Tenor Wines Looks to Hit the Right Notes

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Tenor Wines is one of the more intriguing new wineries to come along in Washington recently.

The winery takes a unique approach in its offerings. While most wineries in Washington and elsewhere focus on making a particular lineup of wines each year – say Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and Chardonnay – Tenor instead has a lineup that varies each year depending on what the vintage gives.

For example, in 2007 Tenor made a Merlot and a Malbec. In 2008, it made a Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. Additionally, while many wineries blend in larger or smaller percentages of other varietals, the Tenor wines are 100% varietal. The intention is to show the true expression of that particular varietal in that particular vintage.

Winemaker Aryn Morell, who also serves as consulting winemaker at Matthews Estate, says his goal with Tenor is not just to showcase particular varietals but also to only offer “world-class” wines. By this he means that the wines compare favorably to the best examples from a particular vintage. The winery even guarantees this to be the case.

In addition to its 100% varietal wines, Tenor also makes a single Bordeaux-style blend. This wine is called 1:1, alternately meaning Chapter 1, verse 1 and symbolizing a “new beginning.” In contrast to the rest of its portfolio, the winery plans to make this Bordeaux-style blend each year.

In terms of approach, Morell says he puts a premium on balance and that his goal with Tenor is, “powerful refinement.” He says, “I want a wine that is powerful but doesn’t come off as a slap in the face.”

While Tenor focuses largely on single varietal wines, Morell believes the sum of these wines is just as important. “My hope is that the wines will be seen more as a collection than individual parts,” he says.

The winery is elusive about its vineyard sources, stating on its website, “For business reasons, we do not disclose the names of our vineyard partners.” Morell believes, however, that focusing in the vineyard is critical. He travels to eastern Washington approximately 30 times a year to work with the winery’s sites.

The Tenor project is nothing if not ambitious – a new winery with price points that compete with some of the state’s best. While this would seem to be a particular challenge given the current state of the economy, Tenor’s initial releases are nothing if not impressive.

As one might expect, Tenor is starting off slowly, making 270 cases in 2007, increasing to 560 in 2008, and 610 in 2009. The 2010 numbers are still being determined. The winery recently opened a tasting room in the Warehouse District of Woodinville.

Tenor Wines Malbec Columbia Valley 2007 $48

Rating: * (Excellent)
Dark to the point of being opaque. Brooding aromatics of plum, high toned pepper, spice, and licorice. On the palate a big, rich, delicious, beautifully polished wine with concentrated fruit flavors and a firm backbone of tannins. A seemingly endless finish. A beautiful mixture of power and finesse with a long life ahead of it. 100% Malbec. Aged 18 months in new French oak. 15.0% alcohol. 38 cases produced.

Tenor Wines Merlot Columbia Valley 2007 $48

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
The aromatics are arrestingly complex with licorice, coffee bean, a jumble of red and black fruit, and high toned oak spices. The palate is big and beautifully rich with a cornucopia of fruit flavors. Rich and opulent while retaining great subtlety. Capped off by a long finish. A shot across the bow of the state’s top Merlots. 100% Merlot. Aged 18 months in new French oak. 15.0% alcohol. 78 cases produced.

Tenor Wines 1:1 Red Wine Columbia Valley 2007 $78

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
A big dollop of licorice, black fruit, pencil shavings, and spice on a complex, detailed aroma profile where the layers keep coming. On the palate, a gigantically big wine with rich black fruit flavors and a big lick of tannins. A beautiful balance of grace and power. Give three years. 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, and 10% Malbec. Aged 21 months in new French oak. 141 cases produced.

Tenor Wines Syrah Columbia Valley 2008 $58

Rating: ** (Exceptional)
Intensely dark in color with purple at the rim. Aromatics pop with olive, mineral, smoke, and black fruit. A textured, rich palate with a compelling mouthfeel an beautifully integrated tannins. Big while never quite being over the top, this wine ramps up and sails on the finish. 100% Syrah. Aged 17 months in 500L French oak barrels. 15.0% alcohol. 108 cases produced.

Tenor Wines Merlot Columbia Valley 2008 $58

Rating: * (Excellent)
Locked up tightly at present with licorice, pencil lead, and high toned red fruit. The palate has generous amounts of fruit while remaining deft on its feet. 100% Merlot. Aged 18 months in new French oak. 165 cases produced.

Tenor Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2008 $78

Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional)
Dark in color. Enticing aromas of pencil box, high toned herbal notes, black cherries, and cranberries. Simultaneously big and refined on the palate with the structure for the long haul. Give two plus years. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 21 months in new French oak. 152 cases produced.

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. I've met Aryn and enjoyed our conversation very much. He has an exceptional grasp of what Washington wines have to offer and I look forward to more Tenor varietals as they are released.

  2. Great breakdown of things at Tenor. Really enjoyed the read. Thanks Sean.

  3. Am I the only one who thinks the statement "For business reasons, we do not discuss the names of our vineyard partners" ridiculous? For business reasons, I'm not going to be paying $78 for a winery's first vintage blend. What arrogance.

  4. that is pretty high on the SNOOT factor. . .why are they afraid to say where the fruit comes from? is it imported from china or something??

  5. Really, a $20 non-refundable with purchase tasting fee in the warehouse district...way out of line.

  6. Dear Tenor - enjoy trying to sell your ridiculously priced wines with no track record. Sean - thanks for the reviews but this is obnoxious. I wouldnt pay those prices for blends from winemakers I trust and who have a long history. These guys need to move to Napa.

  7. See: http://www.paulgregutt.com/2011/06/give-me-money-thats-what-i-want.html

    Funny but Paul Gs post link above sounds an awful lot like, oh I dont know, maybe... TENOR?!?!?!

  8. Thanks for the support, Sean. This is Bryan Otis, one of the owners of Tenor. It was great to meet you and pour you the wines. I hope some of your readers will get a chance at some point to try them... we really love sharing them! I would personally invite them myself, but all the comments are coming in as Anonymous. Maybe I'll just answer some quick questions here.

    1. We don't need to move to Napa... Washington is one of the great wine regions of the world. And we're big UW Football fans.
    2. Our $20 tasting fee at the warehouse is refundable with a purchase of wine.
    3. My family has owned Matthews Estate for a while now, so we have a little bit of track record in the wine business. Enough for 425 Magazine to name Matthews Estate the Winery of the Year last week. Further, Aryn Morell is our winemaker. He spent the 1st part of his wine career in Napa, and was involved with the wine at Joseph Phelps, Quintessa, Hundred Acre, Husic, Hartwell, Chimney Rock, Caldwell Vineyards, Vineyard 29, Chappellet, Rutherford Hill, Spring Mountain Winery, Stags Leap Winery, Turnbull, Elyse... among others. He is a great guy and love to talk about wine. And... we just got him on Twitter (@A_Morell), so you can connect with him there with questions.

    Wow... long post. Anyways, thanks again, Sean! Go Dawgs!

  9. Bryan, very good of you to respond to the concerns. Lots of curious things in your winery profile, beside the pricing. Strangest to me is the lack of naming vineyard partners. Every top vineyard in the state is frequently named in literature and on labels; that adds to the value and standing of the product IMO, since many WA vineyards have a "stamp", certainly the AVA's have a stamp on the Bordeaux and other varietals. I trust Sean's review, but I'll spend my money elsewhere when exploring WA wineries who give proper credit to the growers 200+ miles from Woodinville.

  10. 425 Magazine?!?! Well that changes everything! Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate... And 425 Magazine! Sign me up for an $85.00 blend right now!

  11. Read the article and went to try the wines this week in the tasting room. They are impressive. Nice find Sean!

  12. I went to try the wines and quite frankly they were good just not worth the money they wanted. If they were in the $40-$50 range i probably would have picked one up

  13. Hadn't heard of Tenor until I saw that their Cab and Syrah got rated Double Gold by the Seattle Wine Awards. I stooped in to talk with Eric at the tasting room several weeks ago. Nice guy, really down to earth, and you could tell passionate about the wines. Just a quick glance through the comments, but I didn't get the snob factor at all. Actually, just the opposite. I own or have tried all the Washington cult wines, (if you want to call them that), and I have to say, the Tenor wines are in that breed. Picked up 6 of each, because it was pretty clear they were age worthy, especially the Merlot. Its great to have a new winery in Washington with a vision of trying to do something great. Wasn't surprised to hear that Monsoon, Nell's and Canlis had added them to their wine lists, as well. I am looking forward to seeing if they can keep it up though, given this is only their 2nd release. Apparently, their 2008 1:1 comes out in the Fall, along with a Sauv Blanc.

  14. Hmmm...interesting discussion here on the boards. Hard to know what to think, but I respect Sean's opinion and endorsement. Given that he's rated each of the Tenor wines either Exceptional or Excellent, I think it's worth giving them a try.

  15. I stopped by Tenor after reading all of the above comments. First of all, Eric is very down-to-earth, approachable and knowledgeable. Secondly, Tenor wines are outstanding. My wife and I tasted at 5 other Woodinville wineries and the Tenor line-up was the favorite. These are big, complex, cellar-worthy red wines. The Syrah and 1:1 Bourdeaux blend were our favorites. Before drawing negative conclusions, go taste the wine.

  16. I tried the 2010 Tenor Chardonnay and 2009 Cab Sauv last night at Grand Cru in Bellevue and was impressed. The Chardonnay is done in a style that I wish more in Washington would strive for. A terrific balance with, some oak, some malo, and batonnage, with Stillwater Creek fruit. The result is a great wine with good acidity, nice mouthfeel, terrific fruit with a hint of minerality. Delightful! Oh, and the Cab rocks too!


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