YELM, Wash. — Doug McCrea’s transformation from Washington state’s leading Rhône Ranger to a devotee of Rioja began nearly a decade ago — and it started with a simple phone call from a friendly grower.
“Tempranillo came into my life in 2006 when Philip Cline of Naches Heights Vineyards and the creator of the Naches Heights appellation, called up in September and told me there was a ton of Tempranillo available that had not left the vineyard,” McCrea said. “He had to come over the Puget Sound the following day and said he’d be happy to bring it, ‘If you’d like to have some fun and try some Tempranillo.’ “
Since then, McCrea, a native of New Orleans, has created his Salida Wine brand, using a wine bar in Yelm as a vehicle to promote the 2,000-case production from his winery in the nearby town of Rainier.
We recently sat down with McCrea to talk about his role history in the Washington wine industry, his transition to Spanish varieties and his Salida Wine program. He also hints at his new outlet in downtown Walla Walla, a space shared with him by Gino Cuneo of g. Guneo Cellars.
Here’s the interview:
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An easy transition from Rhône to Spain
McCrea not only has embraced the food-friendly Tempranillo from Cline-farmed Two Coyote Vineyard, but also other spicy and racy grapes native to Spain such as Albariño, Garnacha, Garnacha Blanca, Graciano, Monastrell and Touriga Naçional.
“That delivery of Tempranillo was going to make me a couple of barrels or so, and I thought, ‘What the heck? We could blend it away if we so wish or end up bottling it all and drink it and give to friends,” he said. “It was brand new. I had no idea and was somewhat skeptical about the potential.
“But the following summer, I’m checking stuff out in the barrel and I’m going, ‘This is the real stuff. This is Tempranillo.’ It reminded me so much of the characteristics of Rioja — other than Ribera del Duero. I was intrigued.”
Hooked was more like it, and the transition from McCrea Cellars to Salida Wine took hold.
“Shortly thereafter, I managed to get my hands on some Albariño through Bill denHoed at the Dutchman Vineyard, and we started making Albariño a few years ago,” McCrea said. “So there’s the classic queen of the white wine of Spain, along with the king itself — Tempranillo.”
Washington’s leading Rhône Ranger
McCrea’s place in the history of Washington wine already was substantial as a pioneer for his work with Rhône varieties Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Counoise under McCrea Cellars, which he started in 1998. And while the late David Lake and Columbia Winery were the first in the state to make Syrah, McCrea can make a case that he was the first to bottle Viognier in 1997.
“I was the second one out the shoot with Syrah,” McCrea said. “I knew David well, and I was at several crushes of his Syrah before we started. David’s style was a fairly European, more austere style of winemaking. What’s interesting was I don’t think the Syrah really took hold all that well. It sold, but when we produced our first Syrah and put it out there, it went ballistic. We were very pleased with the results at that point in time.”
McCrea embraced Syrah to great acclaim, and he soon bottled four styles of that grape. But it was the somewhat fickle Rhône variety Grenache that first spoke to McCrea when he lived in Lake Stevens.
“It all started with the vineyard in the Columbia River Gorge, across from The Dalles, Ore., owned by a gentleman named Don Graves,” McCrea said. “We called him, ‘Duffer Don,’ and Walter Clore literally walked up to his door one day, I’m guessing in the ’70s, and said, ‘You ought to plant wine grapes here.’
“He didn’t know the first thing about it — he was working for Bonneville — but he did it, and he planted Grenache, so in ’89, that was my first Rhône varietal, Grenache,” McCrea continued. “When I saw this place and saw that the Grenache could actually mature, I said, ‘You know, Don, we ought to plant a little Syrah here.’ And that was the beginning.”
McCrea began bottling Syrah in 1994.
“And then it won Ray’s Boathouse Retrospective three years in after we released it, so that was pretty cool,” he said.
From Grenache to Garnacha
His work for Salida seems natural. In Spain, Grenache is known as Garnacha, and Mourvèdre is Monastrell. He blends those wines at Salida with Tempranillo, a wine he calls Tres Vino. Again, it was a style similar to what he produced during his 25 years of McCrea Cellars, a span that included relationships with growers such as Dick Boushey in the Yakima Valley and Jim Holmes on Red Mountain.
“My intent back then was to produce a wine that more reflected the Southern Rhône style than the northern because if you are in one of those northern appellations, they don’t allow another red varietal with the exception of Syrah,” he said. “If you are in Châteauneuf or Gigondas or Vacqueyras, then you can use up to 26 grapes.
“It was the natural thing to do since I already had Grenache, and I had Syrah,” he continued. “I wanted that third element and that was the Mourvèdre, which we planted with Jim Holmes. And we planted Viognier up there as well — the first Viognier in Washington state. I don’t know if our Mourvèdre was the first, but it had to be really early on. And then after that, we planted Counoise because that seemed to be a good direction to go.”
Researching Tempranillo, TAPAS
A couple of years after his introduction to Tempranillo, Cline introduced McCrea to Malbec, whose natural home is in the Cahors between Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley and the Pyrenees.
“Phil calls me up about two years later and says, ‘Doug, guess what?’ I’ve got some Malbec here that got left behind, and I thought I’d give you the call first.” I said, ‘Bring it on.’ ”
That led to the birth of Fuego Sagrado — his “sacred fire” blend of Malbec and Tempranillo from Two Coyote.
“Fortunately enough, the owners of Two Coyote Vineyard planted Clone 1,” McCrea said. “There’s a marked difference in the clones. Unfortunately, to a great extent Washington state has much more Clone 2 planted than Clone 1.”
According to McCrea, the differences are distinctive, both in the nose and on the palate.
“Clone 2 has these long, somewhat-pointed cylindrical clusters with pretty decent sized berries,” he said. “Clone 1 looks like a little hand grenade. It’s a much smaller cluster, somewhat roundish, much smaller berries – about the size of Merlot. It produces a much more intense wine. Tannins are a bit higher, which is to be expected because of the pulp-to-skin ratio, but it was definitely the expression of the grape. So we decided to go forward with it, and that was the beginning.”
He went on to serve on the board of the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society (TAPAS), a group not unlike that of the Rhône Rangers. And he’s become an admirer of Earl Jones, founding winemaker and owner of Abacela in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley.
“He’s the patriarch of Tempranillo in the Pacific Northwest, and I think he probably has upwards of 10 clones in that vineyard now,” McCrea said.
As he did under his eponymous brand, McCrea — a professional musician, singer and educator who moved from the Bay Area to Washington in 1980 — enjoys both blending these Spanish varieties and featuring them as standalone wines.
“Graciano is the other indigenous red of Rioja, and we planted that at the Two Coyote Vineyard, and we are now in our third vintage of Graciano,” McCrea said. “Tempranillo, if it has an issue, its high pH — its acid drops out significantly when you get to 24 brix range.
“The Spanish for centuries blended Graciano to their Tempranillo because Graciano is a lot like Counoise in that it brings tremendous color and power to the wine,” he continued. “We’re not only blending with a little reserve version of Tempranillo currently, but we actually have a varietal Graciano. As you know, that’s always been me. I’m always loving to show people what are these things about when they are purely that varietal. Other than that in the white range, we produce Garnacha Blanca — which the French call Grenache Blanc. It, too, has an origin in Spain.”
Ramtha followers support Salida Bine Bar
McCrea, whose work with woodwinds led him from New Orleans to the Bay Area music scene, has found an audience for his Salida wines beyond Yelm, but he’s also been supported in the emerging and eclectic town near the state capital of Olympia and Fort Lewis. It’s also made headlines in recent years as home to the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, a group headed by controversial author J.Z. Knight.
“The folks at the Ramtha school really appreciate red wine, and it provides them with something no one did before — a place where they can come and hang around and enjoy drinking some red wine and relax and meeting one another and have fun,” McCrea said.
Life near the foothills of Mount Rainier also affords McCrea the opportunity to spend time hiking.
“When I’m not making wine, I’m running a business administratively and it takes a lot of time,” McCrea said. “This requires time — running a wine bar — but other than that my passion is the mountains. I love the mountains, I’m so comfortable up there. I used to throw on a backpack when I lived in California, where I taught at a community college called Columbia in the Sierras. I used to just throw on a backpack and take off for a few days, head up into the Kings Canyon area or whatever we could do.”
The move to Rainier not only gave McCrea room to grow his winemaking beyond his garage, but it also got him closer to his fruit sources in the Yakima Valley.
“I ended up in Yelm because I was living in Lake Stevens on a small acreage and started the winery like many of us — as garagistes,” McCrea said. “It was a classic two-car garage with all the barrels crammed in there. It reached a point where there was not enough room, so I went to the county and said I wanted to put in a little winery building on our property because we had about 3 acres. They wouldn’t go for it. So we started looking around, and the only logical direction was to go south because north is farther away from the vineyards.”
Next step for Salida Wines
He’s not making as much as wine for Salida as he was under the McCrea Cellars brand. “At McCrea, we topped out in the low 4,000 cases,” he said. “Here, we’re about about half that.”
The Yelm wine bar adds different layers to the operation, and while he sings on occasion, there’s little time to practice his classical and jazz work with woodwinds. He allows poets and other musicians to perform in his wine bar.
“Frankly, it’s a lot easier to get back into singing than it is to get back into playing, particularly because improvisation requires that you are fluid, that your hands and minds are automatic,” he said. “Because of the business, I have really haven’t been able to continue playing with frequency. Hopefully, one day I will.”
Although he continues to enjoy the vibe of his Salida Wine Bar, which is a stone’s throw from Yelm’s movie house and library, the hustle of Puget Sound life — and a serious car accident on Interstate 5 — has prompted McCrea and his wife, Kim, to consider moving to the quiet and wide-open side of the Cascades.
“I can’t go there right now, but there’s a development in that regard,” he said. “Interestingly enough, it’s not in the Yakima Valley. It’s a little further east. We’ll see what happens. I love the Yakima Valley though.”
And while some might believe he named his winery as a Spanish reference to the transition from McCrea Cellars, which he operated with ex-wife Susan Neel and her husband Bob, he quickly explains.
“It’s a metaphor for when the grapes ‘leave the vineyard’ or ‘exit the vineyard,’ ” McCrea said. “I had thought it would provide a subliminal message that would make sense to people after making walking into Lowe’s at the door where it says, ‘Entrada,’ and when you walk out the door it says, ‘Salida.’ ”
“I thought this might be cool, and it would stick in their brains back there,” he chuckled. “I’m not so sure that worked, but it is what it is.”