Mark Ryan McNeilly... Rock & Rollin' Inspired Reds
by Tami Parr
Mark McNeilly, owner and winemaker at Mark Ryan Winery, makes Washington wine with a roll and roll sensibility. He and his winemaking friends' "Indie" wineries produce huge, raucous, massive red wines with names and flavors inspired by musicians from Spinal Tap to the Afghan Whigs. Some, like Chris Gorman, his partner in the Giant Wine Company, have played in bands to considerable success. McNeilly's love of music shows in his conversation, in his distinctly rockin' tasting room, and in his several homages to favorite rock groups, movies, and songs.
Mark McNeilly is a Washington indie wine star who started making wine in 1999. While Mark is now a seasoned wine industry veteran with eight years of winemaking success under his belt and a highly respected winery with well made and highly regarded wines, his love of the rebellious continues to show in the style and substance of his wines.
Rudimentary Winemaking - The Early Days
It's amazing that Mark McNeilly still makes wine, given his first attempts with a rudimentary winemaking kit. "The kit came with grape concentrate in a big juice can. You had to add water and sugar - it was disgusting!" Comparing those results to the great - or even mediocre - wines of France and Italy would have sent most people running for the hills. McNeilly persevered.
Mark McNeilly says he loves to cook but he "followed the money to the front of the house instead." Mostly he says he's happy he stayed away from cooking professionally so that he wouldn't be ruined for cooking at home.
Girlfriend Megan Dunavan, formerly sommelier at Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Washington was in the restaurant industry herself until she recently took a job with a Seattle wine distributor. "She says she might like to be involved in making the white wines someday," he says. We'll look forward to that collaboration.
Time spent in restaurants waiting tables and bartending led to a sales job for a Seattle wine distributor.
"When I was in sales I was able to taste dozens of wines per week in an analytical situation, where everyone was talking about their perceptions and trying to understand the wine. That really helped my palate."
That, in turn, led to a two year stint as national sales manager for Matthews Cellars in Woodinville, Washington.
Working at Matthews gave me a whole new skill set in selling wine and dealing with distributors," he says. "It also got me into the cellar where I was working more hands on with wine."
Those jobs, along with work at Steele Winery in Lake County, California where he worked in the lab, the vineyard and on the crush pad, provided the practical education which culminated in the launching of his own label in 1999.
Anyone starting a new venture can use a little encouragement, and winemakers are no different. On the craft side, Mark McNeilly credits Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyards - then winemaker at Kiona - with being one of his early (and most patient) influences.
"I'd have him on the phone at all hours of the night and I'd be freaking out. Every conversation I had with him I'd start out by saying - I think I screwed it up again!"
Another early confidence building moment came at a dinner with famed Italian winemaker Domenico Clerico.
"He actually loved my 2001 Dead Horse," remembers McNeilly. "I kept trying to hide my wine bottles behind his because I didn't want him to find them. He finally found them and he loved them!"
A nice vote of confidence from a fellow maker of big reds, as well a foreshadowing of critical success to come.
Mark Ryan has received plenty of local coverage from regional newspapers and magazines, all positive. Paul Gregutt, at the Seattle Times, has written many times about the mark Ryan wines, calling the winery, in 2005, "an important new winery". Gregutt's reviews are included in Avalon's Mark Ryan wine buying page.
Black Love Pinot noir
Like others before him, McNeilly has been unable to resist the siren call of the Pinot grape.
"I've always known I wanted to make Pinot Noir," he says. He traces this predilection to an early fondness for wines from the Burgundy region of France. "I love Burgundy and I buy quite a lot of it, but you just never know what you're going to get."
His longtime interest in both the region and its signature grape finally translated into the purchase of two tons of Pinot grapes from Oregon's Lachini Vineyards in 2006; look for the wine to be released in 2008.
Since 2006 is believed by many to be the vintage of the decade in Oregon, this debut promises to be worth waiting for.
Followers of McNeilly's creative naming strategies should know that the new Pinot Noir will be called Black Love.
"Because what is a 'black love' but a forbidden love?" he says. "It's a Pinot Noir that a Washington Cab producer makes - but that's what I love."
The name is also a tribute to, in McNeilly's estimation, one of the greatest albums of all time, the Afghan Whigs' Black Love. Fittingly, the album's theme of a tortured love affair mimics McNeilly's professed (and only a little embellished) longings for the Pinot grape.
These days, some winemakers are exploring the use of nontraditional varietals such as Dolcetto, Mourvedre or Tempranillo in search for new flavor profiles. McNeilly's not ready to jump on that bandwagon just yet. "I really have to keep focused and stick to my plan," he says. "As fun as it would be to work with all of those different varietals, I'm just trying to keep doing what I'm doing the best I can.
So what is the plan? McNeilly is currently intent on maintaining the consistency of the successful portfolio of wines he's already developed. He's contemplating adding some additional vineyards to his winemaking palette, with a preference for Horse Heaven Hills areas like Champoux or Alder Ridge.
But he recognizes the implications of such a move, as well as his own limits: "5,000 cases are really the maximum one guy can do," he says. "Once you get much beyond that, the logistics of making and selling really just become too much for one person."
Though McNeilly's been touted as one of the rebels of Washington winemaking, it's clear that along with his happy nature, he possesses the soul of a shrewd businessman.
One project that's currently receiving attention in winemaking circles is McNeilly's new joint venture with Chris Gorman of Gorman Winery - an experiment the two friends are calling Giant Wine Company. The recently released Ghost of 413 red and white are modestly priced wines aimed at the newer wine drinker.
If you ask McNeilly to look into the proverbial crystal ball, he sees himself owning vineyards sometime in the future.
"Not owning the land where my grapes come from is always a little bit nerve wracking," he says. "I have great relationships with vineyards, so I'm confident in them."
But the grand winery facility, acreage and tasting room is not what he's ultimately after - it's control, every winemaker's nirvana. "I'm always looking at vineyard opportunities," he adds, "but I'd much rather plant a vineyard than build a winery."
Mark McNeilly will always be the bad-boy winemaker who gives away trucker hats with his winery's logo and throws legendary cellar parties. Still, he sometimes speaks with the sensibility of someone who's been making wine for several decades instead of several years. His refreshing and self-deprecating approach to winemaking and the wine industry are sure to win him fans for years to come. At the same time, his business acumen will ensure that he's not just a one hit wonder.
The Mark Ryan Wines
McNeilly's goal is to fashion flavorful, even-handed wines expressive of the region where the grapes originate. Classics Dead Horse and Long Haul are almost universally described as variations of "big" and "ripe," labels which he agrees with wholeheartedly.
"I definitely make my wine in a riper style; I keep the fruit on a little bit longer. But even though they may be big and ripe, they're not out of balance."
McNeilly began producing white wines in 2005. "White wine is fun," he laughs. "I know people are kind of surprised at the whites."
Surprised indeed - by their nuanced subtlety. He's currently marketing both a Viognier and a Chardonnay. He traces his interest in developing Chardonnay in particular back - once again - to the Burgundy region of France.
"Burgundy is the most special place in the world. I tried to model my Chardonnay after some of those wines." The Viognier, currently made with grapes from Ciel du Cheval vineyard was developed in 2006 in two styles, one fermented entirely in steel and the other in oak.