“Rasa” is a Sanskrit word meaning the essence of something that conjures up a feeling or emotion. For Rasa Vineyards, the name certainly fits their wines which aim to capture the essence of the soil from where they are from, and at a quality level that is absolutely capable of evoking pure joy to a wine enthusiast.
Billo & Pinto Naravane are the two brothers behind Rasa Vineyards and judging by their upbringing, one might almost think a most unlikely duo to get into wine. Born in India, their family moved to the United States when they were very young and settled in New Jersey where they grew up. Their Grandmother realized early on that no one would be able to pronounce their given names so she called them by their childhood nicknames “Billo” meaning handsome, and “Pinto” meaning baby boy.
The brothers come from a proud family that places a high value on education, so both the pressure and expectations were high that they would attend the top schools, get the best grades and eventually follow a path to being a doctor or lawyer or some similar vocation. They both entered into electrical engineering which in the 1980’s meant technology. Pinto received his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science as well as a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology while Billo earned a degree in Applied Mathematics from MIT and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from Stanford. Both became IT consultants and were in the technology industry for many years.
But it wasn’t until Billo ended up living in California while working for Hewlett-Packard that they both were bitten by the wine bug. Pinto would visit him fairly regularly and they began tasting and collecting wine seriously, which eventually turned into dreaming of having their own top quality winery someday. In 2006, Billo was accepted into the UC Davis Master’s program for Viticulture and Winemaking, an exceptional feat given only 10 people were accepted that year. It happened to be the same year that Pinto was turning 40 and they collectively decided that if they didn’t try to make their wine dream come true then, it would never happen. Billo quit his job at Hewlett-Packard and headed to school full-time while Pinto worked on the Business Plan. Their relentless pursuit of excellence quickly transferred to the wine business and one year later while Billo was still in the Master’s program, they produced two wines: the 2007 QED (a Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre blend) and the 2007 Principia Reserve Syrah. Clearly the critics agreed with their decision as the Wine Spectator bestowed a lofty 94 points on the QED and the Principia was given a perfect rating from the Review of Washington Wines. An auspicious start indeed and scores that immediately put the rest of the wine world on notice that the Navarane brothers had arrived. But would those scores be just freshman luck? Hardly. In the winery’s 10 years of existence, they have consistently received 90+ scores from top critics and have created a reputation of producing wines of the highest quality out of Washington State.
If there’s one thing that’s evident about Billo & Pinto is that they approach everything with precision, purpose and an almost dogged pursuit of perfection. Right down to the labels. Each wine is given its own label and the name always has a meaning. “We loosely define our label naming conventions this way: all wines made with Rhone varietals (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre & Viognier) get Latinate or scientific names; all white wines (Riesling & Chardonnay) get musical or poetic names; and all wines made with Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc & Petit Verdot) get whimsical names.”
For example, their inaugural creation, the QED, is an acronym for Quod Erat Demonstrandum (Latin for “that which has been proven”) commonly put at the end of a math proof to say that the formula presented demonstrates or provides proof that it is true. When Rasa first started in 2007, the economy collapsed shortly after in 2008. Billo and Pinto originally wanted to sell the QED for $85 but their investor questioned the high price point citing there was no proof yet that they could make wine good enough to command such a high price. Inspiration struck and QED became the name of their first wine with the sample bottle label simply displaying: “QED – the proof is in the bottle”.
Rasa produces 15 different wines and work with 30 different blocks totaling more than 100 lots in each vineyard. They carefully curate each lot so that each block on its own can express itself. As a result, when they make single vineyard wines, even those are “blends” made up of different micro sites within the vineyard.They source grapes from some of the top vineyards in the region including Dubrul, Sagemoor, Wallula and Kiona, along with SJR vineyards in the Rocks District of Milton Freewater, the AVA they consider to be the very best in the country (so much so they own 28 acres there themselves). The Rocks, as its name implies, is covered with bare basalt stones, similar to the galets roules found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or the cobblestones found in much of the vineyards of Toro, Ribera del Duero and Rioja in Northern Spain. These stones heat up during the day and reflect that heat back on to the vine in the evenings, helping to ripen the grapes. The roots must grow deep to find adequate moisture and this helps to develop character in the grapes.
During a visit to their winery in Walla Walla in early September, cellar master Noe (pronounced “No-ay”) Martinez took us through a tasting of Rasa’s latest releases. As we taste through the wines, Noe’s passion shines through as we discuss the wines, but particularly when we discuss the viticultural aspect. “The 2009 was warm and wet, had a nice arc with temperatures and long hang time. 2010 was warm but not really hot and there was a lot of rain. It was a challenging vintage to work with that really separated the wheat from the chaff—we were pulling in fruit really late so it had a lot of potential. 2011 was actually my favourite vintage because it was the year we barely got to 90 degrees, had a lot of rain and the vines were coming back from 2010. The wines had incredible tannic maturity but almost no sugar which produced very mature aromatics on low brix and all the hang time in the world. As a result, they were low in alcohol, very mature, very restrained and very age-worthy. 2012 was a fantastic vintage. It had a lot of rain, a lot of heat and a lot of wind with no disease pressure because it all dried out during the summer and then we had eternal hang time so we ended up with big, rich, delicious wines. 2013 had very little rain or wind but plenty of heat so really high pH, and really high sugar. So 2012 was defined while 2013 was plush and rich, 2012, 2014 and 2016 were big, tannic wines with a muscular structure that will allow those wines to age forever. At this stage 2017 is looking similar to 2012 in terms of conditions but expect it will taste more like the 2013 vintage.”
In terms of climate change Noe says there’s no question it’s getting hotter every year, “Every year since 2012 it’s been the hottest year on record except for this winter which was the coldest winter on record. That’s what climate change means, whenever you heat up the oceans you put more water into the air and it has to go somewhere and every winter it’s going to come down in a deluge of snow and ice. We’ll probably end up with better growing conditions, the biggest issue will be surviving the winters. I think that it is definitely affecting our growing patterns and I think my career is going to be a lot more interesting than previous generations.”
And his career is off to a stellar start. As cellar master at Rasa Vineyards, he’s working with one of the top rated wineries throughout the country, let alone the region. He’s also at the very early stages of his own project, Xenolith Vintners. “Xenolith” is a geology term for a foreign fragment of rock that is embedded into another rock. Rocks melt at different temperatures so during geological events like volcanoes, there were small fragments of Xenoliths rolling around in that lava/magma and eventually that magma breaks up and turns into other rocks. The Walla Walla valley is filled with these types of rocks. His wine is 100% from the The Rocks district, made up of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre aged 23 months in barrel. Xeno is also the name of his favourite philosopher, the founder of stoicism. “It’s just one barrel but it’s a fun start. The name also evokes the rocks and for me I like the idea of speaking to the immigrant experience. My dad is Guatemalan and my mom is Irish/British. As 6th generation Americans we’re really just here through whatever events led us to being here—we’re here and we’re embedded in the stone of this nation.”
It seems as though Noe has many of the same traits as his mentors in terms of producing quality wine with a deeper meaning and we’ll certainly be keeping our eye on Xenolith as the brand and production grows.
2013 Rasa The Composer Riesling
This is an Alsatian take on the varietal and it works. Plenty of apple notes are delivered on a viscous, creamy frame. Secondary notes of white peach and hints of kiwi give this a slightly exotic feel. Just enough acidity matches the luscious texture.
2015 Rasa Primus Inter Pares
Primus Inter Pares is Latin for first among equals. The reference here is to the region from where the grapes are sourced: The Rocks of Milton Freewater. The Rocks is one of the up-and-coming viticultural regions in North America and is rapidly getting hallowed ground status for producing Rhone varieties. This is 100% Grenache from Monette’s Vineyard in the Rocks. Spicy cherry sits on a medium to full body frame. Not a bruiser, but certainly not shy either. The finish is long and peppery. Great balance, which is not easy to achieve with a variety that matures at such high brix.
2012 Rasa QED Convergence
Mostly Syrah with lesser percentages of Grenache, Mouvedre and Viognier. Big wafts of black cherry form the nose on this expressive wine. The palate shows blackberry, spice and a slight meaty note. It is framed by big tannins that will reward cellaring. The body is full and rich and stands up well to those tannins. The finish is long and infused with hints of spice.
2015 Rasa Living In The Limelight
Usually Petit Verdot plays a supporting role, but in this wine it is the main event, the grape living in the limelight. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot play back up. Very dark purple in colour. An interesting and complex array of flavours from plum to blackberry to raspberry are all intermingled. Definitely full body, it has the tannins to match. A hedonistic wine that has all of dials turned up. A plush mouthfeel stays focused by the surrounding tannin. This is a wine that stands up and wants to be noticed!
Very Good +
2015 Rasa Tilting at Windmills
This wine is an homage to the wines of Priorat in Northeast Spain. It is a blend of Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Very dark red in colour. Black cherry flavours mix with hints of coffee and spice. This is a big, tannic, mouthful of wine that is not shy in any way! Even though the throttle is pushed down, it manages to retain balance and poise. We would recommend laying down for a few years. There is serious potential in this broad shouldered and flavourful wine.
2012 Rasa Creative Impulse
This is their Bordeaux blend of 2/3 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1/3 of Merlot. Fruit is sourced from Dubrul Vineyard, one of the Sate’s top sites. Another big wine that will show even better with a few years in the cellar. Lots of black currant, blackberry and baking spices intermingle and shift as you allow it to gain air. Full bodied and still tannic, it possesses what we have come to recognize as the classic Washington signature: New World fruit on top of Old World structure. A hypothetical meeting of Napa and Paulliac.
2014 Xenolith Vintners GSM
Made from 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre, this is a big and intense wine that still manages to be approachable in its youth. Medium red in colour, it has a lovely complexity revealing raspberry, black cherry and plum along with pepper and earth. An old world style GSM showing lots of potential that will definitely benefit from more time in the cellar. We thoroughly enjoyed this especially with food and only wish we had another bottle in order to revisit in a few years. A fantastic first effort and a wonderful sign of things to come from this promising winemaker.