Brian Rudin is a fast talker. If you have any wine or terroir geek in you, he's the kind of fast talker you want to know. Not that he's trying to talk you into anything, he's just got a lot of information he's passionate on sharing. As the resident winemaker for Cadaretta, Rudin is part of a team that is going out on a Washington wine limb - trying something with terroir that has not been done before. So if you are a fan of terroir and taste, saber-tooth tigers, cataclysmic floods, and the blood, sweat and tears of winemaking, pop open a bottle and settle down in your best wine sweater for a chat that covers millenia.
Cadaretta Resident Winemaker Brian Rudin
What's your "wine sweater" analogy?
Well, in 2011 we started experimenting with fermenting Cabernet in large oak fermenters and we found out wood is really great as an insulator for yeast populations. Steel heats up really quickly and it cools down really quickly. Plastic has the same deal. Yeast populations generate a lot of heat just from existing, so as your fermentation takes off, and they start eating sugar, your grapes get hot really quickly. It can go from 50 to 80 degrees overnight. What we found out is the type of vessel they're in really affects that development. Wood is really nice because it takes longer to warm up and it can hold a lot of heat, so it's sort of like a nice wool sweater to this yeast population. You get in, you get nice and cozy, and then the heat goes away but you're still pretty insulated so those fermentations end really happy. I've seen fermentations in steel where things cool off really quickly, your yeast die, and you're stuck with sugar in the ferment and wine that's residually sweet. When you're in a wool sweater you're always at the right temperature. With other vessels, like plastic, that's like going out in the summertime wearing polyester. You're just never quite comfortable and sometimes you kinda smell.
So what would steel be?
Chain link armor. Heavy and tough to move? No, I think steel is a lot like cotton. It doesn't really help you to regulate your temperature. I ski a lot so I know cotton's tough to get the right temperature in. It's gotta be wool!
Speaking of wine development, how did your winemaking career get started?
Well, this is basically all I've done.
It's all you ever wanted to do?
No. I wanted to go work for the State Department in the foreign service. After college I was applying for the State Department jobs and looking at law schools - in the meantime, I took a job waiting tables at a fancy restaurant in Seattle that had a great wine list so I got to know wine from working there. That was it! But I grew up in Eastern Washington, in East Wenatchee, and I had gone back there every year and just started to get a sense that the wine world was taking hold in Eastern Washington. It was kind of exciting, but I didn't know anything about wines until I took that job. I picked up on it really quickly and really loved it as a subject.
I really didn't see any future in it whatsoever but I guess I kind of had one of those epiphany moments where I had had some great renowned French wine. It was a Gigondas, and very soon after I had a Grenache/Syrah blend from the Walla Walla valley and it was one of those moments where you're like, "Holy cow! We're making wines out here, in little old Eastern Washington, that are giving these Old World wines a run for their money." It just sunk in like that. So I thought, "What's to stop me from going back to Eastern Washington and getting in on this now?" I think the thing that excited me about it the most was it was happening in the place where I grew up. When I was a kid, it was something that didn't really exist at all. So, eight years ago, I just moved out here.
You just thought you'd figure it out when you got there?
You just thought you'd figure it out when you got there?
Yeah. I came out here and I went through the program at Walla Walla Community College - which was a killer program. Right out of there I got a job out at Alder Ridge vineyard and they said, "Hey, there's a trailer you can live in at the base of the vineyard." And so I literally went from college to community college to living in a trailer. And one day I woke up and was like, "Holy crap! This is a success story in reverse." But I loved it out there.
Is there a certain part of the job you are most passionate about?
Yeah, it's harvest. I know that's the most heard answer but that's why we're in it. You work so hard, but it's an adrenaline rush because everything's happening at once - you've got to nail it the first time, you don't get a second chance, and it's fun! Everyone talks about winemaking as an art, and it's true there's a lot of that to it, but to me there's a lot of craftsmanship that goes into it and that's technique - doing things so many times that you just...your hands know the right and best way. While blending tends to be the more artistic part, at harvest it's just blood, sweat and tears.
It seems like you have a lot on your plate - what do you do when you have free time?
I like to ski. A lot. It drives everyone I know crazy. I've been skiing my whole life. The greatest thing about making wine and loving to ski is that we finish up all the work in January and we always have a little lull until March, when we start bottling again. So, for me, that's my time to catch up and hit the mountains, get some fresh air, and ski a bunch. It drives my wife Ashley nuts.
Is there a benchmark wine that made you fall in love with this craft?
Several. But I just had a White Rose, Dundee Hills, Pinot Noir from their vineyard in Willamette Valley. A superbly made wine - expressive, earthy, ethereal, with some fruit, but it's almost like a side note. Such an amazing little wine. Whenever I drink those Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs I can't help but feel like those wines are speaking a completely different language than our wines are here in Washington. We make BIG reds. They make these dainty, extremely aromatic, spicy little wines. To me, it's another language. You can't even use the same vocabulary to describe them.
And Cadaretta's kind of speaking a new language in that its doing something in the vineyard that no one else is really doing?
Yeah. So the main idea out at Southwind vineyard (where we're headed) is we're planting in a soil type that hasn't been planted in wine grapes in Washington state, or anywhere else in the United States that we're aware of.
What's the inspiration?
Well, Rick Middleton - who is the owner of Middleton Family wines, Cadaretta and Buried Cane wines - has been wanting to do something great with wine in Washington for a long time. His family has been in viticulture for almost 45 years and in wine grape growing since 1991. So they happened across this small parcel of land we're headed to, Southwind Vineyard, and this one little patch of about 12 acres, above the Missoula flood line. We found it with the help of a local Geologist, Kevin Pogue, and it has a soil type that no one has planted - it's rough, rocky, somewhat unforgiving, soil on a steep slope. It's tough to work but exciting once you start to dig holes and look at some of the mineralogy under the surface. It's a very special little patch of land, there's not much like it around here, and we're tremendously excited about the site.
What kind of grapes did you plant there?
We went with Syrah because it's really good for a piece of land like this. The main reason being Syrah is very expressive of terroir, more so than any of the other red grapes we grow in the Walla Walla valley. I think it's the grape that is the most transparent and lets differences in soil come through in flavors to the wine. That's exciting to me because I really like the idea that you can taste the wine and and taste through it to taste the dirt behind it. That's the idea behind Southwind.
Have you tasted the dirt?
I have not put the dirt in my mouth and chewed it up. So do you know about the Missoula flood?
So the short story is between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago there was a series of huge floods that ripped through Eastern Washington, totally redefining the landscape. The main impact these floods had on grape growing in Washington state is those floods ripped out all the old soils that took millions of years to develop. The floods' maximum height in the Columbia basin was 1250 feet, give or take, so any soils under that are now only 10,000 years old - they are all young and made of sands, silts, and gravels that the flood left behind. Right now roughly 99% of all the wine grapes that are planted in Washington are in these young soils. We wanted to see what wine grapes would look like in soils that were untouched by the flood and to do that you have to get above 1,250 feet.
So this old soil is how old? Is it dinosaur old?
Maybe 17 million years old. Thats like, saber-tooth tiger old.
Yeah, sort of. This is an 18-foot pit we dug to try and help us understand what's going on in this block. I'll explain a couple things that make this different: the top three feet are mostly silt loam that has blown in. The wind has actually been blowing in and removing the silt and depositing it on the other side of the hill - for a very long time. Below that silt is highly weathered, very fractured basalt. You won't see basalt like this below 1,250 feet because it's loose and worn down and the water from the flood would have ripped it out immediately. You can grab any piece of this rock and literally just break it apart with your bare hands - it's so old and weak it literally falls apart. Bare minimum, this is 17 million years old but this layer is probably quite a bit older than that.
As you drive around the Columbia basin you'll see basalt everywhere, but it's not part of of the soils because it was all removed and what was left behind was just the hardest pieces. So here you're seeing various stages of the basalt breaking down - which is how all of Eastern Washington would have looked if the flood had never come along. The vine roots will get their root tips down into this and be able to pry this apart. When basalt breaks down, it's made mainly of magnesium and iron, which react with water and air to make iron oxide - which is rust. Iron is one of the minerals you can absolutely detect in a wine - you can taste iron in wine.
How does one describe that taste? Like "metal"?
To me it's sort of more of a meaty, or bloody, taste. Here's the other thing that's kind of crazy about this soil - there's calcium in basalt. When it breaks down it forms calcium carbonate, or chalk - some call it lime. If you're under irrigation or underwater, it dissolves and washes away. That never happened here. People in vineyards get really excited about calcium carbonate because some of the best vineyards in the world have high levels of it in the soil. "The rocks" portion of the Walla Walla valley has the basalt, but not the calcium because they've been underwater so it has washed away.
So here it won't wash away?
We're doing really, really minimal irrigation up here and the way we've texturized this soil, we've almost barely have to irrigate at all. Such a silly little thing to be excited about but I just can't wait to see what these wines are going to taste like.
We'll get our first crop off next year, then three years for cellaring and bottling so...2015. Let me make the wine first then I'll answer the second part of the question. This vineyard has the right stuff. I think it will make a fantastic wine.