Old Wines, New World

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Ancient grapes find a new home at Tanjuli Winery

STORY AND PHOTO BY ANNE SAMPSON

Tom Campbell holding Black Muscat grapes-DSC03433Tanjuli Winery nestles into the Rattlesnake Hills, just above the tiny town of Zillah in eastern Washington. The landscape here is rich — acres of fruit trees roll into rows of wine grapes, with farmstead homes scattered among them. Winemaker Tom Campbell and I pick our way across the graveled paths between vineyard blocks, propane guns booming in the distance to frighten off birds. I see globes of heavy, dark grapes on the vines ahead of us. “That’s the Black Muscat,” Tom says, plucking a fat berry from the vine and handing it to me. “Taste it.”

The grape’s sweet, deep flavors are remarkable.

“You can see why I was first attracted to Muscat,” he grins.

Indeed, I can. At Tanjuli, Tom nurtures a small, seven-acre vineyard planted with Old World grapes not often seen in the United States, including two varieties of Muscat — Orange and Black — as well as Aglianico, Sagrantino, and Nebbiolo. Pinot Noir at Tanjuli thrives in the hot, dry sun, despite its reputation as a cool-climate grape. Carmenere and Mourvedre develop deep nuances, and the dark, juicy Muscat … well, these are some of the grapes that drew Tom back to the Rattlesnake Hills after a 35-year career making wines.

Tom’s Muscat love began in 1978, while studying winemaking at the University of California at Davis. Dessert wines like Muscat are not usually a budding winemaker’s favorite, but at that time, the whole world of wine was new to Tom. “School started in the fall, right when the Muscat was being harvested,” he says. “As a wine newbie, I was hooked.”

He learned the trade hands-on in the burgeoning California wine scene before being lured to Washington and the area now known as Rattlesnake Hills. He worked as an enologist under Kay Simon at Chateau Ste. Michelle, moved on to establish the white-wine program at Quail Run Winery (the forerunner to Covey Run Winery) and in 1984, opened his own winery, Horizon’s Edge. He spent the next 15 years working with all the grapes familiar to Washington: Riesling, Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah.

In 1999, he sold Horizon’s Edge and returned to his native Montana, where he established Mission Mountain Winery on the shores of Flathead Lake. But he kept his fingers in Washington’s wine industry, as a minority shareholder and director of production at The Woodhouse Wine Estates in Woodinville, where he still collaborates with Jean Claude Beck as part of the winemaking team.

Eventually, the arid hills of eastern Washington called him back. The wine industry’s progression there in the 1980s and 1990s convinced Tom that the area could produce just about any grape. When growers started planting in the ‘70s, he explains, Riesling was dominant. Soon, people realized Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet and Merlot would also thrive. In the early ‘90s, experiments with Syrah proved successful. At about the same time, Chilean wineries were producing outstanding wines from newly rediscovered Carmenere vines, and Washington wine growers joined in.

Tom was convinced that many other grapes, not yet planted in North America, could do just as well outside their traditional regions. In 2005, he launched Tanjuli Winery, focusing exclusively on exotic, Old World grapes, and producing wines with a distinctly European style. The name honors Tom’s children, Taj and Anjuli, and evokes the exotic makeup of his vineyard.

One of his first plantings was a small block of Pommard Pinot Noir, a clone usually associated with cool coastal climates. While working in California, Tom observed that Pinot Noir from inland vineyards produced wines just as notable as those near the ocean. “Along the coast, from Sonoma to Santa Barbara, it’s cool fog; but five miles inland, you’re back in an arid climate,” he says. “I noticed that the inland Pinot Noir was also very good, with more concentrated flavors. Even in Burgundy, the best vintages are the hottest years, and the best areas are hot and dry, like Cote d’Or.”

Today, Tom’s seven acres hold high-density plantings of Pinot Noir, Picpoul Blanc, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Carmenere, Mourvedre, Sagrantino, Teroldego, Viognier, Orange Muscat, and Black Muscat. The vineyard rows are spaced seven feet apart, with vines spaced two to four feet apart. This kind of density could yield up to six tons per acre, but Tom holds the crop to a mere one or two tons. The result: deeper, more intense flavors.

The Old World mystique of these grapes is captivating, but Tom admits to having a favorite: Nebbiolo, a grape he calls “the holy grail.”

“It requires lots of work to extract the different aspects of it,” Tom says. “It’s a very complex wine, with a big range of fruit, floral, and mineral characteristics. It’s very tannic, even though it’s light in color, so it also requires extra aging. It must stay in the barrel at least three years.”

Normally, that means Tanjuli’s first vintage of Nebbiolo, the 2012, would have appeared in 2015, but Tom held it in the bottle for yet another year before releasing it in April 2016. The 2013 vintage will be released in April 2017. Those extra months, he says, “help develop the bottle bouquet,” an aspect of wine that Tom says is often neglected.

“After you disturb the wine, getting it into the bottle, it might take it a month to regain its full character,” he explains, “or it might take six months or eight months.” A fully developed bouquet in the bottle lends the wine layers of nuance, producing new flavors with each sip.

That sense of adventure in the bottle, as well as in the vineyard, is a hallmark of Tanjuli, and visitors to the tasting room are receptive to Tom’s vision. While baby boomers like to taste familiar wines, like Pinot Noir and Viognier, millennials look for something new, he says. Tanjuli Winery answers both instincts – Old World grapes putting down new roots, and new expressions, in Washington’s Rattlesnake Hills.

 

Anne Sampson lives and writes in Eastern Washington about wine, travel, and culture.

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