During my recent sojourn to the magnificent wine country of Washington state, I was struck by the close-knit nature of the winemaking community. In Cascadia, it seems that collaboration is as much a product of spirit as it is of necessity.
In separate visits to wineries in three different regions of the state, I tasted that spirit firsthand in outstanding wines borne from collaborations between growers and winemakers. Each of these tastings represented different business and creative models, but each was as valid as the other, proven by what was poured in the glass.
My first stop was in formerly rural Woodinville, the town just north of Seattle that has bloomed around Chateau St. Michelle, (CSM), Washington’s definitive winery. I had come to taste Col Solare, a wine made by CSM in partnership with Tuscany’s Marchesi Antinori.
In the 1990s, Washington wine legend Allen Shoup, then-CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle, was at the forefront of the development and marketing of the Washington wine community. Shoup recognized the potential of not just the fruit that was grown in the state, but the value of working with established figures in international wine cultures to maximize the attributes of different varietals. As an example, CSM, a pioneer in the production of Washington State Riesling, formed a partnership with Germany’s Riesling savant, Dr. Ernst Loosen, to create Eroica, perhaps America’s best-known Riesling.
The Antinoris, who have been making wine since 1385 in the hills of Tuscany, had embraced the global grape concept and began exploring wine regions around the world to find perfect pockets for promising varietals. Recognizing potential in Washington, they paired with CSM to create Col Solare, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine from one of the world’s perfect Cabernet growing regions.
In 1995, the coupling released the first vintage of their Washington wine, crafted with Italian influence. A decade later, Col Solare, which means “shining hill,” realized its true destiny when Ted Baseler, the current CEO of CSM, and the Antinoris broke ground on a spectacular mountaintop winery overlooking the postage stamp-sized Red Mountain AVA in eastern Washington.
The collaboration has resulted in some of the most powerful and expressive Cabernets found anywhere and proven the value of bringing people and ideas from different worlds together to create magic.
Just down the hill from Col Solare sits the famed Ciel du Cheval Vineyard. It is the Holy Grail for Washington winemakers. Planted more than 40 years ago, this piece of land bakes under the hottest sun imaginable and the grapes grow on nutrient-stressed vines until they explode with ripeness and flavor.
It is a true gem, and a significant portion of its renown is due to Ryan Johnson, who manages the property with pure passion. A few, the lucky few of Washington’s most significant winemakers — like Ben Smith of Cadence, Ross Mickel of Ross Andrew Winery and James Mantone of Syncline — have been able to purchase fruit from the vineyard to make their wines.
When it came to creating his own label, Johnson knew that Red Mountain was where he wanted to be and that these winemakers were the people with whom he wanted to work. So, with partner and businessman Paul McBride, an investment was made in a parcel of property high up on the rocky hillside above the Ciel du Cheval. It is a piece of land that defines the Red Mountain AVA.
Johnson’s plan was to plant the grapes he wanted, in the manner he wanted to plant them, and then collaborate with the winemakers he most respected to make wines that reflected, equally, the place, the grower and the winemaker.
After a false start under a label called Grand Reve, Johnson renamed the project Force Majeure. He produces wines made by six of the most exciting winemakers in the state, each one a part of the “Collaboration Series.” Each wine is given a designation, Collaboration I, II, IV, etc., to identify the grape varietals and the winemaker.
These are beautiful wines, but perhaps more importantly, while they are vineyard-driven and made by talented winemakers, they are clearly crafted by the viticulturist who drives the project.
Further east in Walla Walla, Allen Shoup created a new project that captured the attention and the talents of many of the world’s most preeminent wine professionals.
Shoup’s concept was to offer winemakers of pedigree from around the world the opportunity to make their own wine in Washington using fruit from the region. Not only would Washington benefit from the influence of these wine professionals, but also, the world would learn about the amazing grapes that are grown there.
Winemakers like Randy Dunn, a Cabernet king from the Napa Valley, Australia’s John Duval, who is one of just four men to make the iconic Grange, French consultant Michel Roland, and Italian wine legends Ambrogio and Giovanni were given a place and access to grapes to make Washington wines in their own image. In all eight, “Vintner Partners” make their own wines under separate labels at Long Shadows. An unprecedented undertaking.
Three projects and a multitude of wines — all defined by the spirit of collaboration.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.