A Schooling in Sleight of Hand (& Pearl Jam) with Walla Walla Winemaker Trey Busch"/>
Seattle may be the hot seat of Washington wine drinking, but when it comes to wine making, Walla Walla wears the hot pants. Meet Your>"/>
Seattle may be the hot seat of Washington wine drinking, but when it comes to wine making, Walla Walla wears the hot pants. Meet Your Maker is a new Voracious column that bridges the Cascade divide, introducing the winemakers and artisans putting Washington wines on the new world map - and at the top of the tasting charts.
Your Maker: Trey Busch, Sleight of Hand Cellars
Trey Busch is a bit of a magician. He transforms Washington grapes into wines like "The Illusionist" that top the scoring charts of industry bibles such as the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. In operation since 2007, Sleight of Hand Cellars has been called one of Washington's "next cult wineries" and the tasting room has got to be one of Washington's most original - with a collection of vinyl records that numbers in the hundreds. A visit to Sleight of Hand Cellars lends some insight into the color and charisma of this maker - a man with a personality, and past, as vibrant as the wine he creates. Let's uncork this bottle...
This picture is not what it seems.
If you weren't a winemaker, what would you want to be?
I would be a rock writer. I would be like Cameron Crow if I could be anybody. If you could pick an era I'd go 70's. Hang out with Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix - all those bands I never got to see.
Next to being a winemaker, what do you consider your greatest talent?
Air guitar. I would say I'm one of the top five air guitar players - at least - in this state.
Have you participated in any air guitar competitions?
No, but I've dreamed of it. You know, those guys got skillz. They have the World Championships in Amsterdam every year and I'd go just for that. You almost have to be in *that* state of mind to watch it. Air guitar is an instrument enjoyed mostly by the participant.
How did you become a winemaker?
I was working in Seattle as a buyer for Nordstrom - had been there for eight years and it was a great job with great benefits. I also love music and in the mid-90's met Jamie Brown, the owner of a record store on Roosevelt called Ruby Records. Along with a great selection of vinyl and jazz, Jamie had an amazing collection of bootleg records, many of which were Pearl Jam. I am huge fan of Pearl Jam, so we really got to know each other because of that. Jamie is originally from Walla Walla and at some point he decided to sell his shop and move back to Walla Walla to start a winery (Waters) when the whole wine scene had just started up there.
At some point, Jamie came to Seattle for a visit and brought his friend Eric Dunham of Dunham Cellars. So, we had dinner with them and Eric brought a bottle of his '97 Cabernet - my wife and I drank wine at that point but it was rare for us to spend $15 on a bottle and we didn't really know much about it - but that bottle was really good and kind of opened our eyes to what was going on with wine in Washington. We went back to Walla Walla and really got to know Eric and his friends and really liked the people there - the community of artists, winemakers and educators. At that point we thought, "we could really live here."
In Spring of 2000 Eric asked if I might be interested in coming to work for him - I said, "Man, I'd really like to but there's nothing for me to do. I don't really have a background in anything other than retail, I don't really know anything about winemaking." Eric's response was "I can teach you that part. You have a great sales/marketing background and we want to expand our brand." So in July of 2000 I quit my job and my wife and I moved to Walla Walla. My intention was not to become a winemaker, it was really just to move my family here and work for Eric - who I knew to be a great winemaker. It wasn't until working my first full harvest, and the hands-on part of the process, that I knew this is what I wanted to do - the light bulb just went off.
What happened after the light bulb came on?
I worked for Eric for almost three years and then Justin Wylie of Va Piano, a good friend of mine, mentioned his buddy Greg Basel was thinking of starting a winery. Greg asked Justin if he knew any winemakers who might want to start a label and Justin recommended me. I was at the point where I knew what we were doing at Eric's place, but I knew too much. So, it's not that Eric asked me to leave or that I was even looking to leave, but it was an opportunity to try my own thing. So, that's where Basel Cellars came from. It was how I found my way and my own style of winemaking. I had an amazing base from what I had learned from Eric and I built on that by experimenting on my own, talking to other winemakers and learning about what they were doing and why.
I really liked Basel and had a lot of freedom but just couldn't fully express my personality and really wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to have my own tasting room and have it feel like something I wanted to be in, that reflected me. I gained a lot of fans and friends in the five years at Basel, which made it a lot easier to start a new project, so with seven years under my belt I made the leap.
Walla Walla's winemaking community is really open and sharing?
Especially back then. And still today. I mean, there are no secrets. Everyone is very open and very great to work with. We're all in this together you know. The further you get from Washington, the harder it is to sell wine. If you're representing Washington and Walla Walla, you're representing us all. We have to work together.
Why is it hard to sell Washington wine?
Because people are just learning about it. In California, everyone buys wine from Napa. On the East Coast, everyone buys wine from Napa and Europe. Obviously, that's slowly changing year to year - but that's why we do things like Taste Walla Walla in New York and other areas.
What is Taste Walla Walla and who organizes it?
It's a tasting event in New York City (note: additional Taste Walla Walla events are scheduled February 27 in Portland and March 12 in Seattle). The Walla Walla Wine Alliance here in town organizes it. The wineries pay dues to the Alliance and their job is to be a branding and marketing organization for us, so they plan and execute tasting events and things like that featuring Walla Walla wines.
So tell us what the Pearl Jam/Sleight of Hand connection is?
Trey's vinyl collection in Sleight of Hand Cellars' tasting room.
I have always loved music. I went into the Navy right out of high school and music really became my therapy though that. I am from Atlanta and got stationed in Seattle, met my wife, then got out of the Navy and went to the University of Georgia. This was the early '90s and the whole Seattle music scene was exploding with Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana and all of that. Pearl Jam came through Athens on a bus tour in the Spring of '92 and I was the first one in line to buy tickets. I skipped all my classes, waited for the bus to show up, got to meet the band, shoot the shit with them, and see a show that was off the chain. It was really unbelievable, and at that moment I told my wife, "hey, we're moving back to Seattle." I just felt like it was something I didn't want to miss. You know, I lived in Athens eight years too late - missed the scene here with REM and the B52's - and I was like THIS is our scene and I don't want to be in Athens when it happens. Jen wanted to go home, so we moved back to Seattle two months later.
But it is really through wine that I've gotten to know a lot of people who work for the band. Every year I would send wine to their fan club office staff and I think it opened a few doors into their world. I got to meet Jeff Ament through Tim Bierman, who manages the Pearl Jam fan club. My daughter and I were huge fans of the show Top Chef and Stephanie Izard (winner of Top Chef: Season Four) was doing some wine and food stuff with Rich Funk, the winemaker at Saviah Cellars here in Walla Walla. So Stephanie was here, my daughter got to meet her, and we really hit it off. When I had a chance to see Pearl Jam in Chicago I called Steph and asked her if she wanted to see a show. She said yes and that we should have dinner beforehand - we decided to go to a place called Blackbird. Tim Bierman asked if he could join me for dinner and when I said I'm going with my friend Stephanie Izard, he said Jeff Ament's girlfriend was a big Top Chef fan and would die to meet Stephanie. Next thing I know, we're all having dinner together. So we had a great time, I got to know Jeff, and that has really been awesome. More than unbelieveable.
So, this is where the connection between Sleight of Hand comes in?
Yes, when my partners Jerry and Sandy and I started Sleight of Hand in '07 we were brainstorming names and I had a list of suggestions like "Hand and Heart" - the kinds of things that go into winemaking. They hated them. They thought the only thing we can do to get me off my line of thinking was to come up with a Pearl Jam reference. So they sent me a list of suggestions and were like "what do you think of these?" I was like, "hey, these are all Pearl Jam, what a great idea!" They were like, "we know!!" Sleight of Hand is one of my favorite songs and we thought from a branding standpoint it would be easy to brand around it without making it obvious that is was a Pearl Jam reference.
Has anyone from the band ever been out to the tasting room?
Yeah, Jeff's been out. He comes out every year actually. I have a picture of us that's the screen saver on my computer, of course. We went out to PJ20 last year and I got to shoot the shit with them for awhile. As busy as they are and as packed as the event was, it was cool that they made time for me.
The reality is I don't "know" them. I send Christmas gifts to the fan club folks because they take care of me and you know, that's all I can ask for. If it ends right there that'd be awesome. Ultimately I'd love to be able to collaborate with them like they did with Dogfish Head. They did a PJ20 beer and I would love to do something similar that benefits one of their charities since they are all really active there. I've thrown the idea out there so, we'll see!
What's the best thing about owning a winery?
The two months of harvest. It's really your one shot - you have one shot every year to do things right, so you really have to be in the moment and get your hands dirty. The rest of owning a winery is a lot of paperwork and a lot of sales. I would also say working in the tasting room is a close second. Pouring wine for people - it's just gratifying to pour wine for people and see them enjoy it.
What do you say to folks who find the wine scene intimidating?
In Washington I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone to talk down to you in their tasting room. Come visit and find out.
If California is considered the "American powerhouse" of wine, how/when do you think Washington will give it the smackdown?
I think we already have. There is no question that Washington wine provides more value and drinking pleasure at a certain price point. And I think that about every price point. Not to say there aren't wines from California that drink well, there are exceptions to every rule, but if you had to lump them together, I would say Washington wines provide more drinking pleasure at every price point.
The only problem is we just don't make as much as they do. There are roughly 750 wineries in Washington and there are 1,000 plus in Napa Valley alone. They have more wine growing acreage in Napa Valley than we do in the entire state of Washington. We'll never compete on a volume level but we're already competing with them on a quality level. In the last Wine Spectator, for the year, if you look at all the 90+ point wines the percentage is much higher for Washington than any other region of the world. That's saying a lot right there.
What do you say to people who think Washington wines are too expensive?
My Spellbinder is $19 - is that too expensive? I guess Walla Walla wines are more expensive in general because our land prices are higher here, but Walla Walla also gets a lot of attention because the wine scores better. If the wines are better, you should charge more for them. They are also made in small quantities - you don't find 5000 case quantities of anything around here. It's 300 cases of this or 500 cases of that.
Which of your wines do you most identify with?
Probably the Archimage because it's sort of an homage to my favorite wine, which is Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux. A friend of mine opened up a 1990 Cheval Blanc for me years ago and that was really a WOW moment. That really did it for me so I always strive to make a wine like that, in that style, every year. They all have my personality in them but that one more than the rest because of the story behind it. My '08 Cabernet - The Illusionist - is the one that got all the press, 95 points from the Wine Spectator, and was better scoring but I love the story behind The Archimage. And, it's my favorite label.
Where do the members of your wine club - The Wine Illusionist Society - come from?
Where do the members of your wine club - The Wine Illusionist Society - come from?
A good portion, probably 60-70 percent, are from Seattle. Not just wine club members, but just sales in general. When Jerry and I did the end of year reports and looked at how our distributors performed, the majority of the wine was sold on the west side of the mountains. We're trying to grow other markets but Seattle is definitely our most important one.
What's your connection to Renegade Wine Co. and the Modern Wine Project?
They're second labels for me - they fit niches I don't already cover with Sleight of Hand. Sleight of Hand is $18-20 and $45 and up, Renegade is $9.99. It's a little red table wine, actually a Cabernet, with a very playful bandido label - a takeoff of Monty Python where there bandidos are talking to Mel Brooks' crew..."Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!" But ours says "Glasses? We don't need no stinking glasses!" I have a Chardonnay we're going to bottle in a couple of weeks as well as a rose. The Modern Wine Project is $25 retail - more expensive but packaged in really heavy bottles with really modern labels. They're all single varietals - Cabernet, Malbec, Cab Franc and Chardonnay - and are made in a modern, new world style; a lot of new oak and they drink like more expensive wines. For $25 they are a great entry into more expensive Washington wine. You can find them at QFC, Whole Foods and a lot of wine shops in Seattle.
What do you think of the Woodinville wine scene?
I love it. We looked at Woodinville seriously until we found our property here. I think it's getting crowded and they're feeling that - certain brands are doing well there and will continue to, other brands that aren't as strong, just like here, may not hang around. It will be interesting to see what kind of sustainability there is for all of the wineries we have here and there.
Come by the tasting room, pick out a record, but keep your hands off the turntable. You just don't touch a man's turntable.