The Science and Passion Behind Syncline Wine Cellars
BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
PHOTOS BY CAROLE TOPALIAN AND JILL LIGHTNER
Sixty miles east of Portland is the tiny, rural town of Lyle, Washington. The area, part of the Columbia River Gorge, is breathtakingly beautiful. The volcanic Mount Hood serves as its backdrop; the majestic Columbia River as its main stage. Though home to a mere 500 people, two of these people are making some of Washington’s great wines.
James and Poppie Mantone started Syncline Wine Cellars in 2001. Though both originally from other areas, a love of pinot noir brought them westward and brought them together.
James grew up in a small farming community outside of Chicago. His interest in wine was piqued as he finished college, where he studied microbiology and organic chemistry. “I had a friend give me a bottle of pinot noir from Oregon and suggest that I come on out… so I loaded up the car and came out for the summer and stayed out here,” James says more than fifteen years later.
James started out that year working as a harvest helper at Secret House Vineyards in Oregon. When harvest finished, he was hired on full time. The following year he moved to LaVelle Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. It was there that he would hire a young woman as a harvest worker who would soon become his wife.
Poppie Mantone grew up in Massachusetts, with much of that time spent in the tiny coastal town of Provincetown. After a friend traveled to California to work the harvest and “came back all starry-eyed,” Poppie decided she wanted to see it for herself . With her existing love of pinot noir, Oregon was a logical choice. She was interviewed by James and hired on at LaVelle Vineyards.
In Oregon, the Mantones simultaneously fell in love with winemaking and with each other. While the Burgundian pinot noir had brought them together, they also shared a mutual love of Rhône-style wines, especially syrah, which dominates in the Northern Rhône, and the grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre-based blends to the south. It was not just the style of the wines that appealed to them, but also the lifestyle of the small, family wineries in the Rhône Valley.
This was the late 1990s and syrah was just beginning to make a splash in Washington State. James remembers in particular the reaction to tasting a 1996 Glen Fiona Syrah at a Sacramento trade tasting. “All of these California people were freaking out!” With Washington just beginning to emerge as a wine region, the possibilities for Rhône varieties in the state seemed endless.
In 1997, the couple began looking for a place to settle and start a winery in Washington. When they visited the nascent grape-growing region of the Columbia Gorge, they found exactly what they were looking for. In addition to the rural, scenic setting, the area offers tremendous viticultural diversity. Some vineyards are located at sea level; some are more than 1,500-feet above. Vineyards in the western section of the Gorge receive 36 inches of rainfall annually; the eastern vineyards only 10 inches, with rainfall varying one inch per mile driving toward the Cascade crest. These differences make one plot of land vastly different from adjacent ones, allowing winemakers to pursue the expression of each unique site.
The Mantones opened Syncline Wine Cellars, named after a nearby geological feature (an exposed fold in the basalt bedrock), in 2001 with James serving as winemaker and Poppie as assistant winemaker. True to their roots, their first wine was a pinot noir made from nearby Celilo Vineyard—a wine they have continued to make in subsequent years.
Though planning to focus largely on Rhône varietals, they initially found the fruit hard to come by. Poppie explains, “For the first couple of years there was so little syrah available in the state and there was such an overabundance of merlot and cab. We were brand new. Nobody knew us. So growers would say, ‘You can have this syrah but you also have to take two tons of merlot or two tons of cab with that.'” After quickly establishing a name for themselves, the couple left cabernet and merlot behind—a bold decision given the statewide prominence of these grapes.
True to their desire to model themselves after the family wineries of the southern Rhône, the Mantones’ property in Lyle serves as a production facility, working farm, and home. The Mantones raise chickens and turkeys, providing both eggs and meat throughout the year. “We want to raise as much of our own food as possible,” Poppie explains. There is also a large garden on the property, with the Mantones donating what they don’t use to a local food bank. “It’s about being part of the community,” James says.
There is a small vineyard at the winery, and James also manages two nearby sites. Intriguingly, the Mantones have decided to farm these vineyards biodynamically. Originating out of a series of lectures given by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics emphasizes a holistic approach to vineyard management. Among many things, it involves applying a series of preparations to the land, most famously burying a cow horn filled with manure. Treatment is done in accordance with the lunar calendar.
The Mantones’ interest in biodynamics began when the couple lived in Oregon and Poppie worked at Wintergreen Farm, which is farmed biodynamically. As a trained scientist James says, “When she started working there, I was highly skeptical. I thought that (biodynamics) was pretty ridiculous, to be honest.” He would come to change his mind.
“After four years of seeing what they were able to coax out of a very wet growing region, it made me question my methods of questioning things, I guess. It left me more willing to be open.” Of farming their vineyards biodynamically James says, “It’s something we do for ourselves and our employees. It’s a lifestyle thing for us.”
From the beginning the Syncline wines have been compelling and stylistically unique for Washington. The Mantones have focused on lower alcohol, food-friendly wines where the fruit is front and center. James says the couple’s personal preference for European wines has informed the winery’s style. Syncline’s geographical isolation from most of the state’s wineries has also prevented the couple from developing a ‘Washington palate.’ The winery uses limited amounts of new oak on its wines. James says, “For me, barrel flavors are purchased flavors and don’t really reflect the point of buying fruit from somewhere.” For the Mantones, it is the somewhere that is important.
Syncline now produces 5,000 cases annually, with most of that going to two blends, the Subduction White and Subduction Red. The winery’s flagship wine is a southern Rhône-inspired blend—Cuvee Elena. The winery makes a number of other Rhône-style wines, including a grenache-carignan blend, a syrah, a mourvèdre, a roussanne, and a viognier. Syncline also makes a pinot noir and the only grüner veltliner produced in Washington at present.
In addition to the winery, the Mantones have two young children. While, as for any couple, maintaining a balance between work and family can occasionally be challenging—”mostly in terms of lack of sleep” Poppie says—the Mantones believe that family is a critical part of the winery. James says, “Our whole model is based on the family wine estates of the southern Rhône. The family is an integral part of the whole project. They are not separable. The winery and vineyard and everything are right here.”
Sean P. Sullivan is editor of Washington Wine Report—an independent blog focused exclusively on the wines of Washington State. He has written for Seattle Metropolitan, Vineyard & Winery Management, Washington State Wine Touring Guide, and Wine & Jazz. Sullivan resides in Seattle, Washington.