"The Sound of the Rhône is Music to McCrea's Ears"
by Christina Kelly, Avalon Editor/Writer
Doug McCrea is searching for the perfect Rhône varietal wine in the hills of Eastern Washington.
As owner of McCrea Cellars near Olympia, WA., McCrea urged grape growers to plant Syrah grapes in the early 1990s at a time when farmers were planting cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay.
It was a tough call. The wine industry was just beginning to blossom in the Northwest, and winemakers looked at McCrea with a skeptical eye. What would a guy with a master's degree in classical music know about wine and grapes?
Part of his knowledge came from growing up in New Orleans, one of the greatest food and wine cities in the world. His grandfather made brandy, his mother cooked, and meals at the McCrea home became the centerpiece for family gatherings. A bottle of Rhône wine might have been served with the meal.
Living near the French Quarter in the 1950s, McCrea grew up with the smells of cooking, and the sounds of jazz music wickedly taunting him in the background. It is an image he will never forget and a little piece of that memory goes into each wine.
"The wine is fundamentally created in the vineyard. A winemaker captures the grape's subtle aromas and flavors, nuturing and expanding these elements. Like musical improvisation, he applies his personal expression or 'signature'. Both fields provide the ability to release creativity." - Doug McCrea
With 18 years of practice and experimentation, McCrea's wines have gained substantial recognition, and brought music to the ears of the winemaker for his dedicated efforts to create Rhône blends. His Syrah, Viognier and Chardonnay wines have received high marks, and garnered attention from the Wine Advocate, International Wine Cellar Magazine and the Wine Enthusiast.
"I was looking for an old-world style of wine when I got started," McCrea said. "I wanted big, forward, lush wines. We wanted to make them very distinctive, possibly reminiscent of Cote Rotie or Gigondas wines that reflect my upbringing."
His preference, or the "McCrea style" shows in his recent blends. He buys his grapes from three Eastern Washington vineyards, Ciel du Cheval, Boushey Grand Cote Vineyard, and Elerding Vineyard. In addition to Syrah, McCrea producs southern Rhône-style wines, offering single varietal bottlings of Grenache, Mourvedre, Rousanne and Counoise grapes.
The results are rich, black-purple wines with hints of smoke and toasty oak. McCrea starts with good fruit and good "terroir, literally, " the taste of the soil and the micro-climate." He joins a number of winemakers around the Northwest who believe that the terrior is the most important element in winemaking.
Doug covers the range of Rhône varietals, offering wines made with the rich flavors of Southern Rhône varietals Mourvedre, Grenache, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, and Counouise, and has recently announced the addition of Southern Rhône white varietals Ugni Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Cinsault, and Muscat Blanc.
Endearingly referred to as "the Sultan of Syrah" - Washington State's version of the California "Rhône Ranger," McCrea is not content to rest on his winemaking accomplishments. In fact, his ex-wife Susan Neel, who heads marketing and sales operations for the winery, says McCrea isn't the type of person to sit still while the world goes by.
"He has to be doing something or he gets restless," said Neel, who with her second husband Bob, run the winery with McCrea and his second wife Kim.
In early 1990, McCrea convinced a small number of grape growers to plant patches of Syrah in their vineyards. The only person growing Syrah at that time was David Lake, winemaker for Columbia Winery in Woodinville, and it was more for personal use than commercial viability.
Doug worked with Jim Holmes, owner of famed vineyard Ciel du Cheval, to plant some of the first Rhône varietals in Washington in 1992, and today those mature vines provide some of the best Rhône varietal fruit available in Washington, most of which goes to McCrea Cellars.
"The locations were carefully chosen because we need the hottest spots in the state to grow these grapes," said McCrea, who lives near Olympia with his wife and two children, Kevin, 12 and Kalen, 7. "You can produce Syrah in a cooler climate, but you need a lot of heat for Grenache and Mouvedre."
Two of the sites where Doug has facilitated and encourages the growing of Rhône varietals are at Red Mountain and in the Yakima Valley. In addition to a red blend, McCrea plans to create a white blend, using Roussanne and Marsanne grapes. McCrea was also one of the first winemakers to produce Viognier in Washington and has won numerous awards for his take on the white grape.
From Music To Wine
Growing up in New Orleans with a strong French background, McCrea developed a taste for French wine. His upbringing steered his tastes in two directions: music (an accomplished jazz musician and teacher) and premium wine (with a preference for Rhône blends).
He met his first wife Susan while attending Stanford University near San Francisco. Susan was also a music major but ended up working in the early high technology industry in marketing. Doug and Susan both worked for Hewlett Packard in the Northwest.
The couple eventually started McCrea Cellars in 1990 when Doug McCrea realized it was what he had to do, after befriending Alex Golitzen from Quilceda Creek and taking some enology courses at UC Davis. Although the marriage failed, the winery thrived and both Doug and Susan realized they had something special with the winery. Susan married Bob Neel in 1994 while Bob was working as a product development engineer. The new couple lived in Colorado, although made frequent trips to Washington to help with the winery.
"I knew I wanted to be associated with the winery, no matter what," said Susan. "It was clear the winery was too much for Doug and Kim to handle alone. I was trying to do two jobs in Colorado and realized that the winery needed me in Seattle."
Her husband Bob also assists with McCrea Cellars, supporting Susan in marketing, and helping with some legal and contractual matters while working as an engineering consultant on the side.
All of the new McCrea wines are showing well. In a recent tasting of new releases, there wasn't a bad one in the bunch. Most of these wines showed a beautiful elegance and knack for pairing well with food. Most of the reds will do well with cellaring for several years.
2003 Cuvee Orleans, Boushey and Ciel du Cheval vineyards (200 cases): This is McCrea's top-of-the-line blend, using 7 percent Viognier. This wine is held back in barrels an extra year, using the finest grapes to produce a hedonistic, purple-black, gorgeous berry flavored wine in a Cote Rotie style. This wine is clearly for those who can appreciate the refinement of a hand-crafted Syrah blend. Just outstanding, with powerful depth and structure.
2003 Boushey Syrah (175 cases): If there are feminine and masculine characteristics to a wine, the Boushey Syrah is the most feminine. It is complex, with tones of violets and lots of red fruit. Initially there could be a little barnyard aroma that blows off quickly after opening. Boushey is located in the Yakima Valley where the temperature is a bit cooler and the grapes have a little more hang time.
2003 Ciel du Cheval Syrah (175 cases): This is the most powerful of the single-vineyard Syrah produced by McCrea. The vineyard site is one of the hottest in the state, located at Red Mountain. The grapes ripen quicker. This wine has white pepper spice and lots of muscle with rich blackberry and plum flavors.
2004 Syrah, Ciel du Cheval, Boushey and Elephant Mountain vineyards (300 cases): This is McCrea's elegant entry level Syrah blend. It has a higher percentage of new oak, with blends from three vineyards. Although entry level for McCrea, this wine is a treat of the terroir from all three of McCrea's main vineyards. It carries smoky, leather and oak flavors, driven by red and black berry fruits.
2004 Amerique, Ciel du Cheval, Boushey and Elephant Mountain vineyards (187 cases): This wine is made in the leaner, more Australian Shiraz style, with clean, berry-driven flavors. There is oak, both American and French, but the wine has almost a sweet, smooth finish. Good structure that should age well.
2004 Viognier, Ciel-du-Cheval and Eledering vineyards (350 cases): McCrea makes a wonderful Viognier to stand alone or to blend with Syrah. The wine was stored in neutral oak and has a wonderful balance of acidity with pear and melon flavors lingering on the palate and a nice dry finish.
Before Cayuse, before the whole "Syrah Thing" in Walla Walla, Doug was quietly making some of the best Southern Rhône varietal-based wines in the US, and some of the first in the Pacific Northwest. Today, he continues to stay ahead of the rest with a superb Chateneuf-du pape style blend called Sirocco, and with rare single varietal offerings of Mourvedre, Counoise, Grenache, and Roussanne.
In 1992, in several Eastern Washington vineyards, McCrea planted Grenache, Mouvedre, Counoise, Marsanne and Roussanne - all grapes used to produce a Southern Rhône blend wine. Once again, in 2006, McCrea is at the forefront of producing new varietals in Washington State. Doug produces a Chateneuf du Pape style Rhône blend, Sirocco, and small amounts of single Rhône varietals, including Mourvedre and Counoise. Joining him in the Rhône trend, today, Andrew Rich, in Carlton, Oregon, produces a Rhône blend called Coup d'Etat, and Abacela Vineyards in Roseberg, OR is producing Grenache and several other Rhône-style blends.
While drinking McCrea's wine, if you listen hard enough, you just might hear a few jazz notes sliding out of the bottle. Better yet, sip the wine and listen to a little Wynton Marsalis or Charlie Parker. Or, pick your own tunes.
The Vineyards McCrea Draws Grapes From
Boushey "Grande Côte" Vineyard - Syrah
Overlooking the central Yakima Valley from the Rattlesnake ridge, the vineyard is on a rather steep, south-facing slope. The site is excellent for Syrah for several reasons. The slope provides good air drainage, reducing the threat of frost in early spring and late fall. The location is somewhat cooler compared to other regions, so the hang-time gives syrah the chance to ripen very slowly. The soil is shallow, firm loam over volcanic pumice which is covered with a white calcite deposit. The long growing season and unique soil greatly enhance the wines complexity. Normally we harvest in late October. Dick Boushey is one of our state's finest growers, with a history of serving for years as a leader in Washington's emerging wine industry. He understands the factors essential to good vineyard site selection, grows fabulous wine grapes, and is committed to promoting the wines of the Yakima Valley.
Ciel du Cheval - Syrah, Viognier, Mourvedre, Counoise, & Rousanne
Red Mountain has recently been granted its own appellation status, no longer part of the Yakima Valley appellation. With a total of only 4,040 acres - and only 600 planted - it is by far the smallest in the state. It has one of the warmest microclimates and a long-proven record for high quality, particularly with red varietals. It's home to several of Washington's most renowned vineyards, and Ciel, now a senior of about 25 years, is at the top of the list of this tiny AVA.
Jim and Pat Holmes, the owners of Ciel du Cheval (loosely meaning The Horse Heavens), were among the first in Washington to express interest in planting Syrah and Viognier, and we're thrilled to work with them. Soils are quite shallow, medium sandy loam with alluvial gravel below. The Syrah has powerful depth and structure, since the skins of the berries tend to be thicker in the very warm conditions. Viognier is well suited to Ciel, ripening thoroughly by mid September, giving the appropriate flavors of apricot, lychee, melon, pear and the classic white floral aroma.
Because of the exceptionally warm conditions, Jim has planted several southern Rhône varietals including Mourvedre, Counoise and Rousanne. We've also planted another clone of Syrah that will bear fruit in 2002.
Elerding Vineyard - Chardonnay, Grenache, Mourvedre, Counoise, & Rousanne
Since 1995 we've purchased very high quality chardonnay from the Elerding Vineyard. The vineyard is located at the base of the Horse Heaven Hills facing north across the Yakima Valley. Despite this, the grapes ripen early. It may be due to the warm air masses flowing off the hot Horse Heavens that bathe the vineyard on the bench below. Because of these exceptional conditions Steve has planted Grenache, a grape known to ripen late. The soil is medium loam that should lend good structure and color to the wines. By keeping the yields reasonably low, we anticipate some excellent fruit in the years to come. Beginning with the 2001 vintage we'll once again have both Syrah and Grenache in the winery. This will enable us to bring back our very popular wine called Tierra del Sol, Washington's first Southern Rhône-style blend, that we produced from 1992 until the grenache vines died in the freeze of 1996. To further support this, Steve has also planted Mourvedre, Counoise, and Rousanne at a very warm site near Alderdale.
Destiny Ridge Vineyard - Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, & Marsanne
I was speechless when I first set eyes on Destiny Ridge from the top - it was breathtaking. From this lofty vantage, you can see miles and miles. It has an uncanny resemblance to the Rhône! I had searched a decade for a vineyard site that would closely match the Northern Rhône Valley, with its steep rocky hillsides spilling down to the great river below. The vineyard is hewn from almost solid basalt, 900 feet above the Columbia. We planted Syrah and Grenache in collaboration with the Mercer family and Jarrad Boyle, an extremely talented young grower. The vines are planted at a close spacing of about 2000 plants per acre (vs. a more typical density of 900 per acre). We intend to significantly minimize the fruit on each vine to maximize quality and ensure totally even ripening. This is one of the hottest locations in our state, so we feel very confident that Southern Rhône varietals will thoroughly ripen here each year. At another location in the Destiny Ridge Vineyard, we've planted more Syrah and Viognier in a totally different medium. Instead of rock, it's virtually sand, so we expect to be growing almost hydroponically, finitely controlling the irrigation. Our first crop will be in 2002. Also in 2002, we're planting about one acre of Marsanne, the other great Rhône white in addition to Viognier and Rousanne.
Elephant Mountain Vineyard - Syrah & Viognier
In a setting very similar to Red Mountain, the new Elephant Mountain Vineyard looks extremely promising for Northern Rhône grapes. It's located at the western, or opposite end of the Yakima Valley from Ciel du Cheval. The two vineyards are about a one-hour drive apart. Elephant Mountain is high above the valley floor at 1600 feet. The days are long and warm with first fall frost near Thanksgiving, very late for Washington state. We should get excellent hang-time here, due to the elevation and a location nearer to the Cascades. Both Syrah and Viognier are planted to bi-lateral VSP (vertical shoot positioning) training in fairly heavy loam strewn throughout with quartzite pebbles of many colors. Owners Joe and Susan Hattrup and Joe's brother Tom are highly respected tree fruit growers in the Yakima Valley, bringing substantial knowledge and experience to this new venture. We are confident the vineyard will produce excellent grapes beginning in 2002.