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.
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