During the years that I lived in Seattle I was part of two excellent wine tasting groups that met monthly. There was no overlap between them (other than me) but both included a mix of winemakers, distributors and retailers. Knowledgeable palates all, and yet all quite different in their approach to tasting and evaluating wines.
When reduced down to certain basics, it wasn’t difficult to understand their different approaches to wine tasting. The winemakers had tracked flavors from a handful of vineyards, beginning with ripening grapes and on through fermentations, barrel aging, blending and bottling. Their end goal was to make the best possible wines from the grapes and vineyards they were working with. The distributors were tasting a vast number of young wines from existing and potential clients. They were keyed in on looking for wines that met their business requirements on cost, availability, filling any missing links in their portfolio and overall competitive positioning.
The retailers were in a somewhat similar position, but had the widest playing field. There were literally dozens of importers and distributors operating out of Seattle at that time, and any retail buyer was inundated with samples and trade tastings. They needed to curate their offerings with reference to their particular customer base. In subtle ways all of these paths seemed to lead to often quite different evaluations of the same wines.
Going back even further, during the early years of the modern Washington wine industry, most vineyards were planted on flat Columbia valley farmland, often as an adjunct crop. More than a few of the first wineries were farmer-run, and apart from tasting their own wines and the wines of their neighbors, they had little or no palate training. This led to what has been called tunnel palate, where you taste such a limited number of wines, all from nearby vineyards. With no broader wine knowledge you come to have a focus on what you know and lose all sense of how your wines actually fit into a global marketplace. Tunnel palate.
What sparked these thoughts were a pair of tastings in the past couple of weeks. One the first vintage of a brand new Willamette Valley winery, one here in Walla Walla from a winery in the news recently due to a spectacular business acquisition. What links them in my mind is that both owners have highly educated palates, clear goals and a locked-in focus on quality.
Caprio made its debut as a tiny garagiste project back in 2008. A decade later founder/winemaker Dennis Murphy built his dazzling winery and tasting room across from Pepper Bridge. A Napa valley native who moved to Walla Walla a quarter century ago, he’s been in the news recently announcing his purchase of a majority interest in the Seven Hills vineyard, one of the most important and prestigious in the Walla Walla Valley AVA. Most of the business coverage focused on that part of what was a much larger story – his acquisition of a big chunk (485 acres) of the entire SeVein vineyard project. I sat down with Dennis Murphy at Caprio to taste his new releases and talk in more detail about these purchases.”
PG: How did this whole deal come together? Did you have your eyes on Seven Hills, on the whole enchilada, or…?
DM: “Opportunity is when Fate and Luck cross each other. It could be good or bad, you never know. Being partners with Norm [McKibbon] for some years [part ownership of Pepper Bridge and Amavi] has helped Norm know me and me be known in the Valley. When the Seven Hills local partnership realized the institutional partner [TIAA, a Teachers’ Union Retirement Fund] wanted out, the reality is that there’s a unique skillset I provided – negotiating with institutions which I do in my day job [CEO of Hayden Homes] a lot. So I’m a local winemaker, who believes in the future of Walla Walla, and has the resources to negotiate with TIAA.
“I was told it was all or nothing including the 485 acres at SeVein. I went back and forth for awhile. At first it seemed like an interesting idea, but when I realized I could be the owner of an iconic vineyard…”
PG: It got a lot more interesting I imagine.
DM: “An asset like Seven Hills is difficult to sell when one partner wants out. When TIAA decided to sell, the Figgins family saw it was a good time for them also. I enjoy the process, it’s a long process, but when you’re finally done number one priority is to be a good partner. Marty Clubb and Norm [the other partners in Seven Hills] know what they’re doing and I’m new. I’ll observe and learn for a year and then hopefully I’ll have something meaningful and productive that I can add to make it even better. Now that the ownership is three local families I think it changes the tone of the trajectory. There’s no risk committee or investment committee we have to run to. It’s an opportunity for us to be more nimble.”
PG: How so?
DM: TIAA was a financial partner – I’ve driven out to Seven Hills more times since they closed the deal than they did in five years!
PG: How will this fit in with your existing three estate vineyards?
DM: Now I’m a vineyard owner and on both sides [SeVein and the Sanitella vineyard within SeVein]. It made it easier to do the deal since I knew what I was getting into. The toughest part? Patience. I ended up purchasing interests in four different companies. This shows that the Valley is still open to creation and creativity, to have a new kid on the block participating. This wouldn’t happen in Napa. I’ve been here for 24 years and it’s still up and coming, still gaining traction, still has that spirit of collaboration and opportunity for people coming this way. It’s a pivotal point where Seven Hills will have fresh blood and new momentum.”
PG: Caprio has made wine since 2008 but was almost invisible until the winery and tasting room were opened. Production is up to about 3000 cases, with a goal of maybe 5000 which will include a Seven Hills designate in the next five years. The tasting room experience always includes a food menu paired specifically to each wine, and advance reservations are mandatory.
The wines are based upon Murphy’s love of Bordeaux varieties and blends. For me they represent a seamless continuation of the types of wines that first established the reputation of the Walla Walla Valley AVA – the Cabernets, Merlots and blends from founding wineries such as Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole No. 45.
Caprio 2022 Estate White – Styled after a Bordeaux blanc, this is 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Semillon, sourced from the estate’s Sanitella vineyard (part of the larger SeVein property). This sets citrus, grapefruit and gooseberry fruits against a background of liquid rock. No new oak intrudes on the freshness of the minerally terroir and the just-ripe-enough fruit. 400 cases; 13.9%; $38 (Walla Walla Valley) 92/100
Caprio 2021 Red Label Cabernet Sauvignon – This is sourced from all three estate vineyards, and includes in the blend small percentages of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The wine weaves together cassis and black fruits with ripe, slightly grainy tannins. A firm, dark streak runs through the finish adding touches of charcoal, coffee grounds, graphite, cedar shakes. There’s a burnished polish to this wine, as if it’s been lightly buffed. Good as it is already, I would bet its best drinking window is still some years away. 555 cases; 14.5%; $48 (Walla Walla Valley) 94/100
Caprio 2021 Eleanor Estate Red Wine – The top red from Caprio, this blends grapes from all three estate vineyards in a mix of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec and 9% Merlot. Owner Dennis Murphy is the palate behind the blending, and like Peter Sturn at Eila, his extensive experience tasting some of the greatest wines of both Europe and America has clearly had a major impact on his wines. This sexy, supple wine has both power and polish. It leans into the dark side – black fruits, barrel toast, coffee grounds, anise and graphite. Tannins are ripe and full, providing a strong base and firm definition through the finish. 1378 cases; 14.5%; $68 (Walla Walla Valley) 95/100
This new winery, making its debut with the wines reviewed here, is the project of Peter Sturn. His journey into wine, as told in his press kit, is worth a read.
“I grew up outside of Chicago, and wine was not a part of my life then” he says. “But I moved to London in my early 20s for graduate school. London was – I think still is – the center of the global wine trade. I started my wine education there. Once I developed an interest in wine, I dove into it. I spent time looking at different wines from different areas of the world. Eventually it all narrowed down to the varietals of Burgundy, but it took years for me to get to that point. I had a lot of fantastic wines along the way.”
“When I was in Europe, I rarely drank U.S. wines,” he confesses. “When I moved back here, it was a pleasure going through and discovering wines from California, Oregon and Washington.”
An aficionado of Burgundian-style wines, Sturn had studied the region’s vineyard techniques and applied those methods to his own production. “I wanted to work with some of the vineyards that I thought were exceptional and continue searching for others that suited the profile I am seeking.”
“I took advice from a number of other winemakers who have helped me create this, including working harvest with Mo Ayoub in 2019, getting counsel from Andy Steinman of Walter Scott, and working with Thomas Savre (Lingua Franca) who made the 2021 wines. In 2022 I began working with Wynne Peterson-Nedry (Ribbon Ridge) out of the Carlton Winemakers Studio.”
PG: You’ve named your Pinots for colors rather than vineyards, Why is that?
PS: “I didn’t want to go with conventional single vineyard naming practices as I find this limiting and possibly confusing with having to change names when and if I chose to blend wine from different vineyards in any given year. So I chose a color naming scheme to denote different shades of wines.”
PG: How did you choose the vineyards you are currently working with?
PS: “In an ideal world, I would be working with older, high elevation, cooler sites and I am a proponent of clonal diversity for complexity. I also want well-cared for vineyards managed by people who are obsessed with quality. The vineyards I work with reflect this. Where there are exceptions, I’ve favored the combination of site and the people caring for the vineyards first as site and fruit quality are preeminent. In 2022 I added Johan for these attributes, and in 2023 I added Brittan and Anonimo (managed by Mo Ayoub).”
“We aim to create light, intense, complex, elegant wines, as dictated by the vineyards and nature. We favor using varying amounts of whole cluster during fermentation with ambient yeast, minimizing extraction. Harvesting dates are chosen to retain acidity/freshness balanced with phenolic ripeness and maintaining moderate alcohol levels. Wine is fermented in small batches and aged in a low impact mixture of new and neutral French oak barrels.”
PG: Thank you. This is a most impressive line-up for a winery’s first vintage!
Eila 2021 Chardonnay – This is a classy wine in an elegant style that is becoming this AVA’s Chardonnay signature. Tart, firm, compact fruit flavors display both brightness and restraint. They are swathed in juicy acids and framed with toasty new oak from a Damy puncheon. The balance is superb, as is the length and concentration from start to finish. Sourced from the Von Oehsen vineyard, this is an impressive debut for this new property. 109 cases; 12.7%; $65 (Eola-Amity Hills) 94/100
Eila 2021 Violet Pinot Noir – This new winery makes its debut with a single Chardonnay and three single vineyard Pinots. The Violet is sourced from Le Cadeau vineyard blocks planted with 777, 667, Pommard, 115 and Mariafeld clones. One quarter of the ferment was whole cluster and one quarter was aged in French new oak barrels. This is an elegant, restrained wine, yet generous with detail and nuance. Red berries, red currants, citrusy acids, a touch of savory herbs and subtle hints of steely minerality all contribute to this multi-dimensional wine. 189 cases; 12.6%; $65 (Chehalem Mountains) 93/100
Eila 2021 Indigo Pinot Noir – This builds on Pommard clones from the Witness Tree Vineyard. It gets a bit more whole clusters (38%) and new oak (40%) than its companion Pinots, and on first blush is hard, tight and a bit inscrutable. The dark fruits, compact and nicely layered, open grudgingly over a 24 hour period. The AVA’s typically earth tannins lend some astringency to the finish. The more it breathes, the more it finds its balance. 121 cases ; 13.1%; $65 (Eola-Amity Hills) 94/100
Eila 2021 Scarlet Pinot Noir – This mixes Pommard and Coury clones from the Prophet vineyard. One quarter was fermented whole cluster, and one fifth aged in new oak. Svelte is the word that comes to mind – a wine that coats the palate with supple flavors of blueberries, pie cherries and accents of graham cracker, almond paste and chocolate. For all of that it remains focused, restrained, elegant and smooth. I’m sure this will age beautifully, but wow is this good right now. 120 cases; 13.6%; $65 (Eola-Amity Hills) 95/100