This article is written by Luke Wohlers, my sommelier buddy and monthly columnist for rollwithjen.com.
In 2011 I volunteered for my first grape “crush” in Woodinville, Washington. Then I soon found out this was no simple candy crush. It’s actually pure cardio fitness treading around in a vat that feels like a grape version of quicksand. My boss at the time had just received a batch of Syrah grapes from a single vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills and needed all hands on deck. So I volunteered. Why pass up a chance to stomp grapes? This month the wait was over: I had my first sip of the wine I took a small part creating, the 2011 W.T. Vintners “Gorgeous” Syrah.
There aren’t many sommeliers also making wine. The reason for this is that restaurant work and winery work are quite separate careers that involve unique skill sets. But their number is growing for the simple reason that a sommelier’s success at pairing food with wine can be equally successful when it comes to crafting wine. Sommeliers are constantly thinking about one critical point: value for money. Not only do they taste a global array of wines, they have to sell their purchases to guests. And that means it had better be good.
I met up with my former boss, winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, recently over lunch and asked him a few questions about W.T. Vintners. While running the winery and tasting room with his wife Courtney and business partners, he also manages one of the best wine lists in Seattle at RN74.
He is part of the new wave of sommeliers making brilliant wines. These wines are intended to captivate wine drinkers. They tend to be less than 14% alcohol, have little to no oak influence and highlight fruit character as well as savory qualities (think dried herbs, peppery spices or smoked meats) obtained from some influence of vineyard, grape, yeast and fermentation technique.
More frequently, their labels single out individual vineyards and grape varieties. While many of the major vineyard areas of Washington State produce full-bodied reds, some cooler regions such as Columbia Gorge are gaining in popularity for the lighter styles of white and red wines. You’ll find this array of diversity at W.T. Vintners.
LW: When you were traveling to learn about wine, which wineries gave you the tools you needed to make wine for yourself?
JLT: I’ve had the honor of working at wineries in three countries. In France at Maison Ambroise, the Burgundian ideology that the vineyard is everything became a fact for me. You cannot make extraordinary wines from ordinary vineyards. At Martinborough Vineyard in New Zealand, the sheer volume of fruit we brought in during a very short amount of time due to bad weather made for brutally long days, but the collaborative effort between our international team of harvest workers and winemakers allowed us to power on. Teamwork and community are crucial to success in the face of great challenges. The one constant no matter where you are working harvest is the love of great wine and sharing a bottle or two over dinner. This serves as a reward and a great reminder of why we do what we do.
LW: Can you think back to some of your most inspirational wine bottles – ones that have guided the way you approach winemaking at W.T. Vintners?
JLT: Oh man, I have been so lucky. I have been able to taste outrageous wine from all over the planet but as for influencing W.T. Vintner’s style, a few wineries come to mind. In Syrah’s home, the Northern Rhône Valley, the wines of Allemand, Clape, and Jamet all utilize whole cluster fermentation to bring out more complexity, savory flavors and tannin. To my palate these are also the pinnacle expressions of Syrah. This style of wine has fallen out of fashion on one hand, with many winemakers opting for over-the-top and excessively fruity wines. But on the other hand, wineries making wine in this old school style continue to produce some of the most sough-after wines in the world (Rhône Valley Syrah and Burgundian Pinot Noir). In Burgundy, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Dujac produce breathtaking wines full of power and finesse from whole cluster fermentation. Here in Washington, Greg Harrington at Gramercy Cellars (an advocate for whole cluster Syrah fermentation) is producing some of Washington’s most compelling wines. He has been huge in pushing W.T. Vintners to be daring, test our limits, and strive toward greatness.
LW: Of all your wines in bottle right now, is there one that really stands out?
JLT: Our 2011 Les Collines Syrah from Walla Walla Valley is the wine I am most proud of today. 2011 was a very cool vintage in Washington that required patience and bit of bravado to make great wine. We pushed our limits using whole clusters, which brought another layer of savory complexity to the wine. This method can also create harsh tannins so you really have to keep on eye on how the flavors are developing. The end result (for release this Fall) embodies what we are going for with our Syrah program: savory, explosively aromatic, and distinctly Syrah.
LW: What contributions do you hope to add to the winemaking culture in Washington State?
JLT: Everything we craft at W.T. Vintners is a single vineyard wine. We want to show the distinct expression of place through the lens of the particular grape we are working with. Washington is a massive growing region with tremendous diversity. Our mission is to craft wines that champion Washington’s great vineyard sites and our hope is that our commitment to these special places will help nudge our colleagues to do the same. Washington’s potential for greatness is within our grasp and showing its best vineyards helps us demonstrate just how amazing Washington wines can be.
LW: Which grapes do you see popular in Washington State five years down the road?
JLT: Washington will be all about Rhône Varietals. Syrah will be the flagship, but Grenache, Mourvèdre and other Rhône grapes will all help elevate Washington wine. Cabernet will always be fashionable and delicious but Syrah is Washington’s greatest grape due to its ability to transmit the flavors of the place it’s grown, versatility of style and place on the dinner table.
The 2011 W.T. Vintners “Gorgeous” Syrah is worthy of a detour to Woodinville.
The winery and tasting room are open to the public every Saturday & Sunday from 1-5pm.
19501 144th Ave NE, Ste. F1200
Woodinville, WA 98072