Washington Winemakers
Photos by Grant Gunderson

Washington State has seen explosive growth over the last 15 years, ballooning from 200 wineries to more than 850 today. With this growth has come an influx of talented winemakers, each with their own ideas about what Washington wine is, and how it should be made.

Though young, many of these winemakers have diversified the style and increased overall wine quality in the state. The four winemakers chronicled here are among those having an outsized impact on Washington’s wines.

  1. photo by Grant Gunderson

    Josh McDaniels | Doubleback & Sweet Valley Wines

    Josh McDaniels became interested in wine at age 12, considerably earlier than most. He was invited to a release party at famed Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla, whose winemaker, Chris Figgins, was McDaniels’ youth group leader at church.

    “I got bit by the bug,” McDaniels says. “I fell  in love with bringing farming into this really beautiful product.”

    McDaniels began to pester Figgins for grapevines. “He eventually gave me 25 Cabernet vines that I planted in my parents’ backyard,” he says. By the age of 15, he had made his first wine at a custom crush facility.

    McDaniels began working at Leonetti Cellar in 2007. After graduating high school, he applied to the local community college’s viticulture and enology program. There was just one problem: He was too young to drink.

    “They didn’t want to accept me because I was underage,” he says.

    With support from the Figgins family and others in the winemaking community, McDaniels entered the program alongside people training for their second, third or even fourth careers.

    “It certainly was intimidating,” he says. “At the same time, I think it kind of added to the allure of it to be pushing boundaries.”

    After graduating, McDaniels spent a summer in Argentina working for Paul Hobbs at Viña Cobos. He returned to Walla Walla and continued to work with Figgins, assisting on the Doubleback project for former NFL star and Walla Walla native Drew Bledsoe.

    “I played football growing up,” McDaniels says. “Drew was kind of this mythical creature that all young athletes in Walla Walla aspire to be.”

    Now, at 27, McDaniels is the winemaker for Bledsoe’s winery. He also has his own small winery, Sweet Valley Wines.

    Despite his youth, McDaniels has already been making wine longer than many in Washington.

    “I’m definitely young, and I get that,” he says. “But I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some great people, and I’ve tried to learn what I can from them.”

    McDaniels credits Figgins for taking him under his wing when he was barely a teenager.

    “I owe him the world,” he says.

    92 Doubleback 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley); $99

    92 Stolen Horse 2012 Syrah (Columbia Valley); $48

  2. Photo by Grant Gunderson

    Mike Macmorran | Mark Ryan Winery & Manu Propria

    “One of my earliest memories is sitting on a bench with my great-grandmother, watching her ferment cucumbers and cabbages,” says Mike Macmorran of Mark Ryan and Manu Propria wineries in Woodinville. “She just loved fermenting things. It sparked my interest.”

    Macmorran’s fascination with fermentation led him to study science and ultimately pursue a medical degree in Seattle. At the end of his second year of medical school, his wife posed a question that would change his life.

    “She asked me what I wanted to do when I was done being a physician,” Macmorran says. “I told her I wanted to open a small winery. She said, ‘So you’re going to medical school to someday have a winery? Why don’t you just cut out 30 years of the process?’ ”

    Putting his medical career on hold, Macmorran, now 37, began to volunteer at DeLille Cellars in Woodinville in 2005.

    “I would work there from 7 to 3 and then change my clothes and go work at a bar to help pay the bills,” he says.

    In 2006, he was hired full-time as a cellar worker and worked his way up to assistant winemaker. In 2008, he joined Mark Ryan Winery, becoming winemaker the following year.

    “I try to stay true to Mark McNeilly’s style from when he started the winery in 1999,” Macmorran says of his approach at Mark Ryan. “The wines are bigger and more broad-shouldered, with a full-fruited profile.”

    This stands in contrast to his own brand, Manu Propria. Its focus is on producing Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Willow Vineyard, planted in 1972 by Mike Sauer.

    “[With] Red Willow wines, the fruit is there, but it’s wrapped in these non-fruit elements
    that are reminiscent to me of a slightly cooler climate,” he says.

    Ultimately, Macmorran’s intention with Manu Propria is larger than the wine itself.

    “I think it’s important to recognize the people who have contributed so much to this industry,” he says. “That’s really what Manu Propria is about—honoring Mike Sauer and his family and what they have done for this industry.”

    92 Mark Ryan 2012 Wild Eyed Syrah (Red Mountain); $48

    91 Manu Propria 2012 Ex Animo Red Willow Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Yakima Valley); $35

  3. Photo by Grant Gunderson

    Andrew Latta | Latta Wines

    Andrew Latta was just 13 years old when his interest in wine was first piqued.

    “One of my dad’s friends explained to me how to spot a counterfeit Chianti,” Latta says. “That was the first moment when I thought, ‘Oh, there’s more to this than just some stuff that I don’t think tastes very good!’ ”

    While attending college in northern Kentucky, Latta waited tables to pay the bills, learning all he could about wine. After studying to become a sommelier and spending a year as a wine director at a five-star resort in Phuket, Thailand, he decided to move to Walla Walla to study viticulture and enology.

    “I saw a lot of potential in Washington and in Walla Walla,” Latta says.

    Latta started out working at Dunham Cellars and, in 2006, he interviewed with winemaker Charles Smith (K Vintners, Charles Smith Wines), whose star was quickly rising. It did not go well.

    “We had the most contentious interview I’ve ever had in my life,” Latta says. Smith grilled him about grapes, producers and wines. “He would ask me what the five first growths were, and then while I was answering, would start mentioning super seconds to throw me off.”

    Smith offered Latta a job.

    Latta worked as winemaker for Smith from 2006–14, overseeing a program that grew to include more than 750,000 cases of wine across six different brands.

    “Charles gave me tremendous responsibility, trust and leeway,” Latta says. “I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”

    In 2011, Latta started Latta Wines as a side project. He left Charles Smith Wines in 2014 to make it a fulltime endeavor.

    “It’s 100% varietal and site driven,” Latta says of his focus at the winery. “I’m just trying to show what the sites I’m working with can do.”

    Now 36, with 10 years of winemaking experience, Latta focuses on Grenache, Malbec and Roussanne.

    “I’m just trying to make the wines that Washington wants to make,” he says. “You have concentration and richness here, but you
    also have balance. It’s a great place to be making wine.”

    94 Latta 2012 Upland Vineyard Grenache (Snipes Mountain); $40

    92 Latta 2013 Lawrence Vineyards Roussanne (Columbia Valley); $30

  4. Photo by Grant Gunderson

    Ryan Crane | Kerloo Cellars

    Ryan Crane became interested in wine while waiting tables in college. After briefly selling wine for a distributor and working for an industrial painting company, he moved to Walla Walla in 2005 to study viticulture and enology.

    “I took the plunge,” Crane says. “It was honestly nothing more than wanting to try my hand at making wines from Washington State.”

    After stints at Forgeron Cellars and Va Piano, Crane started his own winery, Kerloo Cellars, on a shoestring in 2007.

    “I didn’t have any money,” he says. “I had like 10,000 bucks, so I said, ‘How much fruit can I get for 10,000 bucks?’” Kerloo Cellars, named after the call of the crane, had begun.

    At Kerloo, Crane focuses on wines that come from specific blocks of specific vineyards, each of which are listed on the back label.

    “I was tasting a lot of wines that I felt like didn’t have a sense of place,” Crane says. “I wanted to build a portfolio of wines that made you feel something versus just taste something.”

    Kerloo focuses on Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache, but also dabbles in other varieties like Malbec and Tempranillo.

    “We’re mostly a Rhône shop, with the rest fun varieties that I think are up-and-coming in Washington,” Crane says.

    At the winery, Crane, 38, focuses on making wines in an old-fashioned style.

    “We’re really gentle with the fruit,” he says. “We foot-stomp all the Syrah and Grenache. It doesn’t go through any sort of destemmer or anything. I want whole clusters to bring some texture, length and earthy restraint to the wines.”

    Ultimately, the emphasis at Kerloo is on creating wines of character.

    “For me, every single lot tells a different story,” Crane says. “The goal is to create wines that challenge people’s palates and focus on the rawness of the fruit that we have in Washington.”

    92 Kerloo Cellars 2013 Art Den Hoed Vineyard Mourvèdre (Yakima Valley); $32

    91 Kerloo Cellars 2013 Majestic Grenache (Columbia Valley); $26

Published on December 9, 2015
Topics: Washington WinesWinemakers