Recently, a friend brought over a bottle of Isenhower Cellars’ Snapdragon, which is a 55% / 45% blend of Roussanne and Viognier, an unheard of combination for the state of Washington. Intrigued, we popped the cork and found it nothing less than exhilarating, as if the Rhône Valley had suddenly disappeared from southern France and magically reappeared in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley. When winemakers tell me how they became interested in wine, they usually use the term, “I got the bug.” Well, that night I got the bug – the Isenhower bug.
Isenhower Cellars is owned by Brett and Denise Isenhower, and can be found just south of the town of Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. The Isenhowers are originally from Indiana, where Brett graduated from Purdue University and Denise graduated from Butler University with degrees in Pharmaceutical Sciences. After college, they met while working as pharmacists at the same hospital, and before long it was ‘till death do us part. They viewed life as an open book and moved out to Colorado so that Brett could pursue an MBA from Colorado University and get in some good biking along the foothills of the Flatiron Mountains. Brett chuckled and joked, “Really, I just needed to get the heck out of Indiana.”
But the Isenhowers soon realized that life in Colorado wasn’t all hunky dory. Brett accepted a job in hospital administration shortly after receiving his MBA, and quickly decided that he just wasn’t cut out to be a corporate slave. While soul searching, Brett thought back to when he was homebrewing in college, and how much he enjoyed the organic process of creating a beverage that led to another’s enjoyment. But, Denise wasn’t having it –she didn’t like Brett’s beer. Instead, Denise encouraged Brett to look to the other fermented beverage that she loved.
The Isenhowers explored a vast amount of territory around the western United States in search of a place to settle down and begin their new career. They finally decided upon Washington, because it was an up-and-coming wine region with a number of winemakers who encouraged them to come to the valley and join the cause. And, it was one of the few regions that one could start a wine business on an entrepreneurial budget.
Brett and Denise drove up to Yakima Valley and quickly decided that the region didn’t suit their tastes. But, on the drive east they came over a small hill and found themselves looking at the picturesque town of Walla Walla with the Blue Mountains hovering in the background, and they immediately fell in love. When they returned to Colorado, they put their house up for sale, packed up their belongings and headed to the northwest. In 1999, Brett and Denise landed in Walla Walla, where Rusty Figgins took Brett under his wing and let him use the extra winery space at Glen Fiona to make wine. They continued to work as pharmacists in order to fund their new business, and in 2002 they settled on a small plot of land that can be seen from Old Milton Highway about a mile south of town, the perfect place for their winery.
Isenhower Cellars doesn’t own vineyard land – yet. Instead, they buy grapes from growers in Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla and Horse Heaven Hills, which are all smaller appellations found within the larger Columbia Valley region of Washington. Brett works with farmers throughout the growing season, and consults with them to make decisions about pruning, vine cropping, how many clusters to keep on the vine and when to harvest the grapes. “I’ll wait a couple of extra days to pick,” said Brett, “just to make sure that my grapes are the first ones coming off the vine in the morning.” Picking at dawn helps to ensure that the grapes maintain a cool temperature, which preserves the grapes’ natural acidity and means they will make a better wine for the consumer.
Brett is in no rush to purchase a vineyard now, because wants to focus his energy on the important things happening in the present. Not only does he feel like he’s still getting his feet on the ground as a winemaker, he also wants to ensure he spends enough quality time with his daughters (Olivia, 3 and Keegan, 5 months) in their formative years. “I eventually want to have my own vineyards,” he stated. “But, I still have to pay off the mortgage and there’s no way I can buy until my girls are in school. Maybe when Keegan is in 1st grade it will be time.” Later in our conversation, Brett talked about some of the Walla Walla winemakers who had earned his respect over the years. “I’m really impressed with the way Gary Figgins (of Leonetti Cellars) purchased one vineyard at a time and didn’t grow too fast or plant the wrong varietals. I think he did it the right way.”
And just what type of wine does a new winemaker in Walla Walla, buying fruit from around the region, make? “I need to make Bordeaux blends in order to get people into my tasting room, but the Rhône varietals are where my true passion is.” His eyes lit up when he talked about his experimentation with various Rhône grapes, and Brett is a winemaker who takes his experiments seriously. He’s blind-tasted individual varietals from Château de Beaucastel and made a small allotment of Mourvèdre in 2004. He was most exuberant when dreaming about the 100% Roussanne he hopes to make in the future. But testing new varietals often means a winemaker has to figure it out as he goes. “I made two barrels of Counoise and it was horrible. It was a $2,000 experiment and I had to dump it all down the drain. But you learn the most from your mistakes, right? Especially the expensive ones.”
While Brett continues exploring new varietals, his mind is constantly churning in the background, analyzing different winemaking techniques that he would like to implement. “I’m really interested in biodymanic winemaking,” he said. Brett conveyed the story of how he met Nicolas Joly, one of the fathers of biodynamic winemaking from France’s Loire Valley, who talked about his winemaking practices. “The guy refuses to put concrete anywhere in his winery, just because he wants the earth to breathe.”
As for the wines, every Isenhower wine that we tasted was expressive, balanced, true to its place of origin and marked at a great price – everything a wine geek could ask for. “I want people to feel like they’re getting more than their money’s worth out of our wines,” Brett emphasized. In addition to the Snapdragon Roussanne-Viognier blend, they also produce red Bordeaux blends and a lineup of Syrahs. The Wild Thyme blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon resembles a chocolate- and licorice-covered cherry, while the Red Paintbrush Merlot features black raspberry, currant and prune with a prevalent chocolate flavor mid-palate. Each of these blends displays the fresh-cut tobacco flavor characteristic of a well-made Walla Walla Merlot.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of our tasting was when we compared 3 Isenhower Syrahs side-by-side. The Looking Glass Syrah portrayed the earthy qualities of its Rhône Valley brethren, while the Wild Alfalfa Syrah displayed a ying-yang balance of masculinity and femininity, with grilled meats and barbecuing spices up front and perfumed floral notes mid-palate. But the head-turner of the lineup was the River Beauty Syrah, which is derived from the Six Prong Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills that averages 6 inches of rain per year. This Syrah was opulent, balanced, layered, and left our entire tasting panel searching for adjectives to describe it.
After hanging out with Brett at the winery for a couple of hours, Lucy the dog shot for the door and barked emphatically at the doorknob. The door opened and in walked Denise with their daughters, Olivia and Keegan. When she set the baby carrier on the ground, Brett looked at me and said, “This is the real perk of the job – every day is Bring Your Daughter to Work Day.” He immediately stopped talking, walked over to the carrier, unbuckled Keegan’s safety belt, picked up the little one and held her in his arms. “Hey little Kegger,” he cooed as she blew bubbles and gazed at her father with her sky blue eyes.
When the family came together, my visit at Isenhower Cellars quickly became a real “feel good” experience. When you realize that the people behind the wine are good, humble, genuine individuals, you suddenly become aware that it’s not just about the wine, it’s also about what’s behind the wine. The farmer’s calloused hands that tend the vines, the sandy loam soil that lends its characteristics to the grapes, the father’s tender touch with his daughter, and that same caring touch that’s applied to his wine.