Most every wine lover can name an epiphany bottle or two – a wine that changed the way that they thought about wine or thought about a region. One of those wines for me is the 2003 Saviah Cellars Une Vallée Red Wine. It was then and remains now one of my all time favorite Washington wines, one that completely captivated me on the Walla Walla Valley and Washington wine scene. It might not have been on that particular day that I decided to start writing about Washington wine. But if not, it was certainly shortly thereafter. The wine was positively inspiring.

If you ask a wine retailer how long you should age a particular wine before opening it, they will smartly tell you to buy a case of the wine and open a bottle each year to see how it is tasting, then accelerate the pace when it seems to be at its peak. It’s no doubt an expensive proposition, but having bought a case (and then some) of Saviah’s 2003 Une Vallée and having followed it over the last eight-plus years, I can say that the experience has been well worth it.

It’s been a fascinating journey. I remember vividly the wine’s early days when I would just sit and swirl it, so fascinated by the complex medley of aromas that it was often a long time before I would venture to take a sip. Over the years, I’ve watched the wine blossom into full maturity, a bit different each time but always equally mesmerizing. When I opened a bottle recently, the wine – now a full ten years in – was still drinking gloriously, like a beautifully made, well-aged wine.

For me, Saviah Cellars very much personifies what I love about the Washington wine industry – quality wine with quality people connected to it. Montana native Richard Funk and his wife Anita moved to Walla Walla in 1991, where Funk took a job working for the Walla Walla County Health Department as an environmental health specialist. It wasn’t long, however, before he got bit by the wine bug.

Funk started Saviah Cellars – named after a family name on Anita’s side of the family – in 2000. The Funks started out small and over time, much like the Washington wine industry, the winery has grown and blossomed. Funk made a mere 300 cases in his first year and this year made 20,000, much of it in the omnipresent The Jack lineup.

Funk is one of the true nice guys of the Washington wine industry, someone who people are immediately drawn to. Over the years he’s helped and assisted numerous valley winemakers, providing space and advice. Funk embodies the kind of community spirit that has made Washington what it is today.

Saviah Cellars was one of the first wineries to open a tasting room in the southern end of Walla Walla. I recall a conversation long ago of those uneasy early days when Funk said two or three people would come by the winery on the weekend and he wondered if he had miscalculated with the location. Many years later, the area is now teeming with wineries and vineyards, much as the state is.

With the winery now in its fourteenth year, Saviah has not only recently expanded its production facility to provide additional space, it’s also refreshed its label design with new images for its estate and reserve wines. For the estate wines, the label focuses on the location in The Rocks, for the reserve wines, a tribute to a brooch from Anita’s grandmother.

“What is Saviah?” Funk asks. “Saviah is just a simple, family owned business with a story that speaks to our heritage. We’re pretty simple people and so we thought a simple label and a simple story to go with it is really all we need.”

Funk’s work with the Brown family and their Watermill Winery has allowed him to establish a series of estate sites throughout the valley, including the Funk Estate Vineyard in The Rocks (those with a close eye on Washington wine are already familiar with this fruit from Sleight of Hand’s Funkadelic Syrah). Funk hopes that these vineyards will be the key to the winery’s future. “In ten years I want to look back and say people are following us for our estate wines as much as anything,” he said.

As with many of Washington’s wineries, the personal relationships and interactions with consumers have been crucial to the experience and the winery’s success. “I think we’ve built it one person at a time,” Funk says of his business. “We’ve always just been craftsmen that work hard and hopefully share good times with customers who come to the tasting room and people that we meet along the way.”

It’s been a pleasure to share that journey, whether it’s watching the 2003 Une Vallée evolve over time and appreciating Funk’s mastery of his craft, talking to Funk about his backpacking adventures, or looking forward to what the future will bring to this winery and this region.

And that is what is so enjoyable about drinking a well-aged wine. It’s not just the wine that’s in the bottle. The bottle encapsulates that moment in time, in your own life and your experiences with the wine as well as those of the winemaker, the region, and the state. Who could ask for anything more?

Pictures by Richard Duval. 

Saviah Cellars The Jack Red Wine Columbia Valley 2011 $18
 (Good/Excellent) An aromatically appealing wine with dark cherries and huckleberries drizzled with dry chocolate. The palate is on the lighter side of medium bodied, very elegantly styled with soft fruit flavors, compact tannins, and a tart lick of acidity on the finish bringing a beautiful sense of balance. 86% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3% Cabernet Franc. Pepper Bridge, Mirage, Elephant Mountain, McClellan Estate, Stillwater Creek, Frenchmen Hills, Seven Hills, Weinbau, and Conner Lee vineyards. Aged in American oak (30% new). 14.1% alcohol. 4,280 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Saviah Cellars The Jack Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2010 $18
 (Good) Draws you into the glass with mocha, cherry, toast, and fresh herbs. It’s on the lighter side of medium bodied with tart fruit flavors and chewy tannins. 14.1% alcohol. 3,000 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Saviah Cellars The Jack Syrah Columbia Valley 2011 $18
 (Good/Excellent) This is a directly appealing, very varietal wine with currant, coffee, and smoke along with floral and savory notes. The palate is elegantly styled with soft, velvety fruit flavors, bringing a lot of freshness and excellent balance. Some may find it too light but others will find much to love here. 80% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, and 10% Grenache. Lewis, Stillwater Creek, Elephant Mountain, and Clifton vineyards. Aged in French oak (10% new). 13.7% alcohol. 964 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Saviah Cellars Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley 2009 $45
(Excellent) Moderately aromatic with maraschino cherries, herbs, milk chocolate, and a potpourri of sweet barrel spices. The palate is soft and silky, all about elegance of expression with lithe tannins and juicy fruit flavors speckled with chocolate leading to a lingering finish. A very pretty, very understated interpretation of Cabernet. McClellan Estate Vineyard. Aged 20 months in French oak (100% new). 14.4% alcohol. 99 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Saviah Cellars Une Vallée Red Wine Walla Walla Valley 2010 $32
 (Excellent/Exceptional) A moderately aromatic, complex wine with wet stone, earth, raspberries, and dried herbs. The palate is elegant and understated with a plush, textured mouthfeel and a lingering finish. Where many are using a hammer, Richard Funk is using a scalpel. 56% Cabernet Sauvignon (Pepper Bridge and McClellan Vineyards), 38% Merlot (Anna Marie and Seven Hills Vineyards), 6% Cabernet Franc (Watermill Estate and Bacchus Vineyards). Aged 17 months in French oak (60% new). 388 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Saviah Cellars Petit Verdot Columbia Valley 2010 $35
(Good/Excellent) Aromatically brooding with purple flowers, moist soil, milk chocolate, and cherry. The palate is on the lighter side of medium bodied with firm but well integrated tannins and mouthwatering acidity. McClellan Estate, Stillwater Creek. Aged 21 months in French oak (100% new). 14.4% alcohol. 197 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Saviah Cellars Pinot Noir Couse Creek Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2011 $45
(Good) Hailing from one of the few Pinot Noir vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, located in the southern section and with 30 years of vine age, it’s pale in color and aromatically appealing with peat, strawberry, and forest floor. The palate is light and very delicate, not able to fully deliver on all of the aroma’s promise but there is still much to enjoy and it seems quite clear that Pinot Noir can grow well here. 100% Pinot Noir. Aged 17 months in French oak (33% new). 13.3% alcohol. 147 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Saviah Cellars GSM Elephant Mountain Red Wine Yakima Valley 2010 $38
 (Excellent) An aromatically appealing wine with wild strawberry, mocha, mineral notes, and peppery spices. The palate is soft and pillowy in feel with a lingering finish with a touch of bitterness providing some distraction but not enough to detract from an otherwise beautiful wine. 44% Grenache, 28% Syrah, and 28% Mourvedre. Aged 20 months in French oak (14% new). 14.3% alcohol. 168 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Saviah Cellars The Funk Estate Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2010 $45
 (Excellent/Exceptional) An aromatic wine with freshly peeled orange, floral notes, olive, and savory notes. It’s soft and seductive, all about mouthfeel and texture with abundant savory flavors that linger on the finish. 95% Syrah, 5% Viognier. Aged 17 months in French oak (12% new). 14.6% alcohol. 196 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.