Reggie Mace has chops. Yes, on his face. But also the kind of chops Evel Knievel had - the kind that drives someone to take something that's been out there forever and turn it into something new and exciting and different. Mace earned those chops first as an artist and musician, and now with his wine labels The Mortal Vintner and Mace Mead Works. So, just what the heck is this peach of a guy doing making a little-known libation in a tiny Washington town anyway? Read on...
I know absolutely nothing about mead. There I said it. What's the story?
Well, I started making beer in my kitchen in college. I had one of those dozen or so "How to Make Beer" books and there was a chapter at the end on how to make mead. So I started reading through it and resonating with all of the random ancient literature classes I took in college and all the mythology that I always loved as a kid, whether it was Greek or Norse or whatever. All that history popped out at me so I thought, "I'll give it a shot!" I'd never tasted mead before so I didn't really know what I was doing, but I made some. It didn't turn out very well.
But I did it again and again and I kinda got super geeky with it and started experimenting and taking really good notes and measuring everything by weight instead of volume - you know like when you get super gnarly that's what you do? But I was going to school for art and graduated and was married in Walla Walla and she was bringing home the bacon and I was working like 70 hours a week in my studio, doing a new show every month, and not making any money - I had some places in cities what wanted to show me but it kind of required that I move there. And I didn't want to move to a city. So I went the other direction and moved out to Dayton, a town of 2,500, and got a job at a winery. I worked at Dunham Cellars for three vintages and learned all the commercial techniques for winemaking there. I started applying those to Mead in my kitchen while I was working there and I was like, "These are getting better. This is actually viable - I would buy this at the store now!"
So, at about year two at Dunham Cellars, right after Winter 2009, we started looking for a building to put a winery in. I made some good wines that year that were kind of just a hobby but enough that I could potentially sell, so I kind of started a red wine label and the mead label simultaneously.
Were you thinking that maybe one will work better than the other or just super excited about both?
Well, basically I was that really annoying employee at the winery that was asking questions all the time. I took a lot of notes and I realized that the red wine market is very expensive to get started in - and I didn't have any money. I basically started my first vintage on a credit card and the second vintage half on a credit card, half on a loan, and just kept it going. But thinking about mead and trying to make money at this - just so that it survives and just not jousting at windmills - I knew I had to turn around a quick profit to pay back the lone sharks. And I don't have a lone sharks - but very supportive friends and family who have loaned me money!
But the business part of it aside, it was kind of exciting. No one was doing it. And there's an angle of the winemaking process that really attracted me, which was the connection with Earth. You're directly anchored with Mother Nature and honey was the same thing. But it was even more mysterious because the entire basis of the product of mead is relying on these little bugs to go around and make honey. That's just so mysterious and magical that I kept wanting to learn more about it. I guess that mystery is why I keep doing it and now that I've figured out a way to do it at a commercial scale, that means I can do it for a living and also educate people on why I do it. Because almost no one knows what it is - let alone why someone would do it.
I've heard beekeepers are a breed of their own.
Beekeepers are some of the most unique people on the planet. I have these folks that are a couple in their late 60s that were like hippies before there were hippies. All they do is take care of bees and raise their own livestock and vegetables - they're completely self-sustaining - plus, they pollinate for other people and they sell that honey. They are just really interesting to me. And then you've got young couples who are just super-excited about it. They grew up in some sterile suburb and get out into the garden for the first time and there's these little fairies buzzing around and it's just like, "I want to play with you all day!" So they've become the new generation that are doing it right now. And then there's the folks in between. It's a way of life, you know, it's not just a 9-5 job.
I consider myself a brother to that industry or a companion. I'm not made for doing that myself. I'm not a good shepherd of bees or vines but I feel like I speak the same language as the people that I are - so, I understand what they're doing and I can use their by-products to make something that I'm proud of.
Mead has a very unusual history in that it is the first alcohol on archaeological record. But it has almost no contemporary presence in the market. That's interesting to me because everybody seems to be is searching through our past for the truth. It's like we've rejected our past so much for the last half decade that we don't know what truth is anymore. So mead has that connection with the past to it. But Hollywood loves to stereotype it. It's in every Robin Hood or medieval film - anything that someone needs a drunk joke where someone's wearing armor or carrying a sword...there's going to be mead there. So, they've kind of shaped the stereotype we have now and it's not really a good one. It's hard to overcome because everyone might know about it in that reference but don't necessarily know what to do with it.
Are there different types of mead - like maybe a classical versus contemporary style of the wine?
See, that's the thing that's exciting and frustrating at the same time about mead is that there's not enough history to have "tradition". There are no styles that have been carried through time until you start getting to extremely rural Ethiopia, Scotland or Scandinavia. But all of those styles are still so far off everyone's radar that you can't even consider them traditional styles of winemaking. I come at mead making from the perspective of someone who's trained to make Riesling and Chardonnay - learning how to pair different types of oak barrels with different types of grapes and what you want to get from that. You don't necessarily put a whole bunch of heavy French oak on a big Cab if you want to sell it in six months - that's going to be a wine that you're going to want to sell in three or four years and even then tell people not to open the bottle for another five years. I make mead in the tradition closer to a Riesling. Most people that make mead come at it from a brewing perspective because it has more recent history in the beer world than it does in the wine world.
But it is a wine, right?
It's technically a wine. The tax class is a wine and the import/export laws consider it a wine. What it really comes down to is beer is made with grain and wine is made from fruit - honey is the no-man's land in between so it just got classified as wine. Because of that I've had some hurdles to get through in the legal system but that's behind me now, I guess. I don't want to think about it anymore! Anyway, so I look at it as a wine.
There are brewers that experiment with it and it's a beer in their minds. That means the techniques they apply to it are different than mine. I'm not saying I'm unique in this. I think there's probably other people that do it the same way I do. I haven't met them, but I'm sure that it's kind of a no-brainer for a winemaker to make mead in the way that they make wine. So, I don't think I'm that original. But I think the mead that I offer is richer, more sophisticated, and shows off the origins of the honey - being from flowers from a specific microregion with a certain type of microclimate - better when you do it with wine techniques because those techniques are made to bring those same things out of grapes.
So different types of honey are sort of like different grape varietals?
Yeah. The beekeepers extract honey from hives at different times of the year depending on where they're at and what's in bloom. So I can make all of my meads by batch - I don't really have a harvest. But I've worked with the beekeepers to make sure I'm getting something that I know where it comes from and what crops were there.
I get a lot of wildflower honey. I like spring wildflower honey from farther east of here, toward Pomeroy. In Spring and early Summer there's a lot of star thistle that grows on the edges of all these crops and the beekeepers I buy honey from put hives all along the highway where these scabland areas are - where the star thistle grows. It's really a pest and everyone hates it except for me, because the bees love it and it makes really great honey. And then the Fall wildflowers are different - you get everything from Black Hawthorne to Locust trees, which grow close to creeks, and other stuff like wild lavenders. There are some single source honeys that are really really interesting from the south like Tupelo - which is a tree - and the flowers on that are really pungent so the honey is just...you have to taste it, it's unusual. Fireweed is a really strong, light colored honey. You get more of that in southern Canada and in Montana because you just have these huge, untilled, untouched by man, wildflower prairies and those ones are great. Lavender in very interesting. The Lavender flavor in the honey doesn't come through as much as you might think until you ferment it into mead. Lavender flavors are very pungent, but what comes through in the nectar is overpowered by the sugar until you ferment it into alcohol and then it becomes aromatic again. So it's interesting, I could go on and on...
Do the bees ever get a break?
Not really, no. They almost don't necessarily need a break and because of monocrop agriculture there are a lot a lot of places for bees to survive year round. But monocrop agriculture can be very abusive to bees. They get moved into an area and then have like 5,000 acres that all bloom within four weeks and the bees have to go like crazy to get everything done. Then, they get picked up and moved and have to do it all over again.
With the aromatics of some of honeys could you make, I guess, "aromatic" meads?
You could but the thing about mead flavors is they are very light and subtle. They wouldn't be very effective. I would compare it to a sherry - if you eat something with it it changes the flavor of what you're eating and drinking. It's subtle and more like a light white wine but the difference is that the flavors aren't coming from fruit, but flowers. Often I get descriptors from first time drinkers that are like, "It reminds me of a meadow or like a forest floor in springtime," you know, all these fresh adjectives which are great but really difficult to place if someone's never been hiking through the Northwest in Spring.
Yeah, but it's hard to do because the mead flavors can be easily overtaken. Some flavors can be way too strong. It goes really well with Bourbon and Whiskey, even though they are pretty strong in flavor. It goes pretty well with Tequila also. You just have to put the right ratios together. It goes well with some champagnes and is great with a lot of fruits. At Mace Mead Works we make them because we wanted to offer more than three things when people come out there - to the locals especially. We're kind of the only wine bar in town. We come up with new ones all the time - some are spiced with Cardamom and Cinnamon and Star anise and all those different flavors. Some are more floral with Hibiscus and Lavender. Some are just fruit - we have a drink that's the most popular called "The Pony" and it's pomegranate soda with some cranberry syrup that we make, some semi-sweet mead and a little bit of orange bitters - it's very light and fruity but you can still taste the mead through the flavors. It's just a great summery cocktail.
That one was born out of my wife giving me a hard time for naming a cocktail "The Mule". She was like, "That's the ugliest name for a drink I ever heard." I basically got it from the Moscow Mule, which we used to make at the winery, but she said she should get to name a drink "The Pony" so we did and it's been our most popular drink.
I hear there are some great parties and music at your tasting room in Dayton.
We had a Masquerade Ball on Valentine's Day which was really fun. I was a musician in college and toured around all the time and love music, so we've got a stage at the winery and do concerts there as often as we can afford it. A couple of weekends ago we had a couple of guys from Waitsburg - Paul Gregutt and Larry Davidson - play. They're still working on their name so currently they're "The Nameless," but yeah, it's really fun. One of the great things about Dayton is the locals really enjoy live entertainment. The brew pub down the street has jam night every first Friday and all the local folk music players go down there and jam all night. The Liberty Theater does musicals, dramas and comedies with all local actors - it's like community theater but it's the best quality community theater I've ever seen. So, whenever there is live music in town there's a great response to it - and that's what keeps it alive at our place too.
I think probably 9 out of 10 people that come into our tasting room have never tried mead before. There's that one percent who have tried it when their friend made it in their basement or garage or something and they're like,"Well I've only tried that and it was really bad so anything's got to be better than that?" It's not hard to impress those folks. Then you have the other people who come in who are seeking out mead. They're experienced about it, they really like it, have tried all the ones on the market, have probably make it at home and are quite snobby about it too. I love getting those people because I make mead in a way that's not very common on the market. Most of my meads are really dry, even my semi-sweet is only about three percent residual sugar, where most dry meads on the market are sweeter than that. My sweets are like iced wine - some sweets are like pouring syrup out of the bottle - so when people try mine sometimes they're taken aback. Just not expecting it because they're stronger and there's just not a bunch of sweetness their palates have to cut through.
When is your first "vintage" going to be available?
We just started selling it last weekend, actually. We got our labels approved after a long and arduous 4 1/2 month battle with Uncle Sam. I'm trying to block that painful memory out. We're passed it now though. We basically got our approval and didn't have time to get the labels printed before people were banging down the doors for some mead. They didn't care what the label looked like so we just printed some off on a laser printer and taped them to the bottles. Sold quite a bit!
How many cases do you do?
Because I don't have the limitations of harvests and vintages and honey's a natural preservative, I can do it any time of the year. So I do a new batch about every month. Our bottles have little seals with a batch number on them so we just number them as they're bottled. Some people might see an '03 on there and think, "What? This is a 9-year-old mead?" but it's just batch number three. That's a great advantage for us and one of the reasons I picked mead as our big venture for starting a winery - because I could grow with demand pretty quickly. It's like I did 1,000 cases of red wine this year and if people want 5,000 cases I have to wait two years to give them that much. If somebody calls me and wants 60 cases of semi-sweet mead as soon as you can get it to me, I can get it to them in about 6-8 weeks. It means that my life is about to turn into a rat race really fast, but that's OK!
We're doing two paella dinners at Jimgermanbar - Jim's making cocktails with and we're sharing recent batches there. They are open to anyone but we do have wine club and as it starts to fill up - I have about 20 members now - we'll be offering spaces to them first but for now, come on out! If people are coming from long and far away, we offer so much for a trip other than just one event: we really have this little foodies paradise out here. The Winehard Cafe is my favorite. We do wine pairing dinners all the time and they take really good care of us. We've got this guy named Wild Bill who's an organic farmer, been doing it for 40-something years, and every week he shows up with a red wagon behind his bike that is full new produce. We buy it from him and do a menu. And he's just one of many small farmers in the area with really great produce, fruit, and local local honey as well as great local ranchers with good beef and Monteillet Fromagerie's goats, sheep, and cheese.
We're probably going to do Seattle Beer Week this year and we just recently became friends with the folks at Beer West magazine, so we'll probably have at least a couple events with them in Seattle. Mead tastings and dinners - I've been wanting to have a nice little event at one of the bars in Capitol Hill for a while. Beer folks are really adventurous in what they're willing to try - more so than wine folks - so that's exciting too. I don't have a lot of experience in Seattle so I'm just kind of being led by the collar and don't really know where I'm going. I've got some good friends who have moved to Seattle from Walla Walla and so I always have blast there with them and always meet great people - but still getting my bearings. I know if I'm going uphill I'll probably end up in Capitol Hill and if I run into a lake it's probably Greenlake and if I end up at Two Beers Brewery I'm in SODO. Somehow I end up there pretty often.