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The Thief

Allan Crum & Emily Riley
April 5, 2020 | Allan Crum & Emily Riley

itä Wines

We love the east side of Walla Walla. The weather is different, the trees are different, the animals are different (bears and elk and mooses, oh my), and the wines are different too. They marry the sunny power of eastern Washington to a streamlined, frisky structure. Kelsey Itämeri, the owner and winemaker of newly founded itä Wines, draws all of her grapes from cool, high elevation sites on Walla Wall’s east side, leaning into the brisk freshness of vineyards like Les Collines (which appropriately translates to foothills), Breezy Slope, and her family’s farm.

We recently had the opportunity to taste two different bottlings of 2019 Les Collines Semillon from the young winemaker.

“The packaging is smart, sharp, and so is Kelsey. She’s never been one to do things the usual way,” says Sabrina Lueck, Instructor of Enology at the WWCC.

The first was fermented and aged in stainless steel, and it is delicious. You could almost taste the wind in it, with its crisp fruit and taut structure. The second was fermented and aged in neutral oak, a Semillon with a bit more meat on its bones. Maybe it was the current atmosphere of uncertainty, but we really loved the warmth and generosity of this one. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a big or heavy wine. The east side lift is there, like a fresh squeeze of lemon on a home-cooked plate of food. This is comfort wine, pure and simple. Have a second helping.

An interview with Kelsey Itameri:

What other wineries or wine professionals have you drawn inspiration from? What businesses and people outside of the wine industry have inspired you?

Oh man, so many! I love making white wines, something that I first realized while I was working at Balboa Winery with Tom Glase and Tyler Grennan. Then I had the opportunity to work with Ali Mayfield when she was at The Walls Vineyards (she’s now at Wahluke Wine Co.). She’s an amazing winemaker, especially when it comes to white wines and it was great to work with her and pick her brain every day. Virginie Bourgue of Lullaby Wines has also been an incredible mentor - she helped my family prepare and plant a test plot of grapes at our property in the foothills of the Blue Mountains and she’s been an incredibly wise and calming teacher as I went through the throes of trying to manage the test vineyard without knowing anything about plants and then making wine in my garage and kind of messing things up, but also kind of doing things right… It was all over the place, viticulturally and enologically for a bit and she really helped me keep an even keel.

Outside of the wine industry I draw a lot of inspiration from small business owners within my family. My late grandmother, the inmutable Lataine Garrick, was a firecracker! She had four kids and still started several of her own businesses, first making and selling praline candies to the Bon Marché in downtown Seattle, and then founding and operating a successful clothing company for tall women for many years (all of the women - and men- in my family are quite tall). When things are tough I like to remind myself that they were almost certainly tougher for her, and she still got through it. I’m also very inspired by my parents, both of whom have founded and run small businesses throughout my life. They’ve really shown me that you can pave your own way in life.

Why did you choose to focus on east side vineyards? Could you describe the soil and climatic conditions of east side vineyards, comparing and contrasting with other parts of the valley? How do you feel these differences show themselves in the resulting wines?

I chose to focus on vineyards on the eastern side of the Walla Walla Valley because that is where my family’s farm is and eventually, I’d like to grow all of our grapes on that land. I figured that in the meantime, I might as well try to learn as much as possible about what grapes are doing well along that ridgeline and really dig deep into that terroir as much as possible.

Right now I source from Les Collines Vineyard and Breezy Slope Vineyard, both of which have silt loam soil types, as does my family’s property. The elevation of both of these vineyards is higher than most of the rest of the valley, with Les Collines ranging from 1100-ish to 1370 ft above sea level and Breezy Slope is at 1700 ft above sea level. This elevation has a bit of a moderating effect - in the summer it is not as hot at these sites as in the “bowl” of the valley and in the winter it is not as cold.

In terms of how these aspects of the vineyards show themselves in the wines: As a consumer, I like higher acid, lower-alcohol wines, possibly because my hangovers have gotten so much worse since I turned 30… In any case, I think that these sites are very good for producing that style of wine. In addition, the moderation of the climate compared to some other parts of the valley makes it so that some of the more delicate flavors from the grape aren’t as susceptible to being burned off during our crazy heat waves, which really adds depth and complexity to the wine.   The resulting wines all share a lighter-bodied, savory, highly complex and striking character no matter what the varietal, so I avoid over-ripening or manipulating the wine to preserve that.

Could you describe Les Collines vineyard, the blocks that you source from, and what you think are some of that vineyard’s signatures?

I think that Les Collines Vineyard is one of the bangin-est vineyards around, but I am incredibly biased because I buy most of my fruit from them. That said, the management is top-notch - Brad Sorenson and Brooke Robertson really know their stuff and they’re always incredibly patient with me when I ask them a million vineyard questions, both for itä and when I’m thinking about my family’s test plot. Les Collines is known for their Syrah, especially from some of the higher elevation blocks. I got really lucky to be able to scoop up a ton of Syrah from block 46 in 2019, which is pretty high up on the hill. The Syrahs from there are just incredible - savory and intriguing while still retaining a bit of delicacy, especially on the nose. I think I heard someone refer to it as “mountain wine” which to me conjures lovely images of Heidi hiking through the Alps eating tiny mountain strawberries by a brook. I also source Primitivo for our rosé from block 27  lower down on the property, which is very close to the Petit Verdot block 10 fruit I use.  The Merlot is sourced from middle of the hill in block 33, and probably one of the most under-rated fruit sources in Walla Walla - Les Collines Merlot has beautiful aromatics.  One site-specific note is that both of our  Sémillon wines are from Les Collines, one sourced from the top of the hill in block 51, and the other from the bottom of the vineyard in 4a.  I thought the lower-lying fruit would develop a little less quickly due to less sun exposure and ripening potential, but in fact it turned out ripen a earlier and  the lower-lying 4A went into the barrel-fermented sémillon 2 of 2, while the hillside grapes from block 51 went into the leaner, crisper sémillon 1 of 2.

Semillon makes some of the great wines of the world, from Sauternes in Bordeaux to the Hunter Valley of Australia. What drew you to Semillon? Why two of them? What are some of your favorite Semillons from Washington and abroad?

Real deal answer: it was available. Honestly, there’s not that much white wine grown here in Walla Walla, and I had limited myself even further by sourcing only from the eastern foothills. I chose Sémillon because it is a neutral grape, as opposed to the very aromatic wines produced from Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc. I wanted a neutral grape because I wanted to do a side by side production in stainless and neutral oak barrels to show the impact of winemaking on the finished wine.

Well, it’s kind of hard to find Sémillon bottled on its own, but I’ve had some lovely Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc wines from Washington as well as from Bordeaux.  Also, if I could afford it, I would have Sauternes for dessert every day… That said, hands down, my favorite wines are chardonnays from the Côte d’Or in Burgundy or Champagne. It’s always the right time for Champagne.

How do your vinification techniques differ depending on fermentation vessel (oak vs stainless)?

For the sémillons, both were picked on the same day and they had very similar chemistry even though they are from different blocks at Les Collines. The block with slightly higher Brix went into the barrel-fermenting program since the higher alcohol would give that wine a bit more weight. In general, I like to ferment white and rosé wines at a lower temperature, so they all went through a long, cool fermentation to preserve delicate aromatics. Toward the end of primary fermentation, the barrel fermented wines had some battonage (lees stirring)  once to twice weekly to add some more body to the finished wine. The barrel fermented sémillon also had a complete malolactic fermentation, whereas the stainless fermented sémillon and rosé did not. Since the stainless sémillon and rosé had residual malic acid, they were both sterile filtered prior to bottling, whereas the barrel-fermented sémillon is unfiltered.

You recently worked a harvest in Burgundy. Where did you work, and what was the day to day work like? Did you learn any cellar tricks? What were the biggest differences between Burgundian cellar techniques and those that you’ve experienced in Washington? What were the biggest differences between the vineyards? What were some similarities?

I did! I worked at Domaine Jean Charton in Puligny-Montrachet, where they make top notch grand cru and premier cru chardonnays, in addition to some village level whites and two tiny lots of pinot noir. It was an incredible experience and I kind of had to keep pinching myself during the first week or two of work. We started every day at 7:30 in the morning, and if I was in the cellar that meant getting the press and grape elevator ready before the first fruit came in, helping to take brix and temp on fermentations, and maybe going out to sample vineyards that hadn’t been picked yet. At 9:30 AM we took a break for casse-croûte, which is a snack of baguette, cheese or sausage, and wine. It only happens during harvest and it is pure magic. When grapes came in from the vineyard, everyone loads up the press and then I would clean the elevator. When the press cycle was over, I would clean the press pan and get ready for the next press load. When there was juice to get barrelled-down, I would clean barrels and mark them with the lot numbers. Lunch would happen from about 12-1:30 and during harvest everyone eats together and there’s amazing 3 course lunch every day. Then its more loading of the press and cleaning of the press, etc. Afternoons were also when innoculations would happen to start fermentations. There were 2 presses and sometimes we would have 10-12 total pressloads a day… They really had it down! And sometimes I would be in the vineyards picking or scouting for pests or counting missing vines to prep for the next year.

Cellar tricks! I don’t know. They have the coolest tools and I’m sure that trying to describe them with words would make me sound insane. Where I worked they didn’t use barrel racks, just wooden chocks, so I had to learn how to “drive” a barrel by rolling it on its head. It was not pretty at first. Also, I will not work another harvest without casse-croûte - definitely a tradition I’m bringing to itä wines. 

Differences in the cellar - Americans are constantly sanitizing everything, and that was not the case where I worked. But we’re playing different games. In Walla Walla there’s fruit coming in for 2-3 months versus 2-3 weeks in Burgundy. Things would get disgusting over that amount of time if they weren’t being thoroughly cleaned. Additionally, working entirely with white wines with a pH of 3.1-3.3 vs. working with Syrah from the Rocks with a pH of 4 opens you up to a whole different level of microbiological risk. So, different strokes for different folks.

Biggest differences in vineyards was vine spacing, training and height. The vines are planted meter by meter, so if you’re standing between two rows, they’re almost touching you on either side, and they’re not trained very high, so I could just straddle a row and hop the wires if I needed to move to a different row. Also no drip irrigation.

Similarities: This is going to sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but the way that the slope of the Côte d’Or dropped down to a very fertile plain full of wheat production did remind me of the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Also, I had just taken Weed Identification at WWCC and we have so many of the same weeds! I have a whole album of weed pictures I took in Burgundy on my phone. Because I’m a very cool person.

Tell us about your family's vineyard. Where is it? What’s planted? What are the wines like? What are some of the challenges that you have faced? What are your plans for the future of this vineyard?

My family’s vineyard is actually an acre test plot. It is located southeast of the town of Walla Walla in the foothills of the Blue Mountains pretty much smack dab between Les Collines and Breezy Slope. In the test plot we have 10 different varietals of grapes planted: Aligoté, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Additionally, we have 3 varieties of cherries, 2 varieties of apples, nectarines, peaches and raspberries planted.

The wines are crazy! They all have very nice acid and an interesting savory note to them. They’ve all been dry farmed for the past two years, and they have very high YAN, which means that I haven’t needed to add nutrients to the must to finish fermentation.

Challenges have been that I moved here from a big city and knew nothing about plants or fermentation! The first few years were rough, especially when it came to managing powdery mildew. But I went to school and we got a real sprayer for the vineyard and that’s really helped make it so that I don’t cry every time I go there. It’s also been a challenge making the test plot wines in my garage. There’s no drain, the water has chlorine in it so we have these ghetto ass filters you screw on to the hose from Amazon. And we have 10 freaking micro lots of wine… so it’s finicky.

We’d love to plant a commercial scale block or two and start sourcing from there for itä wines!

What is your desert island wine?

Champagne! Grand Cru Burgundy!

How has your business been affected by the virus?

Well, I had this grand plan to get a boatload of interest in itä wines by pouring at Taste Washington, which was scheduled for March 21-22, and then move straight into opening our tasting room the following weekend (March 28-29) when I would work out all of the opening weekend kinks in time for WW Spring Kick Off Weekend the first weekend of April. As you know, Taste Washington and the WW Spring Kick Off Weekend were both cancelled, and in a supreme moment of irony, the order to close tasting rooms was enacted on the same day as my final County Health inspection for the tasting room. I’ve had to pivot to online sales (something I know/knew very little about) and hope that all of the friends and family who have ordered wine actually like it! It’s tough not being able to give folks the chance to try before they buy, especially since itä wines is a completely new winery.

In the latest Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry report, they addressed the contemporary tasting room and club model with this question, which seems particularly salient now during the pandemic: “In an increasingly digital world, what industry would insist that its consumers first physically come to its place of business to buy its wares?” How has your business addressed this tension? Have you changed your practices or sales focus in the face of COVID-19?

Yes, we’ve pivoted to entirely online sales and trying to make sure that our web presence is representative of the brand and that it “feels” as similar as possible to the vibe we were going for in the tasting room. That said, I think people are going to be jonesing for a wine country weekend when this is all over, and the tasting room experience is an integral part of that type of escape.

I know that, before the ban, you were planning to open your tasting room in the incubators. Is the space finished? Has there been any discussion of rent forgiveness or postponement in the face of the crisis?

The space is 99% finished… I’ve left some projects on hold since I know I won’t be able to open for a bit and the focus is now squarely on online sales and marketing. I think there has been some discussion about rent forgiveness, but I’m not sure what the status is there.

What would you like consumers to know about your business during this crisis?

We have wine to sell! And we can ship to most states in the US! We are offering free delivery in the Walla Walla area and $15 ground shipping on orders of 6 or more bottles to help folks stock up while staying home. Right now we are offering our whites and rosé from 2019, our inaugural vintage. In the fall we will release our 2019 Pinot Noir from Breezy Slope and in 2020 our remaining reds - a Syrah and Merlot/Petit Verdot blend from Les Collines Vineyard.

Are you offering delivery? Pickup? Have you changed your shipping policies?

Yes, free delivery of any order in the Walla Walla area and $15 ground shipping on orders of 6 or more bottles.

No one really seems sure how long the pandemic will last, with estimates ranging from weeks to months. Can your business survive a prolonged shutdown?

Ummmmm I sure hope so. I think that there are advantages and disadvantages to being a business that is just starting up. In terms of disadvantages, I don’t have a large customer base or wine club that I’ve built up over the years, and no one has ever heard of me as a winemaker or itä wines as a brand. So that’s an uphill battle - every single customer so far has bought wine blind…  On the other hand, we’ve been really scrappy in terms of making sure our “burn rate” is as low as possible. I’m the only employee at the business, so I don’t have to worry about grappling with laying off other workers. Most of my wines that I’m selling this year are in bottle already, and I won’t have another big round of expenses until the fall during harvest, so maybe we can squeak by. Changing our level of production is always a possibility.


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