Winemaker Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand Cellars remembers drinking wine when he was in his mid-20s, but like many, he didn’t give what was in his glass much thought. All that would change a short time later when winemaking would become his life’s work.
In the late 1990s, Busch met Eric Dunham who had recently started Dunham Cellars. They met through a mutual friend, Jamie Brown (now of Waters Winery), who owned a record store, Ruby Records, in Seattle. Dunham and Brown spent a night at Busch’s house in Seattle, and Dunham brought a bottle of his newly released 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon. Busch says, “I remember tasting that wine and it all clicked, like, ‘What was I drinking before that I thought was good wine?’ It was a stunner.”
A short time later Busch and his family went to Walla Walla to visit Browne who had since moved back to his hometown. Busch and his family fell in love with the area. At the time, Busch was working as a clothing buyer for Nordstrom but was feeling “burnt out.” Busch says, “After that first visit, I tried to figure out what I would do if we moved to Walla Walla. Eric made that easy for me because at a dinner party at his house, he offered me a job to work for him as his Assistant Winemaker – me having absolutely NO knowledge of the winemaking process.”
One month later, Busch had quit his job, put his house on the market, and was living in Walla Walla. Of that first year Busch says, “Eric taught me about winemaking as we worked our way through that first harvest, in the fall of 2000. And I am thankful every day because of him!”
Busch subsequently worked at Basel Cellars from 2002 through 2007 but was always interested in starting his own winery. One year at Sun Valley’s annual wine auction, he met Sandy and Jerry Solomon. People at the auction had been talking about the Basel Cellars wines, and the Solomons came by to see what all the fuss was about. Busch and the Solomons clicked immediately, and the next year Busch had a winemaker dinner at the couple’s home in Sun Valley.
When the Solomons came to visit Walla Walla the following harvest, Busch gave them the business plan for the winery he wanted to start. He was thinking perhaps the couple would pass it along to some friends. Instead, the Solomon’s said they wanted in. A partnership was born.
Sleight of Hand Cellars had its first release in June of 2007 with a non-vintage blend and a 2006 vintage wine. The winery’s first full vintage was in 2007 with the wines made at Saviah Cellars.
Sleight of Hand’s name is a callout to the band Pearl Jam. Busch – an audiophile whose downtown Walla Walla tasting room contains an extensive record collection – has always had a love of the band. He says, “Sleight of Hand has always been one of my favorite songs, off of the Binaural album. And the story in the song, about a guy who is living his life, but not really LIVING his life, just going through the motions. So one day, he just takes this right turn in life, which is kind of what I did to end up here in Walla Walla. So it really fit us.”
With the term ‘sleight of hand’ having a magical connotation, Busch liked the idea of having labels that looked like vintage magic show posters. He worked with Denver magician Phelyx Hopkins on the original and subsequent labels. The labels quickly became a brand. Busch says, “When people walk into our tasting room, almost every time the first comments are about the labels! It just so happens the wine inside the bottles ain’t half bad either!”
Indeed, the wines from Sleight of Hand are far from half bad. While the winery has always had a strong lineup, the current releases are a considerable evolution. The wines are both impressive and well priced at the low end and at the high end. Busch even manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat – or barrel as it may be – with an unlikely blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Sangiovese in the 2008 Spellbinder Red Blend. Could this be? Is some chicanery afoot? No sleight of hand here. Just good wine at good prices.
Sleight of Hand Cellars produces 2,500 cases annually.
Sleight of Hand Cellars ‘The Magician’ White Wine Columbia Valley 2009 $17
Rating: * (Excellent) Just a tinge of greenish yellow color. An aromatic nose with white grapefruit and citric notes. The palate is very fresh and clean with white grapefruit, honeysuckle, and a touch of peach. 60% Gewurztraminer, 40% Riesling. Evergreen and Pheasant vineyards. 12.7% alcohol. 0.6% Residual Sugar. 400 cases produced.
Sleight of Hand Cellars ‘Magician’s Assistant’ Rose Columbia Valley 2009 $17
Rating: * (Excellent) Light salmon colored. A lightly aromatic wine with red cherries and strawberries. The palate is beautifully balanced with mineral and strawberry flavors. 100% Cabernet Franc. Chelle den Millie and Blackrock vineyards. 13.2% alcohol. 160 cases produced.
Sleight of Hand Cellars ‘The Spellbinder’ Red Blend Columbia Valley 2008 $19
Rating: * (Excellent) An engaging aroma profile with herbal notes, chocolate, and licorice. Bright with abundant fresh fruit flavors on an extremely enjoyable palate that finishes with a touch of pepper. 42% Cabernet Franc, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Syrah, 12% Merlot, and 11% Sangiovese. Va Piano, Double River, Red Mountain Vineyard, Blue Mountain, Phinney Hill, Lewis, Les Collines, and Chelle den Mille vineyards. Aged 11 months in neutral French oak. 13.5% alcohol. 840 cases produced.
Sleight of Hand Cellars ‘Levitation’ Syrah Columbia Valley 2007 $40
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Stains the glass with a brilliant purple hue. Nose shows wild blueberries, mushroom, and forest floor aromas. The palate is seamlessly stitched together with abundant berry and umami flavors accented by exceptionally well balanced oak. The finish goes on as long as you care to count. 100% Syrah. Les Collines, Lewis, and Portteus vineyards. 14.9% alcohol. 300 cases produced.
Sleight of Hand Cellars ‘Levitation’ Syrah Columbia Valley 2008 $40
Rating: * (Excellent) An aromatic wine with floral notes, spice, blue fruit, and hints of game. Tart on the palate with a tight core of fruit accented by bright acidity. Give 6 months. 100% Syrah. 57% Les Collines, 43% Lewis vineyards. Aged 18 months in French oak (50% new). 13.9% alcohol.
Sleight of Hand Cellars ‘Illusionist’ Red Wine Columbia Valley 2007 $40
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Gorgeous aromatics of cedar, toasty oak, black cherry, licorice, and vanilla rise up out of the glass. Abundant cherry fruit on a rich, even palate. Blend of five Bordeaux varietals with a splash of Syrah. 296 cases produced.
Sleight of Hand Cellars ‘Archimage’ Red Wine Walla Walla Valley 2007 $40
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Bright cherries, black pepper, chocolate, herbal notes, and a dusting of earth. The palate has a shimmering intensity of fresh fruit accented by supple tannins. 54% Merlot, 46% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. 298 cases produced.