Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Gorge-ous Simplicity; Syncline Wines

On a number of levels it’s clear that they’re doing things the right way at Syncline, from the marketing, packaging, and closures to the excellent presence throughout Northwest wine shops and restaurants. Before even trying the wines it's evident that this is an operation that has a firm understanding of how wine should be done. But what of the wines? Prior to my visit, I'd only had a few of the Syncline wines, and after tasting through their complete production, I was impressed across the board. The wines that James Mantone makes are not the “good” wines you might expect at the $18 - $25 neighborhood; they’re better than that and they’re better than very good in all cases.

A cursory inspection of the Syncline offerings demonstrates a focus on Rhone style wines, though there are two outliers, a Pinot Noir and a Gruner Veltliner, which speak to a willingness to explore what Washington can do varietally. James gets the preponderance of his fruit from Washington’s other AVAs, the Pinot and the Gruner serve as a declaration about the quality and range of wine the Gorge can produce.

While all of these elements make it easy to conclude that Syncline knows just what they’re doing, nothing drives that point home like a visit to their Columbia River Gorge production facility and home just outside of Lyle, Washington. Produced on the property James and Poppy established and in facilities that exude simplicity, the wines are anything but basic and tend toward the interesting and complex. Given the high gloss approach to wine marketing and sales, the return to roots approach is very refreshing.
James came out to Oregon in 1994 with a background in micro-biology and he and his wife Poppy landed in the Gorge in 1999, a short two weeks after Maryhill was established further up river. James had come from Lavelle Vineyards in Oregon (where he got his start making Pinot Noir) looking for a dynamic region and found just that in the Columbia River Gorge AVA. Today, James is on his 15th or 16th vintage, yet he’s still counted among the young talent of the Pacific Northwest.

James and Poppy are producing around 5,000 cases of wine and they like what they’ve established and aren’t looking to go much beyond that. James “loves the generosity and warmth of Rhone varietals” and finds that they lend themselves to simple winemaking. His winemaking philosophy is embracing a natural approach that allows the characteristics of the fruit to shine through. James feels that in Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre you have wines that “can be rustic and lovely at the same time.” He’s finding that in many of his sites he’s picking early even in cooler years, focusing on low brix but full maturity. As a case in point, James has Ciel du Cheval Syrah that’s at 13.5% alcohol.

The choice of varietals and his production methods also speak to the “going natural” vibe that Syncline gives off. James eschews new oak; his Cuvee Elena sees 6 to 8 year old barrels. He believes in the importance of the delicate nature of Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Mouvedre. With his 09 vintage James has turned to fermenting in a concrete manzer, a wine technology that dates to the 1400s and uses unlined concrete tanks that breathe at the same rate as oak. “We’re directing our oak budget to concrete,” James says about the process. Syncline also uses lots of native fermentations which allows for extended masceration and they cap off the “nature boy” approach with “lots of foot stomping.”

The two outliers, the Pinot Noir and the Gruner Veltliner, deserve special attention as they speak to the conditions and fruit of the AVA that James and Poppy are calling home. The Gruner Veltliner is from the Underwood Mountain Vineyard, and is the state’s first planting of the varietal (planted on a steep hillside by Washington Wine icon David Lake). “When David got sick he called me to go up and check on it. I wanted to do something distinctly not Columbia Valley.” James sees the Gruner as a wine that is teaching him a lot about Washington and the cool sites in the Gorge. The Pinot Noir that Syncline produces was the first Washington varietal that James made and it comes from Underwood Mountain and blocks in Celilo Vineyard that date back to 1972. These sites are cooler than those of Oregon’s famed Pinot producing Willamette Valley, but well protected from frost. He is using a touch of new oak on the Pinot at 20%.

The simplicity evident at Syncline can be misleading; it speaks not to a lack of sophistication, but quite the opposite. James Mantone is a talented young winemaker with a true respect for traditions and techniques. His respect for traditional wine making methods combined with his desire to explore what Washington can produce may just help the state’s wine community rethink the wines and style it’s capable of.


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