Preliminary voting continues for the 2010 Reader Survey Wine of the Year and 2011 Wine to Watch. Read about it here. What follows is a Focus report on Soos Creek Wine Cellars. Download a .pdf version of this report here. Read previous Focus reports here.

With twenty-one vintages under his belt, David Larsen of Soos Creek Wine Cellars is one of Washington’s longer-tenured winemakers. A former marathon runner with the slender frame to prove it, Larsen’s soft-spoken, humble nature belies a man of focus and talent.

Larsen has taken a slow, steady, almost methodical approach to Soos Creek. “With the winery, I’ve always been very conservative,” Larsen says. Working in The Boeing Company’s finance group taught Larsen the meaning of risk. He is a man who thinks long-term and looks to go the distance. He wants his wines to do the same.

Larsen started at Boeing in 1975. Almost as soon as he started at the company, Larsen knew that he wanted to have his own business someday. However, it would take ten years to determine that that business would be wine, and he would remain at Boeing for twenty-nine years before leaving in 2004 to focus on Soos Creek full time (“Leaving was very hard, very emotional,” Larsen says).

It was shortly before Larsen started working at Boeing that he first became interested in wine. Like many, his interest was ignited by European travel. On a five-week trip, he had a glass of wine at lunch one day. “First good glass of wine I ever had,” Larsen says. “What impressed me was how it enhanced the meal. The wine and food thing really got me going.”

From blackberry wine to one of Washington’s best winemakers

Larsen began his journey as one of Washington’s best winemakers in a somewhat unlikely manner. He started out making fruit wine as a hobby in the seventies. This was a practical decision as much as any thing else, as his parent’s house had copious amounts of the blackberry bushes out back. While he made his fruit wine for fun, as a consumer, he gravitated toward drinking wines from Bordeaux along with California Cabernet.

Larsen traveled to Napa Valley with his wife in the late seventies. After touring several wineries he began to think about making wine commercially. “It planted the seed,” Larsen says.

At this point, however, Washington had a limited number of wineries. Several that would become among the state’s most heralded, such as Leonetti Cellar and Quilceda Creek, were just starting out. These wineries, along with Woodward Canyon, would provide Larsen with the final inspiration he needed to start a commercial winery.

Larsen joined the Boeing Employees Wine and Beermakers Club in 1987 and began making grape wine. By 1988, he was convinced that he could produce a commercial product.

In coming up with a name for his winery, Larsen decided to have a contest. “I said I’d give a case of wine to whoever can come up with a name for the winery,” Larsen says. “The very first name given was Soos Creek,” the name of a nearby creek.

Larsen continued collecting names and eventually passed them on to a consultant to do trademark research. Larsen says the consultant came back to him and said, “Soos Creek is a really good name. And it’s the only one on your list that’s any good!” Soos Creek Wine Cellars was born in 1989 in Larsen’s garage. Brian Carter, now of Brian Carter Cellars, assisted as a consultant to help get him started.

A history of slow growth

Reflecting his cautious personality, Larsen started out small and has grown slowly over the last twenty years to around 1,600 cases. This has also allowed him to focus closely on each barrel of wine. During this time, Larsen has worked hard to keep his overhead low, doing little things like trading wine for label designs and the like. Subsequently the Soos Creek wines are among the best priced in the state, especially considering the quality of the wine and the vineyard sources. Larsen says he enjoys not having to work quite so hard to sell the wines, and consumers appreciate the prices.

In the twenty-two years since Larsen started making the Soos Creek wines, he has expanded his operations several times. In 1994 he built a new home and constructed a detached garage on the property for the winery. In May of 2009, he moved to a new building with a dedicated wine building.

In looking for his new location, Larsen searched for about a year for somewhere with sufficient space. Larsen says he wanted a “real” winery – not one tied to his house. “I knew when we saw this lot it was the place,” Larsen says.

Located in Kent, the winery is a few hundred feet from the Larsen’s home. The area is quiet and pastoral with commanding views of Mount Rainier.

The building reflects Larsen’s personality – no frills, highly functional, but with numerous creative elements to assist with the winemaking process. There is radiant heating on a section of the floor to help with fermentation temperatures. The building is designed to naturally cool at night and retain these cool temperatures during the day.

Larsen loves to build things and he designed and built several pieces of equipment at the winery. “I really enjoy projects. The creative process.” This is reflected in his winemaking as well.

A focus on fruit

Larsen’s focus as a winemaker is squarely on the fruit. The winery is dedicated exclusively to red wine made from Bordeaux grape varietals. Larsen bases most of his winemaking decisions on taste rather than making wine by the numbers. “You can only make great wine if you know what great wine tastes like,” he says. “I’m into the art of winemaking. That’s what keeps me going.”

The flavors of the Soos Creek wines are exquisite, all with a stylistic trademark of bright, fresh red fruit flavors and lithe tannins. Larsen uses about 40% new French oak for his wines. While generally immediately approachable, the wines also have enough structure for the long haul.

From the beginning, Larsen has focused on some of the best vineyards in the state. “I knew that vineyards were the key by reading about Bordeaux,” Larsen says. Larsen started working with Champoux Vineyard fruit when he was in the Boeing Wine Club. His first commercial wine (see notes below) used fruit mostly from that vineyard.

Larsen now works with nine different vineyard sources including Dineen (Rattlesnake Hills); Champoux (Horse Heaven Hills); Weinbau and Riverbend (Wahluke Slope); DuBrul and Lewis (Yakima Valley); Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, and Kiona (Red Mountain); and Bacchus (Columbia Valley). Larsen says, “I get emotionally attached to vineyards. I drop a few but each time I come back.”

Stylistically, Larsen started backing away five years ago from the longer hang times that have been the hallmark of much of the Washington wine scene during the last decade. “I didn’t like the character of wines made from such ripe grapes, including some of my own wines,” Larsen says. As a result, many of the Soos Creek wines are at modest alcohol levels of around fourteen percent. “I want to make long-lived wines,” Larsen explains.

Tasting two older vintage wines with Larsen, two things became immediately clear. The first is that Larsen has had a natural talent for winemaking from the beginning. The 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon from Larsen’s first commercial vintage is drinking beautifully. The second is that he has been successful in making wines that go the distance. The 1999 Reserve Cabernet is a complete stunner, one of the finest wines I have tasted this year and a wine nowhere near its peak.

While 2007 has been heralded as one of Washington’s best vintages, Larsen says with earnest that he believes that his 2008 wines are his finest yet. These wines, which Larsen decided to give an extra four months in barrel to further improve quality, will be released in 2011. From a man who is as humble as his is talented, this gives much to look forward to in the coming year – and for many years to come.

Wine Reviews

Soos Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 1989 NA
Rating: * (Excellent) Still shows lots of color. Nose shows high-toned aged fruit, leather, licorice, and pretty, perfumed fruit. Holding up beautifully on a palate that still has a lot of fruit etched by bright acidity. An elegant wine that has an almost chewy texture. 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot. Champoux and Sagemoor vineyards. 13.5% alcohol. Library wine.

Soos Creek Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 1999 NA
Rating: ** (Exceptional) A dark, brooding aroma profile with earth, mocha, herbal notes, and red fruit. Incredible depth and intensity on a palate loaded with rich, concentrated red and black fruit flavors along with beautifully integrated tannins. An extended finish that goes on and on. Nowhere near its peak. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc. Champoux, Ciel du Cheval, and Pepper Bridge vineyards. Library wine.

Soos Creek Artist Series #7 Red Wine Columbia Valley 2007 $27
Rating: ** (Exceptional) An aromatic nose with loads of black and red fruit, spice, light herbal notes, cranberries, and chocolate. The palate pops with big, rich, chewy red fruit flavors and beautifully integrated tannins. Capped off by an exceptionally long finish. 52% Cabernet Franc, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.1% alcohol.

Soos Creek Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Wine Red Mountain 2007 $30
Rating: * (Excellent) Dark in color with purple towards the rim. The nose has alluring aromas of floral notes, black cherry, cranberry, light herbal notes, and baker’s chocolate. Gracefully structured on the palate with delicious red fruit flavors and well-integrated tannins. A beautiful expression of Ciel du Cheval. 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 9% Merlot. 14.1% alcohol.

Soos Creek Sundance Red Wine Columbia Valley 2007 $20
Rating: * (Excellent) Very pretty aromas of bright cherries, herbal notes, rose hips, anise, and red fruit. The palate shows beautifully fresh red fruit flavors along with a hint of black tea. 14.1% alcohol. 73% Merlot, 27% Cabernet.

Soos Creek Palisade Merlot Columbia Valley 2007 $24
Rating: + (Good) Aromas of currant, cranberries, licorice, red fruit, and a touch of pepper rise up from the glass. Tart and pleasing on the palate with a slight dip in the mid-palate. 97% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc. Champoux, Klipsun, and Kiona vineyards. 14.1% alcohol.

Samples for current releases provided by winery.