A recent trip to Woodinville, Washington gave us the opportunity to catch up with Chris Peterson, winemaker and co-founder at Avennia Wine. Joining Chris was Thomas Woodley, Avennia’s National Sales Director. It was a great opportunity to hear first-hand what is going on within the Washington wine scene from two people who have been an important part of that scene for the past two decades. It was also a chance to taste the current vintages of Avennia’s terrific line up of wines.
Chris Peterson co-founded Avennia with his friend and fellow wine enthusiast, Marty Taucher. Marty had a long career with Microsoft and decided he was going to retire early from the esteemed software house and pursue his other passions, one of which was the wonderful world of wine. Marty took a position at DeLille Cellars as a harvest intern while Chris was DeLille’s winemaker. That association helped to cement their bond and resulted in them, along with their wives, founding Avennia.
Their first vintage was 2010, the first cool vintage after a long streak of hot ones that goes back to the turn of the century.
Not everyone succeeded in that cool year, but Avennia’s first vintage was a huge critical success. Perhaps that cooler harvest helped define what we think has become an Avennia signature: wines striving for elegance and finesse. Since then, Avennia has gone from strength to strength, maintaining their signature elegance (even in the string of recent record hot vintages) and adding to their wine portfolio.
We sat with Chris and Thomas, tasted through some of their wines and began our conversation talking about how Washington wine is perceived. Thomas shared his perspective on where Washington fits in the greater wine world: “Washington’s style is tangibly different. It is often compared to Napa and what has differentiated Washington to many for a long time, is quality per price ratio. Regardless of where you fall in terms of how you like your domestic cabernet sauvignon stylistically, you’re going to be able to get a better bang for your buck out of Washington.”
“For people that follow WA, even for the purity of the fruit that we have here, there’s enough stylistic difference between wineries that if somebody wants that more Napa-polished style, you can get that. Then on the other side of the spectrum you can have wine with more old world, more traditional sensibilities like the wines Chris makes, and you get that with Bordeaux varietals too.”
We couldn’t agree more. Washington has its own very recognizable profile that we have come to appreciate for just being what it is.
This is no Napa doppelganger nor is it a Bordeaux cousin, though it certainly has similarities to both those regions. To us it has the best of both of those regions: the consistently ripe fruit of Napa and the structure and complexity of Bordeaux. But at the end of the day, Washington stands on its own, a unique expression of its own terroir that rises above the need for comparison or contrast.
Chris summed up this view nicely telling us, “we’re trying to get past that whole ‘we’re almost as good as Napa but way cheaper’ and really just compete and say ‘hey these are world-class wines’, full stop.” When you look at the scores that some of the top publications are assigning to Avennia wines, you can see that Chris is right.
Avennia has been busy expanding their portfolio since we last visited with them. Not just more wines under the Avennia label, but Chris and Marty have started some new labels too. One of the most exciting is their new Liminal Winery. Like Avennia, Liminal buys from select vineyards as opposed to having their own estate. But where Avennia buys from a handful of the top vineyards in the state, Liminal produces wines solely from the WeatherEye vineyard. WeatherEye sits at the very top of Red Mountain at elevations up to 1100 feet. The vineyard has both north and south facing aspects.
Chris tells us he worked with WeatherEye viticulturist Ryan Johnson mostly indirectly for the first ten years of their association while he was at Delille and Ryan was at Ciel du Cheval (a vineyard Delille gets much of its fruit from). Cam Myhrvold started the WeatherEye program and he enlisted Ryan to help move it along, and help to decide how to plant it.
“They planted the first part of it in 2016. In 2018, Marty and I had been doing this [Avennia] for close to 10 years and were at a place where we were comfortable with the trajectory of everything and we were talking about ‘well if we were going to challenge ourselves with something different what would it be? Would it be this $25 wine and figure out how to grab shelf space nationally…or would it be more interesting to try to go higher end? We both thought it would be more fun to go higher end and then it was ‘well what would that be?’. Avennia is high end, we’re trying our hardest to make the best wine possible and I’m not going ‘well I could try harder but I’m going to wait for another label’! So the vineyard is what ‘that’ would be.”
When Chris and Marty visited WeatherEye in the spring of 2018, Chris explained “This was the 3rd leaf (winemaker-speak for 3 year old vines) and we just thought it was amazing—goblet trained, Grenache, super steep slopes and poor soils…Marty and I talked about it the whole way home…and we knew the fruit was going to be really expensive, at the top end of Washington…but the only way we could make it work was to have a dedicated label and really have mailing list driven wines.”
“We can’t just incorporate this into our existing wines…so we got back to them a few days later and we said ‘hey, we want to create a whole label and just dedicate it to your vineyard, all we need from you is a promise that we can get the best fruit off there and the first pick at everything’.” Cam and Ryan agreed and Liminal Wines was born.
Chris explained that the main tenderloin of the WeatherEye vineyard is on either side of a road going up the slope that curves around on its way to the top getting all the aspects. It has Syrah on the bottom, Viognier, Roussanne, and goblet-trained grenache at the top that they call the amphitheater that is southwest facing. Liminal gets everything on this hill and they ended up later on calling it the High Canyon. “We claimed it as our own as our exclusive part of the vineyard and then we’ve gotten different fruit around there since then, including a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Cabernet Franc that we’ve added.”
Liminal is definitely something special. They make amazing Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon under this label, as they do at Avennia. So why the new label? “With [Avennia} Sestina we’re gathering fruit from different blocks of the same vineyard and also different vineyards and making these hopefully harmonious blends, we’re kind of doing the opposite with Liminal. Other than the GSM, a lot of the rest of it is single block, single variety and just showing really specific terroir. And over time, learning how to treat them differently to differentiate them.” Avennia expresses a broader region within Washington whereas Liminal is a very specific expression of individual blocks within a single vineyard.
At the other end of the spectrum is their newly created Lydian label. Rather than a separate winery, it is a second label of Avennia. Thomas explained how this was created to go mostly to certain restaurants that had a thoughtful wine program and wanted to have quality wine by the glass that was not going to break the bank.
A new addition to the Avennia line up is their delicious rosé; a new entrant to the very popular rosé category and a very popular one too. Why didn’t they do this sooner?
It was a great morning of tasting some delicious wines and hearing the backstory behind one of Washington’s top winemaking groups. For us, Avennia is a must-stop any time we are in Woodinville and will be on our next trip to Walla Walla where they’ve just opened their new tasting room.
2021 Avennia L’Egerie Rosé
A more serious style of rosé, not the porch-pounder that has become a bit cliché in the category. No this is a complex rosé that shows raspberry, cherry and notes of apple skin. Medium+ body and medium acidity, this wine is slightly plump and shows classic rose freshness. A blend of Grenache and Mourvedre, this would pair wonderfully with cold seafood appetizers.
Very Good/Excellent (USD$28)
2020 Avennia Oliane
This Oliane is 100% Sauvignon Blanc, though there might have been a bit of Semillon in past vintages. Classic Sauvignon flavours of grapefruit, grass and lemon lime. Complexity comes from the very attractive mineral and wet stone notes that punctuate the finish. There is lovely texture to this wine; worlds away from some of the mean and lean Sauvignons produced in the Southern Hemisphere.
Excellent (USD$28 – this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2019 Avennia Arnaut
100% Syrah from Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, arguably Washington’s best site for Syrah. Rich layers of blackberry and black cherry gain added complexity from the many notes of black pepper and spices. Medium tannin with medium+ acidity provide the backbone to the rich fruit and do so with impeccable balance. Delicious now, but if you can hide one or two in your cellar, you will be rewarded with an amazing treat in a decade or so. We recently opened a 2012 that was silky, rich, powerful and finessed. This wine will stand tall in a line up of top Northern Rhone, Australia or California Syrahs. And not to perpetuate that whole QPR thing,at less than half the price.
2019 Avennia Gravura
Gravura is their Bordeaux-style red blend that is an homage to the Graves region of southern Bordeaux. This vintage is a blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. The fruit easily takes up the 20 months spent in 50% new French oak. We pick up lots of black cherry with hints of blueberry, vanilla and cedar forest notes. The balance here is right on point. Very approachable, this wine has wonderful texture. There is a richness that is nicely framed by medium acidity and polished tannins. Already complex, it will be very hard to keep your hands off of this one, but do keep in mind that all of Avennia’s reds can easily be cellared for a decade or more.
Excellent+ (USD $40 – this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2019 Avennia Sestina
This year’s Sestina is 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc sourced from Red Willow, Bacchus and Dionysius vineyards. Sestina is always a powerful wine and 2019 is no exception. Gorgeous flavours of black currant, black cherry, blueberry and other dark fruits take turns at being the dominant flavour. Secondary notes of forest floor, cigar box, espresso and mint all come together to make this a highly intriguing and complex wine. The body is full and the tannins ripe and polished which give a very satisfying mid palate to this wine. The finish is oh so long and infused with mineral and spice notes. A real triumph.
2018 Avennia Red Willow Cabernet Sauvignon
This is Avennia’s single varietal, single vineyard wine: the purist expression of variety and of place. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon all from Red Willow in Yakima Valley. The wine spends 20 months in French oak, 80% new. Deep and brooding with a solid tannic structure, this wine is all about black fruits with plenty of spice to add complexity. Earthy, and somewhat four square at this point in its development, this wine is made for those who like to age their wine for long periods and taste the development that only time can bring. If you cannot wait (and who could blame you) we suggest decanting at least an hour before serving.
2019 Liminal GSM
From the WeatherEye Vineyard atop Red mountain, this gorgeous Chateauneuf-du-Pape look alike is a shockingly good blend of almost equal parts Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre. As this vineyard ages, these wines can only get better. Lots of body and glycerin, medium tannin and plenty of blackcherry fruit with smaller notes of dried herbs. The fruit is very ripe and quite exuberant at this stage. We always find big, forward, grenache-based wines like this reward being served right out of the cellar, when they are just a touch cool.
Excellent+ (Mailing list only)
2019 Liminal Syrah
Chris chose to co-ferment this with 3% Viognier grown further down the slope. The result is a very sexy, floral, brightly toned but dark fruited Syrah that is chock full of delicious blackberry notes. Hints of violets and cracked pepper join in on the finish to add considerable complexity. Terrific balance between the full body and precise structure. A really elegant Syrah, more gymnast than linebacker, this is just sensational.
Extraordinary (Mailing list only)
Woodinville Tasting Room: Open Daily 11am-5pm
19255 Woodinville-Snohomish Rd. NE, Ste. 1
Woodinville, WA 98072
Red Mountain Tasting Room:
Thursday/Sunday/Monday – 11am-5pm; Friday/Saturday – 11am-6pm
20206 E 583 PR NE
Benton City, WA 99320
*$25 tasting fee per person, waived with minimum $50 purchase. Tastings are complimentary for members.