Justin Basel, 33, has been in the wine industry in Walla Walla since the age of 12, when he began helping out with chores at his family’s vineyard and he eventually advanced to become Basel Cellars’ head winemaker in 2005 – at the ripe old age of 21! When his family sold the winery in 2009, he left to work at Corliss Estates for a year before becoming head winemaker at Foundry Vineyards, where he remained until starting his own winery, Solemn Cellars, early in 2017. Born and raised in Walla Walla, Justin has seen his hometown evolve from a small town with little to do to the hub of a well-respected wine region producing some of the best wines in the World. Justin sat down with us in December for an in-depth interview.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: You opened your own winery, Solemn Cellars, in August. How much planning went into it?
JUSTIN BASEL: I’ve been talking about it for the better part of ten years, mostly as an idea. I’ve always talked about starting a small-production winery, even back before my family sold Basel Cellars, but I’m glad I waited. All the planning and hard work has paid off. We opened August 12th. The wine club is at capacity. We only made 800 cases the first year and we’ll go up to about 2,000 cases in 2018. Most of the wine is not distributed, although about 30 cases goes out to restaurants in Seattle, restaurants that I’ve built relationships with over the years. We’ll expand that a little bit in ’18, with a few cases in Portland and Boise and then perhaps some to Spokane/Coeur d’Alene, but I don’t want to do tons of distribution. I’ve spent half my life on the road selling wine. I enjoy it, but at the same time, my son’s 2 ½. I want to be there for my family, sticking around locally.
We want to be a wine that you can’t get in every wine shop and you definitely can’t get at a grocery store When you buy wine at the grocery store, it’s just about the wine. I want my wine to be something special, a package deal. You come to the winery and taste the wine, it’s an experience. You taste the wine, you meet me and my wife [Bree], who works in the tasting room with me. You can ask us anything you want about the wine. We’re doing Somm events and wine dinners. With all the experience I have working at different places in the Valley, what I tried to do with my own winery was take the best of everything and put my own twist on it. We’re still in the honeymoon phase and it’s still super exciting.
WWWL: You’ve got a great winery/tasting room in the old Waters Winery spot. Tell us about it.
JB: The space was originally built in the mid-2000’s for Waters and it had been sitting vacant for a while. Being raised just up the hill it’s cool to come back to a spot that’s so close to my roots. We’re leasing the space, but I expect we’ll be here for a while. At some point I may want to build a winery on my property [next to Northstar], but if we do end up making that move, it’ll be only ¼ mile away! Anything on the Southside feels like home to me.
WWWL: It seems like things have been going smoothly since you opened last August.
JB: The first day was a little stressful. People didn’t know we were open yet and we weren’t on Google Maps yet. We only had four people that first Saturday and it was a little concerning, but by the next weekend the word spread and we were packed. Word of mouth is a great part of the wine business and I’m grateful that people like our wine enough to send people to us.
WWWL: Your wine is great, but to me the biggest reason I like to bring our tour groups in to Solemn is because they get to engage with you and learn about your wine and the winemaking process when they come to taste. It’s a better experience than they’re getting at most places in Walla Walla and I believe it really adds to the experience for our guests.
JB: I really enjoy being in the tasting room. It’s fun meeting people and hearing their stories. But again, you can go into a winery and taste some amazing wine, but have a terrible experience and never buy wine and never go back to that winery. I think it’s important to have both. You’ve gotta have good wine and you’ve gotta offer a good experience. I’ve been in wineries all over the place, whether it be here in Walla Walla, Napa or elsewhere and if the person in the tasting room is in a bad mood that ruins the experience. One of the tougher tasks running a winery is hiring the right people to work in your tasting room. You want knowledgeable people who are excited about the industry and you can train them. But personality is a big part of it and you can’t train someone on personality. It’s not easy to talk to group after group about the same wines and remain bubbly. You just have to find the right person to do it.
WWWL: Let’s talk about the first vintage of your Solemn wines. They’re all estate wines, right?
JB: Yes, they’re from Pheasant Run just up the road. That was originally the estate vineyard for Basel Cellars, but when we sold the winery the vineyard didn’t go with it. It’s a great location, right next to Pepper Bridge. You get that big fruit coming through and great balance too. We do fight the freezes there, but that’s part of farming. The ’17 vintage won’t have any Syrah or Merlot due to the freeze, so I had to source grapes from other places for ’17, some Rocks Syrah and a Cabernet from a neighbor.
The first vintage we did four different wines. I don’t do any blending, so everything stays single vineyard, single block. If it doesn’t make the cut, I sell it off. We did a Cabernet Rose, which is pretty rare. To be honest, in ’16 we had a bunch of extra Cab. I wanted to make a Rose and I wanted to do something different. Right after I pressed it, I threw some skins from Syrah on the Cab Rose ferment for about 24 hours and then pressed it again. So there’s no Syrah juice in it, just the skins. What that does is it changes the texture a little bit in the mid-palate and it also changes the color. It’s a really easy drinking wine and it’s a good wine for pairing with food. It was a fun, first release Rose for us.
Then we did a Block 1 Cabernet, which is actually from the top of our vineyard. The acid’s not going to be quite as high as our Block 3 Cab, so it’s softer and more balanced. The Block 3 Cab, which I call the Walla Walla Cab to make it a little less confusing, is more of a traditional, big grippy style Cab. They’re right next to each other, same soil, same oak, same yeast, picked a day apart. On paper the two wines should taste the same, but because of the microclimate they are completely different wines and I like to show that off. When I was working at larger wineries, we’d have to blend those Cabs together for distribution reasons, but now I don’t have to do that.
The fourth wine of my first vintage was the Estate Syrah. Pheasant Run has been known for its Syrah for a long time now, as its older vine Syrah. You get more of that fruit-forward style Syrah, still some of the Earth components, some of the dill. I try not to overdo it on the maceration. If it gets too big, it can be too much of a fruit bomb and then you can’t even really tell it’s a Syrah. You’ve got to find that fine line and not overdo it. I think we did a good job on the ’14 Syrah. It’s definitely one of my favorite Syrah’s that I’ve produced and one of the fastest selling – it sold out in less than four months! It’s also one of the most palate-friendly Syrah’s. Very elegant, soft and easy drinking and you can definitely tell it’s a Syrah. We put some American Oak on it to make it a bit sweeter, but not too much.
WWWL: What do you like to drink when you’re at home on a typical night?
JB: It varies. A lot of wine sure, but definitely beer and an occasional cocktail. One of my favorite table wines in the world is the Stateline Red from Mike Berghan [Gifford Hirlinger]. That’s been my go-to lately – what a great wine. I’m always discovering new local wines. Aluve is one of my new favorites. When I travel to Seattle I try to check out wines that aren’t from here. I’ve got a couple hundred bottles in my cellar and it’s a bit Walla Walla heavy, but there’s wines from all over the World.
WWWL: Hobbies? What do you like to do when you’re not making wine or in the tasting room?
JB: During the summer, I like to take the boat out to Lyons Ferry, right by Palouse Falls. In the winter I’ll go up to Tollgate and go skiing and snowmobiling. January is our slowest month, so we can hop up there in about 40 minutes. No cell phone service, which is nice sometimes. Just unplug a bit. We have a landline if we need it for emergencies. Those are the two things I like to do the most. I did have a great time on one of the rafting trips Andrae [Bopp] does – that was a lot of fun and I’m gonna do another one in 2018. I really like the outdoors; we’re in the Northwest, so we may as well utilize what we have.
WWWL: What’s the best thing about being a winemaker?
JB: Enjoying what I do for a living. I think that’s pretty rare. When I talk to most of my buddies about work, they usually complain about their jobs. I don’t ever feel that way, especially now that I own my own place – because if things go wrong the only one I can blame is myself. It’s a great feeling to have that full control. I truly, truly love what I do. I love the farming and the production aspects of the job, but I’d have to say I probably like the farming better because without the farming, the winemaking really doesn’t exist. Having control of my product from the vine to the bottle is amazing. 2017 was a challenging year with the freeze issues -- you definitely earn your money on the winemaking side in years like '17! One of the best days of the years is the day when you finish harvest, but the first day of harvest is also one of the best days of the year!
WWWL: What’s the worst part of being a winemaker?
JB: The selling part of it and the stress that comes with it. Opening the winery has been stressful, but fortunately we’ve gotten off to a good start. We didn’t go in with a ton of overhead, because I’ve seen wineries start up that way and it just adds to the stress. We decided to start small, lease a place, not build something right away. We custom crush at a facility in town, so I didn’t have to buy all that equipment for the first couple of years. That allows us a couple of years to bring in money, make a profit and then start to invest it. One of the most frustrating things was dealing with all the licensing that was required. We were anxious to open and it seemed like it took forever.
WWWL: Tell us about the Young Guns Wine Society.
JB: There were four winemakers when it started and we were all in our early 20’s, quite a bit younger than your average winemaker. When we started out it was Cam Kontos [Kontos Cellars], Greg Matiko [Skylite Cellars], Josh McDaniels [Sweet Valley Wines] and myself. Being that young it was tougher for us at the time to get wine dinners and tasting events set up. So we decided to band together and offer tasting with “the next generation of winemakers” all at one tasting. So instead of tasting wine from one winemaker, people that came to our events would get to taste wine from all four of our wineries and we called it “The Young Guns”. That really helped us get more events. We set it up with the intention of eventually handing it off to the next generation of young winemakers.
WWWL: But at 33, I think you’re still eligible for the Young Guns, no?
JB: I suppose. I feel older I guess because I’ve been in the wine industry for half my life. I think we’ve accomplished what we wanted to do with it, so it’s time to pass it on to others who can make use of it. We’ll always still do wine dinners together, we’ll always hang out.
WWWL: You’ve got 24 hours to live. What bottle from your cellar do you have to open?
JB: That’s a hell of a question! But hey, if I’ve only got 24 hours to live, I’m gonna open as many bottles as I can and go out in a drunken blaze of glory! I’ve been saving an ’88 Woodward Canyon for my son; I want to hand that down as an heirloom, so I couldn’t open that. I have some ’95 Leonetti Reserve -- that would definitely be up there. I still have some of the ’01 Merriment that Trey [Busch] made [at Basel Cellars] and the original ’03 Inspired blend; those are both among my favorites. I think I would just open as many bottles as I could drink till I passed out. If I have to die, I might as well go in my sleep! Maybe I’d even just start blending wines, make one giant dump bucket and siphon it off!
WWWL: Let’s talk history. You grew up in Walla Walla. What was that like for you?
JB: Walla Walla was a great place to grow up for me. It was a lot different than it is now. There wasn’t quite as much to do. Most people that were raised here couldn’t wait to get out…It’s nice to see that a lot of my friends that moved out of town want to move back now! Way back when we had the Blue Mountain Mall, where as kids we used to hang out at KB Toys and the food court. I think the biggest change for Walla Walla has been the renovation of downtown, as the small, family-owned stores started moving downtown. That really gave us the central hub of the town. Downtown was already beautiful, but the renovation really took it to the next level. I think the tourists that come to Walla Walla enjoy the beauty and the history of our town.
WWWL: What was your earliest exposure to wine?
JB: I was about twelve years old when I started working in the vineyard. We weren’t getting paid, but my dad let me and my friend Byron plant vines with the crew. We’d survey the land to get the lines straight, running a string through and setting up a trellis system. We weren’t working full-time at twelve years old, but we were definitely helping out for a couple hours every day. I actually hated it back then because we were doing it in the summer heat and it wasn’t the most fun job for a twelve-year old. All our friends would be hanging out at the pool and we’d have to work for a couple of hours and then wait for a ride into town. That was my first real exposure to the wine industry.
WWWL: When did you first start getting to taste the wine?
JB: Right around the same time I’d get my first sips of wine during the holidays or at dinner. Perhaps even earlier than that I remember going up to our cabin in Tollgate and my Dad would put a Budweiser in a pint glass and dump a little salt in it. That was confusing to me, but he would always say “You’ve got to do something to make Budweiser taste good!” It was just a sip here or there. That was the first alcohol I tasted. When it came to the wine, he would give me a bit more knowledge about it. It wasn’t just taking a sip – it was understanding the wine and that it was the finished product of all the hard work we put in.
WWWL: Were you parents wine connoisseurs before they started Basel Cellars?
JB: Not really (laughs). I’d say my mom drank a bit more wine than my dad, who was more of a whiskey/bourbon guy. Once we planted the vineyards, my dad would drink more wine because he was proud of the finished product. These days he’ll drink more wine, but it’s still kind of a new experience because he wasn’t raised on it. He comes from a farmhand family that traveled around to wherever they could get work.
WWWL: Interesting. I’m curious why he got into wine with such a major project after not being involved in the industry at all.
JB: He retired from construction and we moved back to Walla Walla and bought a bunch of land here. We had water rights and alfalfa growing, but my dad saw this new, exciting crop and wanted to be a part of it. All farming is hard, but he saw a challenge in growing wine grapes and decided to go for it.
WWWL: So Basel Cellars started up in the early 2000’s?
JB: We got bonded in 2000. Our first vintage was in 2001. We had a VR label and the Basel Cellars label. Trey Busch from Sleight of Hand was our first winemaker. I was in high school at the time and started helping out at the winery, racking, washing barrels, janitorial services, washing dishes. Anything they needed I would do to make a little extra money. Eventually I became the assistant winemaker and when Trey left to start Sleight of Hand in 2005 I took over as head winemaker. I was just finishing up the Viticulture and Enology program at the Community College under Stan Clarke at the time. Trey was an amazing mentor and we had some great times. I was head winemaker at Basel until 2009, when we sold the winery. I stayed on for a couple of months and then I left to work at Corliss for a year and then took over as head winemaker at Foundry Vineyards. I was at Foundry until January  when I left to launch Solemn Cellars.
WWWL: Tell me about the first wine you ever made.
JB: That would be the ’05 vintage at Basel Cellars. The Inspired and the Merriment. To this day, the Inspired is one of my favorite wines because it was inspired by the Right Bank Bordeaux wines. Two of my favorite varietals are Merlot and Cabernet Franc and I loved blending that wine. One of my favorites to work on. I always enjoyed blending the Claret, which was sort of our red table wine at Basel. Not the most expensive wine, but you actually put the most work into it. A lot of people think table wines are just made from putting a bunch of leftover wines together and throwing them in a bottle, but that’s not necessarily true. We had our set lots for our higher end wines, but we would meticulously go through and set the blends. And if something didn’t make it in there, we’d either sell it off or do custom bottling with it.
WWWL: When did you get seriously interested in drinking wine?
JB: High school actually. As bad as that sounds – hopefully none of my teachers [from high school] are reading this…we’d have our get-togethers and some people would bring beer or mixed drinks, but I’d show up with a brown bag with wine in it. I’d usually keep a brown bag around because otherwise I’d get a hard time, with people saying “Oh you’re too good to drink beer?” Getting into wine, that was when I started to really appreciate all the hard work that went into making the wine. The big thing at that stage was noticing the differences in all the varietals and how the wine was produced. There’s thousands of ways to make wine, but there’s no exact right way, so it was interesting to me to see different people’s visions and how they made their wines.
WWWL: Besides Trey [Busch], who else do you consider your mentors in the wine industry?
JB: Tom Glase [Balboa], was great to work for. Stan Clarke at the Community College was a big, big part of my wine education. Eric Dunham was always great too. One of the things I remember most about Eric is when I’d show up at wine events as a younger kid in my early 20’s, it was pretty intimidating. Eric and Trey were always very inclusive and supportive when we were out on the road. There’s a lot of people who have influenced the style of my wines and how I make them. Just the community as a whole, that concept of family. Even though you’re not related, you’re still part of the same industry, basically it’s us vs. the world.
WWWL: The community among the winemakers here really stands out to me. It’s not that it’s not competitive. Of course you want to get better scores than your winemaker buddies, but it’s just not cutthroat like it seems to be in some other wine regions.
JB: It’s important to be competitive, because if you lose your competitive nature I don’t think you’re going to better yourself. You can always improve and make better wine. I don’t think anyone out there has made a perfect wine yet! Those friendships and relationships are important because when something goes wrong you can call someone to ask for help. For example, this year was the first time I’d ever worked with Rocks Syrah. Our Estate Syrah froze out, so we’re using two different elevation Syrahs from the Rocks instead. I called a few people and everyone said, “Definitely don’t add acid”. When I got the grapes in hand, ran the numbers and tasted it, it seemed like it needed some acid. But once we went through fermentation it was fine. So without that assistance, I probably would have added acid. If I had, I doubt the wine would have been as good as it turned out to be. Getting together and having benchmark tastings is helpful, getting opinions on your wines from people you respect is really helpful. It definitely makes this a stand-up community, but we are competitive and we always should be.
WWWL: Walla Walla has really grown a lot since you were a kid growing up here. But it seems there’s still room for more growth. How big do you think the wine tourism can get here?
JB: We definitely have room for more growth. The thing that I’ve always been concerned with having been born and raised here is not getting too corporate. More stores is a good thing, but the more mom and pop type stores the better. Keeping that small-town feel is very important, but we’ll never be able to develop into another Napa. We don’t have San Francisco in our backyard; we’re in the middle of nowhere – we’re four hours from Seattle and Portland and you have to spend at least one night here. I’d like to see Walla Walla keep the same that small-town feel while at the same time continuing to grow with more world class restaurants and nice places to stay.
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