We pulled up to the Novelty Hill-Januik tasting room in Woodinville, Washington on a warm sunny afternoon; the kind of bright day that really shows off the beauty of this spectacular facility. The design is simple: rectangular shapes made of just concrete, glass and wood. But that simplicity brings a sophisticated elegance to the space, the high ceilings create a feeling of airiness and the clean lines show efficiency. The main room is dominated by the long rectangular tasting bar with a fire place and couches at one end. It is a comfortable and beautiful place to relax and taste wine.
Mike Januik comes up from the winery to meet us. Mike has a calm and relaxed way about him, exuding a quiet confidence. Over 30 years in the wine making business has brought him to the top levels of the Washington wine making scene. We asked him about that journey. “After my wife finished college we decided we were going to move to either Ashland or Bend Oregon, and open a wine shop or a book store. “ Ashland won out and the couple, then just recently graduated from college, started their first business. “We found a defunct deli right across the street from where the Shakespeare Festival took place (Ashland has the largest Shakespeare festival after Stratford-on-Avon). When she was in college she had worked in a deli so we knew how to make sandwiches and we opened it back up with a friend and turned it into a wine shop as well. For quite a while we were the only wine shop in Ashland.” After doing that for a few years, Mike’s wife decided she wanted to return to school to get an MBA and their friend and business partner decided to go back to school at the same time. After his wife finished her degree they moved to California for two years to so that Mike could study enology and viticulture at UC Davis. Two years later he received his Masters Degree which led the couple to move to Yakima where he worked as a winemaker for a couple of different wineries.
Then, in 1988 opportunity knocked: he was offered the job as winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle. The importance of the role cannot be overstated. Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest winery in Washington, by far. In fact Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, parent company to Chateau Ste Michelle and several other wineries, is the 9th largest winery group in the US. “My wife and I had been talking about doing our own thing & one day decided to try it. I talked to them (Chateau Ste. Michelle) and in 1999, I left just before harvest. They were really good about it and kept me on as a consultant for 2 years largely to help me out.” Making wines at Chateau Ste Michelle did something very important for Mike’s future wine endeavours: it introduced him the top vineyards in the state. Mike proved his worth for 10 years making some terrific wines at Chateau Ste Michelle. So when he went on his own and wanted to buy grapes from the top vineyards in the state, the likes of Klipsun, Champoux, Ciel de Cheval and Qunitessence were all happy to have his talents making wine from their grapes.
Soon after going on his own, Mike met Tom Alberg, whose father had purchased a property in eastern Washington but had never done anything with it. Tom wanted to plant grapes and hired Mike as a consultant to set up the vineyard. That vineyard is Stillwater Creek. Mike convinced Tom that he shouldn’t just grow grapes, he should also make wine from them. Tom eventually agreed and asked Mike to be his winemaker, and thus was the creation of Novelty Hill Wines. Today Novelty Hill and Januik remain separately owned but share the same winemaking facility and both have Mike Januik as their winemaker.
Januik makes about 12,000 cases a year and Novelty Hill makes about 24,000 cases. Grapes are harvested in eastern Washington and then trucked up to Woodinville to be crushed, fermented, aged and bottled. Januik makes wine from both red and white varieties but Cabernet Sauvignon is the focus. Given that Mike is buying fruit from some of the best vineyards in the state, in his winemaking he wants to let vineyards shine and so his approach is minimalist. He does however employ a state-of the art computer system that allows him to control temperature and other variables within the winery with high precision.
We asked Mike about making wines in Washington State: “Our vintages are much more consistent than anywhere in the world and the reason why is because technically we’re a desert. In Eastern WA we’re typically getting between 6-8 inches of rainfall per year. Rainfall at harvest is one of the things that can be incredibly hard on a vintage and it’s just never been an issue in the 30+ years I’ve been here. We’re one of the only places in the world where the vines are still on their own roots – I think that makes a big difference. It’s pretty interesting to compare our growing in Washington to places like California. California pushes their buds about 3 weeks before we do but we catch up and pick about the same time as California and that’s because we’re further north meaning 3 more hours of sunlight. In addition, because of our location, it’s warm longer in the afternoon than it is in California but also it cools down more so we see much bigger swings in (diurnal) temperatures.”
Is he worried about climate change? “I worry about climate change but not just because of growing grapes but because of the planet as a whole. It’s not going to affect me but it is going to affect my ancestors and everyone else’s. Anecdotally, I’m definitely noticing a difference, it just keeps getting warmer and warmer. But the big thing I noticed is that in the early years we were really worried about the wintertime cold and how it would affect crops by spring and that just hasn’t been an issue the past several years.” Mike cares about our environment and works with sustainable vineyards. He also does not allow plastic water bottles into his winery. Instead, there is a water fountain available to allow anyone to fill up their own water bottles.
Mike’s son Andrew works with him in the winery. In addition to working on Januik wines, he also has his own label (Andrew Januik) and it looks like another Januik is well on his way to a long career making great wines from Washington State.
2014 Januik Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
This blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 2% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc shows loads of class in its dark cherry and blackberry profile. And why shouldn’t it? It is made with fruit from some of the best vineyards in the state: Ciel du Cheval, Champoux, Weinbau, Lady Hawk and Obelisco. That is pretty high class real estate foe a “Columbia Valley” wine! Medium acids and medium tannins balance nicely with the fruit creating a smooth mouth feel. The finish is long and spicy.
Very Good+ (US$30 at the Tasting Room)
2014 Andrew Januik Stone Cairn
A blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Cabernet Franc. All of the fruit comes from Red Mountain (Ciel de Cheval, Obleisco and Quitessence) and the signature Red Mountain structure and brawn is in evidence. But the fruit stands equally tall and the balance gives a sensation of smoothness on the palate. Black fruits and earth notes combine to create a complex wine that, though pleasing now, will surely develop with time in the cellar.
Excellent (US $40 at the Tasting Room)
2014 Ciel du Cheval Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark cherry and mocha combine in a seductive way that evokes thoughts of black forest cake. The texture is rich and smooth and is a joy to drink right now, probably the most forward red wine we tasted in the line up. Forest and cedar notes gently appear on the finish, adding complexity, while not distracting from the lovely dark fruit that makes the wine what it is. 97% Cabernet Sauvignon with 3% Cabernet Franc.
Excellent (US$45 at the Tasting Room)
2014 Januik Ciel du Cheval Syrah
We immediately pick up notes of blackberry and plum. With some swirling earth and hints of cracked pepper join in. This wine is seductively smooth with an almost creamy texture. The pepper notes and a bit of acidity on the finish tie the whole package together nicely and keep the tone of the wine serious.
Excellent (US$35 at the Tasting Room *particularly good value for Syrah at this quality level)
Novelty Hill Late Harvest Semillon
Made from 100% Semillon and fermented to 22.6% residual sugar this was the surprise of the tasting! A fantastic desert wine with gorgeous flavours of guava, mango and honeydew melon delivered on an unctuous body with a finish that was still lingering almost a minute later. Lots of wow factor here!
Excellent+ (US $25 at the tasting room 375 ml)
Januik Winery – www.noveltyhilljanuik.com
14710 Woodinville-Redmond Road NE
Woodinville, Washington 98072