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Sleight of Hand Winery

Blending Hocus Pocus and Rock & Roll
by Alison Ruch

Like listening to a lead singer's first solo album, it's fun to watch a winemaker branch out from a larger operation and develop a unique aesthetic and style of production. This year, Trey Busch, formerly of Dunham Cellars and of Basel Cellars in Walla Walla, released his first Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Franc blend, and Bordeaux blend under his label Sleight of Hand. The fun Busch seems to be having as a solo artist is evident in his playful labeling, his unabashedly big wines, and his confident, minimalist approach to winemaking. It all seems … somewhat magical.

Sleight of Hand images

While Busch isn't making music - though, some may say that what's in the bottle could figure as such - he named his winery in honor of his favorite band, Pearl Jam. ("Sleight of Hand," for those less familiar with the band, is a song about a dreamer who feels a compulsion to break free from the norm - almost as if by a magical force - on Pearl Jam's Binaural album [2000 vintage].)

The magical image Busch chose to express his winery's style came out of the song title - and a little Web research.

"I found this great Web site of vintage magic posters and thought 'those would make great labels,'" Busch said, "so I hired a concert poster designer I knew in Seattle, Mike Klay of Powerslide Design, to make us our label using the older vintage magic posters as inspiration." Like the dreamer in the song, Busch went with his compulsion to veer away from the traditional, say, off-white background and pristine burgundy lettering.

Joining the Walla Walla Band

It was breaking free from the norm, one might say, that brought Busch to winemaking in the first place. Prior to moving to Washington, Busch's path did not in any way hint at his current career. (In fact, it is rare to find a winemaker in Walla Walla without a meandering and eclectic path; these folks are uniform in their unpredictable methods of finding winemaking.) Busch's life led him from home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Seattle in 1988 for work with the Navy, then back to Georgia for college, and back - again - to Seattle (not coincidentally, just as Pearl Jam was starting to make its mark) where Busch worked for Nordstrom (of course!) for eight years.

In 2000, when Busch got the strong inclination to pursue winemaking, he moved to a sneaky little town that disguises itself modestly (tiny main street, expanses of agricultural land, population just under 30,000) but was and is a sexy wine-tasting destination: Walla Walla, Washington.

Busch had been enchanted with "the lifestyle that you read and hear about," he said. He was interested in "living in a small community, working with your hands, selling a product that you had a hand in making - literally - and spending more time with your family." This last part, Busch added, is harder than he'd imagined, but somehow - magically? - he finds ways to schedule in quality wine and family time. Busch's wife works as a nurse in Walla Walla, and they have two daughters, an eight-year-old and an eighteen-month-old toddler. The girls' respective initials, Busch noted, are "K.A.B." and "C.A.B., and while it wasn't planned this way, Busch is tickled at having two cabs in the family.

Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand

Busch's training was, he said, "OTJ, all the way!" On the job with Eric Dunham at Dunham Cellars, Busch learned the majority of what he knows about making wine. Beyond Dunham, Busch has learned about winemaking from the community of winemakers in his town, from years of trial and error, from working independently at Basel Cellars and from blind wine tastings with five or six winemaker friends in a regularly scheduled tasting group.

The tasting group meets roughly once a week, and each week's host chooses a theme and has the wine in glasses when the tasters arrive. This way, Busch said, "no one can prejudge the bottle by its shape. We either find out who's the genius that week or - " he laughed, " - how many of us are idiots and don't know anything about wine." A blind tasting with experienced tasters, Busch said, "is a really humbling experience, but I have really learned a lot tasting wines this way."

Forming Sleight of Hand

A few years ago, Busch met Jerry and Sandy Solomon at a wine auction, the three discovered a mutual interest in starting a winery and, a few years later, began putting together Sleight of Hand. The Solomons had always assumed that if they were to pursue winery involvement it would be in California, but the two felt a strong connection with both Busch and Busch's wines. The couple currently splits time between San Diego and Sun Valley, Idaho, but they hope to eventually have a home in Walla Walla so that they can have a more hands-on role in the winery - also, as is easy to do, they've fallen for the town. Busch takes care of all day-to-day operations in the winery, the Walla Walla tasting room and the main office.

The three partners agree on a main objective, Busch explained, "to provide great value to consumers at every price level, whether it is sixteen- or sixty-dollar wine." The current offerings do indeed reflect this goal. Busch makes a high-end Cabernet Sauvignon '05 from the renowned Champoux Vineyard, a mid-price-range big red Bordeaux blend, and a value red blend - a great entrée to Busch's work. The Sleight of Hand production is small - under 1700 cases; Busch would like to maintain the winery production close to this level. "I don't want to make 10,000 cases of wine and have to sell it," Busch said. "I would rather concentrate on small lots, make them as good as possible, and sell out every year."

Solo Hits from Sleight of Hand

"Our first vintage with the Gewürztraminer (Magician) and the red table wine (Spellbinder) are négociant projects," Busch explained. "I put the blends together on both of these wines using multiple lots of wines from several other wineries to really make a 'style' of wine that I thought would appeal to a lot of people. Both wines are food wines - low oak profile, low alcohol, and both wines are fruit forward with super soft tannins."

Busch hopes his value wines will be known as food-friendly, ready-to-drink, darned good wines and less for particulars like vintage and percentages of grape varietals. "There won't be a recipe," Busch said. "Take [the bottle] home, order a pizza or put a burger on the grill…" These wines are for instant gratification.

Trey Busch with vinyl

Busch makes his négociant wines with Gordy Hill (who, for many years, worked at Chateau Ste. Michelle and, later, Northstar Wines) at Butch Milbrant's - of Milbrant Vineyards - custom crush and winemaking facility. The high-end Cabernet, Bordeaux blend and the Syrahs are made at Saviah Cellars.

In general, Busch said, "I am a minimalist winemaker. I do things to the wines if I need to, not just because I can. I blend early, use only free-run juice, and believe if the wine can handle the oak, then give it some oak. The Syrahs, which I'm not looking to over-oak, will be bottled earlier than the Bordeaux blend." The Syrahs will spend roughly twelve to fifteen months in barrels and the Bordeaux blend closer to twenty or twenty-three. "The high-end wines I make are big but balanced," Busch said, "just like the wines I enjoy drinking."

Cork or Screw?

Like many new winemakers, Busch is interested in cork closure alternatives. "I bottled [the Magician and the Spellbinder] under screwcap," he said. "I am a big believer in the closure and look forward to more and more people using this closure. Why risk it with cheap corks that have a two to five percent failure rate with TCA? What other industry accepts this level of loss in their product? If an auto manufacturer told you two to five percent of their cars were defective, would you buy a car from them? Of course not. So why buy wines with corks if they can use screwcaps instead? My only concern with this closure is ageability, but these two table wines are meant to be consumed in a few years anyway, so that is why I went with this closure."

Busch's Vineyard Picks

For now, Busch is focusing on winemaking and relying on area vineyards to provide quality fruit for his wines. "We currently contract all of our fruit," Busch said. "After a few vintages we will consider buying some land in Walla Walla and planting grapes. But the real reason we purchase fruit from other growers is that there is a tremendous amount of killer fruit out there, being managed by some of the best growers. I am a winemaker, not a vineyard manager. I leave the hard work to those guys! I have close relationships with all of the growers and know the fruit well.

"We will work with Lewis Vineyard Syrah and Les Collines [Vineyard] Syrah for our high-end Syrah program. [These are] very different sites and very different wines on their own, but I think the blend of the two will be amazing. Les Collines will provide the Rhone-ish element of olives and earth, and Lewis will be the pure fruit and smoked meats...man, I'm already excited about it. The Cab Franc-Merlot blend will be sourced from Chelle den Millie Vineyard and the Merlot will be Walla Walla, although I can't say where - yet. [It's] my own version of Cheval Blanc."

What's Ahead

As one of a small group of up-and-coming Washington winemakers who dig all things big, lush, and rock 'n roll, Busch and his cohorts have some fun-sounding plans up their purple-stained sleeves. All he'll reveal now is the elusive, "look out for the ONE LOUDER WINE CO....the first true Cult Wine of Washington State!" It sounds like this venture will make itself heard.

Trey Busch and Mark McNeely
Trey Busch and Mark McNeely Contemplate the LOUDER Project

The Wines of Sleight of Hand

Sleight of Hand Archimage Red 05 $42.95/$37.76

Trey's most spectacular magic act. It's a super-premium Bordeaux blend made from old vine fruit from Champoux, Klipsun, and Bacchus Vineyards. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot are included in the blend.

Archimage is quite aromatic, showing big scents of black cherry, ripe black plum, Idian spices, cedar, and toast. The texture of the wine in the mouth is very silky and the tannins gently caress. The wine expands in the mouth, as flavors of ripe black fruit, dense hints of dark fruit liqueur, toasted espresso bean, and spice intermingle. The finish goes on and on. Drink now with several hours of decanting, or cellar through 2011.

D'Vine Sleight of Hand Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 05 $55 (42 cases made) is one of Avalon's June NW Big Reds Club selections. The nose is all about creamy black cherries and toasted espresso beans. The wine is full-bodied, with a fat mouth feel. Flavors are of black cherry, blackberry, cassis, creamy black plum, and the finish is long with hints of toasty oak and more toasted coffee bean. This wine is still quite young, with fine grained but present tannins and a nice balance of fruit and acidity. Its flavors and style are characteristic of Champoux Vineyard, and it could cellar for 8-10 years.

Trey's good value offering is a red blend called "Spellbinder Red" $19.95/$17.95. We found the Spellbinder to be a big, full-bodied blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese, a real crowd pleaser. It's full of the buttery oak and sweet black fruit flavors that make the best under $20 reds so easy to drink. Enjoy now, or drink by 2011.

Trey also made Sleight of Hand "The Magician" Gewurztraminer 06 $17.45/$15.70. It's intensely floral, fruity and finishes with a crisp green apple note.

Sleight of Hand's Trey Busch, Sally & Jerry Solomon
Trey Busch, Sandy & Jerry Solomon

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