Twenty years ago, Doug Rowell was settling into a comfortable career in forestry management when the infamous ‘Spotted Owl Incident’ butted in, putting a virtual halt to logging in Washington state, forcing Doug to do some serious soul—as well as job—searching.
Luckily for us, he wound up as a winemaker.
Here in Michigan, we don’t have such tree hugging traditions, possibly because if you hugged one of our billion or so jack pines, you’d end up singing for the Detroit Tabernacle Boy’s Choir. Nor do we have spotted owls, though if we did, we’d use them as an ingredient in pasties. That’s just how it is. Look at the Asian carp, a perfectly cool, Darwin-approved species on which we are spending untold dollars from a non-existent budget to eliminate from our silly little lakes, which are way too cold to swim in anyway.
Among the more creative solutions to our carp ‘problem’ have been importing pelicans to eat them, using strobe lights and electric fences to scare them away and using rotenone to soundly piss them off.
Of course, wouldn’t you know that the EPA refused to consider my solution: telling Taiwanese men that Asian carp increase sexual prowess, then passing out fishing tackle.
But Back to Doug…
So, Doug Rowell may have initially missed his career boat, but he was clever enough to marry well. Sandy Andrews, a pretty young wine grape heiress, took pity on the unemployed silviculturist, said ‘I do’ and did. OK, so that’s an exaggeration. Actually, Doug went to work for Sandy’s folks, Louise and Bob Andrews, renowned grape growers from southeast Washington whose grapes are purchased by the most prestigious winemakers in the Columbia Valley.
The couple met, fell in love, signed partnership papers along with the marriage certificate and opened McKinley Springs Winery in 2002.
“I had no experience in winemaking at the time,” says Doug, a fireplug of a fellow so Irish-looking that if he wasn’t selling wine, he could be selling Lucky Charms. “Sandy’s family were grape sellers, not vintners. Around that time, we were fortunate to meet James and Poppie Mantone, owners of a boutique winery called Syncline. They needed grapes and I needed an education, so it worked out perfectly—I still borrow James’ considerable talents as a consultant. We barter and bargain, and after all these years, not a nickel has yet exchanged hands…”
Now, here’s a grape with a resume as spotty as a strix occidentalis tailfeather—and more career up-and-downs than Doug Rowell. Putting the verve in Vouvray and the clean in Steen, it’s also a grape on which we can blame most of California’s Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. A lot of Columbia Valley growers simply tore out their chenin blocks in favor of trendier varietals (riesling, the other Washington workhorse varietal, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years) but Doug chose a different route.
If life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, then add a boatload of alcohol, right? With careful vineyard management, yield reductions and all sorts of vintner gobbledygook like shoot length indicators and water monitoring sites, he’s managed to turn the insipid into the inspirational, the blah into the rah rah rah. When meticulous technique combines with thirty-year-old vines and sur lees aging, the resulting chenin displays a luscious, musky cantaloupe profile with peach, mango and pineapple rounding out an unstoppably tropical cornucopia.
Doug’s personal tasting notes add ‘fresh rain’ to the flavor mix, a descriptor which I get—but as opposed to what, Doug? The stuff sitting in the gutters I’m too lazy to clean? When rain’s not fresh, it’s called water.
Because Doug is, by nature, never quite satisfied, never precisely there. That’s a hallmark of any great American winemaker. So he took some viognier, which an anonymous winery asked him to plant back in 1995, blended it with chenin, and came up with ‘Confluence’, adding honeysuckle, lavender and an elusive spiciness to the chenin’s incendiary fruit.
Meanwhile, having challenged and taken to the mat the pet varietals of both the Loire and Northern Rhone, Doug turned his attention to Piedmont. Pulling barbera from among his two thousand vinous acres (more than some AVA’s have in total) he removes the skins after a short maceration and produces a cranberry/strawberry tinged barbera rosé.
In Detroit we have our own version of barbera rosé—Barbara Rose Collins, one of the scariest people on the planet.
There are some similarities between the two, however. Both are acidic, in-your-face assertive, without a trace of residual sweetness. However, where McKinley Springs’ version is delicious and shows varietal integrity, Detroit’s version shows no integrity and is an embarrassment to the human species.
Horse Heaven Hills
The above wines all wear the stamp of Horse Heaven Hills AVA, one of the newer Columbia Valley sub-appellations. That’s what I mean about environmentally sensitive Washington. They have places called Horse Heaven; we have places called Bad Axe and Cement City.
The wines mentioned are only four of a sizeable portfolio of McKinley Springs selections; I’ve just isolated a few that are ideal for the season—light, lyrical wines for sipping outdoors on the deck before winter hits, to celebrate the changing seasons and the fact that Barbara Rose Collins is not standing for re-election.
Any of these wines, incidentally, would be spectacular served alongside barbecued spotted owl or grilled Asian carp.