Ben Smith of Cadence Winery
the patient rhythms of Cadence Winery
BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
PHOTOS BY CAROLE TOPALIAN
When Washington was first beginning to gain recognition as a wine region, the oft-made comparison was that the wines sat squarely between Old World France and New World California. While this may have once been true, over the years, the center of gravity has shifted.
Californication has led to richer, riper wines not just here in Washington but truly the world over. Even Bordeaux, known for making wines that were often unapproachable in their youth, has felt the effects of the rise in popularity of riper, richer, drink-me-now wines. Throughout this transformation though, one Washington winemaker has ignored the trend—Ben Smith of South Park’s Cadence Winery.
Smith’s journey to becoming one of Washington’s foremost winemakers had a somewhat unlikely beginning. He just didn’t like beer.
“I had a real aversion to it all the way through college,” Smith says. Instead, while his classmates partook in the national collegiate pastime, Smith drank wine. “Just the sweet stuff, the cheap Germans really,” he says with a chuckle.
Ironically, however, it was beer that ultimately led Smith to becoming a winemaker. After graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in mechanical engineering, Smith moved to Seattle in 1986 to take a job at Boeing, working on flight control systems for 737s and 757s. “Everyone was homebrewing back then,” he says. “So I started brewing, fifty or sixty batches.”
One of Smith’s colleagues at the company came to him one day with a proposition. “He was dabbling in home winemaking and knew that I brewed beer and liked wine,” Smith recalls. “So he asked me if I wanted to go out to a vineyard with him and just pick 100 pounds of fruit and try my hand at making wine.” Smith accepted.
A seemingly natural born winemaker, Smith’s first effort ended up taking ‘Best of Show’ at the Boeing Wine Club’s prestigious annual wine competition. “It was just off to the races after that,” Smith says.
As his interest in winemaking grew, Smith began discussing with his lawyer girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Gaye McNutt, the possibility of starting a winery. “At that point, my Boeing career—well, it wasn’t as much of a career. It was more of a job, unfortunately,” Smith says ruefully. With an engineer and a lawyer involved, suffice to say that the couple did extensive research on the feasibility of starting a commercial winery.
“We did the fifty pages of Excel spreadsheets and everything else,” Smith says, adding with his ever-present wry sense of humor. “She is incredibly thorough and didn’t want to throw her money into some random thing her boyfriend was doing!” While their research was exhaustive, one decision the couple made was more instinctive—purchasing the land for what would eventually become their estate vineyard, Cara Mia.
“We were out on a date in 1997 just driving around Red Mountain and looking at vineyards,” Smith recalls. “We saw this rusty ‘For Sale’ sign out there. So we called them up.” Smith and McNutt bought just over ten and a half acres of property with the hope of someday planting a vineyard. In retrospect, he says, “That was the most fortuitous decision we made along the way.” Indeed, Smith had almost literally struck gold, with Red Mountain subsequently establishing itself as one of the premier growing regions in the state and Smith’s parcel of land turning out to be one of the area’s most distinctive sites.
Smith and McNutt launched their winery in 1998, naming it Cadence. “We made a conscious decision that we didn’t want our names on the label—and not just because it’s Smith and McNutt which are not exactly glamorous!” Smith deadpans. “The whole idea was not an ode to self.”
He says of the name, “Cadence is everything we love in life. Part of the reason Gaye and I are together is our love of choral and classical music. She used to sing choral music in high school and college and I did too. On our first date, I was pulling out this cassette tape of music I sang back in my group in high school and she started singing along with it. I thought, ‘This is really cool. She knows this stuff!’” Cadence also reflects Smith’s love of cycling, with Cadence signifying the rhythm of the pedals.
Stylistically, Smith’s wines are inspired by the Old World, focusing on fruit, earth, and structure—the interplay between a wine’s tannins and acidity. Whereas most wineries in Washington have responded to the consumer demand for wines that are fruit forward and meant to be consumed immediately, Smith’s wines, like fine French and Italian wines, require time in the cellar to fully reveal their charms.
“Ninety percent of what we put in our cellar is Barolo and Barbaresco, wines with real structure,” Smith says. “Our wines are not European, but hopefully they take what the Europeans do and apply it to Washington.” Here he catches himself, saying, “You say that and it all sounds a little trite but we try and capture a different balance.”
At the winery, Smith produces only Bordeaux-style blends—wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot—with a particular emphasis on Cabernet Franc. “It’s just so beautifully complex,” Smith says of the grape, his voice quickening with excitement. “It’s got texture. It’s got silk on the palate. It has aromatics that Cabernet can’t touch. The floral side of it is really intoxicating.”
For his wines, Smith focuses on creating vineyard-designated blends from three vineyards on the Red Mountain appellation—Ciel du Cheval, Tapteil, and his own Cara Mia Vineyard. Expressing these sites and displaying their differences is what holds Smith’s interest. “It was clear to me that you could make a lot of different styles from Red Mountain if you chose to,” Smith says.
Over the subsequent years, watching the rest of the state’s winemakers—and many consumers—gravitate toward rich, California-inspired wines has at times been difficult. Smith says jokingly of his run-against-the-grain style at Cadence, “We are a clear alternative, but it seems at times that some folks don’t care for a clear alternative!” He notes, however, that some markets, such as New York, are less affected by the Golden State’s pull. “We play really well in markets that are not so swayed by California or domestic wines in general,” Smith says.
Ultimately, Smith creates wines that move to the cadence that he hears. He says of his approach and style, “It’s made it more of a challenge certainly to make wine that is better in five or ten years for folks who may not have the patience to lay it down. But it’s been a challenge that we’re very comfortable with. It’s true to who we are.”
Sean P. Sullivan is the founder of Washington Wine Report and a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine. He has written about wine for numerous regional and national publications.
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