I have written before that where winemaker Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery goes, other wineries are sure to follow. Take heed.

McNeilly has long been on the vanguard of Washington wine. He was one of the first to start producing wines in the now (over) crowded Warehouse District in Woodinville. He was also one of the first to open a dedicated tasting room in the suddenly teeming Schoolhouse District. McNeilly has steadily grown Mark Ryan’s production and brand over the years and has received a long list of accolades and high scores along the way. He is now taking the winery to the next level.

Since Mark Ryan’s first vintage, McNeilly has purchased fruit from top vineyard sites on Red Mountain, including Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun. Starting this year however, the winery is putting down roots – literally – with its own, dedicated plantings on Red Mountain and in the Horse Heaven Hills.

“We have great relationships with all of the growers that we work with, but each of the sites are still only one piece in a bigger block,” McNeilly says. McNeilly notes that being a small part of a larger whole can impact important decisions, especially irrigation, when watering the winery’s specific rows may not always be possible. “We spent a lot of time talking about how to get more control in the vineyards,” he says.

For McNeilly, the answer came in securing the winery’s own, long-term vineyard contracts. The winery is working with the Shaw Vineyard group on Red Mountain to plant ten acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. McNeilly is also working with Dick Beightol at Phinny Hill Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills to plant 10 acres of Cabernet.

“I get excited going up there and knowing we had a part in this vineyard from the ground up,” McNeilly says. “We can start controlling our destiny a little bit better with this model.”

In addition to securing these vineyard contracts, McNeilly has other plans afoot. He is planning a dramatic expansion of the winery’s Board Track Racer Cellars brand. “We’re not on as many tables as I would like,” McNeilly says of the decision to expand the lineup of $25 and wines. The broadly appealing wines reviewed below should surely address that.

The winery first introduced Board Track Racer with the 2007 The Vincent Red Wine, named after the 1952 Vincent Black Shadow – the fastest production motorcycle of its time. The winery itself is named after a type of motorsport in the early 1900s where motorcycle races were conducted on circular courses made up of wooden planks. “I love motorcycles,” McNeilly explains.

McNeilly says that the expanded Board Track Racer Cellars lineup will focus on drink-me-now wines at everyday prices whereas Mark Ryan will continue to focus on cellar-worthy wines at higher price points. The expanded lineup will include a white, rose, and two reserve-style red wines. To support the expanded brand, Board Track Racer Cellars will have its own tasting room, which is slated to open this fall in the Schoolhouse District.

Production is currently 2,500 cases and McNeilly intends to grow this number by 40% in the next year or two. To get there, the winery will use a combination of declassified fruit from the Mark Ryan program and negociant purchased juice from other wineries. The vineyard plantings fit in neatly with the expansion of the Board Track Racer with the young fruit providing a ready destination. “We can go big,” McNeilly says.

In other news, McNeilly has stolen a page from the Walla Walla Valley winery playbook with a unique twist. While many Walla Walla wineries have opened up second tasting rooms in Woodinville, Mark Ryan is the first Woodinville winery to open a second tasting room in Walla Walla. Why open another tasting room in America’s friendliest town?

“Trey Busch (Sleight of Hand Cellars) and Justin Wylie (Va Piano Vineyards) made me do it!” McNeilly says with a laugh. “Honestly, the success of our Woodinville tasting room really opened our eyes.” The tasting room is located on Main Street in Walla Walla in the space formerly occupied by Tru Cellars.

While McNeilly seems practically bursting with excitement about these changes, I see reason for the industry as a whole to be excited. Over the years, Washington has established its reputation on small, family wineries. While this will no doubt remain the case, if the industry is to grow and thrive, some of these wineries must evolve into medium sized (for Washington) wineries where production is higher and the brand’s success is less tied to a single individual. Here, as before Mark McNeilly continues to lead the way. Other wineries seem sure to follow.

Board Track Racer Cellars ‘The Vincent’ Rose Columbia Valley 2011 $13
(Good) Pale copper colored. An aromatic rose full of strawberry, cherry, and floral notes. The palate is medium bodied and dry, full of fruit flavors. 13.9% alcohol. Sampled at 58 degrees.

Board Track Racer Cellars ‘The Vincent’ Chardonnay Columbia Valley 2011 $15
(Good) A moderately aromatic wine with spice, melon, pear, and floral notes. The palate is medium bodied, just a hair off dry with abundant pear flavors. 95% Chardonnay. 5% Viognier. 13.9% alcohol. 1,050 cases produced. Sampled at 58 degrees.

Board Track Racer Cellars ‘The Vincent’ Red Wine Columbia Valley 2010 $20
(Good) An aromatic wine with abundant oak spices, blackberries, and dark cherries. The palate is full of dark cherry flavors with grainy tannins and abundant oak influence. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 25% Syrah. 14.4% alcohol. 1,200 cases produced. Sampled at 68 degrees.

Board Track Racer Cellars The Chief Red Wine Columbia Valley 2010 $25
(Good/Excellent) Dark ruby. An aromatically alluring wine that gives the immediate impression of a much spendier wine with incense, dark fruit, mocha, and toasty oak spices. The palate is full of dark fruit flavors with a creamy feel. 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 11% Malbec, and 11% Petit Verdot. 14.7% alcohol. 450 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Board Track Racer Cellars Suicide Shift Red Wine Columbia Valley 2010 $25
(Excellent) Pops aromatically a healthy dash of white pepper, meaty notes, herbs de Provence, and spice. On the palate, the wine has big, bold fruit flavors but with a silky, smooth, textured feel. Lingers on the finish. 59% Syrah, 41% Mourvedre. 14.9% alcohol. 450 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Rating System

Please note, my rating system was revised at the beginning of 2012 as follows. Read additional details here.

(Not recommended/Flawed)

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