Winemaker Ned Morris: Bringing Basel Cellars out of the Bat Cave

The Bruce Wayne of Basel Cellars.
Atop the rolling vineyards south of Walla Walla stands the sprawling castle of Basel Cellars. Once known as an exclusive destination for a chosen few, it now houses the inventor's laboratory of one Ned Morris, winemaker, who looks -- suspiciously -- like Batman. Could Ned Morris be the Bruce Wayne of wine? Let's see . . . works in a subterranean cellar crafting deliciously daring creations? Check. Easily steps from the cellar into the role of charming business guy, flashing a friendly smile everywhere he goes? Check. Travelled overseas to excel at a physical sport many others will never master? Check. You have the evidence -- but perhaps a better idea is to pay a visit to Basel Cellars and see for yourself.

SW: Have you ever been told you look like someone famous?

Morris: Uh oh. I have a few different times. I used to get Tom Cruise when I was younger. Now it's the guy from Batman -- Christian Bale.

It's true! Now on to the real business. Your history with wine is a long one, but you started as a sommelier?

Yes. I grew up in the Northwest, my family is old-school Walla Walla, and I played water polo in high school and got a full-ride scholarship to go back East and play at Iona College in New York. It was cool, I was playing water polo for a NCAA division 1 school, we were 13th in the nation, and a pretty good team.

That's a tough sport!

It is. We were pretty high-caliber, so we'd come out and play teams like USC, Berkeley, Pepperdine, Stanford, and UCLA five to six weekends out of every fall season. It was great as a college student to be travelling like that -- you see the world, and it was pretty fun. When I graduated, an Australian kid I'd been on the team with said, "Neddie, don't go get a job. Come to Australia and play semi-pro." I said, "OK!" In the U.S. there's not really much to do in water polo after college unless you're in the Olympics or overseas. Like, our U.S. Water Polo team goalie is the highest-paid water polo player in the world, and he plays for an Italian team and makes like 1.5 million a year. Incredible. He's a freak of nature.

Anyway, after college I moved to Australia to be a semi-pro water polo player. My intention was just to be a hedonistic fool -- work my way through all the Australian women I could conquer, and all of that -- that was the game plan. Well, of course, I fell in love with the first one I shacked up with, married her, now it's 18 years later. She ruined my plan! So I was down there playing water polo and I was on an athletic visa and wasn't supposed to be working, so what does an illegal alien do? You work in restaurants. I started washing dishes, then waiting tables, then we got married, so I was legal and worked my way up into restaurant management.

Really, I am all right hearing my own voice, so I was pretty good talking to people and chatting and stuff -- and I loved it. This was in Adelaide, which is like the Napa of Australia, so in order to do decent service in a restaurant you had to know your wines pretty well, so after work our owner would often open a bottle of wine and we'd just talk about it and how to sell it and serve it. I must have impressed him on a few occasions, because he said, "You know, Ned, you've got a great palate -- have you thought about training?" I was like, no way =- I was there to play water polo and drink and have fun. He said, "How about if we pay for it?" So I said OK, and they sent me to Penfolds Magill Estate, which is like the Harvard of wine education for Australia.

So I trained at Penfolds when John Duval was there, and that's how I came into wine. I had some real life-changing experiences with wine there. I had some wines that just I didn't know that you could do those things with -- I didn't know you could have such complexity and so many different layers of flavor and the length and all of that stuff in a wine -- that just blew me away.

Do you remember what wines those were?

I remember some of them. I got to taste all the Granges when I was there. So every Grange -- Grange St Henri, 707's, 409's -- all the Penfolds lineup from probably the early '70s through the mid-'90s. I got to taste all those. And critique them and all that -- there were some Granges that were just incredible, just blew me away.

What's a Grange?

It used to be Grange Hermitage, which was Penfolds' flagship wine -- their 100% syrah, #1 high-end wine. They try and make it the same every year, so it's different percentages of syrah from different vineyards to try and make the same wine consistently. It's their high-end best wine in every vintage. There's some killer wines.

But I also had the experience of having some pretty impressive Bordeaux, including Aubrion, Petrus, and a few Moutons. And I just love Chateauneuf. And I love grenache. I just fell in love with wine -- I got hooked. I wanted to learn everything I could about wine -- different blends, different varietals, different production techniques, and all of that stuff to round out my education.

For me it was that marriage of wine and food and how they play together that's still a very important part of what I've done in my career as a winemaker. I want to make wines that go with food -- that's what it's all about. I know there are a lot of winemakers out there who make wine and want it to be the star of the show. But my wines, I don't want them to be the stars. I want them to be the cast member with the food and friends and laughter as part of the whole package. For me that's where wine really shines -- you still have an experience, but it's not just the wine, it's all of the different cast members that make it memorable.

If you had an ideal meal, what would it be?

Can't do it! Depends on the day. I mean my ideal meal on a day like today -- a gorgeous sunny day, but not too hot -- I'd think of a Chateauneuf or a lighter red. A hot, hot summer day, I'm going to want cold seafood like prawns, you know, or crab -- cracked crab and a crisp sauv blanc or semillon/sauv blanc blend. Fresh oysters and some champagne -- I mean, sign me up for that all day! Gimme three dozen oysters and a bottle of champagne and I'll be done for the day -- don't tell anyone where I'm going. That's perfect.

But if it's the middle of winter, I want a hearty, lamb shank-y type of stew and a big Cab. I had one of my Malbecs, my '08 Malbec from a different label, with smoked Columbia river sturgeon -- whitefish -- and it was off-the-hook. It was a great pairing. The fish is kinda oily and firm-fleshed and is almost like a steak itself, and the Malbec is spicy and played well with the smokiness, and it was a great pairing.

I'm drooling a little bit.

Good. It's important for me -- because that's how you make the meal. A lot of winemakers do winemaker dinners, but the chef never samples the wines. The chef still makes great creations and the winemaker still has great wine, but sometimes it's not before that night that they're trying them together. And I want things to be a lot more detailed than that -- for me it's a big deal. When I do winemaker dinners, the pairings are very well-thought-out.

Please invite me to the pool party when you stay here.
Basel Cellars is more than just a winery -- it's a destination spot, and you have a finger in everything. How do you find the time?

Yeah -- control freak. Well, I surround myself with really good people to help me out. I've got a great support crew here at Basel -- the tasting room staff is incredible. The vineyard manager is just awesome -- the vineyard crew actually takes care of the whole property -- and he does all the maintenance on the house. The guy's a genius.

How did you get from Australia and food to Walla Walla and wine?

We came back to the States in the late '90s because of a family emergency, otherwise I probably would still be in Australia. My father had a brain tumor, so we moved back to the family home in Eugene to be with him. I knew at that point I wanted to stay involved with wine, but Susie was pregnant with our first daughter, and, as you may know, restaurant life is not the life of a family man. So I thought about getting into wine production. We had a lot of family connections in Walla Walla, so I came up and stayed with my grandparents and met with quite a few of the wine personalities at the time, like Norm McKibben, John Abbott, and Eric Rindall. It was '97-'98, still early in the business for Walla Walla, and every one of 'em said, "You know Ned, we could give you a job right now in the cellar, but it's tough to make that job from cellar hand to assistant winemaker or winemaker/enologist -- it'll probably take you 8-10 years. Whereas if you get a degree, you can probably jump straight into an assistant winemaker position."

So, seeing as we were in Eugene, I commuted up to Oregon State and got a Master's degree in food chemistry with a split minor in biochemistry and microbiology with the whole purpose of being a winemaker -- so my thesis and everything was tailored around winemaking. Within two weeks of defending my thesis, I was John Abbott's assistant winemaker at Abeja.

The vast majority of winemakers I have talked to in this area consider their fellow winemakers family, not competition. Having worked at Abeja, A Maurice, Canoe Ridge, and now Basel Cellars, can you talk about the secret behind that chuminess?

As long as I've been in the industry here in Walla Walla, the motto has been "When the tide's high, all boats float higher." It's not every man for himself, it's all of us working together. You know, there are varying degrees of knowledge on all the aspects of the business, so it's not uncommon for guys to call me up, if they're having some kind of fermentation problem during harvest, and say, "Hey Ned, what should I do?" When I need help with marketing or distribution or something, I don't mind picking up the phone. We all help each other out because we kind of are like a family -- we're all friends and we all hang out together, tip beers together at the Green Lantern or whatever, it's a really good environment. It's just the lifestyle here and the way that we all get along- - I don't know if that's unique because I haven't really worked in the wine business elsewhere -- but it certainly is something special about this place, it's great.

What's your favorite part of your job?

It's hard to say that I've got a favorite part. What I like about it is, it's never the same. I guess that would be "the part." I've got this science degree, my bachelor's is in advertising and fine art, and during harvest you have to be scientifically thought-processed, making sure that your fruit is harvested at the right time and that you're tracking all that correctly. As you get through fermentation and the wine starts to stabilize and it's protected, then you get this whole section -- like right now -- when I'm taking this 2010 vintage and I'm putting together the blends on it -- and that's more of an art side. You still have to figure out the calculations, but I get to build these beautiful blends now, and that's just like painting a picture, you know?

Down in the winery I've got probably 12-15 different barrel makers, and each of those makes 3-4 different barrels with different toast levels, wood from different forests, so it's like being a chef. The wine is the meat but all those different barrels, that's your spice rack. It's crazy the things you can do. So that part of it is really fun -- it takes a long time to do it, and to do it right.

Is there anything going on in Washington's wine world right now that you think is important for people to know?

More medals than an Olympic water polo player.
With regard to Basel Cellars, I want people to know that it's not the exclusive place it used to be. It's all new ownership, and we want people here. We want them to come enjoy the grounds -- even if they don't want to drink wine -- come up and have a picnic in the vineyard and enjoy the place because it really is a gem, there's nothing like it in the valley. So we want people to come share how special it is with us and feel like they're part of it -- we just want a bigger family.

With regard to Washington wine, I think if anything, this economic slump has been a good thing for it because the people that were spending a couple hundred dollars a night on a bottle of Old World stopped spending that kind of money and "traded down" to Walla Walla or Eastern Washington wines thinking they were getting a lesser product for less money. But then they found out Washington wines are incredible -- just as good as those others, at a fraction of the price. So when the economy turns back around, we've made some friends that I think we're going to keep. The quality is there, the value is there, and it's only a matter of time before the rest of the world figures it out. People in the Northwest -- Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Canada, they've got it figured out -- they know -- and they support Washington wines very well. We'll convince the rest of the country eventually -- shouldn't take too long.

Why do you think those people "traded down" to Washington wines versus California wines?

Stylistically, they are so different. California wines are usually a lot denser, more syrupy, because they have to do a lot of different fermentation techniques in order to get the wines to have some structure, so a lot of extended macerations and things like that change the way the wines are. Because we're so far north, we've got a good 3.5 hours a day more growing time during the growing season, so more daytime for the fruit. Eastern Washington's also got this thing called the Diurnal Flux. It's all scienc-y, but it's basically the difference between the daytime hot temperature and the nighttime cold temperature. Hot days make for a lot of sugar accumulation, but the cool nights keep the acidity, and that's what makes pears, apples, peaches, nectarines, wine grapes, strawberries, and cherries from this area so exceptional. Plus the soils and all of that -- there's no doubt about it: The climate and soil for growing grapes here is unlike any other place in the world.

Final thoughts?

I go back to that whole "big picture" thing. Everybody loves this place, we're passionate about what we do, and we're passionate about everyone that helps create the overall experience. I'm living the dream -- I have two gorgeous kids, a gorgeous wife, two great dogs, and I dunno . . . I'd just say to people come out and enjoy it. This town is amazing, Basel Cellars is gorgeous -- it's wrong to try and keep it a secret, right? It should be shown off. Come see it!

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