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Andrew Will Winery

Chris Camarda Continues Drilling to the Core of Great Winemaking While Hovering at the Top of the Heap
by Christina Kelly, October 2006

The last two years for Chris Camarda has been a mixed blessing, but the owner/winemaker for Andrew Will Winery continues to penetrate the heart of blending wines with elegance, concentration and a match for food.

In the past few years, Camarda lost his beloved wife Anne to cancer, dropped single-vineyard varietals for hand-crafted blends and nurtured his own estate vineyard, Two Blondes, which will replace other vineyards in his portfolio. He will soon be named Wine & Spirits Magazine's 2006 Winemaker of the Year for artesian wines.

But overall, Camarda, a relentless enthusiast of Washington state vineyards, shrugs and says life is going well and he and his family (son Willie, 19 and daughter Luci, 16) are recovering after the loss of Anne. While Camarda is the soul of Andrew Will Winery, Anne was the heart, and the family is learning the pace of a different rhythm without her.

On the verge of his new 2004 releases, the 59-year-old lights up about the vintage, showing the passion and excitement that elevated his wines to the top tier after 17 years of production. The wines are highly praised as true expressions of the vineyard, without manipulating or over-extracting the fruit, or using oak as a blanket that hides great flavors. Camarda believes vineyards hold the key to a unique identity - a signature - that consumers will come to identify. He also believes that in addition to the process of minimally-invasive winemaking, how he blends those signature vineyards is the art of his work, a left-brain, right-brain blend of skills. The vineyard is the canvas and his fruit becomes the palette from which he chooses his blends.

While many people talk about terroir, or expression of the land in the wine, Camarda studies it, lives and breathes it until he has that distinct taste in the bottle.

The 2004 Crop of Wines

Overall, Camarda is extremely pleased with the vintage, and although he dislikes comparing his wines from vintage to vintage, he does admit that 2003 was a hot year and the flavor profiles somewhat reflected the heat. Only a good winemaker can take the fruit from a hot year and turn it into an elegant drink, and the high marks he received for his '03 wine is a testament to his skills.

"The wines from 2004 are very well balanced," Camarda said. "The season allowed the fruit to get sufficiently ripe, despite some late rains. The 2003 vintage was uneven with slightly higher alcohol levels. The 2004 vintage really shows great flavors in nearly every vineyard."

Camarda uses seven vineyards in his wine blends. Those vineyards include Two Blondes, near Zillah, WA, producing his own estate fruit, Champoux, Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Seven Hills, Pepper Bridge and Sheridan. Two Blondes Vineyard and Sheridan are very close to each other and Camarda plans to discontinue Sheridan to focus on his Two Blondes vineyard.

"We won't make a Sheridan Vineyard blend in 2006," Camarda said. "The '04 Sheridan is one of the best vintages we've gotten from that vineyard. It has softness, good complexity and very good flavors, but we want to go with our own estate fruit in 2006."

The 2004 Sheridan Vineyard blend has spice and plum flavors in the mouth. Camarda says it is the best fruit he has received from the vineyard.

The 2004 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard blend has the best aromatics out of all his 2004 wines, says Camarda, who has a financial interest in the vineyard. The blend is 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Cabernet Franc.

For the 2004 Champoux Vineyard blend, Camarda changed the mix around, using less Cabernet Sauvignon than in previous vintages, adding some Petit Verdot and filling out the rest with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The result is a beautiful, food-hugging wine that will gracefully age for many years. Camarda says the red and black fruits meld beautifully in this Bordeaux-style blend.

The 2004 Two Blondes Vineyard has very low yields on the 36 acres. Camarda said the soil is poor in nutrients, so he is using organic material to provide nourishment to the vineyard. Camarda will release the Two Blondes 2004 blend in February of 2007.

"We are winning the battle on the soil," Camarda said. "We pay very close attention to that vineyard and have high expectations."

This is the third vintage from Two Blondes and Camarda says the fruit is getting better - it's young, but still has a soft suppleness that is characteristic of Andrew Will wines. Camarda says the wine looks, smells and tastes terrific.

For a couple of year, Camarda hired a consultant, Daniel Roberts, to help him study the soils and climate at Two Blondes. Now that each acre has been carefully studied, Camarda is on his own, using the research to determine what action he will take on the land.

"I don't believe in messing around much with the wines - I consider myself a minimalist, but I do want to help the soil, organically, so it can sustain the vines," Camarda said. "I also don't believe any area is better than others - they are just different. I don't think Burgundy is better than Oregon Pinot Noir. I don't think California Cabernet is better than Washington Cabernet.

"I am oriented towards the grape and what it can show me. I respect other wine regions, but I am not interested in comparisons."

The Future is Bright

Camarda spent 20 years in the restaurant business before making his first commercial wine in 1989. He is introspective, with a dry sense of humor and a soft-spoken voice. In many ways, he looks like an agriculture professor, including a schlock of salt-and-pepper hair, dark-frame glasses and a frenetic energy driving him in perpetual motion, which helps to keep him as skinny as a rail.

He is an avid Seattle Seahawks fan, so Sunday afternoons will find him either at the game, or watching on television. He says it is his form of entertainment nowadays.

Looking out on the horizon, Camarda does not see much change for Andrew Will Winery.

In addition to producing his own wines, Camarda consults for several Washington state wineries, including Nicholas Cole Cellars in Walla Walla. He is also making Oregon Pinot Noir for his brother-in-law, Chris Carlberg, who is based in Canby, Oregon.

At 4,500 cases of wine annually produced, Camarda is not looking to expand his production, although admits he could easily sell more wine. But living on the bucolic Vashon Island, a "suburb" of Seattle where people ride their bikes to and from the ferry, plant organic gardens and carpool kids to football practice after school, Camarda is not interested in more production.

He does admit that he would like to spend more time with consumers, since his winery is closed to the public. In that regard, Camarda may build a winery on the Two Blondes estate vineyard in the future. If that happens, Camarda says it will keep him very busy for the next few years.

For now, Camarda is happy to focus on his family and his unique signature wines. He might experiment with different varietals with his two assistant winemakers, David Oldham and Del Johnson, who help him out at the winery and in the vineyard. He continues to make interesting blends for his second label, Cuvee Lucia, (where he makes delicious Sangiovese). And, he is content to take the path life has given him and make the most out of every opportunity. Life is short, and Camarda doesn't take anything for granted these days.

About the Author

Christina Kelly spent more than 20 years as a journalist for West Coast newspapers, covering everything from business to education to the environment. During that same time, she also discovered the joy of wine and food pairing and set out on a journey to learn more.

Six years ago, Christina began writing about wine and left daily journalism to pursue her passion. She has been Avalon’s Staff Writer and Wine Columnist since 2000, covering the Northwest wine industry. She is also the Wine Columnist for Seattle Magazine and continues writing about wine for newspapers and magazines.

One of the most knowledgeable writers on Northwest wines, Christina provides insight into the wine industry, conversations with and profiles on Northwest winemakers, tasting notes and funny/touching stories that embrace a glass of wine. In a field crowded with many choices of wine, Christina provides the information consumers can rely on. Don't miss her columns and articles -- a must read for the wine enthusiast.

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