I’m sitting with Rich Funk at a grand table in the capacious event space adjoining Saviah’s tasting room when I toss him a surprise question. We’ve been chatting about the three wines we are tasting – an estate Viognier, a Stillwater Creek Chardonnay and a Dugger Creek Barbera – all splendid by the way. Comparing philosophies and preferences on such things as the optimal brix for picking Viognier and the advantages of north-facing, high elevation vineyard sites. The usual wine geek speak.
“Let me ask you something” I interrupt, changing conversational horses in mid-stream. “Do you like football?” I am hoping for a yes, as I’d recently watched a most interesting piece on how young quarterbacks may take years to learn the intricacies of the position at the pro level, if they ever manage to learn at all. I found myself wondering if learning to make wine, and particularly wine as good as Rich makes, involves a similar start/stop, up/down winding path. In place of a season there’s a vintage, in place of varied opponents there are different vineyards, in place of making schematic adjustments to defense and offense as the season progresses there are decisions about when to water, when to cluster thin, when to pick and so on as the weather does its thing.
I was in luck, and not only is he a Seahawk fan, but Rich quickly saw what I was driving at.
“When you’re a young winemaker it comes down to personality” he noted. “I had the good fortune of knowing guys like Mike Januik, Charlie Hoppes and Myles Anderson who understood what it took to put good wine in the bottle. It’s less about being artistic and more about developing good relationships with growers. Which is the same with learning to play quarterback – these things take time.
One handshake at a time, one reception at a time, one perfect pass at a time. Geno [Smith – Seahawks quarterback] is just so poised in the pocket. That comes with time, working hard, picking yourself up and saying I’m gonna get better. In the wine business you try to find ways to improve every year whether it’s canopy management, crop load adjustment, doing the right thing at the right time. You have to live it. What I love the most now is that I’ve lived through so many mistakes but I never let them hold me back.”
I got the message, understated though it was, that there was in fact a very steep learning curve to becoming a winemaker. Funk confessed that back in the early 2000s he’d come very close to buying a site for his proposed winery in a seemingly more hospitable location. For the first five years he wasn’t entirely sure he’d made the right decision. The location today, at the far south end of Walla Walla county, just north of Stateline Road, across from Pepper Bridge, is well populated with neighbors such as Sleight of Hand, Canvasback, Va Piano and many more. But 20 years ago none of them were there and Pepper Bridge didn’t even have a tasting room.
That may have been the least of his challenges.
“I’ve been farming this ground for 20 years” he continued. “For the first 10 I didn’t have the resources and equipment to farm it the way I needed to. There’s so many things against us here – the winery is on the valley floor, we have multiple homes all around us, all with different lawn care regimes, and it’s cool. We don’t freeze down here in the fall but… we can get nailed in April with spring frost at budbreak This is like Siberia down here on the valley floor” he grins, only half kidding. “There’s nothing easy about this, no matter what hat you’re wearing.”
Saviah is a family affair, as detailed on the website: “Winemaker Richard Funk and his wife, Anita, both natives of Montana, moved to Walla Walla in 1991. Saviah is a family name from Anita’s great-grandmother, a schoolteacher, artist and author, who settled in western Montana in the early 1900s. The family’s heritage is also reflected in their Star Meadows White Wine, named after the location of the original family homestead; the Une Vallée Red Wine inspired by the current family homestead called “One Valley”; and the Big Sky Cuvée in honor of their Montana roots.”
Saviah’s estate vineyards are a well-curated collection representing the breadth of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. A long-standing relationship with the Brown family (Watermill) supplies wines from the Anna Marie, McClellan Estate and Watermill Estate vineyards. Watermill (planted in 2005) and the Funk Estate vineyard (planted in 2007) are located in the Rocks District and principally grow Syrah with smaller blocks of Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Tempranillo. The most recent estate planting is the Dugger Creek Vineyard adjacent to the original Seven Hills site. It grows the Italian varieties as well as Grenache, Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
As I tasted through many of Saviah’s current releases I was consistently impressed with the aromatics, structure, immediate appeal and ageability of virtually all of these wines. Clearly a veteran winemaker is at work here. Rich Funk knows his vineyards, he’s tucked more than 20 vintages under his belt, he knows how to get the most out of each wine without excess, and there isn’t a single wine in the entire lineup I wouldn’t happily put front and center on my dinner table.
Saviah’s sister brand is the value-oriented series called The Jack, which deserves its own writeup and will be featured at a later date. But check out the Value Wine for a preview!
Saviah Cellars Current Releases
Saviah 2021 Saviah Estate Vineyard Viognier
Picked at low brix and fermented in concrete egg, this is a high acid style that benefits from its lightness while avoiding fatness and bitterness. Savor the subtle elegance of the stone fruit, pineapple and citrus, highlighted with accents of white flowers. It pulls together with just the right lushness to the palate. It’s clean, crisp, deep and detailed, and should age very well for up to a decade.
136 cases; 13.2%; $35 (Walla Walla)
Saviah 2021 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Chardonnay
Rich Funk describes the site as “about 1350 feet in elevation on sandy silt over caliche. It’s one of those sites you pick, press, go to barrel, do a little lees stirring and that’s it. About as Old World as you can get. Give this four or five years and you just want to sit there and smell the glass.” Fair and apt, as the sharp-etched flavors mix stone fruits, white peaches, lemons, a streak of vanilla, hints of butter cookie and (dig for it) a suggestion of banana cream. The complex, refreshing minerality brings it all home. May be best in the mid-2020s.
208 cases; 13.5%; $35 (Columbia Valley)
Saviah 2019 Dugger Creek Vineyard Nebbiolo
Lovely to look at, this is close to Pinot Noir in color, and easily the best Washington state Nebbiolo I’ve ever tasted. Why? Because it captures the complex elegance of the grape, offering scents of roses amidst delicate layers of wild berries matched to firm, earthy tannins. The length is impressive, the extended finish trails out with touches of tobacco, licorice and tar, and the overall structure suggests that this is a wine to cellar for a decade or longer. Very limited to jump on it now. CW √
91 cases; 14.3%; $38 (Walla Walla)
Saviah 2020 Dugger Creek Vineyard Barbera
Vinified in neutral puncheons and barriques this is aromatic, soft and sexy. It pushes the plush factor right into the wine’s core, loaded with softly accessible flavors of strawberry preserves, plum jam and prune fruits. They come swathed in lush milk chocolate that coats the mid-palate. Flavors linger generously as the wine glides on through the finish. Still delicious on day three. Surprise – Saviah is making the best Italian varietal wines in the state. VW
236 cases; 14.4%; $35 (Walla Walla)
Saviah 2019 The Stones Speak Estate Tempranillo
There’s 20% Syrah (presumably from this same Rocks District estate vineyard) in the blend. It’s enough to strongly impact the scents and flavors, putting the stamp of terroir on the wine ahead of any varietal character. Don’t take this as a criticism; that is not my intent. The stones do speak here, loud and clear, while the varietal flavors play a secondary role. This is a fine example of the AVA, with savory/umami/espresso/licorice/soy sauce flavors all blended into the whole palate.
118 cases; 14.1%; $55 (Walla Walla – Rocks District)
Saviah 2020 Malbec
Rich Funk captures the essence of Walla Walla Valley wines as well as anyone and better than most. This is sourced from three different vineyards, and opens with saturated with flavors of breakfast tea, blueberries, loganberries, cold coffee and charred wood. Aged 17 months in one quarter new Frenh oak, it’s solid in the mid-palate and adds some herbal notes to the tannins that build in the finish. But after all is said and done, the deep flavors of purple berries rule.
194 cases; 14.5%; $35 (Walla Walla)
Saviah 2018 Petit Verdot
This is consistent with the overall style of Saviah’s red wine lineup. It’s sturdy, dense and balanced. Black fruits meet espresso and black tea tannins, crafting a lingering, ageworthy, mouth-coating wine. This is at the top end of ripeness for Saviah reds, which matches the varietal characteristics, and the tannins are ripe and polished, with highlights of graphite, granite and char. Aged 21 months in 60% new French oak, this is a big wine ready for a big steak.
148 cases; 14.6%; $45 (Walla Walla)
Saviah 2019 G.S.M.
This is 80% Grenache from the winery’s Dugger Creek vineyard, with Syrah and Mourvèdre from Watermill making up the rest. It’s a sturdy, stylish effort, with tight purple fruits compacted into a firm core. Aging 15 months in neutral French oak has taken some of the rough edges off the tannins, but decanting is a good idea for near-term drinking. Nicely accented with coffee, cocoa and licorice notes, this should be drunk over the next 6 – 8 years. (Sold Out)
298 cases; 14.6%; $40 (Walla Walla)
Saviah 2020 Syrah
Saviah has quietly accumulated a fine portfolio of estate vineyards scattered around the Walla Walla Valley, and many are part of this excellent blend. It’s supremely drinkable, which is to say delicious despite its youth and balanced for immediate enjoyment. Plush with purple fruits, a streak of licorice, a sassy swatch of butterscotch and lifted with refreshing acids, this is one of those wines you won’t be able to keep your hands off. WW
532 cases; 14.5%; $35 (Walla Walla)
Saviah 2020 The Stones Speak Estate Syrah
This is a high-density site just recently planted so the best years are yet to come. All the right pieces are in place for a clear evocation of Rocks District Syrah, but the wine does not yet show the power of older vines. As with all the Saviah Syrahs, it’s made in a classic style, perfectly balanced, detailed with dusty tannins, dried herbs and streaks of anise and espresso. Very fine winemaking and a peek at a vineyard that will certainly be a superstar in the near future. WW
311 cases; 14.4%; $60 (Walla Walla – Rocks District)
Saviah 2020 Reserve Syrah
The best wine in a stunning lineup, this is built from top tier estate fruit from the Funk Estate, Stones Speak and Watermill vineyards. It gets the new barrel treatment (40%) and carries the additional imprint of the Rocks District where the vineyards are located. Intense, detailed, compact and expressive, it’s loaded with brambly berries, savory herbs, licorice, espresso, dark chocolate, ash and even touches of lemon rind. What a glorious bottle it is, one that should continue to develop beautifully over the rest of the decade.
410 cases; 14.3%; $50 (Walla Walla)
NOTE: The wines I recommend have been tasted over many hours and days in peer groups and are selected for excellence. I have chosen to eliminate numerical scores from this website. Only recommended wines are shown, no negative reviews. My notes are posted immediately with links to the winery website, so you may purchase them directly from the producer before they are sold out. I take no commission, accept no advertising, and charge no fees for wines reviewed.
It’s always good to see my hometown in the news!
I don’t know much about wine. Then I read one of your columns and start quoting what you’ve written to everyone I know, without attribution. I guess I just outed myself. Thanks for the borrowed cred and the fine writing.