These six Pacific Northwest wine-making newcomers, open 5 years or less, are commanding attention

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Little did I suspect when I signed on to write an article about a handful of our region’s most innovative and eye-catching new wineries just how difficult that would be.

But with Washington state now home to something like 600 wineries, and Oregon boasting nearly 400, the process soon started to feel as daunting and mysterious as choosing a new pope.

Many lively e-mails flew from my home office to my editor, who’s like everyone’s favorite high-school English teacher — tough but fiercely fair and compassionate. Twice we met in her little office (once with the story’s photographer and my editor’s boss sitting cross-legged on the floor) to suss out the possibilities. Action figures of black-robed nuns were everywhere, which somehow seemed fitting.

To help us decide on half a dozen from among our region’s best new wineries, we limited the nominees to those open five years or less. We paid particular attention to those with a notable, talented winemaker. I’d known a few of these people for years, so that was some comfort.

And because we agreed that access to good grape sources is another fundamental of good winemaking, that counted for a lot. Awards and/or high scores from respected wine competitions and publications commanded our attention.

And, of course, all our nominees had to offer well-made, well-priced wines.

Perhaps just as obviously, we journalists were immediately drawn to an intriguing story. Likely that’s why the wineries featured in this story aren’t huge corporate entities (although some may one day grow into that).

Instead, we tried to focus on heartfelt operations with genuine people behind them, places where the wine is aged in oak barrels, not huge stainless-steel tanks with added oak chips. Places where good winemaking overshadows the bottom line, even if that sometimes results in precarious consequences. Places where the number of cases produced is still (relatively speaking) small, with total production ranging from 2,500 to a high of 25,000 cases a year.

It didn’t hurt if the winery had representation by a savvy public-relations firm. And we thought it smart if they made use of the latest technology to get their stories across: interactive Web sites, podcasts and vodcasts. A hearty dose of passion for their enterprises didn’t hurt, either.

Finally, our list magically narrowed, and the smoke turned from black to white. Here you have it: our choices for six young wineries to watch.

A BACKGROUND AND A DREAM ARE BLENDED

Brian Carter Cellars

Woodinville

425-806-WINE (9463)

www.briancartercellars.com

Brian Carter knew by the time he was 15 that he wanted to be a winemaker. So he went after degrees in microbiology from Oregon State University and winemaking/viticulture from the University of California-Davis. Carter first visited Washington in 1978 and won prestigious awards during his tenure at Paul Thomas Winery in the 1980s.

In 1988, Carter partnered with local businessman Harry Alhadeff to open Apex Cellars. A giving and gifted winemaker, he also consulted for a host of Washington wineries (McCrea Cellars, Hedges Family Estate), and became the only winemaker to win the Seattle Enological Society’s Grand Prize three times.

But by the fall of 2002, Carter was growing restless; he wanted to produce wines under his own label. But instead of making 100 percent varietal wines (sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon), he dreamed of creating handcrafted, blended wines with exotic names such as L’Etalon (French for “stallion”) and Solesce (Latin for “sun and essence”).

Brian Carter Cellars was incorporated in 2004 and the Brian Carter Collection was introduced to the wine trade in 2006.

Early next year, Carter will release his new tempranillo-based blend, Corrida (Spanish for “bullfight”). In the meantime, you can sample his six other wines at the atmospheric “little yellow tasting room” in Woodinville.

“We source from 14 different vineyards in five different appellations in Eastern Washington, which provides me with many different colors to use on the palette of the wines I make,” the 55-year-old winemaker explains. “I try to emphasize the Washington state character in my wines, which often expresses itself best when the wines are reminiscent of the wines of Europe. Typically, these are wines that have balance — fruit, acid and tannins in harmony — making them taste good at release and yet able to age beautifully.”

Winemakers think of age in terms of harvests as opposed to years, and this autumn marks Brian Carter’s 29th harvest. His wines consistently provide consumers with interesting and unusual food-friendly blends at reasonable prices.

At Barolo in downtown Seattle, where four of Carter’s wines are shown in a separate box on the menu, we invariably order Carter’s Tuttorosso — a super-Tuscan-style blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and syrah — to pair with my favorite Dungeness Crab Spaghetti and my husband’s beloved Osso Buco. At Madison Park Café (owned by Carter’s girlfriend, Karen Binder), we pick the Byzance, which pairs well with all manner of the café’s French bistro-style food. The southern-Rhone-style blend of grenache and syrah is a fruit-forward, totally yummy mouthful.

Wines of note: Brian Carter Cellars 2005 Tuttorosso, Brian Carter Cellars 2005 Byzance, Brian Carter Cellars 2006 Abracadabra

THE GARAGISTE GOES PRO

Willis Hall

Marysville

360-653-1247

www.willishall.com

In an oversized garage behind a neat, wood-frame house at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Marysville sit hundreds of well-weathered French-, Hungarian- and American-oak barrels. The fermented grape juice within waits for the perfect moment to be blended and bottled into award-winning merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.

The man behind the barrels, John Bell, is an aerospace engineer who worked at Boeing for more than 30 years. He became interested in wine while hosting a dinner for Boeing suppliers.

“I didn’t know white from red,” the 62-year-old winemaker says. But the fellow who ordered the wine chose a nice California cab, and that made Bell want to know more.

Bell took classes at the Seattle Wine School, went to winemaker dinners, visited wineries and studied the technical aspects of winemaking. In 1999, he joined the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Makers Club, a.k.a., the Boeing Wine Club.

“I had the advantage of superb grape sources, as well as access to the extensive experience of other longtime Boeing Wine Club members,” Bell recounts. He and his cohorts were garagistes, a French word that signifies small, independent producers who literally begin their careers by making small lots of wine in their garages, often as a hobby.

Some get serious. Bell bonded Willis Hall winery in 2003, produced his first vintage that year and retired from Boeing in 2004. He continues to craft about 2,500 cases of wine each year in his specially outfitted garage/production facility. “My wines are my art. I view them as distilling some of life’s beauty,” he says.

The gentlemanly winemaker relies on a cadre of volunteers during his busiest times — harvest/crush and bottling — but still loses 25 pounds every year between September and December.

His labors result in beautifully crafted, French-style wines that speak of the terroir. Wines such as his 2004 cab franc, “a wine in search of a steak.” Or his 2005 syrah, rife with blueberry fruit and black pepper top notes.

Willis Hall, the name of Bell’s winery, pays homage to his father and maternal grandmother. “I think of them often during alone times in the winery, when it’s late and the mile-away train whistle is my only company,” he says.

Wines of note: Willis Hall 2005 Destiny Ridge Vineyard Tempranillo, Willis Hall 2005 Crawford Vineyard Syrah, 2005 Charbonneau Farms Cabernet Franc

A BRILLIANT CONCEPT BECOMES BOLD REALITY

Wines of Substance

Walla Walla

509-526-6965

www.winesofsubstance.com

Sometimes an idea seems so right, you wish you’d hatched it yourself. That’s what crossed my mind in January when the buzz began to build about Walla Walla-based Wines of Substance.

The concept is simple. Focus exclusively on producing single-varietal wines (no blends) from Washington state that are high-quality, handcrafted, reasonably priced ($18 or less per bottle), and target younger or less-experienced wine drinkers.

The packaging elevates the concept — white-on-black labels modeled after elements on the periodic table. Pinot gris becomes Pg, chardonnay is Ch and cabernet sauvignon, Cs. The Web site’s “periodic table” displays labels from all 30 wine varieties commercially available in the state. Click on an “element” and the wine’s back label pops into view; click more for varietal information, tasting notes and the shopping cart.

“Wine is intimidating. With our interactive Web site, the cheekiness and fun way it’s presented, it takes away the intimidation factor and adds an educational element,” says Jamie Brown, the 42-year-old winemaker at Wines of Substance, Waters Winery and 21 Grams.

“I didn’t want a 19-wine portfolio, but I did want to eventually try making every varietal found in Washington state, even if it was just 75 cases of Counoise,” Brown says. So he and his partners (founder Jason Huntley and Greg Harrington, also a partner in 21 Grams and winemaker at Gramercy Cellars) created Wines of Substance. “We don’t consider it a ‘second label,’ but the sister winery to Waters and Gramercy.”

Brown, a musician who played in bands around Seattle and owned a music shop before moving back to his hometown of Walla Walla, credits his love of music for helping him become an intuitive, self-taught winemaker.

In Walla Walla, he worked for some of the best — Glen Fiona, Dunham Cellars, Pepper Bridge — before becoming the first winemaker at James Leigh Cellars in 2001. There, he produced elegant, food-friendly wines. His syrah, in particular, made people sit up and take notice, and continues as one of his specialties today. The Wines of Substance tasting room is at the industrial-chic winery shared by Waters and Gramercy Cellars. Wood-beamed ceilings and weathered steel siding evoke the feeling of a 100-year-old farm building. A great spot for a little “Substance abuse.”

Wines of note: Wines of Substance 2007 Pg (pinot gris), Wines of Substance 2007 Re (riesling), Wines of Substance 2006 Me (merlot)

WITH DEEP ROOTS, A NEW WINERY IS PLANTED

Cadaretta

Walla Walla

509-591-0324

www.cadaretta.com

The Anderson & Middleton Co. has done business in Washington since 1898, harvesting timber and sending its lumber schooners (including one named the Cadaretta) up and down the West Coast during the first half of the 20th century.

When table-grape growers in California’s Central Valley needed wooden grape boxes, the Middleton family obliged. They grew grapes for their own brand, Clayhouse Wines, and others.

But Rick Middleton, 41, dreamed of making wine in Washington. So in 2006, his family purchased 312 acres in the Walla Walla Valley and hired Virginie Bourgue, 33, as winemaker and viticulturist of Cadaretta winery. A native of Provence with degrees in viticulture, enology and environmental studies, Bourgue had worked at famous Champagne houses, interned at Chateau Ste. Michelle and spent several years as winemaker at Bergevin Lane Vineyards in Walla Walla.

The team set out to build the 22-acre Southwind Vineyard from the ground up and document the process through YouTube films posted on the Cadaretta blog.

“Cadaretta is about winery and vineyard development at an entirely different level,” Bourgue explains. “We don’t rush into things. We take what has worked in the past and use new technologies and new techniques (such as vineyard mapping) that we get from scientific studies and practical experience, like my trip to Western Australia as part of the WA to WA exchange program.”

Bourgue is the prototypical French woman: stylish, sophisticated, opinionated. Her merlot and syrah mirror her background, an intriguing combination of the bold fruit and concentrated flavors of Washington state with the restraint and finesse of French winemaking. Yet her sauvignon blanc/semillon blend is spunky, Aussie-style, reflecting lessons learned during her WA to WA exchange.

Besides her work at Cadaretta (where she makes 3,600 cases a year), Bourgue also started her own winery, Lullaby, in 2006, with production of 500 cases a year.

“Lullaby wines are made in very small lots,” she explains, “and the varietals I produce are different than Cadaretta so we don’t compete.”

Look for Bourgue’s Lullaby viognier and rosé to be released next spring; the merlot-cabernet sauvignon in 2010.

Wines of note: Cadaretta 2007 SBS (sauvignon blanc/semillon), Cadaretta 2006 Syrah, Cadaretta 2006 Merlot

IT’S ALL IN THE FAMILY, TIMES TWO

Mercer Estates

Prosser

509-786-2097

www.mercerwine.com

The “M&H” logo that embellishes Mercer Estates wines marks a merry merger between two venerable Eastern Washington grape-growing families — the Mercers and the Hogues.

Both families have deep roots, literally and figuratively, in Washington winemaking. Second-generation Yakima Valley farmer Mike Hogue, 64, started The Hogue Cellars in the early 1980s, grew the winery (with brother Gary) into one of the state’s largest and sold it to Vincor International in 2001 for $36.4 million. But he kept farming, growing grapes for Hogue and other wineries.

“The idea of a new winery came from my daughter, Barb, and son-in-law, Ron Harle,” he says, “when they approached me about partnering with their friends, the Mercers.”

The Mercer family has farmed in the Horse Heaven Hills for four generations. Patriarch Bud Mercer, 70, and son Rob, 40, planted, and later sold, what’s now known as the Champoux Vineyard, which produces world-class red wines.

Fortuitously, the Mercers’ Dead Canyon Vineyard sits adjacent to Champoux. Its 120 acres of grapes will form the backbone of Mercer Estates’ merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. White-wine grapes are sourced from Mike Hogue’s best vineyards in the Yakima Valley — Brooks, Sunnyside, Spring Creek.

Winemaker David Forsyth won numerous awards during his 23 years at Hogue and signed on at Mercer Estates in early 2007. Jeff Peda, a 17-year Hogue veteran, serves as “director of stuff” — regional sales, winery events and hospitality.

“Between all of us,” Peda says, “we figure we have 120 years of experience in the wine business.”

All of which foretells lots of good winemaking for Mercer Estates, which produced 25,000 cases in its inaugural vintage. It’s the largest of our six wineries to watch, with plans to expand to 65,000 cases in the next five years.

Still, when asked to compare Hogue and Mercer Estates, Mike Hogue said Mercer “allows for a more hands-on approach” in order to deliver “premium wines at a reasonable price.”

Wines of note: Mercer Estates 2007 Riesling, Mercer Estates 2007 Chardonnay, Mercer Estates 2005 Merlot

THE OLD WORLD FINDS NEW EXPRESSION IN OREGON

Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards

Roseburg, Ore.

541-459-6060

www.reustlevineyards.com

In 1999, after selling their successful direct-marketing consulting company in Bucks County, Pa., Gloria and Stephen Reustle (pronounced “RUS el”) decided to follow Stephen’s dream of operating a vineyard and winery.

So the couple and their toddler daughter moved to California and spent the next year evaluating wine-growing regions from Santa Barbara to Walla Walla. In January 2001, just two weeks after the birth of their son, the Reustles moved to Roseburg, Ore., population 19,959.

The Umpqua Valley offered the best opportunity to make world-class wines and was a good place to raise a family, says Gloria, 41. “The growing season here provides wonderful sunny days and cool nights, which maintain acidity and create complex, food-friendly wines with aging potential.”

Stephen, 53, planted the Prayer Rock and Romancing Rock Vineyards. Today, he produces 12 varietals of estate-grown wines that have received a head-turning number of awards and “outstanding” ratings.

His plantings include everything from common varieties to small quantities of tempranillo, roussanne, malbec and grenache. Perhaps most noteworthy is the grüner veltliner, Austria’s most widely planted white-wine grape, sometimes referred to as grüner or gruvee.

Stephen became impressed with the Old World grape after traveling throughout Europe in 2001. He petitioned the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to classify grüner veltliner as a newly recognized American varietal. In 2006, Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards became the first winery in the U.S. to offer the wine for sale.

Grüner is a darling among sommeliers in this country because it pairs well with food and is somewhat similar to riesling, another sommelier fave. I’m not entirely sold on grüner, but recommend you try it anyway. I do give very high marks to Stephen’s sauvignon blanc and syrah, beautifully crafted wines that mirror their terroir and linger, linger, linger.

Tempranillo is another pet project. Earl Jones, owner of Abacela Vineyard and Winery 15 miles north of Prayer Rock, had introduced tempranillo to the American consumer, so the Reustles thought they could grow it successfully.

For his pinot noir, Stephen planted clones that match the top vineyards in Burgundy, uses nearly 100 percent new French oak barrels for aging and partners specific yeasts to the individual clones to add complexity.

Visitors to Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards “Come as Strangers, Leave as Friends.” Just last month, the Reustles opened a new winery and wine cave that includes three catacombs where wine tasting is offered.

Wines of note: Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2007 Grüner Veltliner, Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2006 Pinot Noir, Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2006 Syrah

Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining” and writes a column for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Visit her blog at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.