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Wednesday, January 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser / Paul Gregutt

Small is beautiful at Ballard winery

Watch out Walla Walla! Move over Red Mountain!

Washington state's newest, most exciting wine destination may be — are you sitting down? — Ballard! Granted, Ballard has a ways to go before it catches fire. In fact, the entire 2004 vintage from the not-quite-yet-proposed Ballard AVA is sitting in a recycled beer bottle in Matt Gubitosa's cellar. It's the 2004 Estate Grown Pinot Noir from Animale, Gubitosa's mini-micro boutique winery.

Animale, which released its first commercial wines in 2003, is what the French call a garagiste (limited-production) operation. Gubitosa, a geologist by trade (he works for the Environmental Protection Agency in database management), has converted the basement of his Ballard home into a snazzy winery, laboratory and barrel room

Animale is one of many dozens of such hobbyist wineries in this state. There are so many, in fact, that it's almost impossible to get an accurate count. Jane Baxter Lynn, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, estimates there are "at least 320" wineries in Washington, all but a handful making fewer than 2,000 cases annually. The problem, she explains, is that the number of bonded licenses issued by the state does not necessarily equal the number of wineries, as some wineries might hold several different licenses.

Gubitosa, 45, bonded Animale after a decade of amateur winemaking and a stint at Columbia Winery, where he apprenticed with winemaker David Lake. I first tasted Animale's debut (2001) syrah two years ago, and praised it for its powerhouse fruit and peppery spice. The newest releases, from 2002, have pushed the winery's annual production from 143 cases in 2001 up to a whopping 170 cases. But despite its size, everything about Animale, from its immaculate laboratory to its gleaming stainless-steel fermentation tanks to its neatly stacked French oak barrels, is thoroughly professional.

"I've got everything a big winery has, only smaller," Gubitosa confirms as we sample new, unbottled wines from 2003 and 2004. The '04 Estate pinot, currently in a large beer bottle, will soon be racked and downsized to a half-size wine bottle. Animale's 5-year-old estate vineyard, a converted rose garden, is looking a bit scraggly at the moment, but you have to admire the effort. There's also a bit of Müller-Thurgau, but that didn't fare as well as the pinot. The entire 2004 crush would barely fill a small glass.

Not a problem, because grapes for Animale's syrah, merlot, cab franc and zinfandel come from excellent Yakima Valley and Columbia Valley sites that Gubitosa has scouted and worked with since his amateur winemaking days.

His love of wine dates from his Brooklyn childhood, when it was a regular feature of mealtime. In the late 1980s he became infatuated with zins and petite syrahs from Ridge, especially the Lytton Springs bottlings, but found himself increasingly disenchanted with the excessive oakiness in many California wines.

"About then," he explains, "I discovered Washington syrah. I think it grows better here than any place in the world. It's got fruit up front, nice body, good color and plenty of tannins. Most grapes come up short in at least one category, but syrah is a complete wine all by itself."

His 2002 Animale Syrah ($24) is the star of the lineup, stylish and ripe but not over the top. Nor is it blasted with new oak.

"When I taste wine," he grumbles, "I don't want to feel like I'm chewing on a baseball bat." The syrah grapes come from the McIntire vineyard near Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley. The excellent 2002 Animale Merlot ($20) is from another Yakima Valley site, the Crawford vineyard outside Prosser.

Both of these wines express some of the best, most varietal and terroir-specific Yakima Valley fruit I have tasted. Gubitosa believes the Yakima Valley is underrated as a wine region, and I agree. If more vineyards reduced watering, cut crop loads and ripened to these levels, and more winemakers laid off the excessive use of new oak, then more Yakima Valley wines would rise to these levels.

Animale wines are made according to a philosophy of minimal intervention. That means no fining and no filtration, along with the limited use of new oak. The 2003 syrah will be blended from separate but equal lots resting half in 30-gallon barrels and half in an 80-gallon stainless-steel tank. Tasted separately, they were good but quite different. The stainless syrah was young, sharp, tart and a bit raw; the oak-aged wine was softer, slightly tawny and quite tannic. Mixed together, they were both remarkably improved. That's good winemaking.

Animale is named for Gubitosa's "very pampered" cat, whose yawning face is pictured on the label. The original Animale died at age 17 shortly before her namesake wine was released, but Animale II (actually named Bunny) now rules the winemaking roost.

Gubitosa, who also serves as the sales-and-marketing staff, has little time for self-promotion, so Animale wines are not widely distributed. They are well worth searching out — beautifully made, reasonably priced, and just a bit quirky, styled to fit the winemaker's own very precise palate. "I have the luxury of targeting the fanatics," he explains. "I have to make wines that I like. That way, if nobody buys them, I can drink them myself."

New releases from Animale

Look for Animale at select Western Washington wine shops and a handful of Larry's Markets. Animale wines also may be ordered directly from the winery (call 206-782-8047 or e-mail animale@animalewine.com).

2002 Syrah, $24. Exceptionally dense and rich, with a gorgeous blue-purple rim and sweet, plummy fruit. Good natural acid, light spice and no excessive use of oak. Retasted 24 hours after opening, it showed elegant hints of bramble, earth and light toast, beautifully structured and long.

2002 Cabernet Franc, $20. From the Alder Ridge vineyard, the blend includes a smattering of malbec. It's a stiff, tart, chewy wine that will need a bit of airing, but in its structure and steely elegance it recalls some of the very fine chinons I tasted in France's Loire Valley last September. Coffee, green tea and even iron filings show up in my notes, but the bottom line is this tastes like wine, not wood.

2002 Merlot, $20. The blend also includes 10 percent cab franc and 5 percent malbec; the wine is fragrant, tangy and beautifully nuanced. There is nothing heavy or jammy about it, but it has character and a delicious lightness. This is exactly what Yakima Valley merlot ought to taste like.

2002 Zinfandel, $16. A bit of a kitchen-sink blend, with merlot, malbec and even zinfandel tossed into the mix. Perhaps because the fruit is quite light, the oak shows through more strongly than in the other wines. Not the star of the show, but a fine bottle to drink with something hot off the grill.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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