Ron and Susan Bunnell not only have one of the hottest new wineries in Washington (check out the raft of great ratings for their Bunnell Family Cellars and value-oriented RiverAerie Vineyards), they may have come up with a destination for pizza lovers, too.
They installed Wine o’Clock, their new wine bar, instead of a tasting room, amidst a cluster of wineries in Prosser called Vintner’s Village. The cast there includes Airfield, Thurston-Wolfe, Millbrandt, Olsen and Apex. Desert Wind is across the street. But the Bunnells have a wood-fired pizza oven.
Susan is the pizza chef. In a previous life, she worked with Gary Danko in the 1980s when he opened the Souverain restaurant in California, and later she managed the dining room at the Chandon winery restaurant in Yountville, Calif. She takes a creative approach to pizza. Instead of making classics, she has created several $12 pies designed to go with the Bunnell and RiverAerie wines. "The idea is to help people have a nice snack and set off the wines," she explained.
She made four pizzas for me to taste. The thin crust is crisp in the middle and only makes a slight rise around the edge. The wood smoke gives it a distinct character.
Mascarpone, lemon zest, shiso leaf and leeks topped the first one, aimed at white wines, specifically Gewürztraminer. It tasted fine on its own and I liked it best with Bunnell Viognier 2007.
Sliced Bosc pears, bacon and white cheddar gave the second pizza a richly layered flavor profile that I preferred with the Bunnell Syrah Boushey Vineyard 2006, emphasizing the Yakima Valley wine’s generosity and open texture.
A smear of pesto, with eggplant and portobello mushroom slices, topped with herbs and fresh mozzarella, got closest to a classic Italian pizza, and brought out extra fruit nuances in the RiverAerie Mourvèdre 2006.
She saved the best for last, though. An onion pizza sported all the ingredients in French onion soup except the broth: caramelized onions, a sprinkle of caraway and fresh thyme, with both gruyère and comté cheeses. It’s magic, and the pizza popped out the fruit in Bunnell à Pic 2006, a lively blend of Rhône varieties from Stonetree Vineyard high on Wahluke Slope.
Bunnell made wine at Chateau Ste. Michelle, Beringer and Kendall-Jackson before he and Susan started their own Yakima Valley winery beginning with the 2004 vintage. They bottle Rhône varieties—various blends of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Grenache and Viognier—under their Bunnell label. Other varieties travel under RiverAerie. Though made in relatively small quantities, the often-outstanding RiverAerie wines carry mostly sub-$20 price tags. Total production is around 4,000 cases.
Bunnell’s latest wine project involves grower Steve Newhouse, who has some of the oldest vines on Snipes Mountain, Washington's newest AVA. On the south side of Yakima Valley, just west of Sunnyside, the appellation looks most promising for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. I tasted components for the 2008 vintage, and found lots of meaty character in the Cabernet, generosity and plum flavors in the Malbec, and supple texture and sweet berry notes in the Merlot.
"I’m still deciding whether to make one blend or bottle separate varietals," Bunnell said. He's leaning toward making a single wine from Snipes Mountain because he has so many different wines under RiverAerie. "I got entranced with so many of these sport varieties, which were just coming into production. So we have a lot of [different bottlings]."
But he'll continue to make small lots of interesting wines that don't fit in the blend, he added. "That’s the joy of having the wine bar," he said. "I can still bottle up 50 cases of something and sell it there."
For now, Wine o’Clock is only open weekends from noon to 5 p.m. Starting May 1, it will be open Fridays to Mondays.