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Andrew Rich's Coup D'Etat

The Quiet Revolution

by Tom Colligan

It's the first truly warm day of spring, and Andrew Rich is seated comfortably outside the flung-open doors of the Carlton Winemakers' studio. His reddish-brown bird dog, Romeo, pads around the patio while Rich compares two recent vintages of his lush, rustic blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Counoise, that he calls, simply, Coup D'Etat. He studies the two glasses in front of him, then sits back in his chair. "This is my attempt to overthrow the Cab-Merlot-Chardonnay hegemony," he says earnestly, then smiles. "What do you think?"

His aspect seems notably different from that of an estate owner; he is refreshingly inquisitive and seems free from some of the more mundane burdens of proprietorship. In discussing his wines, his thoughts are drawn more to possibility than practicality. And it's the possibility of making truly great Rhône-style wines in the Northwest that excites him most. Getting his hands on what little Grenache or Mourvedre is available - or convincing growers to plant these grapes - there is the rub.

"My grower, Jim Holmes, at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard the other day was estimating that there's maybe thirty acres each of Grenache and Mourvedre in all of Washington," he says. "That's really nothing. When I started, no one was interested - now everybody wants them."

With this, his eleventh harvest in the Northwest, Rich now finds himself closer to the front of the line when it comes to getting the choice fruit. And with his highly regarded Syrahs and his Coup D'Etat - a bold channeling of Châteauneuf-du-Pape - he's one of the primary reasons people are lining up behind him to take on the dominion of Bordeaux varietals in the Columbia valley. It is a revolution that is slow in coming, but one that for the time being favors innovative small producers like Rich.

"The big guys aren't competing to get this fruit yet," he points out, "because they have to deal with their marketing departments and many levels of bureaucracy asking, 'How are we going to sell this?' They're like very large ships that are hard to turn quickly. But for me or other small producers, we can come in and experiment - do what we want."

And to what special techniques of experimentation does Rich credit the success of his ripening rebellion? "Well, you know, mostly I just like to wing it," he says, laughing. It's an attitude he takes seriously, attributing it to legendary vintner and fellow Rhône specialist Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon, where Rich made wines for six years before coming to Oregon. "That's one of the great lessons I learned from Randall: If you aren't afraid to experiment and try new things, fool around basically - but be scientific about it - you can accomplish some really great things."

New Tastes Rising

As the afternoon's first tasters arrive at the sleek tasting room of the winemaker's studio, landscapers are plugging annuals into the flower beds while Rich contemplates some of the vinous experiments he'd be undertaking already, if only the fruit was available. "I'd love to get my hands on some Petite Manseng. It's one of the principal grapes of Juranon - makes fantastic sweet wines. I've started looking into it. I might be able to get a small number of vines planted next year."

"With the Roussanne, I think it would be fantastic to play around with a little Grenache blanc and Marsanne," minuscule amounts of which have recently been planted in Washington, though no fruit is available yet. "Then maybe I'd add some Viognier for perfume."

While at Bonny Doon, he made a Marsanne and Roussanne blend called le Sophiste, and he's excited about Marsanne's prospects in the Northwest. "It should grow well here. It typically ripens easier than Roussanne," he says, though he acknowledges one of the major obstacles to its widespread acceptance. "The thing people always say about Marsanne is, 'Oh, it smells like library paste,' but I'd like to fool around with it, you know? I like to see what happens if I add 15 percent of this or that. In the end you might decide that 100 percent Roussanne works the best after all. But for making more interesting, complex wines - blending is where it's at."

Earlier this spring Andrew visited Taste of Vail in Colorado, where several dozen winemakers convened to discuss their latest efforts to make Rhône blends. "All everyone was talking about was making Grenache-based wines, but everyone was showing Syrah-based wines, with a little Grenache or bits of whatever here and there. Most of them were from California where - obviously, they have way more Grenache and Mourvdre than we do - it's still hard to come by. So there is demand for this stuff out there."

He directs his focus to the glasses of Coup D'Etat in front of him. "I really don't want this to taste like a Syrah. I want this to be a lush, fruity, aromatic wine, full of raspberries, strawberries, and spice, that glides over the tongue." He then lays out the blueprint for the blend: "The Grenache is the fleshy and fruity part, the Mourvedre lends acidity and tannins, the Syrah really gives the whole thing structure, and the Counoise - who knows? It's always different."

This year he has a new experiment in the works for his '05 Coup D'Etat: blending the wines in the tank immediately after fermentation, before they go into the barrel. "This is the first time I've done that. It's something a few of the Rhône producers do. I just wanted to see how the wines come together. I left out the Syrah because it seems to have a way of bringing everything together, so that's what goes in last - and I did leave out a little bit of each so I'd have some to play with."

Racking and keeping track of all of these different wines is, of course, labor-intensive. Rich says making his five thousand cases per year in Oregon is more work than the tens of thousands of cases he used to make at Bonny Doon. "We're trying to manage six separate fermentations instead of one or two - and then you've got to keep track of all these lots - so that's quite a bit more work."

It's extra effort that's yielded increasingly sumptuous results for Rich - a trend that, it appears, will be strongly reinforced with his latest experiment, "I just tasted '05 Coup the other day. The wine has a gorgeous nose of red fruits and pepper, good acidity, soft tannins, and a lush mid-palate. I think this is going to be the best one yet."

Old World Understanding

Although Rich says his first love is Syrah, particularly from the northern Rhône, he went overseas to receive his oenology and viticulture training in Burgundy. He began at a program in Dijon, recommended to him by Ted Lemon, the first American winemaker to take up the reins of a Burgundy domaine. There was, however, a slight snag. "I enrolled in that program, but - this is the problem sometimes with winging it - I found out later it only met once a week. So what was I going to do the rest of the time?"

He eventually found another program at the CFPPA in Beaune, where, he says, "I ended up living in this fleabag hotel, right on the ring road around Beaune. It was Beaune in the winter so it was cold and gray, but it was great." It was there that he happened to meet a fellow student, John Eliassen, and his wife Kay, now of La Bete in McMinnville, who'd later introduce him to Oregon. "I remember of the many vacations we had - you know the French are always taking vacations - I'd regularly go with John and Kay and we'd visit the wineries around there, but often I would go down to the Rhône."

And when an assignment for his program required him to work a harvest, he found a job in Hermitage picking Syrah. "I was kind of lucky in that it was a really crappy year in 1987. Because of that, we were tasting a lot out of the cellar." Again, a smile formed from fond memories spreads across his face. Not surprising, considering that he was tasting out of the cellar of perhaps the greatest estate in the northern Rhône, Jean-Louis Chave.

Though he feels a primal connection to old-world Syrah, he sees a distinctive balance in the Rhône varietals in the Northwest that is well suited to the wines he wants to make. "The Rhône varietals in Washington, not unlike their Bordeaux counterparts, show more fruit here than in the Rhône," he observes, "but they're not as obvious, I think, as the California Rhônes. The acids tend to be low, as in the southern Rhône valley. But I think our tannins may ripen better than in California, making them very approachable, and easy to drink early on."

It's an approachability that seems especially apparent this afternoon. Visitors to the tasting room are snatching up bottles of Rich's '03 Columbia Valley Syrah, then stopping by his table to offer uncommonly sincere thanks - as though he has done them a tremendous personal favor by making it. He responds graciously, as does Romeo, who offers the elated customers an approving sniff. "I'm still a little astonished by all of this," he says humbly, "I'm just trying to have fun and make something nice for the dinner table."

New World Initiative

After receiving his degree in France, Rich wrote to Randall Grahm seeking employment at Bonny Doon, then the biggest producer of Rhône wines in the U.S. He started in the cellar earning a meager wage, and soon afterward faced a rather unexpected challenge. "They said, 'oh, you're going to distill,'" he recalls. "I mean this is typical Randall Grahm. I said, 'I don't know anything about distilling,' but I didn't really know anything about working in the cellar either, so I guess it didn't make any difference."

He spent a few years making eau-de-vie and brandy, distilled from whole fruit and wines. When they weren't selling, Grahm soon gave up on them, but he clearly recognized ingenuity in Rich, putting him in charge of his new cellar for white wines in Santa Cruz. There Rich made the estate's first Marsanne and Roussanne and also developed his expertise with dessert wines - for which he remains justly known.

"The experience was invaluable," he says of working with the maker of such charismatic American Rhône translations as Le Cigare Volant and Old Telegram. The two clearly shared the same venturesome spirit and profound affection for Rhône varietals. But with the rapid expansion of the winery, Rich began to feel that all he was ever doing was bottling, and he started to consider launching his own enterprise farther north.

In 1994 he moved to Oregon, a place he'd first visited six years earlier to volunteer at something called the International Pinot Noir Festival that John and Kay Eliasson told him about. He worked that fall at Ponzi in Beaverton before launching his own label in 1995, crafting small lots of the Rhône-style wines he loved.

"I knew there was Syrah and other stuff up here," he says, "but I didn't realize there was so little. I heard at the time there were about two hundred acres of Syrah and all of it was spoken for. I'm not sure where it was going. Virtually no one, except for Doug McCrea [McCrea Cellars], was making varietals. But that's what I wanted to do."

Eventually, he managed to find some Grenache from some fairly mature vines with which he made about 400 cases of red wine and rosé. "That was my trial balloon. I thought, This could actually work. Then of course the winter of '96 came."

A devastating freeze that winter damaged several Washington vineyards, taking a particularly harsh toll on the less hardy Grenache, and his one source for Rhône fruit decided to rip out the vines. "I think they planted Merlot or something very forward-thinking like that," he says sarcastically.

"That's why it's so heartbreaking for me to hear about old Grenache vineyards being ripped up before Rhônes got a little more fashionable. There was lots of stuff in the U.S. that was really mature - forty years old or more. When you think about it, people coming over from Spain and Italy in the nineteenth century, they weren't planting Cabernet or Pinot Noir. So there was a lot of old Carignane and Mourvedre and Grenache, at one point anyway."

He finally got his first Syrah in 1999, from Kiona, on Red Mountain - and ever since, his slow-moving uprising has been gaining strength. In the meantime, Rich repeatedly proved his oenological agility, making everything from Gewurztraminer ice wine to Malbec to some truly elegant and supple Pinot Noir. But as he and his Syrah-loving compatriots perfected their Rhône techniques and composed increasingly graceful expressions of the varietals, growers started making more and more room for them in their vineyards - providing more fuel for the insurgency. The Cabernet-Merlot ascendancy in Washington may not be over yet, but it has certainly by now noticed the crowd gathering at the gate.

Cultivating New Tactics

Above all, what Rich says he'd like to see in Washington right now is a concerted effort to determine the best clones of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvdre for the climate - and also to develop more specialized management practices to better suit the vines. Many of the growers, he says, are unaccustomed to the unusual behavior and uncommon vigor of the Rhône grapes - particularly after years of tending to Bordeaux varietals.

"The Grenache, I think, is maybe not the best clone for our area," he says bluntly, "because the clusters are enormous. We used to see that in California, too. So this year I think I'm just going to be brutal with it. We're going to drop fruit and we're going to go in and just cut off all the wings - but, of course, timing is everything. We've got to figure out what's the best time to do it so that the bunches don't compensate by just getting bigger, which they can do if you do it too early."

"Another thing I want to try is to cut off the tips of the clusters so you end up with something looking like a baseball, or a softball in the case of these grapes, but hopefully you get really good ripeness - and increased concentration of flavor and color. I'm going to go to France in June. I'm hoping to pick up some more tips about growing Grenache and Mourvdre."

But greater understanding is setting in as the roots grow deeper and the vines gain greater constancy. The Roussanne, the Grenache, and the Mourvdre that he's buying were all planted in 2000 and are just emerging from their adolescence. "It takes vines a good five or six years to come into balance," he says, "I think we started to see that in '05. So the truth is, we're just now learning how to grow this stuff really well." Again he smiles in the way that he does when he talks of trying something new, and the challenge of taking on the unknown.

"What I'm trying to do is make something that approximates an old-world wine in a warm climate," he says. "So one thing I'd really like to see in Washington is more plantings of Rhône varietals at cooler sites. I subscribe to the theory that many Europeans believe in: that grapes grown at the limit of their ability to ripen produce the best wines. Where they're struggling to get ripe, like in Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, which are quite far north, that's where you get the most character - the best aromatics. And I think we'll start to see that in the coming years."

Rich turns back to glasses in front of him, two inky-dark pours of Coup D'Etat - one from '02, the other his current release from '03. "See, this one right now is really reminding me of a Rhône wine," he says, picking up the '02 and pointing out its subtle notes of pepper. "This is a quality I find sometimes in the Rhône and almost never in California." He says the '03, from a slightly warmer vintage - and with a higher percentage of Mourvdre - is a sturdier wine, showing characteristics more typical of a new-world wine. "It's both denser and richer, showing considerably more fruit. Ultimately, I think this will prove to be the better wine. 'Better for what?' Kermit Lynch would ask," he says, exhibiting the same questioning spirit that illuminates all of his efforts. "Only time will tell."

About the Author

Tom Colligan is a former computer programmer who fled lucrative employment with the Department of Defense ten years ago to study classics at the University of Oregon. It was there that he cultivated his love for Oregon wines in the small hours of the night with his fellow Greek students. For the past six years he has lived in New York where he served on the editorial staff of Esquire magazine. Tom has recently returned to the Northwest where he writes articles and profiles for northwest-wine.com and other magazines. Tom is an avid fisherman and whitewater kayaker. He is from suburban D.C.

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