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The Andrew Will Way
By celebrating their differences, this Vashon winery puts a face on the state's best vineyards
Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Winery built his reputation on single-varietal reds from single vineyards. His new wines are blends from single vineyards. The winery is named for his son Will and nephew Andrew.
SOME WINEMAKERS approach their barrels like a lover, slipping a glass "thief" inside to steal a sip of the young juice. Chris Camarda attacks his barrels like Jackson Pollack letting the paint fly on a blank canvas.

A mid-winter visit to the barrel room of Camarda's Andrew Will Winery is the vinous equivalent of a trip to the late artist's workshop. The raw ingredients are laid out in a familiar array. Instead of tubes of paint, here are carefully labeled new French oak barrels. Each holds an unblended selection of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc or sangiovese, harvested from favored vineyards such as Ciel du Cheval, Champoux, Klipsun and Sheridan. The scent of newly fermented grapes permeates the chilly air.

An elfin figure who seems to operate in a perpetually caffeinated condition, Camarda races from barrel to barrel, splashing the inky contents into sparkling glasses and evaluating the strengths of each with a practiced precision. In a few days, the magic will begin, as blending trials "paint" the exact proportions of each of the vineyard-specific, Bordeaux-style wines that Andrew Will will offer from the 2003 vintage.
Andrew Will 2001 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Wine ($48). Big, lovely, perfectly blended and balanced, with nuanced flavors that mix fruit and stone. Sweet cherry fruit stands out, with some blueberry and roasted coffee beneath. Needs considerable airing at this youthful stage.

Andrew Will 2001 Sorella Red Wine ($48). The winery's premier wine showcases Block One Champoux vineyard fruit. Fleshy with rich, plummy fruit and swirling streaks of licorice, mineral and fruit preserves.

Andrew Will 2001 Champoux Vineyard Red Wine ($48). Another single-vineyard blended gem. Solid and substantial, though quite young. Fruit flavors hint at raspberry and pomegranate; along with graphite and dry, lightly chalky tannins.

Andrew Will 2002 Cuvée Lucia Ciel du Cheval Sangiovese ($28). Elegant, ripe and textured; true varietal flavors of tart plum, berry and cherry. A pleasing minerality underlies the bold fruit.

Andrew Will 2002 Cuvée Lucia Merlot ($28). Taut, muscular and tannic, with brawny, tart, berry-flavored fruit, wrapped in somewhat rough, grainy tannins.

Andrew Will 2002 Cuvée Lucia Seven Hills Vineyard Syrah ($28). A lighter style of syrah, displaying cranberry/pomegranate flavors and hints of stem and earth. Plenty of acid firms it up; finishes with a hint of sweet chocolate.

Camarda, who honed his palate working in the restaurant trade before turning winemaker, was one of the first in this state to explore and carefully define the specific flavor characteristics of key vineyards. He did this methodically, by eliminating all variables other than the vineyard site. His annual releases of single-vineyard, single-varietal merlots and cabernets were all treated identically in the winery. By tasting them in sequence, the vineyards themselves could be compared and contrasted.

"I wanted people to see one person making wine the same way; with the same barrels, the same techniques, so what you were left with was the vineyards," Camarda explains. "I don't know anybody any better than these vineyards in the state."

Tasting through the lineup, it's easy to note the nuances that distinguish Klipsun from Ciel du Cheval, Pepper Bridge from Seven Hills. Camarda's releases were a winemaking tour de force, most notable because the winemaker steadfastly labored not to put his own stylistic stamp on the wines.

"Each vineyard should have its own 'face,' " Camarda believes. "We're interested in the differences between vineyards and not the similarities. Otherwise, you might as well make beer."

Beginning in 2001, Camarda decided it was time to swap variables. His new wines are no longer varietally labeled. Instead, they are red blends whose identity is anchored by the vineyard. An unblended cabernet sauvignon, no matter how brilliant, is like listening to a monaural recording of a beautiful song, Camarda asserts. But a blended red from the same vineyard is like hearing the same recording in stereo.

"Not to condemn all wines that are varietally pure," he adds, "but my opinion is that they are not as interesting, as memorable. And that's a change in the wind."

That wind will soon blow out Andrew Will's last varietal merlot, the 2002 Klipsun. The 2001 red blends now being introduced (see the accompanying list) are the first of the new wave; by the time the 2003 vintage wines are released, Andrew Will wines will be 100 percent blends. Another label, Andrew Will/Cuvée Lucia, is reserved for varietal wines created from barrels not used in the primary blends. Also under the Cuvée Lucia label, Camarda will continue to make varietal wines with such intriguing grapes as sangiovese and cabernet franc.

The winery's bucolic location on Vashon Island would seem to make it an ideal destination for day touring, but in pursuit of peace with the neighbors, the Camardas have elected to keep the winery closed to the public.

"I would like to have more face-to-face contact with my customers," Camarda says, "but it is going to happen at winemaker dinners and tastings. For example, I'm pouring Sorella, my best wine, at Taste Washington" April 16-18.

Critics and leading wine publications consistently place Andrew Will in the top tier of Washington red-wine producers. Yet these wines are in good supply in Western Washington, and Camarda has kept his prices stable.

Relentlessly optimistic about the future of Washington wines, he says he sees winemakers 20 years younger than he is making wines better than most of his peers. "I hope there are more of them in the future. I'd like to see them make wines that they like, because God knows the fruit is here."

Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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