PROSSER, Wash. — When Josh and Lisa Lawrence became part-owners of Desert Wind Winery and its production facility in Prosser, it seemed merely a matter of time before they would shift the winemaking for their Gård Vintners wines.
On Monday, the Lawrence family announced that Matías Kúsulas has taken over as head winemaker for both Gård and Desert Wind. The Chilean, with a black belt in judo, has been head viticulturist of Lawrence Vineyards on the Royal Slope since 2017 and will continue in that role.
Last month, the Lawrences and their partners in Desert Wind — Tom and Tami Merkle — named Kúsulas as their winemaker for Desert Wind.
“Matías’s background in our vineyards on the viticulture side makes for a natural fit as winemaker for the Gård brand, as sense-of-place with our estate wines is of utmost importance to us,” Josh Lawrence stated in a news release. “The Royal Slope provides a tremendous range of potential for the varieties of grapes grown, as well as style of wines, and we are excited to have Matías at the helm to propel the future of Gård estate wines.”
Kúsulas replaces Aryn Morell, who served as the Gård Vintners winemaker for 10 years, starting in the spring of 2011. Morell launched his own brand, Alleromb, in 2005. His clients at M&L Production in Walla Walla have included Ardor Cellars and Matthews Winery/Tenor Wines in Woodinville and Mullan Road Cellars — the young Columbia Valley brand of acclaimed Napa Valley producer Dennis Cakebread. Kúsulas spent more than four years working at M&L Production, which has been a partnership among Morell and the Lawrence family.
“I am humbled and honored to take on the role of winemaker for Gård,” Kúsulas said. “I empirically believe we grow some of the best fruit in Washington, and with our fantastic team we’ll be able to continue making wines that showcase the purity and quality of that fruit.”
He will share the Desert Wind vinification facility with acclaimed Washington winemaker Jessica Munnell, who partners with the Merkles on the Wautoma Springs project near Prosser’s Vintners Village. Moving production for the Gård wines from Walla Walla to Prosser will shave about 30 miles off the trip to the crush pad for fruit harvested from the recently established Royal Slope American Viticultural Area.
“We believe (the news of the AVA) has had quite a bit to do with our increased demand this off-season for grapes,” Lawrence told Great Northwest Wine. “In fact, we are essentially sold out and wished we had been more aggressive on planting the past couple years. It was much appreciated publicity, and we look forward to people getting to better know how great the Royal Slope AVA is.”
Gård gears up for 10,000 cases, 4 tasting rooms
Gård Vintners, founded in 2006, is on a trajectory for growth with four tasting rooms across Washington — Woodinville, downtown Ellensburg, Walla Walla and most recently Royal City. When combined with the vines they first planted in the Frenchman Hills in 2003 and their recent acquisitions with the Merkles, which include historic Conner Lee Vineyard near Othello and the Fries family plantings for Desert Wind on the Wahluke Slope, Josh Lawrence has more than doubled the acres he oversees, which began with those he planted for his Gård project.
“We have been right around 8,000 cases the last couple years and plan to be closer to 10,000 cases in 2021,” Lawrence said. “We are at roughly 450 acres on the Royal Slope that we solely control, most of it owned, but we do lease Stoneridge. With Tom Merkle, which includes a couple other investors, we have roughly 600 acres on the Wahluke Slope and Radar Hill.”
Gård, which means farm in Norwegian, is a tribute to the Lawrence family’s ancestry and farming tradition. Josh grew up in Royal City, and he and Lisa are raising their three children on the family’s Grant County farm.
“I do believe our ability to grow super premium reds and whites at the same vineyards is unique worldwide,” Lawrence says. “The Royal Slope has been known for apples, cherries and row crops, so wine grapes have always had stiff competition for ground. I believe the AVA will push more people to consider planting wine grapes over these other crops.”
Lawrence fruit — including Corfu Crossing Vineyard, Solasken Vineyard and Thunderstone Vineyard — is featured in wines that Kúsulas crafts for his own brand, Massalto Wine. That brand is poured in Vancouver USA at a tasting room he shares with Valo Cellars, wines he crafts for Montana chef Michael Ruhland.
Kúsulas served in the Chilean military for seven years — achieving the rank of lieutenant in the Naval Academy of Chile — prior to entering the University of Chile in 2005 and studying agricultural engineering with a focus on enology and viticulture. By 2011, he began to explore winemaking around the world, leading him to France and Africa. In 2016, he landed in Washington state after working a harvest in New Zealand. He speaks four languages, including French and Italian.