A Sense of Place:
Saviah Cellars’ Winemaker
Seeks Washington’s Best Sites
Growing up in Montana, Richard Funk got the “wine bug.” But “bug” here might be taken literally, because when he studied microbiology at Montana State University in Bozeman, he started “fermenting everything that was fermentable”. In those days, since he didn’t have access to grapes, he made mostly beer, everything from hefeweizen to dark ale. Now, Funk has his pick of some of the best grapes in Washington state, and after four vintages, is well on his way to creating the kind of wine he’s dreamed of making.
More About Saviah Cellars
In 1991, after moving to Walla Walla to work for the county as an environmental health specialist, Funk became acquainted with the local wineries as he helped them work through issues dealing with water quality and wastewater management. During those early years he developed a rapport with a number of local winemakers, who helped him get his start in the industry, and he eventually worked crush at Three Rivers Winery with Charlie Hoppes, Mike Januik and Holly Turner.
I talked to Rich about his process of learning to make wine, and he shared his experiences and admiration for the characteristics of Washington fruit:
“The experience of working crush at Three Rivers really opened my eyes. They were working with a variety of fruit from different sites around the state. I quickly realized that the diversity of the fruit sources was a critical component of making great wine. I was introduced to some great sites, and I began to hone in on the vineyards that had the characteristics that appealed to me. So this year, I brought in 15 different lots of fruit from eight vineyards, allowing me to blend for complexity.”
So how did you decide to make the shift from environmental science to winemaking?
“When I was working for the county, I got to know many of the winemakers in the Valley. I realized right away I wanted to start a winery, but I needed to put together a plan, it isn’t something you just snap your fingers and do. Making small quantities of wine is one thing, but full-scale commercial production is different. I started working towards the winery and had my first commercial crush in 2000.”
What are your inspirations – Old World? New World?
“Northern Rhône wines have always been my inspiration for Syrah. Bordeaux-style wines from Washington State are consistently among the best in the world. We may be young, but we have incredible wines. When I first got interested, I’d buy varietal wines from Woodward Canyon, Leonetti and L’Ecole, and put together my own blends to see if I could blend something I liked even better.”
Tell me more about Syrah. What kind of wine do you want to make?
“I love the distinct profiles coming from single vineyard Syrahs. My excitement hinges on developing long term relations with these sites. The varietal is so strong in Washington, that you can have a single vineyard wine that is complete.”
Tell me more about some of the sites that you have used for your wine, and what are your perceptions of the kinds of wine they produce.
“For instance, I’ve worked with Syrah from Red Mountain’s Ranch at the End of the Road Vineyard. This vineyard is at the highest elevation on Red Mountain and creates very distinctive, unique wine with nice structure, deep concentration, and density. It has a smoky, tobacco leaf quality, and a long, black fruit, berry finish.”
What other sites have you found fruit with great characteristics?
“This year, I brought in Syrah from Les Collines vineyard in Walla Walla Valley. Last year was the first vintage – the block we are getting was grown with the Australian sprawl method, with the fruiting wires six feet off the ground. The soil is rich here, so the idea is to take some vigor out of vine. And the berries that you end up with are very small, even smaller than Cabernet berries. I didn’t think you could find a bigger syrah than Red Mountain, but Les Collines has more of everything.”
So what kind of wine are you trying to make with fruit from these type of sites?
“With Syrah, I’ve chosen to go with boldness, looking for sites that have loads of fruit, structure, everything in spades. That is what my palate is drawn to. That’s the beauty of Syrah, there are so many directions you can go.”
So you see wines as truly a personal artistic expression?
“Yes, wine is an individual expression, but it is backed with sound science. All the theory that has been crammed in my head over the years has been given an opportunity for a practical application.”
You also focus on Bordeaux-style blends. Tell me about what you look for in fruit for these wines.
“My flagship wine is Une Vallée – a classic left bank Bordeaux-style blend. With a blend, unlike with a single varietal wine, of course, there is more of an opportunity to put my thumbprint on it.
My whole focus has been to take specific varietals in the Walla Walla Valley, using sites that have characteristics that I think go together. I use Pepper Bridge for Cabernet, Waliser Vineyard for Cabernet Franc, and Seven Hills for both Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The Cabernet Franc fruit, is grown on rocks, –or basalt boulders in the alluvial fan that comes from the river as it comes out of the canyon by Milton-Freewater. So it is a soilless medium. There is nothing but rock to grow in, so you can treat each vine the same and can control management issues more easily.
With this Cabernet Franc, you can get away from green flavors like green pepper. You get some of the signature dried herbs, but none of the too vigorous, greener flavors. You get more black fruit, cassis, a touch of rosemary -- sweet herbs. Rocks in the Walla Walla Valley show these good characteristics.”
Do you have any sites of your own?
“We have a small vineyard at the winery – one acre of Merlot – and we’ve also planted five acres near Seven Hills. We don’t own it, we’ve just selected the vines and are hoping to produce a vineyard designate Bordeaux-style blend with Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.”
Have you been pleased with the wines?
“We’re extremely fortunate to have four great vintages under our belt. Our goal is to get into it full-time, to just really hone our focus and make the best Bordeaux-style blends we can and keep improving the quality of the Syrahs through viticultural practices and sound winemaking. What I’ve learned more than anything is that winemaking is an exercise in delayed gratification!”
Yes, “no wine before its time!” What do you do in the your downtime?
“I’m still working full-time as an environmental health specialist, and my wife, Anita is the corporate communications manager for a food equipment manufacturing company. We have two children, ages 7 and 11, they love to help out, to get out on their four-wheelers and terrorize the plants.”
One last question: Where does the name of your winery come from?
“Saviah is a family name that comes from my wife’s great grandmother who wrote an inspiring autobiography about her life. We borrowed ideas from the book, and the name. The family homesteaded in the Flathead Valley of Montana – their first home was a one-room cabin at a place called Star Meadows. Last year we are made a white Bordeaux-style blend which we named Star Meadows. The family’s current homestead is in a place they named One Valley near Whitefish (the inspiration for the Une Vallée Red Blend).”
Funk has come a long way from his Montana childhood, but it seems he still has a sense of place in the way he thinks about his business -- keeping it connected to his family’s past, and seeking out the best sites that help him achieve his goal of making great wine.