Three from Eight Bells

Hello friends. One of the great joys of Full Pull is the joy of discovery: finding new wineries with compelling stories to tell.

The pace of newbies has slowed in the past few years – a result, I suspect, of the general economic malaise – but that has only made the new gems rarer, and their discovery that much more exciting.

Recently I found a winery hiding in plain sight: smack in the middle of Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. On a sun-soaked August Friday, I walked back and forth along Roosevelt Way NE, between 62nd and 63rd. I probably passed the tiny alleyway entrance to Eight Bells Winery three times before I noticed it.

I’m glad I persevered, because inside was a small treasure of a winery: a thoughtfully-designed urban oasis with a lineup of wines that waaaaaay over-deliver for their price points. Every inch of the winery was put to good use, a fact that seemed less surprising when I learned of the nautical background of the three winery partners: Tim Bates, Andy Shepherd and Frank Michiels. Andy and Tim spent most of their careers at NOAA, and for many years, the amateur version of this winery was known as the NOAA Shellback Vintners (a Shellback is a sailor that has crossed the equator on a ship).

Among the three partners, there are decades of winemaking experience as amateurs (Tim Bates is the most experienced, having crushed his first fruit, from Sagemoor, in 1980. He is also a PhD Chemist, and the winery includes a full lab: quite rare for an operation of this size). When they decided to go commercial (with the 2009 vintage) they had enough experience to know that they needed outstanding vineyard partners to make outstanding wine. And they found one in Mike Sauer.

At the time, Mike’s Red Willow Vineyard was beginning to get some breathing room between itself and Columbia Winery, which had purchased the vast majority of Red Willow fruit for many years. As Columbia has pulled back, the magic of Red Willow has come to the fore, seen in bottlings from Bob Betz (Cote Patriarche) and David O’Reilly (Owen Roe’s Chapel Block), among others. The vineyard is something special, with original plantings going into the ground in 1973, at the far western edge of the Yakima Valley (see location here).

Usually, single-vineyard bottles from Red Willow start in the high $30s and go up from there. And I have little doubt that, within a few years, Eight Bells’ Red Willow wines will hit those tariffs as well. But for now, the three mariners are trying to make a name for themselves, and they’re setting their prices accordingly.

Most of these wines are sold direct through the winery or the Eight Bells wine club. Only a handful of restaurants and retailers have discovered these bottles so far, so let’s sneak in and grab some glorious Red Willow wine before the rest of Seattle wakes up and discovers this little beauty of a winery sitting under our collective noses.

2009 Eight Bells “Roosevelt Red”

The Roosevelt Red is going to be Eight Bells entry-level bottling, and in many years, it is likely to be a red table wine. But in 2009, this is single-varietal: 100% Merlot, all from Red Willow. Just 177 cases made, and this gets only a kiss of new wood (15%).

It starts with aromatics of smoky red fruit, but the real fireworks are on the palate, where this presents a pure Merlot profile: redcurrant, red cherry, and milk chocolate. The tannins are soft and plush but definitely present. The beauty of Washington Merlot when it’s done well, I think, is its round, supple tannins. With its silky texture, its juicy red fruit, and its overall sense of balance, this presents a tremendous value. Red Willow Merlot under $20? Yes please.

2010 Eight Bells Sangiovese Red Willow Vineyard

We have seen Red Willow Sangiovese before. Remember? It is part of Peter Dow’s Cavatappi Molly’s Cuvee Sangiovese, a blend of Yakima Valley heavyweights Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow. I know that wine has plenty of fans on our list, and I think you all will be intrigued to see what happens when you remove Dick Boushey’s fruit, and leave only Red Willow Sangiovese.

Production (175 cases) and barrel regimen (15% new wood) are similar to the Roosevelt, but that’s where the similarities end. This is a very different vintage (the cooler 2010) and a very different varietal (beautiful, acid-driven Sangiovese). The soaring aromatics come spilling up out of the glass: red cherry, bark, star anise. The purity of fruit is the first thing you’ll notice on the palate, with flavors of dried cherry and pomegranate. The acid profile is positively electric, and this finishes with a wash of citrus-pith bitters (note: see here for my rant about being able to use the word “bitter” as a positive in a wine descriptor). I love how true to varietal this is: it could be nothing else but Sangiovese. Pass the lasagna.

2009 Eight Bells Syrah Yakima Valley

This Syrah gets the “Yakima Valley” label, but its heart and soul is Red Willow, at 85% of the blend. The remainder is Grenache from Red Mountain, cofermented. It presents a deep, rich aromatic profile: coffee bean, green olive, blackberry fruit. In the mouth, we’re greeted with rich black raspberry, smoky charcoal, and sweet cured bacon fat. This has length, intensity, and complexity to burn at this tariff.

Wine Enthusiast (Paul Gregutt): “($25); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 93pts.”

That review showed up in the July Wine Enthusiast, but only in the online version, which is likely why it’s still available. The winery has a couple dozen cases remaining, so this is the least likely of the three to be available for reorder.

First come first served up to 18 bottles total (mix and match as you like), and the wines should arrive in about a week, at which point they will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.

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