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William Church Winery - A love story

Monday, December 27, 2010

The story of William Church Winery is a very much love story – both the love of two people and their love of wine. Owners Rod and Leslie Balsley met at Digital Equipment Corporation. They subsequently worked for various technology companies, including Hewlett Packard and Microsoft, before they became tired of the rat race and decided to follow their love of wine. “We looked at it as an enjoyable way to make a little bit of money,” Leslie Balsley says.

The couple’s fascination with wine began on their honeymoon in Italy. There they saw how imbedded wine was in the culture. They decided they wanted to make wine part of their lives.

Following the trip the Balsley’s moved next door to a man who had been making home wine for twenty years. The second year at the house, Rod helped his neighbor crush grapes. Rod said to him, “I know now why you asked me to come over a help!” It was not easy work. However, Rod was hooked.

The next year Rod Balsley split a half-ton of grapes with his neighbor and started making wine at home. After several years of homemaking, the couple decided to start a winery. Rod Balsley says, “When you have two kids and their growing up, you run out of space in your garage real quick.”

In deciding where to start their business, the couple looked at different areas in Walla Walla and Prosser. This was 2004 and Walla Walla had about 65 wineries. Leslie Balsley recalls thinking, “We’re going to be small fish in a big pond.” When they looked in Woodinville, however, she says, “We recognized immediately that there was tremendous potential here.”

Starting out, the Balsleys knew they would need help making the wine. From the beginning, they intended to take over winemaking in the short term. However, they were looking for assistance learning more about the process at a commercial level and making contracts in the industry. They interviewed four winemakers. Rod Balsley says that one of rules was, “We don’t want you to make your wine. It needs to be distinctive. It needs to be our wine.”

They ended up selecting winemaker Matthew Loso, then of Matthews Cellars. William Church Winery was founded by Rod and Leslie Balsley in 2005. The winery is named after Rod’s father William and the middle name of Leslie’s father, Church. Rod Balsley assumed winemaking responsibilities in 2008. Marcus Rafanelli, a graduate of the Walla Walla Community College School of Viticulture and Enology, joined as assistant winemaker that same year.

William Church is located in Woodinville’s Warehouse District. This area has grown dramatically in the last several years. In 2005, when William Church opened, there were seven wineries and tasting rooms located nearby. There are currently twenty-six.

Being in the Warehouse District has its advantages and its disadvantages. The Balsleys had originally hoped to tap into Seattle’s bustling tourist industry. They found, however, that it was somewhat difficult to do. It’s burdensome for people to take wine on a plane. People taking cruises are limited in the amount of wine they can take with them. Travelers from Canada face exorbitant taxes on wines they bring back.

The location of the Warehouse District is also fairly out of the way. Leslie Balsley says, “You gotta kind of want to get here. There’s nothing telling you off the freeway that there are any wineries here.” Indeed, there is very little signage for any of the wineries outside of the numerous sandwich boards that line the roads on weekends.

Despite all this, the Warehouse District is a bustle of activity. “It’s been certainly different than what we expected. But it’s still been a lot of fun,” Leslie Balsley says. The couple has considered opening a formal tasting room separate from their production facility. However, they’ve enjoyed educating consumers about winemaking and visitors love seeing the production process.

Talking about the changes over the five years they have been there, Leslie Balsley says, “It’s much more competitive. You have to be on your toes. Step one, you have to make really good wine.”

William Church produces Malbec, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. They also make a Syrah/Cabernet blend (2 Spires); the Bishop’s Blend as a value wine; and Sur La Mer which is named after the town in France where Leslie was born. The Viognier and Malbec in particular have become signature wines for the winery.

Both the Viognier and the Malbec started out almost by accident. The Balsley’s were interested initially in using the grapes for blending. However, Leslie Balsley says,“We had Viognier at a Thai restaurant and we thought, ‘Oh my God this is really good!’”

Practical matters had a consideration as well. Rod Balsley says, “So I got three tons of Viognier to co-ferment with my Syrah and I thought, wait a minute, I can’t put 3 tons and let it be 2% of my Syrah. I’m going to have a million gallons of it!” Balsley decided to make and bottle the Viognier as a varietally labeled wine and see how it went. The results were beyond expectations. “It came out really, really well,” Balsley says. Consumers agreed with the wine selling out quickly upon release.

While Viognier and Malbec have helped make a name for William Church Winery, Rod Balsley says that working with these grapes is somewhat nerve wracking. He says of Viognier, “It grows like a red and you have to pick it like a red…I worry about this grape and the Malbec the most. It’s so important when the grapes come off.”

Of the couple's experience with the winery over the past five years, Rod Balsley says, “All in all, it’s a lot of fun. You have to be a creative person to be a winemaker. It takes drive and passion. There’s got to be some creative juices in you to try to do this. We have that.”

William Church makes 1,500 cases annually.

William Church Viognier Columbia Valley 2009 $21

Rating: * (Excellent) An aromatic wine with floral notes, peaches, and melon. Full and round on the palate with abundant fruit but beautiful balance. Lingers on the finish. Beautifully done. Conner Lee Vineyard. 14.3% alcohol. 240 cases produced.

William Church Malbec Columbia Valley 2008 $30

Rating: +/* (Excellent) Dark in color. Very varietal with abundant black pepper, chocolate, and plum. Tart with abundant spice flavors on a well balanced palate. Gamache Vineyards. 14.5% alcohol. 180 Cases produced.

William Church Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2007 $29

Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) Blackberry, herbal notes, spice, and a touch of licorice on an appealing, very varietal aroma profile. On the taste, a big, rich full-bodied wine with a big lick of tannins. 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot. Portion of proceeds donated to the Scripps Research Institute. 250 cases produced.

William Church Syrah Yakima Valley 2007 $23

Rating: + (Good) Blackberries, spice and light floral notes on a moderately aromatic nose. On the taste, the wine shows abundant fruit and barrel flavors along with slightly drying tannins. 89% Syrah co-fermented with Viognier and 11% Malbec. Dineen Vineyard. 211 cases produced.

William Church Syrah Columbia Valley 2008 $25

Rating: + (Good) Blackberry, dark chocolate, crushed stone, orange peel, and a whiff of pepper with an aroma profile markedly different than the 2007 offering. The palate shows a good deal more weight and intensity than the 2007 with pleasingly rich fruit. Best Syrah from this winery yet. 100% Syrah. Dineen Family, Red Willow, and Stillwater Creek vineyards. 196 cases produced.

William Church 2 Spires Red Wine Columbia Valley 2007 $28

Rating: + (Good) Earthy with black fruit and a touch of dark chocolate on a pleasing nose. Big and grippy on the palate with a slightly sour finish. 62% Stillwater Creek Syrah, 38% Conner Lee and Dineen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

William Church Sur La Mer Columbia Valley $28

Rating: + (Good) An appealing nose with abundant blackberry fruit. On the palate, a rich wine that boasts a lot of fruit with an acidic blast at the finish. 40% Cabernet, 20% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Malbec, 10% Petit Verdot. 250 cases produced.

William Church Bishop’s Blend Red Wine Columbia Valley 2008 $20

Rating: . (Decent) A touch of black pepper, blueberries and spice. Ramps up and then back down on a palate that boasts a lot of acid. 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Malbec, 11% Syrah, 9% Merlot, and 3% Cab Franc. 750 cases produced.

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