The dizzying growth of the Washington wine industry can leave many wine drinkers with a buzz worthy of notorious alcoholic Ernest Hemingway before they even take their first sip of the fermented grape juice. The sobering reality is that with more competition the overall quality of wines in Washington, like the sun, also rises.
Sifting through the 700-plus wineries in Washington can make you an old man (that goes for you, too, ladies) in a sea of wine. As you make wine shopping plans for 2013, consider some of the Washington wineries to watch, according to this Hemingway wannabe.
Two established wineries to watch are Betz Family Winery, where iconic winemaker Bob Betz (and his Hemingway-esque beard) is training his successor (assistant winemaker Tyson Schiffner), and Efeste, where iconoclastic winemaker Brennon Leighton is giving way to Peter Devison.
Betz is in the middle of a five-year transition plan after selling his eponymous winery to Steve and Bridgit Griessel. Leighton remained as the consulting winemaker at Efeste during the 2012 harvest, a roll he could retain for the immediate future. In the meantime, Leighton is focusing on his new job making ultra premium Chardonnay for Charles Smith in Walla Walla.
There are several other Washington wineries to watch in 2013. Some are first-time winemakers pursuing second careers. Others have been making wine for years and are moonlighting at their own wineries. Some are familiar names while others have been toiling anonymously behind the scenes.
Avennia: Taucher Walks the Talk
“Microsoft retiree” has become a cliché around these parts. But make no mistake about it, Marty Taucher, who worked at Microsoft from 1984 until 1999, is an original. His definition of “retirement” is a life of angel investing, raising his kids, serving on several nonprofit boards and pursuing his passions for golf, music and wine.
His passion for wine led him to the Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle Community College, where he enrolled in the wine marketing and sales program in 2009. He also volunteered at DeLille Cellars in 2009, when he met Chris Peterson, who made wines at the Woodinville winery for seven years. Taucher recruited Peterson to become his winemaker, first on a consulting basis in 2010 and full-time by May 2011.
Taucher and Peterson source much of their fruit from the famed Boushey Vineyards owned and managed by Dick Boushey, as well as Bacchus, Red Willow and Force Majeure. Avennia’s first releases include a Sauvignon Blanc (2011 Oliane Boushey Vineyard, $25), two Syrahs (2010 Parapine, Yakima Valley, $35, and 2010 Arnaut, Boushey Vineyard, $35) and two Bordeaux-style blends (2010 Gravura Red Wine, Columbia Valley, $35, and 2010 Sestina Red Wine, Columbia Valley, $50).
Sonoris: It’s About Family
Hillary Sjolund pays homage to her family with her new winery, Sonoris Wines. Her first wines, four released last fall, are a nod to a different family member. Burney’s Blend is a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon named after her grandfather. The Source, a 2009 Merlot refers to her father Alan. Pure Grace, a 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, is a nod to her mother Karen. Verna Mae is a 2011 Viognier named after her grandmother.
Sjolund trained at the University of California Davis. She was the assistant winemaker at Napa-based Pine Ridge Vineyards for three years before moving to Washington to become the winemaker at Woodinville’s DiStefano Winery. She left DiStefano nearly two years ago to devote herself to her winery full-time.
Lauren Ashton: Singh-ing a familiar tune
Kit Singh, a dentist by day, was part of the winemaking team at DeLille Cellars for two years and taught wine science at the Northwest Wine Academy. With a foundation in science and winemaking, he started Lauren Ashton Cellars as a family affair. His wife, Riinu Rammal, is the director of marketing. The winery is named after their children, daughter Ashley Lauren and son Ashton Troy.
Singh makes clean and precise wines. His first releases include four red wines, three white wines and a Rosé. The 2009 Proprietor’s Cuvee is a Bordeaux-style blend of 69 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 27 percent Merlot and 2.5 percent of each Petit Verdot and Malbec. This masculine wine shows classic qualities of black cherry, black currants, eucalyptus, espresso, pencil lead and fine grained tannins.
Manu Propria: Sauer grapes
Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery has been an incubator, of sorts, hatching Woodinville Warehouse District wineries, including Sparkman Cellars and Guardian Cellars. He has also spurred Gorman Winery and Darby, among others, during their nascent years. The next to rub off McNeilly’s winemaking success could be his assistant winemaker Michael McMorran, who has a side project of his own in Manu Propria.
McMorran’s first release is 170 cases of a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon blend chiefly sourced from the storied Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley managed by fourth generation farmer Mike Sauer. The blend is 83 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Willow, 14 percent Merlot from Red Willow and three percent Malbec from Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain.
Manu Propria, Latin for by my own hand, is a family affair. McMorran’s wife Rachel is the director of marketing and sales. The McMorran’s want to eventually pass on the winery to their two-year-old son, Jack. McMorran is also steadfast in his commitment to sourcing fruit from Red Willow.
“I told Mike (Sauer) this is a 35 year commitment,” McMorran said. “I want these blocks contracted to me until I’m dead. If my son wants to go into winemaking I want it contracted to him.”
He also intends to stay at Mark Ryan Winery and Force Majeure Vineyards, where he is the estate winemaker.
“None of this could have happened without Mark (McNeilly),” McMorran said. “He has been our biggest supporter. I promised to him that I would make Mark Ryan the priority.”
Alleromb: the A-Bomb
Aryn Morell makes wines for Matthews Estate, Tenor, Gård Vintners and now his own label Alleromb. The winery’s name is Morell spelled backwards and sandwiched between his and his brother Brendon’s first initials.
Morell will be releasing three wines this spring under the Alleromb label; 2010 Red Wine (77 percent Grenache, 23 percent Syrah), 2010 Scarline Syrah and 2012 Lareyna Blanca Sauvignon Blanc. Much of the fruit for his first releases come from Gård Vintners estate blocks that are now dedicated to Alleromb.
Morell’s wines are noted for balance and luxurious texture. Altogether, he makes nearly 30 wines, depending on the vintage. However, he develops unique style for each winery.
“You have to treat every program independent from each other,” Morell explains. “(Alleromb wines) are the most elegant. They are the purest wines.
“We really wanted to make something regal, sophisticated and elegant. Something that was age-worthy.”
Upchurch Vineyard: Moving on Up-church
In the meantime, Peterson’s old boss at DeLille, Chris Upchurch, is working on a new winery of his own.
Upchurch bought 20 acres on Red Mountain in 2007 and with Boushey’s help planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. During the first vintage, 2010, he sold 80 percent of the fruit to DeLille. The balance went into his first release under the Upchurch Vineyard label, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Merlot. The result is a beguiling wine with firm structure, layers of cherry and blackberries, stony minerality and lithe acidity. The 2010 vintage is sold out. The 2011 vintage can be ordered on their website, www.upchurchvineyard.com, before it is released in December, 2013.
Despite the new title of vineyard owner, Upchurch plans to remain at DeLille.
“My first job is at Delille,” Upchurch said emphatically. “I am an owner at Delille. (Upchurch Vineyard) is my retirement project. Mainly, I did it because it needed to be done.”
W.T. Vintners: Get somm!
Jeffrey Lindsay-Thorsen honed his palate as a sommelier at some of the region’s best restaurants, including Café Juanita, Wild Ginger and the now defunct Cascadia. Currently, he’s the wine director at RN74 in Downtown Seattle. In his spare time, the father of two-year-old fraternal twins, makes elegant wines evocative of their origins at W.T. Vintners, along with the father and son team of George White, Sr. and George White, Jr.
All of W.T. Vintners wines are single varietal and single vineyard, meaning each wine is made up of a single grape varietal coming from a single vineyard source. Total production is about 300 cases. Lindsay-Thorsen said he wants to grow production to about 2,000 cases by 2016.
The 2010 Gorgeous Syrah ($24) made with fruit from Destiny Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA was released in the fall. In March he will release the 2010 Damavian Syrah ($38) Les Collines Vineyard, Walla Walla and the 2012 Grüner Veltliner ($16) Underwood Mountain, Columbia Gorge AVA. All wines can be ordered from their website, www.wtvintners.com.
Lindsay-Thorsen uses no new oak, doesn’t filter or fine his wines to retain the purity and natural expression of the varietal and each vineyard site.
“The concept is to make wines to be drunk and enjoyed that are a reflection of the places where they are grown,” Lindsay-Thorsen said. “I am totally committed to find the best vineyards and allowing them to express themselves. I have something to say about what I want the wines to be but what the vineyard has to say is more important.”
Flying Dreams: Flying Solo
Winemaker Leroy Radford has been quietly crafting wines as part of the winemaking team at Baer Winery that has been garnering attention for years. With his own winery, Flying Dreams, he’s flying solo crafting elegant wines with fruit sourced from some of the best sites in the state.
The comparisons to Baer wines are inevitable. The 2009 Monastrell (Spanish for Mourvedre) is made up 100 percent fruit from Stillwater Creek Vineyard, which he also sources for Baer. The 2009 ‘Sidekick’ Red Blend is a silky, plush and elegant blend similar to Baer Ursa. But make no mistake, Redford is a winemaker with a singular commitment to making elegant, clean and balanced wines.
Chris Nishiwaki is a Mercer Island-based freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in The Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Food & Wine, Zagat and more.