Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Ron Coleman, Tamarack Cellars


I've made it pretty clear in the past that I'm no fan of numerical wine ratings. Seems, in fact, to be all the rage these days with us bloggers to say so as often as possible. Kinda like how it never seems to get old for everyone to sneer at oaky Chardonnay. I could type a list a foot-and-a-half long list right now on why the 100 point system is out of whack, makes retailers lazy and leads the wine drinking public way astray.

But what kinda Cork Demon would I be if I couldn't rebel against all doctrine, including my own?

On the walls of Ron Coleman's old firehouse-cum-winery are the blurbs of Wine Spectator, enlarged and framed, their high scoring digits pouncing out at you from every wall. Walking into this, I was more than a little concerned that I was in for a set of tongue-thrashing fruit bombs when I reached the tasting table.

Big they were, to be sure. But they had something special: movement. And by that I mean an elegant progression of flavors through the palate. This made me less wary of the effusion of praise. Hell, maybe there are high scoring wines that have more than power. Huh.

Ron himself just so happened on the scene, looking quite tired from the barrage of tourists there for a bit of vino before moving on to the weekend hot-air balloon extravaganza. He gave me a quick tour of the place before sitting down with me.

Interview with Ron Coleman, Tamarack Cellars

C&D: Tell me about this building.

Ron: This base that we're on was an Army Air Corps base. In WWII it was set up overnight because they had another base, but they needed a place for take-off and touch-downs for the B-25's. This was a B-25 bomber training base. The crews left here and went to Burma and to Northern England and to bomb Hitler, you know, so real heroes. When the war ended the base was shut down, but all these buildings were left. This building was the fire station for the whole base.

How did it all begin, you and wine?

The first bottle I remember impressing me was a '68 Charles Krug, in 1971. So I've been into wine for a long time. First vintage I remember buying was the '73 Germans, they were really good. Then the '74 California Cabs came along, and I just became a wine guy. For many years, just a wine lover, through the seventies and the eighties.

What did you do at the time?

Worked for the railroad. My wife was going to medical school, and I quit the railroad and became a wine wholesaler in Seattle in the eighties while she was in med school. At the end of school she transferred for residency to Milwaukee, she's an eye surgeon. We moved there and I became a sommelier at an old hotel...and sold wine during the day at a kinda yuppie grocery store, did that for four years. When we got done with that, I really wanted to make wine. She wanted to be a small town doctor. So in '93, we moved to Walla Walla. I started working at a cellar rat. In '98, we started this winery. I made 300 cases in '98...we kept increasing, and we're up to about 10,000 cases now.

You said earlier that you had originally wanted to top out at two or three thousand cases. What happened?

You know, making wine's addictive. You get opportunities to get into vineyards that you really want to be into, and it just kinda snowballs. I think in some ways, though, it hurt me to lose that focus. I've always admired the fact that you can go to Bordeaux and drive to the winery don't go to Chateau Palmer and ask, "What winery should I taste?" It's the wine. I like a wide array of wines, I get bored easily. So I end up making a lot of different kinds of wines.

What's your definition of a well-made glass of wine?

Wine's about balance. It's easy to focus just on one tune in wine, it's harder to juggle a lot of balls at once, and have a lot of things going on in the mouth. It's easy to get a great entry (on the palate) and no middle. Sometimes you get a middle and no entry. Easy to get one of the three, you know. It takes three things: entry, middle, finish. I'm old, I've drank wine for a long time. I don't like in-your-face, big, powerful, over-the-top wines. I like wines that taste finished. I tasted a lot of wines that, to me...I feel like I want to take them back to the winery and finish them. I like wines that are very elegant, very long, balanced.

I have to ask you, like everybody, about terroir.

It's French for "Hang on to your wallet, here we come." It's the latest bit of bullshit that people put between knowledge of wine and romance. It's overplayed and misunderstood. At worst, it's thought of by most people as just the taste of dirt from one specific spot. I'll see wine writers go to...we've got vineyards over on Red Mountain. Two famous ones, Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun. And because they're famous and because they're stylistically different, wine writers'll go out there, taste the wines and talk to the owners and they'll say, "Look at the terroir! We're just across the road and the terroir is completely different!" That Red Mountain is basically the same terrain. The dirt is very similar, the climate's very similar. What's different is the way they're farmed. And they just never see that. They never see the science behind it that really creates the differences.

Tell me more.

If you go into Klipsun and walk through you'll see...the way they trellis very hedged, very exposed, really cut down. You go into Ciel du Cheval and Jim does something completely unusual with a big tall fan. And to begin with, the plants are twice as tall. They sprawl on one side. It's very unique, the way Jim farms. What they call 'terroir' is really just an expression, in my opinion, of Jim's ability to grow fruit in a certain specific style. The fruit, the wine is very elegant from Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun they're very powerful and strong.

So this is about canopy management, you're saying.

Exactly. And people don't understand why wines taste the ways they do. And instead of really learning, really delving into it, they fall back on romantic terms. Not a popular theory, is it?

After Walla Walla (and yeah, I checked out the balloons), I turned south. Headed home at last. And I gotta tell ya, being around all this amazing wine made me want nothing less than the absolute ice-coldiest beer I could get my hands on.

(Unfortunately, I ended up in Utah. You know how they are with their near-beer. Sigh.)

But at last, a break from the interviews, the hobnobbing, the tourists...and on to some of the most heart-poundingly fabulous terrain in all the world...Southern Utah.

So there I was in Moab, on my trusty rented steed McCourt, when...what the hell?


Well, I'll just be damned. Syrah in the desert. Stay tuned.



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