In 1982 Steve Robertson and his wife Mary traveled down to Napa Valley for what turned out to be a fateful two-week vacation. While they were there, Mary noticed a postcard in Yountville advertising a 10-acre piece of land between St. Helena and Calistoga. “’We should call that!’” Robertson remembers her saying. And call the number they did.
Though the couple had just moved into a new condominium in Seattle – and neither one of them had jobs – the Robertsons put an offer in on the land and by the following February, they moved down to Napa Valley. “Our goal was to learn as much as we could about wine by being close to it,” Robertson says.
The Robertsons spent five years in the valley with Mary working a variety of jobs across the industry before the couple moved back to Seattle. Once in Seattle, they returned to more conventional lives, with Steve Robertson working in real estate development, including Portland’s Pearl District and resorts and small communities in central Oregon. However, the wine industry was never far from their minds.
After a friend asked Robertson in 2004 if he’d ever been out to Walla Walla, he decided to make the trip. Within two hours he was on the phone to his wife. “I said, ‘Mary, we have seen this movie before,’” Robertson recalls. “There were so many similarities between our experience in what we had seen in Napa Valley and what we were seeing in Walla Walla.”
The Robertsons soon moved to the Walla Walla Valley with the goal of buying a piece of property to plant a vineyard. For the vineyard, they looked for places in the Rocks region, the ancient cobblestone riverbed in the southern section of the valley. “It’s my belief that that particular soil type and the fruit that has been coming off of it is as distinctive as anywhere in the world,” Robertson says.
One day, Myles Anderson of Walla Walla Vintners reached out to Robertson about just such a piece of property. “He sent me an email saying, ‘Hey, this just came across my desk and I think you should look at it pretty quickly,” Robertson says. Robertson was out of town but called his wife who drove out to the property immediately. “Within 20 minutes she called saying, ‘This is it. This is our place,’” Robertson recalls.
The vineyard – named SJR after their son’s initials – is 9.6 acres and abuts Seven Hills. The property was originally an orchard. Robertson worked with Chris Banek and Ramon Esparza of Banek Winegrower Management to plant the vineyard. They planted it mostly to Syrah along with Viognier, Grenache, and Mourvedre. So far, Robertson is pleased with the results. “We’re so fortunate to have literally stumbled on that particular piece of ground,” he says.
The Robertsons named their nascent winery Delmas in recognition of Mary’s lineage, which traces back to the Delmas family of Haut Brion (Delmas is also Mary’s and Brooke’s middle name). To make their wine, Robertson asked Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards to serve as consulting winemaker. “I immediately felt like there was a connection there by way of quality and passion,” Robertson says of meeting Naravane. However, in the future, the Robertsons’ daughter Brooke, who has been training in Napa Valley at Barbour Vineyard Management, will become the face of the winery.
Production at Delmas is currently nanoscopic. A mere 53 cases of wine were produced in 2010, the winery’s first vintage. 2011 and 2012 production will remain the same. The rest of the vineyard’s fruit is currently going to two noteworthy wineries – Rotie Cellars and Gramercy Cellars. Notably, winemaker Greg Harrington at Gramercy Cellars thought enough of the SJR fruit to use it in his 2009 John Lewis Reserve Syrah; for Rotie Cellars, SJR Vineyard makes up 45% of the winery’s dazzling 2010 Northern Blend.
The intention for the first three vintages at Delmas, with what Robertson is calling the ‘Tribute Series,’ is to explore the vineyard by trying different vinification techniques before slowly increasing production. This serves the dual purpose of allowing the vines to gain additional age while also allowing the winery to explore different styles before settling in on their approach. “We need to match that soil type to very specific farming and winemaking practices,” Robertson explains.
After this is completed, Robertson still expects the winery to remain small with a maximum production of 1,100 to 1,200 cases. “We’re not on a fast track,” Robertson says. “We’re going to go extremely slow. We’re going to take a decade to get to that 1,000 cases.”
Delmas Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2010 $50
(Excellent/Exceptional) An unmistakably Rocks region wine with earthy funk, black olive juice, ash, mineral, floral notes, savory notes, and high toned smoked meat. The palate is incredibly soft, lithe, and deft with a polished mouthfeel with abundant smoked meat and olive brine flavors that linger persistently on the finish. An incredibly pretty, finesse driven wine that can only come from one place in the world. Syrah co-fermented with 4% Viognier and 3% Grenache. SJR vineyard. Aged 15 months in French oak (50% new). 14.6% alcohol. 53 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Please note, my rating system was revised at the beginning of 2012 as follows. Read additional details here.
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