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Cinder Wines buys Tempranillo fruit from famed Abacela
GARDEN CITY, Idaho — An Arctic blast and a horrific hailstorm in the Snake River Valley led Cinder winemaker Melanie Krause, one of the Pacific Northwest’s top talents, to the region’s epicenter of Tempranillo – Southern Oregon.
A trip to Abacela Winery during the 2017 crush wasn’t in the plans for Krause a year ago, but her time in the Umpqua Valley with founding winemaker Earl Jones proved to be both a pilgrimage and a way to appease fans of Tempranillo in her hometown of Boise, Idaho.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I can make Tempranillo from any vineyard in the world, which vineyard would it be?” Krause said. “That would be Abacela’s Fault Line Vineyards. I’ve admired Abacela’s wines for years and admire the dedication and experiments that Earl goes about with his vineyard.”
Jones agreed to sell Krause six tons of Tempranillo grapes from Fault Line, home to the first commercial Tempranillo vineyard in the Pacific Northwest.
“I’ve said ‘No’ for 20 years,” Jones told Great Northwest Wine. “I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve donated an acre to UCC (Umpqua Community College) or let a friend have juice, but no, I don’t sell fruit.”
Excitement surrounded the opportunity to collaborate with the renowned producer. However, it’s unlikely to be repeated by Krause for a variety of reasons, she said, starting with the nine-hour, 500-mile drive west from Boise to Roseburg.
“We came back with the truck loaded, and it was quite hellish — about 12 hours to get home,” Krause sighed. “But we’ll learn from it and have fun with it, even if it’s been really painful.”
Hail shreds prized source in 15 minutes
A little-known aspect of the Snake River Valley is that a small yet significant portion of the American Viticultural Area established in 2007 includes the Oregon side of the river. Its promise is reflected in Emerald Slope Vineyard near the tiny farming town of Adrian.
Most vintages, Cinder pulls Tempranillo from both Tim Martin’s Emerald Slope Vineyard and Sawtooth Vineyard, arguably Idaho’s most fascinating vineyard. Last year was different. Mother Nature wreaked havoc on both sites four months apart in two different ways, first in January with an extended stretch when temperatures plummeted to minus-22.
“The Tempranillo in Idaho came through the winter specific to the site and even the clone,” Krause said. “At Sawtooth, one clone had to be cut back to the ground for re-training. One clone lived.
“Over in Adrian, Emerald Slope survived and we were looking at almost a full crop. Then came a sheet of hail — two inches in about 15 minutes — that stripped everything and turned the vineyard into pulp.”
As a result of that May 5 storm, Cinder received only two tons of Idaho Tempranillo from the 2017 vintage. It was clone 2 that produced a crop at Sawtooth. Clone 1 died back.
“I’d say we only got about 30 percent of our normal fruit overall for the winery, and that’s probably fairly representative of the entire state,” Krause said. “Some of the vineyards got completely annihilated, but Sawtooth and some of the Symms (Vineyard) blocks made it through. Emerald Slope made it through the winter, and that’s about 30 percent of my grapes, so that (hail storm) was an enormous blow.”
Juggling multiple vineyards across three states
A few months before the trip to Abacela, Krause and her team bottled the 2015 Tempranillo, a bi-state blend of Sawtooth with Two Coyotes Vineyard in Washington state’s Rattlesnake Hills. Krause said she enjoys collaborating with Phil Cline, who also manages vineyards in the exciting, higher-elevation Naches Heights AVA west of Yakima.
“I like to work with Phil Cline, and the Tempranillo I get from him is similar in style to the Snake River Valley fruit,” she said.
Various losses in Krause’s home region prompted her to seek Cline’s help for white Rhône Valley grapes such as Marsanne and Roussanne. That meant even more time on the road, though.
“I’d never worked with either of those varieties, so it’s another fun project that Mother Nature gave us,” she said. “We thought, ‘We might as well.’ ”
And yet, Krause, one of the Northwest’s top magicians with Riesling, Viognier and Syrah, also has shown a Midas touch with Tempranillo. Her 2014 vintage led to a double gold medal at the 2016 Cascadia Wine Competition in the spring and then a Platinum at Wine Press Northwest 2016 Platinum Judging that fall. That year, Cinder leaned heavily on the Snake River Valley.
The 2015 vintage fell victim to a killing freeze in November 2014, which prompted Krause to create the 53/47 blend of Idaho with Washington fruit. It was helpful, she said, that last year Wine Business Monthly magazine featured Tempranillo during one of its variety focuses. Cinder and Abacela were among the nine Northwest producers involved in the peer-judging of Tempranillo.
“I know Melanie’s wines, and I’ve talked to her before, so we weren’t strangers when she called and asked if there were any Southern Oregon growers who might be able to help,” Jones said. “I told her that I would work with her and try to squeeze out something for her.”
Cinder Wines to showcase six clones, six lots
In typical Abacela fashion, Jones, head winemaker Andrew Wenzl and vineyard manager Chris Lake collaborated with Krause and turned this into more than a normal grower-winemaker transaction. They talked clones, winemaking research, pick times and logistics. They targeted a selection of clones within certain blocks that would be ready to harvest within hours of each other for cross-state transportation.
“That’s tough to do,” Jones said. “We had to farm them with that intent.”
Abacela brought in about 40 tons that day, with six tons heading back to the Snake River Valley as raw grapes to be vinified by Krause at her Garden City winery.
“She was loaded down and stacked pretty high, so I would have been pretty nervous,” Wenzl chuckled. “If there was a 30-mph curve, I would have been doing no more than 20 (mph) for sure.”
As the winemaker of a 12,000-case company who always wants more to choose from, Wenzl admitted that he wasn’t 100 percent jazzed about giving up a single bin of Tempranillo.
“That’s another 30 barrels that I don’t have in my cellar,” he said.
Tempranillo is planted across 27 acres at Abacela, and Krause received six individual one-ton lots of clones 1, 2, 3, 11, 12 and 13, a collection that includes perhaps Abacela’s three most prized clones.
“I’m looking forward to see how my babies did,” Wenzl said with a chuckle. “The plan was to ferment them and treat them all the same.”
Abacela doesn’t approach all the clones and the blocks the same. During his 20 years in Oregon, Jones and his teams have dialed in their fermentation regimens based on the characteristics of individual blocks, targeting different temperatures and macerating the berries at various lengths.
At a recent workshop on clonal research at the Oregon Tempranillo Celebration in Portland, clone 11 generated considerable fascination among the group of Oregon winemakers.
“Their favorite was clone 11,” Wenzl said. “Abacela can produce a very tannic wine, but I’ve learned over the years what the consumer wants and doesn’t want. I could ferment them at a high temperature and have the (juice) chew on the skins until they have nothing else to give, but those tannins won’t always get resolved in the barrel.”
The development of clone 2, both in the vineyard and the cellar, has been critical to the success of Abacela’s largest production Tempranillo, the approachable and ready-to-enjoy Fiesta. And fruit from clone 1 remains the most prized across the Fault Line Vineyards.
“Clone 1 will almost always make its way into the ‘barrel select’ or reserve program, but it’s not the easiest to grow, and it doesn’t set the highest crop,” Wenzl said.
Krause received clone 1 from the South West Block, which is near the storied South East Block in Cox’s Rock Vineyard.
Trade publication spotlights NW Tempranillo
Ironically, Cinder’s trip to Abacela came just a few weeks after the September 2017 issue of Wine Business Monthly magazine. Research by reporter Lance Cutler pointed out that while Tempranillo is the world’s fourth-most planted grape, only 5 percent of the 9,091 wineries in the U.S. produce a Tempranillo. That includes 76 in Oregon, 54 in Washington and six in Idaho.
“We’d love to see more people growing Tempranillo,” said Wenzl, who has been at Abacela since 2003 when he left Silvan Ridge in Eugene. “We’ve been advocates for it all along. We need more opportunities to produce world-class Tempranillo, but we need enough volume of it to move the needle even just a little bit.”
It will be about two years before Krause releases any of her Southern Oregon expressions, but she carries some early impressions.
“It’s difficult comparing the 20-year history of Fault Line Vineyards to five years in Idaho, but I have drawn the conclusion that Idaho will always make less tannic wines than the Umpqua Valley,” she said. “The Fault Line Vineyards wines have enormous body, and in Idaho we have amazing fruit, too, but the wines are less tannic and easier to drink earlier.”
Krause noted that some vintages of Tempranillo grown in the Snake River Valley present more tannin than others, but her fans seem to appreciate the variety’s structure and vintage markers.
“I don’t hear anyone complaining in the tasting room,” she said. “The wines always sell out before the next vintage is ready.”
Fault Line Vineyards provided Krause and her team with those six lots, and the plan is to keep them separated.
“I have the six experiments running in the winery,” she said. “They were fermented each in the winery with the same treatments, which we hope will provide us some insight into the clonal difference as well.”
‘I want people to nerd out’ about Tempranillo
At this point, Krause said she’s considering presenting a three-state comparison that would represent six clones. She expects the six lots from Fault Line Vineyards will result in 400 cases of 2017 Tempranillo, backed by as many as 500 cases from the Washington vineyards and as few as 100 cases from Sawtooth. That would reflect a small increase from the 2015 vintage.
And Krause looks forward to allowing Cinder fans in her home state of Idaho to experience each lot from the Umpqua Valley individually.
“I don’t see us aging them,” she said. “I want to release them all at the same time. I want people to nerd out about the state-by-state differences.”
Cinder also is conscious about holding its price point.
“That’s a question we’ll have to carefully examine,” she said. “It certainly added to the expense of making the wine, but we’re cautious about raising prices in Idaho. We’re still like the forgotten cousin of the Northwest.”
Krause and her husband, Joe Schnerr, relished their time at Abacela, which included a tour of the property.
“They are not in the habit of selling grapes, but they agreed to sell to us, which is awesome,” Krause said.
Cinder Wines produces a total of about 8,000 cases of wine each year, with the growth plan to reach 10,000 cases in the next few years. That would be a bit smaller than Abacela, which last year celebrated the 20th anniversary of its first commercial bottling of Tempranillo.
“(Jones) says he thought really, really seriously about the Snake River Valley for Tempranillo, but he thought it would winter through better in Southern Oregon, and it looks as if he’s right,” Krause said. “But this is my hometown, and every region has the potential for frost damage. Besides, look at 2016 for us (in Idaho). It was a huge vintage, and the wines were gorgeous.”
Jones and Wenzl look forward to seeing what Cinder does with Tempranillo from Fault Line Vineyards, and they hope to share research.
“Sure, we ended up a little short for Abacela, but Melanie is a nice person and when she reached out to me, I thought, ‘Wow, what an ideal opportunity to scratch deep in our viticultural pockets and share some of the best clonal material we have,” Jones said.
“I also felt like I was helping someone in a time of need,” Jones added. “You can’t believe how many times I get people calling us for fruit, but she represented something special to me – someone who is sincerely interested in Tempranillo. I’ve had her wine, and I know that she knows how to make good wine.”