Going Big by Staying Small

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Food is a central theme at Tendril Wine Cellars, where tightly focused wine is created with a cook’s sensibility of complementary flavors, complexity, and balance.


Ten years ago, Tony Rynders was at the top of his game. During his decade-long span from 1998 to 2008 as head winemaker for Oregon’s Domaine Serene Winery, his skill with the temperamental pinot noir grape became legendary. He earned more 90-point-plus scores from Wine Spectator than any other winemaker, and transformed what had been a boutique winery that bottled a few thousand cases a year to a house that produced some 35,000 cases of pinot noir and chardonnay. Under his guidance, Domaine Serene earned accolades from Wine and Spirits magazine as Winery of the Year for five consecutive years.

Pretty big-time stuff. But where do winemakers turn after scaling such heights? After going so big at Domaine Serene, Tony chose to go small. He is still producing extraordinary wines, consulting with wineries around the Pacific Northwest. In 2013, he signed on as winemaker with one of his clients, Panther Creek Cellars, a label renowned for its pinot noirs and chardonnays, which just moved its tasting room from the Willamette Valley to Woodinville. His current releases there include 16 wines that have been awarded 90 points or more.

But his heart is at Tendril Wine Cellars, a tightly focused venture in Gaston, Oregon, that he launched in 2008, where he works with a handful of promising young vineyards to bottle small lots of premium wines. Pinot stars in all of his work, but if the fussy grape dominates Tendril’s inventory, it’s because it dominates Oregon’s vineyards.

“I’m a Pacific Northwest guy,” Tony says. He is happiest with the quality of life in the Willamette Valley. He is also very happy with the valley’s wine grapes. At Tendril, he crafts wines that display an array of flavors and structure, dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay, of course, but with a little cabernet sauvignon thrown in, as well, from the Walla Walla Valley’s Octave Vineyard, where Tony is a partner.

Tony likens his wines to a five-course menu. “I like telling a story, putting something together in a creative way that hasn’t been done before,” he says. Wine and food are the ultimate complements to each other, and while Tony works with barrels and tanks now, he started out with pots and pans in the kitchen. “I started working in restaurants when I was 16,” he says, first as a dishwasher, then progressing to cooking. During college at the University of Wisconsin, he moved on to bartending, but he hadn’t yet developed a taste for wine.

That came a few years later. After graduating with a degree in microbiology, he moved to eastern Washington for a job in the lab of a food processor. His appreciation for wine began there, in local tasting rooms and wine festivals. “Then, at the age of 25, I had my first mid-life crisis,” he laughs. He quit his job to travel, and found work in several European wineries and vineyards.

Back in the U.S., Tony returned to the laboratory, this time at Mirassou Winery in California. Within six months, he says, he was in the cellar making wine. He earned a master’s degree in enology and viticulture in 1992 from the University of California, Davis, then worked at wineries in Napa Valley, Italy, and Australia. In 1995, he went to work for Hogue Cellars in the Yakima Valley, in a program that produced as many as 50 different wines at a time. When he landed, three years later, as head winemaker at Domaine Serene, he capitalized on that broad experience in the Yakima Valley and began a decade of steady expansion for the boutique winery, solidifying his razor-sharp skills with pinot along the way.

But by 2008, Tony was ready to move on, and he left Domaine Serene to launch Tendril Wine Cellars. The new venture offered him a whole new expression. “One of the central themes of Tendril is food,” he explains. “While I attended UC Davis back in the ‘90s, I made wine with a cook’s sensibility, focusing on complementary flavors, complexity, and balance. I realized I was using effectively the same skillset to make wine that is used in cooking. I just thought of myself as the wine’s cook. It added a lot of clarity to what I do and how I approach it.”

Tendril’s menu includes four pinot noirs, a white pinot, and a chardonnay. “For a five-course meal, you’d be starting with a salad course or a seafood, something that’s a little lighter, with a little acidity to it,” he says. Extrovert Pinot Noir, with bright floral notes and balanced fruit flavors, is his opener. “As you progress, you get more into a main-course type of pinot, and TightRope would be squarely in that category. It’s got darker fruits to it, more structure, more oak influence, as well.”

Tony uses whole-cluster fermentation on TightRope, aging it for 16 months in French oak. C-Note Pinot Noir, a complex wine with flavors of black cherry and lavender, aged 17 months in 100% new French oak, fills out the middle of the lineup. Chardonnay and Pretender White Pinot Noir finish the menu.

The five-course story he tells reflects the blending regime Tony adopted at Tendril, working with a variety of vineyards to showcase a region rather than individual sites. “I wanted to show range, and I had to do something different,” he explains, returning to a food analogy. “Terroir-based wines, like they make in Burgundy, are little bits and pieces that are all ‘cooked’ separately. Over here in the New World, the common model with pinot noir is single-vineyard. Some of the brands I work with are very focused on single-vineyard wines, but for Tendril, I wanted to mix it up.” Many of Tendril’s wines are blended from fruit originating in three or four regions. Carabella Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains and Mount Richmond Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA are some of his favorites.

He also seeks out promising new sites like Saffron Fields Vineyard, a young vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton that was just in its third leaf when Tony contracted for their entire crop in 2009. “From a purely creative standpoint, it’s exciting to find hidden gems,” he says. “I had a very strong feeling that Saffron Fields was going to be a great site. There were just 10 acres bearing that year, and I took all 10, which was a massive commitment for me. It was a big impact on our program, and it turned out great.”

Tony has added some of his own fruit to the mix, as well, from his estate vineyard where he planted chardonnay and four different clones of pinot noir.

Between Panther Creek and Tendril, Tony continues to uncover the intricacies in Oregon’s premier grape. “The goal for Panther is to provide delicious, site-driven pinot noirs, primarily from single vineyards,” he explains, although more than half of the winery’s production is the Winemaker’s Cuvee, blended from selected vineyards around the Willamette Valley. Conversely, he also bottles a Tendril pinot made exclusively from Saffron Fields fruit.

But through his balancing act between the single-vineyard approach and regional blends, Tony has found happiness as a boutique winemaker, refining his menu at Tendril with each new crush. “I don’t want to be a 20,000- or 50,000-case brand. I know what it takes to do that, and it’s not really my goal. I just want to have a wonderful, high-quality representation that’s consistent year in and year out, and hopefully a more creative assemblage of wines. I want to do something different — build a better mousetrap. I want people to have a really wonderful experience.”

Tendril Wine Cellars
Gaston OR, 503-858-4524
By appointment only


Try pairing these recipes with Tendril’s “menu” of wines:


Seared Sea Scallops

Prep time: 8 minutes | Cook time: 7 minutes | Serves: 4

Pair with Tendril Chardonnay

12 large, fresh sea scallops
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon porcini powder
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

Pat scallops dry with paper towels, season lightly with salt and pepper, then dust with porcini powder. Heat a large sauté pan or nonreactive skillet over medium-high heat and add butter. Once butter melts but does not brown, add scallops. Do not crowd the pan. Work in batches if necessary. Sauté until well-seared, about 2 minutes, then turn and cook the other side. When the second side is golden, transfer scallops to a platter. Cover and keep warm. Serve with simple mashed Yukon Gold potatoes (butter, salt, pepper), with a drizzle of truffle oil.

Onion, Mushroom, and Thyme Tart

Prep time: 20 minutes | Cook time: 1 hour 10 minutes | Serves: 6–8

Pair with Tendril TightRope Pinot Noir

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted but kept cool
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, cut into thin half moons
3 cups fresh porcini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
5–7 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped and chopped
3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Pinch of dried red pepper flakes
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated

Thaw puff pastry overnight in the refrigerator or for 45 minutes on the kitchen counter prior to use.

Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and stir continuously until softened, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add mushrooms, sprinkle in salt, and continue stirring until the onions release their moisture and the pan becomes more dry. When this happens, add half of the thyme, the balsamic vinegar and red pepper, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until caramelized and golden, about 20–25 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Adjust the oven rack to the center position.

Unfold the sheet of defrosted puff pastry on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Top with the onion-mushroom mixture and spread to an even layer without covering the outer 2 inches of the pastry. Working in a circle, fold all the edges over to make a border.

Bake the tart for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with cheese, and bake for another 5–7 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and flaky. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the remaining thyme, and let cool for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Gorgonzola and Walnut Salad

Time: 20 minutes | Serves 6–8

Pair with Tendril Pretender White Pinot Noir

Walnut Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup walnut oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large head romaine lettuce, rinsed, dried, and torn into bite-size pieces
1/2 pound Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
2/3 cup candied walnuts (or pecans)
1 Honeycrisp or Fuji apple

Put vinaigrette ingredients in a small jar. Cover securely and shake until slightly thickened, creamy, and well-combined. Set aside.

In a salad bowl, combine the lettuce, cheese, and nuts. Slice the apple onto the salad. Add enough dressing to just coat the leaves. Toss and serve.

Grilled Lamb with Rosemary

Prep time: 5 minutes | Cooking time: 7 minutes | Serves 4

Pair with Tendril C-Note Pinot Noir

2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon rosemary
1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 dash cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 lamb loin chops
1/4 cup chopped mint

In a bowl, mix together the garlic, rosemary, thyme, cayenne pepper, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil. Place the chops in a Ziploc bag, and pour marinade over to cover. Let marinate overnight in the refrigerator, or at least one hour before grilling. Bring chops to room temperature (approximately 20 minutes) before grilling. Reserve marinade in a small saucepan. Cook chops on the grill or under the broiler, about 3 1/2 minutes per side for medium doneness. While the lamb rests, heat the marinade over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes, then add the mint, stirring for one minute more. Brush the mint mixture over the chops and serve.

Salmon with Ginger and Pink Peppercorn

Prep time: 5 minutes | Cooking time: 30 minutes | Serves: 4

Pair with Tendril Extrovert Pinot Noir

2 pounds king salmon fillet
Olive oil to coat
Juice and zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
2 tablespoons pink peppercorns, ground in a mortar and pestle

Preheat oven to 225°F.

Brush the salmon with olive oil, place on a baking dish, skin side down, then season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Evenly sprinkle the zest, ginger, and peppercorns over the top and cook 20–30 minutes, checking salmon for doneness after about 20 minutes. Thickness will determine cooking time, but the salmon is done when a white protein exudes from the edges of the fish. Move salmon to the upper rack of the oven and broil briefly to just crisp the ginger and peppercorns. Remove and separate into equal serving portions.

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.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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