It seems you can’t name anything in this country without tripping over someone who has something obliquely similar and whose lawyers threaten trouble (US Olympic Committee versus Olympic Cellars anyone?). I mean seriously folks, stop the madness! Such it is that Grand Rêve Vintners – one of the most exciting wineries to emerge from Washington recently – has changed its name to Force Majeure Vineyards.

Grand Rêve, French for ‘Great Dream,’ was founded by Paul McBride and Ryan Johnson. The winery pairs a group of Washington’s top winemakers with fruit from one of the state’s best vineyards – Ciel du Cheval. The first plantings at an estate vineyard, crawling up the sides of Red Mountain, came on-line last year (read a Focus Report on the winery here).

While the winery had trademarked the Grand Rêve name, issues with another wine producer from California emerged. Rather than spending potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend the moniker, Johnson and McBride decided to simply change the name and spend their money elsewhere (see below).

The new name, Force Majeure (mä-ZHûR), is a French term for ‘act of God’ or a ‘superior force.’ The term is frequently used in legal documents to free parties from legal obligations due to extreme circumstances. In terms of the winery, it is intended to both refer to the forces that formed Red Mountain and the winemaking team that the winery brings to bear.

The 2008 Collaboration III Red Wine, which will be released this fall (see review below), will be the last wine with the Grand Rêve name. The winery’s vineyard has also been renamed. The winged phoenix logo, however, will remain.

While some might find a brand change at such an early stage of the business jarring, McBride and Johnson are more circumspect. Of their ‘great dream’ at Grand Rêve McBride says, “We feel in many ways our dream was realized.” Similarly Johnson says of the name change, “It’s kind of been a rebirth.”

So where would McBride and Johnson rather put their money than into lawyers? No one will be surprised to learn that they preferred to put it into dirt. And not just any dirt. The duo purchased an additional plot of land adjacent to Force Majeure Vineyard on Red Mountain.

The L-shaped parcel of land runs along Antinori Road. About half of the 20-acres are plantable with plans to develop the site over several years. McBride and Johnson look to make the focus southern Rhone varietals, including Grenache, Mourvedre, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Roussanne.

The site has been named Parabellum Vineyard in reference to a Latin phrase that translates, ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ While some might think this is a reference to the winery’s plans to deter potential grape thieves, there is another explanation.

“You find a lot of shell casings around Red Mountain,” Ryan Johnson explains. “I found one out there and on the back it said Parabellum. It seemed to fit.” Part of the property may also be used for a winery and tasting room in the future.

Other changes are afoot as well with the fall releases containing a few wrinkles. Force Majeure makes its first foray into white wines with a Viognier crafted by Mark McNeilly.

While white wines have long been in the shadow of their red counterparts in Washington, McBride believes the future for white wines is bright here.

“I think we’re starting to see how great Washington white wines can be,” he says. Of the 2010 Viognier McBride says, “What I’m looking for with this wine is to capture that minerality and glycerin aspect of great Hermitage.” This is also the first wine released from the winery that contains fruit from its estate vineyard, and there is no doubt that this will be a special site.

Force Majeure is also releasing a wine called Ptera, Greek for ‘wings.’ This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah comes from winemaker Ross Mickel with the fruit from the 2006 vintage. The winery had originally planned to release a Cabernet-Syrah blend as the Collaboration Series II wine, but they were so impressed by the Syrah that they decided not to blend in the Cabernet. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to mess it up!” McBride says.

In a sign of their good judgment, the Syrah went on to receive a 97 point score from Wine Advocate. The winery subsequently took the remaining Syrah, blended it, and held the wine until now to avoid confusion by releasing a one-off wine that ran contrary to the Collaboration Series wines. The result is a wine that is in full blossom, a beautiful marriage of these two grapes.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the new releases is the 2007 Reserve Syrah. The inspiration for this wine was Guigal’s extended barrel-aged Syrahs. Here winemaker Ben Smith of Cadence Winery leaves the Bordeaux varietals behind to craft a Syrah aged in 100% new French oak for over three and a half years.

McBride explains that part of the goal of Force Majeure is to push boundaries and allow winemakers to experiment. Still, he wasn’t sure what to expect from this wine. “We didn’t know if we’d be sucking on a board or what,” McBride says. Instead, the oak seems remarkably well integrated and the result yet another stunning release from this winery.

While numerous changes are in the air, the focus at Force Majeure remains the same – expressing their vineyard sites in such a way that elevates Red Mountain in particular and Washington wine more generally.

“Our philosophy gets back to the vineyard, capturing that place that was created millions of years ago,” McBride says. “And,” he says with a smile, “we’re going to continue to make passionate vineyards that border on insanity.”

Whatever the name, this winery will no doubt remain a force to be reckoned with.

Force Majeure Viognier Red Mountain 2010 $35

Rating: * (Excellent) Very pretty, appealing aromas of white peaches, peppery spice, mineral notes, and touches of tropical fruit. Crisp and etched with acidity with a textured feel and a hyper-extended finish. An emphatic statement of Washington Viognier. 100% Viognier. 67% Ciel du Cheval, 33% Force Majeure Vineyard. 75% aged in neutral French oak and 25% aged in stainless steel. 13.5% alcohol. 80 cases produced. Mark McNeilly winemaker.

Force Majeure Ptera Red Blend Ciel du Cheval Red Mountain 2006 $45

Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional) Beautiful aromas of dark, dark fruit, toasty spice, mineral, licorice, and touches of aged fruit. A grippy, textured wine with soft fruit flavors where the Cabernet and Syrah play off each other beautifully. Lingers on the finish. 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Syrah. Aged in French oak (40% new). 14.5% alcohol. Approximately 160 cases produced. Ross Mickel winemaker.

Grand Rêve Vintners Collaboration Series III Red Wine Ciel du Cheval Red Mountain 2008 $55

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Dark in color with purple at the rim. Locked up tightly at present with mineral notes, blackberry, and plum. Dense and concentrated with luscious fruit flavors, a weighted feel, and plump, ripe tannins. A lingering finish. Aged in French oak (34% new). 14.9% alcohol. 250 cases produced. Mark McNeilly winemaker.

Force Majeure Reserve Syrah Ciel du Cheval Red Mountain 2007 $65

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Light ruby colored. Bright raspberry aromas pair with crushed flowers and spice on an aromatically compelling wine. The palate is silky and weighted with intense, penetrating fruit flavors that persist for thirty-plus seconds on the finish. This is a wine you can just smell and be totally satisfied. Syrah co-fermented with 3% Viognier. Aged 39 months in 100% new French oak. 14.6% alcohol. 45 cases produced. Ben Smith winemaker.