Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Visiting Winemaker Steven Sealock at Pacific Rim Winemakers in Washington State, USA

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Steven Sealock at Pacific Rim in Washington State

While I was at the US West Coast during the summer, I met – independent of each other – Randall Grahm, Nicolas Quille and Steven Sealock. These are the 3 names that immediately come to mind when you talk about Pacific Rim Riesling. Randall Grahm created Pacific Rim in the 1990s and recently sold it. Nicolas Quille has been the head winemaker of Pacific Rim Riesling for a decade or so and orchestrated the spin-off and eventual sale of Pacific Rim. He is based in Postland Oregon, while the winery is in South East Washington State, near Walla Walla. Finally, Steven is the resident winemaker at Pacific Rim in West Richland in the Columbia Valley; he showed me around and introduced me to the new wines, when I visited Pacific Rim during the summer of 2011.

This posting focuses on Steven Sealock. Two more postings on Randall Grahm and Nicolas Quille will follow. I have already written about Pacific Rim in my column "America/German Wines".

Pacific Rim, Randall Grahm and the Banfi Family

Pacific Rim produces 190,000 cases of wine now, almost all of which is Riesling. That means only Chateau Ste. Michelle and Hogue Cellars make more Riesling in Washington. Today, Pacific Rim makes 10 different Rieslings, as well as a Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, raspberry dessert wine and two blends. It is owned by the Banfi family from New York.

One of the wine world’s true iconoclasts, Randall Grahm, founded Pacific Rim. The owner of famed Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz in California started his Pacific Rim project in 1992. Unusually, he used grapes from Washington State and from Germany.

By 2006, Randall Grahm’s decided to downsize and reorganize. Randall sold his popular Cardinal Zin and Big House brands and started to spin off his Pacific Rim wines as a standalone winery in Washington State, where the US Riesling grapes came from. He worked with the Den Hoed family, longtime grape growers in the Yakima Valley, to create a winemaking facility in the shadow of Red Mountain. The DenHoeds built the building, which they own and lease to Pacific Rim. This year, Pacific Rim has been purchased by the Banfi family, which owns an important wine import company in New York and a famous winery and vineyard in Italy.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller and Randall Grahm in San Francisco

I met Randall recently in San Francisco while I was there to see Richard Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen at the San Francisco Opera. Randall was accompanied by his wife and his daughter. His wife is Japanese and this explains there is a Geisha on the Pacific Rim label.

Nicolas Quille

Nicolas Quille has accompanied the spin-off and eventual sale of Pacific Rim from beginning to the end. Nicolas joined Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz as General Manager in 2004 and initially managed the whole company, including Pacific Rim, but then focused on coordinating the spin-off of Pacific Rim and eventual sale to the Banfi family in 2010. He is now the General Manager and Winemaker for Pacific Rim winery. Nicolas came to the United States in 1997 and worked for J. Lohr and The Hogue Cellars.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller and Nicolas Quille in Hillsboro, Oregon

I met Nicolas at the 1. Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium in Hillsboro near Portland (OR), where the headquarters of Pacific Rim is. We had lunch together and talked a lot about Pacific Rim.

Steven Sealock

Steven Sealock is the resident winemaker at Pacific Rim in Washington State. Steven told me that “as an Air Force brat, I lived in Germany for several years. Combine this with a German mother and you can begin to understand why Riesling has a special place in my heart. To me, Riesling and German beer is a normal accompaniment to a filling meal. So I jumped at the chance to work here at Pacific Rim, a great company dedicated to making world class Riesling.” Steven started his career in the wine industry at Columbia Winery.

Pictures: Steven Sealock at Pacific Rim doing Barrel Tastings with Christian G.E.Schiller

The 2010 Pacific Rim Wines

I toured with Steven Sealock the winery and we did quite a bit of barrel tasting of the 2010 vintage. Steven said: “2010 has been coolest season in many years. We had to go through a cold early spring and very cool end of season. A cool season like 2010 brings its load of challenges in the vineyard especially late ripening, low maturity, low yields and potential for rot. In challenging vintages, such as 2010, the trick is to accept that there will be compromises and to choose them carefully.”

The first compromise they made was to harvest some fruit below optimal ripeness. The second compromise they made was to accept grapes with far higher noble rot levels than they usually do. The third one was to pick almost exclusively on acid level. Still this was not enough to get away with such a cool season. Steven continued: “We had to get out a few tricks out of our Magic Riesling Compendium book namely leaving grapes on cold soak to enrich the juices in potassium (thereby dropping some tartaric acid out of the wine), selectively de-acidify some lots, decide to not make any dry styles from the 2010 harvest and separate lots with higher botrytis levels for Sweet Riesling.”

The 2010 s have in common a great high acidity, some level of noble rot (think about waxy, complexing aromas and flavors) and overall a tid bit more sugar than usual to rebalance the extra acid (and of course de facto lower alcohols).

Pictures: Pacific Rim in Washington State

Below is a list of the wine Pacific Rim made in 2010 including Steven’s comments:

Riesling Phoenix: “This is our Johannesburg style. We left a tid bit more sugar than usual to rebalance the wine (2.8% instead of 2.5%). Surprisingly close to the 2009 with some added acidity.”

Sweet Riesling: “This is a very very nice sweet Riesling; it has about the same sugar than usual (7%) but has a layer of botrytis that I have been fighting to get for years. I would say about 20% noble rot.”

Steven explained that they use a small amount of yeast to encourage the fermentation to stick — or keep it from becoming completely dry. They ferment at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks. Like the Dry Riesling, this is another no oak, no malolactic wine. To stop the fermentation they use their centrifuge, which separates the yeast and the wine, and concludes the fermentation. They leave a good amount of carbon dioxide in the wine to create a lively feeling to the wine.

Picture: Pacific Rim Wines we did not Taste

Riesling Made from organic Grapes: “99.2% of all components for our Riesling are organic. We even use native — not commercial — yeast to best present the natural character of our vineyard. We use no pesticides and every element within our sustainably-farmed vineyard is native to the vineyard. Our winery is centrally located within fifty miles of all our vineyards, reducing freight and therefore reducing our carbon footprint.

Vin De Glaciere (VDG) – Wallula Vineyard – Made From organic Grapes: “A new twist on our quintessential VDG. Now it is made from Wallula so it can carry an organic certification. It was a bit of a challenge to make a dessert wine organically but boy it paid off. Note the 8.5% alcohol on this wine (16% Residual Sugar), it is a great wine in a 375ml bottle.”

Sparkling Sweet Riesling: “Well, when you can’t make a dry Riesling, you make a sweet one! That is what the Germans do and what we did. A new bubbly in the lineup dosed at 7% RS – think Sweet Riesling with bubbles.”

Solstice Vineyard Riesling: “We’ve just bottled this one. It has been a fantastic wine so far though it needs a bit of bottle age. It ended up drier than in past year – this is the acid monster for those of us that like that with total acidity of 0.93 and Residual Sugar of 0.93. This is the wine of legends.”

Wallula Vineyard Riesling Biodynamic: “This is a very interesting wine because we did not get the sugar we usually do at Wallula. We kept the sugar at around 1.1% as usual but the alcohol is 11.9%. This wine as usual is the best true read on the vintage – untouched from the vineyard to the bottle.”

Gewurztraminer: “This is one varietal that fared well in 2010. Great concentration, very aromatic vintage and the best for us since 2008 probably.”

Framboise: “A short harvest in 2010 though quite flavorful. Intense berry flavors, the only problem is that we did not make enough!”

schiller-wine: Related Postings

German American Wines: (1) Pacific Rim Dry Riesling, (2) Eroica, (3) Woelffer and his Schiller Wine

A Riesling Guru and a Killer Guitarist cum Cult Winemaker: Ernst Loosen and Jay Somers and their J. Christopher Winery in Newberg, Oregon

President Obama Serves a “German” Riesling at State Dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao

Wine ratings: Two American/German wines - Eroica and Poet's Leap - on Top 100 Wines from Washington State list for 2009

The Wines of Hightower Cellars in Washington State, US

The Wines of Abeja, Washington State

German American Wines: (1) NV Two Worlds Pinot Noir, (2) Poet's Leap Riesling and (3) Herrmann Wiemer's Finger Lakes Rieslings

The Excellent Wines of Ken Wright Cellars, Oregon

The Jay Somers Wines of Bill Holloran, Oregon

Meeting Joel Waite, Winemaker and Owner of CAVU Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington State

Visiting Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla, Washington State - Where Armin Diel’s Poet’s Leap Riesling is Made

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