2007 Bunnell Family Cellar Lia | 2006 RiverAerie Merlot Spofford Station

Hello friends. What a week here in Seattle. The last time we had a February stretch of weather this beautiful was 2005. I remember it well. I was unemployed at the time, and my days were mostly filled with frisbee-tossing and career angst. All things considered, I think I prefer 2010 (although it would be nice to chase after a disc in Ravenna Park again). Let’s head into what should be a spectacular weekend with two delightful wines from Ron Bunnell, one of Washington’s underground superstars (probably not underground for long, as Wine Spectator’s next issue has 93-pt scores for both of Ron’s as-yet-unreleased single-vineyard Syrahs from the 2007 vintage).

One of the most pleasurable stops on my December Eastern Washington trip was at Wine O’Clock in Prosser. The Bunnell family owns and operates this restaurant/wine bar, and it was there that I met Ron Bunnell to taste through his Bunnell Family Cellar and RiverAerie wines. Given how frequently wine is consumed with food, it’s scandalous how few evaluative tastings we in the trade do in the presence of anything more than a few stale oyster crackers. I’m not sure what the solution is. Do you think we could talk every winery in Washington into opening an on-premises restaurant? Not bloody likely. So I will continue to revel in the few chances I do get to sample wine in the presence of good food.

Ron’s wife Susan runs the restaurant, and she started us off with a lovely winter-mushroom soup and a rustic, charred-Romaine Caesar salad. The real center of gravity at Wine O’Clock, however, is their wood-fired brick oven, which churns out pie after pie of thin-crust, artisanal pizza. We chose the Margherita: crust, tomato, mozzarella, basil; a reminder of the wonder that exists at the crossroads of simplicity and perfection.

And with all this delightful food, we sampled a good portion of Ron Bunnell’s lineup of wines. The Bunnell Family Cellar label is dedicated to the finest expression of Rhone varietals in Washington. It includes three separate Syrahs, three Rhone blends, and occasional varietal bottlings of Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre. The RiverAerie label sees more variation from year to year and allows Ron to paint with the full color palette of Washington varietals.

Ron has a deep comfort level with Washington state fruit. From 1992 to 2004, he worked for Ste Michelle Wine Estates, and his final role there was Head Red Winemaker. That role had Ron traveling to the outer reaches of the state for vineyard research and management. It also had him traveling to the outer reaches of the country, as the Head Red Winemaker is expected to do as much public relations work as winemaking. Five years in that role, doing that amount of travel, was enough, and in 2004 Ron struck out on his own, launching Bunnell Family Cellar. His boutique winery has allowed him to refocus on winemaking, to reconnect with his family, and to spend a lot more time close to home. The happiness of this venture is palpable in the glass.

For our first Bunnell offerings, I have plucked one wine each from the Bunnell Family and RiverAerie labels. These are wines that are much more likely to show up on a restaurant list than on the shelf of a retailer, but we have access to excellent parcels of both wines, and we don’t charge restaurant markup:

2007 Bunnell Family Cellar Lia

2007 is the inaugural vintage of Lia, a new Grenache-based blend named after Ron’s daughter Amelia. This marks our third Grenache-blend offering, after the well-received 2007 Rotie Cellars Southern Blend and 2007 Syncline Cuvee Elena. Washington Grenache is on the ascendancy, and there seems to be no end to the appetite for these wines.

This version is 50% Grenache, blended with 20% Syrah and 10% each of Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Petite Sirah. The vineyard sources are Northridge and Stonetree in the Wahluke Slope; Boushey in the Yakima Valley; and Discovery (a Paul Champoux-planted vineyard) in the Horse Heaven Hills. Spicy, rich, and autumnal, Lia brings white pepper-dusted raspberries, and a brightness and freshness that is palate-invigorating. This wine was a delight to drink with food.

2006 RiverAerie Merlot Spofford Station

This is single-vineyard Merlot from an outstanding, so-far-under-the-radar-it-might-as-well-be-a-stealth-bomber vineyard called Spofford Station. This site produces ultra-stinky Syrahs (Paul Gregutt once wrote about a Syrah from this vineyard: “There’s good funk and bad funk; this is right on the border.”), but its Cabs and Merlots tend to be a little calmer, dampening the funk with plenty of rich fruit. The Merlot here has notes of earth, dark chocolate, and plum: a lovely mix of fruity and savory flavors. There are minty notes present on the long, soiley finish. This shows levels of restraint and complexity that I find rare in Merlot.

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First come first served on these up to a maximum of 12 bottles of Bunnell Lia and 18 bottles of RiverAerie Merlot. We should have these wines in our warehouse in less than a week, at which point they will be ready for pickup or shipping.

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