A winemaker for one of the foremost names in cult Napa Valley Cabernets packs it up. He ventures further north with his wife to make wines in the uncharted and less prestigious territories of Washington State. Why on earth would someone do that?
Todd Alexander, former winemaker of a $500 cult Cabernet Sauvignon from Bryant Family—and who hasn’t heard of the Bryant Family Cab?—isn’t somebody who behaves like he made $500 bottles of wine. You know, he’s not full of himself and he’s got a casual demeanor that belies the deep wisdom and intellectualism he’s attained from working at a place of such prestige and renown. It’s almost like he really couldn’t give a shit. Napa Valley, Napa Schmalley. What matters to him is the now—the potential of creating something bigger than himself, something that will outlast his lifetime. That thing—what dreams are made of—is the Force Majeure winery located in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington.
An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse
The new chapter in the evolving story of the winemaker begins in France. A lot of things tend to happen in France for winemakers, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Todd starts off:
TODD ALEXANDER: I had gone to France in 2013 with Seguin Moreau cooperage, which is one of the cooperages we used at Bryant. I had a chance to check out their operations there, check out the forests—see everything they do that goes into the barrels. They had a couple of Washington guys who went on that trip too. One of the guys was making wines with Force Majeure in addition to another winery, Mark Ryan, in Washington State. I hit it off with them, we kept in touch. After the 2013 harvest, Carrie [Todd’s wife, who also works in the wine business as a marketer and designer] and I talked about going somewhere new—Oregon, Washington, something like that. Somewhere where it’s more of an emerging region, where we felt we could have a positive impact and have a lot more freedom. In Napa, you tend to get boxed in when you work for one of the major wineries. Things are very static: ‘this is how we do it.’ Not much deviation really. It’s very established.
The pursuit of a dream begins with a seed of desire for change—a voice inside that wants something different, when the thing that used to work for you doesn’t work for you anymore. For the lucky ones, that desire manifests into something real. For Todd, that came in the form of an introduction.
TA: Mike, who was the winemaker at Force Majeure, introduced me to Paul McBride, who’s the owner of the vineyard. I went up there, met with Paul, saw the vineyard. Paul came down to Napa, we talked for a few months, and Carrie and I decided to make the move. I felt really good about it. He offered me a partnership, as long as we didn’t hate each other after a couple of years. He offered profit sharing, etc., and he was really willing to hand me over the reins of the brand. The vineyard, the winemaking—everything from top to bottom. Paul said, ‘Take it, and make it yours, your vision. We’ve brought it to here, and we feel like you can bring it to here.’
It takes many years to figure out what’s special about a vineyard—if anything—and by the time the Force Majeure vineyard was old enough to start producing exceptional fruit was about the time the vineyard owners went out looking for the right winemaker. “Good serendipity,” says Todd, casually.
Build It, and They Will Come
It takes a lot to know if a vineyard site is good. You have to look at things like soils, overall climate, microclimate, both high and low temperature, rainfall, soil composition, aspect, exposure—and then matching that up with what you think is going to grow there, Todd explains.
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT: When you first saw the Force Majeure vineyard, what did you see? What potential did you sense? What excited you?
TODD ALEXANDER: The vineyard is in the Red Mountain AVA. It’s a 45-minute drive west of Walla Walla. It’s a sub-appellation of the Yakima Valley. It’s about 4,400 acres, it’s very small. It’s the warmest AVA in Washington. When I got to the vineyard, what they were doing up there is unique to Red Mountain, unique to Washington and unlike anywhere else I’ve seen. There’s nine different soil types because of the Missoula floods that came through there about 12,000 years ago. It was a cataclysmic event. You have these ancient lava flows that are 2 million years old. Then you have the floods come through and you have a lot of wind erosion. You end up with a lot of weird ‘erratics’ in the vineyard, and it’s a hillside vineyard, so the soil at the very bottom is different from the soil at the top. As you expect, up top is very shallow, a lot of exposed basalt, concreted ash—volcanic deposits. And then, as you get down a little bit lower, there’s the flood sediments. Deeper soils, where some areas have granite which came through with the floods—granite’s not natural in the area. A friend who’s a geologist schooled me on all of it—it’s fascinating stuff.
As Todd continues discussing the site, it becomes clear that one of the aspects most exciting to him is the ability to make a whole lot of different wine varieties, instead of being tied down to making Cab or Cab blends.
TA: The vineyard is a southwest facing hillside. They planted Syrah at the top of the hill, Côte Blonde style just like in the Côte Rôtie—high density plantings, planted very close together, they train the shoots up, tie them, everything’s done by hand. Definitely a lot of passion, a lot of attention to detail went into the vineyard to make it unique. There’s nothing like it in Red Mountain, and nothing like that in Washington. At the bottom, they planted the Bordeaux varietals, like Cabernet and Merlot. They’ve proven that they can make really good wines with those two sets of varietals in that vineyard. Rhone up top—Bordeaux on the bottom.
You have to understand one thing when it comes to Todd Alexander. We talk to a lot of winemakers about soils and terroir and all that geeky stuff, and, you know, the topic tends to induce an eyes-glaze-over effect. But when Todd speaks of this shit, it sounds like music. He’s a musician, has a Bachelor’s in History with a minor in Art History, and worked in the visual arts, so maybe that’s why. But it goes deeper than that. There’s a connection to the winemaking that, for him, is the perfect intersection of art and science. He continues discussing the viticultural aspects of Force Majeure’s vineyard:
TA: Viticulturally, there’s a lot of micro-blocks… 0.3, 0.4 acres where they tried to match up what they thought would work best with the soil type. We can say, ‘this would be good for Mourvedre here.’ There’s 50 soil pits in that vineyard—they can go down 8 feet and see the stratification of soils. Some of the soils up there are real sandy, like beach sand, some are loamy, a little bit of clay that’s not evenly distributed. Where it’s very rocky is where the Syrah is planted. Vines struggle, SW facing so they get a lot of sun, get really good ripeness.
TCR: Force Majeure really gives you a chance to run wild.
TA: People think we’re crazy to plant up there. I tell them, people do this all over the world, you guys. It’s not that big of a deal. If you want to make great wine you can’t go easy. I really love Rhone wines. It’s exciting to work with a vineyard where people are doing things right and knowing I can step into my role and have a positive impact and make it better. I have the freedom to do that. Having the trust of the owner, and all that, is special… Right now, I’m enjoying Syrah the most. But, I love Cabernet—I spent quite a while making it in Napa. I think I’m going to be really excited about the Grenache as soon as we have more of it. The vineyards planted with Grenache were partially inspired by [the Spanish region of] Priorat. We’ve also planted Tempranillo and made three barrels of it in 2015. Viticulturally and climate-wise there’s areas of Spain that are similar to Red Mountain.
TCR: With Bryant located on Pritchard Hill, did you find the experience you gained in Napa Valley translated well in some measure to Red Mountain?
TA: Yes, certain methods of farming. What’s planted at Bryant is 100% Cabernet, and up at the top of our hill is Syrah, so it’s a different trellising method. But there’s certain aspects, like fertilizing, composting and irrigation where I learned good lessons from Bryant that carried over to Force Majeure.
Your Time is Gonna Come
Tasting through Force Majeure’s current 2014 vintage lineup, Todd’s love of Rhone varietals shines through. His 2014 Syrah was the top-rated Washington wine in Wine Advocate for the vintage. It’s a magnificent Syrah—luscious and truly refined with a deft sense of balance, no doubt one of the great Washington Syrahs that can join the ranks of Cayuse, Charles Smith’s Royal City, Gramercy, Reynvaan and other iconic Syrahs of the state. Todd’s flagship Rhone blend, comprised of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache, called “Parvata,” really showcases the individuality of the Red Mountain terroir.
What about the varietal that’s right up Todd’s alley—Cabernet Sauvignon? “Force Majeure” is a phrase which means “an unstoppable force,” and the 2014 Force Majeure Cab lives up to the winery brand. It’s a knockout—powerful, immense, viscous, and quintessentially Washington. If we had to pick a favorite, and that’s tough to do, it would be Todd’s ode to Right Bank Bordeaux, called “Epinette.” It’s a blend of primarily Merlot, with Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot as well, that’s got a deep, dark, bluesy soul—a wine that absolutely sings, and a soulful melody at that.
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT: Was there a wine in your life that had the biggest impact on you?
TODD ALEXANDER: Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I couldn’t tell you the producer, but I remember having Chateauneuf and it was… wow, amazing. It was eye-opening. That’s what wine can be, I said to myself. That was my first experience of the wine. Then I really started seeking out good producers, not just from Chateauneuf but everywhere. That lead me to discovering wines like Chateau Ausone, Vieux Chateau Certan, Domaine Dujac, Thierry Allemand Cornas. There’s a few bottles—like the 2000 Ausone—I’ve had a few times, and that wine is incredible. That was the one that made me say, man, I want to make that. I had a 1955 Latour that blew my mind. I’ve had DRCs a couple of times, but never a really old one—they were babies—but they were pretty magnificent wines. They have incredible vineyards. I’ve been to Haut-Brion a few times and tasted the wines there. Those wines have such finesse for Cabernet, it’s awesome—it’s hard to capture that… I love Alsace. And German Riesling. I don’t know how you couldn’t like those wines. We went to Alsace a few years ago. We tasted there with Jean Trimbach. He was generous enough to pour Clos Sainte Hune—that Riesling is one of my all-time favorite wines. It’s the best white wine in France outside of Burgundy, in my opinion.
TCR: Does America have anything comparable to a First Growth or Grand Cru, in your opinion?
TA: I think vineyards like Bryant, Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin—the wines are expensive but the vineyards are incredible. I recently saw Paul, the COO of Colgin, and he was pouring the ’97 Herb Lamb and it was incredible, aging really well. The ’96 and ’97 Bryants—those will go the distance—they’re beautiful, elegant, powerful—they have it all. I think there are vineyards in Napa that compare to First Growths, I do. It’s just that they’re a lot younger. It’s going to take time. I think Diamond Creek is up there, those are amazing wines.
Washington State vineyards and vintners may not yet have the recognition to draw comparisons to First Growths in Bordeaux or the great Crus of Europe or the famous vineyards of Napa, but there are clear leaders in the field, both large and small—including Leonetti, Chateau St. Michelle, Charles Smith’s brands, Quilceda Creek, Betz, Cayuse, Gramercy and Reynvaan, to name a few. And a lot of big players have gotten in on the game. Todd notes that Altria, a publicly-traded cigarette company formerly known as Philip Morris, owns Chateau St. Michelle. Probably the world’s best known wine consultant, Michel Rolland, is involved in Washington wineries. Australia’s Penfolds has a presence there. Napa’s great iconoclast winemaker Randy Dunn also makes a wine in Washington. When it comes to Napa winemakers who decide to move out of their Beverly Hills 90210-like neighborhood in order to move into a developing area like Washington, however, there are few.
When Mr. Napa goes to Washington, it’s unavoidable that a winemaker so previously entrenched in the Napa Valley culture would bring a Napa “attitude” to Washington. Todd jokes then turns reflective:
TA: Washington is very easygoing, super-nice. We’re intense. Napa is a very intense place if you’re a winemaker. It’s like being in L.A. or NY, you know? Lots of competition, for jobs, lots of pressure to be the best. I miss certain things, but I really love being in Washington. I think if we do everything that we’re trying to do, we’re going to do some really great stuff. I’m really excited about where we’re going to go. I haven’t looked back too much.
It’s a matter of time, and there’s no doubt Force Majeure will join the elite rank of iconic Washington wineries. 2014 is Todd Alexander’s first vintage at the new winery, and it’s a remarkable first vintage, having the same mark of excitement of great first albums—like Led Zeppelin I or The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced? or The Clash’s The Clash. It’s a good start. A very good start.
TCR: How long do you think it will take for you to achieve your goals?
TA: 10 years. We can be in a really good position in that time. Everything starts in the vineyard. That sets the stage for everything else that comes after it… What I want to do is put together something that’s going to outlive me, you know? Not just something we can make a good living out of, have a lot of fun. We really want to build something that’s going to outlast us. That’s what I want.