Two newish wineries in Washington that deliver outstanding wine at relatively moderate prices represent different ways of getting there. One left a big bank to take a chance on starting his own winery. The other parlayed 15 years selling others' wines into a smart-business wine venture.
Neither one involves planting a vineyard and growing grapes. Instead they're starting off slow by making a limited number of wines, getting their grapes from established growers. They both focus on a few wines and have an idea about how to establish an identity to us consumers.
Shannon Jones, 37, got interested in the grape through playing amateur rugby, which took him to places such as New Zealand, where every Kiwi believes no one plays the game better than their national team, the All Blacks. While in New Zealand he became infatuated with the wine culture, and on a trip to Europe in 2000 he and his wife discovered that they liked drinking wine with every meal. When he returned home he set out to take classes in viticulture and enology at University of California at Davis and at Washington State University.
He volunteered at DeLille and Januik and talked to everybody he could corral who was already making good wine. Meanwhile, he kept his day job, managing human resource systems at Washington Mutual Bank. "When I left no one could believe I left a steady job at a bank," he laughed.
He started Hestia Cellars, naming it after the Greek goddess of the hearth, a nod to his Greek heritage. He set up shop in the Woodinville warehouse district (now home to nearly two dozen wineries) and made 500 cases in 2004. The first Hestia wine I tasted was a 2006 Syrah, which did not make the cut for publication. Then the 2008s arrived, and they were standouts in my blind tastings. Only the Malbec ($30, 92 points) has been published so far, but right behind are a Syrah and Cabernet that are in the same ballpark on quality and a Merlot that's just a step back. The winery is growing, hoping to make 5,000 cases this year.
On my recent visit to Seattle I asked Jones to show me some of the wines he has coming next.
First up was a dry, racy Chenin Blanc 2010. In style, it resembles some of the better Greek Assyrtikos that are so refreshing to drink with seafood. "I wanted to do something crisp, not the same as everything else out there," he said. "For all the shellfish we have in Washington, it's perfect." It represents about 30 percent of Hestia's production.
The reds all have a supple texture and focused fruit flavors. They drive a middle road between richness and delicacy, with the result that they are immensely appealing from first sip, but stay with you on the finish and succeeding sips.
"I like that soft mouthfeel," he said. "I want acidity, but I want it in the background. I'm not a fan of oak [flavor], so it's all second-use barrels." He has a starry list of growers who sell grapes to Hestia, which has no vineyards of its own, not an unusual pattern in Washington. Among them are Boushey in Yakima Valley, Stone Tree in Wahluke Slope and McKinley Springs in Horse Heaven Hills, familiar names to those who follow the top Washington producers. The wines are varietals, not blends (although he does sneak a touch of Viognier into his Syrah), simply labeled.
How did he get these top vineyards? "As soon as I had some wine, I brought it out to them to show them what I was doing," he said. Why such geographically disparate sources? "You can get complexity from blending different AVAs," he shrugged.
What's next? Why, he's thinking of expanding to New Zealand. "I love the Pinots there, and the people. The vintages are a half year apart. Why not?"
Zero One caught my eye in the tasting room for the first time with The Wild Sky 2006 (92, $30), a Cabernet Sauvignon with polish and a deft balance to go along with its rich fruit character. When the followup 2007 did even better (93, $30) and the 2008 was in the same league (91, $30), I made it a point to catch up with them on this trip. We met at a steak house in Bellevue, near their offices. The wines are made at a custom crush facility at Wahluke Slope.
Shannon Jones shows off a few of Hestia's offerings.
Neither Thomas nor Kirsten Vogeles, the husband-and-wife team behind Zero One Vintners, both had connections to the wine business even if they never actually made any juice before 2006. Thomas sold Gallo Wines in Europe, came home to Washington to represent Trinchero and later Robert Mondavi wines, and still manages sales in nine western states for Michael Mondavi's Folio 9. Kirsten is currently on leave from her job managing computer program development at IBM, but her sister and brother-in-law are involved with wineries in Walla Walla. Visiting them often in Walla Walla, they hatched the idea of making wines more to their taste than what they found elsewhere in Washington.
"I guess we have more of a European palate," Thomas said. "My family is from Switzerland, and that's what I started with. We saw Washington going toward an extracted, big style, and I come from a culture that values more elegance."
The other factor was price, especially since they preferred to make single-vineyard wines. "We didn't want to end up with a wine that had to cost $60, when we should be aiming for $30." They got Gordy Hill (who made the wines at Northstar) to work with them, and hit a home run with their first wine, Wild Sky 2006. They also make a red blend, called Sauce, at about the same price, which is similarly supple, a blend of Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. The other varietal, Riesling, fashioned in a delicate, lightly sweet style and called Golden Delicious, also delivers good value at $13.
To get an idea of what's coming next, we sampled the 2010 Riesling and 2009 Wild Sky. The Riesling is refreshing, silky, with a sharp acid balance to push the finish and, yes, it tastes of apples, with floral and lime overtones. The 2009 Wild Sky has beautiful focus, pure blueberry and boysenberry fruit, hints of sandalwood and nutmeg on an open texture, and just enough of a tannic veil to liven it up.
The Vogeles are also planning a tasting room in Kirkland, where they live, not in Woodinville, where five dozen other wineries compete for attention. The next wine is likely to be a Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend, something they think Washington does especially well. And of course, they will have to think of a clever name for it. And then, maybe a Syrah.
"We need to think methodically," said Kirsten. "We're not the rich Boeing executive that decides to make wine in a second life. We would love to have a 100-acre vineyard of our own, but that's in the future."