Billo Naravane is not your average winemaker. With degrees from M.I.T., Stanford and UC Davis, this brainiac brings an unprecedented degree of analysis and thought to his winemaking and blending. Along with brother Pinto, Billo is building a solid following with Rasa Vineyards' well-reviewed wines, despite that fact that their family probably still thinks they're both a little bit on the crazy side. But you know what they say about crazy...there's always more than a little bit of genius in it.
Q.E.D. = Billo Naravane
You have quite a pedigreed background in mathematics and computers, how did you get started in winemaking?
Yes, I did my undergrad at M.I.T. in applied mathematics and computer science and a master's from Stanford in electrical engineering. Both me and my brother Pinto have been avid wine collectors since about 1990 and in 2000 we started talking about how cool it would be to have our own winery someday. So in 2005 I was just burned out in hi-tech - I used to do computer consulting - so I talked to Pinto and said, "Hey, I don't mind going back to school" and I applied to UC Davis' Masters program for Viticulture and Enology. I got my acceptance letter in March of 2006 so I called up Pinto and said, "Hey! I got in. How serious are you about this?" That was the year Pinto was turning 40 and he said, "You know, if we don't do this now, we'll be old men regretting the decision." So I went back to school and we launched Rasa in 2007.
What's the story behind the name Rasa?
The word "rasa" means "essence" in Sanskrit. We were talking to our Uncle one day when we first started the winery and didn't have a name for it yet. He is not a big wine drinker so was like, "What do you like about wine? What's the big deal?" Me and Pinto were telling him what we love is the terroir - that expression of place and why it's important where the grapes are grown. So the next morning he was like, "Hey - why don't you call your winery Rasa?" We didn't know what it meant - he happens to be one of the few people who still speaks fluent sanskrit, he's a very learned individual - and he told us what it meant and that the "essence" is used in the context of fruit and soil so, in slang in Sanskrit, it also means "juice". It was perfect. It had a great connotation to terroir and it tied us back to our heritage so it was perfect! So a guy who knows nothing about wine, and doesn't drink wine, named our winery!
So why Washington and not California?
Well, I was at school in California and when we started drinking wines it was really things like Napa Cabs so it was natural for us to look at land in Napa and Sonoma. In 2006 it was about $350,000 an acre in Napa, Sonoma was $275,000. There was just no way we could do that. We're not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination so some of our winemaking friends suggested we take a look in Washington. We knew we liked Washington wines so they set up a four-day weekend for us to meet with a bunch of winemakers around the state.
On that trip we tasted about 250 wines! But what we noticed in a lot of cases was that the fruit quality was excellent, but sometimes the winemaking didn't do the fruit justice. So we thought, "OK, here's an opportunity. We could come up here, hopefully execute things a little bit better, and establish ourselves as one othe the front runners in a few years." How can you do that in Napa? On that trip we happened to met a realtor named Ben Sinner, who is now a really good friend of ours, who gave me a call about a week after I'd gone back to California to let me know there was a property that had come available that was "on the rocks". So me and Pinto came back out, drove out to the property and just fell in love with it - it was like something straight out of Chateauneuf du pape. We were able to acquire the land for an average price of about $25,000 an acre, so it was a no brainer - we basically got 14 acres for the price of one. We did the soil analysis on the property and it came back textbook for Syrah, the Rhone varieties and Cabernet, so every bit qualitatively as good as the land we were looking at in Napa. So we knew, OK we're moving to Walla Walla!
So you went from the East Coast to California to Walla Walla?
Yeah, we grew up in New Jersey. We moved there from India when I was 6 and Pinto was 8. Pinto and his family, and my parents, all still live in Jersey. I'm the only one out here at the moment.
So your brother Pinto is a big part of the business - but lives in New Jersery. Does he make it to Washington often?
Oh yeah. Pinto just couldn't go back to school because he has three kids and there's no way it could happen. But he really wanted to learn winemaking so I said the only way for you to do that is to spend a lot of time here. So during harvest he spends six weeks here and then during the year, as we're doing all the blendings and rackings and things like that. He made 11 trips out here so yeah, he's here a lot.
Will he ever move out here?
That's the plan. Right now the winery's not self-supporting. Everything's still going in and we're not taking salaries or anything. Hopefully that will change in a couple years and then the plan is for him to move out here.
Is there a wine out there that sort of set the benchmark for you?
Yes. My game-changing wine was Chateau d'Yquem Echem '86. It's a dessert wine, a Sauternes, from France, and is generally considered to be the best dessert wine made. At that time, I really didn't know anything about what a Sauternes was and it just blew me away. Back then it was like $200 a bottle, now they're like $500-$600 a bottle on release. But that was the first time I ever experienced and realized what complexity was in a wine, and then I was just like, "OK, there might be something to this wine crap instead of just going to get loaded." So I started taking wine classes, joining tasting groups, and really getting serious about it.
So you had a pretty good education in wine before you got your formal education in wine?
Oh yeah. Pinto and I have been fortunate enough to have collector friends, in some cases they've been collecting for 30-40 years, who have opened up some of the best wines ever made - like a '61 Latour, '47 Cheval Blanc, and the first growths - we had the opportunity to taste them. I mean, you can't buy that education. We've been fortunate to taste pretty much every wine that is generally considered to be the best wine ever made. A cool thing to be able to say. It amazes me how many winemakers I've met here in Washington State who have never tasted a first growth and in some cases don't even know what that is. And me and Pinto are kind of puzzled by that because how are you ever going to know you made a great wine if you don't have that benchmark in mind - for greatness? Speaking of wine you want a glass?
This is actually the very first wine we ever made - 2007 Q.E.D.
What does that mean "Q.E.D. - Quod Erat Demonstrandum"?
Mathematicians arrive at Q.E.D. at the end of their mathematical proofs. It's a Latin phrase that means "that which is to be shown or demonstrated". My undergrad is in mathematics. So one of the prospective investors we were talking to in 2006 said to me and Pinto, "You guys have great degrees from MIT and Stanford and you're working on your Davis degree, so that's all fine and good, but how do I know you can make a great bottle of wine?" Which was a damn good question. So this is a blended wine Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and every year I put together about 80 different blends of this wine and me and Pinto taste about 15 a day blind, do our independent rankings on the wine, then I take out our top 10 favorites. Pinto comes back out about two months later, we taste those top 10 wines blind again, and then we narrow down our winning selections. The first year we made it, and found the winning wine, I set the bottle down in front of Pinto and said, "Q.E.D. - here is the winning wine!" Since we were both mathematicians we thought, "Why don't we use that for the label?" As a joke to our investor we wrote "The proof is in the bottle" on the back label.
What does "first growth" mean?
In 1855 in Bordeaux they did a classification of all the wineries at the time - this was largely done according to price and what was selling the best. So Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion were generally considered the best and commanded the highest prices so were called "first growth". Even though that was done 150-160 years ago it still carries on in the mindset of Europeans. And they are stellar wines generally. It's an interesting thing that something from so long ago still carries so much weight today, but it does.
Is there anything from your mathematics background you're finding you can apply to winemaking?
Not directly. I mean there is an analytical approach which we use in our blending process - when we go through all the permutations and combinations if you will - of different percentages just to narrow down that blend. Blending is really non-linear, right? Or so we'd call it in math. What that means is you can put that 1 or 2 percent of something into a blend and get a 30 percent response out of it - it's completely non-linear. So until you go through the process of trying all these little permutations with all the percentages, you never quite know that you've got the best blend. We're always after the best - that's why we go through all those laborious processes and doing hundreds and hundreds of blends, in some cases, to find the best one. And honestly I don't know too many wineries that go to that level of detail because it's a huge pain in the ass.
Being that winemaking is so non-linear, is there an artistic side of you that it all appeals to?
I like winemaking because it's this beautiful blend of art and science. That being said, most of our key decisions in the winery and in the vineyard are done by taste - that's the primary driver. We're not crazy, we do run the numbers, but the key decision is: how does it taste? The only time I would say the science really steps in is when things are going off-kilter. That is, we do a lot of native fermentations, and with those sometimes the not-so-great yeasts might start doing the fermentations instead of saccharomyces. In that case, you're going to get some off flavors and the quicker you address that the better off you'll be. Things rarely ever get better by themselves. I'd say that happens maybe 10 percent of the time that I actually have to step in with the chemistry aspect of it. But you have to know it to do it. So, if you're lacking in those skills you're probably going to compromise those lots. So, the science is important but we'd never let that be the driver - it's always an artistic vision and style.
If you could be doing anything else in the world what would you be doing?
This is it. The only thing that I still want to do is to get a Steinway grand piano at some point. I play piano an hour or two every day and playing on a Steinway is an unbelievable experience - so that's my one material thing I do want.
Do you write your own music?
No, I play mostly classical music and haven't really composed anything. I do want to at some point go and learn that stuff when I get a spare moment sometime. I love music.
Being from India, our parents are stereotypical Indians so as far as they're concerned there are only two things you can do in life: you can be a doctor or you can be an engineer/mathematician. Those are your career options. As a kid I used to draw and I very much wanted to play piano and my dad was like, "No, quit dinking around with that art stuff, you can't make a living at it. Go study your math." So, big surprise, I wound up in mathematics. But when I was in my mid-20's me and Pinto were talking and we were like, "You know we are such science geeks and we have no creative outlet - what the hell are we doing?" So I picked up piano when I was 25 and Pinto picked up creative writing as his outlet. There's no reason to be pigeonholed as science geeks because we're pretty good at this art stuff too! I think that's why we love winemaking so much because it is that beautiful blend of art and science. But my parents had this crazy reaction when we told them we were giving up our tech careers to start a winery. They were like, "What the hell? Are you crazy? We put you through M.I.T. and Stanford and now you're going to throw it all away to go make alcohol?" And I was like, "YEAH!". They couldn't for the life of them understand it. But then I was talking to my dad one day and I said, "Hey Baba, I could stay in computers for the next 30 years and make a really good living and be completely miserable doing it. Or, I could go and start this winery, which is very risky, but I'll be living out my dream. It may ultimately fail, but I will be happy in the process and be following my dream." And that's when my dad got it. My mom however, took two years to come around. She's super conservative and it wasn't until she tasted our first wines, and then really saw how happy me and Pinto were, that she finally came on board with it.
You've been on a long journey, what's been the best part about it for you?
The best part is actually doing something that doesn't seem like work anymore. When I first started out in computers I liked it, it was never "great", but I liked it enough. But as the years wore on it became more and more drudgery. When I left I was managing a team of 60 consultants doing projects all over the world and never had a moment's peace. I was the person things got escalated to, so even on vacation I couldn't have a vacation. It got to the point where I'd wake up in the morning and I just dreaded going to work so I said, "I can't do this anymore." My heart and passion was wine so now I wake up every day enthused and ready to go to work. I've never once looked back and said, "Wow, I wish I had stayed in computers." That never has happened. It was the best decision for me, that's for sure.
Also, I would love people just to try the wines and to hear back from them about what they think. One of the unusual things we did is on the cork it says "Call the winemaker with your comments" and it's got my mobile number.
Seriously? You are brave!
When I first showed that to some of my winemaker friends they were like, "Are you freaking insane???" It's actually a lot of fun though because I get all these calls, sometimes at 2 in the morning, saying "Oh, we just had a bottle of this and it was freaking amazing!" So it's a cool thing to get all these calls from random people just to say they enjoyed my wine and appreciate what we're doing.
One of the things that really drew us to Walla Walla was that it has the feel of Napa Valley back in the 80s. Napa has changed drastically since then - it's heavily commercialized, tasting fees are $25-$50 and you're never going to talk to a winemaker there. But you come here and it has that vibe of Napa back then - everyone is super friendly and welcoming. There is a strong sense of camaraderie among the wineries and winemakers - it's just awesome.
Just to give you an example, we had an issue last year during harvest when we had grapes come in and our crusher destemmer freaked out on us and I had four tons of grapes just sitting there waiting to be processed. I was like, "Holy crap! What am I going to do here?" So I started calling around and my friend Trey from Sleight of Hand Cellars said, "Just come over here and we'll crush 'em here and you can haul them back." He didn't have to that but it's that type of community that's amazing. So if someone's in trouble or something the other winemakers are always willing to step in and help out and that's awesome.