Reminder February’s Virtual Tasting takes places this Thursday from 7-8pm Pacific Time. Read more about it here.
A visit to Woodinville’s JM Cellars is nothing short of transformative. Though located a mere twenty minutes from the bustle of Seattle, it seems like a world apart.
The seven-acre property – called Bramble Bump – is breathtaking and is easily one of the most beautiful spots in Washington wine country. The area is thickly wooded with a ravine running down one side of the property and springs feeding a nearby stream. Wildlife is resplendent in the area.
The property was purchased by Philip and Frances MacBride as part of Hollywood Farm in 1943. This purchase also included the manor house, now located on the Chateau Ste. Michelle property. The MacBrides gave their two daughters, Alice and Jan, two pieces of property, with Jan receiving the property where JM Cellars is now located.
Jan and her husband were avid horticulturalists and arborealists. They bought numerous species of plants and trees for the property, including over 140 Japanese maples and 100 rhododendrons. They assiduously labeled them, and many are registered with the local horticulture society.
JM Cellars’ owners John and Peggy Bigelow met the original owners when the couple were in their mid 80s and were looking to sell the property. There were numerous suitors looking to do a variety of projects with the space, such as making a Bed & Breakfast. However, it was Bigelow’s commitment to maintaining the property – especially the “island of horticulture” that is in the middle of the grounds that proved pivotal. While some had said that they might remove it, Bigelow said that he would make it a centerpiece. To the couple, who had a strong sentimental attachment to this area of the property, this was a deciding factor. “I feel a huge responsibility to keep it up,” Bigelow says.
The Bigelows bought the property in 2000 shortly after starting JM Cellars. While a picturesque location, there was much work to be done. It took Bigelow four years to pull out the blackberry bushes that had taken over much of the area. Doug Roskelly (now of TERO Estates in Walla Walla) built the winery facility. The building was designed to be functional with most of the facility made of concrete and steel. The property serves as both a winery and a home, with a domicile upstairs.
Before getting into the wine business John Bigelow worked for 10 years at IBM – where he would meet his wife Peggy – and another five at other high tech companies. The Bigelows have been married for 25 years. It was Peggy who would introduce him to her sister’s husband in the early 1980s. The man was a former backcountry ranger who had owned a wine shop in Ashland, Oregon. That man was Michael Januik, now of Januik Winery.
Bigelow watched Januik’s career progress from winery to winery until he was named head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle. Talking with Januik about wine, Bigelow had a revelation. “This is exactly where I want to go with my life,” Bigelow recalls thinking.
At that point he was 40 years old and had spent enough time in the software business that he was looking for a change (hear hear). He started working on the business case for a winery, taking classes at UC Davis, and reading every winemaking book he could find.
In 1998 he turned the basement of the family home into a winery. He made 100 cases of wine that year, giving the wine away to family and friends. In 1999 he made his first commercial wine – 350 cases of Tre Fanciulli. The name means ‘three treasured lads’ – a reference to the Bigelow’s children. (Ten years later Bigelow says, “They’re still mostly treasured.”) Shortly after releasing his first wine he got a call at ten o’clock at night saying that the wine had won Ray’s Boathouse’s annual wine competition and that the restaurant wanted to pick the wine up. It was an important first step.
Bigelow spent the following year in Walla Walla, making his wine at the Three Rivers facility and working alongside Holly Turner, Charlie Hoppes (now of Fidelitas) and Januik. Making wine that year in Walla Walla turned out to be propitious. “The reason I have Margaret’s Vineyard is because I did that,” Bigelow says.
Margaret’s Vineyard is JM Cellars’ estate vineyard. The vineyard is named after Bigelow’s wife with John the ‘J’ in JM. The forty-acre site, part of the SeVein project, was planted in 2006 to 16 acres of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenère.
On a recent visit to the winery Bigelow was receiving Merlot from the vineyard. “I’ve been waiting for this for ten months,” he said. Bigelow is excited about the young fruit from his vineyard. “It’s exactly the way you would want it to be,” he says. Bigelow continues, “Every element of this vineyard is what I wanted to do. If it’s good, I did it. If it’s bad, I did it.”
While the winery is looking forward to using estate fruit for its wine, JM currently sources fruit from some of Washington’s best vineyards, including Boushey, Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval, Conner Lee, Seven Hills, and Stillwater Creek.
Bigelow brings a fine attention to detail to winemaking. He has his grapes brought back from eastern Washington in refrigerated trucks. The doors on the winemaking facility are made of copper to maintain a cooler temperature during the day. He has two open topped oak fermentation tanks that were custom built by Taransaud. “I like doing big lot fermentations,” he explains. He keeps his fermentation bins slightly off the floor to maintain a more consistent temperature. He says, “Anything you can control, try because there’s a lot of things you can’t control.” The result is a dazzling lineup of wines, many of which sell out before release.
While the focus at JM Cellars is clearly on the wines, the experience at the winery is no doubt part of the reason many keep coming back. During wine club events, Bigelow likes to hide half bottles of wine on the property for people to find and take home as they stroll about the grounds.
Since starting out over twelve years ago JM Cellars has grown to close to 6,000 cases. “That’s where I’m staying,” Bigelow says. Meanwhile brother-in-law Mike Januik has his own winery right down the street. What’s it like having two accomplished winemakers in the family? “We have the best family reunions of all time,” Bigelow says with a chuckle.
JM Cellars Chardonnay Columbia Valley 2009 $35
Rating: * (Excellent) Pretty aromatics of toast, apple, and light butter. A full, rounded feel on the palate etched by acidity. A lingering finish. A very pretty expression of Chardonnay. Lewis and Conner Lee vineyards. Aged in French oak (15% new) for 8 months with 75% complete malolactic fermentation. 300 cases produced.
JM Cellars Merlot Red Mountain 2008 $38
Rating: * (Excellent) Compelling aromas of red currant, nuts, and spice. Full, rich, and grippy on a palate loaded with Bing cherry flavors and dry, taught tannins. 100% Merlot. Kiona (11%), Ciel du Cheval (54%), and Klipsun vineyards (35%). Aged 18 months in French oak (50% new). 225 cases produced.
JM Cellars Longevity Red Wine Columbia Valley 2008 $38
Rating: ** (Exceptional) A rich, compelling, aromatic wine with char, black cherry, and light herbal notes. Palate brings layers of complexity with winding flavors of black cherry and herbal notes that persist on and on backed by a scaffolding of firm tannins. Builds on an impressive 2007 vintage release. 36% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot, and 3% Carmenère. Stillwater Creek, Alder Ridge, Conner Lee, Seven Hills, and Ciel du Cheval vineyards. Aged in French oak (70% new) for 21 months. 975 cases produced.
JM Cellars Syrah Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2008 $40
Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional) Dark in color. Leaps from the glass with blueberry, smoked meat, and mineral notes. Opens up and expands across the palate with meat, earth, and mineral flavors. A persistent finish. Aged in French and Hungarian oak (50% new) for 18 months. 100 cases produced.
JM Cellars Tre Fanciulli Red Wine Columbia Valley 2008 $42
Rating: * (Excellent) Very pretty, toasty aromatics of spice, char, smoke, and black fruit on a wine dominated by oak aromas at present. The palate has a dense core of cherry fruit flavors and a healthy amount of grip to the tannins. A beautifully persistent finish. Alder Ridge, Ciel du Cheval, Shaw, Boushey, Seven Hills, Kiona, and Klipsun vineyards. Aged in French oak (75% new) for 21 months. 350 cases produced.
JM Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2008 $38
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Dark in color. Rises up from the glass with black cherry, spice, anise, and light herbal notes. A mouthful of intense red and black fruit flavors with a rich, textured feel. Gracefully structured with a thirty plus second finish. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, and 4% Cabernet Franc. Klipsun, Shaw, Ciel du Cheval, and Kiona vineyards. 300 cases produced.
JM Cellars Founder’s Reserve Red Wine Columbia Valley 2008 $75
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Char, spice, smoke, and black and red fruit. Impeccably balanced on the palate with red fruit, spice, light herbal notes, and fine-grained tannins. Opens up and expands with waves of fruit. This is a wine you keep thinking about for a long time after the last drop is gone. 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc. 85 cases produced.