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Capitello Winery

Kiwi Makes Memorable Pinots


by Alison Ruch

Winemaker Ray Walsh was recruited from New Zealand to work for King Estate - one of Oregon's largest wineries - in 1993. His talent swept him higher and higher until, before he had a chance to look back, he'd progressed beyond the realm of winemaker to executive status - ten years of upward momentum. When Walsh finally had a chance to reflect on his journey, he realized he longed to return to what he loved best - the hands-on stuff. "All of a sudden," Walsh said, "I realized, 'I'm not making wine anymore.' I really wanted to get back to winemaking because that's where I'm happy."

Thus we have Walsh's very own Capitello Wines. Starting with the name, Walsh created a winemaking operation that embraced everything he likes most about the profession and rejects everything he doesn't like. "Capitello," he explained, "is what you find in Italy - little houses where [you'd] post a statue of Mother Mary - a little house that would bless the vineyard or farmland. I didn't want to use my name because I feel there's a little too much ego wrapped up in this industry, and I didn't want to fall into that trap.

"I want to make honest wine, fun wine, wine that can be enjoyed with food," Walsh said, "so I decided to be more whimsical with my label."


Walsh's Introduction to the Wine Industry

Walsh grew up in a wine region in Auckland, New Zealand, and, he laughed and said, "had nothing to do with it." His father, a building contractor, had a side business restoring antique firearms. Young Walsh's only contact with surrounding vineyards was when he visited to pick up ammunition for his father's guns, which the vineyards were equipped with because they used gunshots to scare away nibbling birds. Occasionally, Walsh would help the vineyard hands do the scaring.

At twenty, Walsh traveled to Europe and worked a vineyard harvest in the Moselle River Valley, in a setting he called, "...so picturesque - sheer cliffs from the river up. I loved it. That's when I knew." When Walsh returned to New Zealand he set to work on an enology degree.

Ray Walsh pouring at Avalon Tasting Bar

Walsh's first winemaking jobs were for Villa Maria and then for Cooper's Creek Wineries in New Zealand. Just as Walsh was considering a move to the U.S., a friend of his took a trip to Oregon and caught wind of plans for King Estate, a truly modern wine facility, with "all new equipment," Walsh said, " - all the things we sometimes struggled to get in New Zealand."

Before long, Walsh was making the move and working for King Estate as Cellar Master. From there, he took on more and more responsibility, taking the title of Winemaker in '99. Walsh liked the work he did, start to finish, at King Estate, but, he said, "My job was getting too hip and too crazy, and I wanted to focus on my family. I went back to New Zealand on vacationÐtried to refocus what I wanted to do." On this trip, he acknowledged that, in addition to time with his son, it was winemaking he missed.


The Innovative, New World Capitello Style

Walsh started small with Capitello. He said, "It was a horrible financial burden to go back to winemaking." He picked up consulting jobs for other area wineries - which he still does - and made it happen. He'd intended to keep Capitello small, but, he said, "My son is embracing it now." Walsh's nine-year-old son has taken a great interest in winemaking and spends lots of time with his dad, learning the craft. "That's why," Walsh said, "I've grown the program more than I thought I would have."

Ray pours at Avalon Tasting Bar

Walsh said his winemaking objective is to feature the nuances of the land and fruit his wines are made from. "I do want to express the vineyard. That is true," he said. "I do pride myself as a New World winemaker. I'm very interested in new techniques. I want to play. I fiddle to the nth degree."

Some say this "play" - really, the use of available technology - tampers with the natural flavors coming off the vineyards. Walsh disagrees. "I try to express a full degree of the varietal, and maybe not all of that comes from the vineyard," Walsh said. "I do filter. I think the old days of we make wine and we sell it amongst our village are over, and now we ship it all over the country. I need to make something I can stand behind."

Walsh described his fining technique, a technique designed to remove the matter that makes wine appear cloudy - some believe, leaving it (over)stripped. "I fine with things that actually add," Walsh said. "I use Biolees - because they add to the quality rather than fine out." This natural product eliminates cloudiness while enhancing the wine's natural flavors and overall balance.

Perhaps the most innovative of New World techniques that Walsh has tried is "de-alc-ing," or - what it sounds like - removing alcohol. He does this via a gentle reverse osmosis system. "I de-alc-ed the Pinot gris from 14.3 to 13.4," Walsh said. "I was the first in Oregon to do that. Since then, a whole host of wineries have followed suit."

"I was uneasy with it until I saw the results," Walsh said. "Just amazing!"

Walsh doesn't grow his own fruit but buys from growers he knows and trusts. When it comes to winemaking, Walsh is confident. "In a sense, I'm an artist in that area," he said. "Good viticulturists are artists in their area, and I'm not. I want to leave it up to them. . . . It's a lot of work. [As a vineyard manager], your summertime is gone, and my summertime is really important to me and my son."

The Capitello fruit comes from Hauer of the Dauen Vineyard, run by Carl Dennard, and from three vineyards managed by Matt Compton - of Spindrift Wines - Deer Haven, Rainbow's End and Mary's Peak. "I worked with Carl for many years with King Estate," Walsh said. "He's a wonderful man - all our dealings are on a handshake. It's wonderful to work with a grower who appreciates old school relationships. Compton, too - Everything he works on I totally trust. He's an artist."

Walsh rents out winery space in the Territorial Vineyards & Wine Company winery in Eugene. He started there on a one-year term, but the relationship has been so rewarding for both parties that Territorial has decided to lease to Walsh indefinitely. "I think they're the cleanest facility in Lane County," Walsh said.


The Capitello Wines

Under the Capitello name, Walsh produces Pinot gris, Pinot noir and a dessert wine called Dolcino.

Of his Capitello Pinot gris 2006, Walsh said, he is trying "to express the best intensity of the varietal characteristics that I can. I do a long, cold fermentation and use Biolees to soften the wine and bring out the fruit." It's a bright, expressive wine with distinct floral notes and hints of pear and apricot. With a bit of acidity, this gris is a great summer wine.

Like his Pinot gris, Walsh wants his Capitello Pinot noir 2005 to be a full expression of the varietal. He works to maximize the intensity of his Pinot noir but never does anything that might overpower the natural fruit flavors. He's not interested in making a "flashy wine," but in something that's, he said, "just big and drippy and tannic. I want a lovely, delicate food wine." Integral to Walsh's Pinot noir making are his barrels, which add a hint of elegant spice. "I've worked with so many different cooperages; I've found best marriage," Walsh said.

The dessert wine, Capitello Dolcino 05, is made from Gewurztraminer grapes and is a carefully balanced dessert wine. Rather than make a late harvest wine, in which, Walsh noted, "the acids are gone," Walsh takes the fruit, directly after picking, and freezes it. He obtains the fruit at its most "vibrant, aromatic and fresh," but still gets the same concentration and coolness of a fruit that is harvested late in the season.

Because Walsh makes sparkling wines for Domaine Meriwether, he is able to use their facility's Champagne press equipment for his Dolcino. "The Gewurztraminer sits at around Ð30 degrees Celsius and is then moved to a champagne press," Walsh said. "I process it in a champagne press as opposed to bladder or bag press - a New World press." He explained that using a bag press causes a similar effect as that of "putting an ice cube on your tongue - the fruit can stick and tear off." Bag presses, he said, work best if you defrost the fruit first, but then you lose some of the juice concentration.

With the Champagne press, Walsh is able to put fruit in completely frozen and start pressing. He likened the pressing to sucking the fruit from a popsicle. "You're pressing and squeezing out all the flavors, and all that's left is just the ice," Walsh said. "You'll find grapes completely unbroken - just like a block of ice." Into the wine goes, he said, "One hundred percent flavor and sugars. Intense concentration."


The Latest from Capitello

Recently, Walsh has procured an importer's license. This is very exciting news, as Walsh has been working with a vineyard in New Zealand to produce Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyard manager's son has visited the U.S. twice to work with Walsh, and, Walsh said, "I've got him on task making wine for me. He bottled 840 cases of 2006 Capitello New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc." Watch for it in mid-June, 2007.


Capitello's Ray Walsh and Son

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