Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Master Sommelier-run winery that stays under the radar

In the slow summer months before harvest, Greg Harrington's to-do list is short
Why isn't Gramercy Cellars more famous? I can't understand it. Look at all the boxes it checks:

🍷 Founded by a Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington, who ran wine programs in famous restaurants for Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck

🍷 Well-reviewed, food-friendly wines that usually make "state's best" lists

🍷 Almost no new oak, so the fruit shines, and not too high in alcohol

🍷 8000 cases a year, so the wines are widely available

🍷 Only two wines are over $60

When I visited Walla Walla, Washington in June I didn't think there was much need for a Gramercy Cellars story. I figured everyone knew already: Some of the most sommelier-friendly Rhone-style wines made in the U.S.

Then I started poking around the Internet and discovered that, while the wines keep getting favorable reviews, little else has been written about the winery since just after it opened. This story has been hiding in plain sight.

In 1996, Harrington became the youngest American to pass the Master Sommelier exam, at the age of 26. He founded Gramercy Cellars in 2005. He says that four years ago, tasting his older vintages encouraged him to change some of his winemaking techniques.

Beautiful Walla Walla Valley

"We made a big switch in 2014," Harrington said. "As our wines were getting six or seven years old, we thought we weren't getting enough tannin. We thought the wines had enough acid but I wanted the wines to have a little more firmness."

So Harrington began picking a little earlier, leaving the juice on the skins longer and doing more pumpovers. This is counter to the trend in commercial wine today: most supermarket red wines are manufactured to have as little tannin as possible.

"Our customers are trained to know they're not going to drink the wines when FedEx drops them off," Harrington says. "I really start liking our Syrahs about six years after the vintage."

That said, Harrington is vulnerable to coercion. He is making a Viognier now, and a good one, from one of the least-known AVAs in Washington, Lake Chelan, because, he says "We got blackmailed into making this wine. The vineyard owner's father is a sommelier from New York city. He wanted us to buy the grapes, and I wanted to keep my wines on his list. I said, 'Your dad's a doctor. I don't want the Viognier from Lake Chelan.' Then his dad sent us a ton of grapes for free, just to try them, and as soon as I tried it I wanted it."

Gramercy used to make 50 percent more wine than it does today; making less makes his staff happy.

"A winery is like a restaurant in slow motion," Harrington says. "When were were doing 12(000 cases), it was like a restaurant doing a really fast three turns. It was too much on the staff. 8(000 cases) is more like two turns."

Harrington is evolving in more ways than just fewer wines and more tannins. He used to make more multi-vineyard blends, but now he makes about 70 percent single-vineyard wines. He ferments most wines in used oak barrels but increasingly he's using two concrete tanks. He uses a lot of whole cluster, which makes the picking date decision important because he doesn't want green stem tannins from picking too early, or overripe fruit from picking too late.

"Cabernet (Sauvignon) and Pinot Noir taste good when you pick it," Harrington says. "You have to learn to pick Syrah when it still tastes bad in the vineyard."

I can't tell you what a relief that is to hear from a U.S. winemaker; too many say, "We pick on taste," and their wines are flabby and without acid, because that's how the sweet juicy grapes tasted. Fortunately Harrington's earlier-picked grapes lead to some delicious wines. Here are my favorites:

Gramercy Cellars Columbia Valley Viognier 2017 ($20)
A Viognier that shows how pretty the variety can be when it's grown in a cool enough spot and picked early, two rare traits in American Viogniers. Pretty floral aroma, good length and a graceful finish. Fermented in neutral oak barrels. 13.1% alcohol. Buy it here.

Gramercy Cellars Olsen Vineyard Columbia Valley Rosé 2017 ($29)
Olsen Vineyard is considered Washington's best source of southern Rhone varieties. The Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah grapes used here were grown for rosé (not as a byproduct of red wine) and co-fermented. It's a light, soft, peachy, easy to drink rosé. I suspect your bottle would empty quickly. 13% alcohol. Buy it here.

Gramercy Cellars "The Third Man" Columbia Valley Grenache 2015 ($46)
Made with 75% whole clusters, and you can tell from menthol and spice notes that add interest to the cherry fruit. It's 75% Grenache with some Syrah and Mourvedre. 14.4% alcohol. Buy it here.

Gramercy Cellars "L'Idiot du Village" Columbia Valley Mourvedre 2015 ($45)
A lively wine with bright red fruit that hides a hint of Mourvedre's sexy dark side. One of the best Mourvedres from the Pacific Northwest. 14.1% alcohol. Buy it here.

Gramercy Cellars "The Deuce" Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2015 ($60)
Made from all whole clusters fermented in concrete tanks, this has plenty of red fruit with minty, herbaceous notes from the stems. Balanced and interesting. And take note of this, sommelier-wine fans: 13.2% alcohol. Buy it here.

Gramercy Cellars "Lagniappe" Columbia Valley Syrah 2015 ($60)
Made from all whole-cluster fruit from well-regarded Red Willow Vineyard, this promising wine is spicy and peppery, with tight tannins that should encourage you to wait a few years. 13.7% alcohol. Buy it here.

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Joel said...

Good piece on Greg H and Gramercy (don't forget his partner Brandon!) They are good friends, and I am a huge supporter since the beginning back in 2005. Perhaps the best (?) N. Rhone style wines made in WA. Greg is on the radar of the critics, but he is a pretty modest guy and perhaps that is why the bigger world is less aware. One of his best wines (and unique) is his Picpoul. But wines lilke the new Deuce Syrah really Rock indeed!
His Reserve Cab also shows a real 'maturity' in his thinking AND about what WA Cab can be; more like serious Left Bank than the high alcohol (albeit fresher style typical of WA vs CA) thick style more commonly found along the west coast today.

Joel Goldberg said...

Curse you, Blake Gray. I've bought their wines for five years for exactly the reasons you note: (mostly) Rhone varietals that are food-friendly, with lower ripeness and alcohol, along with appropriate oaking. Not to mention the guffaw-factor when the local wine crowd sees "L'Idiot du Village" on a label.

So now that you've gone and written about them, everyone will want one, too. So there goes the pricing, and curse you, Blake Gray.

(A different) Joel

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
W. Blake Gray said...

Joel: I have a good picture with Brandon, but I like the one with his to-do list better. That list was up when I got to the winery: nobody was back there working at the time.

Joel: Do I need an exorcist now?

Unknown said...

No price increases for people named Joel!

Thanks for the great comments guys!

Greg Harrington