Ryan Crane of Kerloo Cellars, Walla Walla

Ξ July 14th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Young Winemakers |

Ryan Crane owner and winemaker at Kerloo Cellars and Sean Boyd, owner and winemaker of Rôtie Cellars are the best of friends and demonstrate a cooperation that is one of the finest features of the Walla Walla winemaking and wine growing community. Each producer helps the other in ways both great and small. Though all folks are committed to winning in the market place, those in the wine business there understand that the success of one is not possible without assistance and labor of all. As Ryan Crane put it, “We’re all in this together.”
And so it was that Mr. Boyd provided me an introduction to Mr. Crane, just as the electric Abigail Schwerin of Sapolil Cellars had pointed me to David Stephenson of Stephenson Cellars And had I the time for a longer stay, I am certain the chain of referrals would have gone on uninterrupted. But even so, the Crane/Boyd connection is an unusual one. Each moved from the Seattle area at roughly the same time. Each had been ‘discovered’ when still winemaking assistants. And, most amusingly, each had their wines rates by the same critic. And Ryan Crane received the better score. So what? As you will read, Ryan was quick to point out the success Sean Boyd has recently enjoyed. I must say it has made the work I’ve done in Walla Walla a great pleasure.
Admin Hi, Ryan. Are you watching the World Cup?
Ryan Crane Hey, Ken. No, I’m not. This is kind of wild, I’m actually composing an email to a dude in Bangkok. He wants to buy 20 cases of my wine! This is the first deal I’ve done overseas. He’s got a registration number for a logistics company. They’ll pick up the wine here at the winery and ship it to Bangkok.
I’ll be damned! Congratulations. How did that happen?
RC He had my wine at El Gaucho in downtown Seattle. It seems he’s getting married, and he wants to pour our wines. So, I’m working on the costs of shipping the wine to Bangkok.
I understand you and Sean Boyd are good friends.
RC Sean and I have the same sort of story. He’s originally from Seattle as well. We both wanted to get into the wine industry. I come from a background in distribution and sales. I think Sean was more on the enjoying drinking side; I was too. He moved to Walla Walla about a year before I did. We basically packed up everything, quit our jobs. I went to wine school here and just started diving into the wine business.
Were you one of Billo Naravane’s students?
RC No, I was in the last class of Mr. Stan Clarke. He’s passed. He was awesome, the core of the program when it first started.
When was the program started at College Cellars?
RC Boy… I graduated two years ago. I think it started in 2004? Stan and Myles Anderson from Walla Walla Vintners were the two that kind of started the whole program. Myles then stepped away and they hired another director to handle the program.
Was the program designed to turn out winemakers? Viticulturalists?
RC It’s both. The first year is all in viticulture; the second year is all in winemaking. It’s a two year program. Stan taught all the viticulture classes and Mike Moyer taught all the winemaking classes.
I see. So you could just walk off the street and get what, a BA?
RC It’s basically an Associates degree in Sciences on paper. But its an Oenology and Viticulture certificate out of Walla Walla. A graduate is free to pursue either. I love making the juice.
Yes. I was fortunate enough to be given a bottle of your 2007 Syrah by Nicole Rivinius of Rôtie. But as rare as it is, I find it heartbreaking to open it!
RC We’ll take care of that. I want you to get an idea of what I’m up to, my styles. I’ll ship you a bottle of each of my ’08s, both Syrahs and a Tempranillo. And you’ve got the historic ‘07 wine. You can pick and choose.
Damn! Thank you very much! You and Sean are very generous. Are your wines made exclusively from grapes within the Walla Walla AVA?
RC I source outside the AVA as well. My philosophy with varietals themselves is that I want the best, from where they grow the best. So I make unique varietals across the board. For Syrah I’m a cooler climate guy. For me Syrah is going to be Walla Walla all the time. I get my grapes from Va Piano were I work, and make the my wines. And then I also pull from Stone Tree vineyard, a remarkable vineyard. I love it. I also pull a little Tempranillo from here, Les Collines, block 6. And then I pull some Malbec from a little bit north of Red Mountain. Sean and I share some Grenache from Alder Ridge, Horse Heaven Hills. And I’ve got some Cabernet coming on board this year from Bacchus Vineyard, block 10.
I am fascinated by the Walla Walla winemaker’s philosophy. You understand what the AVA offers, but your creative imaginations and tasting sophistication demands that they source from outside the AVA. You folks don’t seem to be concerned about a general Washington State AVA designation. You just want to make the best wines you are able. I like that approach to Walla Walla.
RC The one thing that’s a little bit different on my side from a stylistic standpoint is that I try to make wines that are true from where they’re grown. I really want to make terroir wines, wines of place. So I don’t blend a lot of wines together. I like to make vineyard designate wines that speak of that site. I ask what style of wine do I want to make. And where in Washington State does that varietal grow best. I then select sites. So, Syrah, I like to make good, concentrated Syrah, but balanced across the board. This is what Walla Walla give me; slow concentration and slow maturity in the vines. At the end of the day, when I make the juice, they tend to be really concentrated and well balanced.
With Tempranillo, I’m trying to pay homage to Rioja-style Temps from within the state. I want to make wines that are palate challenging across the board. Just as there are cooler and warmer Spanish Riojas, I want to source the same here in Washington State and blend both together to make the Rioja style: brighter fruits, good tannins, good acid, low alcohol. With Malbec, which traditionally needs some heat to get ripe, I’m kind of edgy, on the cut. I crop it at 1.67 tons per acre. And it’s just stoopid, I mean concentrated just off the chart. So, I like to make vineyard-driven wines.
Where do you do your fermentations?
RC I make all the wine, I’m bonded, out of Va Piano. Sean is bonded at Waters, I’m bonded at Va Piano.
And your distribution circle?
RC I have no distributors. It’s all done through me, Ryan Crane. I haven’t picked up anything yet. I’m really in no hurry. When I moved here, just like everyone else, my wife and I would go out and taste in Portland and Cali and Washington State, and a lot of times you walk into a winery and you don’t even know who the winemaker is, you have no idea of what is going on. For me, I wanted to create and carry the brand. I sell the wines by appointment only, because at the end of the day, my hope is that every bottle of Kerloo Cellars on the table the people can say they met the winemaker, they shared a glass of wine with me, they tasted a barrel sample with me; I think the story drives the brand. I’m really focussed on that part right now, especially in the early vinages of Kerloo wines. I’m in no hurry. And I don’t have much juice. Thankfully we’ve had some good press; we’re moving relatively quickly. I have it in the books that I will have, in the next four years, three distributors. But for now it is just me.
One of my disappointments at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference was the absence of so many small producers. Many were not even referred to in the official literature. Why is this? Is it all about dollars? After all, some of the most interesting wines are being made by the smaller producers. Why should we hear so much about the big guys?
RC I don’t know. Some of the events were definitely driven by the bigger boys. Yes, it’s capital-driven. But I think there is a small core of us little guys that are staying a little out of the mainstream, that are just trying to grow our brands by word of mouth. As for the reasons, I didn’t really hear anything about tastings with the bloggers coming into town, or of any events. For example, there is an event coming up featuring distributors, big wine buyers from all around the country; we were invited to that only because I know the director running it. The little guys just aren’t known. And when a tasting comes to town we may not even know about it. We aren’t necessarily invited to anything.
The Wine Alliance could do a better job, especially with the small guys. But they ask for $2000 every year just to get your name on a small list. For us it is not worth it to write the check. Because it sometimes happens that Boom! Ken Payton comes to town and we end up talking. And truth be told, I think one of the cool things about the small guys is that everyone wants to talk to the smaller brands.
One of the difficulties is that a certain understanding is established between the major wine press and the big guys should the former spend only time with the latter. I don’t want to name names, but the presence of new oak was obvious in many of the wines I tasted. Who can afford new oak? Well, principally the big guys. But that theirs are the ones that are often tasted, a picture or model or standard emerges of the AVA that is uses lots of new oak. That feature then becomes an element of the dominant taste profile. The risk is that smaller brands can become pressured to convert to a barrel program against their better judgement.
RC For me it’s not really about that. They are going to sell more wine because they have more wine to sell. I really want to get the people who want to meet small brands, who want to be a part of the up and coming generation of winemakers in Washington State and, obviously, Walla Walla. I’m patient. And then there’s Brandon at L’Ecole, he runs the wine club there, he’s a huge fan of my wines, and I get many phone calls from people he points my way. Brandon Kubrock is the Tasting Room Manager; the Wine Club Manager is Jaime Chalk.–Admin] The cool thing about it is that we have this kind of underground movement, and Sean is the same way, so whenever people come to town everybody knows who to send them to. People find us. That’s a cool way to do it.
In what direction do think the AVA is headed?
RC It will continue to expand. I think the growth in the past 5 years has been relatively fast. We’re, I think, 140 bonded wineries now. Within the next three years there will be another 50 new wineries opening. I can say, from a numbers standpoint, that ever since Kerloo opened the door, and Rotie, I haven’t seen that many other wineries put in licenses to open here. It has slowed a little because it is such a capital-driven market. But we will continue to grow, perhaps not as fast as we have the last few years.
And from the vineyard side of things, Walla Walla is tricky. There are some really good sites here, and there are some really poor vineyard grounds as well. That part of the business will grow more slowly. I don’t see a whole lot of vineyards opening or starting to plant right now. It also has to do with land allocation and parcel development. Depending where you are at in Walla Walla, some parcels are only divided into 40 and 80 acres plots. Buying 40 acres at $700,000, plus putting in a vineyard after that, we’re talking some crazy cash.
Who are the people who have opened up and are opening up wineries? Are they from out of state? Are they from within Washington State? Walla Walla itself?
RC I think it is a mixture. I’m originally from Seattle, born in Minneapolis, but have lived in Seattle my whole life, so I’m a Stater. Sean is a Stater. A lot of them are from within the state itself. Sinclair Estate Vineyard is Microsoft owned, but they live in Seattle as well. Corlis is within state. Maybe even most are within state.
There must be just a modest number of viticultural managers and vineyard consultants in Walla Walla. Some use Dr. Kevin Pogue, for example. Are there so few that the 140 wineries all share the same small coterie of consultants?
RC It is pretty much the same group. Of the handful of vineyards that are selling within Walla Walla, yes, everyone talks to the same vineyard manager, absolutely.
But does that mean that canopy management is roughly the same? That the layout of the vineyards is roughly the same?
RC In a general sense, yeah; I mean, it’s all on VSP. There is some Sprawl up at Les Collines. There is really no other trellising that’s getting played with except for at Morrison Lane. They’re playing with some Scott Henry and some double tier quad lateral action. So, most of the vineyards, all of the ones I work with, are on VSP. So, in an overall sense, most of it is getting managed in much the same way. Outside of how much you decide to leave from a fruit standpoint.
What is it that Cayuse does differently? Or are they within the same frame?
RC Well, Christophe is doing the VSP system as well, as far as I know. He hangs the cordons a little lower to the ground to get some more heat from the rocks, obviously. I think he’s hanging one to two clusters per shoot. He’s biodynamic. So, no spray program, no pesticides, that I’m aware of. But he’s very secretive. So this is all guessing. He’s a very cool guy. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him. Half the people in Walla Walla hate him, half the people like him. I think he’s a cool dude. I would say that his sites are truly terroir. His is all native yeast fermentations from what I know. They tend to be really high pH, low acid, kind of stinky wines. That’s all I know. I don’t think he is doing anything out of the ordinary, apart from Biodynamics.
My real question was whether you felt there was a sufficient multiplicity of voices giving advice to the emerging AVA. Can those currently available handle all the exigencies and differences of the multiple terroirs available in Walla Walla?
RC Oh, yeah. I think that’s the most exciting part, frankly. If you look at two of my wines, the one that you got, the ‘07, that’s basically a two vineyard blend, 80% Va Piano, 20% Les Collines. That’s a pretty big, powerful wine. I don’t want to say feminine, but Les Collines is definitely more feminine than Va Piano. My point is that I try to make two distinct Syrahs. Some people like Syrahs that are a little bit bigger, more powerful, with a little bit more viscosity. And Les Collines is like that beautiful lady in a red dress walking to the theater. Those sites, Les Collines and Va Piano, are literally four miles apart and the fruit is totally different. That’s the beauty of Walla Walla.
What is it that readers should know about Kerloo Cellars wines?
RC My goal is to make wines that are true to varietal. I’m not going to make wines that have 1% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon… I really want the varietal to speak for itself. It is a harder way to make the juice, but that is my way. So you’ll see a 100% commitment to true varietal wines with Kerloo wines across the board. What that gives me is palate challenging wines from carefully selected sites. I don’t make oak bombs. I use oak minimally, usually about 20% new wood. Right now I’m at 22% new wood with my ’08s. My Malbec and Grenache are at about 25% new wood. Everything is going to be under 30%.
When we started the brand, we meaning my wife and I, we asked how did we want to do this? I already had a style in mind. We wanted to build a brand similar to us: Simple and Sexy. My goal is never to walk away from the project. I’ll always be making the juice. I want everyone to know that. I’m not looking to hire someone to take over the program because I always want to be the face of the brand. And we’re only going to make 1,500 cases max. Between 200 and 400 cases of that is going to go to the wine club. The 1000 cases left are going to be the only things you can get. It’s a chance to be exclusive and really give our customers a chance to get to know us on a personal basis.
While I was in Walla Walla, it was often been pointed out to me that one of Sean’s Rôties received 2 stars and your Kerloo received 3 stars at a particular tasting. Why do you think this happened? Actually, I think it was Sean who first brought it up!
RC (laughs) That’s hilarious. This is kind of a funny story. A wine writer, Sean Sullivan, out of Seattle, a very cool guy, he found me way back in the day. I haven’t been making wine that long, but he was there right when I started; I mean, I had 8 barrels when he came out and tasted with me. I had just put my ’08s to barrel, I think. So he did a focus report on both me and Sean [Boyd of Rôtie) about assistant winemakers starting their own brands in Walla Walla. I'm not totally sure why the ratings were different. Sean goes to bottle a lot earlier than I do. I'm guaranteed 16 to 22 months in barrel and then another 4 to 6 months in bottle before I release. So I'm not sure if it was that the wine tasted more mature. I don't know if my style is more to the liking of Sean Sullivan's palate. I would say my '07s are bigger and have more weight than Sean's just because of our styles. In '07 I tried to make little bit bigger wines. And I think that Sean's are a little more lean and fresh, on the brighter side. Mine are a little bit more on the massive side. But I didn't even ask Sean [Sullivan] about it.
But Sean [Boyd] got a 94 with his ‘07 Southern in the Wine Enthusiast or Wine Spectator, I’m not sure which one. Hey, dude, that ain’t too shabby! The only other thing is that I’m better looking than Sean! And I think I have a better sense of humor; I throw things around a little bit more than old Boydie. So maybe the additional star was for my shining personality!
So whose wife is the better cook?
RC (laughing) Well, my wife took off this morning on a business trip to the fine town of Cleveland. So she’s not here. Annie is the better cook, his wife. No doubt about it. But Sean is a better cook than me as well. I barbeque just as good as Sean. But Sean is a little better cook than I am. I just tell him, “Don’t worry, Sean. You cook, I’ll make the wine!”
Well, it was a great pleasure to speak to you, Ryan.
RC You too, Ken. Take care.


One Response to ' Ryan Crane of Kerloo Cellars, Walla Walla '

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  1. Brandon Kubrock said,

    on July 15th, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Hey Ken,

    Great read!! I am a definitely a fan of Kerloo and Rotie and love to see them get the recognition they deserve. Just to clarify, at L’Ecole No. 41 I am the Tasting Room Manager, our Wine Club Manager is Jaime Chalk. Thank you RC for the shout out, keep making the good juice! And Ken, keep writing great articles!


    Brandon Kubrock

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