The Smartest Man In The Room, Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards

Ξ July 9th, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Wine & Politics, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

I met Yashodhan (Billo) Naravane (right) at the Three Rivers Winery. He was member of one of many panel discussion organized, in part, by the good offices of the Wine Bloggers Conference spread among wineries throughout the Walla Walla Valley. Though meant to be instructional in character, centering on explaining the basics of the Walla Walla AVA, it became very clear to me that this gentleman was no ordinary panelist. It turned out uttering generalities is not where Billo excels. His is a very disciplined mind, a curious mind, exulting in a profound natural intellectual freedom and flexibility rarely encountered outside of a university setting. He and his equally gifted brother, Pinto (left), founded Rasa Vineyards in 2007. And in just a few short years they have demonstrated an understanding of viticulture and winemaking which repeats in yet another field their considerable academic achievements. But inasmuch as this is an interview with Billo, we may read a fragment of his CV below:
“Billo has worked in various technical and managerial positions in the Computer Industry for over a decade and a half. Billo received his BS in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science from MIT and his MS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Billo finished his MS in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis in June 2008 and is currently running the Viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College.”
But as I was to learn, the CV is by no means complete. As you will read below, Billo is launching new projects that will require significant modification of the thumbnail bio above. Please enjoy my encounter with Billo, without a doubt, the smartest man in the room.
Admin So let’s jump into the middle of things. Tell me about your wines.
Billo Naravane We were interested from the beginning in building a luxury brand. This was when the economy was good. So, we initially poured our wines for MWs, and told them that the price points [for QED and Principia] were $65 and $75. We asked for an honest critique of the wines. We got great feedback, they were said to be beautiful wines, worth the money; but the economy was not the greatest. They suggested pricing it a little bit lower, it might be to our advantage. So we had to go back to our investors, and we decided to price the wine, the QED, at $50. Now, $50 is expensive. We’re not delusional. But that wine I think offers an extremely great value for the money.
We’ve had it in blind tastings with some of the very best wines in the world: Guigal’s La Landonne, La Mouline, Henschke’s Hill of Grace, against Grange, you name it, it’s been blind tasted against it. It really holds its own against the best wines in the world. So, that wine is 94% Syrah, 3% Grenache, and 3% Mourvèdre. It is mostly Les Collines; the Syrah is about 85% from Les Collines Vineyard.
I hear Les Collines being referred to constantly.
BN Les Collines is a great vineyard. It’s a huge property, 300 acres, or so, I think are planted up there. There is a wide degree of variation within the different blocks of the vineyard. It is not an homogenous terroir. Some blocks I really like; there are two we sourced from for the ‘07. One block had this really earthy, mineraly, almost truffle-type character underlying the core of fruit. The fruit is this black berry, black cherry on the Syrah, but has this depth to it. The aromatics are fantastic form that property as well. The finish is sometimes not the greatest. The finish is nice; it’s just not as long as we would like it for a high-end Syrah. So we have to address that via blending.
I’m a big fan of blending in that when done correctly you can achieve an aromatic complexity and a palate complexity, and broaden the finish out, rather than using just one specific wine. Now the trick, however, is that we’re also big fans of terroir, so how do you preserve the Walla Walla sense of terroir in a blended wine. That tricky to do. Blending is highly non-linear. You can put in 2% to 3% of something yet change it by 30%. So you have to be very careful not to obliterate a sense of place, of terroir in blending. But what we’re trying to do, being technically minded, we go through every permutation in the blending process. We do all the samples. Me and my brother then go through all of them, we argue back and forth, and then we decide on the final blend, whatever tastes the best and still preserves that terroir of Walla Walla or of any other region.
In that year, 2007, it was 94% Syrah, 3% of Grenache, Mourvèdre. In 2008 the blend has been different. Our QED will always be a Grenache/Mourvèdre blend, but the percentages will be different based on what the year gave us. 2007 was a very warm year, so we got riper fruit versus 2008, which was a pretty cool year. So, stylistically, our Rasa wines are more along the lines of French wines rather than California. We are huge, huge Francophiles. We love the great Rhone wines, Bordeaux, and Burgundy as well. But we don’t make a Pinot Noir… yet! We amy do so in the future.
Best of luck with a Pinot!
BN We were introduced to a gentleman who owns a small block of Pinot Noir, so we may try it out, not this year but next. Pinot is not something I’ve worked with yet. I’m really kind of anxious to try it.
That reminds me. Rasa is the rough Indian equivalent of the word terroir. Could you explain the distinctions between the two concepts, if any?
BN So the actual root of the word Rasa, it’s from Sanscrit, technically, though it can be used in a couple of different contexts, in one context it means essence. For us that is essence of soil and variety. And almost in a slang parlance, it can mean juice. So we have this essence and juice concept that is the closest word we’ve found that is also relatively easy to remember. Some of the related Indian words can get quite long and complex, hard to remember. We were looking for a word that tied together wine and our heritage. My uncle is the one who thought of it. He speaks Sanskrit. He’s not a wine aficionado, but after explaining what we were doing, about terroir and why it was so important to us, he thought up the word. We fell in love with it. It’s a great name! (laughs)
We’re originally from India; me and my brother were born in India. Our parents moved to New Jersey when I was turning 6, my brother was 8. We just wanted to have a tie-back to our heritage and still have something that was easy to remember, and with a wine connotation.
You mentioned that you initially tasted widely throughout the Walla Walla AVA. And we know the AVA is still in the process of being defined, the proper terroir for which grape, and so on. So, what are the relative merits and demerits of having a Washington State designation as opposed to having a Walla Walla AVA designation? In a conversation with Sean Boyd of Rôtie he said that the AVA designation, though not irrelevant, will not necessarily result in the best wines. He is willing to sacrifice, especially for so young an AVA, a specific designation in favor of an overall quality.
BN I tend to agree with Sean. In our 2007 QED we did source the Grenache and Mourvèdre from Minick Vineyard over in Prosser. We also had a little Lewis Vineyard Syrah in there, which is also from Prosser, over in Yakima. Now, Grenache and Mourvèdre are not best for our area. Let me put it this way: I haven’t tasted great Grenache and Mourvèdre grown here in Walla Walla. Now, this is all price point dependent. I’m talking about a $50 and up price point wine. You can definitely grow good enough quality Grenache and Mourvèdre here for a $20 bottle. I’m not questioning that. But for a quality that you want to deliver at that higher price point, we’ve just not found that yet in Walla Walla. So we have to look elsewhere. And we found this great cooler climate site. We would much rather get this cooler climate fruit. We like the acidity to be preserved naturally, and to get that balanced flavor development, rather difficult at a super warm site. The cooler sites tend to give wines that are much more elegant and refined.
We don’t want to be making wines that are 16% alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with those types of wines; they’re just not stylistically what were going after. I still do enjoy the occasional Australian Shiraz, but I tend to prefer Rhone style for Syrah.
We are after making the best wine possible. While we want to remain as true as possible to terroir, we want to make the best wine possible. For the QED, since we could not get the Grenache and Mourvèdre of a sufficiently high quality, we needed to go outside the AVA. We don’t see that as being contradictory. And if you taste the QED, that is a Walla Walla wine; 91% of the fruit is from here. It is in the blending process that you have to be very judicious to maintain the sense of terroir. One of our blends during the trial phase, when we were going through all the possible blends for the QED, it was roughly 5% Grenache, 7% Mourvèdre, and the balance Syrah. That did not taste like a Walla Walla AVA wine. We did not go with that blend even though it was pretty tasty because it did not taste like it came from the AVA.
You seem to have been blessed with an extraordinary palate. I was reading one of your blog entries about a tasting party you attended some time ago. Could you say something about your tasting history?
BN I’ve been extremely fortunate. When I lived in Austin I had a bunch of very eclectic wine collector friends that I had met throughout the years. It was a wine group we started called the S.O.B.s, the Sons of Bacchus. That name was quite fitting for the group in many respects! They were from many different backgrounds. And some had been collecting for many, many years, 30-40 years. They had these amazing wine cellars. We got to be such good friends that when invited over they would pull these unbelievable bottles of wine: an ‘82 Mouton, ‘61 Lafite, these crazy wines I had the privilege to taste. My brother had a similar experience in New Jersey. We really have tasted, just through really good friends, some of the best wines that have ever been made. One time I got to taste a 1900 Chateau Margaux, and the ‘47 Cheval Blanc, all these wines that are considered to be the best wines ever made. That is one the the biggest strengths that Pinto and I bring to the winemaking process. We are able to recognize, or at least have a perspective, of the best wines ever made. We bring that to our blending and winemaking processes.
It is kind of startling to me how many wine people I’ve met here in Washington, many of them winemakers, who have never tasted a first growth! They probably couldn’t tell you who the first growths are. It’s kind of shocking to me. I would wonder that if you don’t have it in your head what great wine is, then how do you know when you’ve made one?
That’s a very interesting question, and it bears upon the question of wine education, certainly of the average drinker, to the degree there is such a thing. There is a problem within marketing, I would argue, that through a series of commercial feedback loops, they work to maintain a certain level of knowledge, or, alternatively, of ignorance, amongst the wine-drinking public. It is very difficult to know how to challenge that, how to convince people there are depths to wine that can essentially change your life. How would you go about educating people to continue looking and searching for wines of revelation rather than listen to marketers, who have an interest, after all, in limiting that same revelation?
BN Boy, that’s a really good question. I don’t have a good answer. At some point everyone needs to have a friend, or somebody who is into wine, to expose you to an Aha! moment where you taste a great wine that is compelling and kind of leaves you speechless. It is that experience that everybody needs to have. That’s when they realize that there is something to this wine thing. My moment was when I was just starting out in wine. When I lived in California I used to go up to Napa a lot back in 1990 and ‘91. Back then you could go tasting all day in Napa for free. It was great for people just out of college, who had no money and could drink for free. But after doing this, me and my brother started to recognizing the differences between Pinot Noir and Cabernet. Wow, there must be something to this wine thing! It may not be all bullshit!
And then I had an experience in ‘91. I was at a store called Beltramos. I lived only 3 miles from there at the time. I believe it was the ‘86 d’Yquem that was just being released. And they were pouring it in their wine bar. At that time I did not know d’Yquem from anything. There were 3 other Sauternes they were pouring. They cost $3 for a taste of them. The d’Yquem was an additional $10 to taste. At that time I thought, Wow!, I couldn’t afford that. But there was an obviously wealthy woman there. She tried the wines, took a sip out of each one, and left. I asked the guy behind the counter if the d’Yquem was really worth $10 for just a taste? He said it was one of the best wines made in the world, “You should try it.” He let me take over the wines the lady left. The d’Yquem was my Aha! wine. It floored me. I had never ever smelled or tasted such an amazing array of things. It was indescribable. I could not find the words… My perspective on wine changed immediately. I began reading books on wine, going to Napa, not to just get loaded, but to actually meet with winemakers and learn about wine. The passion just went crazy after that. Then we became serious collectors. That was our downfall! (laughs)
To get people jazzed about wine they need to taste something that blows them away, and that they can’t quite put into words. For a friend of mine, it was the ‘90 Lafite. For another it was a Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet. It’s fun to hear people tell you what wine did it for them!
Now, you are also a teacher at the local community college. How did you assume the teaching position, and in the local colleges, how long have viticulture and enology programs been offered?
BN That’s a good question. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. When I was at MIT and Stanford, and U.T. Austin, I had the opportunity to teach mathematics classes here and there. I’ve taught Calculus and Differential Equations, Probability Theory, even a Pascal Programming class, and it was always a lot of fun. And when I moved here to Walla Walla in 2008, I was tasting wine at an event over at Dunam Cellars, and I started talking to a gentleman who, after a half an hour, began asking where I went to school and what was my background. He suddenly asked, “Can you teach viticulture?” “Sure!” When I was at Davis I took all the classes in both viticulture and winemaking. So it happened that the previous instructor had unexpectedly passed recently. So again I began teaching in January of 2009. I took over the viticulture position.
That having been said, I just resigned a couple of weeks ago. I did enjoy the teaching aspect of it quite a bit. Community College is an interesting place. You have students from very wide backgrounds. Teaching in places like Stanford, everybody has a similar background. They have a similar intellectual capacity. At a community college you have students that are super bright to those who I could not quite figure out why they were there. It was a little bit frustrating at times. But I had more frustration with the management there, rather than the students.
I took the tack that I would teach roughly 50% of the viticulture material that we did at Davis. I figured that was a reasonable target. But on no less than 5 separate occasions, the director of the program came in said that I had to dumb down the material. The last time I was approached was in April. I then knew this was not the right place for me to teach. I had tried to make some adjustments. But when eventually I was teaching only 25% of the material they should be learning, I really considered it less than a viticulture class then a viticulture-like class. I didn’t feel good about teaching it. I think the management there is a bit misguided. With the rising competition from other programs at other schools, it makes no sense to take ours out of contention.
At Washington State University (WSU) they recently hired a great, great director, Dr. Henick-Kling. He’s very well known in viticultural and enology circles. He’s going to raise that program up to probably compete with UC Davis at some point. I talked with him, and I was thinking of doing my PhD there. He gave me a run down of his vision where WSU is going to go. If he executes, it’s going to be a great program. It will produce 40 to 50 undergraduates a year, and 10 or so Master students a year. And you’ve got other programs cropping up in Yakima and South Seattle; and then we have Walla Walla Community College that wants to diminish the quality of their program. That doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a bit short-sighted.
That is unfortunate. They may well be in the process of becoming an irrelevant institution just when the region needs qualified people the most. I hope the transition is not too jarring, but about pesticides, I’ve noticed that a number of vineyards in the valley, even some near Cayuse, a biodynamic property, are fringed or surrounded by apple orchards and other crops that require a substantial use of pesticides. I was told that Japan, for example, demands perfect apples. Many tons come from the Walla Walla Valley. Now, for someone who aspires to something like an organic status for their vineyard, what are the tensions, if any, between fruit farmers and grape growers? I asked this question of the winemaker at Buty. He said that although the fruit trees bordering his property are heavily spray, he just doesn’t pay attention to its impact on his vineyard! So, what is going on?
BN I can’t imagine how there couldn’t be conflict because of the proximity of these orchard sites to vineyards. They really are often on top of one another. As best as could have been done, they have put restrictions on the application and the timing of the sprays. They are not allowed to spray if the winds are more than 3 or 4 miles an hour to contain the drift, for example. Now, on the local basis you can’t tell a specific orchard owner that they can’t spray something that is legal for them to apply. There is this whole question of legality versus sustainability, organic and biodynamic. So just because you can spray something, doesn’t mean you should. And if you are going to spray something, then you’ll probably want to do it in the least invasive manner as possible. So overall there is a great deal of friendship and trust between the growers that they are not going to do something that is going to damage their neighbor’s crop. People here are very cognizant and willing to work together, which is great.
That being said, if you have a biodynamic site and your neighbor does not, how do prevent somethings from coming over? Some drift is inevitable. In fact, the biggest case is probably 2,4-D. This is something a lot of the wheat farmers like to use to contain weeds. However, 2,4-D is extremely toxic to vines. I mean, just a small amount of 2,4-D drift coming onto your vines causes serious damage; you will essentially see the arrest of the photosynthetic capability of the vine once just a little bit of 2,4-D gets drifted onto it. With this we have been seeing a little bit of contention between people using 2,4-D versus people who don’t want it used because it is affecting their grapevines. Some of these things need to be sorted out. But the spirit is generally one of cooperation.
And could you discuss the difficult issue of the local migrant labor force? What is the local mentality?
BN Hmm. Ask 10 people you’ll get 10 different opinions. In general, while I would prefer people to be properly documented – when we came over, we’re immigrants, we had to go through the whole process, the Green Card, the Passport – I would appreciate everybody to do that and respect the laws of the country. But we realize that there are some kinds of labor Americans don’t want to do. The laborers here during harvest are great people. They want to work. They are very industrious. They work hard and get the job done effectively. It needs to be addressed at the Federal level. I’m kind of for giving amnesty for the people who are already here, and getting them appropriately documented. This might curtail future people from coming in. But all the workers I’ve met here have all been tremendously great people.
I must congratulate you and your brother on your extraordinary success. You’ve gone from 0 to 60 in nothing flat. You’re one of the brightest individuals I’ve ever met. Maybe you should become the president of the community college! What are your plans for the future? What are you academic plans, if any?
BN I still do have aspirations to complete my PhD. I have worked in Theoretical Mathematics, kind of at the cusp of Electrical Engineering, so I toy with the idea of going back to mathematics or possibly doing something in Plant Physiology or Viticulture. Right now my focus is to get Rasa to be successful. I think we are headed on the right trajectory. Our wines are improving. We’re just beginning to get positive praise from the critics. We’re having the major critics coming through right now. Jay Miller was here just a couple of weeks ago. Tanzer is coming soon. I can see success on the horizon. Once that is done, I think I’ll pursue my PhD.
An extraordinary pleasure, Billo. Thank you.
BN Thank you, Ken.


5 Responses to ' The Smartest Man In The Room, Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards '

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  1. Greg said,

    on July 9th, 2010 at 10:18 am

    I’ve sat in rooms with many smart people. I agree, Billo is usually the smartest. Thanks for the interview. Sorry to hear about Walla Walla CC. They lost a great asset.

  2. 1WineDude said,

    on July 10th, 2010 at 3:24 am

    This interview came at the perfect time for me – I’m in one of my “quantum physics kicks” and have been reading up on the latest developments in my “spare” time, and it’s great to see some hard-core engineering and science balanced so well with an almost artistic approach in winemaking. Cheers!

  3. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 10th, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Hi, Joe. Billo is quite an inspiring individual. Best of luck with your studies! And I know you and your family are having the time of your lives in Greece. Safe travels.

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 10th, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Hi, Greg. Thanks for the comment. Yes, the shortsightedness of the dept. will return to haunt them. I’m surprised the school’s board of directors let him slip away.

  5. Rajani said,

    on January 30th, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Billo is an amazing individual. He did not mention it but he is also a pianist. Seen him grow from a little kid to a brilliant man! Pinto is no exception! They both have done their family proud! They are inspirations to young and old and a difficult act to follow!

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