inside the head of... trey busch

Friday, August 23, 2013

When Trey Busch opened his tasting room in downtown Walla Walla a few years ago, it quickly became a must-see. A lovely young woman in dreadlocks was pouring the wines; vintage vinyl was rocking the room; and posters of magicians, conjurers and sorcerers adorned the walls. The wines were good, but the ambiance – the place exuded style – was spectacular.

Sleight of Hand Cellars has since moved into a larger location south of town. Along with partners Jerry and Sandy Solomon, Trey Busch is making the best wines of his career. More than just a sense of fashion and clever marketing, the wines are rooted in great vineyard sources, and the product of a relentless work ethic and maturing winemaking skills.

I chatted with Trey Busch as we tasted through the current lineup. Many of the wines have received high scores from the national press, and deservedly so, but quickly sold out. Still available and highly recommended: 2012 Magician Riesling ($18); 2011 Enchantress Chardonnay ($28); 2011 Conjurer Red (tasting room only, $28); and 2010 Illusionist Cabernet Sauvignon ($52). Out shortly will be the 2011 Levitation Syrah and the 2011 Funkadelic Syrah.

What distinguishes all of these wines are the impeccable vineyard sources. The Riesling comes from the original block at Evergreen; the Chardonnay from 35-year-old vines at French Creek; and the red wines from carefully-assembled blends of grapes from Les Collines, Blackrock, Phinny Hill, Bacchus, Blue Mountain and others. When I met Trey he’d just returned from French Creek, so I asked him for his thoughts on the upcoming vintage. We ran out of time, but continued via e-mail. I've posted up his wonderful account of his lifelong love for music in the form of a conversation.

TB: This has been a warm vintage, no doubt (OK, it’s been hot…damn hot!). Every month this growing season has been warmer than normal, and the 7 – 10 days of 100+ weather in July really put its stamp on the vintage. Typically, anything over 95 degrees, and the vines shut down, so they are not really ‘ripening’ or progressing, but even so, all of our vineyards are anywhere from 7 to14 days ahead of last year (which was a nice, warm year in its own right).

I would say our crop load is down a bit vs. last year, some due to us dropping fruit intentionally. In 2009 and 2010 we harvested Syrah off of Rich Funk’s ‘Funk Vineyard’ on October 10th and 15th; this year, I think we will be bringing in our grapes around September 15th - 20th. I was at Lewis vineyard today, where we dropped to one cluster per shoot about two weeks ago. We should get about 2.5 tons per acre, perfect for that site (cooler because of its elevation). I suspect that we will be picking it as much as three weeks early. And for whites, I was at French Creek this morning, where the Chardonnay vines are already at 20.3 brix, pH of 3.25, with a TA of about .80 g/L. To put it into perspective, in 2011 (the cold vintage) our picking numbers on October 1st were 22.5 brix, pH of 3.20 and TA of .75 or so. I can see us bringing in that Chard before Labor Day this year.

Overall, I am excited about the vintage, I think it will be very similar to last year, maybe even a bit riper, with lower acids. Potential alcohol will be a concern, but I have always felt that with enough fruit, the wines hold up to the alcohols that our wines have from a warmer vintage. Our reserve level 2010’s were close to 15% and don’t come across as hot at all. We love our 2012 vintage in barrel, and feel they are the strongest lineup of red wines we have produced at the winery. Let’s hope 2013 can match that!

PG: You began your full-time winemaking (after a stint at Dunham with your cousin Eric Dunham) at Basel Cellars in 2002, then founded SoH in 2007. So you’re coming up on your 12th vintage. What lessons have you learned?

TB: It’s been a very interesting evolution. Recalling my first vintages at Basel, I used a lot of new wood. Everything went into 100% new French oak. When I taste my wines today, the first five tasting notes are fruit fruit fruit. The oak comes in later. Back then it was the opposite. I’ve come to believe that really great oak lifts and amplifies – but doesn’t mask – the great fruit.

PG: At the risk of turning this blog into a book, I have to ask about your long-standing, fanatic (in the best sense) attraction to Pearl Jam.

TB: First of all, I have loved listening to music for as long as I can remember. My father had what I consider great taste in music. What we call Classic rock today was what I listened to in his car and his home in the 70’s. Led Zeppelin, The Who, Beach Boys, The Beatles, etc… I remember listening to 96 Rock in Atlanta, singing out loud in my folks car, for as long as I can remember. And even my Mom had a decent album collection (lots of Elton John, Billy Joel, Boz Scaggs, and my favorite, Queen). And when I entered high school, and developed my own sense of musical taste, it always leaned to the rock side of things. One of my best friends in high school, Bryan Lansford, introduced me to Heavy Metal in 1984. It was the summer before my freshman year, and hanging out at his folks lake house, I heard Motley Crue and Whitesnake for the first time. Things changed for me at that point. My first concert was the Heavy Metal Thunder concert at the OMNI that Fall, with Helix, KEEL, and Accept. The energy I felt from being at a live show was like taking drugs (even though I didn’t know what that was like for….at least a year!). And most importantly, the cool chicks that I wanted to hang out with, loved that music too, so I was sold. I spent most of the money I earned on tapes and concert tickets. I still have the photo album(s) of all of my ticket stubs. And I am still adding to it.

I went into the Navy right out of HS, to help pay for college. Music was the one constant for me. Here I am, 18 years old, in a new place, new friends/co-workers, new environment, but once I put that tape in and headphones on, I was back home. It was a way to stay connected for me to something familiar. I even had a radio show on the ship I was on (The USS Camden). It was called T.J.’s “Hour of Power” (me and my bud Jeff). It went on at midnight twice a week, and we played 70’s and 80’s rock. It…was…awesome! I even remember going into my own bunk room (where there were about 40 bunks) and turning the station on and turning the volume up, just to make sure SOMEONE was listening. From 1988-1990, I discovered the Scorpions early stuff (1972-1978). At the time, I pretty much remember them for Rock You Like a Hurricane, but flipping through the albums back in the radio room (everything was still vinyl even in 1988), I found In Trance. I was hooked. Awesome power chords, some killer ballads, I just loved it all. I went and found Fly to the Rainbow, Virgin Killers (one of my all time favorites). That really was my first band that I obsessed over. Still love them and love listening to those albums.

When I was living in Seattle in 1990, just before I got out of the Navy, I wandered into a record store and found Soundgarden’s Screaming Life/FOPP album. I picked it up because of the album cover (like wine, the power of album covers!). It had a pic of Chris Cornell, long hair flailing all over the place, howling into a mic, with Kim Thayil in the background on guitar. I bought the album because the sales clerk said it was awesome, even though I didn’t have a turntable. He mentioned something about them being a local Seattle band. I didn’t listen to it until I got back to Atlanta a few months later (after I got out of the Navy), and remembering that I had not heard anything like that before. It was heavy, and it was rock but it was not the 80’s metal that had somehow been hijacked by MTV and record companies. This album had its roots in 70’s metal like Sabbath, and a frontman channeling Robert Plant? Yes please.

In 1990, my fall semester at UGA, one of the most vibrant music scenes in the country because of the likes of REM, B-52’s, (soon to be Widespread Panic, who were playing frat parties at the time), I’m being inundated with tons of different music at the bars in and around Athens. I bought my first CD player. Then, while strolling through Wuxtry Records in Athens, late 1991, I come across a CD with five guys holding their hands up to the sky, called Pearl Jam. Something on the front label mentions Seattle, and for whatever reason (I am guessing because I had lived there once, and I hoped it sounded a bit like that Soundgarden album) I took it home. For the next week, I believe I played that CD about 30 times, each time a bit louder, and each time, becoming more and more connected to that music. And then the video for Alive comes out, and man, this band live looked even better than the CD sounded! It was the lyrics, it was the way they were sung, it was the lead and rhythm guitars, the tight bass lines, the immaculate drumming, the production, it was everything. In a word, it was perfect. It brought together every aspect of music I had loved since I remember listening to music. It was grounded in 70’s rock, with 80’s power, and a 90’s message. They were perfectly crafted songs, the album told a story, it was like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd crafted an album together.

PG: OK, we are now setting a record for the longest blog post I’ve ever done!

TB: This is a subject that I could write a thesis on, however, I will try to edit myself, while still giving you all the main points. In the Spring of 1992 I saw a flyer for a concert at Legion Field, with Follow For Now (an awesome Athens band) and Pearl Jam! I couldn’t believe it. And it was a free show to boot. The day of the show, I skipped classes all day and went down to Legion Field as the tour bus showed up. They all came off the bus looking wiped…exhausted. I rolled up with my CD to have it autographed. Eddie could barely speak, and I was afraid that he wouldn’t even be able to perform (the band actually cancelled the next night in Atlanta). I got Stone, Jeff, Mike, and Dave A. to sign as well. One of my favorite items in my collection still to this day. There were about 1000 people at the show, and I believe that half of them were there to see Follow For Now, since they were more well known than Pearl Jam in Athens at the time. When Pearl Jam hit the stage, I had a few fraternity brothers with me in the pit up front, and I was witness to 7-8 songs of pure emotional release. I had never seen anyone sing songs like this. Never seen musicians play with this intensity. The mosh pit was going crazy. And, as history would prove, in 2-3 months this band we were watching would be one of the biggest bands on the planet! I remember leaving Legion field, and telling my wife that we were moving back to Seattle. And we did.

From that moment on, Pearl Jam has been a constant source of pleasure for me. Every memory I have related to the band is nothing but joy. I have met some of my best friends because of this band. The music they make has always moved me, and I am but one of hundreds of thousands of rabid Pearl Jam fans from around the world. I am not much for going to church, but going to a Pearl Jam concert is as close as it comes for me. You can’t find a band that takes better care of its fans (I am guessing they have one of the largest and most active fan clubs in the world of music). It is only through the world of wine that my relationship with the band and the Ten Club (the band’s fan club) has become a bit more personal. I have been sending the band wine since I was working with Dunham. I have pics of Eddie with my Basel Cellars wines on stage, and certainly with my Sleight of Hand wines as well. Dream come true for sure. The bass player, Jeff Ament, drove through WW about 5 years ago and came into my tasting room. I about had a heart attack. But just as I suspected, he was as down to earth as could be. Loved wine, loved great food, and loved talking about music. My kind of guy!

I love this band for the music, plain and simple. I can’t think of a better live band in the world, and because the concerts are filled with fans just like me, who sing just as loud as me (maybe not play the air guitar quite as proficiently), it creates a pretty special feeling. I still get amped up right before they go onstage. I see a lot of live music every year, and no band gets me that excited. Sure, I love seeing Band of Horses, or The National, or The Black Keys, etc… but those 10 minutes before the lights go out at a Pearl Jam show? Priceless.

PG: Wow! Thank you Trey Busch.

Sleight of Hand Cellars

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