If you want to see which way the Woodinville wine industry is going, watching what Mark Ryan Winery is up to would be a good place to start.

Winemaker Mark Ryan McNeilly has been in the vanguard. McNeilly got his start in the wine industry working at Unique Wine Company, a local distributor. It was in the midst of a tasting group that he had his first Washington wine epiphany. The wine was a Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon. “This is made in our state?” McNeilly recalls thinking with astonishment.

Inspired, McNeilly bought his first grapes in 1999 from a home winemaker – a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The vineyard source would be a fateful one, Red Mountain’s Ciel du Cheval. More important than the grapes, McNeilly got ahold of grower Jim Holmes’ phone number. With a call, he was able to secure access to fruit from this esteemed vineyard for subsequent vintages.

Mark Ryan Winery had its first commercial vintage in 2000 with two red blends – the Long Haul and Dead Horse, both Ciel du Cheval designates. These two wines, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux-style blends, remain the backbone of the winery.

McNeilly started off making wine at the co-op at Woodinville Wine Cellars’ facility. His first two vintages were the definition of hand-made wines, using a ratchet basket press with a hand crank. “I would spend the entire fermentation picking out stems,” McNeilly laughs.

Production moved to the Warehouse District in 2003. At the time, this area was just a quiet industrial park. “There was Austin Robaire and us,” McNeilly says. The area now has over 20 wineries and tasting rooms and has become a destination.

The early years at the winery were intense. “My head was just buried in grapes. I didn’t look up much,” McNeilly says. McNeilly credits Matthew Loso, then with Matthews Cellars, with helping him along the way. Ciel du Cheval grower Jim Holmes also provided invaluable assistance. “I used to call him all the time. He was my go-to guy,” McNeilly says. Erica Orr has also worked for the winery as a consultant.

As the winery picked up steam, McNeilly continued to work for Unique. However, he spent increasing amounts of time in the vineyards when he was supposed to be selling wine. “I think Scott (Murphy, Director of Sales and Marketing) still doesn’t know how much wine I was making when I was working at Unique!” McNeilly says with a chuckle. In 2004, McNeilly left Unique to focus on the winery full-time.

Mirroring the Woodinville and Washington wine industries, Mark Ryan Winery has grown and evolved over the years. In June of 2009 the winery opened a tasting room in the Schoolhouse District of Woodinville, making Mark Ryan again one of the first wineries in what is now a densely packed area. The tasting room is open seven days a week, and the winery now has three full-time employees.

One of them is Mike MacMorran who was hired as assistant winemaker starting with the 2008 harvest. McNeilly credits MacMorran, who came from DeLille Cellars, with helping give the wines better balance and managing Red Mountain’s famous tannins. “The wines used to be almost undrinkable for the first few years,” McNeilly says.

While McNeilly may have thought so, the winery’s legions of fans would surely disagree. From the beginning Mark Ryan Winery has garnered an almost cult-like following for its big, bold, no-holds-barred style wines. Along with close friend and fellow winemaker Chris Gorman of Gorman Winery, McNeilly’s wines have defined a style in Washington – and garnered critical praise.

The 2008 Bordeaux-blend releases and 2009 Rhone-style wines continue the winery’s track record of excellence. As always, the fruit flavors are rich and dense, and the winery accents the fruit with generous amounts of new French oak. While the refinement of the tannins is noticeable, these are still wines that will reward patience.

In a small but significant shift, the 2008 Long Haul and Dead Horse Red Wines are no longer Ciel du Cheval Vineyard designates. Instead, they are simply labeled Red Mountain. Vineyard sources for these wines now include Klipsun, Kiona, and Hedges.

What will Mark Ryan Winery do next? Only time will tell but no doubt much of the Woodinville wine industry will be watching – and sure to follow.

Mark Ryan Winery makes 6,000 cases annually.

Mark Ryan Winery Viognier Columbia Valley 2009 $28

Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) An aromatic wine with honeysuckle, apricot, toasty spice, and floral notes. A rich wine with a textured feel. 100% Viognier. Ciel du Cheval and Conner Lee vineyards. 78% aged in 10 months neutral French Oak, aged in 22% stainless steel. 14.2% alcohol.

Mark Ryan Winery The Dissident Red Wine Columbia Valley 2009 $32

Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) An aromatically appealing wine with abundant bright berry aromas, bittersweet chocolate, licorice and blackberries. On the palate, rich, round, and lusciously fruit-filled. 41% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Syrah, 8% Malbec, and 8% Petit Verdot. Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Kiona, Obelisco, and Stillwater Creek vineyards. Aged 18 months in French oak (51% new). 14.7% alcohol. 949 cases produced.

Mark Ryan Winery Long Haul Red Wine Red Mountain 2008 $45

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Aromatically compelling with spice, floral notes, mineral, high-toned chocolate, and red fruit. The palate is dense, rich, and opulent with chewy tannins. A lingering finish. 63% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Franc, 11% Petit Verdot, and 4% Malbec. Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Kiona, and Hedges vineyards. Aged 20 months in French oak (81% new). 14.9% alcohol.

Mark Ryan Winery Dead Horse Red Wine Red Mountain 2008 $45

Rating: * (Excellent) Aromas of floral notes, milk chocolate, mineral, blackberries, and other dark fruit. A rich, intensely focused wine. 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec. Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun Vineyards. Aged 20 months in French oak (92% new). 14.9% alcohol.

Mark Ryan Winery Lost Soul Syrah Les Vignes de Marcoux Vineyard Yakima Valley 2009 $45

Rating: * (Excellent) An aromatically appealing with mineral and floral notes, and high-toned blackberry. The palate is soft and silky with loads of black fruit flavors. A very pretty expression of Washington Syrah. 100% Syrah. Aged 16 months in French oak (33% new). 14.6% alcohol. 75 cases produced.

Mark Ryan Winery Wild Eyed Syrah Red Mountain 2009 $45

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Intoxicating aromas of violets, bittersweet chocolate, and dark fruit. A dense, rich, powerful, luscious wine. 100% Syrah. Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, and Kiona vineyards. Aged 16 months in French oak (70% new). 14.6% alcohol. 447 cases produced.

Mark Ryan Winery Crazy Mary Mourvedre Red Mountain 2009 $45

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Aromas of mineral, spice, chocolate, and high-toned dark fruit. Incredibly rich with dense, opulent fruit flavors. 86% Mourvedre and 14% Syrah. Ciel du Cheval and Les Collines vineyards. Aged 16 months in French oak (55% new). 14.6% alcohol. 170 cases produced.

Mark Ryan Winery Lonely Heart Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2008 $80

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Incredibly compelling aromas of licorice, dark fruit, high-toned floral notes, and spice. Dense with grainy, textured tannins on an incredibly rich, flavorful, chewy wine. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Petit Verdot. Ciel du Cheval, Kiona, and Stillwater Creek vineyards. Aged 22 months in French oak (100% new). 14.5% alcohol.