By Christina Kelly
(WALLA WALLA)----Sometimes the dark horse bolts out of nowhere to capture a victory, surprising everyone, including the jockey.
Devin Derby, winemaker at Spring Valley Vineyard understands the dark horse well. After two years of learning, experimenting and immersing himself in winemaking, Derby's 2000 Spring Valley Vineyard Uriah recently scored 94 points in a rating by Wine Spectator Magazine.
The wine also captured a 94 rating by Wine & Spirits Magazine.
In the land of Leonetti, L'Ecole and Woodward Canyon-all longtime fixtures in the Walla Walla Valley-no one really expected the winery newcomer to score so high out the gate.
But Mary and Devin Derby are not surprised that wine critics love their blend. For more than 100 years, Derby's relatives toiled over Spring Valley land-four generations, starting with Uriah Corkum during the 1880s. Crops on the original 2,000 acres were nourished, coaxed and encouraged to provide a livelihood for the Corkum family.
There is a connection between Devin and the land that even he doesn't fully understand. But he knows it's there, and after years of dabbling in other professions, he returned to his childhood home to take his place in the family's farming history.
And it all starts with the soil, as vital to grapes as other crops.
"We're a family of farmers who have learned to trust our intuitions," said Devin. "Everything we need is in the vineyard. We decided to pay attention, but not go by the textbooks when we made wine.
"Our grapes have proved themselves. What went into that bottle was our vineyards, our land."
Devin said some of the old-timers in the valley have joked that they can't wait to taste his wine when he really knows something about winemaking. The former commercial photographer just shakes his head, smiles and takes the gentle ribbing as a compliment to his young wines.
Shari Corkum Derby, granddaughter of Uriah, and her husband Dean Derby own the remaining 650 acres of Spring Valley. It was Shari and Dean who convinced Devin and Mary to move from Chicago to Walla Walla to create the vineyard.
"For years they were trying to diversify from wheat," recalled Devin. "Dad's brother manages the vineyard, mom handles the money and Mary and I do most of the winemaking duties. It is a family business."
Devin grew up on the farm until he was about 5-years-old, long enough for him to get a little dirt under his fingernails and the seed of passion in his blood for agriculture. He would return to the family farm during the summers of his youth, looking out as far as the eye could see to the golden wheat fields rustling in a temperate breeze.
In 1991, talk began in the family circle of establishing a winery. Walla Walla was growing in wine production, and the Derby family figured their land could produce grapes as well as anywhere in the valley.
Gary Figgins, winemaker for the acclaimed Leonetti, encouraged the Derbys to plant grapes. The area designated for vineyards has excellent drainage. Most of the top covers a deep layer of basalt rock.
"The ground is phenomenal," said Devin. "We knew it could produce great fruit if we just let it do it's thing with little interference."
Spring Valley Vineyard has about 40 acres planted, including Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2000 Uriah is composed of 60 percent Merlot, 34 percent Cab Franc and 6 percent Petit Verdot.
Critics describe the wine as one of the best in the appellation. The wine has a nice hint of spiciness that stays all the way to the finish. The fruit has cherry and plum flavors with a dab of chocolate. Wine Spectator described it as "polished to a deep sheen, and echoing forever."
Mary Derby worked for years managing restaurants in the Chicago area, and with that, developed wine lists. She said she is partial to wine and food pairing, and doesn't like the type of high alcoholic wines that overwhelm food.
"Our wines are made in the old world style so they work well with food," Mary said. "There is a niche for everyone. We want our wines to be thought of as food friendly."
A barrel tasting of the 2000 Syrah revealed luscious black cherry, chocolate and violet flavors-a wine sure to be fabulous with a nice grilled steak. The couple also has Merlot in the barrel, for a release of May 2003.
In the meantime, Devin is switching over from American oak to more French oak, and experimenting with one-year-old used barrels to see what works better. His wines seem to respond better to new oak, he says.
"My biggest challenge now is finding out what barrels work best for our vineyards," said Devin. "I think we're on the right track with French oak."
As he continues to experiment, his wines continue racking up high scores. The publicity helps to sell his wine, but the Derbys say it also proves that Walla Walla is a region to reckon with in the wine industry.
"We're so young at this. These high ratings for our wines only show that this region is phenomenal for producing great grapes," Devin said. "When our wines do this well, I think consumers look for other Walla Walla and Washington state wines."
With harvest just around the corner, the Derbys said they will briefly bask in the spotlight of their wine, and then get back to work, producing more and better wines for the coming year.
Uriah, Spring Valley's flagship wine, has quickly become one of the hottest wines in the NW. The winery is the latest evolution of a century old family farm pioneered by Uriah Franklin Corkrum, the family patriarch featured on the wine's label.
Spring Valley Vineyard's winery is a limited production facility. The first Estate Bottled wine was a Bordeaux-style red. Blended for Spring Valley by Walla Walla Vintners from Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes; aged in American and French oak barrels, this wine was the first vintage to bear the name "URIAH".
1999 Vintage- The Estate Bottled 1999 URIAH made its debut as a complete and complex blend of 59% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot. Having a deep dark cherry color and a nose of spun sugar, ripe berry and cherry, URIAH 99 is an elegant, well balanced wine of medium weight. Layers of lush fruit, sweet spices and a smoky middle palate round out to a long, creamy, raspberry finish. URIAH 99 will continue to evolve beautifully in the cellar for many years.
Wine Spectator rated the 99 Uriah 91 Points
and had the following to say about it: "Ripe and exotic, with a lush
overlay of herb and peach-skin to the supple blackberry and currant flavors,
lingering nicely on the vibrant finish. 900 cases made. (HS)
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