Chris Dowsett of Dowsett Family Winery: Washington's Best Worst-Kept Secret

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This is Chris Dowsett. Shhhh...
Chris Dowsett could very well be the best worst-kept secret in Washington wine. As co-winemaker at Buty Winery and maker of his own Dowsett Family Cellars label, Chris has recently been thrust into the spotlight with some stellar reviews of his surprising small lot Gewurztraminer. This guy knows his Gewurz - and he has the belt to prove it.

For those of us who don't know a ton about wine, what does it mean when you say you like - and make - a "dry" Gewurztraminer?

Traditionally, I will take my wine out to any big pouring and say, "Would you like to try my Gewurztraminer?" and people will say, "Oh, I don't like sweet wines." Because the thing about Gewurztraminer is it's a very fast-ripening grape so in a warmer area it will get sweet really quickly - before it gets all these great flavors. So people will let them hang a little longer and then either end up having a 15 or 16 percent alcohol or leaving some sugar in it. It also loses a lot of acidity so it gets flabbier and flabbier as it gets riper.

"Flabbier"? I hadn't heard that one before.

Yeah. So when you have those wines they're really fun if you like a sweet, fruity wine. They do great well-chilled for drinking on the patio on a hot day but they don't always match up with food very well. But then you take a wine like Gewurztraminer that has so much fruit character and spice - I mean, that's what "gewurz" means. The "traminer" is the grape which actually came from a town in Italy, Tramin, and the Germans planted some in Germany and they got one that was a little different than the original. It was changed by the climate and it gave the spicier flavor, so they called it a spicy traminer. When you take that wine and you pick it so you're going to have a full-bodied wine, but not as sweet, you can make a really great food wine.

The way to do that is you've got to grow it in a cooler area. And so I've played with it in a lot of different areas: Oregon, down in the Anderson Valley of California, and the Columbia Gorge is really a special place for it. Taking it even smaller, the Celilo vineyard where I get mine from, they planted that stuff back in the late 70s - actually the block I get it from is from '82 - it's their oldest Gewurztraminer still there. It really does amazingly there. It's all non-irrigated old vines that really regulate themselves so I can get all these great tropical flavors without having to have it at 26 or 27 brix. So I can keep it at a pretty reasonable level of alcohol but I can also ferment it all the way down, with not a lot of sugar left over. And the advantage of being in the cooler area is the acid stays. So it doesn't get flat, it stays with this acidity that really can clean up a lot of food that's hard to eat and drink wine with.

What are some examples of those foods?

Think of foods that you think of drinking beer or champagne with. Those do amazing with dry Gewurztraminer. Spicy foods, Mexican food, Thai - Thai curries and Gewurztraminer are just a match made in heaven.

Things that have a little more salt too. Think Thanksgiving dinner, that's always a horrible wine match. If you have a wine that's too dry and you're eating ham and turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, that's a lot to ask of a wine. But a dry Gewurztraminer or champagne does really well with those. People are sometimes afraid to take a white wine past the beginning of dinner but one thing I really wanted to do with my Gewurztraminer was not only have it have a lot of fruit, have good acidity and be dry - but to have it full-bodied enough that it felt like you were drinking something like a Chardonnay that had the weight to it that you didn't just want to sit on the patio and drink all night. You want to bring it into the meal and have it with your Thanksgiving or your scallops or your Thai food or your seafood and things like that that just pair strangely sometimes - especially with big reds. The Northwest has obviously done well with Pinot Noir because it pairs well with our salmon and seafoods. It's a different enough wine that there's a need for it - and it really stands out on its own and can hold up to a lot of food.

The problem with Thanksgiving and Gewurztraminer is making so little. It goes like this: I make it every year, it comes out, the sun pops out everywhere and everyone wants to drink it with the warm weather. And then Thanksgiving rolls around, and I'm like - sorry, it's gone!

I'll admit I was one of those "I don't drink sweet wine people" for a time. Why do you think people get so stuck on that?

I see it all the time. But if you try them you'll see how a wine like that can do well in an evening, in a group of very diverse drinkers and very diverse foods - it can really ride through. I sell a ton of wine to winemakers. That's fun when your friends like it.

My Gewurztraminer is really different but it also balances what I wanted to do with reds too. I always loved Pinot Noir in Oregon, but going to Australia really opened my eyes to the Rhone wines. How can get a wine so complex that it's not only fruity - but big, with tannin - that you can match it with a lot of different foods? So, I think, you kinda have to look at what you eat every day. The dream of us having caviar, lobster and steak every day is not the truth - the high end wines that we love, we end up slurping down with pizza and whatever leftovers we have in the fridge. But you also want to have a wine that's there for other things. My kids raise lambs every year for 4-H and FFA so we eat a lot of lamb. We love lamb, but it's not really a Gewurztraminer meal. So, you take Rhone blend that's really meaty and that just gets the other half of your diet right there. So, like I said, I knew that these were the wines I was going to do if I had limited choices. You always want to play with other stuff but I'm not straying that far - you know what you like, you know what you like to drink, and you go with what makes you happy.

Harvest seems to be every winemaker's favorite time of year. Is it for you too?

This will be harvest number 30 for me, so I've seen a lot. You meet a lot of people that get sucked into it, you know. They decide, "Oh, I'll try that" and next thing you know you're on the same train for the rest of your lives. I'm like, "Sorry, didn't mean to do that to you. I was just looking for someone who could hose out a barrel."

Obviously as winemakers we're really excited about harvest but there are also the people that want to come and see it happening. You're thinking that's crazy because everyone is going nuts, there's traffic everywhere, and there's just so much going on - but you forget that people really look at harvest as the "romance" part of the whole industry.

Which is probably because that's how winemakers talk about it?

It is. We like to think that we're doing important stuff here every day but really 80 to 85 percent of the quality of what we're doing happens in that short period of time. Obviously there's a lot going on in the vineyard before you pick and when you pick - but immediately after it's all done and it's in barrel you really feel like you've done something, instead of just cleaning or topping off barrels.

It sounds kind of like pregnancy and childbirth. Women say how horrible it was during and right after but give them a couple of weeks and they're like, "It was so beautiful!" You forget about the pain and stress and realize it was worth every bit of it?

Yeah. The wine industry is tough because you get so wrapped up in it because it's such a part of your life. It's not like you're working in a factory where you make a part and then it goes off and gets shipped away to some other country. This is something that, when you're working you're ending up with a product but depending on the time of year, you're doing different things with that product. Sometimes you're making it, sometimes you are out pushing and selling it. Then, you're drinking the same type of product at home - well, most of use are - so it's really involved in your life. There's something to be said about when you're working six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day, on something that really affects things in your future. So harvest, it's like you're putting your time in in the right place, you know? It's not like you're just working extra hours for the man, so it works out pretty well.

mOften winemakers are a little cautious because we don't want to say we love what we do, it's the most awesome job in the world, we just sit around and drink wine and beer at lunch and that because then everyone thinks it's great and they all want to come over and do it. But it's a lot of what we do. I mean, I have literally only done this as a profession - I've never done anything else. Actually in college I worked in a sorority as a houseboy. That's been my only other paycheck.

Both jobs you've had have been many men's dream jobs!

That one I would say od the other side of the coin where it sounds like the greatest job in the world but you're a guy in a coat and a tie serving meals to people your age, in your classes, who don't recognize you.

Winemaking obviously has been part of your life for a long time but how do you manage two separate labels?

It's really a good situation. I had a job as the head winemaker of a custom crush facility where we made wine for other people. It took a lot of the background and skills I've learned, and I got to make a lot of different wines in a lot of different ways. But the owners knew eventually I'd go crazy because I might be able to suggest things, but really I had no say in how things are done. So they were like, "We want you to have 300 cases of your own brand," and that's when I started Dowsett Family. It was small but I also knew if I was only going to do that much, I only wanted to make the wine I really like. I always like to say that the best wines have a purpose. So it gave me this opportunity to have this little piece started. Then, when I came to Buty, Caleb (Foster) was at that expansion period where he had gotten his winery rolling enough that he really needed to be on the road. He also has two little kids, an eight-acre vineyard, and just needed one other person. So what it really gave both of use is someone else to push ideas across. And I have a place to make my own wine without interfering with what he's doing at Buty - so it works out really well.

How did you choose the specific wines you really like to make - why are these your favorite?

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Steven Maxood
The Championship Belt of Gewurz
When I was young we lived in the Portland area but we kinda moved out further and further as the city grew. My dad worked for city government so the last thing he wanted to do at night was be in the city. So we moved out to Forest Grove, which is like the extreme west of the Willamette Valley, onto this old piece of property that had a run-down house and 12 acres of grapes.

My parents started getting into wine, with the growing industry in Oregon, and - I must have been in high school - they had this great limited release Gallo Gewurztraminer and were like, "Wow, this really tastes good! We like this wine." Gewurztraminer is one of the best eating grapes, it really is delicious fruit. Grapes like Cab are very tannic and not very interesting, but Gewurztraminer is like a Muscat in that it's got more tropical fruits and character to it. They were amazed how much that grape tasted like the wine. So, it just left a blip in their heads. When they saw that place they thought it would be a good place for us to get out of town.

So I went through high school there and the Gewurztraminer was always my favorite grape. As time went on, I went to Oregon State and studied Horticulture thinking that I wanted to stay in grapes. About halfway through that program, I took an exchange program to Australia to a school that had a Wine Science program. What I learned there was that I knew very little about winemaking and there was a whole 'nother world of things out there. Coming from Oregon at that time, even though we were messing with different things, there was a really traditional way of making wine - like Pinots - in small fermenters and just kinda put to barrel and treated all the same. So to go to Australia, which has no rules, was interesting.

After college I went to California for a few years, which is where I decided I wanted to be in the Cellar. It was a tough decision, but it was really hard to work in vineyards and work with fruit all season long, watch it get ripe, and then harvest it and give it away to someone else and say goodbye. It was tough to give it up like that. I really knew that eventually I wanted to have some control in the vineyards but also be making the wine. Because it's the end of the line. You can make great fruit in a vineyard and someone can still screw it up. It's all opinion, but you want to be able to use your opinion when you're involved in something so creative.

A lot of people say winemaking is a form of art for that reason, right? Like you paint a beautiful painting and someone buys it and hangs it in their garage.

Yeah, or they put your painting in a horrible frame? The greatest thing about starting Dowsett Family was the fact that it was small so I could do exactly what I wanted, not what someone else wanted. I like dry Gewurztraminer. I like it pretty acidic and I don't really care if it's not the wine that appeals to the masses. I've always felt there's got to be a reason to do it if you're doing it small. Don't just throw out another Chardonnay you want to be in that list of 100 and try and say, "Yes, mine is the best of all these!" every year, you know? So do something that you find interesting and different. The whole thing about making wine is the the first thing you have to do is figure out what you really like. I mean, because how can you say anything is great if you don't even know what you like? The next hard part is figuring out how to make what you like - what makes that wine so good to you? Then the last part is finding the people who like the wine that you like because eventually, you've got to sell it.

Talking about art, the funny thing is Gewurztraminer is a really amazing aging wine - especially the style I do where it's got a lot of acidity. There's this balance of richness and acidity so it actually holds on really well. When I first came to Walla Walla to make wine I was working with a friend from college, John Abbott, who was then the winemaker at Canoe Ridge. On one of our first business trips to Seattle, we went to Wild Ginger - back when it was still down behind the Market. We were supposed to be in a seminar but were instead sitting at the satay bar there wanting a good glass of wine to go with that food. They were like, "This really needs a good Gewurztraminer," and we said OK, and then they didn't have one. So we thought we should make one because we both knew we'd be spending a lot of time at Wild Ginger. It was actually 1996, and that year we had a freeze so a lot of the vineyards were down. Canoe Ridge had always sold a lot of fruit to Hogue and they were so happy we had fruit for them that year that a truck full of Gewurztraminer showed up on a truck for us.

Anyway, that's how it started. So I like saving wines I've done in the past. I still have a lot of those and pull them out every once in awhile. The early 2000's are drinking great but some of those late 90's ones are still fun. Truthfully, I'm not a huge fan of older wines. It's kind of inherent in winemakers that we drink wines way too young. We love remembering what it smelled like in the barrel, and in the tank, and when it was fermenting, and stuff like that - so we have a hard time staying out of our collections. Sometimes you just gotta bury 'em under other stuff, you know? That's the only way to get winemakers to age wine. In fact I have a father-in-law that loves older wine so, when I dig through my cellar and find stuff that to me is getting a little too old, I just keep a box going for him and get a case of well-aged wine every year for Christmas.

What do you want people to know about Washington wine?

There's a lot about Washington that's really special. We get discriminated against for being in an area that uses a lot of irrigation because traditionally, you shouldn't irrigate vines. You should grow them in the right place instead. But we have this climate where you can ripen so many types of grapes to different levels. Red Mountain is totally different than Walla Walla which is totally different than Yakima which is totally different that Horse Heaven Hills - but there isn't much water. The grapes wouldn't be there at all in most of these places if it wasn't for irrigation.

But a lot of the issues people have with this irrigation is they don't want it to be like the Central Valley where people are just making table grapes as fast as possible and just pour on the water. But we're almost doing the opposite - we're using the water to limit the grapes. Where they would normally grow into big, juicy water filled berries, we just give it to them when they need it to get ripe - so we can actually make quality fruit *because* we can water. There's such an amazing span of wines you can make over here, and I know a lot of areas have them all as well, but I think consistently you can make great wine in Washington easier than a lot of other places.

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