Milbrandt Vineyards is one of the pioneers of modern Washington wine industry: as a winery their history began in 1997, when brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt decided to plant their first grapes. For some years they just grew the fruit and sold the crop to wine producers, but in 2005 they decided to build their own winery and release wine with their own labels.
Their wines are regularly awarded by magazines and competitions and they are also the owners of the famed Evergreen vineyard.
Despite this the world of Washington wine is still largely unknown, in Japan as in many other markets. My chat with the energetic Scott Worrall was not only a chance to know Milbrandt Vineyards, but also to learn more about this State.
After the interview I had the chance to taste five of the wines imported here by Alcotrade Trust, three from their Whispering Tree line (Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay) plus the Estate Viognier and the Malbec. My experience with Washington wines is not very long and dates back mainly to 6-7 years ago, when I was working in a wine shop that had a special focus on New World wines. So this was a welcome revision, all the more since my image of Washington wines was not an especially positive one: many of those, reds in particular, that I tasted in the past tended to be alcoholic and to give a peculiar “burnt” sensation in the aftertaste.
Not so with the examples from Milbrandt Vineyards, the reds are well balanced, although I was struck more by the Viognier 2017 from Clifton Vineyard, made in a pretty different style from Condrieu (the Viognier I know better for “educational” reasons): fresh though intense, 15% in alcohol without heating or warming your throat, tropical, fruity, expressive, with a light touch of oak in the soft texture (not much in the aromas, as all the wood employed is 3 years old). Medium acidity as usual with this variety, but Scott assured me that examples from 2011 and 2008 are still well drinkable and complex. Very expressive.
But let’s get started with the interview.
So where are you exactly in Washington?
We have a big production site in a city called Mattawa in the Wahluke Slope AVA.
Then we also have a large site right outside George and Moses Lake in the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA. We were instrumental in getting this turned into an AVA because here we planted vineyards for extraordinary white wines. Evergreen Vineyard is probably now one of the most famous vineyards in Washington State because the grapes that we sold to another producer made a wine that got I think a 99 in Wine Spectator or something like that. This was right at the beginning when we started producing wine, so quite a long time ago, because we were just selling grapes before.
This helped us gaining a reputation for making very high quality raw material for wine production: growing the very best grapes is our forte, it makes winemaking a lot easier, it changes everything.
In the Ancient Lakes AVA we are sitting on top of a pan of caliche which gives to white wines from this region a very strong mineral character, usually associated with citrus fruit. Here we grow Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Riesling with very strong flavors that enrich our wines.
So Ancient Lakes is more suited to whites.
Yeah. We tried to plant reds there, like Pinot Noir, because this place has a higher elevation and it has cooler climate, but it was a total failure and we ripped all out. It is not a good climate for growing red grapes. Some of our neighbours grow red grapes, but not in the same conditions: we chose on purpose this caliche soil while they are probably in different soils, but my experience with red wines grown in this area is less good than my experience with the extraordinary white wines that we grow there. I am not saying that you cannot grow good red grapes there, I just haven’t had any example yet.
The other important thing is that everywhere through here the bedrock is composed of basalt (1) and basalt is volcanic.
On top of that bedrock there is a story that needs to be explained: something happened up to about six millions years ago, called the Missoula floods. In Missoula, which is a city in Montana, there was a huge lake that would freeze and break and freeze and break, and created this channel which is now the Columbia river, carving the deep stream all the way. In a couple of places here in Washington State, notably at Sentinel Gap, ice would form and freeze, making ice dams or bridges. Then it would break, with a consequent flood smashing through. So our terroir is composed by bedrock and crushed basalt, while on top of that we have wind blown loess, granite, scree, alluvial soils, all coming from far away. We have boulders in vineyards that come from Idaho, Montana, Alberta in British Columbia. When you see the walls of the river you can notice all the different layers from the different floods going through.
All these things of course affect the quality and the aromatic gustative characteristics of our wines. Understanding the Missoula floods and what went on there is extremely important to understand Washington wines in general.
So, our vineyards in Ancient Lakes AVA are mostly influenced by this caliche soil, but our reds from Wahluke Slope are mainly on crushed basalt covered by loess. We don’t have “clay”, we have different kinds of inorganic substrates and we add cow manure and irrigate our vineyards because it never rains.
In Seattle it rains 7 months a year, it rains all the time, on the other side [of the Cascade range] it never rains at all: we get some now and then throughout the year, but no more than 20 cm and almost never when the vines need the water. Usually they are dormant when we get precipitations, in snow or ice. So we irrigate and we add cow manure, because there is no clay. This is the desert, no plants have been there, there is nothing that can decompose. Cow manure is the best thing if you want to add nutrients: it is natural, it works perfectly, and the composition is essentially plants because cows are vegetarians; so you essentially put vegetal matter that has been processed back into the earth .
It is incredible that someone decided to make wine in such harsh conditions.
Well look at Southern Italy! (laughs)
Well it seems even more extreme than that!
Well yes, it is different, but for example for Aglianico del Vulture you have more rain, but the soil is very similar, you just have a bit more composition. Or think at an appellation like Priorato, where they have also very very poor soil because they are on 100% slate. If you imagine this kind soil, where there is nothing, there you yields will be very low.
Adding cow manure allows us to have more reasonable yields and since it never rains we also use drip irrigation. The drip of water usually does not go far, so vines usually don’t go too deep, although is some places they do.
What kind of training do you use? Bush training?
Nope, we are double Guyot everywhere. That’s because we are performance oriented and we have expectations of very high quality and yields. We can’t make cheap wine. People in Washington have tried this and failed, because we are not in California where you have one mile massive blocks of vineyards. We produce 7% of the wine in the United States so we do have some large vineyards, and Milbrandt Vineyards is one the largest vineyard holders, but we are not completely mechanized, we are still on a “human” level. We need to make wine that is much higher quality than entry level.
If you use Guyot don’t you fear winter freeze for the vines?
Yes, it happens and we lose vines. It’s part of the job. We do lose vines to freeze and sometimes we can use provignage to replant a lost vine, by taking the cane of one that survived and planting it back to the soil next to it, so that it will come back up.
So no problem with phylloxera, no need of rootstocks?
Great question. We don’t even have any grafted vine, everything is on its own rootstock because phylloxera cannot live in this substrate that has no organic material. You may think that being in a place with no organic material would be inconvenient and sometimes it is, but the fact that we don’t have phylloxera is incredible and the fact that our vines are on their own roots gives us wines of extraordinary purity.
Another thing that it’s interesting is our elevation. Our vineyards are around the 47th parallel and if you look at the map it is around the same as Dijon, northern Burgundy, or Collio. This gives us a lot more sunlight than our friends in Napa, two and a half hours more per day during the growing season. This is significant, even though it gets cooler earlier.
Our harvests are typically quite late, our normal harvest is about one month later than Napa Valley, so 14.5 degrees alcohol is a starting place for red wines and often whites too.
We don’t have pressure. I used to live in Southern France and over there in September every year you have the tramontana wind and rain at the equinox; I think that in Friuli you have something very similar too and on the other side in Alba or Asti in Piemonte you have other things happening. We don’t have this pressure, so we harvest the grapes based on the real ripeness, the phenological ripeness of the grapes, without having to worry. We have extremely ripe raw material cause we don’t have anybody yelling at us and we are not afraid of rain, because it will not rain. And even if it does we just wait a week, because it will dry up. It’s the desert.
Not having physical pressures like oidium or mildew or rain at the equinox allows us to focus on producing very high quality raw material, the starting point for making great wines.
How is Japanese market for Washington wines and your wines in particular? Is it a new market, is it growing?
The Washington State Wine Commission has been spending a lot of time, energy and money to educate Japanese importers, distributors, consumers and the retail and restaurant sector about Washington wine. Some of those efforts have been successful, others have not. I am an old school guy, I go out with my importer, door to door, talking about our wines, tasting with normal people and normal buyers explaining the wines and convincing people like this. It is my way of working.
And is the reaction good usually?
[Laughs] It’s great. Wine production is not part of Japanese culture although they have started making some wine lately. Wine consumption is not part of Japanese culture so everything is new and you have to start somewhere, just like I did when I started drinking wine. I started drinking wine with no knowledge, so I look at the Japanese market much like that: start from the beginning, explain things and how wine can make your life better because it is an important part of your life. Certainly if you live in southern Europe, in Italy, in France, in Germany, Portugal or Spain, wine is on the table like salt and pepper. It is part of the conservation even when we don’t pay much attention to it. Here it is not part of the conversation at all and it has to be introduced. Why someone should try wine or do it, that is something that needs to be explained to the customer. Not everyone likes it, but a lot of people do when they try it.
Do they have an open minded approach?
We need open minded people to start. Also it’s not a bad thing, but Japan can be kind of trendy and wine is trendy right now and it has been for several years. So being trendy helped more people to learn about it in the same way they learn about fashion or other Western cultural things. Some things they want to take from us, some things we want to take from them. In this cultural exchange one of the things that we bring to the table is wine.
Do you notice any difference with other export markets like the UK?
The UK produces very little wine compared to its total consumption, but it has a 2000 years history of wine consumption and drinking, at least since Roman occupation. They fought wars with France for access to wine. So even if they are not producers, wine is part of their everyday consumption and habit. It is a totally different market. When I go and talk about my wines the knowledge there is very high: people from the UK are acknowledged to and used to wine. They know what they are doing already, while here [in Japan] we start from the beginning.
Things that are trendy like orange wine or natural wine have become popular in Japan, but only because they are trendy, not necessarily because they are good. I find that disappointing. Being at the forefront of the trend is important in this market. I am a wine drinker and as a wine drinker it is extremely important for me that wine goes with food, that wine is a part of the daily plan. I think that wine makes my life makes better, I want it to be a part of my life, but not just for no reason. I actually had a good orange wine yesterday, I was surprised, quite delicious, but I have had so many that were mediocre or less and I don’t really get the interest. The wine that I had was delicious, but I would not know how to pair it with food.
Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay: easy, delicious, inexpensive and perfect for daily consumption and the daily Japanese foods. Why complicate this I have no idea. There are already so many great opportunities here with regular wines to pair with food.
I also know that your Milbrandt Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 was in the 2018 Wine Spectator top 100. How is it important to get this kind of awards? Do you notice a difference when you sell an awarded wine?
I believe in personal experience. We all use to take advice from people to have a starting place to explore something new. From that perspective I love the ratings, I love the magazines and all that, it is not just satisfactory, but excellent.
The press in general drives sales because a person doesn’t have time to do the research necessary to put together a comprehensive list of wine that he is going to serve with the dish he wants to serve. We need scores, we need professionals, but it should be a starting point for experience and not something that people blindly follow.
I can’t dissimulate the fact we are extremely proud to have been recognized by professionals for the quality of our work. It is a huge honor to receive so many 90+ points scores. It has been extremely important to our progresses as a winery and our commercial success has allowed us to be bigger and also to do a better job, but at the same time this is not the end. We are humans and a 95 points super big Cabernet Sauvignon is never the right wine to serve with a petai. With tofu petai, give me a Riesling: something spicy, thai, delicious, vegetarian, fresh, rich, fat, I want acid, I want a little bit of sweetness, I want a lot of minerality, I want aromatics, I don’t want a big red and I don’t care if it has got 95 points or not. Wine is a part of life and it needs to be in the right place, not drunk just because it’s popular or expensive.
(1) the reference here is to the Columbia River Basalt Group