Wine Interview #2: Darel Allwine

Interviewee:   Darel Allwine (DA)

Affiliation:      Col Solare Winery

Time/Date:     3 pm, July 25, 2019

Title:  Head Winemaker

Winery Location(s):  Benton City and Woodinville, WA.

Place of Interview:  Red Mountain – Benton City, WA

INITIAL THOUGHTS:  This interview was an easy choice for me.  Darel Allwine.  What a name!  Allwine?  And you are making some of the best wines in Washington State as a Winemaker for Col Solare?  It doesn’t get much better than that.  Darel is all class.  He has a wealth of knowledge and he continues to apply his expertise by demonstrating consistency and very high quality across the board with his wines.  Everything I taste at Col Solare is unique, delicious and outstanding.  This is why my wife and I are Club Members here.  We love it…and thank you Darel!

AWC:  The first thing I want to do is thank you personally for taking time out of your day. I know that you’re very busy at this time of year.  In addition, I’d like to welcome you to Aaron’s Wine Chronicles second-ever Winemaker Interview!  It’s an honor and privilege to sit with a winemaking icon and engage in an informal dialogue to learn more about one of Washington State’s best winemakers!  Again, thank you.  So first off, I want to ask you to tell me your story. I’d like to know how you got into winemaking, and you can start as early as you want in your career or as late as you want, but it’s always good to understand the person behind the wine.

DA:  So I started in the U.S. Air Force. I joined the Air Force right out of high school as my older brothers all went to college and I didn’t want to go that route, so I chose the Air Force and enjoyed it.  I spent two tours in Germany and did some touring over there in the Mosel and Rheingau regions just as a tourist, nothing more, but I liked the beer better than I did the wine at that time. Then as I progressed through my career I retired in 1995 and I was in air transportation logistics – so that was the focus of my career, and I got my degree in logistics management and was actually planning to go to Seattle or Spokane to work either at the airport there in Spokane, or go to SeaTac or the Air Force Base there in Tacoma. But my brother, who was a research scientist at Battelle who had worked there for about 40 years, was working on a project in the area, so he convinced my wife and I to move to the Tri-Cities.  I was in Okinawa, Japan at the time, but we did end up moving here (to the Tri Cities) in 1995 after I retired and I worked for my brother for about four months and that was more than enough.  You know I love him, but sometimes we just don’t see things eye-to-eye.  So after that, I actually did a little stint with RadioShack as a management trainee trying to find something, and then I found an ad in the local newspaper for a cellar worker at Columbia Crest Winery, and it sounded intriguing enough. So I sent them a resume and went through five different interviews in six months, and they finally hired me.  I started there in 1996 and once I got into Columbia Crest and really saw what went into a bottle of wine all the way from the vineyards through fermentation, and through barrel aging and bottling, I was just totally in love with the aspect of how the operation was carried out. Not really knowing wine though at that time, as far as enjoying it, I ended up falling in love with it, and the winemaker there really showed me the way, and the options of moving forward with that.

AWC:  So, Columbia Crest is also a part of Chateau Ste. Michelle right?

DA:  Yes.

AWC:  And have you been with Ste. Michelle since the beginning of your career in wine?

DA:  Yes I have. So I started in 1996 and this will be my 24th harvest in Washington with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. I started with Columbia Crest first and then began working with the Col Solare project starting the 2003 vintage as the assistant winemaker.

AWC:  So from about 1996, when you really got into this, it only took you five or six years to actually start co-authoring wines, and then at what point did you take over full duties as THE guy?

DA:  Yes. So I’ve been head winemaker here at Col Solare since the 2013 vintage.  So I finished up the 2012 vintage, did all the blending and the final bottling of the 2012 vintage, but began making all the decisions for the 2013 vintage.

AWC:  Wow.  To get into really any career, that pace of progression is really on the fast track if you ask me!  That’s really interesting. So do you have any formal training, aside from the on-the-job training that you might have received?

DA:  Yes, I did. As I progressed out at Columbia Crest I looked at options of getting some more knowledge as far as winemaking and Viticulture, and I looked at UC Davis. They offered online coursework and I took the Introduction to Winemaking and Production through that online course offering.  Then through the years I actually turned to Washington State University.  Of course they have their Bachelor’s degree program in Viticulture and Enology, but they also have a professional certificate program that offers a certification in each phase, so you have one certificate in Enology and one that’s in Viticulture.  Each program is two years.  So I did the Enology program first in 2005 and then finished the Viticulture Program in 2014.

AWC:  So these questions sort of build upon one another, and we’ve already talked about how you got into winemaking, some of your early history, and a bit about your training in the wine industry. So who has had the most influence in your winemaking – in relation to either learning your expertise or actually crafting wine?

DA:  Yes. So Ray Einberger who was the winemaker there at Columbia Crest, he worked for Doug Gore at the time. He actually did four vintages in France, and then he was at Opus One in Napa as the Cellar Master there, before he came up to Columbia Crest in 1992.  Ray is actually the one that during my last interview for the Columbia Crest position, he called me up on the phone and said , “I’m not sure you know what you’re getting into, but let’s talk about it and then you can decide.”  So we actually met at Starbucks in Richland and we talked for two hours and he didn’t dissuade me, and I started two weeks later.  Once I got there I started working with the Reserve program for Columbia Crest and began learning that aspect, and then I started tasting a lot of different wines with Ray.  Then Marcus Notaro was hired there as the enologist at Columbia Crest.  He and I had been working together at Columbia Crest and then later with Col Solare, and then he decided to go down to Napa Valley to be a winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  So when Marcus went down there, that’s when I got promoted to head winemaker.

AWC:  Have you had the chance to go down to the Napa Valley and Sonoma, or even Paso Robles and interact or engage with other winemakers and see how things are done there, or have you been pretty much in the Washington wine industry working with people up here?

DA:  It’s both ways.  So I do get a chance to go down to the Napa Valley and actually work directly with Marcus at Stag’s Leap.  With our partnership with the Antinori family – you know Renzo Cotarella – he tries to visit me a couple times a year, but he can’t always make it to Washington.  He’s always going to California because their partners with us and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, plus they have their own property in Napa Valley, – Antica – which is up in Atlas Peak.  So I’ll fly down to Napa Valley and meet with Renzo and Marcus at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  Then at that time I’ll get a chance to wander off and maybe taste some of the other wines at some of the other properties there in the Napa Valley.

AWC:  So I wouldn’t consider you a “young buck” in winemaking anymore and when you first started out, I imagine you had all of these goals and you were setting these bars for yourself and had a lot of expectations of what you were going to achieve.  Now that you’ve been doing it for awhile and you’re crafting the crème de la crème of wine in the Red Mountain area for sure, and maybe all of Washington State, what goals do you have moving forward in your career with winemaking? What are you aspiring to now?

DA:  Well, I mean the ultimate goal is to make the best wine possible in Washington State.  Cabernet Sauvignon based wine.  That is always a goal of mine and you’re always learning. When you’re trying to employ different techniques during vineyard operations there are things out there that might need to be managed differently to get that little step up in fruit quality, and also in the fermentation cellar, the aging, the fermentation style that we do. There are always a lot of opportunities to improve and make the wines just a bit better. I’ve always had the belief that winemaking is 60% art and 40% science.

AWC:  So who do you admire most in the world of wine and why?

DA:  You know I think I would choose Renzo Cotarella. I mean he is so passionate, he has really taken the Antinori portfolio in Italy to the next level and working with Marchese Antinori and bringing that level of winemaking, not just within Italy but also with us and with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. You know, he is an extremely smart individual and knows everything about winemaking.

AWC:   So what’s the hardest part of winemaking?  What would be the most challenging aspect of your job?

DA:  That’s a tough question. You know, I can say right now for me today, the most challenging aspect is what we’re doing with our 2017 vintage wine, which is going into the bottle next week.  You know we have to prepare everything up to that point where you put it in the bottle.  So you take it out of barrels and then you have to do filtration, and sometimes that filtration doesn’t work out the way you planned it, because there are situations that come up that can mitigate the outcome of that wine.  So you have to manage that, and understand it, and then adjust to what’s happening to make sure it’s done correctly.  So that’s challenging.  Harvest is challenging.  I mean that in itself is demanding.  For me it’s going out and tasting the fruit and making sure it’s ripe, and the flavor profile is there, the tannin structure and the seeds are there, and did you make the right decision?  When you bring the fruit in, you start fermentation and then you sometimes second guess what you did, that maybe you didn’t do it the way you should have done it.  But then it always works out the way it should.

AWC:  So as head winemaker at Col Solare, I liken your role to that of a head coach of an NFL football team.  Essentially there are some general managers and owners who allow their head coach to make all the decisions and there are some who micromanage and want to have more control.  In your role, do you have final say in what’s going on with the direction of the wines and what wines and blends you’re going to craft from year-to-year? Do you have total decision making authority or is it a balance where you often confer with other people within the organization?

DA:  Well, just within Ste. Michelle, I make 100% of the decisions for winemaking all the way from the vineyards through harvest and then aging in barrels and blending.  At the point where we decide what to bottle, there is about 50% or so where Renzo and the partnership provide their input on wines that were created for the vintage, regarding the direction of what we want to bottle.  I make all the decisions here for the Col Solare project but then there’s also the decisions regarding what we blend and what we put in the bottle, and some of that is done collectively.

AWC:  So we are going to switch gears a bit.  These next few questions deal with the aspects of the wine consumer.  Consider the perspective of your average person out there enjoying wine.  What are your thoughts on wineglasses? There are so many different versions of wineglasses out there.  Some companies will say there’s a special wineglass for every type of varietal or every type of blend, or whatever the case is.  I find that a little bit hard to believe because there are only so many different glass designs that make sense.  You’re really trying to optimize or enhance the aromatics, the flavor profile, aeration of the wine, and maybe optics or the color of the wine.  So from your perspective, does the wineglass design really have a significant impact on the wine experience?

DA:  I would say not, in a sense, because you know each consumer has their own perception of how that wine tastes, how the aromatics are, how the flavor profile in your mouth is, and the glass can enhance that at times, but you know for me at home, I just have a standard size glass for reds and then I have another smaller glass we use for whites.  I don’t go and buy the glasses designed for Cabernet and the glasses designed for Merlot or Pinot Noir.  Each consumer has their own perception of how that wine is tasting and feeling.

AWC:   That makes a lot of sense to me.  Of course I’ve heard from other people in the industry about events like the Reidel Glass experience where they come in and pour the same wine in different glasses and demonstrate the impact of wineglass design on how one experiences the wine.  I’ve personally experienced some significant differences with wineglasses, yes, but then I think there must be some middle-of-the-road glass that generally works well for most reds.

So another question would be on breathing wine. I have my own thoughts about breathing wine, the duration of breathing a wine, how you breathe your wine, and whether or not to breathe the wine at all.  But I want to hear from experts because I have some very strong feelings, based on my personal experience and experimentation as a scientist, I’m always running tests because I want my wine to be as delicious as it can be within its parameters.  So tell me what you think about breathing wine and how you would do it, or if you even care to breathe wine.

DA:  Yes, I definitely do. And it’s all about the style of the wine and how it’s made.  You know the big red wines – yes, they definitely need some time right after opening them.  You know, if you don’t decant it, I would recommend at least 30 to 40 minutes prior to drinking, pop the cork and let it breathe.  With decanting, I don’t decant my wines at home all the time but occasionally I do. I’ll open it up at least 30 to 45 minutes prior and sometimes I’ll decant as well.  But I think aeration is critically important to make sure those aromatics and the mouthfeel open up, especially the aromatics so they really start to show and pop.

AWC:  This next question may be more of a challenge for you because I don’t know if there is a hard answer to this. I’ve talked to a lot of winemakers about this question and I’ve done some reading as well, but it’s hard for me to get my arms around the answer to this question.  I’m old school, and I like to cellar and age my wines.  So when I go to a winery and I buy wine or I taste a wine, I try to get an understanding of how long I can cellar that wine to help it evolve in the bottle.  I try to figure out what the aging range/duration is for a wine so I drink it in its prime or at its peak. Often I’ll ask the winemaker about the projected range for peaking the wine.  Is it 8 to 10 or 12 years? Is it maybe 10 to 14 years?  With big, bold red wines, maybe it’s up to 20 years or more?  Sometimes the answers I get are all over the board, and sometimes I don’t believe the winemaker when they tell me their projected aging ranges.  So you’re the crafter of the wine.  How do you create a wine and then define an aging window?  I know it’s not an exact science, but can you tell me with a decent amount of confidence that maybe 8 to 10 or 8 to 12 years for this particular wine is pretty much going to be where the wine is at its peak, and if so, how do you do this when you’re crafting the wine?

DA:  You know, it’s all about how the wine is made. It’s about the balance between the acid and the tannins and the alcohol in the wine.  It’s also about the phenolic structure of the wine, the polyphenols.  As long as you have that in cohesion, then it should age a good amount of time, so 8 to 12 years.  That’s typically what I tell consumers for my wine – 8 to 12 years – if it’s been cellared correctly in a nice cellar with a consistent temperature, then it should go 15 to 20 years.  Another aspect is that consumers now typically don’t laydown wines in a cellar, as most consumers will buy a bottle and drink it within a week or a month or whatever.  So our style of wine that we’re trying to make is to try and get those tannins so they’re not aggressive and when we release the wine, it’s drinkable.  So typically what I’ll tell the consumer is, when we release our wine, decant it for a good 30 minutes prior to drinking to smooth it out and open it up. So that’s kind of the style we’re trying to make, but it can still laydown up to 8 or more years.

AWC:  Okay, next question. Cork or screwtop?  Obviously, I don’t think you guys have anything with a screwtop from what I’ve seen, not even a rose or anything like that, and so I think I know the answer, but why would it be one or the other for you and do you have any problems with one over the other?

DA:  Yes, of course, all of my wines are sealed with corks and the historical aspect of using corks is the issue with TCA where you get that moldy musty smell with the cork sometimes.  With the technology nowadays with being able to test the material before it’s put out to be inserted into the bottle, they can really narrow down that contamination. Right now our bottles that we get back (that exhibit cork taint or TCA contamination) is under 1% at about 0.5%.  It’s been as high as 2% to 5% in the past because that technology wasn’t quite there to be able to test and determine at the factory level in Portugal for TCA. So corks have really moved forward in that sense.  But screw caps, you know, I’ve tasted a lot of wines with screw caps and I think the idea to use a screw cap for a wine that’s projected to be consumed in 3 to 5 years, is fine.  But for the ageability of wines using a screw cap, they’ve already proven that it’s not a good thing for wines stored over five years, is what I’ve read.  So while I don’t think there’s anything really negative about screw caps, it’s something I will never use.  But for the right product, you know, like the Villa Maria wines that we import from New Zealand, they’re all bottled with screw caps and they taste very good.

AWC:  So along those same lines, I know one winemaker in particular, Victor Palencia, who has used aseptic packaging (sealed bags) for his Monarcha Cabernet Sauvignon.   They allow you to store a red wine in the fridge for 30 days without affecting the flavor profile.  I’ve purchased them and they work well.  You also have these wine kegs like you might see at Tap & Barrel in South Richland.  So what are your thoughts on the use of aseptic packaging and wine kegs for storage and dissemination of wine to the consumer?

DA:  You know, I think the idea’s good in certain situations.  For the kegs, I know a lot of restaurants benefit from using them, and at different events like sporting events it’s a good option because you get the volume and it’s also preserving the wine because it’s pressurized and uses an inert gas to cover the wine which is a good option.  You know, cans now are huge and the market is just off the charts, but for me, I don’t ever see that for Col Solare, but for certain brands and for consumers, especially the millennial customer base, they want to try different things so it has its place.

AWC:  So you’ve tasted a lot of different wines in a lot of different places right?  Even in Washington State, you’ve had a chance to go around and taste your colleagues’ wines. What makes Col Solare, whether it’s the vineyards, the tasting room, the wines that are coming out of here that you’re making, or a combination of all those…what makes Col Solare so special in your mind?

DA:  You know it’s the site.  Being here on Red Mountain and really highlighting what we’re doing here as far as the Cabernet Sauvignon and getting the power, the structure, and the balance that we want.  And then also, the fermentation cellar that we have, you know when we built the facility we wanted to make sure things were easily maneuverable so I could do the things I need to do for fermentation, the harvest, the crush pad, and barrel aging.  The storage rooms are down there so we can isolate each room out to really get the best options as far as temperatures and harvest time when I want to do my barrel fermentations and malolactic fermentation, so I have different options in that sense.  You know it’s just being part of this whole project.  Col Solare started in 1995 and you know it’s being focused on Cabernet Sauvignon out of Washington that makes it special.

AWC:  So my next question may be a little sensitive.  I know for my interview with Greg Frichette he joked around about this question bordering on an intellectual property infringement!  But my question is about cooperage.  I’m not a winemaker, I’m a scientist, but I love to read about different aspects that affect how a wine is crafted, and I know cooperage is a big deal.  Can you talk a little bit about the cooperage for your winemaking and the significance of it and maybe what your favorite cooperage is?

DA:   It’s not proprietary for us.  When folks come through here on tours that’s a discussion point for me with the consumers, to really highlight what we do here.  You know, cooperage’s are very important to winemaking because you get a barrel in here and it’s happened to me…I mean, you gotta make sure you do trials every year to make sure those barrels are reacting the way you want them to because they have to be consistent year-over-year.  And if they’re not, you need to find out why.  So you have a good relationship with those cooperage’s to visit them, and we taste the wines so we can compare them with the other cooperage’s that we bring in, to see where they fit in, or to evaluate what’s going on and determine why a certain barrel isn’t performing the way we want it to.  It is critical, because we have – in the past – done tastings by barrel type of specific lots and if one barrel is not performing, we leave it out, because it can affect the final blend.  We’ve got three primary cooperage’s that pretty much dominate the barrel population for our wines.  So we have Marcel Cadet, Taransaud and Boutes, they’re all French, 100% French oak is what we use for our wines.  We had used American oak with wines in the past, but once we got to Red Mountain with the Cabernet’s here, the integration of those tight grain French oak barrels reacted better with the Cabernet here than the American oak, so we went with 100% French oak starting in 2011.

AWC:  What new winemakers are you most excited about in the State of Washington? So my website is all about promoting Washington State wine, and I’m always learning new things, in particular about new wines, new wineries and new tasting rooms.  So in your mind, who might be the top two or three young winemakers in the State that are really exciting to watch?

DA:  You know, that’s a tough question and I haven’t really thought about that much.  There are a lot of good young winemakers out there and I’ve been in the industry here for about 24 years now, but that’s a tough question. You know there is one that comes to mind, Brian Rudin with Canvasback – to me, he’s done an exceptional job with his wines.

AWC:  I will say, I just visited Canvasback about a month ago and I tried 3 of their Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and their Grand Passage 2016 knocked me out of my chair.  It was really delicious!  Yeah, I think you’re right on.

So I know you’ve traveled the world. What is your favorite wine region globally speaking, other than your backyard right here on Red Mountain?

DA:  Well I would have to say Bolgheri, down on the coast of Tuscany in Italy.  They make Cabernet Sauvignon down there where the Bordeaux varietals are planted, and they are extremely intense.  You know Ornellaia is down there, and you have Guado al Tasso which is the Antinori property down there.  So I did a report as part of the requirements of the viticultural program through WSU, on that region.  It’s definitely still relatively young as far as a growing area that’s been identified out there, it’s been around for like 70 or maybe 80 years now.  Not a long time.  They’ve been making wine down there and growing grapes but mainly for rosé and that’s what they’ve really focused on, but now they’ve done some exceptionally excellent wines for Cabernet and Merlot.  The Syrah is phenomenal down there too.

AWC:  What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? What’s the oldest bottle in your personal cellar, and your most cherished bottle?  Maybe the answer to the last two questions is the very same wine?

DA:  Well the oldest bottle I have in my cellar is the ’95 Columbia Crest Reserve Red Wine.  That’s when I started down there.  It was the first wine I started helping with. I had two bottles of it, but drank one recently and it’s definitely past its prime, it’s done…but I need to drink the last bottle very soon.  As for the best wine, I mean, kinda being biased I guess, the Solaia wine by Antinori is an exceptional wine.  It was Cabernet and Sangiovese, with mostly Cabernet.

AWC:  So what do you think people would be most surprised to know about you?  I mean, as a winemaker, a lot of times you’re behind the scenes and you come out once in a while when you have the winemaker dinners and stuff, and you’ll pop your head out of the tasting room on any given day, but I’ve noticed, and it’s not just you, I’ve noticed this with a lot of winemakers.  I realize you’re managing a larger production facility and you have a lot of different things on your plate.  I would say that you’re not the face of Col Solare right now, but it’s more likely April Reddout, so a lot of people don’t know you on a real personal level or know much about you, except that you make fabulous wine!  What would people be surprised to know about you, if you were to spend a week with somebody on a desert island and had nothing to do but talk about yourself?

DA:  Right. Yeah…so I would say the best thing about me would be that I love my family. I love my grandkids!  We do as much as we can together, and you know I am somewhat of an introvert.  I’m not one that’s very outgoing in that sense.

AWC:  So if you weren’t making wine or working in the wine industry for a living, what would you be doing?

DA:  I would probably be working with the post office, because I did have a job as they offered me a job at the post office at the same time that I was offered the job at Columbia Crest.  I had started at Columbia Crest for about two weeks and then I got the offer from the post office.  Life’s journeys take you in different directions at times depending on what’s going on at the time.  You know, when I was in Okinawa I could have stayed in the military – the air force – but I chose to stop traveling so much.  I love traveling but I just needed to settle down and just be in the same place, and when I did that, you know, you think about what are you going to do next?  And things just fell into place and I’m very fortunate to be where I’m at…and I love where I’m at!

AWC:  Do you foresee yourself in the short term or the midterm, before you decide to retire, do you see yourself moving somewhere else or is this the place where you would like to live out your wine days before you decide to hang it up?

DA:  Oh no.  This is definitely where I want to stay.  It’s hard to say, I’m 62 now so you never know where it’s going to go in the future, but I would definitely be here for the next 5 to 10 years if they let me.

AWC:  So what do you think is the biggest challenge facing the wine industry right now?  I would say, in particular, Washington’s wine industry because that’s our own backyard and the focus of this interview.

DA:  Yeah I mean I think the perception of how Washington wine is performing out in the market – outside of Washington – I think that is the challenge.  It still is a challenge.  We’re making it better than what it has been in the past at least since I started.  But you still see that situation out in the market, when I’m out there working I get the chance to go to different areas in the U.S. and talk with consumers that I meet with, or consumers at dinners, that type of thing.  And you know, Washington still doesn’t get the notoriety it deserves, because the wines out here are exceptionally good across the board.  So I think that it’s still a challenge for Washington, but it’s getting better.

AWC:  I have one last question for you.  What are you most looking forward to with the next vintage?

DA:  For this vintage now – 2019, I think it’s turning out to be really nice.  You know, we had the late winter with the hard snowfall in February, and things were kind of slow, but they progressively warmed up in mid-May and the first part of June.  We’ve had mild temperatures I would say, since the last five years, but I think it’s panning out to be a very good vintage.  And it’s still early yet, but we’ve started getting color out in the vineyard, and as we progress in the next 5 to 6 weeks I think this can be another great vintage!  We’ve had several in a row and it’s been very fortunate.

AWC:  So I lied Darel.  There is one more question, and it was formulating in my head as you were answering the last question.  I am going to ask you this and it doesn’t have to be part of the interview transcript, but do you have an idea as to whether or not Col Solare will be offering a 100% Carménère varietal wine in the future?  I’m also a big cigar aficionado and I love to pair my cigars with Ports or Port-Style Fortified wines.  I also just recently started pairing my cigars with some dessert wines like a late harvest Semillon or an ice wine.  Is there a possibility of something starting on this front?

DA:  I don’t see Ports or late-harvest whites or ice wines ever happening as long as I’m here.  I mean it’s not a bad thing.  You know, but for the focus of what I’m doing with Col Solare, we are going to craft a 100% Carménère for the ’18 vintage, we got enough fruit to make about 100 cases and it will be a club member-only wine.  Our facility was built to make red wines, and you have to do different things in order to make whites, Ports or Ice wines, so I’d have to get different equipment for different functions in the facility.

AWC:  I think this interview went really smoothly, and again I want to thank you for the time you’ve taken.  This went for about 45 minutes or so, you were right on schedule and I very much appreciate it.  I’m sure my readers will enjoy this dialogue.  Thank you Darel Allwine!

Aaron Diaz