Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars, Walla Walla

Ξ June 24th, 2010 | → 6 Comments | ∇ Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Wine News, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

One of the great advantages of arriving in Walla Walla earlier than the commencement of the Wine Bloggers Conference is the people you meet outside the official program. Always one to stray, I have been very fortunate to happen upon an excellent young winemaker, Sean Boyd, owner of Rôtie Cellars. He makes some of the finest Rhone expressions in Washington State that I have had the pleasure to taste. EVER. He sells out quickly. His wines are sought after by sommeliers in Seattle, and they are very popular here. But he’s a small producer. And should he grow it will only be if he is certain that his fundamental winemaking philosophy remains firm. A glimpse of his approach, his ethos:
“The whole point of Rotie Cellars is to make traditional Rhone Blends with Washington State fruit. So what do traditional Rhone blends mean to me? To start with, they mean lower alcohol, less ripe, less wood, balanced, finesse driven, mouth coating wines.”
But as I can personally attest, this is no mere marketing b.s. He believes what he says. And spend a few minutes with the man and it becomes crystal clear that he’s having the time of his life life making wine. The funny thing is is that he would be the first to shy away from the hype, to just laugh off the praise. As he says, “I’m just the janitor.” He believes all the quality his wines will ever have is achieved in the vineyard. Site location is of paramount importance, especially in the wide open spaces of the Walla Walla AVA and beyond.
The assembled bloggers for this weekend’s conference are fortunate that Côtie Cellars has just opened a tasting room that will be open tomorrow (Friday) and Saturday. Sparsely decorated, with only lonely orchids blooming, you simply must make time to drop in while there are still wines of his to taste. It is located a couple of blocks from the Marcus Whitman, at 31 E. Main Street, Suite 216.
Though it is not my custom or style, I will make an exception and provide tasting notes on another occasion. For now enjoy a little time with the gentleman.
Admin So you like Rhone varieties?
Sean Boyd Yeah. Naming my winery Rôtie Cellars is a little cheeky, but I just wanted to focus on making what I love to drink. I thought it was a fad ten years ago, but it was always one of those constants. You know, when you start drinking wine, for me, it was Zins. I started with Zins out of Paso Robles. I started there. Then you realize your love for other wines. You’ve filled up your cellar and one day realize you can’t drink anything out of your cellar because you think they’re all disgusting. You’ve moved onto Pinots. Then you move on as your wine education develops. Then you move back to what you’ve always loved; for me, Rhones.
Now, Cote Rôtie’s have higher acids, firm tannins, need aging…
SB For me it’s lower alcohol, less manipulation, finding sites that grow the vines very well. Walla Walla is a horrible place to grow Grenache. It’s a horrible place to grow Mourvèdre. Super long cycles, even longer than Cab. When you think about where Grenache and Mourvèdre come from, you think hot sites. Walla Walla is a much cooler site than a lot of the places around Washington. Now, I don’t want to put wines out that just say ‘Walla Walla’ on them to sell bottles. It’s more about finding the best spots to grow the grapes. With Grenache and Mourvèdre, the best spots are along the Columbia River. Super high winds, south-facing slopes, so I found Horse Heaven Hills and north of the Hood River where you have the gorge… you have these constant winds. You don’t get hit by winter frosts.
Grenache is a very temperamental grape. It comes from hot climates. It does not like cold weather. So during the winters around Walla Walla the vine starts deteriorating at around 7 degrees F. Syrah, Cab, Merlot, they start deteriorating between -3 and -12 F. And so if you have a 24 to 36 hour period of sub-zero, which we do every three or four years here in the valley, people are having to cut it all back. And they’re wondering why it’s not waking up in the spring. The reason is that it just doesn’t like cold weather. But if you have that constant flow from the wind, when the temperature stays in the teens at sites nearer this gigantic river, the Columbia rolling through, it helps keep the ambient temperature down, plus you’ve got this wind flow. So for me, that whole area is going to be fantastic for Grenache.
That for me is the highlight of Washington State, those Rhone varietals. I’m picking stuff that’s 24-25 brix, letting it hang until early November; it comes off with fantastic acidity. Because of the long cycle, you get those fantastic ripe-picked characteristics, where it’s phenolically ripe yet it is lower alcohol. So, finding spots that grow grapes well is the battle. If you’re more focussed on estate vineyards, where you’re predicated on Riesling to Cab in the same 40 acre parcel, on the same plot of land, that makes no sense to me. You’re going to have different ripening times all throughout it. Right now we have this incredible reservoir, especially with the crash of the economy, people are dropping out of vineyards left and right. So you’re able to find these incredible contracts, five acres for five years with an option for another five years. I’ll pay the going rate, no problem, with a 5% escalation clause, of course. Let’s see if we can manage it a little bit better. I want to chop it back to 2 1/2 tons per acre. Let’s just see where it goes from there. This after they’ve been producing 4 1/2 to 5 tons an acre because people are just looking for ordinary table wine. My idea is to concentrate the fruit, make some really fresh, high acidity wine by selective green cropping inside and outside of the canopy. Then it starts getting exciting.
So you source along the Columbia Gorge?
SB Yes. All throughout the Gorge. That’s Grenache and Mouvèdre. Now, the advantage of Walla Walla is the Syrah. Walla Walla is Syrah. It’s too cool, the cycle’s just not long enough; some years it’s fantastic, but for me it’s not long enough for Cab. It’s fantastic for Merlot; it’s a little earlier cycle than Syrah. But for Syrah it is just perfect here. It grows really well in the valley. Just beautiful, silky smooth tannins, plenty of color, just the way I like it. You can get reductive down on the rocks to super bright up on the loess… it’s a great spot for Syrah.
And I like to bring in a little bit of edge with lots of stem fermentation.
So you include stems? I love that. It’s considered heresy in certain parts of California.
SB Absolutely I use stems. A lot of it has to do with the sorting machines. The just chop away at the stems. You’re getting all these fractures, the little cuts, when chopped up by the de-stemmer. And if you don’t have a secondary sorting table, vibrating or what not, and you have guys picking out absolutely every little bit of green out of there, you’re not necessarily going to want that. You’re going to have greenness coming into your wine. At least if you do it with whole cluster, you’re getting away from all those little cuts that are happening when you’re sending it through a de-stemmer. It’s $150,000, $200,000 to get proper de-stemming equipment and sorters. It would be nice to have that kind of equipment to decide. If your stems are super, super green then maybe we need not to use them. It will bring in too much pyrazine.
Cab, you can’t really get away with putting lots of stems in. But with Syrah you don’t get those pyrazine issues, as you do with Bordeaux varietals. They would be super green: asparagus, green bean, pickles… but with Syrah using the stems really gives you that spice, that edge, it gives you that stinky funk that makes things interesting; so that it’s not just a bowl of fresh fruit.
I imagine you use a bladder press.
SB Yes, it’s a bladder press. We take all the free run out and mark them. Then with pressing we go up to about a bar, and we stay there after six or seven cycles. Some of the press juice is the best out of Syrah. We don’t do extended macerations. Most of the fermentations are done in 15 to 16 days. I’m not worried about color or extraction, and so some of the press stuff really gets nice tannin in there. I don’t like to rack. You leave the lees in there. Of course, you don’t want 4 inches of lees! But a good 1 or 2 is fine. Keep it sustained at the bottom of the barrel, keep it really topped, and as long as you’re not adding oxygen and that it goes through secondary, you’re fine. Then you become a janitor! This is really what winemakers are, glorified janitors. How you can get an ego about being a glorified janitor I’ll never know. Everything important is about getting it off the vine. You know what? I ike to be a janitor!
How did you get your wine into the right hands? I mean, there are dozens and dozens of new wineries yet there is a lot of buzz about Côtie Cellars. How did you break through?
SB I think it’s that I really enjoy what I am doing. On the marketing end, I hire the right people. Actually, it’s cool. I have two people. They came to me. What more perfect situation can you have than people coming to you? But it’s simply that good wine will sell. People say Syrah is a bad word right now. Syrah doesn’t sell. Blah, blah, blah. If you chase fads you’re going to get burned. You got to do what you love.
I started with Grenache. I got a contract suddenly. Somebody had just backed out of half a block and I had three hours to decide. There were a lot of people lined up to buy the fruit. But I had to take all of it. So I said I’d call my wife. I hung up the phone and literally hit redial. I knew my wife wasn’t going to like this! She was going to think it was a really bad idea. So I bought every last drop of it! Sign me up for the three acres. That’s what started it off. I knew it was a great site. When you know you’re getting this fantastic 14th leaf fruit of Grenache that people would fight over if they knew it was for sale, you can’t say no.
I just don’t want to mess it up, the wine. And there’s a lot of messing up here: like too much oak, like tartaric acid, like water… And then you get into the big boys and it just goes exponential from there. You start talking about RO, taking alcohol out, all those things that fool you. Super ripe and tons of acid, yet low alcohol… what the fuck is going on? Again, it’s about finding the right sites. Right now I have about 24 tons of Grenache under contract. I only use maybe twelve. I sell the fruit off for the same price I pay for it because I don’t want to piss off the growers. But I know that as were moving forward and things change, I want to have access to all the older vine Grenache so I can really work with it. Syrah is now very plentiful. So I don’t really worry about it. It’s easy and it’s fun to work with.
How important is the appellation designation, Walla Walla?
SB The winery is in Walla Walla. But for me it’s Washington State. I could care less if it’s Walla Walla. There are some incredible wines and vines being grown in Washington State, and Oregon. I could care less if it’s Walla Walla AVA. I think that’s doing a wine a disservice. I think it’s cool to do single vineyard Syrahs out of here, but to predicated yourself in Walla Walla just for the label, just because we’re getting in the magazines, is just ridiculous. If you’re fruit is a Cab you’ve gotta be in Horse Heaven Hills, you gotta’ be in Red Mountain, you know, super hot, really fun, floral, beautiful sites; it’s definitely not Walla Walla, for me. If you move into Merlot and Syrah, and some fantastic whites coming out of here, then it’s Walla Walla. For me the AVA does not matter. It’s the vineyard.
So Walla Walla is still working out its identity.
SB Absolutely. If you look at the vines I would say that half are between 7 and 14 years of age in the valley. There are some that are 35, like Windrow and Seven Hills East. The majority is young, with tons and tons of new plantings on the way. In France 35 years is still considered juvenile. We’re definitely trying to get our bearings, dial it in. It didn’t help that we had a huge frost in ‘04. But you can’t worry about it. You have to think of doing what’s best for the vines; not what’s going to burn into my profits. Right now we’re looking long-term. The only way you can be long-term in the wine industry is by putting out a quality product. If you don’t, then you might as well go do something else.
Tell me something of the water rights issues here. I’ve heard a lot about the ‘use it or lose it’ model.
SB Yes. If you don’t use it then you lose it after five years.
So it has to average out to whatever inches you’re initially allocated, or, if you’ve gone from fruit trees to grapes, for example, whatever has been grandfathered in.
SB Correct. A lot of people donate it back. If you put in a drip irrigation system you’re never going to need that type of water you need for growing trees, like the old apple and cherry farmers who would do overhead irrigation. I bought a small piece, ripped out all the trees, and we were going to irrigation. The government was going to give us money because of the water savings. That meant we had to donate water back to the river, but yet we got money back for that. They were very excited about it. They paid for all the main lines, the pipe, there were discounts on the pump, all these fantastic things where you’re getting, even as a first time farmer, 75% of the cost of your drip system, materials and installation. That’s fantastic. You’re helping the water table by using less. You have to use drip irrigation. Hopefully you find spots that can grow grapes without using it. But you can’t really do that in the juvenile stage of a vine’s life. You have to be very careful.
If I had endless amounts of money I would say that for the first 6 years not to take a crop off of a vine. Just get it up, grow some wood, give it what it wants but not take anything from it. And then roll into it. But economics being what they are, the 4th year you can start to make rosé out of it. Hopefully you’re in a spot where you’ve thought far enough ahead that you’re, down the line, not necessarily needing to water. Hopefully they’re big enough, the vines are strong enough. If they’re tree trunks after a few years, then you know damn well that it’s a fantastic place to grow that varietal. The can withstand a hell of a lot more if their 5 and 6 inches in diameter than they can when they’re one inch in diameter.
On a personal note, how does your wife feel about your new calling?
SB She’s from New Jersey. So, every time we come onto the other side of the mountain she says to me, “What the hell are we doing over here?” But then we get to Walla Walla and it’s ok. She’s also a school psyche. We’ve got the prison, and one step beneath that we’ve got the wineries and the service industries. It’s a small community and there are issues in it you don’t find in Seattle where they sweep in under the rug and move to south Tacoma. But here it’s a small community. You get all walks of life.
So a lot of the fruit here is hand-picked.
SB Absolutely. Talk about work. They guys who pick the fruit are unbelievable. It’s amazing when you walk out there and try and do a bin or two yourself. It’s really impressive. I won’t even pretend that I could do that work. We’re janitors. Those guys are laborers. They get paid pretty well, which is good; but it’s only seasonal. We’ve definitely seen the crunch with all the immigration bull shit. People want to work. And they’re willing to do it. You need to give them a shot. It’s how America was founded. The tough move up. Hard work is supposed to count for something.
Great guy, great wines. He left for France today, I believe. A pity the blogging folks could not meet him. But his wines may be found around town, especially in the tasting room. Again, I strongly recommend his work.


6 Responses to ' Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars, Walla Walla '

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  1. on June 25th, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Enjoy the conference. We couldn’t get tickets. NEXT YEAR!!!!!

  2. James Callahan said,

    on June 25th, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Great Article and Excellent Wines!!!

  3. Hoke Harden said,

    on June 28th, 2010 at 11:43 am

    I was tremendously impressed by the Rotie wines of Sean Boyd! Thanks for the further intriguing background on the wines and the fascinating interview with Sean. Great stuff.

  4. andrew said,

    on July 2nd, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    I am glad that you were able to get some time in with Sean. I met Sean briefly at a S.F. tasting. We traded a Soiree for a bottle of wine. it was one of those bottles that stays with you a long time, and I was upset i did not make it to the tasting room. WBC10 was lightning fast as usual. Glad to read more of this info and appreciate your efforts on the write up.

  5. sediment said,

    on July 6th, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks for the article. I have about two cases of Sean’s Northern and Southern blends, his first vintage, and I love sharing it with wine lovers. It’s such a unique taste to come out of an area where so many wines tastes sooooooooo similar!

    He needs a tasting room in Woodinville!

  6. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 6th, 2010 at 2:42 pm


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