Ryan Johnson, far from the sagebrush of Red Mountain

Ryan Johnson, who has been farming on Red Mountain for 25 years and is one of Washington’s most highly-regarded growers, will now be managing Force Majeure’s estate vineyard in the appellation. Johnson established the 40-acre vineyard (20 planted) and managed it for seven years.

“Having Ryan back on board at Force Majeure is really exciting and brings things back around full circle,” says Todd Alexander, winemaker and director at Force Majeure. “Ryan was behind so much of the original conceptualization and execution of designing, planting, and farming the Force Majeure Red Mountain site, so it is really special to have him back in that saddle.”

Johnson is currently vineyard manager at nearby WeatherEye Vineyard, a young site located along the hillside, top, and north side of Red Mountain. Johnson’s team from WeatherEye will manage Force Majeure’s property going forward.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Johnson says. “I think it will be a great opportunity for WeatherEye’s team and for Force Majeure.”

Johnson partnered with businessman Paul McBride to start a winery that was originally called Grand Rêve. A trademark dispute forced the winery to rebrand as Force Majeure in 2011. The winery’s inaugural wines were made in 2004. The winery paired top Washington winemakers with fruit from Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, where Johnson spent 15 years as vineyard manger.

Starting in 2007, Johnson began planting Force Majeure’s estate vineyard. It was the first hillside planting on Red Mountain, widely regarded as one of Washington’s top appellations. Johnson designed the site in micro-blocks, meticulously matching variety and clone to soil. It was then and remains now one of the most ambitious vineyard projects in Washington.

Force Majeure’s inaugural estate wines were made in 2010. (Some of those grapes were notoriously stolen.) Johnson subsequently stepped away from Ciel du Cheval and Force Majeure in 2014 to spend more time with family.

At that time, Todd Alexander was brought on at Force Majeure as winemaker. Alexander had previously been winemaker for the cult Napa Valley winery Bryant Family.

Two years later, in 2016, Johnson became involved in designing, planting, and ultimately managing WeatherEye Vineyard. It is, if anything, an even more ambitious project in scope and scale.

There are natural synergies with Johnson returning to manage Force Majeure’s Red Mountain vineyard. No one know the site better, and the vineyard is close to WeatherEye. Todd Alexander is also the winemaker for the WeatherEye estate wines. The Force Majeure and WeatherEye wines are both made at Force Majeure’s winery in Walla Walla Valley.

“It all happened so organically,” Johnson says of returning to Force Majeure. “It’s a matter of timing and all these things coming together.”

Johnson and WeatherEye Vineyard owner Cam Myhrvold have spent the past series of years building out the vineyard team at WeatherEye. This includes hiring assistant vineyard manager Fergus Nancarro and viticulturalist Laura Pursley.

“This is a great opportunity for them to expand their responsibilities and experience,” Johnson says of farming Force Majeure’s estate vineyard. A number of people on Johnson’s team are already familiar with the site, having been involved in planting and farming the vineyard.

In the ensuing years since Johnson left Force Majeure, vineyard management was taken over by Dick Boushey and then Damon Lalonde. They are two of Washington’s most highly regarded growers. Force Majeure has also added two estate vineyards in Walla Walla Valley, which will be under separate management.

Alexander’s wines at Force Majeure have already been at the extreme upper edge of quality, as have his wines from WeatherEye Vineyard. With Johnson once again farming the winery’s Red Mountain property, it promises to raise the Force Majeure wines to even greater heights.

“Having worked with Ryan since 2018 on the WeatherEye estate wine program, I know firsthand what an amazing job he and his team can do in the vineyard,” Alexander says. “I look forward to finally being able to work together on Force Majeure.”

Image courtesy of Ryan Johnson. 

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