Knights of the Royal Slope

Sometime during 2018, the Royal Slope is expected to join the ranks of Washington AVAs (American Viticulture Areas). Tucked up in a relatively unpopulated section of the Columbia Valley near Royal City, the Royal Slope shares a border with the Ancient Lakes AVA, known for producing crisp, mineral-driven white wines like EFESTE’s Evergreen Vineyard Riesling.

Gård Vintners owner Josh Lawrence and winemaker Aryn Morell have lobbied the state commission on behalf of the Royal Slope, claiming that, though the site has a similar soil profile to much of the Columbia Valley, consisting of silty loam over fractured basalt with some caliche — which in “normal speak” boils down to river soils deposited by massive Ice Age floods over volcanic lava deposits with calcium carbonate contributing minerality to the flavor profile — it is the site’s huge range of plantable elevation that makes Royal Slope unique.

Most of the vineyards are planted between 1,300 and 1,700 feet above sea level, though newer plantings start as low as 900 feet. High elevation generally equates to hotter days and cooler nights — that huge diurnal shift is key to helping wine grapes retain acidity, an element that is absolutely essential for classic styles of Riesling. Chateau Ste. Michelle purchases most of the vineyard’s Riesling for its award-winning Eroica label.

“Buying land on the Royal Slope was the best decision that has been made in our operation.”

Founded by the Lawrence family in 2006, Gård Vintners is a tribute to the family’s Scandinavian heritage (gård means “farm”); history of entrepreneurship; and most of all the land, which they have farmed for more than 40 years. Proprietors Josh and Lisa Lawrence manage the vineyard aspects of Gård in addition to growing other crops like cherries, apples, grains, and vegetables.

Josh’s grandfather owned a heating oil business in Hoquiam in the mid-1900s, but recognized that heating oil was not going to be the wave of the future. He advised his sons (Josh’s uncle and father) to find something else to do with their lives. So, the brothers purchased the land on Royal Slope in 1965 and became farming partners, planting wheat and alfalfa. In 1980, they traded some of their grain plantings for apple orchards, their first permanent crop. Josh says that opened up their minds to other permanent crop possibilities — like wine grapes, which they finally planted in 2003, after Josh watched the industry take off in the late 1990s.

Gård Vintners Royal Slope

Photo by Jessica Greenfield

When Chateau Ste. Michelle began buying up the Riesling for its top-end label, Josh figured that if his family was growing such high-quality grapes, they might as well make some wine, too. From 2006 to 2010, they partnered with winemaker Robert Smasne. “I knew my skillset would not be in making wine,” Josh said. “I figured out a long time ago that, in business, you have to get over your own ego.” Aryn Morell was buying grapes from Josh’s vineyard for wines he was making for Matthews Winery, and the two hit it off.

“His wines are consistently high-quality across the board. Almost every wine in the portfolio has scored at least a 90, and he has a lot of respect internally in the wine business. Aryn has all the tangibles I wanted in a winemaker,” Josh said, referencing Morell’s logical approach and commitment to the vineyard side of the equation.

Some winemakers specialize in boutique quantities, producing a handful of wines at a time. Others, like Morell, thrive on variety. In the last three years, he crushed upward of 350 tons of grapes. During harvest in 2017, Morell managed 160 different lots for his own projects, including Alleromb and Morell-Peña — a label dedicated to his three daughters — as well as for wineries like Matthews Winery, Ardor Cellars, and Gård Vintners.

In a recent conversation, he discussed his project with Gård Vintners — one of the few 100 percent estate wineries in Washington. The vineyards are proving to be stellar growing sites for white varietals like Riesling and increasingly for red grapes that run the gambit from Syrah to Cabernet Sauvignon and even, surprisingly, Pinot Noir. Morell praises the growing location, calling its acid-retention abilities “pretty phenomenal,” leading to elegant wines with aromatic complexity. “I’m not interested in fruit bombs.”

Gård Vintners wines possess freshness and a purity of flavor that showcase the potential of the Lawrence family estate vineyards. “To this day, buying land on the Royal Slope was the best decision that has been made in our operation by a long shot,” Josh said.

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