Cody George didn’t set out to make wines that spent five years in oak barrels, but at Vintage Hill Cellars that is what has happened.
The self-taught winemaker said the patience to let the red wines linger as long as necessary was always part of the vision for the winery. It was also part of the business plan he developed for Vintage Hill as part of his final project for a master’s degree in business before launching the winery almost seven years ago.
“We put a lot of thought into it and to release something too early just doesn’t make sense to me,” George said. “We wanted to take our time and kind of let the wine tell us what needed to happen, but – big picture – that is what you have to wait for.”
George and business partner Brian Murray, along with his parents, Mark and Paula George, opened Vintage Hill Cellars together with just six barrels of wines. They share in winemaking, sales and janitorial duties. They are releasing the last of the red wines from the winery’s sophomore year right now, with plans for another series of new releases over the next six months.
We sat down with George at the tasting room recently to talk about how Vintage Hill has grown and what the future holds for the boutique winery.
S.R.: How did Vintage Hill Cellars get started?
George: When I came out of college – I went to WSU and I was familiar with beer – but … I found that people were really talking about wine. They were using all of these descriptors and I was puzzled more than anything. Well, what does that mean, I wondered, ‘You mean it’s still made out of grapes, but it tastes like blackberries? What?’ So, what I would do is go to the grocery store and buy finished bottles of wine from the grocery stores and I’d sit at home and I would blend them together myself, just because I was curious. I can’t really explain why I did it, but it seemed to make sense at the time.
A little later, I ended up getting one of those wine kits in a box and basically made some wine and it was OK, maybe, at best, but it sort of gave me the bug to keep going.
S.R.: What was the first wine that you made as Vintage Hill Cellars?
George: We made a series of wines, but the first ones that we released were a dry riesling, a sauvignon blanc, a viognier and a merlot rosé. Those were the first released because of the shorter need for aging time, but it was awhile later we came into the reds from 2006. Just to give some time perspective there, the 2006 wines were our first red release. We’re just now getting to the end of releasing the last of our 2007. So, we’ve taken a good long period of time to age them, to take the time with them rather than to try to rush them out onto the market. Some of them at this point are seeing five some years in the barrel.
S.R.: That is pretty unusual. What does that long aging process do for the wines?
George: It is different for each winery, but for us we tend to like to impart the oak over a longer period of time. To me it actually has a more supple mouthfeel that way. It is a bit smoother around the edges and, big picture, I just like the taste of it that way. It seems more well-rounded after the aging.
Rather than imparting brand new oak relatively quickly, this way I can slowly introduce the oak aspects into the wine so it is much more of a gradual process.
S.R.: What are your latest releases?
George: We just released a 2007 cabernet franc four or five months ago. We actually just bottled a new blend, which is a combination of merlot and petit verdot that sees a combination of different oaks. It’s called MPV. We’ve also got another series of wines that we’ll be releasing over the next six months or so.
S.R.: Which wines are available right now at the tasting room?
George: We have a cabernet sauvignon, a merlot and a cabernet franc. The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is a single-vineyard designation out of the Les Collines vineyard in Walla Walla, so it is 100 percent cab sauv … Also out of Walla Walla is our 2007 Pepperbridge Merlot. And we have a 2007 Cabernet Franc and you’ll notice it says ‘55 Series’ here on the bottle … essentially that means that this wine saw 55 months in oak. We did a long, slow aging process. The others were aged for about three years, roughly. The cabernet sauvignon and the merlot are $26 and the cabernet franc is $28 per bottle. We’re sold out of our whites right now.
S.R.: What kind of oaks are you using?
George: I would say a majority of what we do is using French oak, once in a while working in a little American, a bit of Hungarian and just a touch of Russian. They all have different ways of imparting their character with the wine.
S.R.: What does the 2007 MPV blend taste like?
George: I haven’t written the actual tasting notes yet, but I sort of get a bit of a raisin aspect, sort of earthy raisin notes to it. I get a little violet on the nose, a little bit of that floral combination from the petit verdot. Given the fact that it is about a third petit verdot, you can really taste some of the unique characteristics there. It’s a dark, inky-colored wine.
S.R.: When will that wine be released?
George: I’m hoping by spring barrel tasting.
S.R.: How much wine did you make when Vintage Hill first opened?
George: We were making roughly 350 to 400 cases or so.
S.R.: Where are you now?
George: We make up to 1,000 cases per year now.
S.R.: Would you like the winery to get bigger?
George: Yeah, to a certain extent. We definitely focus on the boutique aspect of the business, the experience, the series of spice and food pairings that we feature. It really is an experience to come in and go through the whole tasting and learn a lot about food combinations, how those flavor profiles match and maybe even some of the chemistry behind that. But a little growth never hurts.
S.R.: What can people expect when they come to the tasting room?
George: My parents run the tasting room on the day-to-day basis and just do a phenomenal job. Some of the pairings that they come up are just amazing. … It is always something new.
The combination of wine and food is really significant and there are some changes in flavor profile that occur depending on the food or the meal that you’re having. What we try to do is to take those combinations and allow the person that is coming in for the tasting to experience a breadth of different flavor profiles for them to match with the wines.
For example, there is an East Indian spice blend called rogan josh … that pairs with our Pepperbridge merlot and really brings out the inner spice profile of the wine, some of the cinnamon aspects as well as the berry and fruit flavors. … But if you have a sweet tooth, you can try the cinnamon and white chocolate pretzel. The cinnamon and the sugar brings out a different aspect in the wine. … Cumin goes really well with our cab. Cardamom works well with some of our wines. Balancing those flavor profiles with the flavor of the wine is fun.