Sean Boyd once made his living off Alaska's black gold but instead hit the motherlode with his Rhone-inspired wines, receiving accolades from industry heavy hitters ranging from the Review of Washington Wines to Wine Enthusiast. Boyd's geology background is also paying off, lending him a particular insight into Washington state terroir and the fruit that loves it. Boyd has been described as "the scruffy guy you're not sure is homeless or just feels totally at home here" and it's pretty obvious that for this guy, it's the latter - something which fans of Washington wine are doubtlessly thankful for.
"Glorified janitor" Sean Boyd
Your wine club is called the "Rotiesians". There's got to be a story behind that.
Yeah. It's a play off those old Olympia beer ads - remember those? I grew up in Tacoma so I remember watching all of those back in the day. And the old Rainier beer ads - they are so fun.
Did you ever see the 6-pack that would run the Sound to Narrows in Tacoma in the 1970s and early 80s?
There was a six-pack of bottles and a six-pack of cans. And they would run races and show up at community events - six guys in tights running six miles inside costumes that were held together just like a real six-pack.
I actually just talked to someone that was hired to just go and grab the six-pack costume, tow it behind their car, jump in it and either run through a stadium or the woods or something. It was like, no joke. That's ingenious for a marketing campaign. Some of the old posters too - just the evolution from some primordial ooze of Rainier and the evolutionary tree of how they got to be bottles and cans running around. Those were great.
What's the story behind the name Rotie?
Well, it started off with us wanting a name that didn't get us sued. So there aren't a lot of options other than using your last name and that's been done. Since I really wanted to focus on all Rhone varietals and more traditional French blends, but with Washington state fruit, that's how we came up with it. I am passionate about Rhone wines - some of the richest, darkest, densest Syrahs, really rocky and earthy - so I wanted a label that you'd look at and, if you drink wine, get it.
Your first career was as a geologist right?
Yup. I was laid off in 2007 because gold was below $300 an ounce up in B.C. - I had sold my soul to the devil and the oil patch for about 6-7 years. Then I moved here thinking I was just coming to wait out a 2 year non-compete that I had and I just started making wine. I helped Rich Funk out at Saviah and at the same time Jamie Brown was starting Waters so when I wasn't working with one, I was working with the other and it just kind of blossomed from there.
Was it an interest in wine that brought you to Walla Walla in the first place?
Oh yeah. At my old job I'd work 6-7 months on and then would have the rest of the year off so we were really able to travel. So once I wasn't working and could really travel food and wine were always kind of what my travel centered around. That's how I met my wife, really, and food or wine has always been real central to what we do. We were kind of in a comfortable spot but I knew I couldn't keep doing the same thing for the rest of my life, especially with a new kid on the way. I just thought, "I have to slow things down" and that's why we made the move out - it was more of a lifestyle decision. But yeah, I didn't think I'd get in the wine business but I just kind of caught the bug and never looked back.
Did you have a culture shock when you moved?
Yeah, we came from West Seattle so it was a big change. The chaos actually started by having a kid and moving at the same time and then switching careers, so we didn't really think of the culture shock too much. There are certain things like no traffic a lot less people that kind of slow things down, but that's also kind of the negative - you don't have all the incredible restaurants and selections and all the different spots to go out. But I think for raising kids and just kind of settling down it's great. We needed an escape - a place to go to get away from the rat race - but now it seems we've just recreated the rat race so...whatever. You think you're escaping it but it pulls you right back in. But that's my own fault.
Is there anything you miss about being in the big city?
No. I don't really look back that much, I think going forward is the only way I want to live. It's almost to a detriment. It is what you make it, for me. I'm happy where I'm at. Part of the uncertainty of life sucks when you're young and thinking, "what am I doing?" And for a while there I was just chasing a paycheck, and that sucks. It's soul-crushing when you realize that's what you're doing. Part of moving out here was figuring that out and from there it was like, "Wow, this is what I really want to be doing!" And then you kind of catch the bug and just go, go, go. And then you realize you're probably going to be doing this for the rest of your life.
Right on! It's 50% Viognier, 30% Roussanne, and 20% Marsanne. The Viognier gives it that tropical character, Roussanne has that honeysuckle kind of edge and really gives it the viscosity, and then Marsanne is my new love - it's really kind of mangoes when you're fermenting it, then it's got this flinty-ness and minerality that I love but as it warms up it gets to be more anise and crazy stuff that are different than what you usually find in whites. That's the fun part about wine - when it evolves in a glass or over a period of time.
But yeah, this is 100% stainless steel fermentation and it still has all the malic acid so it hasn't undergone the secondary fermentation and still has a lot of that bright acid. When it turns 100 degrees here and is a big dust bowl you kind of put the reds away. I love super crisp whites. 2009 was the first year we did a white because we really needed something crisp so we started off small but I have definitely fallen in love with them.
What do you do here for fun?
I play soccer (on Team Hangover). I have some buddies who are really good at soccer so I just kind of sit on the sidelines and cheer and they put me in when something's gone bad. I can run around but I'm not as good as some of the guys on our team - or girls, Liz is good too! I play in two rugby games a year, because I'm getting old. One's just for fun and the other one is just to make sure you're still alive and have something to train for. I grew up playing rugby and I love running around, but I definitely don't play at the level I used to play at.
Other than that, it's probably the same as everyone else - cooking and friends. I have a new project with wine that's keeping me super busy but yeah, I'd say it's work and the kids. Actually, that's my #1 answer, can you change that? I've got three kids, a new four-month old who's super fat and happy and smiley and two great, incredible daughters. They're the reason for our fun in life.
Speaking of side projects with wine, you recently partnered with Spencer Sievers of El Corazon to make a wine together. Is that out?
Yes, it's called "Swordfight" and it's fun. The first year we took one of his favorite barrels and one of mine, they were both Syrah, and we combined them. Mine was earthy and dark and dense and his was very clean and bright and long so we combined them and it worked out really well. I think it was a perfect example of the sum of two being better than the parts. This year we did four barrels of it, except we have Mourvedre, so we kinda picked just a little bit of a different blend - but that's the fun part about it. We've got two different designers on it so - turns out designers are very territorial - we're pitting them against each other with the labels. They're going to turn out really well. He's releasing his now and we're waiting until September.
Your wines tend to sell out pretty quickly - do you try and stagger releases so you've always got something on hand?
Yup. It's bad to sell out, I think. You try and set it up so you sell from May 1 of one year to May 1 of the next - ideally. Because if you sell out there are a lot of problems: you have to hold back wines for each one of your distributors, for the people who have gotten you where you are, and for others - like a restaurant that puts you on their list. A month later you can't say to them, "Well, sorry, you can't have that." So we're very careful - especially about the Northwest market. This year was good year - we sold out by January 15 so we missed it by about 4 months. We make about 2,600 cases so we're still pretty small. Nicole (Rotie's tasting room manager) sells a hell of a lot through the tasting room. We have a great wine club following and then we release all our small lot stuff - it goes pretty quickly.
Are you in Walla Walla for good?
Well, Seattle's always an option. You know the west side is nice but I think it would hurt being away from colleagues and friends and the vineyard and what not. Not living, breathing, touching it all the time.
Do you think it's harder for those making wine on the other side of the mountains - being a little further away from the living, breathing, touching it?
Well as long as they're out in the vineyards and checking it out, no. A lot of people around here are sourcing just as they're sourcing so...I think it's more about the passion behind it. And we have this out here too - are you a winemaker to say you're a winemaker or are you a winemaker to do the work and get into it? There are so many smoke and mirrors in this business that it just gets ridiculous so it's more finding the people that are really passionate about what they're doing and just love it.
These are the people who are happy cleaning tanks and topping barrels and cleaning everything that you have to clean. I mean, being a winemaker is more like being a glorified janitor. A lot of that stuff has to be done because it has a direct effect on the wine - otherwise it's understanding and figuring out what you want to do like not using too much oak and figuring out what vineyards you like and why. There's a lot of vineyard land in Washington state and I'm convinced the best spots in Washington state are yet to be planted, so there's tons of opportunity.
How long did it take you to figure out what vineyards you like to make your style of wine?
It's always an ongoing process but luckily, I think one of the greatest helps is I live next to a guy named Kevin Pogue. He's a geologist and when we first moved here and I was getting into the wine we'd hang out and we'd just talk about vineyards. He's got these incredible systems where's he's got, basically, all this temperature data from some of the best spots - he's really becoming one of the world-renown Washington state guys for terroir. But we'd talk about vineyards and I'd pick his brain on microclimates. Every varietal has its sweet spot for its growing season so it's finding out where each one can really excel. It's not really necessarily about that old school estate stuff. The disadvantage of estate stuff is you're locked into that one area, which is very incredible if you plant the right thing but also very one dimensional - as opposed to having lots of different plots in different areas that are perfect for specific varietals. There are some that work really well together - Grenache and Mourvedre, Viognier and Marsanne and Syrah work well - so the place really can make things work out.
Roussanne and Marsanne are not grapes you hear a lot about - was it hard to find them?
No, not after you talk to a lot of vineyard managers. It's a very small world. Then it's just bugging people enough - I'll just show up tomorrow and ask the same question so you might as well let me have it now.
I don't know if I want people to know too much. That's why I like living over here - because you're not in the thick of things. I love what I do and I'm really grateful for the people who support us because it allows me to do exactly what I want to be doing. And that's that.