The Washington winery that snagged the winemaker from Bryant Family, a California cult favorite, has added to the intrigue by bringing Helen Keplinger into the fold, too. Keplinger was Bryant's winemaker for two years before going off on her own in 2012 to focus on Grenache.
Now she's signed on to consult with the innovative Force Majeure, where her former assistant at Bryant, Todd Alexander, was named winemaker last year. Alexander worked at PlumpJack and followed Keplinger as Bryant's ace in the cellar, a position Philippe Melka, Helen Turley and Mark Aubert held previously. Starry names, all.
Force Majeure has already established itself in the top tier of Washington wineries. Owner Paul McBride founded the label in 2004 as Grand Rève, buying grapes and corralling well-known winemakers to make up to six different individual lots. Some were phenomenal. The supple, generous and graceful Grand Rève Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Collaboration Series Reserve 2007 (97, $75), made by Mark McNeilly (of Mark Ryan) and Ross Mickel (of Ross Andrew). No Washington Cabernet has rated higher in Wine Spectator annals.
Now Alexander has persuaded McBride to add Keplinger to the mix as the winery starts using its new vineyards, even as it continues the Collaboration Series. "I'll be the sounding board, helping with the blends," she said.
The most impressive of the new vineyards perch among craggy peaks at the very top of the Red Mountain AVA. The first red off the new vineyard, a 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (90, $75), shows freshness and expressive length.
Keplinger is excited about the vineyards. "They sit on a south-facing butte," she said. "They put the Cabernet in the sweet spot of the vineyard, and they've planted the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre in places where they have to struggle.
"It reminds me of making wine in Priorat," she added, referencing the steep slopes of the region in northeastern Spain. "There are steep slopes with head-trained Grenache. It's crazy, but it's fun."
Keplinger thinks their steepness and exposure to sunlight help ripen the tannins in the grapes so the wines aren't as tough and scratchy as some Red Mountain bottlings can be.
"There are things there we don't see in Napa," she said, "different trellising and canopy management. They are going through the vineyard block by block to figure out how to fine-tune it." Alexander is also trying different grapes to coferment with Mourvèdre and Grenache.
Keplinger's experience with Washington wines is limited, but she likes the Cabernets of Leonetti and the Syrahs of Cayuse. Can she and her former protégé come up with something as distinctive and compelling?
Keplinger sounds convinced. "Todd is a great person," she said. "He's conscientious, he has a great sense of humor and he became a good friend. When he told me about leaving Bryant for Force Majeure, I said it sounds like an awesome opportunity."