Rise of the Rhone
The vineyards of Syncline Wine Cellars, where James Mantone grows the Rhone varietal Mourvèdre
Pushing the boundaries in Washington wines
STORY BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
PHOTO BY PATRICK BENNETT
“When I first moved to Washington and I told people I wanted to make Grenache, some people kind of laughed at me,” said winemaker Jon Meuret of Maison Bleue Family Winery. Though the state had Grenache plantings dating back to the 1960s, many growers and winemakers had given up on the grape, which is notoriously tender. “They said, ‘It gets frozen out. You can’t rely on getting a crop,’” Meuret recalled.
There were other reasons to look at Meuret quizzically when he first arrived in Washington. He had left behind a thriving dental practice in Kansas City to start a winery in Washington dedicated to grapes grown in France’s Rhone Valley. While Meuret’s passion for making Rhone-style wines might have seemed quixotic, he wasn’t the only one. He is part of a trend of winemakers who have come to the state over the last fifteen years to explore this new frontier of Washington wine.
Like Meuret, James Mantone of Syncline Wine Cellars fell in love with Rhone wines early in life. “In the mid 90s they were the undiscovered bargain wines out there,” he recalled. “From Europe, there were greats wines that we could afford and we loved them. They worked so well at the dinner table.”
When Mantone moved to Washington in the late 1990s and started working with Mourvèdre—another Rhone variety—no one really knew what would happen. “At the time, none of us knew if the vines would survive our winters,” Mantone said. “It was an exciting time because we didn’t know if we put a bunch of sticks in the ground if they would be there the next year. There was a real sense of exploration that was going on.”
Those explorations started in 1986. That year, at the encouragement of the late Columbia Winery winemaker David Lake, Mike Sauer planted Syrah at his Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. In a region known for the more tannic Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, these first Syrah plantings would eventually transform Washington’s wine industry and lead to an explosion of other Rhone varieties that continues to the present day.
Yakima Valley grower Dick Boushey was inspired by those early Columbia Winery Syrahs. “When I went in and tasted David’s 1988 Syrah out of a barrel, that’s when I said, ‘I need to plant some of that,’” Boushey said. “I had never tasted anything like that from Washington.”
Indeed, Syrah offered a more supple profile that is both food friendly and remarkably chameleon-like, with aromas and flavors that vary radically based on where it is grown, from fruit notes of blueberry and blackberry to more savory notes of earth and game.
Together with Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars, Boushey scouted out an old abandoned apple orchard that, along with Red Willow, would become one of the premier Syrah vineyards in the state. “The thing that really impressed us,” McCrea recalled, “was that it had a lot of volcanic material there. We thought that could contribute something interesting to the wine.” The resulting wines from Boushey Vineyards have a distinct earthy quality—often referred to as the ‘Boushey funk’—along with notes of mineral and bacon fat.
Years later the results from Syrah in Washington are more than promising—offerings from Cayuse Vineyards, K Vintners, and others are consistently the state’s most highly rated wines. But learning how to properly grow and vinify the other Rhone varieties (there are more than 20) has been somewhat challenging.
“We’re still really working it out,” Mantone said. “We’re still trying to figure out the best way to grow these grapes.” He said that his biggest challenge in the vineyard is controlling grape cluster and berry size. “Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Counoise can produce some monstrous clusters,” he said, noting that larger clusters and berries can dilute flavors.
Winemaker Mike Macmorran of Mark Ryan Winery agreed that Rhone varieties can be challenging. “If you miss picking Cabernet by a day or two, you’re still going to make great wine out of it,” Macmorran said. “If you miss Viognier by a day or two, you either have picked it a day or two early and get a lot of bitterness, or a day or two too late and the wine has this tropical fruit punch, watermelon Jolly Rancher thing.”
In the winery, Rhone grape varieties also require a more careful hand, particularly in regards to the use of new oak barrels for aging. “The oak aromatics can really pound down the cleaner strawberry, cherry, and spice characteristics you can get from Grenache,” Macmorran said. “For us, our big goal is to really try and showcase the variety, the vineyard, and the year that the wine was produced from. With oak on those Rhone varietals, we really try to be careful to protect that.”
Here Mantone draws a food analogy. “I like to think of oak with these varieties as salt,” he said. “It should be used very judiciously just to bring out flavors. But as soon as you can taste the salt you’ve put too much in and that’s how I feel about oak in these varieties. If you can taste the oak, it’s out of balance. You have to be really careful.”
Despite the challenges of Rhone wines, Washington consumers have embraced them. “I remember when we first started working with Viognier and people didn’t even know what Viognier was,” Mantone said. “It’s really refreshing as a producer to see a lot of people interested in different things. That’s allowed us to pursue these non-mainstream varieties.”
And what of Meuret’s Grenache, the grape people laughed at? After a string of high scoring, sold out vintages at his Maison Bleue Family Winery, few are laughing now. “Like anything in this state, it needs to be in the right site,” Meuret said, “but it can do well here.”
“Everyone wants to experiment,” said Dick Boushey of Washington’s Rhone movement. “I said I’d never plant Grenache for 20 years and I’m glad I finally planted it,” he said. “I always say, “Gosh I hope it makes good wine because it’s a pain to grow!”
While the list of successes is long and interest is surging, it remains pioneer days for Rhone grapes in Washington. “It won’t happen in a year,” said Sean Boyd of Walla Walla’s Rotie Cellars, whose winery is dedicated to Rhone wines. “It may take five or ten years before winemakers and wine drinkers become aware of all of the different possibilities for Rhone wines here. But it will happen. It’s a pretty exciting time.”
Sean P. Sullivan is the founder of Washington Wine Report, an online publication dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. He is also a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine.