Friday, August 21, 2009

To make a small fortune in the wine business, the old saw goes, start with a large one. In Washington, few if any new winery enterprises start with any sort of fortune at all, except perhaps misfortune. Corporations have deep pockets, to be sure, but by and large they launch brands, not wineries. Family-owned wineries are the rule here, not the exception, and according to one recent study, which claims that 250 (more than a third) of Washington’s wineries produce fewer than 50 cases of wine annually, many are so tiny as to be essentially non-existent.

Corliss Estates is the big exception to all of the above. Family-owned, ambitiously expansive, with money seemingly no object, this unique project, which has been in development for almost a decade, will soon encompass three separate wineries – not brands, but actual wineries – and hundreds of acres of vineyard in Walla Walla, Red Mountain, and the Yakima Valley.

Owners Michael Corliss and Lauri Darneille purchased the 100-year-old former bakery building that houses their Walla Walla winery nine years ago, and actually made their first wines there in 2003. Two previous vintages had been made – and then discarded – elsewhere. The wines from 2003 were finally released last fall; 2004 wines are just now coming out; and 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 are still in barrel and bottle.

When I met Michael Corliss in late September, he and winemaker Kendall Mix were anchoring a lineup of a dozen or so workers painstakingly sorting grapes. Merlot from Corliss’ Red Mountain vineyard was just coming in to the winery. The bunches of grapes passed through a gentle de-stemmer and poured out onto a conveyer belt, where every bit of leaf, stem and vineyard detritus was picked out by hand. By the time the grapes reached the end of the conveyer belt – just before being dropped (not pumped) into fermentation bins – they looked like perfect blueberries, each pristine grape isolated and unbroken.

This is what it takes to make great, not good wine. Good wines can take many shortcuts and still come out fine. Great wines cannot cut any corners. Corliss and Mix took a break to show me around the winery, and along the way explained why it has taken so very long to release any wines.

“I did not at the beginning fully envision that we’d be where we are today,” Corliss admits. “It evolved along the way, which is a lot of the reason we’ve been pretty quiet – taking the journey. When you’re on a journey,” he continued, “you take a lot of notes and write it up when you finish. After eight years we know very clearly where we’re going. We have five great vintages that have been done here at the winery; we’ve purchased two estate vineyards, and we will acquire another in the next couple of years. We’ve got a cohesive team of people that have been working together for five years; and Kendall has been here for four of them.”

Corliss is a fourth-generation Seattle native whose primary business is as a developer. He was introduced to great wines while still in his early twenties, as part of a group that purchased old wine cellars. He is certainly the only person I’ve ever known who owned and drank wines that once belonged to Alfred Hitchcock. Those classic, well-cellared wines shaped his palate, and when he embarked upon his own wine project, it was with the goal of making wines that would age gracefully.

“When you buy and typically drink much older wines, which is what I do, your interest is in how the wine will taste in five, 10 and 20 years,” says Corliss. “It is more challenging to set out to build a wine that can last that long.”

Corliss and Darneille have the financial resources to manage every aspect of the process. They purchased the former Sandhill vineyard (planted in 1989) and tasting room on Red Mountain; it will do its first crush this fall, re-named RMV Cellars. Their Blue Mountain vineyard (planted in 2001) has previously provided grapes for Nicholas Cole. A second vineyard on Red Mountain went into the ground this spring, on property purchased from Michael Moore (Blackwood Canyon). It’s 55 acres planted to all five Bordeaux varietals, plus four Rhônes – grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault.

“We did extensive soil mapping and matched soil types to varieties,” Kendall Mix explained as we tasted through his ‘04s a week ago. “We’ve got at least two clones of everything planted, three of cab and merlot. We offset the rows 20 degrees to the southwest.” A fourth vineyard, named the Blackrock vineyard (59 acres, near Lonesome Spring) has also been purchased and is being renovated. “It’s got some established merlot, cab and cab franc that are 7 – 8 years old,” says Mix. “It’s kind of a diamond in the rough; rocky, shallow soils, quite a bit of heat, almost as warm as Red Mountain, and we think the potential is there to grow some fantastic fruit.”

The Corliss Estates winery, in a beautifully refurbished brick building just off the freeway in downtown Walla Walla, is designed to make wines with minimal intervention. Blending trials begin at the end of the first year and continue until bottling two years later. The winery makes a Red Blend, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah each vintage, and sells primarily to mailing list customers and a few select wine shops. It is not open to the public, but mailing list members may visit by appointment.

The 2004 Corliss wines include a syrah, released this spring and already sold out, and two other reds, which may be ordered pre-release on September 15th. Here are my notes.

Corliss Estates 2004 Syrah
Columbia Valley; $55
180 cases
This is Stillwater Syrah, blended with 11% Clifton Grenache. Despite the extended bottle age, this is youthful and still quite purple/garnet in hue. Loads of blackberry, blueberry pie, plum fruit flavors, nicely welded to smooth barrel flavors that bring in coffee, licorice, toasted walnuts and mocha. This is definitely a fruit and barrel wine, thoroughly delicious but without the funk or rock of Walla Walla syrahs.

Corliss Estates 2004 Red Wine
Columbia Valley; $65
480 cases
This is 45% Cabernet, 34% Cab Franc, 10% Malbec, 9% PV and 2%Merlot. Soft entry, sweet baking spices, toasted coconut, hints of custard, strawberry fruit. In the back end it gets a little tart and acidic, but by the time it is released it will certainly have smoothed out still further. A vin de garde.

Corliss Estates 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Columbia Valley; $75
225 cases
Mostly Weinbau and Bacchus old vine grapes, the blend is 82% Cabernet, 9% Cab Franc, 7% PV, 1% each Malbec and Merlot. Lovely bouquet, starting to move into some secondary aromatics, very expressive and complex, with delicious raspberry and cherry fruit flavors, crisply defined by firm acids, and nudged into hedonism with a wash of pretty chocolate and buttery nuts. Best of flight.


Wawineman said...

How long do you estimate these wines can age? You got me all hyped up about Corliss last year and, with their minimalist website, I don't know what to do with these nine bottles from 2003.

And what is the style of their winemaking? Old World? New World? Napa? You don't mention anything about "terroir" or what to pair with. I'm happy that Corliss has oodles of money to burn, but the wines are still unrated and really don't stand for anything unique, in my interpretation.

I want answers!

PaulG said...

If you've got 9 bottles of '03, I'd say drink one and see what you think. The style of the winemaking is classic WA - that is to say, bright fruit, careful selection of fruit, new oak but not too much, and balance throughout. This is not a Napa wannabe. Given that Corliss gives these wines a lot of bottle age prior to release, they are certainly ready to enjoy now. But I would give them at least another decade of life. So the advice is to enjoy them steadily over the next ten years. Ratings on the '04s will be published this fall; they are all 90 - 94.

Wawineman said...

Danke, herr Kommissar!

Btw, Corliss did a 1st class effort on packaging of the wines. Wrapped in paper then boxed in aromatic wood. Definitely worth the $35 shipping fee.

And, thanks again for the tip from last year. You also got me primed for the Cote Bonneville cab coming out, all two hundred dollars' worth.

You....I like,!

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