inside the head of... anna schafer of àmaurice cellars

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Introducing a new, occasional feature of this blog, which I’m naming “inside the head of...” The goal is to have a one-on-one chat with a winemaker, grower, importer, retailer, sommelier, etc. My background as an interviewer includes many thousands of encounters with interesting people from many walks of life. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I do!

For my first guest, I spoke with Anna Schafer of àMaurice Cellars. The winery got its start when the Schafer family purchased one of the blocks of land adjacent to Leonetti’s Mill Creek Upland vineyard, which was the first planting in this up-and-coming sub-region just east of downtown Walla Walla. Neighbors include Walla Walla Vintners, and Dr. Greg Chan’s Yellow Bird vineyard.

Coming up on her 10th vintage, I asked Anna to update me on her current goals and future wines. As we talked, we tasted the 2012 Sparrow Viognier, the 2010 Fred Syrah, the 2010 Artist Series ‘The Graves’ and a two barrel-only 2010 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

PG: Back in 2009 you told me “We’ll have 10 wines soon, counting the estate wines. The estate Viognier is called ‘The Sparrow’. Each block is named for an animal. The Bordeaux blend is The Bear, the Cab will be The Owl, the Syrah will be either The Elk or The Deer, and the Malbec will be The Coyote. I was an art major, so my drawings will be on the label.” So, what’s happening with the zoo these days? The Syrah is now Fred! The Malbec is Amparo. Seems like only Sparrow made the cut!

AS: The zoo is gone. Owl & Crown is the fancy version of our Bordeaux-style blend. We want the labels to reflect the vineyard. I was trying to think of names, that nostalgic moment where you really bond with the wine., and connect to stories of the vineyard. So Sparrow was named for a bird that flew into the netting and risked his life to get some Viognier. Amparo is the name of the woman I lived with in Argentina. It means protection. Fred is the hummingbird whose territory is the honeysuckle next to the Syrah block.

PG: “I only produce wines that I like” you also said some time ago. Obviously, Viognier is right at the top of that list.

AS: Viognier is very interesting here in Washington. You can’t judge it by tasting the grapes in the vineyard. Some lab analysis is required. It’s difficult not to let it get bitter. But done right, it’s the best. It really expresses the vintage. I’m going to do more vineyard-designated Viogniers; I may drop Chardonnay.

PG: Your estate wine program is really impressive, especially for such a young vineyard.

AS: To me it’s one of the best sites I’ve ever seen. I’m so excited that it’s living up to what we originally thought. We got some amazing encouragement from what Chris Figgins was doing up there – and he was expanding. That gave us a big green light to go into the project. We have 2.5 acres to build a winery on (eventually), so there’s not really more room to plant. When that vineyard is really rocking it should kick off around 1800 cases total. But it’s still in its infancy; I don’t want to push it too hard.

PG: You’ve already had a lot of success. Are you surprised by any of it?

AS: I work my ass off. So, no! (She laughs.) I think I always knew we’d get there. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for all the support in the beginning. We came to Walla Walla at the most dynamic time. Eric [Dunham] and Charles [Smith] rode up on their Harleys to ask how I was doing; Christophe [Baron] was very encouraging. Gary Figgins and Norm McKibben were very generous. We wanted to listen to everybody. It was fun to learn together and get into the process of understanding the Valley and how we make wine. Now this is my 10th Walla Walla vintage and 13th overall – I’m gettin’ old! So I feel very strong. I’ve earned my stripes. I don’t get asked ‘Are you the tasting room girl?’!

PG: You got asked that?

AS: It was hard. I’d worked in business since I was 14. Everyone thought I was this spoiled kid. I wasn’t some kid with some willy-nilly fun project.

PG: Clearly, your work ethic speaks for itself. That said, what are you most proud of?

AS: Being in a family business in Washington. It’s really hard to run a family business with all the regulations. We still love each other and we’re still having fun. I’m a 5th generation Washington entrepreneur and we’re still having fun doing it. Originally it was dairy – my great great grandfather’s job was to walk from Aberdeen to Olympia to deliver the dairy every week. He and his buddy walked past all these big stands of timber, and they hated the walk. So they asked if they could cut down one tree and take it to market. They got a month’s worth of milk money from that one tree. My great great grandmother made them do both. They became the largest timber exporter in the world for awhile.

PG: What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago from the vantage point of today?

AS: I was very concerned, worried that I wasn’t doing enough, it wasn’t going fast enough. The greatest advice would be if you have a problem wine you can sometimes make it a bigger problem by trying to fix it rather than waiting. I was hyper focused on fixing; now I just let it go. The wine’s got a life of its own. You can’t change the vintage. The vintage is the vintage. Not just the climate and the weather; it’s where you were emotionally, that human element that comes into the wine.

PG: Final thoughts?

AS: There’s so much to learn. You never know everything. It’s also the most fun. The challenge. Getting to know the wines of the world. Argentina, Spain, Bordeaux are super interesting to me. I’m getting to know California, which is fun. Corsica has some amazing rosés that I really want to try. I love maps, so you can grab a glass, figure out where it’s from, and open up your wine books and explore. It’s a really relaxed, comfortable way to travel.

Thank you Anna Schafer for this peek inside your head!

My reviews of recent àMaurice Cellars wines were previously written up on this blog. The scores and full reviews will appear in the September issue of Wine Enthusiast. For purchase information (many wines are available online only) visit here.

1 comment:

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Paul,
Oh, man, what a relief. From the title I thought you were interviewing her in her bathroom, maybe going through her medicine chest.

Now there's a post!

This was cool, too. Her wines are on my bucket list, which I'll soon kick.

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