àMaurice Cellars is a recent discovery of ours. The winery flies somewhat under the radar as most of its annual production of 5,000 cases is sold direct from the winery or to select restaurants. The list of restaurants that carry their wines includes the likes of the French Laundry and Per Se. You are unlikely to find a bottle of àMaurice at your local bottle shop, but if you do, grab it!
Based in Walla Walla, Washington, àMaurice produces wine from their estate vineyard as well as from 6 of the regions finest vineyards with whom they have contracts to purchase grapes. àMaurice was founded by the Schafer family, Tom and Kathleen and their children. The winery name is an homage to Tom’s father, Maurice, a pioneer of the Washington forestry industry. The Shafer family now represents 5 generations of Washingtonians.
After a successful career in commercial real estate Tom and his artist wife Kathleen decided to indulge their passion for wine by purchasing what is now 20 acres of prime vineyard land just outside of Walla Walla in the higher elevation valley of Mill Creek. In 2006 they planted 15,000 vines to a mix of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot varietals. This area just east of the Walla Walla airport is also home to other notable Washington vineyards and wineries such as Leonetti, Abeja and Walla Walla Vintners. Their vineyard faces southwest providing a maximum of sun exposure. At almost 1500 feet it is at an elevation that avoids most of the frosts that can be so damaging to other parts of Walla Walla. The silt loam over basalt bedrock is a product of the Missoula floods which swept over the area 12,000 -15,000 years ago and provides ample drainage, a key feature of top wine growing sites. As charter members of Vinea, the Shafers are part of an alliance of vintners that adhere to strict guidelines of sustainable farming practices. As well as fruit from the estate vineyard, àMaurice buys additional grapes from a bevy of Washington’s finest vineyards: Boushey, Dyonisius, Bacchus, Gamache, Weinbau and Conner Lee.
We pulled up to their unassuming tasting room in Kirkland, WA, a Seattle suburb and about a 15 minute drive from Woodinville. We were warmly greeted by Matt Schafer, a smiling 6 year old who was helping his Dad, Nick, with tasting room duties this rainy Saturday morning. Nick Schafer runs the business side of the winery while his sister Anna is the winemaker. Matt seems to be taking after his grandmother and is clearly a budding artist. He regaled us with several pictures he drew while we tasted through the current line up with Nick. Nick explained to us that àMaurice is striving to produce food friendly wines. To the Schafers these are the wines that will impact you more with balance and finesse than sheer power. We tasted three and each showed the Schafers are meeting their goal.
àMaurice as we said at the beginning, flies under the radar. But this is a winery to seek out as they are producing delicious wines that are complex and age-worthy. They have tasting rooms in Walla Walla and in Kirkland. And if you are lucky and Matt happens to be in the tasting room when you arrive, ask him to draw you a picture!
From the Gamache Vineyard this wine has a lovely aroma of orangepeel and creamsicle. The medium body delivers flavours of apricot and honey balanced by a streak of acidity. We picked up just a hint of marzipan on the finish. No doubt it would be a great compliment to any seafood dish but it was refreshing enough to also be enjoyed on its own.
Very good (US$28 at their Tasting Room)
100% Estate fruit, this is a blend of 52% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petite Verdot. Complex herbal notes underlie the plum and dark cherry aromas of this deeply coloured wine. After a bit of swirling they take on a slightly “woodsy” aroma of wet cedar and pine. The body is medium to full and has a wonderful texture that combines with the tannin to create a mouthfeel that is rich but firm. The finish is long and is punctuated by juicy acidity. We tend to like our wines with a bit of age on them and this is one that is likely to reward cellaring and should offer at least another decade of enjoyment. 390 cases produced.
Excellent (US$ 47 at their Tasting Room)
100% Syrah, all from their Estate Vineyard which is planted to Phelps and Tablas Creek clones. A delicious Syrah of medium body this wine moves in a different direction than many Washington Syrahs we have tasted: while intensely flavoured it seeks to wow you with its complex expression as opposed to its power. The whole clusters contribute a peppery note which lies just beneath the blackberry and bramble driven fruit profile. Not as lush as the Night Owl, but certainly not lean either, this wine is sure to excite Northern Rhone fans. We picked up a hint of tar and smokiness on the finish that accentuated the dry mouthfeel. Cropped at only 2 tons per acre; just 160 cases produced.
Excellent (US$45 at their Tasting Room)