From Tasting Room To Winery With Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars

Ξ July 6th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

Anonymity. It is one of the great difficulties facing the young winemaker. How to break through the wall of advertorial noise, the clamor, protectively surrounding established labels? The quality is there. The dedication, the labor. But absent good fortune or dumb luck, the new kid on the block faces a long slog toward much deserved recognition. And this is as it should be within the marketing ecosystem. Indeed, during my recent participation in the Wine Bloggers Conference there was not an ‘official’ word spoken of a number of very good small producers, Sapolil Cellars, Stephenson Cellars, Kerloo and, of course, Rôtie. To be mentioned in the ‘official’ literature costs money the little guy does not always have. So it falls to independently-minded bloggers, caring only for wines of quality and of story, to pound the pavement to find them.
And Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars has very good karma, if I may put it that way. For so great is the reservoir of good will and reputation for quality he has built up within the Walla Walla wine community that his efforts are on the minds of the locals. It is for this reason tha when researching an entirely different story, I stumbled into Vintage Cellars and met the exquisite Megan Bosworth working there. She told me there was someone I should meet, a certain winemaker I should know about. Come back at 5 o’clock. I did, and met Rôtie’s lovely marketing whiz Nicole Rivinius, also an employee of Vintage Cellars, and Sean Boyd himself. The results may be read here.
Ms. Rivinius worked the next day to diligently arrange a tasting at Rôtie’s freshly minted tasting room. I dragged several important wine writers along, including Hoke Harden, Remy Charest and Joe Roberts. Hoke Harden over at Elixir Vitae has written a very entertaining and informative piece on our experience there.
What follows is an account of the balance of my time with Mr. Boyd. I should mention that I was asked not to reveal certain vineyards from which Mr. Boyd sources some of his fruit. I have honored that request.
In The Tasting Room
Admin I like this. It’s a nice space. Simple.
Sean Boyd This is Nicole’s sanctuary. She sells the stuff; I just make it. Let’s get you some bottles. You have to promise me that you go to Saffron, the best restaurant here in town. Well, that’s the line-up. The VDP, the vin de pays, which means country wine, has some of my most expensive fruit. But it just wouldn’t blend into the Northern. I make about 70 barrels a year, and I sell off about 30. I pick the best barrels that I possible can for the wine club. So nobody really gets this. Let me find you a box…
These are for me? Are you shittin’ me?
SB Yes. You got to taste the wines to see if you like them. You’ve got to open these f*ckers up, shake them up, because they’re ’08s. Open them up in the morning. They’ll hang very well. They’re very tight.
Our white is a Roussanne and Viognier, a 50/50 blend. The ’09s will be 50% Viognier, 30% Roussanne, and 20% Marsanne. Marsanne is my new favorite grape. The ‘08 was a little heavy handed with the Roussanne, I think. I was really trying to dial in the first year by playing with Roussanne. I learned a lot. It’s a very heavy, viscous grape. I stopped it from going through secondary fermentation, so it’s as crisp as they come. It’s definitely elegant, but its got a weighty back-end. You only really realize how much acid it has when you have it with food because it really clears the palate. But you still think of it as having gone through secondary. So adding Marsanne really helped in ‘09. Sommeliers love it, but they’re definitely in the minority. We definitely have a good following with the white, but not everybody is there. Some say, “Ooh! That’s a little different. But there is no oak and no butter!?”
The Southern is 70% Grenache, 15% Mourvédre, 15% Syrah, all from Horse Heaven Hills. That is the one that does well with awards. The Northern, co-fermented Syrah and Viognier, comes from 4 different vineyards. Definitely give these babies some air. Please. Please, please.
These will be much appreciated. I have a bit of a European palate. Living in California can be difficult… And I’m not crazy about grotesque amounts of oak. You know the story…
SB Hopefully you don’t mind grotesque amounts of fruit! Are you going to drink wine tonight?
I’ve got some writing to do. Yes.
SB Here’s one from the last four cases of ‘07 [55% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 10% Mourvédre]. These cases came back from California battered and bruised from the transit. I have no clue what happened to them. So try that tonight.
Thank you, Sean. It’s extraordinarily generous of you.
SB Hey, you’ve got to buy off the Press, even if you get shitty stories off of it. That’s just the way the world works. (laughs)
Well, in my case, what I typically do is just turn on the mic. I then will transcribe verbatim, along with my questions and narrative ornaments, of course. This is an extreme case, but I recently interviewed Tim Thornhill of Parducci. I had to get completely the hell out of the way for that one. But I like minimal intervention, a more documentary approach.
SB That’s how we sell wine. I had a guy selling wine for me in Seattle. I asked him, “Jesus! How are you selling all this wine?” He used to say, “Well, what I do is ask for a wine list and a menu when I first sit down. I open up the wines. I act like I’m looking at both menu and wine list. I let them all talk; they all like talking. And all I do is nod once and a while; and they buy.” I thought that was ingenious! Everybody likes to hear themselves talk, especially in this industry. There are so many egos and heads out there.
In The Winery
Sean Boyd This is my playground. Here in this winery we’ve got Wines of Substance, which it Waters’ second label. They split some with Gramercy. I think Gramercy has 10% ownership in Substance; Waters has 90%. Waters does about 3,000 cases; Substance is probably about 10,000 or 12,000 cases. And Gramercy makes their wine independently here. They are probably pushing 5-6,000 cases.
It’s kind of a crush pad facility?
SB Well, it’s definitely Waters’ facility. It’s so capital intensive to build a winery. So us little gutter dogs like to come in, and for a reduced salary I make Rôtie Cellars here. It works well. I wasn’t born with $1,000,000 in the bank, or $5,000,000, which is probably be what it would take to get a nice facility.
So basically, the fruit comes in half-ton bins. Then you go into either 3/4 or 1/2 ton fermenters. We love stainless steel. These are the best ones, these round, hot tub tanks. We had these designed so that we could control the fermentation temperature. If it gets too hot the yeast eats itself up. That death phase just kicks right in. Then you struggle through your fermentation. But if you can keep it at 75-78 degrees, then it is a nice, cool fermentation. It finishes a lot smoother. I really like having control. As the fruit is nearing dry, it’s nice to be able to also plug them in and heat them up. The worst thing you can do to wine is leave a little sugar in there for microbial growth. If I could have a winery loaded with these, it would be a no-brainer.
By how much does the temperature vary in the Fall, I mean after harvest?
SB September is still pretty warm; but in October it is down to, well, here we get this diurnal shift, so it’s down to 45 degrees in the night, which is fine for barrels. Anything under 58 degrees is pretty good. We do almost all the fermentation indoors. We like to try and keep our VAs low. The coolness helps that. We do a lot of whole cluster fermentations, so those require some pump-overs, though we prefer to punch down. It’s fun to be able to have lots of small fermentations because you can really play around with what yeasts you’re using; you can try different lots, some with stem, some without.
The blending program here is based on the idea that you don’t just go off of the vineyard and how prestigious it is, or how much you loved the last year, or how fantastic it was when you picked it. It’s more along the lines of tasting everything every month. So if I have 7 different vineyards of Syrah, I’ll blind taste them with people whose palates I really respect. I don’t want to know what they are. I want to know what I like the most, not what vineyard I want to have in a bottle. Then it’s fun. You can figure out what you like. Some vineyards really surprise you. Doing it blind helps.
Some of the wines we’ll try today will include Grenache. I’ve just blended 2 blocks in their 13th and 14th leaf off of Horse Heaven Hills, from nice south-facing slopes, one is 28 brix, one is 24 brix. I’ve blended those because they had interesting phenols going on. Then there are 8 barrels of another Grenache, the vineyards of which is even further down the river. It’s turned out to be some of my best Grenache; 24 and 1/2 brix. It was picked in early November, really rare, because usually we have a freeze that come into Washington State by then; but this site is so hot, and as we talked about yesterday, it’s the kick-ass area for Rhones, for Grenaches and Mourvédres. It enjoys a super-long cycle, very temperate. It’s magical for those varietals (sic). You just have to find all the crazy people that started growing them 15 years ago! They are the fun ones. Shall we taste?
Yes, of course. One quick technical question. How many punchdowns a day?
SB Three. It depends. Your fermentation tells you what’s going on. If you’re smelling H2S you have to make Nitrogen additions. A punchdown can tell you a lot. If it was Pinot Noir, we’d go much lighter on it. We’d probably cover it. We’d let that heat and moisture just kind of work itself out. But with Grenache and Syrah you’re given a lot of leeway. It’s hard to beat them up too much. It’s just keeping the cap wet. Let’s taste through.
You have distributors locally. What about back East, or California, for that matter?
SB In California the market is just dead. We sold out of our ’07s. And California still had 21 cases. But everybody seemed to want deals and deals and deals because the market is so saturated down there. So we pulled it. We’ll sell it here. I don’t want to make deals that will cheapen my brand. Seattle is my major market. There are not too many in Portland yet. Of the distribution, about 20% of production goes straight to Seattle. Most of the rest goes out of the tasting room. It’s a double-edged sword. You want to sell it as close to retail as possible, but it is really important to service the accounts in Seattle so that you are seen. So that costs a certain percentage of the portfolio.
As we taste through the barrels, Sean explains his love of Grenache, especially when dominant in Châteauneuf-du-Papes. He rhapsodizes over Cornas, another passion we share. Some of the barrels are full of violets and roses, odors of an English garden spilling out. The Grenache in other barrels is lighter, leaner, almost Pinot in character. Still other barrels, whether of Syrah or Grenache, are bowls of fat blueberries, and marked by the occasional reductive character, mushroom and forest floor. Selection after barrel selection is of a very distinctive character. I begin to understand what Sean means by the winery being his playground. The blending opportunities are extraordinary. It is almost like the range of admixtures one might find in a perfumery. Sean’s talent is clearly in finding diverse vineyards from both within and without the AVA, and from varied elevations, that conform to his disciplined understanding of Rhone varietal correctness. And vineyard site variety is key. After all, for a Syrah pH that pushes 4 on the Walla Walla Valley floor, but that possesses a mid-palate he wants to preserve, Sean’s trick is not to add water or to acidulate (as one might with an estate designation), but to blend the softer expressions with, say, 24 degree brix juice with very high acidity from another locale. We were not able to taste the Mourvédre or Cinsault. It was being held at another facility.
SB The first year I didn’t have enough contracts. But now I am able to pick and choose which vineyards and barrels I use. People ask why didn’t I try to extract more. That’s ridiculous. Grenache is mean to be a lighter color, leaner. Of some lots, I don’t tell too many people where I get it. I just say ‘down the river from Horse Heaven.” Can you leave the specific vineyard out?
Of course.
I take one last picture of Mr. Boyd, one among his favorite barrels. I then take my leave, smarter, pleased to have played a roll, however small, in the celebration of this guy. He has good friends in Ms. Bosworth and Ms. Nivinius. He owes them a beer, or two.


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