Sip Into This
STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
PHOTOS BY DAN MCCOOL
Smasne Cellars blends award-winning winemaking with a historic lineage of vineyards to uncork its premium vine-to-cork creations.
The Smasne Cellars tasting room is a popular stop for wine lovers touring Woodinville and for loyal wine-club members, who get exclusive access to reserve wines, as well as gold-medal Cabernets, Syrahs, and Bordeaux blends. Winemaker Robert Smasne frequently joins fans at tastings, wine-and-cheese pairings, and release parties. But his story begins on the east side of the mountains.
Smasne is a native of Yakima Valley. He grew up there on the land his family has farmed for more than 100 years. But instead of agriculture, he studied biochemistry at Washington State University. After graduating, he signed on as an assistant winemaker at Covey Run. Winemaker Dave Crippen was looking for someone to train, and Smasne was willing to learn. When the winery was sold to Corus Brands, Smasne found himself in a large organization with many different winemaking facilities and labels, including Columbia Winery, where he worked and learned alongside venerable winemaker David Lake. Next stop was Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla.
Smasne had found a path, and by 2006 he was ready. He launched Smasne Cellars that year, and he’s been on a steady trajectory ever since. At 46, he’s become one of the most prolific winemakers in the state and one of the most decorated. Judges at the 2013 Seattle Wine Festival awarded him six gold medals and four double-gold. The same year, Smasne Cellars was named Washington Winery of the Year. At the 2015 Tri-Cities Wine Festival, he earned a whopping 23 medals — including Best of Variety for his 2012 Old Vine Cabernet — more than any other winemaker.
He is also one of the most sought-after wine-making consultants around. Smasne has shared his expertise with Jarrod and Ali Boyle of Alexandria Nicole Cellars, Todd Newhouse of Upland Estates Winery, and Len Parris of Chandler Reach, to name a few. At one point, he consulted with as many as 24 different wineries, in addition to creating his own wines.
Success has enabled the winemaker to step back a little from his heavy consulting schedule — he’s pared his client list down to six. Today his focus is aimed at Smasne Cellars, where he produces six different labels, each with a different emphasis. Farm Boy and Farm Girl are his value lines, while Farmer is sold at a higher price point. Smasne Cellars wines are primarily varietals and are often blended from the fruit of different vineyards. The premium Smasne Reserve is always a Bordeaux-style blend and only appears when the winemaker feels a vintage merits it.
As a farm boy himself, Smasne is a true believer in the maxim that great wine is made in the vineyard. “I’ve been lucky to work with the same growers for a long time,” he says, “and that lets me be really consistent with my winemaking. I’ve homed into the vineyards and AVAs that I really believe in. My Syrah has come from the exact same vines for the past 10 years.” It also enables him to adapt to challenging conditions. “2010 and 2011 were the coldest years on record, but I really loved those vintages,” he recalls. “It goes back to making the right adjustments outside in the field and then, inside the winery, making sure you handle those wines a little differently. It all goes back to the quality and consistency of the vineyards.”
Smasne works with eight different vineyards in five American Viticultural Areas, producing as many as 50 different wines, including unique varietals like Grenache, Petit Syrah, Aligote, and Carmenere, as well as traditional Bordeaux and Rhone varietals. His relationships with his growers are a key part of his business.
“Robert is awesome to work with,” says Sean Tudor, co-owner of Otis Vineyard in Yakima Valley. “He comes out to the vineyard and we discuss his vision, what he wants to see from the vine to the bottle.”
Tudor is one of Smasne’s go-to growers for premium wine grapes, both reds and whites. They usually meet in the vineyard, but I joined them one cold day last January in Smasne’s kitchen, as they shared a free afternoon. Tudor’s vines were sleeping peacefully. Their juices were ensconced in vats and barrels in Smasne’s winery, quietly releasing the full expression of the land in which they grew.
Smasne’s and Tudor’s combined knowledge of the wines and grapes of Yakima Valley is as dense as the fog hugging the river on that cold, wet day. The two share a long history — Tudor’s family farmed the acreage across the road from the Smasne farm — as well as access to some of the finest wine grapes in Yakima Valley. The Tudors bought Otis Vineyard in 2013. Planted in 1957, it is the first and oldest planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington and is one of Smasne’s favorite vineyards. (He also sources fruit from top-tier estates like Upland Vineyard in Snipes Mountain AVA, Boushey Vineyard in Yakima Valley AVA, and Coyote Canyon Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills AVA).
After years of working together, Tudor has developed a deep respect for Smasne’s abilities and razor-sharp instincts. So a few years ago, Tudor shared his ideas about opening a winery. “I was looking for an opportunity,” he said. “I’m a grower at heart; I like to put my focus there. But Robert is such a great winemaker, I just thought this was perfect.” Smasne liked the idea of helping create new expressions of Otis Vineyard fruit and signed on as the consulting winemaker for the playfully named 2dor Wines.
But the creative give-and-take between a winemaker and a grape grower is mutually beneficial. Smasne thrives on the instincts of his growers, so when Tudor told him he was considering tearing out half of his premium Pinot Gris vines to plant Alborino, a Spanish grape rarely seen in the United States, Smasne immediately reserved his share of the fruit. Alborino is a crisp, food-friendly wine, occasionally referred to as “the new Riesling.” There are only a handful of acres planted to Alborino in Washington State, and seven of them are in Otis Vineyard. Smasne contracts two acres for his winery.
Smasne’s premium red wines are head-turners, and Tudor has some of the best fruit available. “I love working with Otis Vineyard to see what we can get out of those grapes,” Smasne says. So he and Tudor launched an exciting collaboration, sprung from the legacy of Yakima Valley. The friends have commemorated that legacy with a special wine called 1957, honoring the 60th anniversary of the planting of those historic Cabernet vines rooted in Otis Vineyard.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” Smasne says. “I couldn’t wait to get my hands on those grapes. I know the potential of Otis Vineyard from working with David Lake. He made some incredible Cabs out of that old-line block.”
The 2013, 2014, and 2015 vintages of 1957 are in barrels now. The release date? “That’s a good question,” Smasne smiles. “When they’re ready.”
Anne Sampson lives in Richland, Washington, where she writes about wine, food, and culture. She has written for Wines & Vines, Good Fruit Grower, Northwest Palate, Appellation America, and Salon.
Smasne Cellars offers a wide range of food-friendly wines, both reds and whites. To celebrate the release of the special 1957 Cabernet Sauvignon that honors the 60th anniversary of the planting of the historic Cabernet vines rooted in Otis Vineyard, try this classic Beef Bourguignon, published 60 years ago in the Chicago Tribune.
Recipe by Monica Kass Rogers
Serves 8 │start to finish: 2 hours and 45 minutes
1/2 pound quality bacon, diced
4 pounds boneless beef chuck, trimmed of fat and cubed
1/3 cup flour
2 teaspoons fresh-cracked pepper
1 teaspoon fresh-ground salt
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound baby carrots (each carrot halved)
1 large onion, diced
2 leeks, white parts and just a bit of the green
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
3 bay leaves
handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
2 thyme sprigs
1/2 can tomato paste
3 cups unsalted beef broth
1 750-milliliter bottle of burgundy red wine, such as Pinot Noir
1 pound mushrooms, finely diced, sauteed in 2 tablespoons butter (optional)
In a heavy saute pan, fry bacon until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon to a large enameled Dutch oven. Set aside.
In a bowl, mix flour with salt and pepper. Toss beef in flour to coat. Brown beef in batches in the bacon fat (don’t crowd), adding 1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil as needed. Once browned, remove beef to the Dutch oven with bacon.
Deglaze skillet with brandy, scraping off browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour over beef and bacon in the Dutch oven. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and add butter. Cook carrots in butter (with the lid on the pan) for 5 minutes, until partially softened. Add diced onion, leeks, and garlic to carrots. Cover and continue cooking until soft.
Pour vegetables over meats in the Dutch oven. Add bay leaves, parsley, cloves, and thyme. Stir in tomato paste. Pour in beef broth and bottle of red wine.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Heat Dutch oven to a slow boil on stovetop, uncovered. Reduce heat until stew is at a slow simmer and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Place Dutch oven in preheated oven, uncovered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Optional: saute finely chopped mushrooms in a little butter and stir into stew before serving. Serve with crusty bread, fresh-snipped parsley, and red wine.