RICK SMALL is not only a great winemaker but also a man of deep integrity.
In the 1990s, Washington’s wine industry began to boom, resulting in a lot of new vineyards being planted. The owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in the Walla Walla Valley loved the potential of the grapes he was getting from these young vines, but he could not in good conscience put them into his highest-priced wines.
So Small turned to Old World traditions for a solution: He created a second label.
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In France, perhaps the most famous second label is Mouton Cadet, a wine created by Chateau Mouton Rothschild that now is one of the top-selling wines in the world.
For Small, Nelms Road goes back to his childhood. He lived on Nelms Road and rode the Woodward Canyon bus to school. The intersection of the two rural roads is four miles from his winery in tiny Lowden.
To make Nelms Road, Small and his head winemaker, Kevin Mott, use a system called “declassification,” in which they choose which barrels make it into their high-end wines and which fit better into Nelms Road. The winemaking practices are the same, and Small never purchases bulk wine made elsewhere to fill the bottles for Nelms Road. That just doesn’t fit into his ethics.
As a consequence, Small doesn’t make a lot of money on Nelms Road. The label makes up a third of the 18,000 cases of wine he produces. He knows he would make a lot more money if he put more of that great juice into his Artist Series cab, which sells for $60. But strong ethics help him sleep well, and that matters more than anything else to Small.
Nelms Road also serves as an introductory wine for Woodward Canyon. Not everyone can afford $85 for his Old Vines cab — one of the West Coast’s great wines — but paying less than a third for a wine that is really, really delicious and doesn’t need to be aged much longer than it takes you to drive home from the store brings a smile to Small’s face.
Nelms Road is a two-edged sword for Small, however. While the lower-priced wines have helped him through a couple of economic downturns, producing the wine during short vintages such as 2010 and 2011 takes money out of his pocket.
But, as with everything for Small, it’s the honest thing to do.
Andy Perdue is a wine journalist, author and judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.