What can I say, I'm a sucker for wines made from Rhône varieties, and I'm also, unfortunately for you readers, a sucker for Rhône-based puns. When I was originally out in Washington last June for the Wine Bloggers' Conference, one of the wineries that really stood out for me was Rôtie Cellars, a winery located in Walla Walla that specializes in wines based on the traditional Rhône varieties. Nary a Cabernet will you find in the Rôtie repertoire, but you will find some fine examples of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. Recently I was able to make a trip out to Walla Walla for some tasting, and to meet with winemaker Sean Boyd.
I was greeted for our morning appointment by Sean Boyd in the stairway outside of the downtown Rôtie Cellars tasting room. I had managed to work out my visit to avoid the truly hectic part of harvest, but there was still plenty of wine work being done, and Sean was kind enough to fit me into his schedule. The tasting room is all business, spartanly furnished with only the tasting counter to break up the space of the room. Unlike many Washington tasting rooms, Rôtie Cellars production is very focused, meaning that they don't have rows of different varieties to choose from when you are tasting. Their lineup features their Southern White blend, the Southern Red blend, a Northern Red blend, and their VDP blend of Syrah and Mourvedre.
It doesn't take long talking to Boyd to catch his passion for these varieties. His wine path followed the normal trajectory, starting with Zinfandels from Paso Robles, and working it's way to Pinot Noir, and his true love, the Rhônes. His eyes light up when he talks about how much more Mourvedre he'll be producing in 2010 (I think my eyes might have lit up too). This focus on the Rhône varieties has been helped along by Boyd gaining access to some Grenache and Mourvedre when other producers backed out on contracts for the grapes.
The Rhône focus isn't the only way that Boyd goes against the flow that you find most places in Washington. He has also eschewed the common fixation on single vineyard designate wines, preferring to use blending to achieve the flavor profiles that he desires. "Single vineyards are great, but blends give you a broader palate to work with." Boyd told me. "The key to winemaking is to put yourself in a position to be lucky." he said in regard to blending. Part of this is getting fruit from different sites, instead of banking on the fruit from a single location. Another piece of this equation is selecting variety appropriate locations. Rather than go for vineyard designations, Boyd chooses to get fruit from the locations that really grow the varieties well. That means that he might be getting Syrah from Walla Walla, while his Grenache and Mourvedre come from the Horse Heaven Hills.
Sometimes quality isn't the only consideration when it comes to what fruit goes into the blend. When Boyd was working on the 2008 Northern Blend, he found that the Pepper Bridge Syrah, which was the most expensive fruit that they had sourced, didn't fit the flavor profile that they were looking for. Rather than the kind of dirty profile that they were looking for in the Northern blend, the Pepper Bridge Syrah had a much fruitier profile. The fruit was great, but just wasn't what they were looking for in the blend. They ended up taking the Syrah and blending it with Mourvedre to create their VDP blend. The wine is outstanding, which makes for more supporting evidence to Boyd's theory about putting yourself in a position to be lucky.
When it comes to his overall approach to winemaking, Boyd aims for low alcohol, and as natural as possible. He likes hand picked, whole cluster fermenting, no racking, and minimal additive wines. He likes his Syrah with a little funk, and his wines with good acidity.
One of the cool things that Rôtie Cellars is doing is their wine club, which features a great hook right now and a cool name for club members. Sean told me that he wanted his club members to get something special, so he came up with the idea to give people who signed up to become "Rotiesians" during the first year of the club a lifetime pricing special. When you sign up for an allocation of Rôtie Cellars wine, you lock in the price of your wine. Given the fact that Rôtie wines are priced pretty reasonably to begin with, this is a great opportunity to lock in the price on some wine that seems likely to escalate in the future. This special is only going to be going on through the end of the year, so you should contact the winery soon if you are interested.
If you are a Rhône enthusiast, Rôtie Cellars is a must stop on your next Walla Walla trip. Also, there is a great interview with Sean Boyd on Ken Payton's Reign of Terroir blog, so you should check that out as well. I will be giving some tasting notes on the wines that I tried in the near future, so keep your eyes open for that if you would like to know more about the wines that Rôtie produces.