Meet Richard Hood and the Wines of Washington’s Stemilt Creek Winery

richardsmallI was fortunate to meet Richard Hood (GM and winemaker at Stemilt Creek Winery) at the Taste Washington event this past March.  Richard joined Stemilt Creek in April 2016 and is on his third vintage there but he’s hardly new to wine having made wine in various parts of California (including Healdsburg and Fallbrook) over the past 14 years.

So what drew Richard to Washington in the first place?  Stemilt Creek Winery, located in Wenatchee, WA, is a three-hour drive east from Seattle. Owned by Jan and Kyle Mathison (fourth-generation growers), the vineyard produces pristine fruit from Kyle’s relentless dedication to sustainable practices which include homemade, nutrient-rich compost as well as using the lunar calendar for growing guidance.

Favorable growing seasons as well as Stemilt Creek’s focus on medium to full-bodied wines were also a draw as Richard finds red winemaking more “visceral” than white due to the particular nuanced complexities involved. 18 acres are planted with 6 Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 Merlot, 1.5 Syrah, 1.5 Cabernet Franc, and the rest secondary experimental blocks of Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, and various whites.  The vineyards were planted in 2001 on northwest-facing foothills lying at 1600 feet elevation which helps to moderate warm day-time temperatures yet preserve critical acidity thru cool nights.  All Stemilt Creek reds are 100% barrel-aged, estate wines.

Cabernet Franc vines

Cabernet Franc vines

All of this was an allure to Richard in addition to the area’s younger state of maturity which was an exciting chance to try new things.  He has a MS from UC Davis in Food Science with an Enology specialization but despite his technical knowledge, he relies on intuition before analytics in his wine-making. Ultimately his goal is to make a wine with pure flavors, fresh fruit focus, and harmonious balance of weight and texture with the least intervention possible.

Some of Richard’s wine-making techniques at Stemilt Creek include leaving all wines to finish in barrel with minimal processing (racking only 1-2 times before bottling) and aging for one year on lees. Red wines spend 20-28 months in barrel with the goal of oak contributing spice flavors rather than being a dominant profile.

Always up for new ideas and experimentation, Richard is also a strong advocate for demystifying wine and helping it to reach new audiences as a result. The following is an edited interview I did with Richard to better understand his overall approach.

CW: What makes Stemilt special to you?

RH: The family history for which our brand is based on.  The fact that we are one of only several vineyards within the Wenatchee Valley.  We only produce estate wines grown at high elevation, on steep slopes, and from vines planted with close spacing. There is a richness and a unique signature to our wines that is not unlike the French concept of terroir.  More importantly though, the proof is in the happiness of our customers.  We have some of the most loyal and appreciative customers.

CW: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned or tried in winemaking?

RH: There are some things in winemaking that sound farfetched but turn out to hold water, while, still others seem to be more a case of smoke and mirrors. Wine will always be a bit of both. There is truth and there is style. One of the truths is that any time a winemaker goes out on a limb in a tasting he will invariably be proved wrong.  Some confident voice will boom, “This is a Barbera from Piedmont.” Another voice will address his assertion, “No, it’s a Syrah from southern Oregon.” I’ve played the high-tech hand using ultra-filtration to fractionate wine components and make Franken-wines.  I’ve tried many, many things because you don’t have an answer until you try, and because so much of wine is firmly entrenched in seemingly immovable tradition. People continue with the same approach as they’ve never dared question there might be another way.  Changing everything is without a doubt a good way to make terrible wine. But changing 10% is a good way to become a better winemaker.  What separates great wine from good wine is mostly textural.

So, improving the texture of wine, and learning to deliver on texture are key points, but it can be an elusive quest since it involves complex chemistry that is an ever-shifting, multifactorial paradigm. Yes, great wines need to be concentrated and all wines should possess balanced flavors. But texture truly is what we are after. An early experimental foray into texture led me to re-ferment the spent pomace of some alleged ‘Brunello’ clone Sangiovese grapes that had been slated inexplicably for rosé production -the process was like an extreme version of saignée. It actually turned out great. That was the biggest surprise.

Stemilt Creek Winery vines

Stemilt Creek Winery vines

CW: Describe your involvement in the vineyard.

RH: Wine is made in the vineyard, so I am happy to have a high level of oversight. I trained our current viticulturist and collaborate with him on most of things grape growing. It is good because we can guide the nuance of our activities to account for the season as well as the type of wine that we hope to make.  We can also play around with different techniques so that we are hopefully always learning and always getting a little bit better. Perhaps even a little more efficient!

CW: What inspired you to get into winemaking?

RH: Food has been a passion of mine for a long time.  And my interest and love of wine goes back equally far.  I had finished my undergrad and a friend remarked that UC Davis had a wine program.  The notion instantly gelled.  In retrospect it was on some level probably an attempt to suspend adulthood.

CW: Describe the differences and similarities in the various states you’ve worked in from vineyard and winemaking perspectives.

RH: It’s always tough to make generalizations…but I’ll make them, why not!  The biggest thing is clearly the growing season.  As you move further in latitude the growing season shifts.  As a winemaker originally from California, it is easier to use California as a reference point and talk about how Washington differs. In Washington, we have later bud break and thus later harvest dates.  This shorter growing season can create a razor’s edge scenario of getting the grapes ripe but needing to be harvested before the first frost hits.

In California, generally most growers are not impinged by this.  Washington seems to have fresher, more focused fruit flavors, while California fruit can easily over-ripen to jammy flavors with excessive hang time. These flavors can be muddled and progressively ill-defined in extreme examples.  Because of the fresh, nuanced fruit in Washington there is an inherent sweetness that can get overwhelmed and become cloying if paired with oak offering more in the vanilla camp.  The tannins in Washington tend to be more prickly and green than those silky ones exemplified in Napa. It is important to get oxygen to help polymerize them which softens them in turn.  Mitigating the extraction during fermentation becomes even more imperative of a stylistic consideration because of this.  Likewise, because of the less ripe tannins, it seems it can be more of an active process to stabilize and retain great color post- fermentation.

CW: How has your winemaking evolved or changed since you started?

RH: My winemaking has evolved in concert with the facilities I’ve worked at…not necessarily evolved, but certainly changed.  Externally it has been influenced by my role, the work culture, the available tools, the wine styles focused on, and what has been valued in terms of moving the needle forward.  I think my personal trend has been to not over-manipulate.  Pick your spots where you are going to impact more with less.  My goal is to bring full expression to light, not to shift to the point of something being unrecognizable.

CW: Any favorite soils to grow grapes in and if so, which ones and why?

RH: Well Syrah grows everywhere and is easy to make. It has found a true home in Washington, as have several other varietals.  Certainly, nutrient deprived, rocky soils on a bed of well-drained sandy loam is a nice romantic way to temper Syrah’s unruly vigor and make some damn fine wines in the process!

CW: Is there a dream wine you’ve always wanted to make and if so, what would it be?

RH:  I’ve always wanted to make sparkling.  There are all these extra steps you just don’t get in still wine production.  It is also such a nuanced process, I imagine – I don’t know since I’ve never made it.  It rightly has all the allure of the unknown.  You have to make a nice silky base.  I’ve done that…I’ve made sparkling base.  But then the fun begins.  Sparkling base is like the grapes for still wine production. So, I’ve grown sparkling, I just haven’t made it.

CW: Have you seen weather patterns change in the places you’ve worked since starting as a winemaker and if so, what are they?

RH: I’ve seen weather change dramatically year to year. When I came to Washington, I was confidently told by a longtime Washington winemaker that making wine here was easy because we have these consistent growing seasons, almost like clockwork. I’ve been here for eight years now and not one year has been consistent!  As far as meaningful patterns or trends, I sadly don’t have any from an experiential perspective. I simply haven’t spent enough time in one place.

Stemilt Creek

Stemilt Creek

CW: What are your goals with Stemilt and what do you hope to achieve there?

RH: My goals at Stemilt are simple.  Showcase our vineyards.  Make expressive, honest wine.  Improve consistency of quality.  Enhance our value.  Provide a unique experience for members and customers.  We are getting there.  Our Wine Club is well over 700 strong and we have had success with our high-tier Ascent line from both customers and critics.

CW: What’s your favorite wine to drink on an everyday basis and special occasion?

RH: I like complex reds.  I’m more of a red drinker anyway.  A Cab or a Syrah is a good bet in Washington.  I used to drink sparkling rosé for the important times.  I was ahead of the curve.  Then Prosecco became a thing and sparkling boomed.  Shortly thereafter, rosé hit, and it was cool for a gentleman to drink pink wine in summer and proof he was secure in his masculinity.  It was like a one-two punch.  Now I have nothing to drink.

CW: But the rest of us do…look for Stemilt Creek’s 2015 Ascent Syrah which was recently award 93 points in Wine Spectator. 

stemilt-label-bigIncidentally, the interesting labels on Stemilt Creek wines are historical family icons who have figured largely in their lineal success within the Wenatchee area. Thomas Cyle on A Day’s Work was the original patriarch of the Mathison clan. He homesteaded in Wenatchee in the late 1800’s. Originally having emigrated from Scotland, he initially settled in California for the gold rush and wound up in San Francisco for a time.

Likewise, “Boss Lady”, Adelaide Mathison found herself at the helm of the family after her husband was killed. She provided much needed direction during a dire time. In fact, all the figures on the labels were crucial in the history of the development of Stemilt Fruit Growers and Stemilt Creek Winery.

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