What follows is a section of my 2010 Walla Walla Spring Release Report. The report will be published in its entirety in .pdf form after the last entry is posted to the blog. See previous posts here.
Winemaker Jamie Brown of Waters Winery has taken a somewhat unforgiving path to success. A Walla Walla native, Brown became interested in winemaking as he watched the local wine industry grow and a number of friends enter the field. A musician and songwriter, the relationship between art and winemaking appealed to Brown’s artistic sensibilities.
After assisting at Glen Fiona, Dunham Cellars, and Pepper Bridge, Brown was encouraged by friends to start a winery of his own. He founded James Leigh Cellars (now JLC Winery) in 2001 and then Waters Winery in 2005. Having worked in the restaurant industry, Brown naturally gravitated toward wines that were more food friendly and European in style with lower alcohol and higher acid levels. While many winemakers have gone in the opposite direction, Brown decided to go against that trend. He says, “I wanted wines that were more out of the backbone of acid. If it meant less extraction and color so be it.”
From the beginning, a large part of Brown’s focus as a winemaker has been on single vineyard syrah. Syrah, which particularly in Washington is extremely expressive of site, appealed to Brown from an artistic point of view. Brown says, “Single vineyard syrah, to me, seemed to have the most potential for that type of expressive nature.” While somewhat of an unusual choice commercially, for Brown, it followed an inner vision. Brown credits his love of music for helping him make this choice. He says, “Music was a huge influence on me. I liked things that weren’t super commercially successful but I thought that they were right.”
As a winemaker, Brown set out to make syrah in the style he thought was right. Making single vineyard syrah is a difficult proposition to begin with. However, Brown has made it that much more so by eschewing the use of abundant new oak, which can often fill in some of a wine’s imperfections. Additionally, Brown has kept the alcohol levels in check, going against the trend of bigger, riper wines. Of bucking numerous winemaking trends Brown jokes, “When you get a chance to be an artist, sometimes you just have to be dumb enough to not know better.”
Waters produces three vineyard-designated syrahs. The first is from Loess (pronounced ‘Luss’) Vineyard, an estate vineyard for Leonetti Cellar. Situated near the Blue Mountains at an elevation of 1,100 feet, this vineyard receives eighteen inches of rainfall annually, considerably higher than many in the valley. The second vineyard-designated syrah comes from Forgotten Hills. This estate vineyard, planted in 1996, lies in the eastern section of the valley. The soils here are a mixture of basalt, silt, and sandy loam. The third syrah is from famed Pepper Bridge Vineyard, located near the Oregon border. The vines at Pepper Bridge are planted on silt loam, and the vineyard sits at an elevation of 900 feet.
Though these three vineyards are reasonably short distances from each other, they provide fascinating contrasts. In each of the wines the use of limited new oak puts the focus clearly on the vineyard. Site differences come to the fore, as do the variations in vintages that can often be minimized by blending from vineyards situated across large areas. In some years, these artistic decisions can be unforgiving. In others, when the vintage conditions are just right, they can be exultant.
The 2007 vintage releases are such an example – an exultant celebration of an exceptional vintage. Waters Forgotten Hills Syrah in particular stands as one of the best wines to emerge from this heralded vintage. This wine displays compelling aromatics of violets, light game, and intensely pure fruit. The palate is seamlessly put together, anchored by a backbone of acid. Given the exceptional vintage and Brown’s deft, artistic touch, the entire lineup is the best Waters has produced to date.
Though Brown has not walked the easiest path with his wines, the focus on single vineyard syrah has become the winery’s trademark. While some winemakers – like many artists – can be defensive of their creations, Brown is more pragmatic. He says, “Its okay if there are people out there who don’t like it. We’ll find the ones that dig this.” Following his inner vision has paid off for Brown, leading to a devoted following. Brown says of single vineyard syrah, “It’s helped make my career even though it’s not the way that an investor might draw it up.”
Waters Winery produces 5,000 cases annually.
Waters Winery Rose Walla Walla Valley 2009 $18
Rating: + (Good) Pale salmon colored. Lots of floral aromas along with melon and citrus. Bright and acidic on the palate with cherry and watermelon flavors. 67% Syrah, 33% Viognier. 12.5% alcohol. 185 cases produced.
Waters Winery Syrah Columbia Valley 2007 $30
Rating: * (Excellent) A fascinating, appealing nose with funky aromatics of earth, nuts, and savory notes. Lots of puckering red fruit flavors on an enjoyable palate marked by a cranberry laden finish. 100% Syrah. Minick Vineyard. Aged in neutral French oak. 1,054 cases produced.
Waters Winery Syrah Loess Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2007 $40
Rating: * (Excellent) A pretty nose with pepper, herbal tones, and savory spices accented by floral notes. Beautifully textured on the palate with red fruit, savory flavors, and a touch of smoked meat. 97% Syrah co-fermented with 3% Viognier. Aged in neutral French oak. 190 cases produced.
Waters Winery Syrah Forgotten Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2007 $40
Rating: ** (Exceptional) On the nose, an exclamation point of aromatics. Spice, light game, and floral notes. On the palate, a beautifully textured and nuanced wine full of game and fruit flavors. An accomplishment of a wine. 100% Syrah. Forgotten Hills Vineyard. Aged in French oak (approximately 10% new). 514 cases produced.
Waters Winery Syrah Pepper Bridge Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2007 $40
Rating: * (Excellent) Spicy, herbal, touches of chocolate, savory notes, and tart red fruit on an attractive nose. Tart and clean with abundant red fruit on the palate. Finish lingers on and on. 100% Syrah. Pepper Bridge Vineyard. Aged in French oak (approximately 10% new). 298 cases produced.
Waters Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2006 $50
Rating: * (Excellent) A very pretty nose with currant, herbal streaks, and anise. Tart and puckering with lots of cranberry flavors on the palate. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Cold Creek and Pepper Bridge vineyards. 346 cases produced.
21 Grams Columbia Valley 2007 $125
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Nose is locked up pretty tightly at the moment but shows light herbal notes, licorice, freshly ground cranberries, pencil shavings, and very light earth aromas. Pretty fruit flavors shine through on an elegantly structured palate. Give two years. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 2% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. Cold Creek, Pepper Bridge, Portteus, Seven Hills, Nostra Terra, and Sagemoor vineyards. 100 cases produced.