Kevin White makes a compelling first impression which is full of interesting dualities. He’s soft-spoken yet his words are deliberate. His intelligence is obvious, but his humility accentuates a quiet confidence rather than arrogance. He leads a double life involved in both technology and wine. He looks more the part of ‘techie’, but his passion as a winemaker is obvious from the start.
As a self-described lifelong learner, when Kevin was bitten with the wine bug he jumped in with both feet. It was Microsoft that brought him out to Seattle, and it was that serendipitous move that set him on the path to winemaking. “When I moved out here, I wasn’t into wine until the mid-2000s, I was drinking cheap wine and beer, whatever a 25-year-old would drink at that point. Then I met my wife-to-be who had been brought up in the area and through her parents was exposed to more European wines. We were out shopping for her dad’s 65th birthday and we bought him a bottle of the Côte Bonneville Dubrul Vineyard. I’d never paid $50 for a bottle of wine but I was in love so I thought ‘why not?’ so we bought one for her dad and one for us. We opened it over dinner and it hit me like a side of bricks on the head…so THAT is what wine is supposed to taste like.”
That epiphany wine led to tasting wines from different regions, which led to taking classes at the local community college, which ultimately led to volunteering at wineries around Woodinville. In the beginning, learning about wine was something so different to what he was doing at Microsoft that he simply enjoyed being challenged in a completely different way. The more he learned about wine and the more people he met in the industry, he soon realized that the world of wine offered much more than he ever expected. “You see that it’s everything from art to culture, agriculture to science, creativity to manufacturing…but then community too. A whole community of folks out in the vineyards and winemakers, and tasters. At that point in my life I was thinking what’s the one thing that I want to do that I can share, so it all came together for me at the same time.”
It was Baer Winery that gave Kevin the opportunity to start with 4 barrels in a corner of their winery. Those 4 barrels turned into 11, which turned into 30, and eventually turned into him getting his own space. In 2015, he moved into the winery’s current space in Woodinville’s warehouse district, right after the 2014 harvest. “I never went down this path thinking this was where we’d end up, but I knew starting out that if we were thoughtful and had a north star, we had a chance.” Today Kevin White Winery is producing about 2,000 cases per year, a number he plans on staying at for the foreseeable future.
Speaking with Kevin, he talks a lot about texture and mouthfeel in wine, so it’s not too surprising that his winemaking inspiration is the Southern Rhône. “After the Dubrul wine experience, we began tasting lots of different wines from different regions, but we kept coming back to Southern Rhône and wines from around the world that have that really dialed in mouthfeel and texture.” The first year the winery produced just one wine, the En Hommage Syrah, and the next two years that wine along with the La Fraternité Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedré blend. By focusing on these two wines, Kevin wanted to showcase the North and South Rhône style that are true to what he loves: wines that provide good acidity, are light on oak, and where the fruit shines. From there he slowly and methodically increased production. “We didn’t make 1,000 cases until our sixth vintage. The idea was always to make wine, make sure we sell it quickly, and see how we go.”
Inside the winery, the first thing you notice are 3 square concrete fermenters along the left wall and 2 concrete eggs in the back with the barrels.
The barrels are all French oak and neutral as the winery is mostly a Rhône house. The difference he notices using the concrete fermenters goes back to the hallmark of texture and mouthfeel which he constantly strives for. “We want fruit and spice and we want delicate, but we really want the mouthfeel and texture because I feel like that’s what separates mediocre wine from really good wine. With the concrete fermenters the juice is getting a little bit of oxygen and a steadier temperature without the big heat spike in the middle of fermentation and the result is a plusher mouthfeel. The two concrete eggs have mostly been used for ageing and that gives the wine a different dynamic; a little more freshness and a little more fruit. With Syrah it seems to preserve the minerality of the grape a little bit more because there’s less oxygen than what you have in barrels.”
About 50% of his red wine production is Grenache. Up until this year, he has produced only red wines but currently has a 100% Roussanne from Olsen Vineyard fermenting in one of the eggs with plans to leave it there until just before next year’s harvest. He chose Roussanne as his first white for the same reason as the reds—his love for the Southern Rhône. “It’s actually rare to get a 100% Roussanne. We just like that medium+ body white wine style. And I love the floral characteristics you get from Roussanne like melon and honeydew. We decided to start with Roussanne and we’ll see how it goes. Eventually we may turn it into a southern style blend, but I didn’t want to do too much with the first one.”
All of the wines Kevin makes are sourced from vineyards in the Yakima Valley and are among Washington’s very best: Boushey, DuBrul, Upland and Olsen. The Valley is known for a delicate, aromatic fruit profile that really shows through in the wine. “The more I work with vineyards in the valley, the more excited I get about them every year. I think there’s still a huge amount of potential there and while we’ve got a lot of great growing regions in Walla Walla and Lake Chelan, I think the valley is different.”
Kevin recognized early on that it’s difficult to start a winery if you want to do it all by yourself. He made the right contacts in terms of local wine merchants and distributors, and that, combined with great wine reviews from his very first vintage has resulted in a loyal following. The physical space is casual, open and accessible reflecting the overall ethos of the winery, meanwhile his prices reflect terrific value as our tasting notes below will attest. For Kevin, having his own winery has always been about sharing what he loves with anyone who’s interested, hoping there are people out there who enjoy it so he can continue making wine. Having met the man behind the wine and tasted his product, we have absolutely no doubt he’ll be making wine for a very long time.
2018 Blue Label
The Blue Label is Kevin’s version of a Cotes du Rhone, a daily drinker that is focused on pleasure. In 2018 the blend is 45% Syrah; 40% Grenache and 15% Mourvèdre. Medium red in colour, we get notes of red cherry and blueberry on a medium frame with nice, back-end acidity. Complexity comes from the spice and mineral notes. Drink this now and over the next 5 years.
Very Good+ (USD$20 at the tasting room)
2018 La Fraternitè
A big step up in quality (and not much in price) is the La Fraternitè. This comes across like a New World version of Chateauneuf du Pape! No great surprise here since he sources fruit from some really top quality vineyards: Boushey, Uplands and Olsen. The blend is 50% Grenache, 41% Mourvèdre and 9% Syrah. This is beautiful wine: round and textured, the wine shows great balance. Black cherry fruit gets support from notes of cracked pepper, spice and earth notes. Already complex, this no doubt will take on more nuance as it develops over the next decade and possibly longer. Delicious!
Excellent+ (USD$30 at the tasting room (this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2017 En Hommage
The only varietal wine in the line-up, this is all Syrah, 75% from Boushey Vineyard and 25% from Olsen Vineyard. Blueberry and blackberry fruit comes across with intensity. Medium body, with round tannins and medium+ acidity, this wine is very much in keeping with the currently on-trend “Somm Style”: wines that emphasize elegance over power. While the reputation of Washington Syrah is more about power, this wine really shows that great fruit can produce great wine in many styles.
Excellent (USD$30 at the tasting room (this is particularly good value for this quality level)
This is Kevin’s version of a Bordeaux blend. All the fruit is sourced from the highly regarded DuBrul Vineyard and this year the blend is 57% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Merlot. The nose is just gorgeous and reaches us well above the glass. Black cherry flavours dominate and gain added complexity from the spice notes and hints of mint. The tannin and body are both medium+ and this should develop nicely for a decade or more. The finish is long and reveals this wines earthy character.
Excellent (USD$40 at the tasting room)
Tastings Saturday & Sunday: 1 – 5 pm
18808 142nd Ave NE, Suite 5A
Woodinville, Washington 98072