Avalon Wine

Bill Owen with his O-S WinesO-S Wines

Owen and Sullivan’s O-S Winery —
a Streamlined Beauty with Time for the Finer Things in Life
By Alison Ruch
Avalon Staff Writer

Spend 10 minutes with Bill Owen, winemaker for Washington’s O-S Winery near Seattle, WA, and you will quickly discover he thinks and moves in forward motion without spending much time looking over his shoulder.

An avid cyclist, Owen stays near the head of the pack that is the Northwest wine industry, barely glancing around to see what the competition is doing. He has too much to do, too little time to do it, and along the way, he’s having a blast with his life. Crank up the Bob Dylan tunes, catch a Major League baseball game on the television (when he is actually sitting still) and feast on simple but elegant meals and you have captured the essence of Owen’s life, a life he figures could carry him along to a ripe old age.

“I can’t think of anything more fun to do,” said Owen recently, admitting he especially loves cycling in New York City. “I’d love to have a bicycle race from Harlem to Wall Street. I love riding in Manhattan—one way, the wrong way, red lights—it’s the best.”

The Vashon Island resident streamlines his passions to be lean and sleek. He doesn’t have time to waste in his weekly life packed and balanced between his zeal for winemaking and cramming it full of all the other things he enjoys in life. Although he works six days per week, Owen doesn’t fret over his wines. He says if a person is caught up worrying about what has already happened, they are bound to screw up what they’ve just begun. The process for winemaking is continuous and he doesn’t second guess himself.

  Bill Owen Streamlines through life

Owen is like the sports photographer who likes to get “the great shot” in one take. It allows him to spend quality time with his wife Michiko (who Owen endearingly refers to as “a walking one and only”) and cook up feasts of fresh-from-the-garden Japanese cuisine. On the rare occasion Owen is able to be away from the winery, he and Michiko like to travel to New York or Tokyo to dine and enjoy the fast pace of life elsewhere.

“In Japan, you will never have bad food,” said Owen, whose mother brought him up on Julia Child’s cooking.

Winemaking the Bill Owen Way

To live a full life inside and outside of the winery, Owen is the king of streamlining. With an eye for efficiency, he runs the winery using only the machinery and equipment he feels are necessary to make good wine. When Owen first began making wine with Chris Camarda at Andrew Will, the two agreed that their idea of running a winery is to “minimize marketing and to maximize wine quality. No big bottles, no wooden boxes—just the good stuff.”

In the O-S winery, Owen’s objectives include preserving aroma, avoiding barrel flavor, keeping alcohol levels down to balance the wines' flavors, and tweaking his methods carefully in order to continue improving and developing the flavors. All of these objectives point toward Owen’s ultimate goal: to feature the fruit, allowing it to evolve while maintaining and nurturing the good flavors that were there to begin with.

He learns techniques from his travels. While in France, Owen paid close attention to methods the French winemakers use to preserve fruit aroma. One of the best ways to capture aroma is to keep the fruit sealed up—ideally in stainless steel—“before malolactic, and before the oak has kicked in.”

“If even a portion of the fruit going into the wine is left sealed up, the more likely the final product retains the fruit’s aroma,” Owen said. While sealing up fruit to retain aroma isn’t a big secret, Owen’s more cutting edge practice is to do so in stainless steel. As he put it, “There’s not a tank culture in Washington,” where winemakers are much more likely to only use barrels. “As with all winemaking techniques,” he added, “there is a balance. If you leave all of the fruit sealed up, the life of the wine will be shorter.”

Owen’s goal is to preserve as much aroma as possible, while producing wines that drink well now, but could also develop in the bottle for several years.

In the O-S wines, Owen has preserved the fruit and downplayed the oak/toast barrel flavor. Some of the wines have more distinct cherry flavors while some display swaths of blackberry. The aromatics wallop the nose right off the bat. He is particular about the wine barrels used on the wines and the length of time wines are stored in those barrels. O-S uses barrels produced by Tarnsaud, which he likes because they air dry their barrels for three years (instead of the usual two) for a tighter grain, along with Vernou, Doreau, and Demptos—all French oak.

Since 1997, when Owen and entrepreneur Rob Sullivan (then his landlord) first came together to start the winery, the O-S winemaking process has been simplified for efficiency. The winery’s operations are organized so well that Owen doesn’t have to move the barrels around the winery, except for an occasional roll to stir the lees.

“It’s really fun to roll 300 bottles worth of wine,” Owen said. “The less you wear the winemaker out, the more time you save for important things, like going to the vineyards.”

About 30–50% new wood is used for aging his wines. The more new wood he uses, the longer Owen wants to keep the wines in the barrels. He figures the longer the wine is in new oak, the less oak/toast flavor will be retained. The O-S BSH spends the longest time (up to twenty-four months) in barrels. If he ever converted to 100% new wood, he would bottle each wine with a minimum of 24–30 months in barrel.

Owen does not filter or fine the O-S wines, avoiding the risk of losing flavor and fullness in the process. “The effect of filtering is mostly visual,” he said.

A big priority for Owen is to keep the alcohol levels down. When you produce wine in Washington, it can be a tricky task, with so many Cabernet Sauvignons in the 14–15% range. Owen tries to find the right alcohol level to balance his wines.

“It’s refreshing to drink low alcohol reds with tremendous character,” he said.

He prefers dryness over sweetness (though he does admit to tasting sweetness in his wines, which he finds quite pleasant). His personal preference is dry, dry, dry. Experimentation is not out of the question, but he prefers to make changes incrementally. The foolish winemaker, he says, rushes in.

Over time, he’d like to barrel age his wines for longer periods, and he’d like to set aside more fruit—early in the process—and seal it up in stainless steel to capture as much of the aroma as possible.

Owen and Sullivan’s 2004 Line-up

The O-S 2004 R3 $34.16/$37.95 —named for its three reds (42% Merlot / 33% Cabernet Sauvignon / 25% Cabernet Franc) is a terrific wine. Owen uses a special approach with the R3.

“Every year,” he said, “if it reminds me of Catherine Deneuve, I stop blending. The parts are different every year. I’ve made it since ’98, and the consistence is mind-boggling in terms of flavor and texture… This is the most beautifully feminine wine that men just love. I try to have a fair amount of Cabernet Franc in it every year. It’s silky. It is Catherine in her 50s.”

When Owen’s not striving to create a wine that in his mind resembles a glamorous movie star, he’s inventing for his wife, Michiko. TheO-S "M" Red 2004 $31.49/$34.95 is 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s got a warm, sweet spice, and its tannins are more pronounced than they have been in the past. (He adds that the effect of the tannins comes from the Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet.)

Owen also made a small amount of O-S Dineen Vineyard Syrah 2004 $28.75/$31.95, with fruit is from Dineen vineyard, which is under the same management as Sheridan Vineyard. This wine is true to Syrah—meaty, smoky, and full. It’s a very well-balanced Syrah, with only 13.8% ABV. On the finish, the subtle hint of sweetness is reminiscent of ladyfingers soaked in espresso.

TheO-S Champoux Vineyard
Cabernet Franc 2004 $26.99/$29.99
is an exceptional addition to Owen’s list of strong work, with a warm, ripe black cherry flavor and dashes of tobacco, dark chocolate, and a subtly sweet and spicy clove finish. It stands out as a lighter wine—perfect for warmer weather. All of the fruit for Owen’s Cabernet Franc comes from the renowned Champoux vineyard.

TheO-S Sheridan Vineyard Ulysses 2004 $44.95/49.95 (Merlot 45% / Cabernet sauvignon 33% / Cabernet Franc 22%) has tremendous density, but also a nimbleness. A beautifully balanced wine, it has an initial zip of tart cherry and roasted red pepper that moves gracefully into a full and gentle dark plum and spice finish. Balance is truly the best word for this blend. Owen says the flavors come from the Sheridan Vineyard, which he described as producing fruit with “tannins [that] are so rich and soft, they’re almost not there.”

After touring and tasting wines in Germany, it’s no surprise that Owen is interested in making good Riesling. His winemaking skills and understanding of the Riesling tradition are apparent in the flavor—and in the reception of his O-S 2005
Riesling $20.20/$22.45
. He models this wine off of German varieties (and says his is closest to a Josephshofer). So far, it has been very well received. This March it was rated outstanding by Wine Press Northwest. It's sold out.

As with all of his wines, Owen is especially conscious of keeping the alcohol in his Riesling low. “It’s all about acidity and low alcohol,” he said. The 2005 is just 9% alcohol, on the very low side of the Washington Rieslings. And the strong fruit flavors are featured because of this low alcohol content. Its subtle honey sweetness is perfectly balanced with hints of citrus, apricot, and fragrant white flowers.

Owen’s O-S 2004 Red $18.86/$20.95 is a blend of one-third Cabernet sauvignon, one-third Merlot, and one-third Cabernet Franc. Owen uses in the Red fruit from Klipsun, Sheridan, and Champoux vineyards, each of which he’s selected for the integrity of the vineyard management and for the fine flavor of the fruit.

Owen said he thinks the ’04 is his best Red to date.

“Most people wouldn’t think it’s a press wine” (a wine pressed after the fermented wine is drained off from the fruit skins). “Every year it’s more diverse—a better wine,” he said.

The wine is packed with ripe raspberry and dusty cherry flavor, and finishes with soft and supple tannins—with a hint of cinnamon spice. The wine was rated outstanding by Wine Press Northwest.

Owen compares his O-S 2004 BSH $38.25/$42.50 (forthcoming in October) to his ’02—the ’03 standing out as an all-around bigger wine. While a big wine fits the name (stands for “Brick S— House”), Owen’s  ’02 and ’04 style is closer to his ideal, with a hint of sweetness and a Bordeaux feel on palate. While Owen happily admits that this wine will always have a “Washington flavor,” the relatively low alcohol content and the moderate levels of Cabernet Franc (12%) and Merlot (18%) give this Cabernet sauvignon dominated (70%) wine a character like the French wines of the Médoc, in northern Bordeaux.

Owen said the BSH is his most masculine style. He likes it because it comes on like a St.-Julien, (the commune in the Médoc that Owen believes makes the most juicy, lush wines).

“The BSH is a reflection of my love for Bordeaux,” Owen said.

With a delightful blend of chocolate, raspberry, and a hint of smooth anise, this BSH is not just a bomb of heat and oak. Instead, it is a bold, expressive and complex wine—worthy of a really good dinner—or a special occasion—like a weekend.



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