In 1997, armed with an MBA from the University of Colorado, co-winemaker Brett Isenhower began a career in hospital administration in Thornton, CO. By July, he'd decided wearing a tie every day was not making him happy. Inspiration struck during a haircut. Why not start a winery?
Both he and his wife Denise are pharmacists, so understanding wine chemistry is a given. They enjoy wine. They believed they could craft wines they'd be proud of, that people would enjoy drinking, and they'd enjoy making. After long discussions and some soul searching, Denise and Brett became students of the history of wine and the concepts of winemaking.
A research of every state in the western US seeking the best and most entrepreneurial favored locality in which to build their winery was begun. The growing season on the Western Slope of Colorado was too short. New Mexico and Arizona are marginal winemaking regions and the wineries there are tourist oriented. In California it is too expensive to start a winery. Denise and Brett are not Pinot Noir fans so Oregon was out. Idaho has too small of a population and too short of a growing season.
Washington State seemed to have what they were looking for. Washington has a growing reputation for Cabernet and Syrah, plenty of heat units to make world class wine, and the expense of starting a winery is very reasonable.
So Denise and Brett flew out from Denver to Yakima on a cold night in February 1998. They drove through the Yakima Valley and each thought "I do not think I want to live in the Yakima Valley".
They moved on to the Tri-Cities and Denise said "this is a desert". "I do not want to live in a desert!" So they moved onto Walla Walla.
Fortunately the sun was out that day and as they crossed over Nine Mile Hill and the expanse of the Walla Walla Valley was open and the Blue Mountains were coated with white snow. Ahh, this felt right!
They toured the old stately houses in town, tasted wines from the "Old Guard" wineries and they knew Walla Walla was going to be their home. So two months later they sold their house in Colorado, moved to Walla Walla and began their plans to make the best wine possible.
Brett's beginning course in winemaking began through volunteerism. He became a "cellar rat" to several local winemakers, who taught him basic cellar skills. Denise and Brett also completed several winemaking classes at UC Davis. Judging from their library, they purchased and read every winemaking book at the Davis bookstore and several more from Australia! The learning process continued after their first crush, when they retained a wine consultant to help analyze various lots of wine and suggest trial blending combinations.
The search for grapes for that first 1999 harvest was tough. Other winemakers had already contracted for most of the available harvest in Walla Walla. Fortunately the camaraderie of the Walla Walla winemakers saved them. Brett and Denise credit a couple of the winemakers who recommended vineyard owners to whom they should talk grapes. They were in business!
That fall of '99 Rusty Figgins of Glen Fiona (now Northstar) allowed the Isenhower's to crush grapes at the old Glen Fiona winery. Crushing was long, hard, tiring work in a tiny space. The lighting was lousy, it rained, it was cold, and they broke the winepress. Denise was so tired she could fall asleep while lying across two barrels! A difficult crush, but they learned which equipment should be purchased first and much about winery design.
Denise hired local artist Jeffrey Hill, who happens to be one of their growers, to paint the artwork that is Isenhower Cellars' label. She asked Jeff to paint an impressionist vineyard scene with a "Van Gogh feel." After completing his commission, Jeff started calling himself the "Van Gogh of the West." Fortunately he's kept both of his ears.
In 2000, Brett and Denise crushed grapes at the Mill Creek winery complex. It was the first year they purchased grapes from Red Mountain and the Wahluke Slope. They were joined by two other wineries working at Mill Creek, resulting in more fun, but still work! Long tiring hours led Brett to fall asleep on top of a tank while doing a pump-over at 2 A.M. Thin Denise managed to crawl inside a bladder press to clean it, in the rain, at midnight when others failed A valuable woman!
For the 2001 harvest, the Isenhowers contracted with Kurt and Vicki Schlicker to make wine at their winery, Rulo. The Schlicker's generosity and willingness to share space is another example of Walla Walla winemaker camaraderie! Still, this was the third move in three years, and Denise and Brett concurred on the need for their own facility.
By August 2001, Isenhower Cellars was bonded and licensed and approved to sell their wine! With hope and excitement, their 1999 Merlot and Syrah went on sale September 1, 2001. The harvest started on September 13th in the backdrop of the World Trade Center bombing. No one working the crush at Rulo will ever forget making wine 18 hours a day, all the while listening to the news on National Public Radio. On December 11 & 12, 2001 Brett and Denise bottled their 2000 wines. Bottling took two days because the conveyor in the bottling truck had problems moving at normal speed while properly affixing the labels. The weather was a risk. They worried about rain. It didn't rain, but it did snow.
2002 and at last Isenhower Cellars made the big leap. This September the Isenhower's completed construction of their winery! The building is a 3,750 square feet slate blue barn designed to complement the Isenhower winemaking style. During 2002 they crushed 45 tons of grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah were the dominate varieties but they also received Grenache, Roussanne, and Viognier. The Roussanne and Viognier will be used to make their first white wine!
Ten Question about Isenhower Cellars you never thought to ask
What type of Flower is on your logo?
(Denise) I am a big fan of wild flowers. The Batchelor's Button is our logo and is featured prominently on our label. It grows here in Walla Walla and I love the complex blue petals
Why did you choose Walla Walla?
(Brett) Walla Walla is the most entrepreneurial place in the United States for a small winery to make a name for itself. There is no way we could afford to make the quality of wines we have somewhere else. (Denise) Walla Walla is the prettiest town in Walla Walla and I was not going to live in some dump.
Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah, why those wines?
(Denise) I totally love Cabernet! The deeper & darker the better! When even we blend, the more Cab in the wine the more I like it. (Brett) Syrah hold an allure for me. The majesty of Rhne wines intrigues me tremendously. Also I probably like a big, powerful Merlot better than a lot of Cabernet's I have tried.
So who really is the winemaker?
(Denise) Why I am the winemaker of course (ha!). (Brett) Honestly both of us make the wine. A hand crafted wine is a product of the vineyard and the winemaker's palette. I have chosen most of the vineyards but now without Denise's consent. I do most of the cellar work but Denise has a unique palette that is wonderful during blending trials.
Are you going to plant your own vineyards?
(Denise) Who has the time? I am spending much of my time on the road promoting the winery or meeting people in the tasting room. Besides we have contracts with great vineyards and we have lots of input into how those vineyards are farmed. (Brett) I am in total harmony when walking though a vineyard. I really want to plant one but vineyards are expensive and time consuming. Perhaps when the winery is fully established we can purchase 10 acres, a tractor, a sprayer, a mower, the trellis...
Who did your label?
(Denise) I hired Jeffery Hill, the Vineyard Van Gogh, to paint our label. I wanted an impressionistic vineyards scene with the mountains, sun, and someone harvesting grapes. My cousin is a graphic artist and she did most of the graphic art work. Finally Dana Labels helped us put the final touches on the label.
How big will Isenhower Cellars grow to?
(Brett) We will grow until it is no longer fun any more! (Denise) Right now we are on target to be a 4000 case winery. That will fit in our winery and we should be able to sell all of that in the states we choose to distribute in.
Will you make any white wines in the future?
(Brett) In 2002 we made small quantities of Roussanne and Viognier. Roussanne is one of the grapes of White Hermitage wines and Viognier has found a niche here in Washington. (Denise) I want to sell some white wines to the great seafood restaurants in Seattle and on the East Coast!
Why don't you put your dogs on the label?
(Denise) I have thought about doing that but it takes seven years for the market to recognize a winery's label and I do not want to change our label all the time. (Brett) Dogs belong on beer bottles! We have our big bottles hand painted with our dogs images for auctions and charity.
How come you label you wines as being from the Columbia Valley when you are in Walla Walla?
(Denise) We buy grapes from the Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain, Outlook, and Walla Walla. We like to blend grapes from many vineyards to make the most intense wine possible and heighten complexity. Our wines do have Walla Walla grapes in them but not 100% Walla Walla. (Brett) Washington is known to have winter freezes once every seven years or so. Not every grape growing area may have damage. I want to make sure we are able to make wine every year therefore we have diversified our fruit sources. Besides there are great grapes all over Washington!
Isenhower's Winemaking Philosophy
Isenhower Cellars believes in a traditional style of winemaking. We buy grapes through long term contracts from intriguing vineyards and lower the amount of fruit that each vine ripens to maximize flavor, intensity, and balance. At the winery we destem the grapes, ferment with minimal additions of yeast, nitrogen, sulfur, and tartaric acid. No other chemicals or enzymes are used. The wine is immediately transferred to oak barrels. We feel that the more gently we can handle the wine the more representative it will be of the vineyards that produced it. The result is wines that capture the power, fruit, and purity of the vineyards.
Style of Wines
Isenhower Cellars specializes in wines based on Bordeaux and Rhone grape varieties. Cabernet and Merlot are Denise's passion and Syrah is Brett's passion. We love full bodied, deeply colored, big wines with balance. In 2003 Isenhower will release small quantities of two white wines, Viognier and Roussanne. The white wines of the Rhone have always fascinated Brett. Viognier's exotic nose and Roussanne's full-bodied mouth feel will cure the Chardonnay blues.
Isenhower has contracts to purchase grapes from some of the best and most intriguing vineyards in Washington State. The vineyards have been selected because they produce grapes that allow us to produce the full bodied wines we love. Brett works very closely with each vineyard farmer from pruning, to watering, shoot and leaf removal, cluster thinning, and harvest. We believe that we are a team with our vineyard farmers to produce the best grapes possible. Frequently walking though a vineyard gives Brett an understanding of the conditions of the vines and the care they are receiving. To maximize the flavor and intensity of our wines, our growers dramatically decrease the amount of wine grapes harvested from each vine. We ask the vineyards owners to harvest only 2.5 to 3.5 tons per acre depending upon the site and grape variety in question.
The harvest date is based upon several criteria. On the chemistry side we look at pH, sugar levels, acidity, and color-tannin complex formation. Qualitatively we look at the conditions of the grapes and seeds, health of the vine, and the taste of the grapes. Our goal is to pick grapes at the peak of flavor, with balance in tannins and acid levels. The best vineyards produce grapes with the flavor and balance to make the best wines.
Once the grapes are at the winery the grapes are hand sorted, destemmed, and the must falls (not pumped) into small open top fermentors. Destemming provides a high percentage of whole berries to better capture fruit flavor and improve the quality of the press wine. We use small quantities of yeast (0.5 pounds of yeast per 1000 gallons of juice) for inoculation and do not use modern winemaking enzymes and chemicals. The grape skin cap is punched down three times daily. The time to press is determined by tasting the must daily. The press wine is added to the free run wine immediately unless the press is too astringent. All red wines complete the Malo-lactic fermentation in barrel.
We favor French Oak barrels for our Cabernet Sauvignon. Denise loves the soft subtle oak flavors from the Seguin Moreau Margaux barrels for our Cabernet. A majority of American Oak barrels are used for our Red Paintbrush Merlot based wine. American Oak adds a sweet vanilla note that makes Washington Merlot special. French Oak puncheons store our Syrah. Puncheons are over two times the size of normal barrels and are an impressive sight in the barrel room (they are huge!). The puncheons emphasize fruit over oak because of the larger oak surface area.
Our blends are created at the first racking. Many wineries wait to blend right before bottling. We blend early so the tannins of each wine can have plenty of time to mesh. Our mantra is "Blend early for a Long Life". The result is wines that capture the power, fruit, and purity of the vineyards. From the winemakers, with permission