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The story of Proper Wines – a new winery in the Walla Walla Valley - is one of the continuing evolution of the Washington wine industry as more and more people from outside the area take an interest in what’s going inside of the state.
Our story begins in 2005 in Colorado Springs when two 20-somethings, David Houle and Conor McCluskey, spent each of their Wednesday nights in the same fashion – eating take out Chinese food and brainstorming ideas for small businesses.
“This was back before we started having kids so we had some extra money and some extra time,” Houle says with a chuckle.
They came up with two ideas they thought had merit. The first was an e-mail marketing company that McCluskey subsequently started. The second was purchasing a piece of property in Walla Walla Valley and planting a vineyard. “Our intent was just to invest in a piece of land and make some money doing it,” Houle says.
Walla Walla Valley had become interesting to Houle and McCluskey after wine touring in the area with friends and talking with some of the founders of Waters Winery, who also had Colorado Springs roots. They were particularly interested in purchasing a piece of land in the Rocks region of the valley.
“We saw the potential in the Rocks with what Cayuse is doing. We love, love, love Cayuse’s wines,” Houle says.
In 2006, the duo came across what seemed like a perfect site – an eight-acre cherry orchard in the Rocks just north of Seven Hills. They purchased the site and also expanded their group of investors to include fellow Colorado Springs friends Kevin Dibble, Billy Adams, and David Kunstle. They contracted with Frank Jimenez, then working at Seven Hills, now with his own company Bella Fortuna Vineyard Services, to plant four acres of Syrah in 2007.
In 2009 the group received their first crop off the vineyard, selling most of the fruit but keeping a ton back to make a little wine. And then a funny thing happened. What was going to be an investment suddenly turned into a passion project.
“We loved the 2009 wine,” Houle says. “We decided, hey let’s go all in on this and make the best dang Syrah we can make off of that vineyard.”
To make their wine, the group hired Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars. They had met Boyd during their visits to Waters Winery when he was working as an assistant there.
“He’s probably our favorite person in the valley,” Houle says. “We love his wines, love the fact that he’s a purist. Stylistically what we’re looking for is very minimalistic winemaking. We wanted a winemaker who is going to just let the vineyard speak for itself which is why we’re working with Sean.”
They decided to name the winery Proper Wines. “When something is done proper, it pays homage to its roots and its done in a style where it was originally done,” Houle explains. “We want to make terroir driven, single vineyard, single wine syrah that pays homage to how they do it in the Rhone valley.”
Proper Wines produced approximately 450 cases of its 2010 Syrah with Boyd making the wine at Artifex, a custom crush facility in Walla Walla. Houle says he doesn’t envision the winery growing much larger, although two and a half additional acres at the vineyard are plantable.
The inaugural release from Proper Wines is an attention getter and is easily one of the best wines I’ve had from a new winery this year. It starts with what’s outside the bottle and ends with what’s in it. The label is unique - less than a third the size of a standard label - with Proper written horizontally. A picture of a stone takes the place of the ‘O’ in Proper.
The wine itself is unmistakably from the Rocks from first sniff to last sip with earth, ash, orange peel, funk, and mineral notes. It comes in at a cool 13.7% alcohol and saw limited amounts of new oak. Considering the age of the vines and the challenge of the vintage, the quality is remarkably high. With wineries that have recently planted in the Rocks offering wines at upwards of twice the price, this wine is a steal at $36.
Houle, whose day job is running a wealth management firm in Colorado Springs, says he’s enjoyed getting involved in the wine industry. “For me, it’s been a big learning experience. We’re lucky enough to partner with Sean and Frank, so we can just have fun and learn along the way.”
The real fun, Houle says, will be seeing how the site evolves. “We want to showcase the evolution of the terroir on that particular estate property and see what happens over the next ten, twenty, thirty years.” It should be fun to watch.
Proper Wines makes 500 cases of wine annually.
Proper Wines Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2010 $36
(Excellent/Exceptional) An aromatically complex wine that pops with an almost endless list of aromas including orange peel, earth, olive brine, smoked meat, earthy funk, ash and chocolate. This is a wine you can just sit and smell with total satisfaction. The palate is restrained and understated but perfumed with orange peel, earth, and savory flavors leading to an extended, peppery, savory finish. Brings a real sense of the freshness of the 2010 vintage and a distinct sense of place. Among the more exciting wineries to enter the stage this year and a complete steal at this price. 100% Syrah. Aged 16 months in 20% new French oak. 13.7% alcohol. Approximately 450 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Please note, my rating system was revised at the beginning of 2012 as follows. Read additional details here.
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