Wow, what a day, I finally escaped my life in the restaurant business to do the one thing I love the most: taste new wines and meet a new winemaker. My god, it’s been since January since I have written a word about wine or even documented a tasting note. It has been nothing but IPA’s and long days since I started managing Olive Marketplace and Cafe. I swore to myself that I would never, ever, get back into the restaurant business again unless I owned the place – and if I was ever crazy enough to own a restaurant then I should then commit myself. Maybe I’ll give myself a mulligan on this one… Anyway, let’s just say it’s good to be back at the keyboard with a glass of wine and something to write about. My side job writing for the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance led me to Lori and Tim Kennedy, owners of Don Carlo Estate Vineyards. Tim is the man who originally started “Tim’s Cascade Style Potato Chips” and after selling the company, they purchased a twelve acre parcel of land and planted a vineyard to produce the types of wines they love most. Lori and Tim are amazing; they have been working like crazy to develop their vineyard which was planted in 2007. The vineyard is planted with 3.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, 2 acres of Cabernet Franc and 1 acre of Chardonnay. The vineyard is located on the site of a former apple orchard which runs northeast in orientation and is set up on a Vertical Trellis System (VSP). The vines are meticulously pruned to produce concentrated fruit that will spend their days basking in the sun during the day and receiving a reflection of heat from the cobblestones below well into the evening hours. But do not fear, this wine will not be an over-extracted fruit bomb laced with high alcohol. Lori believes in keeping the alcohol in check and not letting the fruit over ripen.
I took my friend Spencer along for the vineyard tour and we had lunch with Tim and Lori outside the tasting room. Spencer grew up in the northwest and was amazed that the founder of Tim’s Cascades was making him lunch. Me being from the south and east coast had seen the chips only a few times but fed off of his excitement when Tim put down a bowl of freshly fried chips with shaved Parmesan and sea salt. Wow, those things were delicious. We opened a bottle of the 2008 Don Carlo Estate Chardonnay which was super clean and crisp with brilliant clarity. Flavors of apple and pear mixed with hints of tropical fruits and minerals. Great acidity and just a hint of oak made this wine a great start to our lunch. Next, we opened the 2007 Merlot and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines proved to be well balanced with perfectly ripened fruit, generous alcohol and supple tannins. Tim threw a marinated flank steak on the grill and we sat and sipped the wines while eating potato chips – it was pretty cool. Lori is making some nice wines and the prices are great, unlike a lot of the wines in Washington State that are pretty pricey for what they are. Don Carlo Estate wines all sit between the $20 and $30 dollar mark. Good wines, new friends, and great chips!!
By the way I am now addicted to Tim’s Cascade Style Wasabi Chips, which are an excellent pairing with Gruner Veltliner. Enjoy tasting!
Over the summer I had the pleasure of visiting Pax Wine Cellars and meeting the new winemaker, Tyler Thomas, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable character who is sure to become a rising star in the wine industry. Before my tasting appointment, I was unaware that winemaker Pax Mahle had left the winery and was pursuing his own project to be called Wind Gap. Sometimes a fresh start is what everybody needs to create a little personal success. Of course the story is a little more complicated, but I’m not here to talk about that, I’m here to introduce you to Tyler.
Tyler Thomas was born in St. Louis, Missouri and graduated from Colorado State University with a Masters in Botany and then attended UC Davis where he received his second Masters, this time in Viticulture & Enology. His career in the juice biz started at Fiddlehead Cellars where he worked for two years as what he calls a “Jack of all trades” position. After Fiddlehead, he joined the team at HdV Cellars – a high end California winery known for Burgundian style Pinot and Chardonnay – as a harvest intern. After the harvest season, Tyler was asked to stay on as assistant winemaker. Tyler spent the next four years fine tuning his skills as a winemaker including a trip to work the 2005 harvest in New Zealand. As the result of an award for his graduate research paper on grape berry physiology at UC Davis, Tyler was invited to the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute for winegrowing and horticulture in Rheingau, Germany where he spent the next few months refining his knowledge. In July 2008 the opportunity to sail his own ship presented itself and he started work at Pax Wine Cellars as winemaker. He blended and bottled all of the 2007 vintage as well as many of the 2006 wines that underwent longer oak treatment. The 2008 vintage will be his first release and from what I could tell from barrel sampling and learning of his meticulous approach, it is definitely something to look forward to.
Tyler is a guy with lots of great energy with a fresh and exciting outlook to winemaking. If you ever meet him you’ll see how his excitement doubles as a lithium battery. Once he starts discussing wine his energy level soars through the roof. Our appointment started at 10:00am, (these things tend to last an hour or so) but after the two of us started talking and tasting it was nearly 2:00pm before we were done. This was by far one of the best encounters I have ever had with a winemaker. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned about the science of wine as well as all the different wines at Pax. The occasion to meet a talented, humble and creative winemaker is quite the experience, so I asked Tyler a few questions so that you could get to know him like I did. Take a look:
In what direction will you be taking Pax Wines and what changes can fans expect to see?
TT - The focus to produce the best vineyard-designated syrah and other Rhône style varietals from the North Coast of California will remain unchanged. I have a mandate to elevate the quality of Pax wines, this can only be done by continuing to source unique and spectacular vineyards that produce inimitable wines. One thing I bring is an understanding of vine physiology, i.e. how vines are responding to any changes in micro-environment and climate. In other words I look to capture variance in the vineyard to isolate the best of the best from the least of the best. This will require stringent blending even of single vineyards and difficult choices of what to leave out to keep quality high, however we are not interested in making the average of any place (even if that is very good), but we want to parse out and discover the best of every place and only produce that.
How would you describe your philosophy and style when it comes to winemaking?
TT – In the vineyard, of course. But who doesn’t say that?!? My goal is to discover and distill what truly makes an impact to the governing components of great wine, and only do those things. This is minimal winemaking at its best: find the best fruit which is in part defined by needing little attention. I also like to question paradigms under the idea that tradition is birthed from experiment (particularly in the vineyard!). There are many commonly held “truisms” in winemaking, but some of them seem to be no more than unquestioned answers, as opposed to answered questions. I like to challenge those unquestioned answers.
What are some of your favorite styles of cuisine and dishes that pair well with the wines that you make?
TT – I love French food, perhaps because I grew up with a French Grandmere. In all my travels I think I enjoyed Thai and French food the most, with French cuisine barely edging out the southeast Asian delicacies. Grilled meats are wonderful with most of Pax Syrahs, but I like to experiment as well. I just tried our Grenache based 2007 Cuvee Moriah with Gazpacho and it was truly delicious. The spice and freshness of the wine was well balanced by the sweetness and fruity nature of the gazpacho (tomatoes are in full swing here right now so the tomatoes weren’t too tart). The experience of not only the flavors but the textures of the two were terrific.
Who or what are some of the influences that made you want to become a winemaker?
TT - In hindsight I’d have to say my Dad because he is obsessed with aromas. When I was a kid I remember my dad scouring a room sniffing like a dog trying to find the source of some peculiar aroma. I’ve realized that this taught me early on to pay attention to and consider aromas and tastes at a very young age (and yes I do the same thing now). Of course Grandmere must be credited with infusing our family with French culinary traditions and early exposure to wine as a beverage with a meal. Then I became enraptured with Rhone wines and this generated a desire to investigate wine more and more. What I learned was that wine is analogous to life, full of things we know and understand, but even more laden with mystery. And part of the enjoyment is reveling in the mystery of wine. It always leaves an opportunity for discovery and this appeals to my curious nature; after all our proprietor says “wine is a journey, not a destination.”
Name some of your favorite wines to drink?
TT – Riesling from Alsace and Germany is a serious weakness and I find no occasion that cannot be paired with such wines. Of course Rhone wines. I’ve always enjoyed the prettiness of St Joseph wines but really enjoy the general diversity of the Northern and Southern Rhone. The first wines I began collecting were from Bandol. Working for HdV I developed a great appreciation for White Burgundy and some CA Chardonnay. Pinot can be so…great!
Do you have a wine collection and if so what is it made up of?
TT – Yes, a small one and mostly made up of the varietals I listed above. I probably mostly treasure my Pibarnon, Moreau (Chablis), and HdV (because the wine is great and I “grew up” as a winemaker there).
What are some of your favorite varietals to work with and why?
TT – Syrah because of its palatable diversity. It can be grown in so many different terroirs and produce such a diversity of styles that are delicious. I love Pinot for its delicacy, and Chardonnay for its beauty birthed from simple winemaking (when from great vineyards).
Do you have a favorite wine out of the Pax lineup, if so which one?
TT - I must refrain, grower relations is a big part of my job Really though I drink different wines on different occasions and with different cuisine. We have such a spectrum of what Syrah can be that there is an extraordinary opportunity to learn about Syrah’s unique qualities.
Out of all the wines produced by Pax, which one is the most difficult and time consuming?
TT – Great questions! Each presents its own challenge. Obsidian is tricky because it is the warmest site, the most variable site, and is at the most risk for settling for over ripe mediocrity. The vineyard must be monitored very closely and so must the weather around harvest! Most of our vineyards are in such cool areas that they are immune to many of the heat spikes we see in August and September, but Obsidian Syrah does not have that luxury. Richard’s Family Vineyard is not necessarily difficult as it is worrying. It really does need the 30-36 months in oak because when it is young you are wringing your hands with anxiety over its profile. But in the end patience wins and it produces one of the most interesting and compelling Syrahs in Sonoma.
Can we expect to see any new blends or new AVA wines from Pax in the future?
TT – I cannot reveal my secrets.
Are there any plans to change the name of the winery at this time?
TT – Not at this time.
For information on scheduling an appointment with Pax Wine Cellars visit their website at www.paxwines.com