If you had to get lost in the woods with someone, you'd probably want it to be this guy. He could save you AND bring


Fjellene Cellars' Matthew Erlandson on Sustainability, Scaling Mountains and...Worm Poop

If you had to get lost in the woods with someone, you'd probably want it to be this guy. He could save you AND bring wine!
Spending an afternoon at Fjellene (Fyell-lay-nuh) Cellars is a mini-vacation in wine heaven. Tucked amid Walla Walla's Southside winery district and swaddled by a 10-acre estate vineyard, this young winery is bright, small, and - from the early reviews - quickly becoming mighty. Focused on small lot wines produced with detailed attention to sustainability, winemaker Matthew Erlandson aims to showcase the flavors and terroir of Washington fruit. And this is a guy who knows his terroir, having spent a good chunk of his life guiding adventurers up the mountains and down the rivers of the world. Budget your time wisely when visiting Fjellene Cellars. The view, and the wine, can easily drive you to distraction.

I hear you like mountains. What's the mountain on your logo?

Yeah. I was an outdoor guide and outdoor educator for about 15 years, climbing mountains and guiding river and backcountry trips - always something having to do with the mountains or what the mountains produce at certain times of the year. The mountain on the bottle is Ishinca. It's down the Cordillera Blanca in Peru and it's the mountain that is nearest and dearest to my heart. It's just kind of a special place. It was one of the first real international expeditions I went on and it's just an amazing place. I love that area of the world. As much as I've travelled, I haven't travelled anywhere more than Central and South America. I just love it down there - I love the people, I love the culture. We call it the "poor man's Himalaya". It's an inexpensive place to go and have fun. It's easy to get to and once you get there it's super affordable - going to Northern China isn't. Or so I've heard. I've never climbed in the Himalaya because it's just ridiculously expensive.

How did you go from climbing mountains to taming vines?

It's actually kind of a simple story. I was doing my graduate work at the University of Idaho, which is really close to Walla Walla, so I was going back and forth and drinking wine fairly often. I created a pretty good rapport with a few winemakers in town - one being Tom Glase from Balboa.

After school I took a teaching job at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff running the outdoor program, which was great. But I'd been doing the same thing for a long time and kinda wanted to try winemaking. So I came to Walla Walla for Spring release and decided then that I really wanted to try it - I really got the bug. I called Tom Glase and said, "Hey! What do you think about me coming there and doing crush?" and he said yes so I sold the house in Flagstaff, moved the family here and started working with Tom at Balboa. Tom really taught me everything - like the 101, 102, 103 of winemaking. He actually allowed me to create this brand while I was there, which is super cool, and that allowed me to get things going with minimal startup costs and whatnot. Our first vintage was 2007 but we didn't start selling the wine until April of 2011.

So, that's kind of how I got my start. I haven't given up the mountains altogether and still do a little bit of work here and there for different companies. I like to get out and work with certain age groups and I still like to get out on the river a couple times a year and actually, now we do wine trips on the river. So I go as a winemaker and we get a chef and it's pretty awesome.

OK - Who wouldn't want to go on that kind of river trip? What rivers do you do?

Yeah, it's with a rating company called OARS. Last year we concentrated on the wilderness section of the Deschutes but there's also the middle fork of the Salmon, the main Salmon, Hell's Canyon, the Rogue...lots of options. They are 3-6 day trips and you get a chef, a winemaker and we pair the meals with the wine.

So that's like a dream trip since you're a river guide and a winemaker?

Exactly. I called them up and asked if they were interested in the idea and they were like, "Yeah we kind of already do that - but you can be part of it!" I actually just talked to them this week and am looking at my calendar now to see which ones I can do. I'd like to do some more local trips - I really like rafting in Idaho.

When you got the wine bug what was it about making wine you liked so much?

The longer that I had been in outdoor education, the more I was being pulled out of the field. I kind of became more of a theory instructor - teaching theory and organizing trips and teaching the instructors - but then they would get to go on these trips and I didn't. So that's kind of what sparked it. I needed to be outside and I needed to work with my hands. I'm a really creative person and this is a great creative outlet for me - there's so much creativity involved in the outdoors with route finding and this and that, but to actually make something from the earth is something else. It's really cool to take something off the vine, make something tangible of it, and then watch people drink it - it's really pretty awesome.

A Spring storm trails a rainbow over Fjellene's expansive view of the Blue Mountains
And now that we have this winery we can do it how we want. We just got our certificate for sustainability through Vinea, which is awesome. We know exactly what's going onto the vines and into the soil. We're not using paper or foils on the bottles and we use all-natural corks. We're trying to put everything that comes off the vineyard into the ground. We're reusing the barrels - basically try to reuse everything. I will never claim to be "sustainable" because I think it's always something you're trying to obtain - but we're trying to do our part.

There are a lot of ways for wineries/vineyards to be more sustainable - do you have practices here that others don't?

Well, I don't know for sure because I don't know what everybody else does. I guess one of the coolest things we do here is that this building has a big stainless catch draw underground so we keep all of our wine runoff and send it to the Department of Ecology to make compost. It's becoming more and more popular now to keep all the pumice - the skins and seeds from the grapes - for compost. We break it down and use it on the vineyard at the end of the year, basically putting it back into the ground as usable nitrogen. I'm way into worm tea, worm castings and compost teas - like, way into the worms right now. I started using worm tea on my garden at home and it's amazing stuff. We're trying to obtain enough worm castings to cover the whole vineyard - but, that's a lot.

Wait. Are you talking about worm poops?

I am. It just kinds of breaks down into what I call "black gold" - this beautiful black soil. Essentially you have these big worm farms, these big beds of worms, and you just throw your compost, old newspapers, whatever, into the worm bed. You don't even need to break down your compost - you just throw it onto the bed and they eat it and process it and then, what you get.

Are those the big, gross ones you see all swollen on the sidewalk after it rains?

No, they're Red worms - they are pretty small. You take their castings and brew them into tea - just like you would compost. So, we're really trying to be proactive and not chase problems, I guess, but alleviate them by creating healthy soil and healthy tissue. Our philosophy is if a plant is healthy, then the bugs won't want to eat. They're going to choose something weaker - if that makes sense. We take a lot of soil samples and tissue samples to see what the plant needs and doesn't need - instead of just spraying it with calcium or potassium we actually look to see if it's deficient in something. If so, we give it what it needs. If it has too much of something - then we don't give it things it doesn't need.

That sounds super time consuming.

Yes. It's a fairly small vineyard - but a lot of work. I do as much as I possibly can but there's no way one person can do all the spraying, mowing, cleaning up canopy and pulling shoots. We have a crew of anywhere from 5 -12 guys who come out here and go through it all. They're really, really good at it. But I try do as much as I can.

Can you make all your wine off of 10 acres of grapes or do you need to go elsewhere for additional fruit?

No, you can't. The majority of my fruit comes from Walla Walla, but I work with a couple vineyards outside of town too - there's so much good fruit in the state of Washington. But being in Walla Walla, I try to make a majority of my wines from Walla Walla fruit. One of the things I like is making single-vineyard wines because I really think it's important that people try varietals from a specific area and a specific spot because it really shows where the wine comes from. So, I've been sourcing different lots in Washington and I want to make like three different single-vineyard Cab Francs - they're made in the exact same style, picked the same, way, but just from different places. I started that project in 2010 and am really excited about it.

So when would those come out?

I'll bottle the 2010's in late May and release them at the end of this year - or maybe early in 2013. It really just depends on how they taste. When they taste right is really all you can say. Every vintage is different, every varietal is different, and you just have to wait until it's ready.

What's up with "The Stranger"?

It's our new project - a red table wine. I've always wanted to make a $25 bottle of red table wine that you can just open and drink. It's mostly Merlot off the estate, which is kind of cool, and I'm super, super happy with the packaging.

It's kind of ominous

Yeah, it's like my wine alter-ego.

What's it been like opening your own winery and tasting room?

I went completely solo in 2010 and opened this tasting room in 2011, so it was the first time I was really in charge of making all the decisions on the wine. So 2010 is kind of a special vintage for me. Our first release was Cayuse weekend 2011 so about a year ago on the dot. A lot has happened in that year - it's really just amazing and hard to believe.It's been really interesting to see the brand do what it has done and how it continues to evolve. It's like it is its own organism and how the word of mouth is getting out is really just amazing to me.

It's hard to sit back and be patient and allow it to grow around you. Super hard. It's like a dance - there are certain points where you have to be aggressive and certain points where you have to sit back and hold back. That's been really interesting - thinking about what moves to make and when to make them. But my whole philosophy with that is just continue to make the best wine I possibly can by following our original philosophy: being terroir-driven, making wines that show their place, are good with food, and low alcohol. If I do that, everything else will fall into place.

It's really been amazing for me to see how the hard work and really putting myself out there is working out. When you make something and put everything you have into it - and really express yourself - and then you put it in front of people and have them taste're really putting yourself out there.

It's like being an artist.

Well, yeah, I really think we are artists. You become entirely vulnerable. I really appreciate honesty when people drink wine and it's kind of scary to wait to hear what people say but the wines have been really well received and that's exciting.

A mountainous lineup
What's the story behind the name "Fjellene"?

Fjellene means "mountains" in Norwegian. We went through a lot of different names but I really wanted the name of the wine to relate to the mountains because they've been a big part of my life. I was raised - not necessarily within the "traditions" of Norway - but by a father that was proud to be Norwegian. I don't speak Norwegian and we didn't eat a ton of traditional Norwegian dishes but he was always just really proud of being Norwegian - so that kind of stuck with me. So when I saw that word I was like, "Wow. That's really, really beautiful." But nobody can say it.

What are you most excited about right now?

The 2010 Syrah. I am really, really excited about that wine. Really, really excited! I just...I got it "right", you know? I like the wines I make, I really do, and I really like to drink them, but there have been a couple of wines so far where I really got it RIGHT and that's one of them. Even when I was making it, even when we picked it, I knew it would be special. I did a completely different style - instead of just picking the Syrah and de-stemming and crushing it and making it like I would a Cab, I made it more in an old-world style. It's 96 percent Syrah co-fermented with 4 percent Viognier, I foot-stomped the grapes and left the skins and the stems and everything in the fermenter, then pressed it real soft and just really tried an old world style. So, yeah, it turned out REALLY good.

So this is one of those people are going to want to get their hands on immediately?

I have 100 cases, so yeah. It's a pretty small lot. But most of my wines are. I don't really make anything over 200 cases - which is 8 barrels - so, people might think "Wow, 200 cases? That's a lot!" But it really isn't. A lot of my wines are just a few barrels and it's a lot of work and takes a lot longer, but I think it's kind of cool and kind of interesting to get limited wines. It's really cool because I'm small enough that I don't have to make wine for the masses - I can make wine how I want to make. Then all I have to do is find the people who click with it and like that style of wine. And I'm in the fortunate position that I can grow a little - but I don't ever really want it to grow to more than like 3500 cases. I think I'd like Fjellene to stay small lot and more boutique.

I'm also really excited about the single-vineyard wines from different areas. It's not that nobody's doing it, but I think people will find interest in it just because it's kind of a cool project. What I want to do is have the different wines with like a clear glass vase that contains the different levels of the rock - what the soil actually looks like - so people can actually see where it came from when they drink the wine; to really see the difference is pretty cool.

It seems like with your background you might have a bit of a niche market?

I haven't really tried for that market yet but it will all come together at some point. I'd love to get in the Colorado market and other places where I have a lot of contacts. But that's a whole other thing - trying to figure how much wine you sell to distributors, how much to retailers, and how much to keep. There's a fine balance there to make sure you have enough for everyone. I like to sell wine in Idaho because my family's there and it's my home. I sell to a distributor there and in Seattle, of course, but just trying to be careful about how many markets we get into. I just don't want to be spread too thin.

There's kind of a sacrifice that comes with being small because you don't have as much wine to sell - but you get to do things the way you want to.

Do you have a wine club you also sell through?

I do - but my wine club is different. I make single barrel wines for the wine club so they're the only people that get them. Our first shipment was last Fall and there's already a wait list for next Fall. But I get to really geek out on those wines and really have fun. I pick the best free run juice from the best vineyards and do really cool stuff with it then share the result with them. Next year we're going to do some really cool wine events out on the grass here, with bands and everything so - I am really looking forward to what's happening with the wine club.

fjellene_tasting room.jpg
Tom Volk, Volk Photography
Wine away the day...
Final thoughts?

One thing I hear a lot from people is that visiting Fjellene makes them happy - that it's a happy place. I really like that. The mission wasn't really to make this place a "destination" but that's sort of how it ended up. I want people to feel welcome here and comfortable here and am glad to know they really are.

Matthew will be pouring his wines May 17 at Bottlehouse and May 19 at the Seattle Wine Company. Be sure to stop in and say "Hei".

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