The whooping crane is well-known for its signature "ker-loo!" call, but likely better known for being one of the most endangered birds in North America. This is a somewhat similar situation to the Cranes of Kerloo Cellars, who are creating wines you are in danger of not getting your hands on if you're not quick enough. Winemaker Ryan Crane and his wife Renee gave up a good life in Seattle to live the winemaking dream -- and if the number of "sold out" wines on Kerloo Cellars' roster is any indication, it appears they've made that dream come true.
Wine lovers: Keep an eye on this guy
How did Kerloo come to be?
Well, we're originally from Seattle -- Renee and I met at the University of Washington in the spring of 1999, in English 478, to be exact -- and we moved here in July 2006 with the aspiration to start a winery. Renee and I both came from sales backgrounds -- I sold beer and wine with Columbia Distributing for quite a few years -- and one year we were just like, "Maybe we should move to Walla Walla and start a winery?" So we sold our house in Seattle and made the trip out here. We had no jobs, and Renee bought a house I hadn't even seen. I enrolled at the wine program at Walla Walla Community College . . . and that's how the journey began. I worked my first crush job at Forgeron Cellars with Marie-Eve and Cameron, and then I was very fortunate to get hired on with Justin and Liz of Va Piano for the 2007 harvest. I actually left about seven months ago, just because Kerloo has really taken off.
So you literally "took the leap"?
Yeah, I was reading a book called The Pathfinder, and it asks you a really direct question: If you could take everything out of your life -- money, jobs, etc. -- and just thought if you could do anything starting tomorrow, what would you do? And I thought to myself, "That's a no-brainer. I want to make wine." And it was more of trying to let myself believe that I could do it and then walk away from what we had in Seattle -- we had regular paying jobs, we had a house, we didn't NEED to go anywhere.
But I just started to feel kind of empty -- like, great, I can just go on and be a District Sales Manager or Regional Sales Manager and work 80 hours a week and make 100G's and then just worry about retiring. But there would be no fulfillment -- I wouldn't feel like that was my calling. The other part was we didn't have kids then, and I thought, "What's something I can give my kids when I have them? How can I build a tradition for our family?" So I was willing -- and Renee was unbelievably willing -- to take on this venture. It was worth the risk, because if I walked away today -- and we're not going anywhere -- I can say I've done everything I wanted to do.
I think the hard part is believing you can do it -- because anyone can do it. There are going to be challenges and bumps along the way, and you have to make sacrifices to do it, but dreams can become your reality if you really want them to happen.
Where are you from in Seattle?
West Seattle -- the WS! 46th and Graham! We loved it there. But now I'm gone and it's sad -- this is not nearly West Seattle. My brother's still there to hold the fort down.
Did you have kind of a culture shock when you got to Walla Walla?
Yeah, it was a shock, no doubt. One reason why we came to Walla Walla was we wanted to see what it was like to live in a smaller town. Even though West Seattle has its own small-town kind of feel, Renee and I never had actually lived in a small community. But yeah -- definitely culture shock-ish. Once we got here, we started making trips to Seattle to get our city fix -- when you live here you need to do those things -- I don't care if it's Portland or Boise or Moscow . . . we still do it. But there's been nothing more amazing than the community here -- it's great to go out to dinner and have everyone know you (well, sometimes), and it's nice to be able to be a number sometimes too.
Really connecting with your community is a big part of what Kerloo is about, right? You'd like to personally know the people who are drinking your wine?
Yeah, that was a big focus for Renee and I both when we started the brand. We could only do tasting appointments for the first two years -- and it was either me or Renee doing it -- and I felt that telling our story and getting to meet both Renee and I was such an important part of building the brand from ground zero to where we're at now. Both of our jobs have changed quite a bit within the business as it has grown, but I'm still in the tasting room and so is Renee. I will always be in the tasting room.
For me, when I go out of town and taste at wineries, I want to talk to the person who knows everything and is passionate about it. There's nothing more discouraging than when you get someone who is not excited about the wine and there's no passion for what they're doing. So we both drive ourselves to keep thinking that way, and that's why we are where we are today.
On your website you say you like to make "palate-challenging" wines. What does that mean?
When we started the brand, how we separated ourselves from a vino standpoint was that I wanted to make varietals that were a little bit outside the box and very true to that varietal. You can sit 20 Bordeaux wines on the table that will be a certain percent cab, a certain percent merlot, a certain percent cab franc -- whatever -- they're all Bordeaux-driven. For me, when you sit Kerloo wines on the table, I want tempranillo to be classic tempranillo. I want the syrah to be restrained and whole-cluster driven, not fruit cocktaily, and true to syrah characteristics. So the end-all goal is when you roll through our lineup of wines, all of those wines are going to be very palate-challenging versus just being another Bordeaux wine or syrah blend. The way I do it is harder because blending gives you a chance to put Band-Aids on stuff. So ultimately our goal is to make true-to-varietal wines, palate-driven wines, and vineyard-driven wines. Not to say that I may not do something else down the road -- just depending on what the vintage gives me -- but ultimately the goal is to make these wines true-to-varietal. That's how I think we differ from everyone else in the marketplace -- I think the wines speak for themselves.
What do you mean by "vineyard-driven"?
My thought behind vineyards is this: I think some winemakers just go after the best vineyards and just get the fruit that they can from them. I put myself as the fruit and think "Where does the fruit grow best?", and then I go after the best sites for those varietals. So this last year was a very cool vintage, and I think that we got really lucky because of this approach -- we were able to get really good fruit in a really tough year simply because I pulled fruit from vineyards where the fruit grows best. So like with syrah -- I'm a cool-climate syrah guy. I like longer concentration in the vineyard, I like longer hang time, and the Walla Walla Valley has always been a syrah-driven area for me -- therefore a vineyard like Les Collines has always been a big part of our book, and Va Piano as well -- absolutely wicked wine.
I'm really fortunate because I have all Block 5 syrah from Justin, and he has lot 4 for his estate program, which is pretty neat -- so I am the only one that gets syrah from him at this point. I picked up Blue Mountain vineyard this year -- owned by the Corliss family -- and that's going to be part of the 2011 program. Tempranillo is kind of an interesting wine -- there's not a whole lot planted, and people always ask me, "Can you really make tempranillo in Washington state?" It's always the first to bud, and it's always the first one I pick, so I pull from a really hot site and a very cool site -- because the variety is very versatile -- and then I blend them both together to make the very best-style tempranillo that I can. So yeah, I'm very detail-driven in the vineyard, and I'm always out there with growers, and I am blown away by the sites that we have under our belt right now. I have the best growers in the state -- there's no question. And they know that and they need to pony up! No, I just feel really fortunate.
I've been on a big kick of Spanish wines lately, like tempranillo and priorat. I like wines that are more balanced and food-driven, where the alcohol and acid and pH are in balance, making the wine complement the food instead of being a bludgeon over your dome. So for me, when I sit and have food, I want structure and weight and consistency -- hell yeah, I do -- but do I want a lot of booze and an overly fruity, balmy style of wine? No. This is why I love going to Saffron here in Walla Walla or, if I go to Seattle, Renee and I will just go to a bunch of places and order a bunch of food and just have a nice bottle of nebbiolo or a barolo or something like that with it. Just because it's bright, tannic, and balanced -- I'm much more of a fan of those styles of wines.
Are there any places in Seattle you miss eating at?
Yeah, I often get in trouble when I go over there because I go everywhere I possibly can -- I'm like, "Let's roll!" I do miss the food scene. I will say, one great thing about Walla Walla is that the restaurants here are doing an amazing job with the quality of food they're kicking out. Seattle -- I just miss the food, the energy, the culture . . . and sometimes I miss just being a number, just cruising down the street and just being me. But food-wise, Spinasse is always unbelievable -- Renee and I will be like, "What's the new place we should go to?" and then we'll just end up at Spinasse. Some of Ethan Stowell's restaurants have also been really enjoyable. I went to Anchovies & Olives last time we were there, and it was gorgeous -- clean and fresh and rustic and true. I love going to Quinn's and Smiths -- I'm kinda in this gastropub-kinda mood -- and those are both really unique. We bounce around quite a bit -- anything I know that's new and foody and geeky, I'm all about trying. I really also like The Walrus & the Carpenter. I love oysters, and had those and some tartare and a few glasses of sauvignon blanc last time I was there. So good.
So has the success of this big dream bred any others?
Yeah, we're looking at building our own facility in the next two or three years, and I am really excited to break ground on that. We're both really excited about having our own entity. I'm just really excited about where we're going and what we're doing from a wine standpoint. I'm not planning on really changing anything that we're doing, other than trying to make some more geeky-style wines every year -- keep being creative.
What would you say to folks who haven't ever been to Walla Walla?
First of all, I'd probably call 'em out, "You haven't been to Walla Walla??? It's only 4.5 hours from Seattle, 3.5 from Portland, 5.5 hours from Boise. Just get in your car already!!!" No, I think the other reason I stayed in Washington state was I wanted to be a young winemaker in such a growing industry in this state. The wines coming out of here, if you look at every AVA that we're playing with here in the state, they're so drastically different -- from heat units to overall growing conditions to vineyard to management to soil-geology conditions -- all those factors mean we are in such a diverse, interesting state that gives us wines that are truly unique. If people are not seeing those things, it's sad. They need to cruise out here and come taste some wines!
Walla Walla is quaint, it's got its own fun, quirky vibe, and the wines coming out of here are spectacular. So that's why everyone needs to come to "The Deuce" and drink our wines.