A Visit to Syncline
Each year, with the exception of 2020, we typically take a 1 to 2 week trip to wine countries. Yes, plural. These are road trips and often involve multiple states. In the summer of 2019, this was the case.
We traveled north through Nevada and into Southern Oregon through the Willamette Valley and the Columbia Gorge, to the Yakima Valley and Walla Walla. Oh, and then back again.
During this trip, we visited Syncline on the Columbia Gorge. We’ve posted a little from our visit in “The Scenic Route – Flash Tour 2019 Part 3 – Columbia Gorge to the Yakima Valley” as well as a bit on their wines each year with our 12 Days of wine: “Syncline Subduction Red – Day 3 of the 12 Days of Wine 2020” and “12 Days of Wine Day 12 – Syncline” (back in 2019).
Our morning at Syncline was full and while we’ve shared bits and pieces with you, we wanted to share more of our interview with James Mantone, the owner/winemaker at Syncline.
He has a breadth of knowledge of this region that is detailed and eloquent and is best heard from his lips, so we will share with you some of our interview today.
Syncline Winery is located in the Columbia Gorge AVA which straddles the Washington Oregon State line. Syncline sits on the Washington side of the Gorge. The Steep Creek Ranch Vineyard is their estate vineyard, planted to Gamay, Furmint, Mondeuse, Syrah, Viognier, and Grüner Veltliner.
The name “Syncline” comes from their view of the Coyote Wall Syncline; 300-foot cliffs coming straight up from the Columbia River.
James and his wife Poppie made their first vintage in 1999. In addition to fruit from their estate vineyard, they source from many vineyards across Washington, but Rhône varieties are their focus.
You don’t just find their wines anywhere. Their production stays at around 4000 cases annually. These are special wines.
Columbia Gorge Soils and the soils of Steep Creek Ranch
When we hear about the soils in Washington and Oregon often we hear about the Missoula Floods (Link to Rudy). In addition to Missoula flood soil, you find a series of cobbly sandy soil for 3 to 6 feet then gravel with no organic matter for the next 90 feet. You find Mount Mazama ash deposits. Pure volcanic ash from the eruptions from the Crater Lake Caldera south of them in Oregon as well as outwash soils.
Thinking of all these soils I’m picturing one of those “this is your life” videos for the Gorge. Flood followed by eruption, followed by winds, rain, and more flooding, cliff walls crumbling, rivers washing soils away and bringing new soils in. It puts our tiny bit of time on this planet in perspective.
The Columbia Gorge AVA
James speaks of the “tortured topography” of the gorge. The Steep Creek Ranch Vineyard sits in that section of the Gorge where it is transitioning from the cool marine influence vineyards of the West to the continental and high desert climate of the east. Rainfall decreases by about an inch per mile as you drive west to east.
Diurnal shifts can be dramatic. In the summer days can be 95 degrees with nights in the low 50s. They are protected here from winter kill by their position in the west and the river.
Here at Steep Creek Ranch, they get about 14 inches of precipitation annually. Just 15 minutes away the rain is 56 inches annually and the fruiting wires get buried under snow all winter.
The marine climate to the west and the hot desert to the east fuel strong summer winds. Plus they have a sub-alpine effect from the canyons on each side of the gorge which drives cold air in the morning and evening.
James calls it “one of the most tortured and broken up AVAs out there”.
“There is no simple way to define the Gorge”
The unifying factor he says is the wind.
Biodynamics and sustainable farming
James and his family use biodynamic practices with their vineyard. But he is not dogmatic in his winemaking. He sources from vineyards and believes the vineyard owner, who is there day and night, all through the year, is the person best suited to decide the methods used in the vineyard.
“Wine is really a mysterious beverage, and one of the things that I pursue in wine is, I want wine to have energy and vitality. And that is more than just intensity and concentration. I want wine to be vibrant and electric. For me, living soils and healthy vines are the best way to do that.”
He and Poppie have been involved in biodynamics for over 20 years. They do it for themselves, their family, their work environment.
“If you look it’s only been in the last few hundred years that we’ve detached spirituality from farming. Food and beverage should do more than just provide fats, carbs, and protein.”
Large Format vessels for fermentation and aging
In the winery, they lean toward large-format vessels for aging. While we were visiting they had two large upright wood fermenters they were working on, sanding down on the inside. They also have 4 concrete tanks. James likes wood for the oxygen exchange and stabilization it brings.
The larger formats have a larger thermal mass, so temperatures change more slowly. He finds the wines aged in concrete to be less round, and leaner and walk the unique line of savory notes from reduction and bright fruit notes.
“You walk this line of 2 things that shouldn’t exist at the same time, and that’s a little bit of reduction, so some savory earthy flavors and also really bright fruit. So two things that usually contradict each other, that you never see together, but in concrete we see it.”
They like the better mouthfeel that they get this way, gaining texture. The format also allows them to take these bigger wines and craft elegance and lightness into them.
Sustaining the property of Steep Ranch Vineyard and building sustainably
We continued speaking with James, he told us of the old oaks one that might be 500 years old on the property. These are Oregon White Oaks. When they built the winery they carefully situated it so that they only had to remove one oak. This 8-inch oak was likely 120 years old.
“It’s a lot of hubris to take out a 200-year-old tree.”
Much of the wood you see in the winery is beetle kill wood. It has been made into stunning raw edge tables and bars. The posts on the patio are juniper posts that were salvaged from Eastern Washington. Fire suppression policies mean that junipers don’t periodically burn and as a result, they become more fragile. They suck up the water and grow much taller than normal. When they do burn, they burn very hot and scorch and sterilize the soil around them.
Juniper is also rot-resistant, so these posts are 50-year posts.
The landscaping here is stunning, a garden filled with Western US plants that were selected for xeriscaping to save water. The garden is magical with small and larger seating areas scattered about.
Into the vineyard
We take the shorter steep route to the upper vineyard. You can feel the temperature change as you climb. It is warmer on the slope, cooling from the wind as you reach the top the difference is typically 6-8 degrees.
We pass the baby furmint, which was the first planting in Washington in the spring of 2019. It is planted on the deepest volcanic ash. It is also the only part of the vineyard that might possibly get botrytis, although that is something they have yet to see.
They have also planted the first Mondeuse in Washington. These vines are vigorous with huge long clusters. There is also Gamay, which is not nearly as vigorous and has more compact clusters.
We continue climbing toward the top of the vineyard where they have Syrah planted.
James points out the curves in the rows in the vineyard. This land had never been farmed before. Instead of ripping and amending the soils, they dug 300 holes, filled them with water, timed the drain, and then planted accordingly. The blocks follow the soil, not straight rows.
The view of the “Tortured landscape” of the Gorge
We turn at last to take in the stunning view, listening to the hawks in the background. The gorge majestically lays before us. It’s a dramatic view where you can see the Coyote Wall Syncline, Catherine Creek, the town of Mosier, and the Mosier Syncline. You can see the stratification on the Mosier Syncline from here.
He points out gravel bars from the floods and the layer cake of basalt above the crest of the top flood. He points out buttes that are the toe ends of lava flows, one from Central Oregon another from Goldendale. The Columbia river moved all this, the river predates the landscape here.
“One of the things that’s really cool about this area is that you don’t have contiguous vineyards, and so you have vineyards tucked into these wild areas. The wine should reflect this little bit of wildness. It’s a landscape of abrupt edges and wind. The wines should be a little uncomfortable a little energetic.”
He points out the beginning of the constriction in the Gorge. The soils on one side are fine-grained high water-holding soils from the ponding that occurred. These are great for wheat but too vigorous for grapes. On the other side, you have large rocks and gravel of varying size depending on the velocity of the flood at that point.
But soil is just one of the factors that make the various parcels of land in this area so diverse. The river turns a little north right here and the Mosier Valley runs east-west. When thunderstorms bump the syncline they go up the Mosier Valley, while here they stay dry.
James says they are just beginning to see what these different areas bring to the grape. They measure in miles, as opposed to the Mosel, where they have been growing for so long, they can tell you block by block what the climate and soil are like and how they affect the grapes.
The next planting of 500 vines will be all head-trained. They don’t rip the soils, something I am grateful to hear as I learn more about Regenerative Agriculture. They don’t worry if there is a missing vine here and there. It’s tougher for netting when the birds move in since they are on the eastern flyway, but he feels it’s worth it.
As we head back down he points out native vegetation. We smell biscuit root, which smells like celery. They want to leave the native plants intact here. They don’t bring in animals. The animals would select for grasses, rather than the diversity of plant life that they want.
Into the winery
We head into the winery. There are the two large wooden fermenters outside that they are sanding down, plus more inside. They have 1 concrete egg that holds 33 hectoliters and 3 concrete cubes that hold 41 hectoliters each.
The walls in the winery are 85% post-consumer Styrofoam and concrete. The floor has radiant heat. The concrete tanks take on the temperature of the floor. So they can turn the radiant floors to 70 degrees and kick off the fermenters without having to heat the room.
They like the large format. They are also using cigars (320 liter) and puncheons (500 liter). With wood, they want a super long very light toast. While most barrels are toasted in 25 to 40 minutes, their barrels toast over 2 hours to a barely blond color.
In addition, they use Acacia puncheons. He is careful with this word as it can be aggressive in its first vintage, turning the wine yellow from the extraction of the wood. This wood gives notes of yellow flowers as opposed to the spice notes from oak. With a looser grain in this less dense wood, you get more oxygen. James likes the way it rounds out the palate and doesn’t mind the floweriness.
Tasting with James
James uses Acacia for his Grüner Veltliner from Bloxom Vineyard, just east of the city of Yakima. As we taste this wine, he fills me in on a detail I was unaware of, Grüner is traditionally barrelled in Acacia!
After tasting the Grüner, we move to a Picpoul from Boushey Vineyard in the Central Yakima Valley. This is a racy wine made in Stainless Steel to preserve that sharpness. It concrete it would broaden the palate and he believes Picpoul should be focused.
We taste their first harvest of estate Gamay. This was a tiny 3rd leaf harvest and it was barrelled as they did not have enough to fill a concrete cube. The destemmed this first vintage to see how it would do. The 2018, which they had just bottled they determined they would go 75% whole cluster, which is semi-carbonic, so it is a completely different animal.
James finds that Gamay fits the landscape, while they are still exploring what this grape can be here. He thinks the Gorge might be like Friuli or Alsace or the Canary Islands
“Your white wines are serious wines and the red wines are what you drink while you wait for your white wines to come around.”
We taste his Syrah from Boushey. This is blue Washington fruit from the original Syrah planting at Boushey from one little hillside. His estate syrah, he tells me, is radically different. It’s like the difference between the Northern and Southern Rhône. While the Boushey Syrah is blue and plush the Estate Syrah is delicate.
We discuss the difference between warm and cool climates and he adds to that, differences between sunny and cloudy climates and then also the topography and how that shapes a wine’s flavor.
“I often think wine tastes as a landscape looks. I have a little synesthesia so when I taste wine I see colors and shapes… wines from vertical places should have some elbows and should have some angles to them. In round places, wines tend to be more plush and lush. Flat hot places wines tend to be that way, they are more straight forward.”
A final surprise – Bubbles
He has one more crazy thing for us before we leave and asks us to join him outside. He brings out a bottle of Sparkling Grüner Veltliner from the Gorge. These grapes come from the Underwood Vineyard which he believes might be one of the best vineyards for sparkling wine grapes in the country. This is the 2017 and they are currently riddling it (there were riddling racks inside).
It is all elbows and sharp. James is a sparkling wine fan. You can see it in the joy he has opening this wine. This was a project that they started in 2014 from a shady section of Grüner at Underwood. They made it for the crew and liked it so much that they adjusted the farming method to focus on sparkling wine from here.
These bubbles made for a joyous end to our tasting and we headed off for our next stop with Seth Kitzke in Candy Mountain. We stopped again on our return trip to pick up a few bottles of wine when the tasting room was open.
How can you taste the wines of Syncline?
With the pandemic, Syncline is open only for outdoor tastings with reservations from Friday to Sunday from 12-5. They do have take-out sales available without pre-order during those hours also. You can also order online.
The are located west of Lyle at 111 Balch Road, Lyle Washington 98635
You can reach them by phone or email also: 509.365.4361 [email protected]
Sources and Resources
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.