Gettin' Purple with Mystic Winemaker Rick Mafit
by Alison Ruch, Avalon Staff Writer
The acronym DIY (Do-It-Yourself) has infiltrated casual conversation and has taken over for words like "craft," adding an edgier, take-the-reins flair. You can make your own earmuffs, kayaks and banjos. Why can't you get out there and DIY with some grapes, barrels, patience and passion? Talk to Rick Mafit for a few minutes and the dream might just sound feasible. Mafit has been DIYing for years now, and we sure are glad for it.
Mafit hadn't always dreamed of starting his own winery. Prepared to apply to medical schools, he spent a summer working harvest for his uncle in Roseburg, Oregon, in 1977. It wasn't long before this experience convinced Mafit he was pursuing the wrong profession. He loved working with the grapes (as he calls it, "gettin' purple,") and traveling to area wineries - Amity, Erath, Oak Knoll, Ponzi - to show off his uncle's new product. Before long he was enrolled in the renowned UC-Davis Viticulture and Enology program.
Right after he finished the program he landed a job as assistant winemaker at Fetzer - one of the country's biggest producers. Mafit was excited to work for such a prolific company but said, "I always knew I wanted to have my own place - a kind of mom and pop place where people could stop in."
Mafit appreciates his experience at Fetzer because it affirmed his feeling that he didn't want to be involved with large-scale winemaking operations. He explains that what frustrated him was, "the more successful I was at running a big winery, the more removed from winemaking I was." There was always someone else there to do it for him. But Mafit views winemaking as something artistic and personal, so to merely instruct or give orders, but not get his hands in the grapes, was not his ideal.
"To me, it's not a 'job.' It's something I'm passionate about," Mafit said.
Going Solo in Oregon
Mafit left California in 1990 to realize his "mom and pop" winery dream in Oregon. He left because California was expensive and already overflowing with excellent wine - as well as struggling, talented winemakers. At the time he recalls feeling disappointed with many of the wines being produce in Oregon. He often found them "immature, too acidic, simple..." and he questioned, "Is it just that these guys can't do it, or is it a youthful industry?" Just two years later he decided the latter was true. Oregon was simply finding its footing.
Nowadays, Mafit has a strong sense of pride seasoned with practicality about Oregon wines. "I'm dreading hearing somebody say, "These are good...for Oregon,'" he said. "[Oregon wines] don't need to be the same as California, but they need to be good."
"It's more difficult here because people aren't expecting to find good Zinfandel, Cabernet or Merlot." (Mafit does all three, as well as a Syrah, a Barbera and a Pinot noir.) "Every weekend I'm in my tasting room people are totally surprised... [But] they come back. It's difficult to get people to try something that they don't think could be good... And it's also difficult to get into other markets where they think of Oregon as pigeonholed with Pinot noir." Difficult as it may be, Mafit is determined to show the wine world that Oregon can do more than Pinot noir - and well.
Another reason Mafit chose Oregon over California is that he doesn't feel comfortable with some of California's high wine prices. "Wine is getting out of hand," he said. "People are coming into it for a lot of the right reasons: because they think it's romantic - it's certainly something they enjoy drinking with food - and good times are associated with it - , but they're throwing money at it and in return they expect a big return on their investment and that's not what wine is about."
"I think wine is something you should consume on a regular basis and enjoy. It's not about how much the bottle of wine cost. I think California is going crazy that way and I think it's too bad. For me, it's important to make wines that are the best that I can make - and still make them at a reasonable price."
Finding the Right Vineyards
Mafit strongly believes that good wine can only be derived from good fruit, so when he got to Oregon his first step in setting up his winery was finding healthy, well-managed vineyards. This proved trying at first, since many great vineyards were hesitant to commit to selling fruit to winemakers who hadn't yet established their wineries.
"My Syrah vineyard was just about the ugliest vineyard I'd ever seen."
Mafit rode motorcycles with Lonnie Wright who, in the early to mid '90s, was working on revamping some vineyards near The Dalles, on the border of Washington and Oregon. Mafit was particularly interested in Hillside Vineyard, an old cherry orchard where Wright was growing Merlot, Cabernet and Zinfandel. Against the Oregon odds (read: the cold) this vineyard was thriving. Mafit explained, "There are a lot of places where - like water draining - air does the same thing, and if it sits in a swale or anything you get frost. This vineyard was so vertical there was no way you were going to get a frost. It was near the bottom of the canyon, up at the head of a canyon, and all the air was draining quickly out of there." He was impressed with the wines coming from Hillside Vineyard and by 1996 was working with Hillside's Merlot and Zinfandel grapes.
Mystic Winery's Vineyard Sources
|Hillside Vineyard||Merlot, Zinfandel||The Dalles, OR|
|Smith-Cerne Vineyard||Syrah||The Dalles, OR|
|McDuffee Vineyard||Cabernet||The Dalles, OR|
|Gunkel Vineyard||Barbera||Goldendale, WA|
|Temperance Hill Vineyard||Pinot noir||Eola Hills, OR|
Mafit checked out McDuffie Vineyard as a potential Cabernet site in 1997. At first he wasn't impressed, but with his DIY mentality he helped to change the vineyard into a site he wanted to source fruit from. He admitted, "I didn't think it was going to be a good vineyard. It was on the Scott Henry trellising system, which is not my favorite. (It tends to produce wines that are pretty vegetative)." Mafit explained that this system, which allows for more canes per vine, works well for some varietals, but makes for too much canopy cover (shade) for varietals like Cabernet, which tend to need more sunlight.
Instead of simply searching for a different site, Mafit worked with what was there. He said, "We opened the head - got a lot of sunshine into it, and that gets rid of a lot of the herbaciousness. It took a year before I even enjoyed tasting it...and after that we made a contract. I've been buying from McDuffie ever since."
He also helped to make his Syrah vineyard (Smithscern) into a site he felt proud of.
"My Syrah vineyard was just about the ugliest vineyard I'd ever seen," he said, "but the grapes tasted good. I bought them and then we started going back through and changing the trellis and changing the way they were pruned... The wine wins gold medals every year and has since its inception in '99. And it's got a real following."
"I try to make wines from vineyards that are not necessarily proven but are mature, so that you can really tell what's there. I can guide wine and put it in the right direction, but the base has to be there. The right flavors, the right color...everything."
Mystic Wines Varietals
One of Mafit's most recent endeavors has been a Pinot noir with fruit sourced from Temperance Hill Vineyard. "[It] was never one of my favorite vineyards, but Dai Crisp has been managing it, and he just does a great job. He's transformed it."
When asked if he started making Pinot noir because he felt pressure to produce the Oregon varietal he said, "I'd been in the business for a long time and I know a lot of distributors and restaurant people on the East Coast, and every time I tried to go to them with Merlot they were like, 'No, man, we get Merlot from California. Don't you have Pinot noir? Isn't that what you guys do in Oregon?'"
While Mafit didn't start to make Pinot noir to replace any of his more surprising-for-Oregon varietals, he did pay attention to the demand for Oregon Pinot and decided to add it to his list. "2002 couldn't have been a better year to start," he said of this notoriously spectacular year for Oregon Pinot. "It's not an austere Pinot noir. I like wines that are round and lush and have got a mouth feel." Mafit's Mystic Wines Pinot Noir 02 is indeed lush - a spicy punch of blackberry and currant - and retails at a reasonable $20.95.
Mystic Wines also produces an earthy and sweet Barbera 02, a smoky, rich Cabernet Sauvignon 00/01, a classic Bordeaux-style Merlot 00/01, a Merlot Reserve 01, a complex and exotic Syrah 02, and a dark and spicy Zinfandel 02.
The Importance of Barrel Time - and Type
Almost as much as Mafit finds it essential to source fruit from excellent vineyards he values the time his wines spend in barrels. He finds this aging period crucial to the depth of his wines' flavors and, while he acknowledges, "A lot of people are doing wines that are released within 10 or 11 months of harvest," he believes, "especially for reds, that's just too soon."
"The different flavors from the barrels - they really matter. It's like throwing the right spice in with pasta and different tomatoes..."
Mafit's big reds - the Cabernet and Merlot - always spend two years in the barrel. He said, "The Cabernet really needs the time to come around and mellow out and for the tannins to get together and align in the right direction so they don't just kill you when they get into your mouth. The Merlot really benefits from it, too."
Since Mafit prefers to make more Bordeaux-style wines (rather than the often heavily-oaked California-style) he uses 30-45% brand new barrels. He added, "I'm a real fan of French oak. American oak is okay in Zinfandel and okay in Cabernet, but to make the best wines, it isn't something that I'm looking for. I'm looking for more of a refined character."
He explained that, "Traditionally American oak has been coopered by Americans who are used to making whiskey barrels. Whiskey barrels are once-filled. They don't do anything with them for ten years - they don't rack them, top them, anything. They weren't aging them correctly or splitting the staves correctly." Mafit has found that American oak tends to impart more of a banana, vanilla, or cedar quality to the wine, whereas he's more interested in the flavors he's found French oak has to offer: coffee, spice, cocoa. He added, "American oak tends to stick out like a sore thumb."
Mafit's barrel cocktail consists of the French Seguin-Moreau for his Cabernet and Merlot, a thin stave French barrel by Chateau Feres also for his Cabernet and Merlot, and classic medium toast François Feres and Rosseau for his Pinot noir and Syrah. He noted that the Rosseau ("a small cooper in Burgundy") gives the barrel a hint of "bacon fat texture that really compliments the wine."
Mafit has dabbled with American oak. "I have tried a little bit of three-year air dried American oak coopered by Seguin-Moreau called the u-stave barrel and it's very heavily toasted," he said. "The three-year air drying makes it very reminiscent of French oak. I've used that for a couple years in the Barbera and I really like it. There's a little bit in the Zinfandel. I'm trying to keep prices on the wines down (French oak is really expensive)."
Since most of Mafit's wines feature single-vineyard fruit, he does lots of experimenting during fermentation to tweak and "introduce nuance in the wine." He said, "I do lots of different yeasts. I try and age those yeasts in different woods...and I'm always experimenting."
"I think it's hard to be complacent when you're making wine. It's more fun to be looking at new things and how to improve flavors."
Mafit's Many Hats
When Mafit isn't looking at ways to improve his wines he's doing a myriad other activities to keep his business thriving. Mystic Wines truly is managed by a small number of hands. Mafit's, of course, are the busiest - and likely the most purple.
"I have great respect for winemakers that make lots of wine," Mafit said. "I think it's very difficult to do with finesse and to make really great wines that way. I think most winemakers would say that the smaller hands-on winemaking is kind of what everyone aspires to. There aren't too many winemakers that I know that want to get more corporate. There are a couple," Mafit chuckled and said, "and they've done quite well for themselves - and that's exciting."
"It's difficult as the only guy at Mystic wines I have many hats to wear. For me it's about producing a serious product of my own and taking responsibility for it."
And responsible Mafit is. Amongst the responsibilities riding on his shoulders are keeping track of the activity at each of his vineyard sites, making wine - (and all the ins and outs that entails!), marketing his wine, delivering his wine to shops and restaurants, balancing finances, keeping appraised of wine news and innovation both in the U.S. and abroad, designing packaging, and advertising. Whew! And that's not all.
Mafit explained how many winemakers he knows, if they can avoid it, don't do their own deliveries. "For me," he said, "I enjoy it. I like being in touch with the people that drink my wines and that sell my wines - and with the restaurateurs. I sell a lot of wine in restaurants. And it's important to me to see what chefs are doing."
He said with a smile, "Of course I gotta eat, and I like to. So I spend a lot of time in restaurants, and I taste a lot of other wines there to see what goes with food and to see what other winemakers are into - and what other chefs are into."
As is inevitable in a DIY operation, some hats are more fun to wear than others!
Other Key Players
In the grand production that is winemaking there are bound to be times when there are simply too many hats for just one man. Mafit is happy to hand some of these off - or at least loan them out - to a small and highly competent team of helpers.
Something Mafit said he, "learned along the way" is to, "have people that are benchmarks for me - not producers necessarily - people who drink a lot of wine. They're here [at the winery] a lot and they drink a lot of my wine and I watch the expressions on their faces and listen to what they like and what they don't like. It gives me an outside influence."
"Sometimes I think you can get too close to your wines," he added. "Ultimately I am trying to make something that I like, but I want to make something that other people like to drink too."
Mafit's son Dillon created the eye-catching label design. Mafit laughed and said, "At first we wanted it just to be totally esoteric so people would have to pick it up to figure out what it was." They finally settled on this fairly abstract, very fun design and legible text.
"Dillon's still involved," Mafit said. "He still comes and helps me when I rack wines, and of course he's - after chasing me around since he was about 2 years old - got a pretty darn good palate. He's actually one of the distillers up at Clear Creek."
Often accompanying Mafit on deliveries to Avalon is Mafit's thirteen-year-old son Duncan. "Duncan helps me often. Same thing [as with Dillon], when you grow up in a winery it's a chore. He's got a great palate, too. He routinely helps as far as topping goes, and during harvest and lugging cases to the car..."
And of course Mafit is grateful to the skilled managers at the vineyards he works with. "I don't do vineyard work," he said, "but I know what's going on out there. I discuss it with the grower all the time. I don't try and usurp [their work]. They know their business. They tell me the pros and cons of what I want to do and we make decisions both of us can live with."
When you can't do it all yourself, you've got to find help you can trust. Mafit has great faith in the help he's sought out (and, in a couple cases, raised) for Mystic Wines.
Plans for the Future
Mystic wines have a loyal following and tend to sell out fast. Avalon store customers stop in regularly to check out what's new from Mystic. Considering this popularity, we can't help but wonder: How long can Mafit maintain his "mom and pop" -sized winery?
Mystic's popularity is thrilling to Mafit, but it doesn't make him feel pressure to produce a lot more wine. "People tell me I should [expand], but I've been around the business long enough to know that ...I don't want more work. I'm happy making the wines that I'm making in the quantities I'm making. Until two years ago they sold out in four or five months and now we're making a little bit more wine. Selling out is fun, but you kind of wring your hands once you lose your shelf spot... And now we pretty much have a good supply all year round. It's not the easiest to make a living off of, but my life is pretty simple. I hope to grow to about 2,500 cases. We're between 1,500 and 1,800 now."
"Unlike Fetzer, we're not out to produce millions of cases and have them for everybody. I do want to make wines that are appealing, but they don't have to be appealing to everyone."
Mafit's priority is pleasing his loyal customer base. His focus is not simply on ratings and appealing to the critics. "I don't send wines to Robert Parker - I probably should," he laughed. "I don't because I think they're kind of fickle. After they've written about something they have to go on and find the next thing - and meanwhile we're still here making wine, so to me it's better to have that consistency..."
While Mafit doesn't plan to make drastically greater quantities of wine, he does have some other ideas for expansion at the winery. In the works are plans for a small estate vineyard as well as a new, larger tasting room. Mafit envisions this new venue as "kind of an adult Disneyland." He specified that he doesn't expect this "Disneyland" to have total mass appeal, and added, "I think part of being a specialist is not having mass appeal. It's having a specific audience and trying to figure out who they are and figure out what else they like - what would be a draw for them." Right now Mafit is tossing around the idea of adding space for music and art - specifically a glassblower studio, woodshop, and foundry.
In keeping with Mafit's DIY style, he hopes to build the winery/vineyard/tasting room himself on property north of Hopewell, Oregon, in what sounds like a beautiful and fertile valley. "It's got great views of Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson - and on really clear days, Rainier," he said. "It's 400 ft up on the shelf. Great air drainage. The cherries that are on the property got riper nearly two weeks earlier than the other cherries in the valley."
Mafit plans to continue working with the grape varietals he does now, with one possible surprise. Of the current mix he said, "People ask me 'what's your favorite?' Well, it depends on what I'm having for dinner! There's a reason to make more than one flavor... You can't have the same thing every night. And in fact there are a couple more varieties I'd like to work with..."
Surprise: Tempranillo! Mafit believes this varietal would thrive at the new winery site. He also said he's considering making a white wine.
"I grew up in Sonoma making Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay, and I was pretty impressed with a lot of their new Dijon clones - and nobody's making Chardonnay here, so I've been experimenting with a consulting firm up in Washington... It's not like I really need to make white wine, but I like white wine. I like great Chardonnay, and we've got the climate to do it... It's a lot of fun."
Does Mafit ever regret not going into the medical field? His response: "No, Not really. I'm not good around blood I've found out." Fortunately Mafit didn't go into detail about this discovery.
Another plus to the small winery life versus the physician's life, Mafit added, is, "My time is my own, and when something comes into my head I'll get up and do it, even if it's two in the morning... That's very different. A physician's life is definitely more structured. There's more pressure on that position. Nobody I know of is living and dying over a bottle of wine."
The Mysticism of Winemaking
Although wine might not mean life or death, the artistic process of making it means a great deal to Mafit. When asked how he settled on the name "Mystic Wines," he said, "I've done a lot of things in my life and, for me, being out and working in wine and gettin' purple...the smells and breaking for a good meal...there's a Zen to it."
"I always thought it was bunk when guys would say 'I sleep by my barrels...' Obsessive. But I find myself doing things like that... I don't sleep by my fermenters, but... it's a personal thing."
"There aren't people there when I'm working, usually, so it's something that I'm doing for myself and it doesn't matter how hard it is... As long as the wine tastes good I know what went into it. It can take me twenty minutes or five days to do something...and it's about my personal expression."
"It's something I take a lot of pride in, but it's a silent pride. I make wine... It's no grander a thing than the guy that makes the cheese that I eat or grows the fruit that I use."
"For me, it's kind of a mystic experience."
Seguin Moreau Barrels add memorable Flavors to Oregon Wines
From the forest to the stave wood, from the stave wood to the barrel, and then from the barrel to the wine, Seguin Moreau's research was the first of its kind to highlight the importance of oenological criteria in the selection of forest trees, the benefits of controlled maturing of the wood outdoors, the nature of the constituents obtained during barrel toasting and the ways in which they blend with those of the wine during the process of ageing.
The taste of a Seguin Moreau barrel can be detected in wines aged in a high percentage of new French oak barrels from Sequing Moreau. Several of Oregon's top rated Pinots are aged in Seguin Moreau barrels.
"The Dalles" - What's in a Name?
The Dalles is derived from the French word "dalle". It is used to describe the river rapids flowing swiftly through a narrow channel over flat, basaltic rocks.
Lewis and Clark visited the Dalles area in 1805, and in the first half of the 19th century, pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail from the east found their route ending at The Dalles. The rutted track literally stopped at the edge of the Columbia River. Barges took wagons and people west to their final destination.
A town sprang up at the end of the trail, with a Mission established in about 1830. The area had outstanding salmon fishing, and has been continuously populated for over 10,000 years.