Tasting through the current set of releases from winemaker Chris Gorman of Gorman Winery, it is hard to think of a Washington winery that has a more impressive lineup.

Chris Gorman began his career in the wine business right out of college in 1991. He started out on the import and distribution side where he would remain until he decided to focus on his winery full time. “I spent sixteen years selling world-class wines,” Gorman explains. Of course, Gorman could add the subsequent years as well – his wines are easily that caliber.

Gorman started out working at Bianco Rosso Imports, working in the warehouse, driving trucks, and, like many a college graduate, trying to work his way up. From Bianco Rosso he went to work for Elliott Bay Distributing, which Gorman describes as “the best job ever.” The position afforded him the opportunity to travel to the likes of Spain, Italy, and Germany and immerse himself in the areas’ wines. “I’m fascinated by those grand wines,” Gorman says.

Perhaps most importantly, Gorman’s work allowed him both to develop an appreciation of world wine and to make connections throughout the wine industry – from retailers to distributors, winemakers, growers, and barrel producers. When Gorman decided to shift his focus from the distribution to the production side of the business, it wasn’t hard to know who to call when he needed something. “It was real easy to run and grab fruit,” Gorman says of getting started.

Gorman’s first wine was a Ciel du Cheval Cabernet Sauvignon made from fruit he secured from friend Matthew Loso, then of Matthews Cellars (now called Matthews Estate). Then in 2001 he received two tons of Cabernet from Pepper Bridge. “That was what really made me want to make wine,” Gorman says.

In 2002 Gorman made his first commercial vintage at his eponymous winery. His early wines were made at the co-op at Woodinville Wine Cellars, where friend and fellow winemaker Mark McNeilly, of Mark Ryan Winery, was also making wine. Both would later move to the Warehouse District.

Gorman and McNeilly had met in college. Gorman was in a band in Bellingham. The drummer moved out, McNeilly moved in, and the rest, as they say, is history. In addition to helping define a style in Washington at their respective wineries, Gorman and McNeilly have collaborated on wines at Giant Wine Co. (Sinner’s Punch, Ghost of 413) and both also make wine at Grand Reve Vintners.

Gorman’s band roots are clear. The winery walls are adorned with guitars and music paraphernalia. Rock music is inevitably playing – in fact one cannot visit the winery without leaving with a song stuck in your head.

Despite this, as a winemaker Gorman has been a one-man show. Until last year, when he hired an assistant for the first time due to scheduling issues during harvest, he was the winery’s sole employee.

While many Washington wineries are small operations, Gorman’s process is particularly labor intensive for one person. Gorman often barrel ferments his wines, requiring continual moving of juice in and out of barrels. This makes for particularly long days and nights during harvest.

A labor of love? “It’s a love/hate relationship with making wine,” Gorman says. “It’s a challenge every year.”

Once fermentation is complete, Gorman presses his wines early, getting them into the barrel as quickly as possible. From there he looks to leave them alone, racking infrequently.

All of the Gorman wines have colorful, character names, which he says are intended to be descriptive of the grape varietals used. “Big Sissy is perfect for Chardonnay,” he explains, given the grape’s finicky nature. Other wine names include The Albatross (Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot), The Evil Twin (Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon), The Bully (Cabernet), and The Pixie (Syrah). Fruit for most of the wines comes from Red Mountain.

In addition to the standard lineup, Gorman likes to experiment, or as he says, “Every year we do something dumb.” In 2010 it was creating a late harvest Viognier – Serum 6 – as a quasi ice wine, freezing the grapes in a commercial freezer. The juice was at least 50 Brix at harvest (“50 is all I can measure,” he says), and Gorman ultimately squeezed 80 gallons of wine out of two tons of grapes.

Does this folly make financial sense? “We hemorrhage money at Gorman winery,” Gorman says with a laugh.

Perhaps, but from the beginning, Gorman Winery has garnered a strong consumer following as well as critical praise. The house style is to create big, bold, intense wines. “I like power and finesse,” Gorman says, and the wines are a compelling interplay between the two.

The 2009 Big Sissy Chardonnay, barrel fermented in 100% new French oak, would give many a California Chard a run for its money at a fraction of the price. The 2008 The Albatross, a third Petit Verdot and two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which comes from the oldest plantings on Red Mountain, is a stunningly rich, intense wine that reaches up into the quality stratosphere. The 2009 Behind the Black Curtain Reserve Syrah, a first from the winery which Gorman says is currently the wine he is most excited about, is a showstopper with dazzling mineral notes and layers of black fruit. Almost all of the wines are made in small lots of 500 cases or less.

The style of the Gorman wines is not shy. The fruit flavors are big, the use of French oak is generous, and the wines are high octane, although never out of balance. To wit, when I noticed at an event a couple years back that Gorman was pouring a barrel sample listed at 16% alcohol, I asked, “Really? 16%?” “At least,” Gorman replied. Quite simply, as Nigel from Spinal Tap might say, these wines go to eleven.

Gorman Winery makes approximately 3,000 cases annually.

Gorman Winery The Big Sissy Chardonnay Columbia Valley 2009 $35

Rating: * (Excellent)
Beautiful, compelling aromas of spice, butter, ripe apples, and tropical fruit. A rich, full wine with a creamy, textured mouthfeel and a long finish. 100% Chardonnay. Conner Lee Vineyard. Barrel fermented in 100% new French oak with partial malolactic fermentation. 225 cases produced.

Gorman Winery The Pixie Syrah Red Mountain 2008 $45

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
Dark in color. Compelling aromas of violets, mineral, spice, and dark fruit. A dense, textured, rich, fruit-filled wine with lingering chocolate and mineral flavors. 100% Syrah. Ciel du Cheval and Kiona-End of the Road Ranch vineyards. Aged in French oak (90% new). 240 cases produced.

Gorman Winery The Evil Twin Red Mountain 2008 $60

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
Dark in color with purple at the rim. Dark and brooding with abundant brambly fruit, high-toned bittersweet chocolate, and high-toned floral and mineral notes. The aromas are so engaging it’s difficult to take the first sip. Ah but when you do…dense and grippy, full of blackberry flavors and tannins that squeeze the tongue. A beautiful melding of these two varietals, or, as Gorman says, “If they can grow together, why can’t they go together?” 65% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged in 100% new French oak. 425 cases produced.

Gorman Winery The Bully Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2008 $45

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
A perfumed wine that draws you into the glass with bittersweet chocolate, dark fruit, and high-toned herbal and mineral notes. On the palate, a huge, rich, intense, incredibly dense wine that is chock full of fruit and tannins. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot. Aged in 100% new French oak. 600 cases produced.

Gorman Winery The Albatross Red Mountain 2008 $80

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
Dark to the point of being opaque. A perfumed wine full of earth, soil, floral notes, and dark fruit. On the palate, a gigantically rich, intense wine that packs a huge wallop with focused fruit flavors and textured, ripe tannins. Though not for the faint of heart, this wine stands with the best in the state and is high on the list of the best wines I have had this year. 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Petit Verdot. Kiona Vineyard. Aged in 100% new French oak. 140 cases produced.

Gorman Winery The F.O.G Reserve Merlot Red Mountain 2009 $NA

Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional)
Intensely dark in color. Compelling aromas of dark licorice, mocha, floral notes, and dark fruit. A powerhouse on the palate with the darkest of fruit, earth notes, and dense, tightly packed tannins. About as big and intense as Merlot gets. 100% Merlot. Kiona Vineyard. Aged in French oak (100% new). 25 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Behind the Black Curtain Reserve Syrah Klipsun Vineyard Red Mountain 2009 $80

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
Opaque and glass staining with purple at the rim. Leaps up with mineral, violets, black fruit, and licorice on an aromatically intoxicating, complex wine. On the palate, a muscular wine that is equal parts complex and intense with rich fruit flavors and polished tannins. Pushing the higher ranges of the scoring scale. Aged 20 month in French oak (100% new). 100 cases produced.

Serum 6 Late Harvest Viognier Elerding Vineyard Yakima Valley 2010 $50

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
Pale lemon colored. Leaps up from the glass with apricot and sugared pineapple. The palate is intensely thick, rich, and sugared. Lingers on the finish. 100% Viognier. Barrel fermented in 100% new French oak. 10.2% alcohol. 33% Residual Sugar. 51 cases produced.