Buty Winery in Walla Walla blends wines of place.
STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
PHOTOS BY NOAH FORBESNina Buty has a thing about rocks. The founder of Buty Winery in Walla Walla hauls them home when hiking. Two- or three-pound samples from her vineyard often tumble around the back of her car. And in her Walla Walla tasting room, she displays a jar full of stones collected from her property.
The Seattle native studied geology as a student at Whitman College, but today, Nina’s interest in rocks goes way beyond academics. The stones, along with the silt, sand, and loam coating eastern Washington’s and northeast Oregon’s wine regions, are the focal point behind all her wines, each one crafted specifically to highlight the virtues of the terroir that produced it. When she founded Buty Winery in 2000, Nina says, “Our idea was to blend wines of place.”
And today, the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater might be one of her favorite places. Spread over just six square miles, the tiny AVA didn’t obtain official recognition until 2015, but Buty Winery has worked with grapes from the area for 17 years. In fact, some of Buty’s earliest contracts were with Cailloux Vineyard, planted in The Rocks and famous for one of the Walla Walla Valley’s first forays into syrah production. In 2006, when some land became available in the area, Nina leaped at the opportunity to buy it.
The winery’s first estate vineyard, named Rockgarden Estate, is planted on “uninterrupted cobblestones as deep as 200 feet, ranging from the size of a large potato to a Nerf football,” Nina says. There is only one way to power through such formidable terrain. “It was planted with a crowbar,” she grins.
Since the estate’s first yield in 2010, those formidable basalt cobblestones have become the launch pad for one of Buty’s signature wines, a syrah-cabernet sauvignon blend called Rediviva of the Stones. Buty was the first Washington winery, according to Nina, to focus on blending syrah and cabernet. Winemaker Chris Dowsett makes two versions every year: Rediviva of the Stones from Rockgarden, and Columbia Rediviva, a deluxe blend of cabernet and syrah made with fruit sourced from Phinny Hill Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills. Both wines are named for the ship piloted by Capt. Robert Gray in 1792, up the Columbia River as he searched for the Northwest Passage.
It might sound redundant to showcase two such similar blends, but the differences between the two Redivivas are what Buty Winery is all about. Syrah dominates Rediviva of the Stones. In recent vintages, it accounts for as much as 80 percent of the mix. Rockgarden is planted to three different clones of syrah, along with some mourvedre and cabernet sauvignon.
Basking in the heat reflected from the rocky terrain, the densely planted vines compete for nutrients from the sparse soil and tend to ripen slowly, with low sugars, yielding fruit flavors and sturdy acids that underscore the chalky minerality of The Rocks. Chris aged the 2013 vintage for 17 months in neutral barrels, with no new oak, allowing spice and floral notes to shine.
The same vintage of Columbia Rediviva, sourced from Phinny Hill, flips the balance with 85 percent cabernet, aged for 20 months in French oak, 37 percent of it new. “We love the Horse Heaven Hills,” says Chris, “because we get the heat from some of the warmer areas, but the river keeps things cool,” creating a balance. “And you get a lot of wind, so the grapes hold a little more acidity.” The result is a wine that maintains its floral and fruit aromas, wrapped around the tobacco and vanilla notes of an oak-softened cabernet.
Buty Winery today works with six different wines born of the Walla Walla Valley, and another four from the Columbia Valley. Only one wine, the chardonnay produced from Conner Lee Vineyard fruit, is produced as a varietal. Chris bottles the rest as single-vineyard blends designed to highlight their origin.
Besides the two Redivivas and the chardonnay, the line-up includes a cabernet franc-merlot blend from Conner Lee Vineyard in the Columbia Valley, a cabernet sauvignon-cabernet franc from the famed Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills; and a white Bordeaux blend of semillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle sourced from three different vineyards in the Columbia Valley. With each wine and each vintage, Chris works toward Buty’s distinctive style: firm tannins and acidity, a luxurious silky texture, along with fruit-oriented flavor profiles that complement food while downplaying influences like oak. “We’re looking for the flavor of the vineyard,” Chris says.
Sounds simple, but it’s more complex than it might seem. “A lot of people in Oregon, for example, do single-site pinot noirs,” Chris explains. “It looks easy — you bring it in, and you bottle it.” The grapes might come from a single source, but a winemaker’s art and intuition can take them in many different directions. In fact, for each of their labels, Chris and Nina might start out with as many as 30 different lots of wine to juggle into the perfect blend before bottling.
Most of Buty’s chardonnay, for example, is from Conner Lee’s oldest block, planted in 1989. The rest is from a Dijon clone planted at the vineyard. Over the course of harvest, Chris might pick fruit three different times. He handles each of those lots a little differently — some fermented in concrete tanks to enhance the bright, clean characteristics of the fruit, some exposed to air during fermentation, others capped with CO2, and some (around 10 percent) fermented in new oak. The process does as much as the terrain to reveal the best of each site.
“We do that with the reds too,” Chris says. With the merlot-cabernet franc blend, for example, “We go through everything we have from Connor Lee, usually two picks of cab franc. We ferment some in new oak, some in old oak. With the merlot, sometimes there’ll be a bigger fermenter and a smaller fermenter. We’ll keep those separate.” By November, Chris says, the wines are usually all in barrel, where he leaves them to age without racking.
Then the juggling begins. Chris and Nina work together, tasting each lot “to see what we have for the year. Then we come back and do the second round. We’ll start with a 60–40 blend of merlot and cabernet franc. Then we’ll also do a 50–50, and a blend of 80 percent merlot and see how those taste. That gives us a direction.”
Sometimes they reach a point where they have two different blends that might be a little stylistically different. “You have to choose,” says Chris. “You have to ask yourself, what have we liked historically, what do we want for the future? It can be really easy to choose a style that appeals more to everyone, but we don’t sell to everyone.”
Rather than catering to a mass market, Chris and Nina stay focused on the beauties of their vineyards and the apparent preferences of their core clientele. “We sell mostly to people who buy our wine year in and year out,” Chris says. “If you put out something that is maybe a little oakier or a little sweeter palate, you might be able to sell a little more wine, but you also want to remain true to what you’ve been doing. We usually open up two or three older bottles and see how the new vintages compare to those. We work with the vineyards from the ground up, all the way through the barrel, so we recognize what we’re working with each year.”
And through all that juggling — vineyard sites, harvest dates, oak or no oak — a consistent philosophy emerges. “It’s a process,” Chris muses. “I like that consistency, but I also love making wines with a lot going on, lots of interesting flavors that work together. Complexity is a really big piece of why I blend.”
Anne Sampson writes about wine and the people who create it, from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Pacific Northwest.