By Christina Kelly
Trey Busch is like many young winemakers lured to the Walla Walla Valley to help pioneer the wine industry’s growing reputation for luscious Merlot, powerful Cabernet Sauvignon and silky Syrah.
More About Basel Cellars Estate Winery
But Basel Cellars is not an ordinary winery, and the wines produced are far from average. For starters, the $14 million estate features a 13,000 square-foot luxury overnight lodge perched on a hill overlooking the Walla Walla River and valley floor. Combine a well-stocked pond, complete with fly fishing lessons and landscaped grounds overlooking golden wheat fields nestled next to the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and you know you have something special going on.
And, the crčme de la crčme is the wine, bottled under two labels, Basel Cellars and the second label Vierra, producing an exciting and elegant Bordeaux blend called Merriment, and small productions of some of the best Syrah in the region. Vierra, captures some of the essence of Basel wines at value prices with a Claret, Syrah and a small amount of Cabernet Franc.
A native of Atlanta, GA, Busch realizes just how lucky he was to land the top winemaking spot at Basel Cellars, which opened officially in 2003. After college and a two-year stint in the Navy, Busch moved to Seattle and began a career working as a buyer for Nordstrom’s.
But life at one of Seattle’s premiere department stores took a toll on the 34-year-old who spent part of his life living out of a suitcase and motel rooms, and long work weeks away from his wife Jennifer.
“I just didn’t want to do this anymore,” Busch admits. “By the time we had our daughter Kailey, I knew I wanted a life closer to home. I wanted a different challenge.”
While visiting friends in the Walla Walla area, Busch was introduced to Eric Dunham, winemaker for Dunham Cellars, who offered Busch a way out of the retail rat race and into the grape business.
“Eric needed an assistant winemaker, especially one who understood production and sales,” Busch said. “Obviously, I didn’t know squat about wine at the time, other than I liked what was being produced in Walla Walla. But we looked around and realized it was the perfect place to raise our daughter, and the job was intriguing enough to take the plunge.”
For three years, Busch worked for Dunham, learning the ropes of the wine business, taking courses in winemaking and production and participating in weekly tasting sessions with a group of winemakers from the area. He read everything he could get his hands on, holding Kailey in one arm while reading a technical manual with his free arm. He spent countless hours in the vineyards.
“It was an intense learning period and I learned a lot from Eric Dunham,” Busch said.
The work paid off.
The Basel Connection
As his passion for wine and technical experience grew, Trey Busch began nurturing a plan to someday make his own wine. As another winemaker recently commented, “you can’t be around Walla Walla for long and not pick up the enthusiasm that abounds for winemaking—it is like an infectious laugh and once started, everybody is at least giggling.”
Greg Basel, a grape grower in Walla Walla, (Pheasant Run Vineyard) and his partner Steve Hanson wanted to build a winery in the area. When the estate of a former wireless communications executive came up for auction, the two partners quickly realized they could turn the mansion and grounds into a winery and a destination site for guests who purchase a membership to Basel Cellars. The membership allows the mansion to be rented for up to 18 guests in rustic but elegantly-furnished home.
Memberships started out slow, but according to Lynn Anderson, Basel Cellars marketing and sales guru, “weekends are totally booked for the year.”
With the new location, which happened to already have grapes planted, the two business partners needed a winemaker. And, through word-of-mouth, Trey Busch became one of the luckiest and newest winemakers in Walla Walla.
“I knew I was lucky and better yet, Greg and Steve wanted to make the best wine they could from the best fruit available,” Busch said. “That was the top goal—to get the best out of the vineyards.”
Because Walla Walla can remain very hot during the summer months, Busch said he has to deal with elevated pH levels, either by acidifying the wine or blending with fruit from other areas such as the Columbia Valley. Busch then separates the free-run juice from the press juice. All the press juice is destined for Vierra wines while the free running juice is stored in new oak and eventually is part of the blend for Basel wines.
The Basel wines, says Busch, are crafted for
longevity. They are intense now, although drinkable, but will age with
grace and power. The 2001 Merriment
is a blend of 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 percent Merlot and 10 percent
Cabernet Franc. This is a gorgeous wine filled with plum, dark cherries
and herbs in the mouth. The tannins are smooth and approachable. Busch
says his 2002 Merriment will be released in December.