Foosball and First Crush anyone?
Spencer Sievers is equal parts daredevil, eternal optimist, and mad genius. Not one to turn away from sudden inspiration, Sievers


La Sangre del Tigre: El Corazon Winery's Spencer Sievers

Foosball and First Crush anyone?
Spencer Sievers is equal parts daredevil, eternal optimist, and mad genius. Not one to turn away from sudden inspiration, Sievers started making wine on a whim, turning his Portland apartment - likely to the chagrin of his roommate, Adam - into a wine production facility. When not commuting between Walla Walla and his other home of Lawrence, Kansas, Sievers is serving up lush, untraditional single varietal wines at El Corazon's popular downtown Walla Walla tasting room.

You made a really popular wine that's now sold out called "Tiger's Blood" but the name is not what it seems, right?

Yeah, it's named after my son, Tiger. Who is not named after the golfer. Just after the animal. I get asked that a lot but I'm not a golfer so it doesn't really make sense. He helps me sometimes with blending. If I can explain to him the science part of it - the different pH's and acidity and tannins, then he really likes that part. But I think he's also incredibly bored by it - I mean, he is eight.

I love the names of your wine - tell me about "Supernova"

It's after the Liz Phair song. All of the labels are a play on words and the bottles have the story on the back.

The one I am looking at now is called "First Crush". Who was yours?

Her name was Chivonne Beattie. I was four and I met her when my family moved to Sumner, Nebraska. She was a cute little farm girl. [Note: The back label of this wine says "Enjoy this wine with all the rapture of your first crush, except completely without heartache."]

How did you find your way to wine and Walla Walla?

I was actually born here at the hospital in Walla Walla. I lived in Pendleton and Lewiston and mostly around this area for most of my life. And then in my early adult life I moved to Kansas to go hang out with my brother and that's where I got married, made a family and all that.

Lawrence, Kansas, is a great, great town. It's so much fun. There's music every night of the week, there's bands playing, there's a great food scene and that's kind of what happened to me. I got into the food scene in Lawrence and I was exposed to all the great wines of the world, all the first-class Bordeauxs and all the great Australian wines, and I was kind of at a spot in my life where I could be adventurous and go screw around so, I did. And one of those things was moving to Portland and buying a half ton of grapes from a bunch of different farmers and fermenting them in my apartment with my roommate Adam.

Seriously, just for the hell of it? You'd never thought about trying winemaking before?

No, I was just driving around in the Willamette Valley and there were vineyards on both sides of my and I thought, "I'm just going to drive up one of these lanes and ask that guy if I can buy some grapes from him." It was still two months from harvest and I didn't know anything about winemaking. But I figured it couldn't be that much unlike cooking where it requires a lot of intuition and the science part of it you could learn. I felt like I had that intuition with cooking so with that two months I had until harvest, I literally bought every book on winemaking I could and I started collecting equipment. Then, I made little batches of Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese my first year. I think the biggest thing I bought was like 400 pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon.

I would drive up really early in the morning and they would crush it there for me, along with the de-stemming and stuff, and I would just take it back to my apartment in big food-grade bins and ferment it there. It seems kinda crackpot but...

How was it?

That was the surprising part! It was so good that I was like, "I've got to do this again! I have to do more of this!" Then it was through a really strange set of circumstances that about that same time I got a call from somebody working at Reininger who said they needed some help that year for crush. I had already moved back to Kansas but was like, "Yeah, of course!" And then I thought, "Well as long as I'm here I might as well start a winery." So I made 7 barrels in 2007 and that was my first year.

What are you at now?

We're at about 1,000 cases a year. I wanted to have a really slow, organic growth. I didn't want all the sudden to be stuck with 1,000 cases of wine that I had to go beg someone to buy. So we made 175 then 300...you know, slow.

Have growth opportunities come along that you've turned down?

Yeah. The idea of having to answer to a Board or an investor or anything like that just doesn't work for me. People offer and we nicely decline. This is fun. If I felt like there was a lot of pressure to make it big and fast it would ruin it for me. And then I would hate it and it would be worthless. So, this is much easier.

So your family is in Kansas? That's quite a commute to manage.

Yeah, it's not easy at all but you do what you gotta do. We didn't CHOOSE this, it's just something we wanted to do and we knew it wouldn't be easy. You can't make wine in Kansas. Or, I guess you could - you just wouldn't want to. At least I don't want to make wine in Kansas.

You could make wine in Texas!

Yes, you can in Texas. It's never going to be GREAT though. And that's one of the cool things about Walla Walla, it's already proven itself as an accomplished wine region and is already known, kind of, throughout the world. But it's still like...I can come here and start a winery from nothing. I know there's people that come here with millions of dollars and spend that on a winery but there's not very many places in the world you can move to and start a winery with nothing.

Hanging in the El Corazon tasting room
And your winery is definitely not "traditional". When you walk in it's not what one would expect to see.

Yeah. I hate tasting rooms - my least favorite thing is to go into a stuffy tasting room. I understand that the wine industry can be stuffy but...

Have you had any crazy happenings here?

You mean like is it haunted? No... but one of the funniest things that ever happened to me was - I cruised through the door into the garage the other day, in a hurry to take some wine to Portland, and I look up and there's a squirrel standing on top of one of the barrels. And I was like "OK!" And he was like "OK!" And he looked at me and he was freaked out and he starts running across the top, darting back and forth, and I thought he was going to attack me - he's going all over at a very frantic pace. I opened the garage door and, luckily, he cruised by my leg and got out. I was so happy. It took about 20 minutes to get him out because he was completely freaking out. I couldn't figure out how in the world he got in there but like five days later I found it. There's a little chimney pipe cover or something - maybe it used to be a heater - and the cover had popped open. So he fell down the chimney and got stuck in there. Anyway, I like squirrels better than ghosts.

Your tasting room is definitely different than others in town - do you get a bit of a rowdier crowd?

I think when it was Flying Trout is was a little worse. They would have big dance parties in here and I remember coming in and seeing a person in their underwear dancing in the corner. Or going in the crazy small bathroom to see someone obviously had an accident and just took off their underwear and shoved it behind the toilet. Well, we discourage that - it's not fun to have to deal with that. It happens every now and then and we just kindly ask people to please leave. We do have super, super, fun bands play here every now and then. My friends have a band called the Summer Babes and when they come play they're a blast and this place gets completely packed.

Do you have wine club events here?

We do a little bit of that here but more out of here - we call them our wine club pick-up party and we find a place in Seattle and Portland to do them a few times a year so that we save people on the shipping. Plus, we take the wine over and then they can hang out with us - I don't know if that's fun or not - but they can try the wines they're going to get and if they want more they can buy more. The last one we did in Portland was at a really nice hotel, The Nines, and in Seattle we did it at a friend's house. It's fun people get to meet other people in their area that like wine and it's a good time. It's way more fun to go to a pick-up party and try some wine and meet people. Sometimes we'll pull out some special stuff that might be coming up and let people taste those too.

When you were cooking and learning about wine, was there a favorite meal combination you had?

Rare tenderloin with Carmenere. Carmenere is really fun and spicy and it just goes really well with a nice piece of rare tenderloin. And I like beets too. Roasted beets are some of my favorite things to have with wine. Somehow they go really really well together. I like all the root vegetables - a huge fan of sweet potatoes and yams and everything. Just roasting them so they caramelize at the top a little bit...I like pairing red wine with dark chocolate too - like a Malbec. Sometimes even non-dessert wines go really well with desserts.

Walla Walla is a pretty small town, what do you do for fun?

You know, I don't know how this happened but it seems like, in the last few years, groups of people just get together...this is what I love about Walla Walla. It's like "Hey - want to come over and cook with us tonight?" and you just go and show up to a place and cook. So I usually go out to eat or am eating with a group of people at someone's house. I love that. It's social and you get exposed to a lot of different wines - some local some not local - and you get to hang out with friends and I think that's beautiful. I think the more you can do that, you should. Obviously, that's what life's all about - connecting with people and creating experiences.

Do you consider yourselves a "Boutique" winery? How is it being in the same space as some of the giants of Washington wine?

I guess so. Or maybe "Garage-istas"? Yeah, Garage-istas! I've never considered anyone else, even someone who does exactly what we do, competition. It's just not how I think about it. I think "We can both do it - we can even share customers!" I think it's kind of fun. We work with Rotie Cellars and we make a wine together called Swordfight and that's the coolest thing to me - that we're in a small town and we don't have to think of each other as competition - we can think of each other as allies, more than anything. I would rather have all these wineries out here as excited about the wine I make as I am excited about the wine that they make. I'm excited about the wine L'ecole 41 makes and they're huge. I'm excited about the wine that Ryan from Kerloo and Sean from Rotie and a lot of people make. You get to see this fun, young energy just fill up this town.

There's such a tradition of great wine here. There's the first 10 wineries that are still making great wine and continue to forge ahead and make this community great. I know I'm not going to be the pioneer in this town - that's what those guys did. I get to be the new energy that keeps it going, and that's great. I'm sure there's younger kids than me thinking the same thing. It's cool to have people that are my age or younger interested in wine. It's awesome that we have 22 and 23 year-old wine club members. I wasn't even thinking of wine clubs when I was 22! I think I was drinking Gossamer Bay Pinot Noir - I mean, it was not fancy.

Do you think the rise of the local food movement has a lot to do with bringing younger people to wine? We're so lucky in the PNW because we have the unique opportunity to eat and drink local, where in a lot of places it would be much harder.

Yeah - we're really lucky. It's a beautiful place to be, a good time to be here, and that attracts all kinds of people. The one thing I think that keeps Walla Walla from being a big overblown wine place is it's not on a highway. It's like you have to want to come here. If you're Napa, you're right there, but this is kind of a side trip - you can't just be cruising through. We're not going to get a Gap on our Main Street.

What's the biggest thing you have on tap?

As we grow we're getting a lot better fruit. We've always made Carmenere, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot and, in 2010, I had an opportunity to make wines I normally would not have made here. Those were Cab and Merlot, we already made Malbec, so for that year, we had all six of the original Bordeaux varietals. I don't think - I'd have to research it more - but I don't think anyone's ever done that. Most people don't get Carmenere or Petit Verdot so we decided to figure out if we could make a blend we really liked, and we did. It's called Pistolero and we bottled it a month ago so I'm really excited about that. It will come out probably in May. Other than that we're kind of plotting and scheming how we'll grow. We'll need a production facility at some point in the next few years - this place is pretty small - so we have to figure all that out.

Usually we keep our wines single varietals and so wines that are generally deemed "blending grapes" - Cab Franc, Carmenere, Petit Verdot. I like that those are in blends - when you turn around a bottle and it says 10% Carmenere and 1% Petit Verdot. But I was like, "I want to know why they put that in there. I want to know what that 1% tastes like!" And then I kind of started trying stuff - being out at Reinginger and having all of those wines at my disposal to taste - I was like, "Oh my God, that Cab Franc is amazing all by itself! Why don't they bottle it all by itself?" So while I understand the complexity in blending, I'm interested in tasting it all by itself . I think it's kind of a service to let people see these wines - and in an area where we have enough heat units to get them ripened right so they don't have to blending grapes - stand on their own. We have a perfect region for it. A lot of places if a Cab Franc is under-ripe - if it tastes vegetal and awkward - it's not going to be good and might great to blend in that circumstance. So, being incredibly flexible and knowing it's not always going to go the way you want it to is important. You just have to work with what you get.

Do you have ay other partnership projects coming up?

Yeah. I would love to do them and am completely open. Sean from Rotie Cellars was the first person that I encountered for a partnership. Sean makes really great wine and he's just this big, unassuming presence. There is no pretense. He's usually wearing like jeans and skate shoes and unshaven. You don't know if that's a homeless guy or a winemaker over there and he's just totally candid - I like that. The wine industry doesn't need a bunch of pretentious people in it, I don't think. It seems really boring and inauthentic to have a bunch of pretentious, snooty wine people - it's just wine. It's all it is. I've talked to a few other people and it takes someone who's independent like us because if you have someone who is just a winemaker for a big company with a Board and all that, that's going to get complicated. It's got to be something really easy - let's talk about it, shake hands, and go for it. It has to be easy and fun. And it usually is!

Loving what he does
Obviously, your heart is in this - but what's the story behind the name?

I make this wine with a guy named Raul Morfin who's the assistant winemaker at Reininger. I met him in 2006 when I first started making wine and liked him immediately. So when I moved here to start making wine I called Raul up and said "Raul! I'm going to start a winery! You want to start one with me?" and he was like, "Yeah, OK, let's do that". I had been spending a lot of time in Panama - a great place with different cultures that's not overrun by gringos and still has some authenticity and character to it - and we were trying to think of different names that would honor his part of it. I love the Spanish language so we thought something like Dos Robles (Twin Oaks) or something like that would be cool. But then I was leaving here after the 2007 harvest, driving back home to Kansas, and I was in the middle of Colorado at like 2 a.m. and listening to something - I can't even remember what - but it had a heart reference in it and I was like, "That's it - El Corazon! That's why we make this wine - because we're following our hearts, we're doing exactly what we feel." It sounds a little cheesy but in Hispanic culture el corazon means a lot - it can mean love, it can mean heart, in a song the meaning transcends the word for sure. So, I call Raul and he's like "Hey, it's two in the morning, why are you calling me???" And I was like, "I got a name!" And he was like, "Whatever. Call me tomorrow." I was so excited.

What would you say to someone who might want to become a winemaker?

That's a tough question - I've always just done what brings me joy in my life. I think someone would have to decide if they want to go the traditional route and go to school and make wine for someone else - then I'd say go for it, there's a need for it, there's places for it. I don't know how long it will be until that is saturated, but if you've got the spirit for doing your own thing, absolutely! I've always been a self-starter so it's easy for me to think, "Hey let's just figure out how to do it ourselves - like, let's be our own contractor on this job." This is probably one of the things that I did like that - in the spirit of "Hey, I've never done this before but let's try it out and see how it goes" and felt like I was good at it. But I've done that all my life - tried different things and found what I was good at. I know I'm not good at plumbing so I don't do that. I can do light electrical work but if it's something more than testing a switch I don't do it. So you just have to figure out what you can and can't do and find your passion - what you LOVE doing - and do more of that. Just do more stuff you love doing.


Spencer and many fellow "Meet Your Maker" winemakers will be at Taste Washington this weekend. Be sure to stop in and say hi!

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