its reputation nationally and internationally, we need more medium-sized producers making, say, 60 or 100,000 cases of wine that consumers can find. Don’t get me wrong. Small wineries will always be the lifeblood of this industry, but we need a better balance of medium-sized and larger production wineries to get Washington wines into more people’s hands. As long as most of what we’re offering, outside of a few large companies that are currently doing a lot of heavy lifting, is $30+ bottles where 200 cases were made, it’s going to stunt the growth of the industry.
Larry Stone, MS, Lingua Franca
Interview with Larry Stone, MS, Co-Founder and CEO of Lingua Franca
An exceptionally talented man, Larry Stone is the co-founder and CEO for one of the great Oregon producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Lingua Franca. Larry crafts some absolutely stunning wines that are not to be missed. I was particularly enthralled with his new release wines that were coming from the hot 2015 vintage and showed incredible tension in the glass. As a Master Sommelier, Larry Stone became the first American to win the prestigious Best International Sommelier in French Wines competition in Paris. His career spans 30 years as a restaurateur and sommelier at the Four Seasons, Charlie Trotter’s, and Rubicon Restaurant among others, I recently had the chance to sit down with this very busy man and chat wine. Larry has a wonderful story in wine and I think you will very much enjoy hearing more about his journey. Here is my interview with Larry Stone, MS, owner and winemaker of Lingua Franca.
WWB: Can you talk about the challenges with passing the master sommelier exam? What was the greatest hurdle for you? Do you still actively blind taste wines of the world?
LS: Working sommeliers have the most privileged position in the world to taste hundreds of new wines in a year. And they also should frequently taste the wines they are serving to make sure that they are showing well and evolving as predicted. So while I do taste wines blind sometimes, it is nothing in comparison with what I did while actively working in a restaurant. The challenge in taking the Master sommelier examination was not really knowing what to expect. We had no road map at all, only the knowledge that we would have three areas of responsibility. We had no grid! We didn't have access to anyone who had already taken the exam! The part I had the most difficulty with was the completely unexpectedly hard service portion.
WWB: What was it like Opening Rubicon restaurant with celebrity partners such as Robert de Niro and Robin Williams? Can you talk about constructing that exceptional wine list?
LS: Knowing that Robin Williams, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert DeNiro were partners did add to the public perception of glamour of the opening, which actually worked against us in building up expectations too high. We had a pretty tight budget to work with to open with. However, Drew Nieporent's team did an excellent job with Rockwell. The big thrill for me was working with Drew and Daniel Johnnes. I had very little contact with the celebrity owners until after the opening. The wine list grew to its strong position over the first two years, especially as the local tech industry started to boom.
WWB: How did you decide to found Lingua Franca wines?
LS: I helped to start Evening Land already with a guest, Mark Tarlov, in 1996. He only wanted to drink Jayer and Roumier off of the wine list, nearly every evening. Since he was from NY I asked him to at least try a few West Coast Pinot that would be interesting and he said he didn't think that any place would be able to make wine of the quality of Burgundy. I mentioned three places, two in California, but told him then that the very best place outside of Burgundy would be the Willamette Valley, especially the Eola-Amity Hills and especially the area near Seven Springs, which consistently made outstanding wines, proven to me in multiple times since the mid-1980s. I loved Cristom, Bethel Heights and Adelsheim versions of the vineyard. So when the company was founded, that was one of the three places we leased. When I visited the vineyard I noticed an identically situated site across the gravel road and thought to myself, that would work just as well! So without a plan to actually make wine, just to have the privilege and pleasure of developing a vineyard from scratch on an exceptional site, I figured out how to purchase the land and thought the rest would come. Two years after planting the vineyard things started to fall in place.
WWB: Your new Chardonnay bottling, the 2015 Lingua Franca ‘Bunker Hill Vineyard’ Chardonnay (WWB, 94) is an exceptional wine that has remarkable poise and richness. Can you talk about this spectacular new release?
LS: It’s all about the exceptional vineyard site, soils, slope, elevation, sensitive farming and vine age. The winemaking must be meticulous too! Thomas Savre is a very dedicated man who is passionate about doing justice to the vineyards we work with. Our selection of all the sites is thoroughly researched and tested and then we only select the finest vineyards to put on our single vineyard selections. Bunker Hill's 23 year old vines, and rocky Witzel and Nekia soils are excellent for expressing minerality, tension, life.
WWB: What are some of your favorite wines of the world?
LS: There are so many options today for wine lovers. I have been enjoying Oregon Chardonnay and Pinot Noir so my collection is growing fast in that department. I still try to buy some good bottles of Burgundy (and David Honig, co-founder, is kind enough to share his much larger supply with us at Evening Land). Then of course there has been a string of outstanding vintages in the Northern Rhone, so I have been buying quite a bit of those. Loire Valley red wines and Muscadet for eating oysters. Austrian Riesling and some Grüner Veltliner from Wachau, Kracher dessert wines, Likewise Italy, which offers ever greater quality, from Tuscany (I love great estate Chianti Classico), or in Barolo and Barbaresco, Gattinara, Dolcetto, Barbera, even now in Sicily, like Trinoro Passopisciaro or Terre Nerre and others. I have a quite a few Napa Valley wines. Napa is undergoing a course correction by making slightly more restrained wines of more classic structure--look at Quintessa and Inglenook, Araujo, Colgin, Lokoya, Dominus. Lewis Cellars has made quite rich but really fascinating bolder wines, that have structure and age well, too. I love them as well. Then there is Diamond Creek and Ridge Montebello, which for decades in blind tastings has been confused with First Growth Bordeaux. I could name dozens of others. How long do you want a list to be? I cellar quite a diverse group of wines. I am happy that I have bought and drunk all of these and will continue to do so.
Yvonne Swanberg, San Juan Vineyards
Recently I had the chance to catch up with the owner of the only winery on San Juan Island. San Juan Vineyards has achieved some great acclaim in the past, despite being a small production winery. The key is that the winery relies on fruit from great vineyards in Columbia Valley. Their red wines have achieved Wine Spectator scores of 90 in the past. They also recently achieved a double gold medal for their Madeline Angevine, a German varietal that is planted on their estate. This is one of the few varietals can thrive in the cool, damp climate of Western Washington. Here is my interview with Yvonne Swanberg, who talks about the trials and tribulations of being a winery owner.
(Washington Wine Blog) I'm wondering about your background in wine and how you decided to start a winery? What are some of the experiences that you have had?-
(Yvonne Swanberg) First, I had no background in wine aside from enjoyment. I enjoyed wine from the other side of the counter i.e. and more in an analytical sense. San Juan Vineyards was the idea of my late husband and business partner.
I became involved by “default” starting to do the marketing, etc. back in about 1998. By 2002 I was at the vineyard full time doing everything except the winemaking process. All decisions were made by my husband and partner. Previous to being at the vineyard, I was part of our insurance agency and worked as an Agent and Marketing Specialist. My husband (Steve) and I started an independent insurance agency back in 1980. I still tell people that it was this business that financed San Juan Vineyards and made it a reality.
I lost Steve to prostate cancer in 2006, and then the struggle started. The Partner refused to be a working or financial part of the project, but still would not work to turn it over to me. Finally, a couple of years ago it was necessary to work through legal channels to rid myself of this situation as he also refused to sign a listing agreement for the sale of San Juan Vineyards. I finally prevailed in June of this year. So, I listed the property hoping to find a new owner that has the passion to take the project to a new level. There is so much potential for San Juan Vineyards.
(Washington Wine Blog) Your wine has achieved 90 plus scores from Wine Spectator in the past. How has that acclaim impacted your winery?-
(Yvonne Swanberg) Our wines have received many accolades over the years – mostly medals from competitions. The wines have never garnered Wine Spectator scores of over 90. And, quite frankly, I quit pursuing this some time ago. I like the judgings with the medals and they have spoken well for the quality of our wines. We are a destination winery, and we are known specifically for our Estate Grown varietals. I believe my Winemaker, Chris Primus, has a distinct way of making the best Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine available in the Puget Sound. These two varietals are the main varietals grown in Puget Sound AVA, and not found in other areas in WA or OR. The 2013 Siegerrebe, receiving three Double Gold medals, shows there was no equal in the Puget Sound.
(Washington Wine Blog) Can you talk about your head winemaker and his style of winemaking? -
(Yvonne Swanberg) Chris Primus, Winemaker. Chris came to work for me in 2006 right after my husband lost his battle with cancer. The previous Winemaker had decided to go back to the Columbia Valley. This turned out to be a “good thing”. His style for red wine is basically to produce a wine that is food friendly, and also is true to varietal.
Marty Taucher, Avennia
Interview with Marty Taucher, Owner of Avennia Winery
Marty Taucher has created an impressive project at Avennia. Taucher signed on at Microsoft in 1984, spending 15 successful years there before taking wine classes at South Seattle Community College. He later met Chris Peterson, winemaker at DeLille Cellars during an internship at DeLille and Taucher hired Peterson as head winemaker at Avennia since. There are hundreds of Washington wineries out there but you know that wine is really good when nearly all of it sells out. Avennia’s first vintages were during difficult, colder growing seasons of 2010 and 2011, yet the wines still impressed. Their recent releases from 2012 are rich and balanced, coming from an exceptional vintage. I had the chance to interview Marty, as his impressive background in business and wine has made Avennia a household name in Washington Wine and is all over fine dining lists from Chandler’s Crabhouse to El Gaucho. Here is my interview with Marty Taucher, former Microsoft exec and current owner of Avennia Winery.
WWB: Can you talk about the vintage variation between 2012 and 2013?-
MT: ’12  as a great vintage for us, Chris says that it is up there with the 2007 in his experience. Our first two vintages, (2010 and 2011) were cooler years that nevertheless produced some very exciting wines. 2012, by comparison was a welcome change of pace. It will be remembered most for the intense heat of mid-August through most of September, ripening the earlier varietals such as Merlot and Syrah from warmer sites, very quickly. The autumn weather cycle finally started to kick in early in October, leading to a nice slow ripening throughout the month. We picked our last Cabernet, the 1972 planting at Bacchus, on October 22nd, a full 10 days ahead of 2011. Yields were low to moderate at nearly all sites, with small berries and ripe flavors, full richness, and ample but supple tannins. 2013 was yet another warm vintage in Washington. The season started earlier than normal, and was a scorcher all summer long, with a number of days over 100 degrees. Luckily the autumn began to cool down, allowing even ripening and additional hang time to develop flavor. The grapes were harvested only slightly earlier than normal, with moderate alcohols and acid levels. In the cellar, the wines somewhat belied the heat of the year, showing great focus, pure fruit flavors, enlivening freshness, and ample structure.
WWB: What are some of the challenges in 2013 and 2014 in maintaining the type of acid structure and balance that you guys are known for?
MT: Chris likes to pick fruit on the edge of ripeness so I think the key for him is to be able pay close attention to the vintage and make many trips to the vineyard. Chris likes to be in the vineyard at least once a week. He goes out to sample the fruit and to make sure that the fruit is reaching optimal ripeness and works closely with our vineyard partners to manage crop loads for the optimal balance of ripeness, complexity and acidity. We are also very selective in choosing vineyards that are able to successfully manage yields for the best results. We also use native yeast fermentation across the board, which helps to give the wines more old world style complexity and balance.
WWB: I just had the opportunity to try your 2014 Sauvignon Blanc and you have been experimenting with concrete and oak. Can you talk about those influences in the wine?
MT: We have always fermented our Oliane Sauvignon Blanc in neutral and new French oak. In 2014, Chris decided to experiment with concrete which allows for the introduction of a slightly different oxidative ageing technique in the fermentation process. We work with two exceptional vineyards for this wine, Boushey and Red Willow, and have been pleased with the success we have had with the neutral and new oak barrels. Adding a concrete egg to the mix gives a little more lushness or fullness on the mid palate. It is a small percentage, about 15 percent [concrete] but I think makes a noticeable difference. We will watch it over the next few vintages. Chris is also interested in experimenting with concrete for the other varietals, perhaps Grenache and Cab Franc. But concrete is a fantastic tool to incorporate into our program. We were in Bordeaux in 2011 as part of a research trip and we went to these great houses and much of the wine was in concrete or oak tanks, so it really opened my eyes to the possibilities.
WWB: Taking about expansion for your wines, they are selling out. You have been incredible successful in a shorty amount of time. What are your plans for winery expansion?
MT: For Avennia the production limits can be defined by the vineyards that we work with. Chris has a specific vision for the wines we want to create at Avennia, much of which is predicated on using fruit from some of the older, more established vineyards. There is a limit on the number of old vines in Washington State so we can’t really be a high production winery if we stay true to that vision. Also, from a facilities standpoint, we have the capacity for 4 to 5 thousand cases. We are also excited about the loyalty we have from our mailing list and want to stay true to our vision to honor their commitment. That being said, we are launching the new line this week, called Les Trouvés, ( French for ‘The Found”) which is modeled after the French negociant table wines you find all over Europe. Chris has actively sought out and found declassified wines from a number of terrific producers and chosen the best to build a new line of table wines from Washington fruit. The wines are made to be immediately delicious and yet affordable enough for everyday consumption. We are releasing two wines this fall. We will see how roll-out goes with the initial production of 800 cases. We are excited about the project. This leverages Chris’s talent without us having to the bulk of the winemaking here. I think this is a nice growth opportunity.
Tyler Tennyson, Dunham Cellars
Interview with Tyler Tennyson, new head winemaker at Dunham Cellars
The third head winemaker in Dunham Cellars history, Tyler Tennyson will now be leading the white and red wine production at Dunham. Tyler originally had a background outside of wine but became enamored in the world of wine and followed the gradual progression into full-time winemaking. Tyler has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington. He has worked under some great teams at Dusted Valley, Seven Hills and Gordon Estates, prior to coming to Dunham. He is very excited to be the new headwinemaker at Dunham and I wanted to share his story. Meet Tyler Tennyson, the new head winemaker of Dunham Cellars:
WWB: Can you talk about how you became interested in winemaking?
TT: I got my degree in Urban Geography from the University of Washington and was working in commercial real estate in the Seattle area. I came from a family that didn’t do much wine drinking but my wife is Italian and I learned from their family who always had wine at their table. At the same time, I was working with Tom Shafer when he was starting a’Maurice in Walla Walla. So I fell in Love with wine and Walla Walla. My wife and I made some wine in the basement, and I’m not going to lie, it was terrible, but we loved the process of winemaking and I started taking some classes at South Seattle Community College. The wine bug grew and it became more and more of a passion, rather than a hobby. I finally decided to quit my job and moved to Walla Walla in 2009. From there I worked with Dusted Valley and then worked as an assistant winemaker at Seven Hills for three years. Then I got my first head winemaking job at Gordon Estates in Pasco which was really exciting. Gorton Estates had a wide range of wines, from all estate fruit, so that was a really exciting opportunity for me.
WWB: Gordon Estates has a wide range of wines and you bring that wide range of winemaking to Dunham. Was that a factor in deciding that Dunham Cellars was the right fit for you?
TT: That was definitely a factor. There were a number of factors. But the biggest factor was simply that it is Dunham, which is such a Walla Walla icon, a Washington wine icon for that matter. But there were a lot of factors for me. Personality wise, there was a great fit and my skill set matched up perfectly. My path to this point had really set me up for this. During my time at Dusted Valley, Seven Hills and Gordon Estate I had the opportunity to work with most major varietals white and red from all over the state and production levels similar to Dunham. And for me it feels like all of these stars have aligned and made Dunham a match made in heaven. Not to mention that when I even when I worked in Pasco I was living in Walla Walla so this is a nice home coming. I couldn’t be more excited about this being the right home for me.
WWB: What are some of your favorite varietals to work with? What excites you about Dunham’s wine lineup?
TT: I don’t know that it’s any one varietal I am most excited about. But I am excited to be working with such a diverse spread of fruit from some of the best vineyard sites across the state. All the different vineyard sourcing and the ability to work with all the site specific nuances is very exciting. Dunham has been such a nice reflection of wines throughout the state working with fruit from the Lewis vineyard in Yakima, to the Stone Tree vineyard on the Wahluke slope, to our Walla Walla sites and everything in between. Kenny Hill in Walla Walla is just fully coming online and it is exciting to be joining the Dunham family while we launch these Walla Walla Valley vineyard designate wines. I’m excited about it all.
Ashley Trout, Vital Wines/Brook & Bull
Happy Valentine’s Day to you all! One of the exciting young winemakers in Washington, Ashley Trout is the talented mastermind behind new winery projects Vital Wines and Brook & Bull and Vital Wines. A fellow Whitman College graduate, Ashley Trout got her start at Reininger Winery learning under legendary winemaker Chuck Reininger. In 2018 she was named by Wine Enthusiast as one of ‘the top 40 under 40 tastemakers.’ I recently had the chance to review her new wines from Vital Wines and Brook & Bull which were all excellent. Wait until you try her beautiful new 2018 Vital Wines Rose (WWB, 90), only $18.00 retail. I really think you will enjoy hearing more about her story. Here is my interview with Ashley Trout, winemaker/owner of Brook & Bull and Vital Wines.
WWB: Can you talk about your background in winemaking? How did you initially become inspired to become a winemaker?
AT: I started working in the Washington wine industry in 1999. I was 18 and I seized the opportunity to do the nighttime punchdowns at Reininger Winery. I'm from Washington DC, and working in wine seemed like, not a real job. So I figured age 18 was my only chance and then I'd grow up and get a big girl job after college. That never happened. I got sucked in. I've never looked back. I worked at Reininger for 8 years, but my fifth year was my "aha moment." I had a bad climbing accident and broke myself enough to where I couldn't work harvest that year and it seemed really inappropriate. I felt like I was missing part of who I was. That's when I realized this wasn't just a thing that I liked to do, but that I loved doing it, it was who I was already and that reality had snuck up on me at some point over those 5 years. I was never inspired to become a winemaker. I just couldn't stop myself. A lot of it was right place, right time, (right people- thank you Chuck). I was inspired, after 5 years, to never get a job that wasn't winemaking.
WWB: What are some of the challenges with being married to another talented winemaker, Brian Rudin. How does your winemaking style differ from Brian’s? Do you both ever combine your winemaking talents?
AT: Brian is indeed, a whole lot of talent. I'll tell him you said so. Our busy season is the same, our slow season is the same. It means that we use a lot of babysitters (fall, spring) and then travel together a lot (winter, summer). Our kids learned early on to roll with the punches, the many, many punches. It's chaotic in our house. Where we run into direct competition isn't the wine- you try to make the best wines you can for your own palate and it's that simple. Hopefully people feel the same and buy those wines. We land in competition with each other with the kind of stuff you wouldn't think about- occasional vineyard sourcing, right now we're trying to hire staff for a similar position and we were looking at some of the same people. In those circumstances, chronology and pricing play a role and you leave it on the playing field because our marriage is more important and because it's an amusing predicament and even we can recognize that.
Our styles are different. I'm going to keep this answer short. The more you write about someone else's artwork, the more likely you are to say something you think is a compliment that someone absorbs differently. Every artist aims for something in their head and whenever you try to put that into words, you’ve failed by the mere act of translation. He likes having something plush to reign in and balance while I like starting with a more reigned in wine and doing the opposite, releasing its extremities. I like geeking out on rosé while he likes geeking out on Riesling. We're different. I'm better. Just kidding! No, he's phenomenal at what he does. We touch base all of the time on what the other thinks about a wine, a place, a cooper, you name it.
We're better not working together. We learned that when we were dating. That didn't take long to learn... I know how to run my show and he knows how to run his = two chefs in the kitchen. Having said that, Brian has helped make Vital happen in a lot of ways, and for that I'm so thankful. If you look closely on our donor's page on Vital, I give him a shout out as I think the "Rudin Global Trucking Co." but he's done much more than just haul fruit. He's helped secure some of our best donated fruit, barrels, you name it.
WWB: You are a fellow Whitman College alumnus (I am quite a bit older than you, lets just say that!) who majored in Anthropology while at Whitman and has since been involved in the wine industry for the past fifteen plus years. How did you decide to start Vital Wines. Can you talk about this special nonprofit winery?
AT: Vital had been stuck in my head for about a decade before I had the nerve (Rolodex) to pul it off. Vital is a non-profit winery whose mission is to improve the healthcare for vineyard and winery workers in the Walla Walla Valley. All profits go to the SOS Clinic (www.soshealthservices.org). We get practically everything donated- grapes, labels, corks, capsules, screwcaps, shipping supplies, some bottles, lab work, graphic design, tasting room staff, winemaking, barrels, a lot of harvest supplies, it's pretty amazing. The whole valley is in on it.
WWB: You have already produced a killer 2018 Rose for Vital Wines (WWB, 90). What was your winemaking approach to this beautifully textured and layered Rose that is priced at a mere $18 and will be featured on my upcoming Pacific Northwest Rose Report?
AT: Hah. Rosé is my full geek fest these days. Because rosé is usually at a low price point, people think it is easy to make. It's one of the hardest wines to make well. It has to be heat stable or it'll go cloudy. It has to be cold stable or it'll throw potassium bitartrate crystals. It has to have acid or it'll be a flabby rose, which is super depressing to drink. With red wine, you have a lot more wiggle room to do any of those. Red wine is opaque, so it doesn't matter if it is cloudy. If you see crystals in red wine, you assume it is a really high end, unfined, unfiltered wine. You don't come to that conclusion with a rosé. Rose is like a short story- every piece counts more because there are fewer moving parts and you have less time in the cellar before bottling. You have no oak to play with, no tannins, no extended macerations, and the color has to be perfect because everyone has a magnifying glass on that color. When you water a troubled plant, it doesn't perk back up the minute you water it. When you make movements with any wine, you need another bit of time before those efforts come to fruition. With rosé, you have to stay really on top of it because you don't have that time. Rose gets bottled much earlier than reds or whites. You have to nail every movement and if you don't, its obvious.
That's my rant. We make our rosé for rosé, which is to say we don't saignee. We pick for rose, really early so it has lots of acid. We go straight to press and make sure to use varieties that will give us enough color without maceration, and we aim for a salmon hue instead of the blue hued K-Mart pink. We use neutral oak to help get us heat stability so we don't have to fine it with anything. With rosé, the key is always an ounce of prevention. And then we cold stabilize it by getting it really cold and letting gravity do our work for us. It's harder than it sounds. And really fun.
WWB: What are some of your favorite Washington wines and producers? What are some of your favorite wines of the world?
AT: Canvasback. I'm not going to pick other Washington producers because inevitably I'll tick someone off by not putting them on the list. As for favorite wines of the world, I love both CA (Merry Edwards) and OR (Cristom) Pinot Noir, I adore Sancerre (all, and I mean, all) and both cheap and expensive bubbles. Pulenta Estates and Bodega Bressia make my favorite boutique Argentine Malbecs. I'm a sucker for Cornas. It's a beautiful world out there.
Holly Turner, Three Rivers Winery
Interview with Holly Turner, Head Winemaker of Three Rivers Winery
Holly Turner serves as head winemaker at Three Rivers Winery, a Walla Walla mainstay. Holly is originally from Oregon wine country in McMinnville, Oregon. Holly holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Western Oregon State College and following school she worked in food science and quality assurance before catching the wine bug. She has a vast experience in the wine industry working at Chateau St. Michelle and Canoe Ridge. At Three Rivers she was first hired as an assistant winemaker and took over more than 10 years ago as head winemaker. Holly talks about her style of winemaking and how she incorporates Sangiovese in blending, something many Washington winemakers don’t do. Learn more about her wines at threeriverswinery.com. I found her a delight to speak with. Here is my interview with Holly Turner, head winemaker at Three Rivers Winery.
WWB: Can you talk about your background in wine? How did you get inspired to become a winemaker?
HT: I had graduated from college and was working in the Portland Oregon area in food quality assurance. From there I moved to Eastern Washington. At that time I needed a job, so I walked in the Chateau St. Michelle tasting room in Grandview and was hired. I liked wine but didn’t know much about it; I was home brewing beer, not wine at the time. After of few months in the tasting room I moved into the wine lab at CSM’s Canoe Ridge. I really enjoyed my experience at Canoe Ridge and learned a lot! From there I went to work in Argentina for a vintage then to Three Rivers as the assistant winemaker. Two years later the stars aligned and I took over as head winemaker in 2002, the same year that my twins were born.
After getting into the wine industry, there was no question that this is what I loved to do. I love to make wine. I was hungry for more information and was afforded the opportunity to go to UC Davis for a production class. I worked under some big names in wine and they gave me the opportunity to grow in the business. Learning from them taught me a lot about being a better winemaker. I was immersed in the world of wine which is exactly what I needed. I had traveled to South America and Europe which really helped me establish the style of wine I wanted to make. I like old world wines age ability and new world wines accessibility. The broad range of experiences I have had has definitely impacted me and my style of winemaking.
WWB: You have a great deal of experience as a winemaker at Three Rivers. What are some techniques that you have picked up over the years in terms of winemaking and vineyard management?
HT: I am contracting most of the fruit for Three Rivers from outside sources, we only have a small 8 acre estate vineyard here at the winery. We have found, over the years that our estate vineyard is ideal for producing beautiful Rosé. We have Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon that we intentionally pick early. This gives us higher acidity and less dense color for our Rose. This has been a fun project for us to highlight this special place in time each vintage. As the years pass we’ve been able to source more of our fruit here locally in the Walla Walla Valley. I’d say about 50% is sourced from the Walla Walla Valley and the other 50% from the greater Columbia Valley including the Wahluke Slope and Horse Heaven Hills. As the vineyard sites develop, the fruit quality increases. I’m working with a terrific group of growers that help me achieve my winemaking goals. Definitely a team effort.
WWB: Many people have been excited about the past three vintages, 2013 to 2015. Can you talk about these hot vintages and what kind of wines that you can expect from the vintages?
HT: In Washington making wine in the hotter vintages is definitely easier. The fruit is ripe, so it’s up to you to pick when the fruit fits into the realm of what you’re trying to create. In these vintages there are many great quality wines across the board. For consumers this is fantastic! Lots of great quality wine choices out there. In terms of the one vintage that I might favor, right now the 2014 vintage is really beautiful. Ripe, complex and interesting wines. Those were my favorite until I tasted the ‘15s. The 2015 reds aren’t in bottle yet but I am really excited, they show great potential. The 2015 vintage was fast and early and we had to be on it during harvest.
WWB: Your Rivers Red is consistently good throughout the last few vintages. Can you talk about the winemaking and blending behind that wine?
HT: River’s Red is an entry level red from our portfolio of wines. The goal is to make it consumer friendly, easily drinkable and versatile. My focus is on making a balanced delicious wine with soft tannins and subdued alcohol. We are using varietals that do have softer tannins and aren’t going to need a lot of bottle aging for them to be palatable. The varietals that we use --Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec -- they all seem to marry quite well together making an interesting complex blend. The wine is aged in small oak barrels which adds to the wines depth. We want to make something that you will want another glass of and I think we do a good job of that with our Rivers Red.
Chris Upchurch, Upchurch Vineyards
Interview with Chris Upchurch, Owner and Head Winemaker of Upchurch Vineyard
A winemaker that needs no introduction, Chris Upchurch has achieved a venerable reputation as head winemaker at DeLille Cellars. Before Chris crafting 90 plus point wines at DeLille, he was traveling the world and sampling some of the world’s best wines. Chris completed a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Colorado and the University of Washington and then began working as a wine merchant, which helped him improve his palate through some of the best wines from around the world. Chris then became the founding winemaker and partner of DeLille Cellars. For 23 years Chris has worked as head winemaker at DeLille. There are few Washington winemakers that have received the same level of accolades during that time. For those who have tried the DeLille lineup, you can taste the difference in the glass. Chris crafts some of the best Bordeaux blends and Rhone red and white wines in the state. In fact, my number two wine last year was the 2013 DeLille Cellars ‘Chaleur Estate’ Blanc, a Bordeaux style white wine that DeLille has made famous after being the first in the state to create this style of wine (http://www.washingtonwineblog.com/top-100/#/2015-top-100/). In 2007 Chris started the Upchurch Vineyard on Red Mountain. I recently had the chance to sit down with Chris and talk about his wine, as well as his project at Upchurch Vineyard. Learn more about this impressive winery at https://upchurchvineyard.com/ Here is my interview with Chris Upchurch, head winemaker at DeLille Cellars and Upchurch Vineyard.
WWB: Can you describe some of the changes of being an owner of Upchurch Vineyard, as opposed to your responsibilities at DeLille Cellars?-
CU: That is an advantage and a disadvantage because some winemakers want to just talk about their own product. I am headed to New York tomorrow to represent Upchurch Vineyard. This means the sales end and not only talking about my product. For me going New York and seeing a bottle of my wine on the table -- that makes me feel thrilled. After working 23 years at DeLille I get a kick out of seeing that because I am now going out and meeting a lot of different people in wine. It feels like a full circle thing, now being the owner of Upchurch Vineyards. But sometimes this new process really gets to you, when you are doing a day here, a day there, and sometimes they might not set things up like they should. During my trip to New York I am going to be hitting up some bottle shops and then also visiting some other areas that we can promote Upchurch Vineyards. The general sales aspect tends to be tough but it is part of the show. While I am still an owner for DeLille, most people in wine want to talk to the winemaker. I want to do things in a craftsman like way, which means that you have to go out there and meet people. Connecting with people is a larger part now.
WWB: Can you talk about your experiences being at DeLille for 23 years and seeing the industry change?
CU: At DeLille, we always believed that we didn’t want to do the mainstream types of wines. We wanted to craft the finest wine that we could. We didn’t want to make too much wine and we wanted to educate the people about the wines because we were changing the game a bit. At DeLille our lineup started with Bordeaux blends. Nobody was doing that kind of thing in 1992. DeLille Cellars were the first doing Cab and Cab Franc with Petit Verdot blends. In `95 we made a White Bordeaux which nobody from Washington State was doing at the time. With regards to Chardonnay, I don’t think that Washington’s best varietal is Chardonnay. I think that Chardonnay shouldn’t be grown next to Cabernet in the vineyard. I really liked the fact that Semillon grows so well in Washington. Over time we have learned that Semillon doesn’t grow that well elsewhere in the new world. California has given up growing Semillon, and Australia makes some Semillon but it might be blended with the Chardonnay. We see this is an opportunity for me to make really great and interesting Semillon here in Washington State. Sauvignon Blanc really likes to grow everywhere and knowing that I wanted to create that I could make a white blend that other countries couldn’t do quite as well. The DeLille Chaleur Estate Blanc came out of this idea. We wanted to do something different but that meant that we had to educate people what about what a white Bordeaux is. People say that the Chaleur Estate the best white in Washington State. From there we were excited about our Bordeaux Blanc and we decided to make a Rhone white at DeLille. By making a Rousanne that was a challenge to educate people about how look at that varietal, since Rousanne wasn’t typically made in Washington State at the time. I feel that I can make a Washington Chardonnay as good as anybody in Washington State, but at DeLille Cellars we wanted to make some different wines that we thought we could do better and the wine program has worked well for us.
WWB: I was hugely impressed with your 2013 DeLille Cellars Chaleur Estate Blanc (Washington Wine Blog, 95 points). Can you talk about the Washington Wine Blog #2 wine of 2015, the 2013 Chaleur Estate Blanc? How were you able to get that level of structure in 2013, a hotter vintage?-
CU: At DeLille have many different vineyard sites for this wine. One of the sites is really cool, the Bouchey vineyard, and even in a hotter years the clusters from Bouchey make it to the third week of September for harvest. Bouchey is not a hot site and that is always helpful in a hot year. We also source Sauvignon Blanc from Sagemoor vineyards which is some of the oldest vines in the state for Sav Blanc. Winemakers like to seek out older vines. These vines of Sav Blanc at Sagemoor vineyards are over 30 years old and the sugar doesn’t tend to move as fast during the ripening process and the acidity is there in the grapes. The structure from those components can be seen in the wines. It is important to consider blending with grapes that are capable of obtaining a good deal of structure in a warmer year.
Then we have the Klipsun vineyard site which tends to be warmer each year. That site will help us out in cooler years, like 2010 and 2011. The cooler years typically mean that we will need ripeness from the hotter vineyard sites. The main thing in the hot year that you have to be careful that the sugars in the grapes don’t outrun the flavors and structure of the wine. The flavors are really important and because of that we are usually waiting for the flavors to come on and we always need to watch the sugar level. In terms of vineyard management, there are also ways to slow down the vineyard. It is always helpful if you can build your own vineyard from the ground up and that is like what we are doing at Upchurch Vineyard. We try to produce very concentrated berries but also have the ability to slow things down in terms of ripening. We do the same kind of things, although I can’t change clones too much in older vines. But I can manipulate the canopies, depending on heat during the growing season.
WWB: How did you decide to purchase the site for the Upchurch Vineyard?-
CU: The plot of land became available to me and I offered it to DeLille. For many years I have been interested in having my own vineyard. I had some money for this set aside and I decided to buy this vineyard myself. This worked well thinking that I would maintain my position at DeLille and have most of the grapes go to DeLille for their wines. I have been really happy being at DeLille over the years. DeLille has been my career and I am one of the owners there. But I have a number of business partners there, and many partners mean that Upchurch Vineyards was never was going to be generational. But now that I have purchased the vineyard, it will be. I have my daughter working on the books and management and Upchurch Vineyard will be a generational thing.
WWB: The 2013 Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet (Washington Wine Blog, 94 points) was an outstanding release with rich fruit flavors and structure. Can you talk about the wine?-
CU: With the Upchurch vineyard we like to see it as is one plot, one family, and one wine. The quantum leap is in the vineyard. In the cellar, you can do a lot of things like different yeasts or different barrels. You can do all of things in the cellar but the vineyard is the most important. Once you have the grapes in the cellar you can tweak things but you are not able to truly change the design of the wine. In Red Mountain some of the older vines are dealing with issues. Bottom line is that you can do so many special things when you start from the ground up. That is what we thought and we started with the premise that you plant Cabernet in Red Mountain you probably are going to like the wine produced from that region. We had the idea that we wanted to make exceptional wines from this special place. We operate from trying to produce small yields. When you have lower yields you want to concentrate the fruit. You can have the problem with the sugars coming on too fast, so you have to slow it down the sugar in the wine. When you slow down the vine and get it right, that means October ripening which is what we look for, the later ripening with dense fruit. At Upchurch Vineyard we selected clones that are well-known in the area. We discovered that Red Mountain Clone 2 is slightly slower with the ripening, which leads to fantastic fruit. The Red Mountain Clone 2 tends to ripen week later than some other clones. Red Mountain Clone 2 is actually not a Washington clone and not a Davis clone but it is an old Oakville clone. I assume that it might have been an old Inglenook [winery] clone. This clone really grows well in Red Mountain and I am having a lot of success with it.
Ideally we want to have the yields smaller and last year, despite the heat of the year, we got two and a half tons per acre. We have higher density and tighter spacing in the vineyard. We also do a lot for even ripeness. That is something that plagues a lot of vineyards, working without even ripening. The idea behind this is that you always want to get the grapes ripe. Even 10 percent under-ripeness can come out in the wine. Even if the balance is 25 brix then the lower ripeness grapes can be problematic, getting the lower ripeness grapes up to a higher brix. If you can balance the ripeness, you have a great wine. I have noticed that Chateau Latour in Bordeaux does that perfectly well. If you walk through Chateau Latour’s vineyards it seems like they have even ripeness throughout. That means that they can pick at a lower sugar because everything is even. The even ripeness is important. When planting our vines, we have found that a diagonal orientation works best. We learned that as the sun travels at an arc, the high point is actually 130 degrees, and then you have the majority of the sun on the west side -- whereas if you tilt it to northeast about 10 degrees then you are really catching the top of the vine. It is great to go out to the vineyard and see that around 1:30 in the afternoon and see the shade of the vine right under the rows. That is cutting it right at the 130 degree mark. It is key to work towards having equal sun across the vineyard throughout the summer.
The Upchurch Vineyard is sustainable from the ground up and it is a lot easier to start with sustainable farming because you have everything working together from the beginning. From there we are just tweaking the wine to get it where we want. We have noticed that are getting the right floral character in the vineyard that we want. We have been able to create the Chateau Margaux-like floral aspect in our Cabernet wine. These nuances are perfect because we don’t want our Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet to be the same as the other wines. We like the blend that we have constructed in 2013, with the 9 percent Merlot. The Merlot balances the wine. You don’t always know and when you plant something that it will work out great but we are really happy with the result.
WWB: What is it like having your daughter working with you?-
CU: I love working with my daughter. That makes me feel really good that Upchurch Vineyards is a family winery. My daughter is just one of those girls that is so outgoing and sometimes that just drives me nuts. She was one of those people that would go knock on doors and talk to people when she was little. She has always been so good with people. She would go around and do all these things and she would even want to give the neighbors something. She would ask me to make doughnuts, so that she could would go around and give the neighbors the doughnuts and talk with them. She has always been a people person and she wouldn’t stop talking as a little girl. Whenever we were traveling we get off on airplane and everyone would be talking to her and they would say ‘bye’ to her, like they were all friends. We would go to a ballgame and everyone would talk with. We all have friends or people we know where everyone likes. She has the temperament where everyone likes her. It is a great thing and it is a natural born talent that I envy. I have had people work for me like that and it is just great working with them. I love working with her and that is really fantastic that she wants to be in the family business.
Delia Viader, VIADER
Interview with Delia Viader, Owner and Co-Winemaker of VIADER
One of the cult Napa wines, VIADER is located on the western facing slopes of Howell Mountain dramatically set at 1,300 feet. VIADER (pronounced via-dare) was founded in 1986 by Napa visionary Delia Viader. Delia produces roughly 4,500 cases each year for her club members, as well as some top restaurants. She also has a by-appointment-only wine tasting room to take in the sweeping views of the Napa Valley, overlooking St. Helena. Delia’s story is even more extraordinary than her special wines. Born in Argentina, Delia was largely raised in Europe and came to the United States as a single mother of four, and as a post-graduate student (she has a doctorate in Philosophy from the Sorbonne University in Paris). Delia quickly realized the potential of the Napa Valley and purchased her Howell Mountain property in the mid-1980s. Her first release was the 1989 VIADER Proprietary blend (60% Cabernet Sauvignon/40% Cabernet Franc) which was quite revolutionary at the time to blend in such a large amount of Cabernet Franc. Since then ;she has achieved international acclaim for her special Napa red wine. I recently tried her 2015 VIADER Red Wine (WWB, 95), co-made with her son, Alan Viader, and was hugely impressed with not only the quality of the winemaking but the beautiful combination of weight, tension and finesse in the wine. I think you will very much enjoy hearing her story in wine. Here is my exclusive interview with Delia Viader, Owner and Co-Winemaker at Viader Wines.
WWB: You have mentioned that your initial inspirations in wine came from the great wines of Bordeaux. What were some other people and wines that inspired you to become a winemaker?
DV: Wine was part of every meal in our family, like in most European households. My father had a special affinity for Merlot - in particular, the wine produced at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux. As fate would have it, my very first wines in Napa Valley were made at another winery under a custom winemaking contract (while I was building my own) where I had to share the space with none other than Christian Moueix, son of Jean-Pierre Moueix and the Château Pétrus dynasty. That friendship brought me full circle to Jean-Claude Berrouet, the phenomenal artist winemaker at Pétrus for three decades. Both, Christian and Jean-Claude are very knowledgeable and inspiring, passionate professionals in the art of winemaking.
WWB: How did you decide to start Viader on Howell Mountain? Can you talk about the specialness of this site and the fruit that comes from the vineyard.
DV: This place is magical. The community, the terrain, the coastal influence, the beauty … there were so many promising qualities tied to this parcel of land that contributed to this being “the” ideal location to raise my family while also raising (initially) 74,000 vines. And the wine that comes from this very special vineyard truly puts on a show consistently vintage after vintage. When we planted, we paid attention to the angle of the sun exposure; the presence, direction and speed of the wind breezes; the rock composition and variation of the soil; the angle of slope for drainage. We were looking for the ideal connection between soil, rootstock, grape variety, density of planting and vine canopy (height and width) to protect the grape bunches, while also ensuring optimal conditions for slow maturation and concentrated flavors. More than thirty years later, our vines benefit from the rocky terrain and our original planting decisions, particularly late in the summer when the heat from the daylight hours absorbs in the rocks, providing a perfect band of temperatures for the grapes to continue ripening slowly for up to two additional hours past sunset. This puts us at a major advantage for many reasons, particularly come harvest time. That extra after-hours heat expression typically allows our grapes to achieve maximum flavor concentration ahead of most – up to two weeks in some years – which means earlier harvests in our vineyard and avoidance of any danger of rain. All of this combined with our “noninterventionist” approach in the cellar means that we are able to translate all of the magical things going on in our vineyard directly into the glass.
WWB: How were you able to balance raising children on your own and growing your winery into the success that it is today?
DV: In a simple phrase: By working very very hard. And when it comes to my business and my family, one does not exclude the other. In fact, they can be very complementary. I made a conscious decision to build my home on the same mountainside as I planted my vineyard. My commute was a short few steps from my doorstep to the vines … and more often than not, the kids were out running around the vines, the vineyard their playground. Showing my kids at a very early age the direct correlation between certain soil characteristics and the aromatics that develop in the juice, through the "translation" the vine makes of its surrounding circumstance...it was always my children's favorite story. And it’s a timeless story that is now retold to my grandchildren. ;)
WWB: What are the challenges with being a winemaking team with your son, Alan?
DV: Working together has tremendous advantages; particularly for a seamless continuation and consistency of style in our wines. The truth is, no one knows our vines or our wines more intimately than Alan who literally grew up with them. I’m honored that he grew up to appreciate and love this place as much as I do … so much so that he’s dedicated his career to VIADER. Love for this place fuels motivation and wholehearted dedication. As for challenges, I would say that it is often times hard to “disconnect” and separate work from family time. Wine is our passion and we eat, drink and live it! Which means that work and family time overlap more often than not. And sometimes we disagree and sometimes we need to take a minute. But I love that our mutual love for what we do pushes both of us to never stop learning, debating, experimenting or pushing our limits. At the end of the day, we are always on the same team, as a family and as winemakers, and I think our wines are better for it.
WWB: You and Alan have crafted a scintillating new wine, the 2015 Viader ‘Proprietary Red’ Red Wine (WWB, 95) which shows wonderful terroir, poise and richness. Can you talk about this fantastic wine and the 2015 vintage?
DV: The 2015 vintage was textbook perfect in many respects. Alan made all the right decisions (when to pick what row or what block; how much extraction; how much new oak; how long to age; etc.). When it came to our blending sessions, Alan selected the most promising blocks, followed by another narrowed selection within those of the most 'worthy' candidates. Together, we created the final blend, put together like a puzzle of distinct pieces: density, aromatics, length and quality.
WWB: When you are not enjoying the great Napa wines, what are some of your favorite wine regions and producers of the world?
DV: I’m particularly fond of Burgundy. I enjoy the sweat equity and distinct sense of place that some of their Pinot Noirs display with the artistry involved. I enjoy wines that whisper complexity of tannin and structure, but seduce you with layer upon layer of beautiful flavor.
Dan Wampfler Fall 2015, Dunham Cellars
One of my favorite Northwest winemakers, Dan Wampfler, continues to impress with his fantastic new releases. I was recently able to taste some of the new wines from Dunham with head winemaker Dan Wampfler. Dunham Cellars was created in by Eric Dunham 1995 and is one of the older and most prestigious wineries in Walla Walla. Wampfler, formerly with Columbia Crest, has a background in making everything from Sparkling wine to Riesling to Cabernet at his former employer. Dan has brought that depth of knowledge to Dunham. His releases combine richness, fruit character and great terroir. As Dan says, he wants his wines to have a sense of place. . . and they most certainly do.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Dunham Cellars. I was very impressed with his new release wines, especially his new release late harvest Riesling (95, WWB), as well as his 2009 Founders Reserve (also rated 94 points), a wine that was dedicated to the founders of Dunham, Eric and Mike Dunham, who tragically both passed away in the last two years. The Founders Reserve is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah from the Lewis Vineyard. It is a full bodied, terroir driven and impressive effort that will cellar beautifully for decades and represents the highest rated red that I’ve every tried from Dunham. The 2014 Late Harvest Riesling is a special wine and is one of the best of its kind in Washington. The combination of richness and acidity in this wine is nothing short of superlative. It is the perfect pairing for a rich vanilla ice cream. Here is my latest interview with Dunham head winemaker, Dan Wampfler, followed by reviews of the new release wines from Dunham Cellars. Find these wines at dunhamcellars.com #dunhamcellars
WWB: Can you talk about the winemaking in the 2012 Dunham Cabernet which is your new release?
DW: I think with the prior vintage  being cool and more feminine and food friendly and lower alcohol. ‘12 was a ripe vintage and we didn’t want to swing too far the other way. We wanted to capture the brightness, acidity and fresh fruit but led the vintage speak for itself. It is kind of a transitional wine from two previous cool vintages. We dialed up the new oak percentage and pressed pretty gently.
WWB: One of the most esteemed vineyards in Washington is the Lewis vineyard. I am interested in what kind of flavor profiles that you are typically able to obtain in the red wines? Can you talk about the character of the vineyard?
DW: Obviously we do a single vineyard Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah and there is a common thread of ripe cherry and cherry pie character. The Lewis Vineyard Cabernet shows that cherry pie right off the bat. The Syrah has that cherry pie character but also earth, orange peel and subtle flavors. The Cab is more dark notes and with the Merlot as well you see that cherry pie flavor profile. You see that ripe cherry with all of our wines made from the Lewis vineyard.
WWB: One of the better value wines that I have had this year from Washington was the 2012 Trutina. I was impressed with the layers, as well as the richness and structure of the wine. Can you talk about the winemaking and the blending in this wine?
DW: Trutina is our Bordeaux style blend and is Latin for balance. . . as in, don’t drink too much you might lose your Trutina. To have a balanced wine that is layered is what you want. It has 45% Cabernet, 38% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 2% Petite Verdot, and a touch of Syrah, 5%. And we have a pretty varied barrel program for this from new oak and used oak. And that is the idea to make a balanced wine that is layered and intriguing.
WWB: We talked about your new wine, the 2009 Founders Reserve and this is the first time that you have done this project with the blending all three varietals to make this wine. It comes from an exceptional vintage, 2009. Can you talk about making this wine and choosing the blend for this wine and how you saw each Lewis vineyard varietal this year?
DW: 2009 was a ripe year as you have suggested and we have always kept the Lewis Cab, Merlot and Syrah separate. We thought that this year was so exceptional and purity of varietal character and we started playing around with a blend of the three varietals. We felt that during the bench trials of blending this wine that this [current blend] was the right combination that accentuated the cherry character and no one varietal was dominant. You didn’t want to put too much of one varietal in it and to me it was a balanced, premium, Lewis blend. I wasn’t looking for specific percentage points in the blend but was looking for the most balanced Lewis wine.
WWB: I know you are big fan of Riesling and I just had the opportunity to review new late harvest release. Can you talk about what you were trying to accomplish with the wine with balance, acid structure and richness?
DW: First of all, as a winemaker I love challenges. Late Harvest Riesling is a major challenge for a winemaker. You have to be concerned about the fruit and the timing of things, like when to pick and when to ferment and when to stop the fermentation process. The goal for me with this wine, and I think in any wine, is to seek balance and the balance for me in the late harvest Riesling is acidity, mouthfeel and aromatics. There is consistency with the aromatics and flavors from vintage to vintage but I am looking to find it as viscous as I can push it and I am looking for acidity that gives you the lingering finish. I want the wine to be so it is not so sweet that you don’t want another sip but that is where the acidity comes in that it makes you want more. The aromatics with this wine evolve with time and I want people to smell it and say that this is definitely a late harvest Riesling.
Dan Wampfler Spring 2015, Dunham Cellars
Interview with Dan Wampfler
I was recently able to taste the new Dunham Cellars lineup with head winemaker Dan Wampfler. Dunham Cellars was created in by Erik Dunham 1995 and is one of the older and most prestigious wineries in Walla Walla. Wampfler came onto the Dunham team and has been crafting some incredible wines, as I’ve been impressed with his recent releases that combine richness with great terroir. Dunham wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Trutina (Bordeaux style blend), Three Legged Red (red table wine), Riesling and the "Shirley Mays" Chardonnay. They also have an offshoot project called Pursued by Bear and Baby Bear, that are impressive releases. Dunham wines have been heralded by two of the most prominent wine publications, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. In fact, Dunham wines have received scores of 96 and 97 by Wine Enthusiast, which is exceptionally rare. Some of their older wines have shown incredibly well, including their 2007 Lewis Vineyard Merlot and the 2007 Syrah. Here is my recent interview with Dan Wampfler, followed by my reviews of recent releases from Dunham. #dunhamcellars
WWB: Can you talk about your new value wine release, the 2013 Dunham Three Legged Red?-
Wampfler: This is Cab, Merlot, Syrah and is Cab dominant. It has 10 months in experienced oak and there is some Cabernet Franc, Sangio [Sangiovese] on any given year and we are trying to create this Wednesday afternoon soft burger and pizza wine. This is our entry level and attractive so that you can just pour a glass.
WWB: What do you think the differences between the 2013 vintage vs. the 2012 vintage?-
Wampfler: '10  and '11  were super cold and 12s [2012s] started to warm up, '13  warmed up and 14  even warmer. '12 became a transition year going from cold to warm year and the fruit was actually ripe and easy to work with. We didn’t have significant challenges in the vineyard or the cellar. I think the  wines were a lot easier than '10 or '11. '12 was a reset year and a lot longer on the vines and extract the skins a colors and back to the warmer year and the 1'3 was comfortable back with a hot vintage again.
WWB: Many people have called the 2012 vintage a signature vintage for Washington. Would you agree with that contention?-
Wampfler: I think that is too quick to tell and the 2012 Three Legged Red was killer and now we are on the ‘12 for Truitina and I think the benchmark is the Cab. So we will have to see how that Cab turns out.
WWB: Can you talk about the last few vintages of the Truitina? –
Wampfler: So '10  and '11  took their sweet time and turned the corner. I think '10 is getting together now and '11 is a year out and '12 is already there and ready to drink.
WWB: I was impressed with your 2011 Cabernet, considering the vintage. Can you talk about the winemaking for the 2011 Cabernet? –
Wampfler: By far this is my favorite vintage [for Cabernet] and it is a differentiation from the '11 and '12 Truitina and this is going to get better with age but is rocking the show right now. I am so pleased where this is at. Of all the wines that we made this was the hardest and maybe we spent the most amount of energy getting this wine where it is but I am so pleased where it is. I was just trying to get it in the door and get it ripe. Style was out the window because it was literally, we had not a single grape come into the door above 23 brix. That is lower than any red and the other challenge in 2011 is we fermented and brought in all our fruit in 17 days and didn’t start harvest until October 6. '14  we started a month earlier and the challenges was getting the fruit in the door and where to ferment it and by leaving the wines on the skins we were extracting more flavor and we had to do that in '11 but we were so limited in tank space that everything came in in that window. But the Cab comes in last and you don’t have to rush it to barrel. All of the Cab had all of the time in the tank that it needed. I was waiting and waiting for ripeness and as soon as things were approaching ripeness it started raining and getting cold and that was a problem. We had less than three weeks [for harvest].
Dan Wampfler Fall 2014, Dunham Cellars
Dunham Cellars was created in by Erik Dunham 1995 and is one of the older and most prestigious wineries in Walla Walla. The winery has evolved in recent years with the change at head winemaker. A few days ago I had the chance to sit down with Dan Wampfler, of Dunham Cellars, one of the most highly regarded winemakers in Washington. Dan is a native of Michigan, who achieved undergraduate and Master's degrees in enology from Michigan State University. He then worked for Chateau St. Michelle Wine Estates as a research winemaker, and also worked with whites and premium red wines as Assistant Winemaker at Columbia Crest.
Here is the transcript of my interview with the Dan Wampfler of Dunham Cellars:
Dan Wampfler mentioned that at Columbia Crest he was working as an assistant winemaker he was working on reds and whites. He described his journey into winemaking and noted “I left Michigan State with a graduate in enology and moved in 2001 and took the job at as a researcher. And then I was the research wine maker and we had an amazing thing. We were basically making 20 plus thousand cases from the research perspective and would blend all things to Chateau St. Michelle reds and internally taste them. As all great things tend to fade it did and then I was transferred into a senior production at their red facility.” Dan stated that at Chateau St. Michelle he was working on red wine production. Then he worked for Columbia Crest and worked on barrel fermented white wines, working with Semillon and Chardonnay as well as Luxe (sparkling wine). Dan mentioned “Helped out with the winemaker on those and then assisted on all reds. Did that for a few years and then focused on reds. To come full circle I handed off the barrel focused to my wife and she is now a head winemaker in Walla Walla. I left Columbia Crest as an assistant winemaker and then took the position of Dunham in December 2007.”
Regarding the transition to Dunham Cellars, a boutique winery Dan explained “You go big and the better you go the better you are off. You learn more at the big wineries and you can apply all those principles and can move from making 4 million cases vs 10 thousand and you can’t make the leaps the other way. The difference is not necessarily the winemaking but you have a sales department a marketing department. We have those at Dunham but for the most part it is all of us at staff changing our hats. I think to have your arms around the ownership of more is really what was enticing for me [at Dunham] and at St. Michelle I didn’t do any packaging and time in the vineyards as I am now and now I am in there all of the time and working closely with the vineyard manager and other managers. As well as making all the packaging orders and steer the decision making along with support from the owners. And managing my own team. On the production side. The ownership of all winemaking practices that is enticing.” Dan mentioned of the major perks of his job is the high degree of autonomy that he is afforded and the “hands off” approach by management.
Dan described his time spent at St. Michelle and Columbia Crest as “Winery U. you go there and it is a tidal wave of knowledge and experience that you absorb slowly after a number of vintages. Chardonnay is an example. The difference between 20 barrels at Dunham and 20 thousand barrels. How many years would it take to learn that and at Dunham? And at Columbia Crest we would do stacks of yeast type and one malolactic bacteria strain and one temperature variation and you are just a percentage point times all the different vineyards that you source from. At one vintage you get 20 years of experience at a small facility.”
Dunham has significantly increased the quality of their Chardonnay in the past five years. Dan mentioned that in regards to his Chardonnay he is “Trying to create is White Burgundy and to me that is one of the finest things in the world and I think that what I am trying to create with all our wines is balance and for me chardonnay is typically 60 stainless steel 40 barrel aged for roughly 6 months. That depends on the vintage. And so I am trying to create crisp and clean fruit forward chardonnays that are age-worthy and that become more white burgundy. Intriguing as you age. The barrels that I chose they don’t offer chateau 2x4 and I am looking to add texture. It is 100 percent new oak. Choice of barrel. French barrel.”
With regards to his winemaking style in making red wines Dan mentioned “We [he and Erik Dunham] both approach winemaking that we want to accentuate what the variety and vineyard offer. I think that the context is different. When Erik [Dunham] was making the wine it was much smaller production and he had more freedom to do whatever and it could be pushed through the system. Now we are a larger winery and we are a wine club only wine and I am expressive with and doing fun and exciting thing and I have brought a safety factor to the arena. One way that I joke around is I am the pocket protector and he is the artist and I think that I brought things to do the table like larger fermenters and sterile filtering the wine and cold stabilizing the whites and there is a production element that has a negative err to it but in reality it is still artisan but is more protective and allows the wine to have more longevity.”
Dunham Cellars has recently achieved some very high scores (even scores of 96 points) from both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Regarding the recent Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast ratings Dan explained “I hate the scores and it is one person’s opinion in one point of time in one point in the wines life. Someone’s palate evolves and to have that convergence be one number is not a fair judgment but I understand the scores as well and they are important. Trying to align someone’s wine purchasing habits on a more knowledgeable wine writer but as an artist to have your art subjected to a number. It is like movies. There are tons of movie writers but there are only a few famous wine writers and you have five people, only two in the US, making or breaking a win that you put your heart and soul into that you are a slave to mother nature on. But the scores sometimes do really well with scores and sometime they are scores that you don’t agree on.”
The 2011 vintage in Washington State is regarded by most experts to be the most challenging in decades, due to the low summer heat which developed generally under-developed fruit. Regarding the 2011 vintage Dan noted “2011 was the most challenging vintage that I worked with in Washington State. From 2001 to 2014. Having said that 2010 was challenging and we learned a lot that we immediately applied in the 11 vintage. And I think that we adjusted pretty rapidly a third of the way learning what not to do and what to do and how to react to fruit that was coming in under-ripe by 7, 8, 9 vintages standards. Like leaving fruit on the vine longer to extract more body and creative ways to mask or reduce any vegetative flavors that were less than optimal and immediately began applying them from when we were receiving fruit and what is exciting is that I had a gloom and doom opinion of 10 and 11 and 10 surprised me at every tasting. 11 is doing the same thing. And I think that my perception of quality Washington wine has changed. It is like raising kids and every kid that you have takes time to meet their own maturity. Perfect example is their 2011 Truitina and 2010 Columbia valley cab. Those are my favorites in the two toughest vintages that I made. The marketing is they are more food friendly but in reality they are more elegant. I even adjusted the winemaking so that we don’t bring in the overripe vineyards and try to keep a consistent style and you don’t have the huge peaks and make it worse by a ripe 13 and 14 and 11 was the most ripe. 14 is looking like it is riper than 13. Has the potential. The trick is to have balance in the vineyard and in your opinion of the wines.
Joshua West, Elephant Seven Winery
Interview with Joshua West, Head Winemaker at Elephant Seven Winery
Elephant Seven is an exciting new winery out of Walla Walla. A few weeks back I had the chance to run through their awesome new lineup of red wines and was hugely impressed. I had to get their winemaker on the phone and chat wine. The winemaker, Josh West, is a downright awesome guy who has a background in investment banking and has only recently been in wine on a full-time basis. His wine background includes the prestigious Whitehaven winery out of New Zealand and has also worked at Figgins, Cadaretta, and Dusted Valley in Walla Walla. Finally Josh got the nerve to start his own winery. I think you will really enjoy hearing his wine story. Here is my interview with Josh West, winemaker at Elephant Seven.
WW: How did you first gain interest in winemaking?
JW: For me it started several years before I was officially into the wine business. It happened gradually, there was no one moment for me. I was formerly in commodities trading and followed the Wall Street Journal’s wine editors. I started reading books on wine and wanted to learn more. This wine education spiraled out of control and I started traveling the world only for the purpose of enjoying and learning about wine and food. Early in 2012 I decided to be in the wine business full time. I quit my job at one of the world’s largest investment banks and a month later I was working for Whitehaven in New Zealand. I worked there for the eight week harvest. It is a massive production and we crushed seven thousand tons of grapes that year. Not all of the wine goes to their label and they sell some of it all over the world. I also saw some funny things there as they bring in freight containers. They line them with giant baggies then fill them up and ship them out somewhere. That was my first exposure to commercial winemaking. I spent 95% of my time cleaning and moving things around, but a couple of the assistant winemakers and other interns taught me a few important things. Prior to leaving to work in New Zealand I met one of the owners of Dusted Valley at a tasting. I got in touch with him and then emailed him a few months later. I met him when I arrived in Walla Walla and they gave me my first job working as a cellar rat. I worked at Dusted Valley for about a year including harvest in 2012. After that I worked at Cadaretta just before the 2013 harvest. Then I started working for Figgins family at their Figgins wine studio. During that time I got a degree in enology and viticulture from the Walla Walla program. Then after that I realized that I had learned enough to be dangerous in the Washington wine industry.
WWB: Can you talk about your winemaking philosophies?
JW: This is my first job as a winemaker here at Elephant Seven. I try to let the grapes speak for themselves and I don’t do too much with the grapes. It is not that a winemaker doesn’t know there are things that you can do, but rather I choose to be very minimalist and only do those things when absolutely necessary. It’s actually harder to do less and keep it simple than it is to do more. All my wines are unfiltered and unfined. You want to intervene as little as possible to have the wine reflect the place that it comes from. When you commit to that then you have to stay on top of everything. That forces you to be much more careful and do things properly. I like being as hands on as possible. In vineyard management I sought out managers that I knew and tried hard to find vineyards that I wanted to work with. They know my philosophy and we have that working relationship where they understand my approach. We both want to be aligned with that.
WWB: Can you talk about your lovely 2014 Elephant Seven ‘Telegram’ Syrah (WWB, 93) bottling?
JW: I was really trying to reflect the place that it comes from. The Rocks is unique and I wanted to emphasize the earthiness and the savory tones as the primary characteristics then let the plush fruit compliment that. I didn’t want to use too much new oak, I think it is about 30% new French oak. I didn’t want a high PH or low acidity with this wine. Hopefully you’ll see it has some really great acidity. I wanted to keep the Syrah lively and fresh, as a good food pairing but reflective of the Rocks. I wanted the wine to have the earthy character. The vineyard, River Rock, is an awesome site. It is right there in the heart of the rocks. Charles Smith has most of the vineyard and I was lucky to get one acre. It is a gorgeous and a warm site, typical rocks and cobblestones all over the vineyard so it has that nice minerality. The clone was Tablas Creek clone. Yields were naturally very low at less than 3 tons per acre. We only made 114 cases of this wine, a tiny production.
WWB: What are some of your favorite Washington wines and producers as well as wines of the world?
JW: Washington wines are really impressive. Of course Figgins is fantastic. I think their wine is underrated. I really like Dunham wines and Gramercy. Rasa is another favorite. I have a wine collection and unfortunately it is slowly dwindling. I drink a lot of Barolo, Rinaldi, Conterno, Clerico and others. I love Northern Rhone reds. My everyday wine is Cru Beaujolais. It is crazy that you can get premier cru quality wine for under 20 bucks a bottle. My favorite white wines are Loire and Chablis from Burgundy, typically the higher acid stuff. I went to Burgundy and stayed in Beaune for a week. I rode my bike around the vineyards there. I was like a little kid staring at the grand cru vineyards like Romanee Conti. So I drink a lot of Burgundy but it’s getting harder as prices keep going up. I went to Rioja and I love old school Riojas, CVNE, Tondonia and the like. Those are really nice, especially the older ones.
Will Wiles, Col Solare
Interview with Will Wiles, Assistant Winemaker at Col Solare
We have a very exciting new feature as you begin your week. Will Wiles has had previous stops at Columbia Crest and Chateau St. Michelle before landing the assistant winemaker position at Col Solare. I recently had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his exciting recent releases at Col Solare. Having sampled every bottling since the first vintage in 1995, I have found that Col Solare is one of the most consistent Washington red wines. It is truly a premier winery that focuses on attention to detail that you see in the glass. The past two releases of the wine have been absolutely stunning, showcasing these fantastic vintages of 2012 and 2013. I think you will really like hearing from Will about his experiences at Col Solare and about his background. I've had several opportunities to chat with Will at wine events. He is a class act that has a tremendous knowledge of Washington wines and the history of Col Solare. Here is my interview with Will Wiles, assistant winemaker at Col Solare in Red Mountain.
WWB: You have previously worked at Columbia Crest and Chateau St. Michelle. How did those experiences prepare you for the winemaking and blending skills necessary for Col Solare? What was it like working with so many varietals, from Chardonnay to Riesling to Cabernet and Syrah?
WW: My time at Columbia Crest was spent working as a quality control technician, which was valuable experience in that I learned a great deal on bottle prep, finishing of wines, and the bottling process. There is a lot that can go wrong in the bottling process so I am very glad I had the opportunity to really dive into that side of winemaking. Thus since I was involved in that aspect I didn’t spend much time there doing blending. However during my time at Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate I was able to learn quite a bit about the blending process. At Canoe Ridge though it was entirely red wine, so my experience is definitely more on the red wine side than the white wine side. I had a great deal of exposure to many different red varieties though and was able to work on crafting high end reserve blends that ranged from a few hundred cases to larger blends that were upwards of a few hundred thousand cases. It made it quite a challenge working with not only a lot of different red grape varieties but also grapes from numerous vineyards from around Washington. For instance as I’m sure you know Cab’s from the Horse Heaven Hills are quite different than those from Red Mountain. Each can play a great role though when crafting a blend because they are so different they can each add a subtle nuance or layer to the wines, and that’s just the cabernet! Having that experience has really helped me at Col Solare as we source from not only our estate vineyard but also different vineyards on Red Mountain where each vineyard offers something a little different and so playing with different percentages of each can turn a decent blend into a spectacular blend.
WWB: I recently had the opportunity to sample the 2013 Col Solare (WWB, 94) which was a dense and layered effort. Can you talk about the blending of the wine and how you chose the blend? Looks like you really enjoyed the Cabernet that vintage?
WW: The Cabernet in 2013 was definitely amazing, there is no doubting that! Overall 2013 was phenomenal, so not only was the Cabernet delicious but our other components were outstanding especially the Cab Franc which has been increasing in our blends. Blending the 2013 was a fun process, each of our lots were unique and added something special but at the same time that can make it difficult because sometimes two great wines blended together don’t always make a better wine. We started playing with the blends in the spring of 2014 seeing what direction the wines would go. For instance the Malbec is amazing by itself but in the blend for 2013 it tended to overpower it even at small percentages. So for 2013 we decided to use Syrah and not Malbec. Slowly over the course of the next 9-10 months we tweaked and fine-tuned it, altering percentages of different lots, doing barrel selections of lots, and dialed it in until we had what we felt was the best possible blend. It is definitely a labor of love and takes a considerable amount of time, but I’ve learned over the years that even a small amount of a certain lot can make or break the wine so we dive into the detail of it as much as possible.
WWB: I had the chance to sample some barrel samples of your 2014 Col Solare. How excited are you about this wine? How was the 2014 a bit different from 2012 and 2013 on Red Mountain?
WW: To say I am excited would be an understatement. I love the 2014’s. There is a depth, intensity and concentration there that is beautiful, but at the same time is very restrained and approachable. 2014 has this racy vibrant natural acidity that has balanced beautifully with the tannins in the wine. The 2012’s and the 2013’s are both beautiful wines but out of the three I would have to say at the moment I’m really digging the 2014’s even though they are so young. The 2012’s are showing great right now, and for Washington 2012 was a statistically perfect vintage. Harvest was long and allowed for perfect hang-time with lead to wines that are balanced and complex. 2013 was slightly warmer than 2012 but it cooled off nicely during harvest which was perfect, it allowed us to let the fruit hang until the tannins were at the perfect stage of ripeness. There are definitely subtle differences in the structure and flavors of the wines from each year and the fun part is that it’s really a toss-up on which vintage people prefer. I guess that’s the great thing about wine right? Creates some fun debates! We’ve been very fortunate the last few years as we are on a string of stellar vintages but like I said, I’m really loving the 14’s and can’t wait for that to be in the bottle and released.
WWB: The 2012 Col Solare Component Collection Malbec (WWB, 94) is one of the best Washington Malbec’s that I've ever had. Can you talk about this special wine and the potential for Malbec on Red Mountain?
WW: There is something special about the Malbec on our estate, which is where the fruit for that wine came from. Throughout our estate vineyard we have a variety of row orientations with the goal to have the best fit for each variety. Along with different orientations we also have everything planted to a 7x3 spacing with unilateral cordons. Super tight spacing compared to traditional Washington standards. With that being said we decided to plant our Malbec on an east-west orientation. Malbec is highly susceptible to sunburn so the goal was to be able to protect it better and really be able to dial in that dappled sunlight. Needless to say our plan worked. We target about 3 tons to the acre on the Malbec and it is usually one of the first varieties off of the estate that we harvest. We always pick based on taste and typically we don’t let this get too ripe. We like to retain the vibrant natural acidity and so even in a hot year like 2015 the brix on the Malbec was right around 24.8-25 brix. There is an amazing potential for Malbec on Red Mountain and it goes to show how great of an area Red Mountain is because although Cab is king up here, I think there are some other varieties that can produce some outstanding wines.
Interview with Katy Wilson, Founder and Winemaker of LaRue Wines
One of the great young talents in Sonoma, Katy Wilson is the mastermind behind LaRue Wines, makers of outstanding and terroir-driven Pinot Noirs. Her wines have the beautiful salinity that you expect from the Sonoma Coast AVA. Katy has traveled the globe to learn about wines with previous stints in both Australia and New Zealand before coming to Sonoma. She is as enchanted with the ocean influence in these wines as I am. I think you will very much enjoy hearing her story in wine. Here is my exclusive interview with Katy Wilson, founder and winemaker of LaRue WInes.
WWB: Who were your initial inspirations in wine?
KW: My path to wine was not your average story. I grew up on a walnut orchard and had a tremendous interest in agriculture. It was through agriculture that I became interested in wine and inspired to become a winemaker. To me, growing grapes and making wine is unlike any other area of agriculture. I continue to be amazed with how every year and every wine is unique and that there is always something new to learn.
WWB: How did you decide to make wine sourced from the Sonoma Coast AVA?
KW: I spent time making wine in Napa, Australia and New Zealand before I landed on the Sonoma Coast. The Sonoma Coast is such a great area for producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and this area in particular really suits my signature style of winemaking, which lends itself to a largely hands-off approach. All of the vineyards that I work with are within about seven miles from the Pacific Ocean, and you certainly get the ocean influence in these vineyards and in my wines. We constantly have fog rolling in and out of the vineyards, which allows for slower ripening and also allows the grapes to better retain acid through the ripening. The result is bright and crisp wines with great aroma and freshness.
WWB: Can you talk about some of the challenges with being a business owner as well as a winemaker?
KW: I think that one of my biggest challenges is balancing my time. Along with owning and making LaRue Wines, I also make wine for Anaba Wines, Claypool Cellars, Reeve Wines, and Smith Story Wine Cellars. It’s a constant juggling act that definitely keeps me on my toes! And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
WWB: Your 2015 LaRue ‘Sonoma Coast’ Pinot Noir (WWB, 92) shows tremendous range and poise from this warm vintage in Sonoma. Can you talk about how you craft this outstanding Pinot Noir?
KW: The 2015 harvest was a very early one. I picked my first vineyard on August 20th and my last vineyard on September 3rd. This was also a vintage with very high acidity and I was able to pick at low brix. This wine is a blend of the Thorn Ridge Vineyard and the Rice-Spivak Vineyard and it is also a mix of different clones from these vineyards. I think that the complexity of the vineyards and clones gives layers to this wine. I also age this wine for 20 months in barrel, which allows the oak to better integrate and become seamless with the wine. My aim is to take what each year gives me and try to do my best to showcase the vineyard and the vintage.
WWB: When you are not enjoying wines from the Sonoma Coast AVA, what are some of your favorite wines of the world?
KW: I love Champagne! I guess who doesn’t, right? I also love exploring Burgundy and Chablis when I am able. I guess it’s apparent that my palate favors Pinot Noir and Chardonnay! I think that it is so interesting how every region and every wine has such a different expression and as a winemaker, I’m an eternal student of thevine. I love trying as many wines, styles and regions as is possible!
Chris Zarcadoolas, Stripsteak
Friends, today marks the beginning of Interview Week here at Washington Wine Blog as we will focus on some very exciting new wine industry interviews. A few weeks back I had the great opportunity to try some of the great Michael Mina restaurants, Stripsteak and Pizza & Burger in Miami. Set at the vibrant Fountainbleu hotel, the restaurant has a house DJ and Vegas style atmosphere. Stripsteak, like the name suggests, focuses on fantastic aged beef and also boasts a very deep wine cellar, manned by Chris Zarcadoolas. Chris has an advanced sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently working towards his Master Somm. He had the chance to pour me some truly outstanding wines including a 2006 Veuve Cliquot ‘La Grand Dame’ Champagne and the epic 2007 Chave Hermitage. I recently sat down with him and talked wine. I think you are going to very much enjoy hearing about his story. Here is my interview with Chris Zarcadoolas, Head Sommelier at Stripsteak, Miami.
WWB: How did you decide to become a sommelier?
CZ: Deciding to become a sommelier was fairly organic. I worked as a bartender in college. I became restless and moved to San Francisco in my early 20s. I was terrified at the prospect of learning wine, but found a nurturing environment in the Bay Area. I slowly gained confidence and alternated between operating my own business and working in hospitality as a server and bartender. Even when I was self-employed, I found myself sourcing and shipping some of the more popular California wines over to business associates in Japan. Gradually as I grew in the hospitality industry, my passion for geology, meteorology, history, and food truly made wine a fated occupation.
WWB: Who were your first inspirations in wine?
CZ: There are two gentlemen who really recognized some kind of fire in me and helped give me that nudge. I met them both working in Atlanta. Sam Governale, who I believe has a restaurant in his hometown of Houston, and Skip Williams, who last I heard had a wine and crystal shop in Atlanta. I have not spoken to them in years, but remain grateful. I am fortunate enough to have had some amazing mentors/bosses throughout the years; Barb Werley MS at Pappas Bros Dallas (whom I adore), David Mokha (former boss and general wine gangster in Miami), and beverage director of Wolfgang Puck Tim Wilson (one of the all-time best).
WWB: You have achieved the coveted advanced sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Can you talk about the most challenging part of passing the exam for you?
CZ: I’ve always found the most challenging part of the Court exams the “conquering of self”. It seems like all of the garbage that we are holding onto, all of our insecurities, and personality defects come bubbling to the surface as we prepare and test for these already challenging exams. I think once we conquer that aspect, we are ready to know our shortcomings and prepare adequately.
WWB: How difficult was the tasting portion of the exam for you?
CZ: The first time I took the Advanced, my tasting was a disaster. I simply was not in command of the grid enough to flow through the process. The deductive tasting grid is a proven method for discerning wine. We need to be “all-in” with the process for it to work. Once I understood that, I focused on two things; mastering the grid, and theory. If we know the theory, and we are comfortable with the grid, the wine will speak to us.
WWB: As the lead sommelier at one of Miami’s hottest restaurants, Michael Mina’s Stripsteak, you have carefully crafted a fantastic glass pour selection, including several top selections on Coravin. What are some of your favorite top wines and value selections on your list?
CZ: It’s hard to choose, but as far as top wines, I love the 2013 de Montille Vosne Romanee aux Malconsorts Christiane. Christiane is a block that is literally embraced by La Tache. It is transcendent and has a special history within my own life. If I had to choose just one more, it would be the 2006 Conterno Monfortino. I love 06 Baroli, and I love them when everyone else says that they are too young. Give me austere and tannic wine, and I am happy. As far as value wine, I could stay in Iberia. I have a 2002 Bierzo from Alejandro Luna which sees new French oak and is just mind bendingly beautiful. It has freshness, old world sensibility, and a cleanliness that just shines. It is $205, but for a wine with that age and rarity, I consider it a value. We also have a Ribera del Duero from Arrocal for $50. It is everything you want from a Ribera; power, fruit, oak, acid and tannis, but at that price. The family that produces it is amazing as well. A wine I sold in the past that I currently do not have, merits a place on the list; Quinta dos Roques Touriga Nacional 2003 from the Dao in Portugal. A true stunner for approximately $75.
WWB: Do you have any atypical pairings that you like for cuts of steak?
CZ: Absolutely, I think “steak whites” are lost on a lot of consumers. I have sold a Soave Classico with 10 years of age with a Filet Oscar and it sung. A Chateaunuef du pape Blanc with age and a hearty amount of Grenache Blanc and/or Roussane can take on the likes of Ribeye or even A5, due to the alcohol and glycerol levels. For Red, give me a young Xinomavro with a strip and I’m good.
WWB: What are some of your favorite new wines of the world that you’ve enjoyed in 2018?
CZ: The wines from Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico are wines that both inspire my intellect and awaken my inner child. They are so curious, yet make so much sense. When you look at a bottle, and the blend is 50% Nebbiolo and 50% Tempranillo, your inner child can’t help but dance with curiosity. When you experience the wine, it makes absolute sense why it is fantastic.
Kevin White, Kevin White Winery
Interview with Kevin White, Owner and Winemaker of Kevin White Winery
One of the outstanding boutique producers of Washington, Kevin White is one of the hardest working people in Washington wine, founding his winery in 2010 while continuing to hold a full-time job at Microsoft. It all started in 2006 when Kevin was influenced by a great Cote Bonneville wine and caught the wine bug. He had to learn more about how wine was made and enrolled in classes in chemistry, microbiology and enology. Kevin started making his wines at famed Woodinville outpost, Baer Winery, before opening his tasting room in the warehouse district of Woodinville. His wines have consistently been some of the best values produced in this state. I recently had the chance to sit down with him and chat about his career in wine. I think you will very much enjoy hearing more about his wine journey. Here is my interview with Kevin White, owner and winemaker of Kevin White Winery.
WWB: What drew you to wine initially?
KW: For me it all started in my mid-20s and we were buying a bottle of wine for my father in law’s birthday. We were recommended a bottle of Carriage House from Cote Bonneville, the 2003 vintage, and ended up buying two bottles - one as a give and one for us. That wine was an aha moment for me. I realized what great wine tastes like and the experience set me on the journey to learn about wine. I was so interested that I drove out to DuBrul Vineyard to meet with Dr. Hugh Shiels and learn what DuBrul Vineyard was all about - a sense of place, time, and culture. How wine embodies all of that. As a lifelong learner, that was intriguing to me. After that first step, I was inspired to learn about the wines of the world and fell in love with Rhone wines. Around this time there were some great winemakers establishing Washington in a Rhone-inspired direction. Greg Harrington [Gramercy Cellars], John Meuret [Maison Bleue], and various others were showing that Washington can make great Rhone-style wines and were a huge influence on me. In 2010, after taking classes at the Northwest Wine Academy and volunteering at wineries in Woodinville, I was able to start my inaugural vintage with 4 barrels of Syrah in the corner of Baer Winery.
WWB: How did you decide to start Kevin White Winery?
KW: French wines from the Northern and Southern Rhone, became a passion, if not obsession for me. I particularly fell in love with Syrah from Saint Joseph in the North and Grenache blends from Gigondas in the South. After tasting some Rhone inspired wines coming from Washington, it was clear that we could excel with Syrah and Grenache. I decided that I wanted to be part of the early generation of winemakers showcasing the best of what Washington could do with these varietals.
In addition, when I started, there were very few wineries using little to no new oak in the wine profiles. What I loved about the wines I was tasting from France what the nuance that each varietal and terroir was offering. Too often I felt that new oak was overpowering the wines I was tasting in Washington. So, there was an opportunity to dial the oak way back, focus on Syrah and Grenache from great vineyards in Yakima Valley, and see if wine consumers would also fall in love this this style from Washington State. It worked!
WWB: Tell us about the red wines from 2017?
KW: I love the aromatics of the 2017 wines. It is a warmer vintage that reminds me of 2013. Our wines from 2017 have a rich fruit profile and show blue and red fruit characteristics. I believe that vintage has a depth at its core but also a great finesse - so we are straddling a wonderful line. 2017 is going to be very consistent across the board. I think consumers are going to love the 2017's.
WWB: Can you tell us about your wine cellar?
KW: We love to drink wines from all around the world, especially France and Italy. We buy wine that goes well with food -- wine that complements and doesn’t compete with the flavors of our meals. At home, we enjoy eating food that you would typically find in Provence, so we drink quite a bit of Rhone wine. In Gigondas, Domain Saint Damien is a favorite. Clos St. Jean, Le Vieux Donjon, Domaine de la Janasse are favorites from Châteauneuf du Pape. Chave does an amazing Syrah from Saint Joseph. Lately we have been drinking more and more Sothern Rhone white wines. These tend to be Roussanne dominant wines and we have discovered a love for wines which have a large blend of Clairette. A great example is the Le Vieux Donjon Blanc. We also really enjoy Pinot Noir from Oregon. Producers like Bethel Heights, Big Table Farm, Soter, Brickhouse as well Beaux Freres are favorites. In Washington, I love what our Woodinville friends at Avennia, WT Vintners, Two Vintners are doing. Those are a group of winemakers that I highly respect.