When Darel Allwine was in the U.S. Air Force, he was based in Germany for five years and had the chance to do a bit of wine touring in the Mosel and Weingau. He liked the white wines but never thought much more about it.
In 1995, Allwine retired from the Air Force and landed in the Tri-Cities, a community in the heart of Washington wine country. He came here because family had settled here, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do next.
The destiny stepped into his path.
He answered a classified ad in the Tri-City Herald for a job at Columbia Crest, the behemoth winery 45 minutes to the southwest of the Tri-Cities in Paterson and started working there as a cellar worker in 1996.
“When I got hired at Columbia Crest, the winemaker joked that he hired me because of my last name,” Allwine said with a chuckle.
Whether that’s true or not, today Allwine has risen through the ranks and become the head winemaker for Col Solare.
We caught up with Allwine a few weeks ago during harvest and chatted with him for this week’s Great Northwest Winecast. Here’s the interview:
Creation of Col Solare
Allwine – that’s the name he was born with – worked at Columbia Crest for about seven years before joining Col Solare in 2003 as assistant winemaker.
Col Solare is a collaboration between Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville, Wash., and Marchesi Antinori, a winery in Italy that started in the 1380s. Its genesis was a similar collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. They produced Opus One, which today is among the most famous wineries in California’s Napa Valley.
Col Solare launched with the 1995 vintage. The focus was on creating one wine: a red blend that focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon. Though Antinori is famous for its wines from Tuscany that focus on Sangiovese, owner Piero Antinori has never shown interest in trying to create a Super Tuscan-style blend in Washington.
In 2007, the Ste. Michelle-Antinori partnership added a second winery to its portfolio: famed Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, the winery whose Cabernet Sauvignon shocked the French – and the world – in the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting that put American wines on the world map.
This move followed on the heels of Col Solare getting its own winery, a beautiful facility near the top of Red Mountain in the eastern Yakima Valley, just a few minutes’ drive outside of the Tri-Cities. A year later, the 30-acre estate vineyard was planted below the winery.
All this time, Allwine worked in relative obscurity as assistant winemaker to Marcus Notaro – a young man who also got his start at Columbia Crest. But in 2013, Notaro became head winemaker at Stag’s Leap, necessitating a move to Napa Valley. And Allwine was promoted to head winemaker of Col Solare.
“It’s been phenomenal for me,” he said quietly as he looked out over the estate vines. “I wake up every day and say, ‘Wow, this is an awesome opportunity for me.'”
On top of the mountain
Col Solare not only is near the top of Red Mountain, but it’s also one of the true gems within Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Washington wine industry.
The focus of Col Solare is that single wine, meant to be the ultimate expression of a Washington Cab-based wine. At $75, it is one of the most expensive red wines in the company.
In addition to the Col Solare blend, Allwine and his team also produce Shining Hill, a red blend for wine that doesn’t quite fit into the primary wine. (Col Solare, by the way, is Italian for “Shining Hill.”) And depending on what a particular vintage has to offer, Allwine might also make small lots of different wines. In 2011, for example, he bottled a separate Malbec, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. In 2012, he made a Malbec, Syrah and estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
These wines, Allwine pointed out, are made in lots of 50 to 75 cases and go primarily to Col Solare wine club members.
Allwine is responsible for 10,000 cases of production. Any wines that don’t make the cut for one of his programs get sold back to Ste. Michelle and will find a home at one of the other wineries.
Col Solare’s tools of the trade
Because Col Solare is in the ultra-premium category of winemaking, Allwine is provided with great grapes and some of the best equipment.
For example, famed viticulturist Dick Boushey manages the estate vineyard for Col Solare.
“Dick is a super person,” Allwine said. “He’s very personable and knows what he’s doing. It’s definitely a real treat to be able to be involved with him.”
When the new winery opened in 2006, the winemaking crew was provided a prototype sorting machine called the Mistral. It’s a French system that uses an “air knife” to push out unwanted materials, such as raisined grapes, leaves and other debris.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Allwine said.
In fact, it worked so well, Ste. Michelle bought the same system for Northstar in Walla Walla, Erath in Dundee, Ore., and Stag’s Leap in Napa Valley.
Making Col Solare
Allwine also has access to some of the best winemakers around. He works directly for Doug Gore, senior vice president for winemaking and viticulture at Ste. Michelle, as well as Renzo Cotarella, director of winemaking for Antinori.
This means Allwine will end up traveling to Italy on occasion to meet with Antinori’s winemakers, and Cotarella becomes heavily involved in helping to decide the final Col Solare blend.
“It’s a true collaboration,” Allwine said.
For the 2012 Col Solare, for example, Allwine, Gore and Cotarella tasted through dozens of potential blends until everyone was happy.
“It was one Renzo really loved and one we really loved,” Allwine said.
Through the years, Col Solare has been a wine that has carried the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area. But the goal since 2006 has been to move to a Red Mountain wine – and a wine that focuses on estate grapes.
Beginning with the 2011 vintage (the 2009 is the current release), Col Solare will be all Red Mountain. And barring a devastating winter freeze, it will remain so.
“Our focus was moving to Red Mountain,” Allwine said. “Cabernet Sauvignon has been just phenomenal here on Red Mountain.”