Dr. Susan Kegley On Herbicide Drift

Ξ March 27th, 2011 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Herbicides, Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Wine & Politics, Wine News |

The dust may have settled around the civil case of Kevin Kohlman versus Roseburg Forest Products, but not the herbicides. Fate and transport issues remain. Indeed, in this interview with the expert witness in the case, Dr. Susan Kegley of the Pesticide Research Institute, we learn of a surprising new twist, one of potentially even greater import than that of herbicide drift as it has so far been discussed in my series: Surface and groundwater contamination.
 
Drift falling directly onto a vineyard, whether upon initial application or through secondary volatilization, is only one of the modes of errant herbicide transport. It may often happen that a herbicide finds its way into the primary irrigation sources used for a crop.
Though in the Kohlman’s case, we saw prima facie evidence of a helicopter spray application clearly done contrary to label recommendations – as shown in a photo included in part 2 of my interview with the gentleman – the jury came back with a reasonable doubt. How are we to explain their decision? Apart from claims that the defendant, Roseburg Forest Products, frustrated discovery and massaged evidence, of an apparent Voir Dire violation during jury selection, and the judge’s refusal to allow relevant information into evidence, Dr. Kegley mentions an additional possible source of doubt. Perhaps it was that too few water samples were taken from the Kohlman’s irrigation sources, for herbicide contamination was strongly indicated in their holding reservoir. The idea is that both drift and improper herbicide applications, on snow melt for example, were potential contamination pathways. It bears repeating that none of the herbicides found in the Legacy vineyard were used by the Kohlmans.
 
Here as well does Dr. Kegley provide a crash course on what might be called the culture of the EPA; she sketches the health concerns surrounding herbicides commonly used in forestry; and offers insight into the scientific spirit. With even ’sustainable’ farming is at risk, of the dire consequences of drift and water contamination on organics, including finished organic wine, she say with classic understatement, “It’s not good press, put it that way.” Of course, her work is far more multifaceted. I strongly encourage readers to visit her company’s website, the Pesticide Research Institute, to learn more.
 
Please read the newspaper report Dying on the Vine for critical background. For previous installments of this series, please see Herbicides.
 
Admin I am working on the matter of herbicide drift and I was hoping you might help. My research began when looking into a case out of Oregon, the Douglas County area, involving a winery, Legacy Vineyards.
 
Dr. Susan Kegley I was the expert witness on that case.
 
You know, it was the funniest thing. During my conversation with Mr. Tupper of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) a short time ago and he mentioned your familiarity with drift issues and the herbicides in that case. It is a remarkable coincidence that you were in fact the expert witness!
 
Dr. SK (laughs) Well, it is one of the few that made it into the papers. A lot of times these cases are settled on the contingency that nobody say anything to the public.
 
Is that right? I spoke to Steve Renquist. He’s the OSU Extension agent, and he went into considerable depth. He mentioned nothing about such a contingency. As the expert witness, are you free to speak?
 
Dr. SK The case is over. As for speaking, I was never told not to. He lost. So there is no settlement.
 
Case Specifics
 
Yes. In that case it came down to reasonable doubt about the source of the herbicides.
 
Dr. SK Yes. Herbicides are used for more than one thing. The question in that case was where did these things come from. There were other uses of herbicides, but they were all further away. And the wind wasn’t blowing in the right direction to get them into Kevin Kohlman’s vineyard.
 
And even if one assumes roadside spraying alone might have had some effect, it certainly wouldn’t have resulted in the death of so many 1000s of vines. One of Mr. Renquist’s points was that because of fairly recent introduction of the wine industry in that part of the world, near Roseburg, that it is going to take some time for negotiations between the timber industry and wineries and grape growers to come to terms with spray drift?
 
Dr. Susan Kegley That would be an accurate characterization. I think that one of the things that happened to Kevin was that he called his legislator and she said what was he doing trying to grow grapes in timber country anyway? So there are a lot of barriers that need to be broken down before this is given the same weight. If you think about it economically, grapes have the potential to – and are already – contributing pretty heavily to Oregon’s economy. The state would be wise to accommodate as many different economic activities as they can. The Oregon Department of Agriculture really doesn’t think that way now.
 
It took 4 years for this case to be litigated. Once again relying on my conversation with Mr. Renquist, he suggested that there were perpetual continuances sought by Roseburg Forest Products. Is that your observation as well?
 
Dr. Susan Kegley I wasn’t privy to the day to day legal details about why it took forever. (laughs) But that sounds correct. They kept asking for the case to be dismissed.
 
The idea was to wear down Mr. Kohlman. Maybe this guy will just go away.
 
Dr. SK Yes. But he wasn’t interested in giving up and going away.
 
When did you come into the case? And your responsibility was to perform scientific assays of plant tissue?
 
Dr. SK Perhaps it was in the summer of 2008. No, there were 2 main things: Providing testimony on whether pesticides and herbicides can move from one place to another, the fate and transport of a compound after you release it from the spray rig; and then the other was to talk about damage characteristic of those particular herbicides.
 
So it was principally Oust and Velpar. Is that correct?
 
Dr. SK Yes.
 
But there has also been talk of 2,4,D and Garlon. I’ve been told these are used in smaller applications, a rancher spraying a fence line, for example.
 
Dr. SK No. They use those a lot in forestry.
 
And they are often used in aerial spraying?
 
Dr. SK Yes.
 
I’ve read the product sheets for a number of these herbicides. And 2,4,D was specifically recommended for grasses…
 
Dr. SK It’s mostly used for broadleaf plants. You may have looked a label that is specific to roadside spraying. Several 2,4,D products are made for targeting different markets, including forestry applications.
 
Perhaps this is merely inflammatory, but my understanding is that the product is related to Agent Orange. Is that correct?
 
Dr. SK Yes and no. It’s got one fewer chlorine atom than Agent Orange does. Agent Orange is a mixture of 2,4,D and 2,4,5,T. Both of those products are contaminated with Dioxins and other really carcinogenic substances. In theory they’ve gotten most of the contaminants out of the production process, so it is not clear whether that is still an issue. The EPA usually spends some time talking about impurities, and I haven’t looked at that assessment lately, but they seem to have gotten it down to the point where the EPA is not concerned about it anymore.
 
Were you to estimate the percentage of these chemicals, Oust,Velpar, 2,4,D, and Garlon, used by the forest products industry, where would 2,4,D fit in?
 
Dr. SK It is one of the main ones. People are moving away from ester formulations of 2,4,D, which is very volatile and does really drift. But that was one of the products we found that was used in the Kohlman case. They are not out of circulation.
 
A lot was made of the elevation of the helicopters seen spraying herbicides on the clearcut above the Kohlman’s property. The article mentioned spraying being done at 90 feet when the recommended altitude is far lower. But then there is the question of secondary volatilization on subsequent days, and as a result of environmental events, rain and wind for example. Is there science on the secondary volatility of these compounds?
 
Dr. SK Yes, and that is mostly what the Drift Catcher program Karl [Tupper] and I together worked on over at PAN, volatilization drift. The 2,4,D ester formulation does do volatilization drift, and most of the other chemicals used in forestry; Garlon might be the next most volatile. Certainly Oust, sulfometuron-methyl, they’re not volatile at all. They are not going to volatilize after application. So if you’re finding Oust and sulfometuron-methyl it is almost certainly from spray drift.
 
Herbicide Toxicity and Transport
 
The subject is vast and very complicated. And bringing bad news to one’s readership is often met with a shrug. The wine community tends to be upbeat, and a bit on the conservative side. In any event, someone wouldn’t buy vineyard property in complete isolation from all local services. Neither would virtually any business. So it is more likely that there is patchwork of land ownership nearer towns and cities. So with respect to drift upon application and drift from secondary volatilization after application, many more people and farmers are potentially affected by timber industry herbicide use than simply Mr. Kohlman and his vineyard. Now one of the issues OSU Extension agent Mr. Renquist could not address are the health risks associated with these chemicals. Could you speak to that matter?
 
Dr. SK 2,4,D is on the list of possible carcinogens.
 
Is that because of Dioxin contamination?
 
Dr. SK Probably, but it’s not really clear. Very few of the tests have actually been done with very pure 2,4,D. And then the question becomes whether someone is using pure 2,4,D in the products. And that is not clear either. There is certainly still some Dioxin contamination. That’s the issue with 2,4,D. It is also an endocrine disrupter. There is a fair amount of evidence that shows that it interferes with reproduction in amphibians for sure, and potentially humans as well.
 
Garlon, at high enough doses, causes birth defects. And again, are you going to get enough from spray drift to have that effect? We’re not sure. It depends on the particular incident. All of these herbicides can make their way into groundwater. They are all potential groundwater contaminants. You run the risk of exposure through both air and water when living in the area, particularly if you’re on a well.
 
Oust and sulfometuron-methyl have relatively low toxicity to humans, but a super high toxicity to plants. So that anything that depends on plants for food – like grape growers and vineyard owners – (laughs) it’s particularly problematic. But it not so much of human health risk. Or even fish or aquatic organisms, or birds, anything like that, not the data I’ve looked at anyway. There are always more studies that can be done, but basically it comes out pretty clean on those studies.
 
And then Atrazine is also on the list of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Its been a big deal at EPA. People have been trying to get EPA to regulate it, but it’s billions of dollars a year for Syngenta, the company that makes it. EPA has trouble making decisions about chemicals like that.
 
Whose Science Is It Anyway?
 
There is also the question of synergistic effects. Everything is tested on a chemical by chemical basis, but in the chemical bath an industrial agricultural area can be, it seems somewhat futile to analyze each in isolation.
 
Dr. SK But we have no data on the testing. No one has tested them as mixtures even though they are often formulated as mixtures of active ingredients in the products. It is another failing of our regulatory system although I do not want them to spend the next 50 years doing the tests on the mixtures! I would like to see them move to something besides the more toxic herbicides and pesticides.
 
That raises another question about whose science is it? I mean, Monsanto is infamous for its ability to skew and bend research protocols to already preconceived ends, if I may put it that way. I’m trying to be diplomatic here. So how do results from your organization, the Pesticide Research Institute, confront the often proprietary research done in university labs, for example, by companies like Syngenta and Monsanto? In other words, how can science be done if the scientific protocols and results are not publicly known?
 
Dr. SK Well, EPA uses a certain set of data to register the pesticide/herbicide, to make the decision to allow it to be used. That’s public. Or at least EPA’s interpretation of it is public. We don’t get to look at the actual studies. EPA’s staff writes it up, and that is what’s made available. So we have that data. We’re really relying on the agency to do a good job of that. But that does not always happen, that’s for sure.
 
Where you have some help is with independent researches, mostly at universities, who are studying the effects of these chemicals as well. The problem is that for someone trying to get research money, funding for research on these things, it’s not a particularly sexy topic. So it is not well-funded. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re doing the same studies that a billion other people have done. You’re not learning anything new.’ And that is the goal of academic research. Tyrone Hayes, who is a professor here at UC Berkeley, has been doing research on Atrazine and its effects on amphibians. He’s finding feminization of male frogs so that they actually have ovaries and eggs. EPA is trying really hard to ignore his evidence. (laughs) EPA has said that it’s an effect that the frogs were feminized, but it’s not an adverse effect!
 
We certainly don’t have enough information on these chemicals; but we have more than we do on a lot of chemicals. And that’s helpful. We have enough to know that we shouldn’t be using some of them. From the angle of the grape growers, these really toxic and persistent herbicides and pesticides, like Oust and sulfometuron-methyl, because they just don’t go away for years, they really should be reserved for very, very select uses where you don’t really want anything growing anywhere! There are not too many of those situations. Certainly not steep hillsides with forests and soil!
 
It is not clear in the Kevin Kohlman case. Certainly drift played a part. But it is also possible that the ground water he was using for his vines may have been contaminated. There were not enough water samples taken to really confirm that.
 
Can it be said that EPA evaluations take into consideration ‘extra-scientific’ considerations? From the outcome of the Kohman trial, for example, it’s clear that it was very difficult for the jurors to overcome reasonable doubt. He didn’t seek a change of venue, perhaps because the Kohlman’s felt completely confident in the quality of their scientific evidence they had amassed. [See the interview with Mr. Kohlman, conducted after this, for his reasons in not seeking a change of venue. It had, among other reasons, to do with the requirements of a civil suit. -Admin].
 
Dr. SK Do you know what happened, though? The jury foreman who, once selected, and having sat through the whole trial, he died the night before, or very soon before the verdict was made. The person who was the alternate – and I’m telling you what I heard from the attorneys – had worked for the forest service in the past; but he had not revealed that during the Voir Dire, the jury selection process. He had apparently made some comment like ‘I’ve worked with herbicides all my life. There is nothing wrong with them.’ Had he said that during the Voir Dire process he would have been excluded from the jury. There were all kinds of things that didn’t work out quite right.
 
Yes. I read in Marie-Monique Robin’s The World According to Monsanto it often happens that chemical company executives, whether from Monsanto or Syngenta, others perhaps, bounce around from private to public service. It is not unusual for someone to go from an elevated position within Monsanto to the EPA, for example. That’s what I’m getting at. It seems that there is an extra element here that vitiates the science. So my question is how does one work to make science triumph as opposed to political expediency and convenience.
 
Dr. SK That’s a really good question. If I knew the answer to that… (laughs) But that is the key question. The hires that are made at EPA, even at the staff level, are vetted by industry, at least that’s what I hear from inside the agency. I have not confirmed that myself, but I know someone pretty high up in the agency who said that during the Bush years there was a lot of this, even among fairly low-level staff positions, this vetting by the industry. The thing is, political appointments can only take you so far. Your staff has to made up of good scientists. They have to believe in protecting public health. You can change the upper-level by political appointments but the staff, they’re government employees, so they’re impossible to change. If you get someone who isn’t a good scientist and who doesn’t care about public health protection, you will be out of luck for many years.
 
Ultimately you will be found out, whether through the Freedom of Information Act or peer review of your work, presumably…
 
Dr. SK It’s really hard to distinguish between crappy work and someone with a bias.
 
With respect to Oust and Velpar, one of them, perhaps both, that among the scientific experiments concerning drift involved applying them under ideal circumstances, in this case on a table top landscape, the plains of Texas, rather than the rugged, mountainous landscape of Roseburg Forest Products’ Oregon. There the temperature changes at elevation, as does the wind and fog, heat gradients, the presence of water, and so on. That would seem to suggest that instructions for the application of herbicides are short-sighted, to say the least. Experimental conditions differ significantly from the real world. So what are we to make of label instructions?
 
Dr. SK True. That’s exactly right, every bit of it. (laughs) EPA exercises its control over pesticide/herbicide risk through the label. And the label specifies certain application conditions. But there is no one checking. There is very little enforcement, put it that way. No one comes by with any frequency to check if your application is being done correctly; whether you have the proper nozzle size; whether you are applying when the winds are low enough or high enough to prevent drift. It’s a house of cards set up on a label which can’t be enforced. Or it isn’t being enforced. It doesn’t work.
 
Crop Sensitivity And Organic Woes
 
What is it about a grapevine that makes it particularly susceptible to these toxins, these herbicides?
 
Dr. SK There are several different mechanisms of action for these herbicides. Grapes grow really fast during their season. And many of the mechanisms of action of the herbicides are inhibiting some pathway for a vine’s growth. They are particularly sensitive. There are probably many other crops similarly sensitive, but since they are growing a lot of grapes in that area you’re seeing the effects in a vineyard first. In California there have been issues with prune and plum trees, orchard crops, with herbicide drift. They are still finding herbicides used on rice in damaged prune trees 10 miles away. So, grapes aren’t unique; but they are fast-growing and therefore are pretty susceptible.
 
My understanding is that the levels required to do significant damage are quite low, down to parts per billion. It mortality high at such levels, or is it damage from which a plant could recover?
 
Dr. SK There is damage from which the plant could recover but you might lose your yield for the year, lose your harvest altogether. I think what Kevin Kohlman was seeing was that established vines would suffer damage, but not die. But the new vines couldn’t handle it at all. They died.
 
What happens to one’s organic certification when herbicide drift is implicated in crop damage?
 
Dr. SK They can’t market their crop. Their certification doesn’t usually get revoked because it’s not their fault. Another case I did involved Larry Jacobs who owns Jacob’s Farm Del Cabo out of Pescadero, California. He was getting drifted on by brussel spout pesticide applications that were upwind of him. He would periodically test his crops just to be sure he’s not adding pesticide residues. I think he has to some of that for marketing. Once he detected residue from brussel sprout drift, he couldn’t market his crops for a couple of years.
 
Grapes are somewhat different. You don’t necessarily test the grapes directly. And from those grapes a wine is made. In your scientific opinion, can herbicide and pesticide residues end up in the finished wine?
 
Dr. SK Yes. I’ve seen some data on that. There are some that make it in. In fact, there were such residues in Kevin Kohlman’s wine. 2,4,D was found in his wine. That’s not good. So growers really do need to worry about that because, well, it’s not good press, put it that way. I’m not sure whether the FDA tests wine, whether I’ve seen the data there, but there have been several publications on different food crops, and wine was one of them. Yes, it’s an issue.
 
Are the tests expensive?
 
Dr. SK Yes. About $300 a sample.
 
There was a instance of this recently. I read of an enterprising couple of wine bloggers who took what is known in the trade as a ‘natural’ wine made in Washington State, the Walla Walla area, where winegrowers have had difficulties with orchardists and wheat growers, and they submitted it for testing. Now, let me first add that as far as I’ve been able to determine, winegrowers do not necessarily want to know if they have drift issues, even when an orchard or wheat field is very near their vineyard. So the wine bloggers did submit a sample of the wine but only, as far as I know, for the testing of volatile acidity, bioamines, levels of which would cause spoilage or would at the very least suggest poor winery hygiene and quality control. They did not look for pesticide or herbicide residues. If one were to do a test does it cost $300 per compound sought?
 
Dr. SK No. There is a lab that we use for our air monitoring work. They do a multi-residue scan for about 130 pesticides for about $350 a sample.
 
Are you an avid wine drinker?
 
Dr. SK I am, indeed!
 
And finally, would you tell me how you arrived at your profession?
 
Dr. SK I have a Ph.D in Organic Chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After graduating in 1982, I taught in academia for 14 years, and did research on organometallic chemistry; nobody knows what that is. (laughs) Then I became very interested in doing environmentally-related chemistry. I then reoriented my research program to start looking at fate and transport of chemicals in the environment. I moved to Berkeley in 1992 and started an environmental chemistry program there, a curriculum development program to get the students using state-of-the-art instrumentation and doing their own projects. They would go out in the field, take the samples, bring them to the lab and learn how to do the analyses. They would learn the whole process, along with data interpretation.”
 
One of our experiments was on strawberries. We went to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s lab that does such analyses. After doing our work, it really changed their opinions about what they were eating. When you can see the chemicals on your food, it makes it very real.
 
In 1998 a job opened up at PAN, the Pesticide Action Network. I took it. And I have been doing pesticide research ever since.
 
Thank you very much for your time.
 
Dr. SK Good luck. It’s important for this information to get out to the public.
 
Admin

 

Compass Wines, A Washington Revelation

Ξ August 28th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

While in Walla Walla, Washington I was told by Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars of a particularly important wine guru working in Anacortes. Mr. Boyd spoke in almost hushed tones of a certain Doug Charles, a man whose knowledge and palate could put a wine on the map. Specializing, but by no means limited to Washington, Mr. Charles was said also to be a key source for limited production wines from throughout his favored state. For rare, hard to find wines, wines of limited production and allocation, Doug Charles was the man to see. Indeed, while in Compass Wines in Anacortes, the far northern gateway to the San Juans and Canada, I encountered a woman, an artist, who was worried upon learning I was a wine writer that I might ruin her unique wine store by mentioning it. For causing her anxiety I must apologize. But the truth is that this is a wine store worthy of national recognition. And it is, among sailors, as you will read. Open since 2001, on-line since May of 2003, it is now our turn, we land lubbers.
 
From the initial press release back in 2001.
 
Leveraging long-time business relationships developed over the course of his 20+ years in restaurant management, Doug Charles is able to obtain and offer his customers wines that are otherwise only available via select mailing lists, if at all. “From Leonetti to Bunchgrass—from Chateau Margaux to Chateau d’Yquem, our shop offers a nice range of wines, including under $10 bottles perfect for sipping with dinner tonight,” said Charles. “Our customers include everyone from New York collectors to local fishermen.”
 
And from their About Us page.
 
Contrary to most retail shops, Compass Wines was built on the idea of maintaining an extensive inventory of past vintages, as well as quantities of the current releases. We also purchase entire cellars of fine wines from around the world. These range from great old Bordeaux, to the ‘cult’ wines of California.
 
And so it was when visiting the San Juans, I dropped in to spend a few minute at this remarkable wine store. Enjoy.
 
Admin I’m here at Compass Wines in Anacortes, Washington with owner Doug Charles [along with Will Parks]. So what is it you do?
 
Doug Charles I’ve been in the wine business directly for just over 10 years, 20 years before that in the restaurant business. I’ve done a lot of consulting work in between. Washington has been my passion since the 80s, when the wine industry got going. I got hooked early on and never really looked back. I love other stuff too, but I have a soft spot for Washington.
 
How did you end up in Anacortes?
 
DC I did restaurants up here for a number of years. I was doing some consulting work that involved putting wine cellars onto mega-yachts. We determined that there was a need in the maritime community to service boaters. We figured that if these guys with Feadships and Bayliners don’t have places to store their wines then we should look at locations from the Canadian to Mexican borders in maritime areas where we could combine specialized retail with wine storage; and everything pointed right back to Anacortes, a half hour from where I live. We spent about 18 months looking, but it all pointed back here.
 
So distributors make a pilgrimage out here.
 
DC Yes. We’re definitely remote for Washington, we’re about an hour and a half north from Seattle, which bodes well for what we do because a lot of the allocations for limited production wines are divided by the Seattle metropolitan area and the rest of the state, and because we fall outside in the rest of the state, when allocation numbers are set the guys in Seattle will be fighting over a few bottles and I get a larger allocation because I take up everything else in the state.
 
It does seem that you’ve put Anacortes on the map as a wine destination, besides selling through your web-site, of course. Certainly for sailors. And you must advertise in sailing-themed magazines?
 
DC I don’t know if we put it on the map. I think the Washington Ferry system did that! But yes, we advertise in sailing magazines. We also do a wine program called ded reckoning which is sailing-themed. And we’re just rolling out next week the new edition that features the BMW Oracle yacht on the label. That’s been months in the making. The label is being printed as we speak. That sailboat was actually built right behind the shop here in Anacortes. It was tested here. We will be promoting that extensively in the maritime community on both coasts.
 
[I was given a bottle of ded reckoning 2000 Walla Walla Petit Verdot. It features a label with a 1906 photo of the U.S. Battleship Nebraska built by Moran Bros. Company, Seattle, Washington. See poc above.]
 
Fascinating. Now, I met Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars in Walla Walla recently. He knows and speaks very highly of you. He understands your reputation. How is it you cane to meet Mr. Boyd?
 
DC We get lots and lots of wineries that come through here on a regular basis. I had several wineries here yesterday. I had five here last Friday. I’ve got two coming tomorrow [Aug. 21st]. We’re known for being specialists in limited production, small output wines. We’re not afraid to put a wine with a production of 20 cases on the shelf. I don’t have a corporate mind set I have to follow. I don’t have shelf tags that I have to fill. Winemakers know that they can come here and experiment with us. They can bring in limited production things; and because we focus half of our floor space to Washington specifically, we’ve got a lot more room for these little producers. They are not going to get squeezed out by the big guys. Look at our shelves. We don’t carry a lot of the big brands that you normally see because those brands are available everywhere. We go after brands you don’t see everywhere else. So the little guys have a better opportunity to get floor space here than other places just because of the way we’ve set up our business.
 
What is the square footage here? And how many bottles?
 
DC We have about 16,000 bottles on hand at any given time. We’ve got 3,500 square feet here, most of which is actually in refrigerated storage in the back. I’ve never really mapped out what our actual showroom is here but I’m guessing 1000 square feet probably, of display space. And then a couple thousand of storage.
 
You have a big tasting coming up…
 
DC We do tastings once a month. Tomorrow we have Chris Gorman and Mark McNeilly. They are going to be pouring the Gorman and Mark Ryan wines. They’re always free events here. Everybody gets to come and taste the new releases before they hit the street. And some of the old releases.
 
What are your European specialities?
 
DC I have a soft spot for Burgundy. Reds and whites. And for Southern Rhone. I have my biases! But those are the ones that I like to focus on. And it also doesn’t really compete with the Washington profile. We don’t do Pinot Noir up here very well, or very much. And Chardonnay is not something Washington is known for. So for the people who are trying to balance out their cellars, or balance out their dinners, Burgundy and the Southern Rhone fit really well. Grenache, for example, I’m a big fan of the grape, but there’s not a lot of it up here. There’s more and more coming, but I don’t try to compete. But because I can’t find good Pinot in Washington so I go to Burgundy and get it! It seems like a fit, doesn’t it?
 
You have a few Portuguese things I see…
 
DC I do. We like odd things for this market. We’re in a rural area. We don’t have a huge wine community in this immediate area that has experienced a lot of the things from Portugal, or from Greece, or South Africa. We like to have a lot of those fun, different things on hand so that everybody has an opportunity. You don’t have to go to the Big City to get these unusual wines from Croatia. We like them, the funky, weird stuff; and I stock it because I don’t have to report to anybody. If it doesn’t sell, well, I have only myself to blame.
 
I like different things to kind of push the envelope for our customers. If they come in and are used to drinking Pinot Gris all of the time, then I can suggest they try a dry Muscat this week, try a Viognier, try something a little bit different. And the way our shop is set up we instinctively do not put neon tags with prices on them on display. Every bottle is hand labeled so the customers are in a way forced to talk with my staff. We’ve set up the floor plan so that when people walk in the first time they are confused. That’s intentional. Because we want to develop a one-to-one relationship with our customers, know what they like. Every customer has their own data base in our system. So if you come back next year we can pull up what you bought when you were on vacation last year. Maybe they bought XYZ. We’ll ask them if they want to try something different. It’s something I took out of the restaurant business; something like the relationship a waiter develops with his clientele.
 
It’s like a mini CellarTracker.
 
DC Exactly. My goal is to make wine accessible to everybody, to take away the snobby, elitist attitude. My take has been that I want to make it accessible, I want to make it fun; I want to make it no different for the layman than going grocery shopping. For the customer who want First Growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, or Leonetti, or Quilceda, they are going to come in regardless of whether we’re jerks or not because there is product they want, and they are going to buy it. Our main goal is to sell the novice wine person who is used to buying a bag-in-a-box somewhere, when they come in the first time, to sell them a $6.99 Merlot they like; then should they come by a second time then we’ve done our job, our staff has done its job. That to me is the hardest customer. If we can expose people to new and unusual things and get them out of drinking the usual fuzzy animal wine from Australia or a jug of some sort, and get them to try something different then we have done well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something expensive; it just has to be something interesting and fun, and make them feel welcome, that to me is the primary goal of what we do.
 
If we can make those people happy then we know we can make the other people, the specialists, happy. Because we have those products that they want. We have a 1970 Petrus available today. We’ve got those sorts of things for the collector types. But the hardest customer for me is the non-collector, the novice, getting them to feel comfortable coming here instead of grabbing something with an orange tag at the grocery store.
 
We want to establish a personal relationship with our customers, to sell them something they themselves describe to us, and then edge the line forward. The way that I approach it is that buying wine is really no different from buying a cabbage. It’s just a food item. You don’t need to have an attitude about it. My job is to make it fun. that’s why when you’re digging through bins here you’ll find a couple hundred dollar bottle of wine alongside a $6.99 bottle of wine. (Though I have had to put the really expensive stuff under lock and key because some of it walked away.) I want people to know that it is just a bottle of wine, you know? It is just food.
 
I am next given a modest tour of the storage facility.
 
DC The idea behind these storage lockers is very simple. We took this yacht and built wine facilities into it to store his wines. And while his new ship was under construction we actually built a wine cellar below the water line so that he could actually store his wines properly. That was the idea behind putting the storage lockers here: If this guy with this 250 foot yacht doesn’t have wine storage then the guy with a 30 footer doesn’t either. So we began to offer wine storage here on our premises. They can leave their wine here rather than at their house on the islands or on their boat. And when they travel back and forth between here and Seattle (though we actually have guys storing wine here from as far away as London), they can pick them up here on their way to somewhere else. They needn’t worry about it.
 
Before I leave a second storage area for Compass’ bewildering quality holdings, I notice cases of older vintages of some of the most professionally celebrated wines of Washington, Quilceda Creek, for example. I ask Mr. Charles about a large format bottle I see.
 
DC Quilceda Creek is the only 100 point winery in the state from the Wine Advocate. As far as I know they are the only Bordeaux varietal producer in the world that Parker has given 100 points to three out of four years. They scored 100 points in 2002, 2003, and 2005. They scored 99 points in 2004 and 2006. Their 2007 has not been released yet. They produced one 6 liter bottle each in 2002 and 2003, and we have both of them.
 
This gives you some idea of the tremendous stock Compass possess. Indeed, it sometimes happens that wineries themselves contact Mr. Charles for bottles of wine they no longer have or are willing to take from their own wine libraries, for horizontals, for example. Mr. Charles is only too happy to oblige. I encourage you to visit their site. And if in Anacortes visiting the San Juans, as I was, do drop in. It is a challenging and sublime wine store.
 
Admin

 

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.
 
Admin

 

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.
 
Admin

 

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.
 
Admin

 

The Future Of Wine Writing, Walla Walla Redux

Ξ June 30th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, WALLA WALLA, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

What follows is my gaze into the crystal ball of wine writing’s future. I was invited by the organizers of the Wine Bloggers Conference, this year held in Walla Walla, Washington, to offer my views along side of those of the steady Steve Heimoff and the durable Tom Wark of Fermentation. My invitation to participate, I must say, was a bit of a lark, entirely unexpected. It is one thing to go about the quiet, deliberative work of presenting important ideas and issues to the public, one’s readership; it is quite another to take to the stage with gentlemen of such considerable experience and wisdom. Though I will not dispute for a minute the insight of the Conference organizers for having thought of me, I will say that I approached the panel discussion with humility, indeed, with a haunting sense that it could all go very wrong. But it didn’t. In fact, it may turn out that our exchange will take on an after-life none of us could have predicted.
Not used to public speaking, fully aware of the shortcomings of my presentation, here I offer an enhanced, fluid reconstruction of my remarks.
 
So It Begins…
 
None of us on the panel had any idea of what the other would say. We had agreed that our point of departure would be the question of whether in the future there would be a handful of important critics, gatekeepers; whether the consumer would continue to depend upon select voices for navigating the bewildering choices. However interesting the answer may be, it was clear to me that the question did not remotely approach what I understand by wine writing. Whether there will be gatekeepers in the future is a marginal question at best. The handmaiden to mere commerce, tasting notes and scores threaten to trivialize wine, and make of wine writing little more than the penning of serviceable haikus. A sub-genre at best, tasting notes and scores might more properly be understood as the discursive equivalent of a wine additive or manipulative technology.
 
And the assumption of a passive consumer deepens this impression. Having worked in a winery and knowing the manipulations commonly brought to unbalanced juice, I have often encountered a deep cynicism with respect to the public. And just as it is a common feature of winemaker psychology, so too does it afflict the wine writer. Aware of winery shenanigans, to the degree that they turn a blind eye to such manipulations in their tasting notes and scores, they, too, show a lazy contempt for the consumer, more so when, as often happens, they are made fully aware of a specific winery’s procedures and practices. Critics often share an unspoken compact with a winery that some things shall go unspoken. Indeed, it is just this structural deformity, the non-equivalence between wine critic and consumer knowledge that encourages contempt for the latter and generates dependance.
 
Now, to be put properly on the path to being a successful wine blogger, especially one specializing in tasting notes, will often mean accumulating secrets, a knowledge of which the public is unaware. It is the effective concealment of aspects wine knowledge, rather than its elaboration, that informs credibility. How humorous is the spectacle of established wine critics slamming bloggers for their lack of expertise when what they really mean is that they don’t know where the bodies are buried! You don’t need a PhD is business to know that controversy will close more doors than it opens. So, a wine blogger’s success, their monetization, is often built upon a foundation of bad faith, the requirement that wine drinkers be reduced to passive consumers, and that some aspects of wine knowledge be strictly policed.
 
The principle obstacle to improving the fortunes of wine writing in a broader sense is, unsurprisingly, the digital form it is required to take. These days there is no wine-related conference one may attend at which social media does not play a commanding role. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or blog formats themselves, these forms can significantly limit expression. A technological fetish, the various forms of social media, endlessly promoted, are granted magical (commercial) powers. But at the expense of thought and culture. We are repeatedly told that no one reads anymore; that 500 to 1000 words is all we should write on our blogs. But that is a function of social media’s digital forms. They aggressively subvert thought, largely preferring commercial applications alone. The corrosive financial impact of multiple digital innovations on traditional wine writers exploring the complexities of wine history, culture, and the literary side of the wine world, is everywhere evident. After all, democratization has, since Plato, known another face. With respect to wine writing we might call it a variation of the tragedy of the commons.
 
The future of wine writing ought to include readers in the writer’s explorations. No longer relegated to a passive position, the word ‘consumer’ should be scrapped. It was just a short while ago that Oz Clarke referred to Merlot as America’s gateway wine. Following upon a series of news reports in the 1980s about the beneficial effects of moderate wine drinking, America turned to wine in a big way. Merlot was chosen because it was the least wine-like wine, by which was meant that it caused no offense and was easy to drink. A lot has changed since then. The ‘consumer’ is not longer in that place. I compare our understanding of the evolution of the ‘consumer’ to traveling by car in the south of France to the Spanish frontier. The architectural forms, the local vernacular, slowly change. To take a single snapshot at any given mileage marker tells you nothing of the subtle, on-going transformations. It is the same with our idea of the ‘consumer’. Though we may try to fix the concept, it is morphing, taking on complexities of its own. So, the first principle of future wine writing in digital formats should be this recognition. Educate readers! Invite them along. Deepen their understanding along with yours. Most importantly, make of your own developing sophistication a promise to readers that your current ignorance will become a shared future knowledge. For your journey is also theirs.
 
There are great opportunities for on-line wine magazines. The Palate Press and Catavino are among the best examples we currently enjoy. Though differing in intent, each offer opportunities for multiple genres and topics to be more fully explored, even if somewhat briefly. The world of wine demands the multiplication of genres the on-line mag performs. The Palate Press’ recent stories on under-valued indigenous American grape varieties amply illustrates the point.
 
And then is the interesting possibility of wineries themselves taking on a greater role in wine writing in the future, to help gently force the agenda. It has long been felt that a winery can only provide updates on the humdrum ‘everydayness’ of their work. Perhaps one might read on Facebook an announcement about a festival or wine sale, the comings and going of the winery dog, that is about it. And whether one is organic or biodynamic is a one-off utterance. “We are organic!” Next month they write, “Yup. We’re still organic!” What is needed is for a winery to enter into a compelling narrative, for themselves to become a generator of important news. And this, in my view, is what Parducci Wine Cellars, the whole of the Mendocino Wine Company, is fast becoming. America’s first carbon neutral winery, the 100% reuse of winery waste water, the construction of wetlands, the aggressive promotion of biodiversity on their properties, these and many other green initiatives make of the Mendocino Wine Company an on-going performance of its vision of the future. The process moves. It is the unfolding story with multiple chapters.
 
Their most recent chapter may well be that as the anchor for a broad-based micro-finance initiative throughout the Mendocino AVA itself. Briefly stated, micro-financing is the use of monies aggregated from multiple private sources for the purpose of peer-to-peer lending. The purpose is not only to eliminate banking hierarchies and their usurious interest rates, but to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit. And to open up opportunities for development often closed to small farmers, for example, in our troubled economic times. Were a struggling farmer wish to do the right thing, to improve the efficiency of their water recycling system or even to install one, where a bank might not see a compelling financial interest, private micro-financing dedicated to such an initiative could quickly respond.
 
I shall have much more to say about this matter moving forward. It is best for now to simply let the process take its course and, hopefully, to awaken the imaginations of other wineries to the idea of micro-financing.
 
So, there are many, many ways to approach the question of the future of wine writing. I have related here not the sum total of my speculations, just those generally consistent with my presentation at the Wine Bloggers Conference. There will be much more to come. After all, tomorrow is the future.
 
Admin

 

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.
 
Admin

 

David Stephenson Introduces The Walla Walla AVA

Ξ June 23rd, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Young Winemakers |

A curious thing happened on the way to Milton-Freewater, Oregon, a small agricultural town a few miles south of Walla Walla, and home to the vineyard of winemaker David Stephenson, just across the road from Cayeuse. What was to have been a vineyard tour first passed through Mr. Stephenson’s remarkable introduction to Walla Walla’s wine growing past, present, and ambitions. I shall be doing a second post on the vineyard portion of my visit as well as the stop at Stephenson Cellars itself. But, for now I felt it would be particularly helpful for fellow wine writers and bloggers here for the Wine Bloggers Conference to be brought up to speed via his spirited account of the AVA.
 
Mr. Stephenson produces round 1,000 cases a year. He is also a consultant, helping with site location, variety selection, bonding paperwork, fruit contracts, the whole deal. As he has said, “In two years I can take anyone from zero to winery”. His knowledge of the local scene makes him an invaluable source of information for visiting bloggers. Indeed, though he is not, sadly, currently on the list of wineries the bloggers are scheduled to visit, I strongly recommend they make their way down to his tasting room at 15 South Spokane St. here in Walla Walla, just minutes from the Marcus Whitman Hotel.
 
Admin I’ve heard repeatedly about cooperation among winemakers here in Walla Walla. You’re view?
 
David Stephenson There is a unique level of cooperation here in Walla Walla. It’s a small town. We all know each other. We have to eat at the same restaurants and stare at each other. We tend to get along. But it’s really about trying to lift everybody up at the same time, because if we have people who’ve driven six hours, or who come here from New York or Chicago, and they have a bad experience at any of the wineries, then that carries through for the rest of their visit. It kind of shadows the valley. So we all made a decision early on, the people who founded this place, the wine community, that it made a whole lot more sense to make sure everybody was successful. We’ll let the marketplace sort out your competitors. We’re not competing against each other. We’re competing against ourselves.
 
What percentage of the local production goes outside of the Walla Walla AVA?
 
DS As far as the fruit… that’s a tough question. I would say, this is a guess, about half. There are some relatively large wineries that have locks on some of the old, established vineyards here. Long-standing contracts. They understand that it probably helps to lift the quality of their wines buying our fruit. Basically, I would say that the percentage is high for wineries here in Walla Walla that source fruit outside of the AVA as well. One of the things we’ve learned in Washington, at least Eastern Washington, is that it’s a pretty unpredictable place weather-wise. So you need to hedge your bets, I believe. So if I’m exclusively one AVA, there is a chance that about every six years you’re going to freeze. And when you do, you don’t get any fruit. So you either raise your prices 20% to cover the loss, or you try and source fruit from outside the valley. A lot of folks just don’t want the headache of that. There is great fruit all over, so it makes sense to borrow from each other, if we can.
 
So how does Walla Walla understand the distinctions between its terroirs and the terroirs of the Yakima Valley, or other locales?
 
DS Oh, you know, that’s still an on-going discussion! Over the years I kind of go back and forth on the whole concept, wondering if it exists [terroir], because I have in my own vineyard sometimes as much difference from one end of the vineyard to the other as there is from one end of this valley to the other end. There’s just a lot of different micro-climates. It’s a pretty large, expansive area. And I think that anybody who comes to Eastern Washington is blown away by just how huge the wine growing areas are. I mean, they stretch to Idaho; they stretch up to the Canadian border; they stretch all the down to Bend, Oregon. So it’s just an enormous amount of real estate. That said, Walla Walla does seem to have a real lushness and warmth to the fruit that I think shows through. It’s not like any other place. That doesn’t mean it’s worse or better. It’s just different. And I really enjoy working with the fruit from here.
I’ve settled here. I’ve bought vineyard ground.
 
And when was your first vintage?
 
DS It was 2001, my first commercial release. I had worked for a lot of the bigger wineries for 3 or 4 years prior to that. I apprenticed with some really great guy that showed me a lot; showed me what not to do as well. I was real appreciative of that. I’ve been around for awhile compared to most of the valley, I guess.
 
Yes. I noticed that there are two major wine books about Washington, including Walla Walla, of course. And even though they were published in 2008 they already seem to be seriously out of date.
 
DS They are completely out of date. Our growth has been exponential. A lot of what is happening is, and there is a lot of romanticism that goes with this, but there are just a lot of people who’ve worked hard their whole lives, and they get to be about 50 or 55 and they wonder what do they want to do in their retirement years. They are productive people, professionals, successful in their fields, so they want something that’s challenging but at the same time enjoyable. So they come here. For as many baby boomers as there are, we talk about an aging population, that’s the demographic that really wants to start these wineries. They maybe spent their college years in Europe and haven’t been back, or they visited and want to have a piece of that enjoyment. I sometimes think there are more people who want to start wineries than there are people who want to buy wine.
 
Is there any conflict between established wheat growers and the pursuit of new vineyard acreage? I’m thinking with respect to land prices.
 
DS Initially there was. But it has really balanced out. What you see now is wheat farmers who often own vineyards. They are not foolish. They understand that if the land prices go up exponentially, and they’re sitting on 3,000 acres, if it goes up ten times that’s not exactly bad for them. It’s tough to farm. If you wanted to get into wheat farming, if that was your life’s goal, to do that without an existing farm would be pretty difficult. That’s just the way things are.
 
But as far as taxes on land… that must be burdensome.
 
DS Well, you know, farmers, we take care of ourselves. There are tax exemptions. You don’t pay the same as if you had an apartment building on your property. Oregon, especially, is very, very protective of their farming ground, their agricultural land. In fact, the vineyard we’re heading to now are in what is called an ‘exclusive farm use area’. I couldn’t build a home. If there is not already an existing home you’re not allowed to occupy any square foot of that land except for agriculture. You have to go with your hat in your hand and beg the planning department if you want to put up any sort of structure that would take any acreage out of production. In exchange for that you have dramatically reduced taxes. It really does work to keep it in agriculture.
 
What about the erosion of your agricultural base? In California a farmer pulling down $50,000 a year might be approached by some real estate speculator who wants to build McMansions. He’s offered millions of dollars for his 100 acres. He’s 70. What’s he going to say? Of course he’ll take the money.
 
DS We’ve seen some of that here, south of town, toward the slopes of the Blue Mountains. There was a lot of 10 acre zoning that were wheat farms; but that seems to have slowed down. People have realized that it’s much better to live in town if you want a to have a second of third home. You’ve got services. You’re not dealing with well failures, mowing, and agriculture all the way around you. It’s really no fun living in a dirt zone, unless you’re farming it. It’s not that romantic.
 
So what about water rights? What percentage would you guess, of course, it has to do with locale, but what is the percentage of vineyards dry-farmed? And what are the irrigation protocols for many of the wineries?
 
DS That’s a good question. Very few wineries or vineyards here are dry-farmed. This road we’re sitting on here is the road down into Oregon. Basically, the rule of thumb is that every mile that you go to the East you pick up an inch of rain. We’re at about 17, 18 inches. It’s almost like clockwork. As you go up the slopes you pick up more water. Basically, as you get this rising elevation, you tend to scrub a little bit more moisture out of the thunderstorms. The difficulty with this area is that we have an enormous amount of water. Walla Walla means ‘many waters’. We’ve got creeks and springs bubbling everywhere. The aquifers are good. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going down–but that’s not due to grape farming. Grape farming uses minimal amounts. The biggest issue that we have is that if you turn your apple orchard, or your cherry orchard, your irrigated fields over to grapes, you’re going to use a tiny percentage of the water that you used to. There is a kind of ‘use it, or lose it’ rule. If you don’t use your 36 inches per year, you may well forfeit it. You can lose it forever.
 
You lose it forever? So they determine your allocation by how much has been historically used? So your incentive is to use as much of your allocation as possible even though you’ve switched over to grapes?
 
DS It’s a terrible system. My right is for 36 inches per year. So you’ll see out here cow pasture where people have a pump going year-round. They just flood-irrigate the field. They just have it running because if they don’t use it up, they’re going to lose it. We all know that in the future that water will be gold. None of this happen without water. Land doesn’t have any value here if you don’t have an irrigation source for it.
We don’t get any rain from basically this point until the end of September, sometimes into October, we’re not going to get an inch of rain. So, unlike France, or other places that dry farm, we get our 18, 20, 22 inches, but it’s all in the Wintertime. We’re in a little bit different situation. We desperately need to irrigate.
 
Speaking of France, when a winemaker first starts out here who do they turn to? To what nation’s winemaking traditions do they model their winemaking? I’ve noticed a certain use of oak, shall we say.
 
DS I would say Rhone is closer. We have a very hot climate. You wouldn’t know it now because it’s temperate, but we’re usually scorching in the 90s right now; that’ll go to a 100, sometimes 110 in the Summertime. Tempranillo is here as well. But it was Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, that’s sort of made in more of a California style. Some want to go to the oak. You want bigger, bigger, bigger, because that is, quite frankly, what your customers want. If you want big scores, you go with lots of oak and heavily extracted fruit. But at some point, you kind of settle down. You make the wines that you love to make. You gain confidence over time. I think you can then throttle back and start paying attention to subtleties. But initially, if you look around, you’ll see that this stuff has not been planted to grapes for very long; I think 40 years is about the oldest vineyard here. Most of them are 10 years, 8 years. And so, with that you get this explosion of new, raw, big, bold, beautiful fruit. They’ve got an excess of carbohydrates. It’s fun while it lasts, but at some point we’re going to settle down here.
 
Where do folks turn for their rootstock?
 
DS There are a couple of nurseries. Washington is a little different because we grow on our own rootstocks, predominately. We’re not using any rootstock here. We don’t have phylloxera at this point. We are too bloody cold; too bloody hot. That we can plant vines ungrafted is another thing that I think gives Washington really unique wines. We’re not having to control for the effects of rootstocks. What you’re getting is kind of a pure blast of Cabernet, or whatever varietal you’ve cuttings of.
 
Do you pay attention to clones?
 
DS There is some attention. I would say that that research is a long ways away. We’re still trying to figure out what site grows fruit. We’re in our absolute infancy. We just haven’t been doing this for very long. and, again, if you look at how much space we have left in the Walla Walla Valley, it’s an enormous area.
We have about 1800 acres under grape cultivation in the entire AVA. I will tell you that there is a new expansion we’re going to be right below [Seven Hills]. It will be about 2000 acres in size. That will double the acreage in the Walla Walla Valley AVA with that one planting alone. So, we’re kind of on the radar now. We’re starting to see a lot more outside money coming in.
 
So, a new winemaker would essentially turn to a limited number of viticulturalists and siting experts in the area and be told what most are told. There is a model or a pattern.
 
DS There is a pattern that gets you in the door. Then, after that, you begin sourcing from small, little independent farmers. And this the community of Milton-Freewater, very different from Walla Walla. This is the old time agriculture: cherries and apples and prunes. And now grapes as well. There are lots of little pocket vineyards in here that are fun to play with.
 
Interesting. So there might be an apple grower here, for example, who might plant an acre of vines. Winemakers would then spot buy, as it were.
 
DS Yes. Absolutely. And there are a lot of winemakers here who work with a farmer. They’ll go up to an orchardist with a 100 acres and ask for five acres to plant under a long-term contract. Then they’ll split the development costs. The farmer gets the ’sure thing’. The winery owner has clear ideas of what he wants to see, what varieties… there’s a lot less risk for both of them.
 
—As mentioned above, a second post on Mr. Stephenson’s vineyard itself will be forthcoming.—
 
Admin

 

From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech

Search

  • Recent Posts

  • Authors