WHAT WE'RE DRINKING AT WW WINE LIMO HQ
Northstar 2013 Petit Verdot
Solemn Cellars 2014 Syrah
Henry Earl 2015 1st and Main (red blend)
Bergevin Lane 2013 Linen Carmenere
Pine Ridge 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet
WHAT WE’RE DRINKING AT WW WINE LIMO HQ
Rasa Vineyards 2014 QED Cabernet Franc
Helix 2013 Pomatia (red blend)
Maison Bleue 2015 Metis (GSM)
Doubleback 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon
Round Pond 2013 Kith & Kin Cab (Napa)
WHAT WE'RE DRINKING AT WW WINE LIMO HQ
Norm McKibben, owner of Pepper Bridge Winery, is one of the founding fathers of Walla Walla Wine. He was instrumental in the expansion of the Walla Walla AVA and as owner or partner in Pepper Bridge Vineyard, Seven Hills Vineyards and Les Collines Vineyard, has been planting wine grapes since 1991, when there were only 40 acres of vineyards in the Valley. Having previously been a partner in Canoe Ridge Winery and Hogue Cellars, he started the Pepper Bridge Winery in 1998. McKibben, now 80 and still the managing partner at Pepper Bridge, was gracious enough to sit down with us for a fascinating interview in June 2017. Check out Part One of our interview with Norm here.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: One thing that has attracted myself and many others to Walla Walla is the community between the wineries and the winemakers here. I think its unique and not something that’s common in other wine regions.
NORM McKIBBEN: Back when we were first starting there was some jealousy across the state that I wasn’t crazy about. At the time I used to go to Napa quite a lot and I’d meet winery owners who would say things like “Don’t go over there, the wine’s not any good” [about their neighboring winery]. Way back when, myself, Rick Small, Gary Figgins and Marty Clubb, we all bought into the idea that If you don’t care for someone’s winery and someone asks you for a recommendation, you just don’t mention that one. We did have one person for a while, he’s no longer in the business by choice, who would talk down about other wineries and he was killing himself by doing that.
WWWL: Not a good idea in a town as small as Walla Walla.
NM: That’s right. We still have writers from out of town come through here and say what a fascinating community we have where the wineries all work together to support each other. I’ve trained my people here [at Pepper Bridge] that when someone asks where else they should go, to give them a list with suggestions on where to go because after they’ve tasted here we should have a good idea what kind of wine they like.
WWWL: I’d like to get your opinion on something that I find troubling that’s going on in other wine regions on the West Coast. If you go to Napa these days (or even Santa Barbara or Oregon), most of the wineries will not refund the tasting fee when you purchase their wine – even if you’re buying $200 of their wine. I don’t understand that.
NM: I don’t either. It’s a lot different than when I first went to Napa in the early 60’s when I was a very young engineer working on the construction of the Transbay Tube. There were seven wineries back then and none of them were charging tasting fees yet.
WWWL: To me, it takes away from the experience that your guests are having at the winery and for some of those wineries doing that [not refunding tasting fees with wine purchase] it begs the question of whether they’re in the business of collecting tasting fees or in the business of selling wine. Obviously tasting fees are necessary because otherwise you’re going to get people coming to drink your wine for free who have no intention of buying wine.
NM: We were actually the first winery in Walla Walla to charge for tasting for exactly that reason; we were just getting swamped with people coming to drink for free. We actually pour about the same dollar amount of wine [equivalent to the tasting fee] in our tasting room.
WWWL: That’s interesting -- I don’t think most wineries are doing that.
NM: About every four years or so I make a trip down the coast and visit the different regions to see what’s going on. There’s some very good wines in California, but the one place we beat them on is Merlot. They tried to kill it with the Sideways movie.
WWWL: I’ve been told that some wineries that made wine they could have called a Merlot [because it had at least 75% Merlot in it] instead labeled it as a red blend because of the backlash against Merlot.
NM: One thing people don’t realize about that movie is the irony of the very last scene. They were drinking a ’61 Cheval Blanc, which is actually a Merlot! It’s supposed to be an inside joke, but very few people caught it.
WWWL: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but I’m interested in your reasoning. Two distinct, completely different wineries in Pepper Bridge and Amavi. Why two wineries instead of just one?
NM: I had promised Jean Francois when he came up from Napa that he could always make Bordeaux wines and we were doing that at Pepper Bridge. But then I planted the Les Collines Vineyard and that vineyard produces great Syrah grapes. I debated back and forth with myself – and I’m not sure yet if I made the right business move – but I already owned that piece of property [where Amavi Cellars ended up being built]. I almost put a house on it! But it had such a beautiful view, we wanted to make Syrah and I also wanted to be able to make wines that were at a bit lower price level, to make it easier for people to discover the wines.
WWWL: Tourism in Walla Walla just keeps growing year after year. Your thoughts on that?
NM: The town has changed so much since I was first here in the 60’s. When I came through the first time it was all farm equipment and hardware. We had two restaurants, a Chinese restaurant and a homestead. Now we’ve got Seattle-quality restaurants – and prices.
WWWL: It’s great that those restaurants are managing to make it even though there’s so much downtime in the winter.
NM: That’s just it, they have to make it in a shorter season here. It’s the same with the hotels. Seattle’s hotel rooms are about 90% occupied year-round. I recently met a Filipino couple who are putting in an eight-room high-end bed and breakfast in Lowden. That’s the kind of thing we need. And out on the old Bergevin homestead some Chinese investors are putting in a very large restaurant and hotel and Va Piano is involved in that.
WWWL: What Walla Walla really needs is a restaurant or two on the South side.
NM: I tried to put one in a few years back. Tom Drumheller, who owns a string of restaurants, was going in with me to put a restaurant in the field below Pepper Bridge, but the County blocked us. They said we couldn’t put it on agricultural ground. I don’t like to fight with the County, I lean on them when needed, but at that time there weren’t as many wineries over here, so they probably figured there wasn’t a need for it.
WWWL: What’s your thoughts on the future of wine in Walla Walla and Washington State? How much more can it grow?
NM: While the growth can seem a bit scary, right now Washington State sells about 6% of the wine sold in the United States – and the United States is still a small percentage of the wine sold throughout the world. I think the wine industry and the town will just keep growing and we’ll have to have more restaurants and hotels come in to keep up with us. Because you don’t drive over here from Seattle and go back the same day – you’ve got to stay overnight.
As I’m sure you well know, when you go into the wine business you’ve got two choices – keep your winery small, selling high-end wines over the counter or you have to go out and distribute your wines. The distribution part has gotten more difficult as the giant distributors keep gobbling up the smaller distributors. Those large distributors aren’t interested in a winery the size of Pepper Bridge no matter what our reputation is because they want to make deals with large grocery chains to get the price way down and they want to talk pallets instead of bottles.
WWWL: What do you think it will take for the real estate prices to increase significantly in Walla Walla? With the growth in the wine industry and all the nice restaurants here you’d think prices would go up a lot. But the prices are still somewhat depressed; it seems that the prices can’t go up much until the people that live here full-time figure out how to get higher paying jobs.
NM: I think it’s a product of the average age of the residents in town. When I first came to Walla Walla there were mostly wheat ranches. The oldest son would inherit the wheat ranch when the parents got to an age where they decided they should quit working. The oldest son would then take over the ranch and support the parents the rest of their lives. The younger boys would either work under him or leave the area -- and most of them left the area. And the girls would either marry a rancher or leave the area. Because of that, the average age was way up when I first got to town. But it’s way down now, as business attracts people looking for work. We have no trouble finding people to work the counter, but it can be difficult to find competent people with experience who know the wine business.
WWWL: Tell me a bit about your family. I believe you have five children and two of them are working in the wine industry.
NM: That’s right. My oldest son Shane manages our largest vineyard and my son Eric manages Amavi. I have three daughters, all of whom are professionals working in the Seattle area. Two daughters have PHD’s, one is an attorney and one did brain cell research for several years. Now she’s on Vashon, designing clothes and selling them on the internet. I make frequent efforts to get them to move back to Walla Walla!
WWWL: What do you like to drink when you’re at home on a typical night?
NM: I used to drink a lot more Bordeaux than I do now. My wife actually prefers the fresh fruit instead of the older wines. If we ever come close to having fisticuffs it would be over the fact that I brought her a 20-year old bottle of Bordeaux and she’d say she’d rather have a good wine (laughs) like the ones we have here in Walla Walla. I’ve shifted a bit over the years. I grew up liking a lot of wine from Burgundy, but my palate doesn’t pick up all the little nuances that I used to get. I can tell you this – your palate doesn’t improve with age.
WWWL: I’m gonna put you on the spot here. Hypothetically, the world’s going to end in 24 hours. What bottle in your cellar do you have to open?
NM: I’m biased here of course, but it’s a 1999 Pepper Bridge Cabernet. I turned 80 last September and I opened up a Magnum each of our 1998 Cab and our 1999 Cab and they’re both drinking beautifully. I don’t know how much longer they’ll last – I tell people that I no longer think in terms of 20 years into the future when talking about a bottle of wine (laughs). I’ve got some very nice old wines that I like to taste and show. I think a 15-year-old wine that still has some fruit in it is preferable to the real old ones. I’ve got some of the first Woodward Canyon vintages, but I don’t have any of the ’78 Leonetti. In fact, Gary (Figgins) and I drank the last one together. I bought Randy Dunn’s wines [Dunn Vineyards in Napa] for a long time because they were supposed to last forever. They didn’t. I bought some for the grandkids for when they turn 21, but the wines have gone over the hill.
WWWL: Thank you so much for your time. This was fascinating.
Noe Martinez, the cellarmaster at Rasa Vineyards, sat down with us recently to talk about Rasa, his career in the wine industry and his new wine label, Xenolith Vintners. For information on Noe's wines and to join the Xenolith mailing list, go to www.xenolithvintners.com.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: Let’s talk a bit about your background, where you’re from and how you got into wine.
NOE MARTINEZ: I was born in San Francisco, but we moved a lot as a kid; I lived in Guatemala for a couple of years with family down there. I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, so when I was nine, we moved to Israel and became Israeli citizens.
WWWL: That’s a pretty dangerous place to live!
NOE: When we moved there it was actually between the Intifada’s. There was five or six years of peace and it was a really great time to live in Israel. We moved from there right around the time that the second Intifada began. From Israel we moved to England, but eventually ended up in Seattle, as my mom [a computer programmer] was working for Amazon. And then I ended up at WSU.
WWWL: How’d you get into wine?
NOE: I was raised in a religious family, so we always had wine for Friday and Saturday dinners. Because I moved so much, I was home schooled and when I was 12 as a chemistry project we learned about fermentation and I made beer and wine. I just thought that was the coolest thing. I became responsible for making the bread for the family every week. And then when I got to WSU at age 16, I started making a lot of beer and wine. I was originally more into beer because at the time I thought that it was a more noble profession (laughs). It wasn’t until I moved to Walla Walla and started going through the wine program at the Community College that I really developed a love for wine.
WWWL: So how long have you been at your current job at Rasa?
NOE: I’ve been at Rasa since the spring of 2014. I studied under Billo (Rasa Vineyards winemaker) when he was a teacher of Viticulture at the Community College.
WWWL: Where did you work before landing at Rasa?
NOE: I did crush at Garrison Creek in 2009, then I spent a couple of years with Charles Smith Wines. After that I worked crush at Artifex and then I was the Assistant Winemaker at Cougar Crest for three years before coming here. Mark Hoffmeister was the cellarmaster at Rasa before me and he and I used to sit next to each other in the front of Billo’s class. Mark was leaving and it was a great opportunity and perfect timing for me. It was great because it kept me in Walla Walla and kept my family rooted in this place that we really like – I have a wife and three kids (ages 7, 3 and 1).
WWWL: So how did you end up in Walla Walla in the first place?
NOE: I was living in Pullman and working in restaurants at the time and through a friend I heard about the opportunity for a job at the Whoopemup Hollow Café [in Waitsburg at the time]. I’d heard about the wine program in Walla Walla and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for advancement in Pullman, so I decided to go where the opportunity was – my first job at Whoopemup was as their dishwasher and I just moved up the ladder. Now, as a cellarmaster it’s kind of like being a glorified dishwasher, but it’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of glory.
WWWL: That leads to my next question – what exactly does a cellarmaster do?
NOE: Billo, our winemaker at Rasa Vineyards, makes all the winemaking decisions. When the fruit comes in, he tells me what he wants to happen. I’m the one that knows how to make it happen and it’s my job to make sure it happens on time, on his schedule. I also manage the cellar crew here. My job is to do the best that I can to fulfill Billo’s wishes and needs as far as what he wants to have happen at the winery. And also to be his eyes and ears, tasting the wines constantly and letting him know which wines might be in need of more attention.
WWWL: Tell us about the winemaking philosophy behind the Rasa wines.
NOE: At Rasa we’re really interested in terroir. We’re interested in finding terroir and emphasizing terroir. We work with lots of different vineyards and we look for the best vineyard blocks that we can get a hold of. We try to find out what those vineyard blocks bring to the table – what is it they have to offer and how we can make the wine express itself as best as possible. When we get to the end of the wine’s life cycle in the barrel, we go through blending trials to determine which wines will be used in blends and which will be isolated as single-vineyard.
So to summarize, our winemaking philosophy is sort of “Wait and See”. We bring in fruit we like, we work with the vineyard managers and we sort of let the wine make itself, guiding it slowly through its natural process. And end once we’ve seen what the wine has become and where it’s going then we figure out whether the wine can be bottled on its own or what we need to do to it to put it together. That’s why we have such a broad spectrum of wines – last year we bottled 15 or 16 wines and they came from over 100 different lots, all independently managed and curated.
WWWL: Tell us about the tasting room experience at Rasa. We love bringing people to Rasa because it’s such a unique experience. The guests typically get to interact with the winemaker and learn a bit about the wine and the story behind each of the wines. Billo quite obviously enjoys meeting people and sharing his wine with them.
NOE: That’s true. Until recently the tasting room was right in the production area of the winery, but we moved it so now you can taste the wine without worrying about getting splashed (laughs) and you can actually watch the production going on while you’re tasting our wines.
WWWL: What do you like to drink on a typical night?
NOE: I’ve been drinking a lot of Grenache lately. My favorite wines in the whole world are Châteauneuf-du-Pape , Vieux Telegraphe and Seppeltsfield Port. In the last year there’s really been a nice influx of affordable and delicious Grenache and GSM blends in Washington and I’m really enjoying those. Before I got into Grenache, my go-to was Sauvignon Blanc. It’s dangerous, it drinks like water (laughs).
WWWL: You’ve got 24 hours to live – what bottle in your cellar do you have to open?
NOE: I think it would probably be an ’03 Morrison Lane Syrah. ’02 and ’03 were spectacular vintages for Syrah in Walla Walla. Morrison Lane is an incredible vineyard and I think that ’03 is the bomb. I’ve been holding on to that one for a while, almost afraid to drink it because there’s so little of it left – and once it’s gone it’s gone! It was a beautiful vintage.
WWWL: So you’ve got a new venture, your own wine label, that’s just being released. Tell us about that.
NOE: Yes, it’s called Xenolith Vintners. A Xenolith is a foreign fragment of rock that’s imbedded in another piece of rock. Our first wine is 100% from The Rocks in Milton Freewater. Pretty tiny production for the first vintage, only 30 cases. We don’t have a tasting room, but we will have an event at Fall Release [November 4th from 10am to 2pm] at the Powerhouse Theater. Our website is at www.xenolithvineyards.com. The wine can be purchased at our website and we ship to 36 states or it can be picked up at the event at Fall Release. In order to attend the event, you have to join our mailing list [free to join] and the information on joining the mailing list is also on the website.
WWWL: What’s the price point on the GSM and are there other Xenolith wines in the pipeline?
NOE: It’s $45. There will be other wines, but I’m still working on them. I really only want the best wines to come out with this label. The next releases will probably be a Cab and a Viogner.
WHAT WE'RE DRINKING AT WALLA WALLA
WINE LIMO HQ
Secret Squirrel 2013 Red Bordeaux Blend
Aluvé Winery 2012 Primo Volo
Longshadows 2013 Sequel Syrah
Castillo de Feliciana 2012 Miercoles
Darioush 2014 Duel (Napa)
Norm McKibben, owner of Pepper Bridge Winery, is one of the founding fathers of Walla Walla Wine. He was instrumental in the expansion of the Walla Walla AVA and as owner or partner in Pepper Bridge Vineyard, Seven Hills Vineyards and Les Collines Vineyard, has been planting wine grapes since 1991, when there were only 40 acres of vineyards in the Valley. Having previously been a partner in Canoe Ridge Winery and Hogue Cellars, he started the Pepper Bridge Winery in 1998. McKibben, now 80 and still the managing partner at Pepper Bridge, was gracious enough to sit down with us for a fascinating interview in June 2017.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: Let’s talk about your background a little. I understand that you were an engineer first and that wine is your second career.
NORM McKIBBEN: I am an engineer, but I was really a construction manager.
WWWL: So was wine a passion for you before you got into the industry?
NM: I’d like to say yes, but to be honest, no. What happened is at the construction job I was covering the whole country and I was on the road five days a week. We’d have a board meeting every Saturday too, so my wife was raising the family. I just decided that I didn’t need the money anymore, they’d paid me very well. This was 1983, so I gave them two years notice and I left in ’85. It was my wife’s idea to move back to Walla Walla – I had first met her here. So we moved back to Walla Walla – and there were three wineries here at the time – Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole 41. Over the next five years, the number of wineries doubled – all the way up to six – and we thought we were going great guns (laughs).
WWWL: And then Reininger was the seventh, right?
NM: That would be right and Canoe Ridge was the eighth
WWWL: So how did you get interested in wine?
NM: We’d always drank wine, but not as connoisseurs at all. My wife has a palate, I don’t. That’s why Jean Francois (Pellet) is the head winemaker (laughs). I’d been here about a year and I was with Terry Tucker, a close friend of mine who’s involved in Reininger. I was over at Terry’s house one night and his oldest son was working for Mike Hogue. Mike came by and he said “Norm, while you were gone I started a winery and it’s out of hand, we’re making 30,000 cases of wine a year. I need your help.” So I joined Mike as a partner at Hogue Cellars.
WWWL: 30,000 cases! That’s a lot of wine for that time.
NM: It was. But we took it up to half a million cases, it was the second largest winery in the State. And we sold it [to Vincor or Toronto, Canada] a week before 9/11. We’d grown so big that the financing on all that inventory was so large that I’d have had to go back to work if it collapsed.
Getting in as a partner [at Hogue Cellars] led to me thinking about vineyards. One of the first things I did when I got back to Walla Walla was I bought a wheat ranch out in Waitsburg, figuring I’d put a vineyard on it. It was great and it was terrible all at the same time. I learned a lot because I made every mistake you could make. I brought every expert I could find out there to tell me the grapes would grow well at that location. Friends kept telling me “Give it up, you’re not in the right place” and I finally listened to them. My wife said it was my quarter million dollar introduction to grape growing (laughs). I don’t think she knew what the actual amount of money involved was (laughs).
At the time I gave up on that project, myself and two partners here started planting apples – you pass them coming in the driveway to Pepper Bridge Winery. Eventually, I was able to twist a few arms and get my partners to agree to plan ten acres of vineyards. This was 1991 and there was a total of just 40 acres of vineyards planted in the entire Walla Walla Valley at the time. When that ten acres became ripe, I needed somebody to sell it to, so we split it into four equal parts, to Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole 41 and Andrew Will. When the bottles started coming out that said Pepper Bridge Vineyard on them, everybody started calling me asking “Can we get grapes? We didn’t plan it like that, it just happened.
About that same time, Mike Hogue was chairing the Washington Wine Commission and he wanted to step off from it and asked if I would take over and I chaired it for four years. I did such a good job that they voted to never let anybody chair for more than one year ever again (laughs)! It really was serendipity the way everything started falling into place.
Myself and five friends owned a corporate ranch along the Columbia River. It was an irrigated ranch and there was a ridge on it where we couldn’t put an irrigation circle, so we decided to plant a vineyard. The Chalone Wine Group came up from California and wanted to buy it --- that was the first time in our knowledge that a California company had come up here and expressed an interest in the wine up here.
WWWL: Because at that time, almost everyone in California believed that there wasn’t any good wine up here.
WWWL: Just like the French thought there wasn’t any good wine in California in the 70s…
NM: We told them we weren’t interested in selling, so they said “let’s be partners” and we agreed to that, as there were benefits to partnering with a California winery.
WWWL: And a lot to learn from them.
NM: We did. So the folks at Chalone wanted to start a winery with us, which turned out to be Canoe Ridge. It was winery number eight in the Valley. We had no idea at the time how big it was going to get. It was a very good venture, but after they [Chalone] got bought out by the French, the relationship wasn’t as good, partly because of the distance and partly because I think the French looked down on our wine at the time.
NM: So by that fall I decided I wanted to open my own small winery. Other wineries had been buying my grapes and making very good wine and it seemed like the right time to get into it. I talked to Tom Eddy, who was the last winemaker at Christian Brothers (now the Culinary Institute of Greystone in St. Helena), who I’d known for a long time and asked for his help. For the better part of a year we would get together regularly to check out wineries he thought I should see, the good and the bad. So in ’98 I talked to Tom about making my wine and he said he’d do the first year for me. About the middle of that year I realized that flying him up from Napa every weekend was getting expensive, so we started to think about hiring the next winemaker.
Tom said he had a man in mind, but wouldn’t tell me his name. He had me fly down to the Silverado Country Club to talk to this winemaker over a glass of wine, which of course turned into a bottle of wine. It turned out to be Jean Francois (Pellet) and he was making wine for Heitz Cellars [in Napa]. Jean Francois still says I’m the best salesman in the country because I talked him into leaving Heitz Cellars to come to a town he’d never heard of!
WWWL: What was your pitch to him?
NM: I flew him up here. Now, the Swiss have a habit of moving around for years after they get out of college and he [Jean Francois] had seven years of college, enology and viticulture and he’d grown up in a winery. He told me later that he intended to come up for just a couple of years to see what the area was like. So I flew him up and the first thing he wanted to know was what my grapes were like. So I took him to Leonetti, L’Ecole and Woodward Canyon and drew barrel samples, straight Pepper Bridge. So he was interested. The next thing I did was fly his family here, and as it turned out they were Adventist and College Place is an Adventist community. Their boy was just two months old at the time and now he’s 19 and taking up winemaking at the community college!
WWWL: Already in the family business…
NM: Jean Francois’ last question to me and I didn’t necessarily realize the importance of it at the time, was, “What kind of wine do you want me to make?” And I told him that he’d be the winemaker and that I’d work with him on it. After I tasted his wine for the first time, I made him a partner. That was the second smartest move I’ve ever made. My wife is still the first.
WWWL: Nice. My next question was going to be why you think he’s stayed here all these years after thinking this would be a two-year gig. Obviously making him a partner was a big factor. But there’s so much turnover in the wine industry, even with the winemakers, that it’s amazing he’s been here for nearly two decades.
NM: (laughs). Yes, making him a partner was a factor. But we’re also good friends, which really helps. He’s a natural salesperson, he’s an extrovert. And that French accent doesn’t hurt a bit when you’re selling wine.
WWWL: What kind of advice do you give to friends and acquaintances that tell you they want to open their own winery?
NM: I’ve had a lot of people come to me over the years and say that they’re thinking about starting a winery and want to know my thoughts. They always ask “Are we too late?” and I used to say, “No way, you’re going to be a pioneer.” But that’s not really the case anymore. My advice is usually, “Don’t buy a vineyard. Don’t build bricks and mortar. Buy your grapes, hire a winemaker (if you’re not one yourself) to oversee it and have the wine made for the first two years at a custom crush facility. When it’s time to sell the wine and the rubber hits the road, you’ll find out pretty quickly if you want to be in the wine business. You don’t want to be the guy sitting there with a vineyard saying ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’” (laughs).
With 100+ wineries open and I don’t know how many more wineries waiting to open, if you go to a bank and tell them you’ve never run a winery but you want a loan to build one, they’re gonna laugh at ya. But if you go to a bank and say that you’re already selling wine, but need to have a building, they’ll talk with you.
Check back soon to read Part Two of our interview with Norm McKibben.
WHAT WE'RE DRINKING AT WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO HQ
Reininger Winery 2010 Cima
Result of a Crush 2014 Claret
The Walls 2014 Stanley Groovy
K Vintners 2014 El Jefe Tempranillo
Otra Vez 2013 Estate Cabernet (Napa)
Brad Binko only just started his winery, Eternal Wines in 2014, but he already has a second label, Drink Washington State Wines. Stop by his tasting room in downtown Walla Walla at 9 South 1st Avenue (just a couple of doors down from Sweet Basil Pizza) to taste his dazzling array of whites and reds. Brad will be pouring his wines at CBRC Tennis in Richland, WA on June 9th and at the Grand Syrah Tasting in Walla Walla on June 16th. Don't miss out on his fabulous winemaker dinner at the Point Casino in Kingston, WA on September 21st. To read Part One of this interview, click here. Part Two can be found here.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: Can you talk about the unique community among winemakers and the wineries here in Walla Walla?
BRAD BINKO: It’s unreal. It’s amazing. So supportive. It’s awesome. It’s unlike any other community ever. It really is. If you need something or you have a question, you can ask people and they’ll give you an honest answer. That just doesn’t happen in other communities. You don’t see the CEO of McDonalds asking the CEO of Burger King how to make burgers (laughs).
WWWL: And it doesn’t seem like they have that kind of community in other wine regions. People elsewhere would be like, “He’s my competitor, I can’t help him!”
BRAD: That’s because it’s not competitive in a cutthroat kind of way. Sure, there’s a certain competitiveness which comes with wanting to make the best wine.
WWWL: You of course want to get better scores, better reviews than your buddies.
BRAD: Sure, but if you’re making good wine, I’ll support you. I don’t care if the wine got an 88 or a 94. It doesn’t matter to me. If you’re a good person and you’re making good wine I’ll support it.
WWWL: Talk about the wines you like to drink when you’re not at work. What’s in your wine cellar?
BRAD: Most of my cellar is early 2000s Napa Cabs. That’s kind of what I’ve been getting into lately. They don’t suck (laughs).
WWWL: What producers?
BRAD: I’m a big fan of Arrowood. Nickel and Nickel is good. I like the Robert Sinskey wines. Old school producer, those are good values. I’ve also got a couple of old ones from Dominus, a couple hundred pointers that I’m sitting on, waiting for the right time to open them.
WWWL: 100 pointers!
BRAD: 100 point wines, yes. I mean, what does 100 point wine taste like?
WWWL: Well, that’s a perfect score, so the wine should be perfect I guess! My problem with wines over a certain price point is that there’s just too much room to be disappointed. For that kind of money I want the wine to wash my car, do the dishes…the expectations are so high.
BRAD: Sure, the wine should also give you a massage and put you to bed! I hear ya.
WWWL: Tell us about some of your current releases. They’re not distributed, right?
BRAD: I’m self-distributed actually. That means I’m making every contact myself, hand-delivering every case of wine personally. That’s what keeps me on the road so often. Trips to Seattle, Spokane and all over the state.
WWWL: You’re the hardest working guy in wine!
BRAD: (laughs) I’ll take that. Maybe I should start marketing that
WWWL: So with the self-distribution it’s not exactly what one would call “widely distributed” I suppose.
BRAD: True. There’s literally like a place in Renton and a place in Everett and a place in Kent that you can find my wine.
WWWL: You’ve got a white wine, a Roussanne, that sells for $40! That’s pretty unique. You don’t see many whites in that price range. But it’s selling well.
BRAD: The Roussanne does well. It got great scores, it’s won awards. It’s been a good wine for me. It sells mostly at the tasting room. I babysat that wine for two years – nobody babysits a white wine for two years! That just doesn’t happen. I get excited doing different things, trying new things.
WWWL:So when you say you “babysat” the wine you mean that you refined it, made changes to it to get it to where it’s how you wanted it?
BRAD: That’s right. It spent two years in the barrel. Every month I top my wines, sometimes every two weeks in the offseason. When I do that, I stir the barrels and the lees get stirred up. It creates a bigger, broader mouth feel.
WWWL: And eventually it tasted like you had envisioned?
BRAD: It’s a fun transformation, it really is. At first it tastes vibrant and fresh and spicy, kind a racy wine. And over time it mellows and it gets these big broad, nutty characteristics. “Oh hello, you’re so much more than I thought you could be”. It’s a fun wine.
WWWL: That’s a good story. Have you had a wine where you made a lot of changes and no matter what you did, you just couldn’t get it right?
BRAD: For sure. I had that happen with my Red Mountain Cab. It was a wine that I had a battle with I guess. It was the most expensive fruit I had bought and I had a vision for what it could be. But it just wasn’t turning out like that by itself, so the fruit ended up going into my Rocketman Red. It ended up working out fine, but I had to blend it with some other things. So the Rocketman Red ended up being a better value than I had planned, but that’s OK.
WWWL: With all the wines you make, you’re sourcing grapes from many many vineyards. What kind of research goes into deciding where you’re gonna buy your grapes from?
BRAD: Honestly, it’s a lot of tasting wine. It’s about tasting wine from that wineyard, cause if you taste wine from that vineyard and it’s big and bold and tannic and you’re trying to make a fruit-forward “finesse wine” maybe you’re looking in the wrong place (laughs). It’s just not gonna work. But seriously, you’ve gotta taste the wine, you’ve gotta taste the soil.
WWWL: It helps that you’ve got a sophisticated palette, you’ve tasted a lot of really good wine.
BRAD: Definitely. That helps a lot. Sometimes I’ll brainstorm, taste the wine and if I know who made it, I might get in touch and talk to them and ask them about the grapes from certain years, find out what they liked and what they didn’t like. I’ll try to find out as much as I can before I start making the wine because once you start making the wine it’s on a path and you want it to stay on that path as long as possible.
WWW: So when you’re talking to the people from a particular vineyard and they’re asking a certain price for their grapes, how do you know that that’s a good value? How did you learn whether or not buying particular grapes is a good deal?
BRAD: Experience and tasting the wine. It really comes down to tasting the wine from winemakers you trust, ones that you respect and you can understand what they’re doing. It all really comes down to tasting the wine. It’s as simple as that. If you’re tasting a lot of Red Mountain Cabernet and it’s tasting really good to you, well guess what, don’t go to Snipes Mountain for Cabernet, go to Red Mountain!
WWWL: Tell us about your Carmenere.
BRAD: It’s a fun wine. I had noticed that people in Walla Walla were really loving Carmenere and loving different varietals. One of the most unique things about Walla Walla is that t’s not just about Cab, Merlot and Syrah. Those are great, but the wine buyers and drinkers in Walla Walla want something different, they want to taste something new. Carmenere is a great grape. It’s food-friendly and it’s got a great story behind it. It does well in Walla Walla. There’s just a handful of producers that are bottling single vineyard Carmenere in Walla Walla. I’m enjoying seeing that and I wanted to be part of it.
WWWL: The problem I’ve always had with Carmernere is that they’re all $45+ and to me it’s not such an approachable wine right off the bat. It seems like more of an acquired taste – and it’s hard to acquire that taste when the entry-level wines of that varietal are that expensive. But your Drink Washington State Carmenere is just $26. At that price point, it was a lot easier for me to develop a taste for it.
BRAD: That’s cool. That’s the great thing about the Drink Washington State wines. Even though it’s bigger production, I’m gonna do some smaller lots of different things and people like that. I like that. I don’t think I’d be happy if I didn’t make each wine varietal at least once.
WWWL: There’s an interesting story behind your Rocketman Red. You picked all that fruit yourself, right?
BRAD: Yes, me and a few buddies from the EV program went out and picked the fruit ourselves. Typically I’d buy the fruit and I’d pick it up after it had already been picked. But all the grapes that went into that bottling of the Rocketman Red, we went out to the vineyards and picked ourselves.
WWWL: So how would you know which grapes to pick and which ones not to pick?
BRAD: That’s something you learn in the wine program. We were taught what to pick and what not to pick, how to identify diseases and such. Going out and picking the grapes ourselves was not only fun, but part of the learning curve.
WWWL: Kind of like a class trip!
BRAD: (laughs) Yup. We went up to Gamache Vineyard, about an hour and a half from here and loaded up three truckloads.
WWWL: So there’s no wine you won’t make?
WWWL: So when’s your White Zinfandel coming out?
BRAD: I can guarantee I won’t be making White Zinfandel! Barbera and Pinot Grigio are two others I probably won’t make. Too acidy to me. But you never know. I had a customer once who all he drank was White Zinfandel. I tried as hard as I could to get him into other wines, whites, reds, everything, but it didn’t work. That’s when I realized that some people just don’t want to be saved!
Tasting fees have become standard at nearly all Walla Walla tasting rooms and its common sense. If a winery doesn’t charge tasting fees they’re likely to encounter people who come for the free wine with no intention of ever buying any wine.
Nearly all Walla Walla wineries refund the tasting fee with a one-bottle purchase, but there’s a trend in other wine regions towards not waiving the tasting fee with purchase or requiring a minimum purchase (a set dollar amount or at least one bottle of a certain price level purchased).
In Napa Valley, the typical tasting fee these days is $15-20 (and can get up to $50-100 for special reserve tastings at some wineries) but where ten years ago the tasting fee would always be waived in Napa with a purchase, the opposite is now true. At least 75% of Napa wineries now keep the tasting fee, whether you buy wine or not. And while some wineries will require a minimum purchase to waive the tasting fee, others won’t waive the fee even if you’re buying hundreds of dollars of wine.
Such a policy makes little sense to me from a business perspective or from a customer service angle. It seems to me that the winery’s primary goal in having people come to the tastingroom to sample their wines is to sell wine. I believe the winery should look at each customer who comes in the tasting room door as an opportunity to show off their wines, to show off the winery’s hospitality and hope that they can turn that wine taster into a regular customer, someone that will buy wine and tell others about the wine and their experience at the winery.
Unless the wine is truly terrible, most people given the choice of paying a $15 tasting fee or buying a $25 bottle of wine (and having the tasting fee waived) are going to opt to purchase a bottle (or more). And sometime down the road that customer is going to drink that bottle of wine and perhaps enjoy it enough to buy more of that wine or tell others about the wine. If the winery doesn’t waive the tasting fee with purchase, many customers will just pay the tasting fee and leave, unhappy with paying $15 for what might have amounted to three one-ounce tastes. And they’re unlikely to return.
So why have so many wineries in other wine regions chosen not to waive the tasting fee with purchase? Because they can. Napa Valley has more visitors each year than Disneyland, while other popular wine regions in Oregon and Santa Barbara have seen their wineries institute similar tasting room policies in the last few years.
But just because the winery can get away with retaining the tasting fee from visitors to their tasting room doesn’t mean that they should.
As I mentioned above, I believe the main goal of the tasting room should be to sell wine and to promote the wine and the winery. And while some of you may not realize this, when the winery sells wine directly to customers at the tasting room – at retail price -- they’re making a much larger profit then they do on their typical wholesale sales to distributors (for bottles that end up being sold in stores and restaurants).
At the end of the day it should be all about the customer’s experience and building the relationship with that customer. How do you build that relationship by refusing to waive a tastingfee when a customer buys 6 bottles of your $40 wine? Wine lovers want to come home from a wine trip with lots of new wines and experiences to talk about. Who wants to come home from a wine trip with a few bottles of wine and $400 in tastingfees charged to their credit card?
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Cities we serve: Walla Walla, Milton Freewater (OR), Lowden, Touchet, Waitsburg, Wallula, Dayton, College Place, Pendleton (OR), Pasco, Kennewick, Richland, Burbank, Dixie, Prescott