Spokane has a new winery project, dedicated to the idea that wine’s character begins in a place – and that some places imprint grapes with distinctive flavors producing distinctive wine. From the patchwork that comprise Washington State’s vineyards, this is evident to every experienced wine lover. Kristina Mielke Van Loben-Sels and her husband Jim have steered Arbor Crest Winery to be one of Washington’s most successful family-owned wineries. When most wineries in Washington have scaled back to less than 10,000 cases, Arbor Crest continues to grow. Fueling that growth is the attention to detail that she and Jim and their winemaking team bring to the grapes they source. When the opportunity arose to concentrate some of these vineyard’s grapes into a few special wines, they took the opportunity. That opportunity is bottled as Weather Station.
Kristina’s story as a winemaker began almost 30 years ago in classrooms at the University of California, Davis, where she was one of three women enrolled. Her career blossomed through the wineries of Mondavi and Ferrari-Carano before joining her family in Washington. Whether she knew it or not, she was a role model for female winemakers then and remains one now. Today, she leads the winemaking team that splits wine down to the vineyard level, a winery whose attention to the influences on the flavor of the wine is as clear from the design of the label to the first taste and the last.
She sat down with me and entertained questions about her family, her winemaking history and the distinctions of Weather Station wine. Tasting notes follow for those intrepid readers.
Where did you grow up? I was born in Boston, MA but moved to Marin County when I was one. I grew up in San Rafael, CA.
Have there been any other winemakers in your family? The only winemakers are on my mom’s side of the family. My mom’s family is Italian, and my great grandfather and generations before him made wine every year for the family.
When did you know winemaking was going to be your profession? Growing up, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian but when I started classes at UC Davis, I soon realized that the sight of blood was not my strong suit. I decided to take a Wine 101 class. From that point on, I fell in love with wine and the creation of it. It had all of the science and creativity of medicine with none of the blood!
What would you be if you were not a winemaker? I would absolutely be a singer but unfortunately, I can’t sing. So, if I couldn’t be a winemaker I would choose to work with kids.
How many years has it been? I have been making wine for 27 years. Wow – I can’t be that old!
Ballpark number of wines you have made? My very first wine made was in 1992 and over the years with different brands and varietals, I would say about 800 wines. (Wow.)
What do you wish more people knew about wine? I wish more people knew that wine is a labor of love and that it is a creative expression from each vineyard and winemaker. I also wish people had more fun with wine pairings. Trying different dishes with different wines, finding what doesn’t work and then finding what does is magical!
Besides your own wines, do you have a wine region or wine style that really hits the center of your palate? I love Pinot Noir so I tend to gravitate towards all different regions. However, I am a true fan of Burgundy, California’s Russian River and Oregon.
The idea that a vineyard site influences the taste of wine has some people downplaying its importance. What do you think? The vineyard site is extremely important on how it influences the wine.
Do you have any favorite chores at the winery? Yes! I love to fill barrels, especially new ones. The aromas are so intoxicating (not literally). At harvest time, I love to operate the press so I can smell the juice as it runs out and imagine what the wine will be like!
How do food and wine link together for you? I love to make wine that pairs well with food – this is why my wines are not heavily oaked. I find it so exciting when you find an unusual pairing that just works. When I go to a restaurant, I pick my wine only after I have decided on my meal. When I am crafting at home, I choose a wine and then build a menu around it. So fun!
How do you describe your winemaking style? I would describe my style as a combination of Old World and New World. None of Weather Station wines are heavily oaked so that the fruit can show through and showcase the beautiful vineyard. These wines are food friendly with depth and structure to lay down for years.
How are the Weather Station wines distinctive for you? Weather Station wines are distinctive because they showcase the vineyard in which they are grown. Strict attention to every detail in the vineyard and then once it arrives at the winery, come through in every wine. Choosing Weather Station Wines will showcase the area in which the grapes are grown. This cooler location combined with soils that stress the vines allows for longer hang-time in the vineyard – warm days and cooler nights yield wines with intense varietal character and excellent structure and backbone. Weather Station wines are vineyard specific to set them apart from other wines.
Do you have any winemakers whom you would count as influences on your style? Yes, I have two winemakers that have influenced my style over the years – Karl Wright and George Bursick (both CA winemakers originally). However, Karl Wright has collaborated with me in the WA industry for the last 20 years and he was the inspiration to plant the Weather Station Pinot Noir at Conner Lee Vineyard.
What advice would you have for people wanting to get into the winemaking industry? My advice to getting into the winemaking industry is to make sure you have a true passion for it. It’s messy, dirty and hard work. For me, it’s truly a labor of love! So only get into it for that reason because when you are knee deep in grapes and the press is broken and you are being swarmed with yellow jackets in 100-degree weather – you may need to remind yourself why you got into the business in the first place!
Weather Station wines are available at select retailers and restaurants in Texas and Washington. Around the Spokane area, they can be found city-wide at retailers like Yoke’s at Argonne, Atticus, Petunia’s Marketplace, Rocket Market & Vino! Restaurants featuring the wines are as diverse as Inland Pacific Kitchen, Hay J’s, Wanderlust Delicato, Park Lodge, Spencer’s Wild Sage, Max at Mirabeau, Ambrosia and Thai Garden among others. By the range of chefs who work with the winery, the range of appeal for these wines is broad and discriminating; I recommend trying the Cabernets sooner and letting the Pinot and Merlot age for a few years to express the broader range they possess. The Fume is a treat for the heat of summer and the fresh foods that come out of our land and sea-gardens.
Eric Cook’s Tasting Notes – June 2019
(Sauvignon) Fume Blanc, Columbia Valley 2018
There are not many Fume Blancs produced anymore! The process of aging of Sauvignon Blanc in oak barrels for a brief period fell off as the style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc established its broad audience in the 1990s. Despite the oak aging on this wine, these aromas only hint at the mineral smokiness that usually marked these wines. What is markedly present is an almost tropical fruit perfume to the wine’s aromas usually found in Sauvignon Musque varieties. By contrast, the flavor impressions of the wine are more of the high citrus, honeydew and green apple tones associated with Bordeaux Sauvignon, without the higher alcohols/textures. It is a remarkable wine for Washington State and will satisfy many palates for foods as diverse as Red Pepper Scampi, Roasted Chicken and Mango Salsa.
Pinot Noir Connor Lee Vineyard 2016
Pinot Noir’s appeal shows up in the mild earthy and floral suggestions, as in this wine, but the tannic bite of darker wines is replaced here with the brighter, more lively side of crisp acidity. This version is not as intense as some of Oregon’s examples, leaning more toward the red cherry/plum end of the fruit spectrum. Initially, the wine was so crisp and bright. We let the bottle stand on the counter with the cork for two days as well. The technique of leaving the wine to breathe in the bottle enabled it to really blossom and show off its mild spice and cigar aromas. This technique correlates to a few years of bottle aging where the crisper acidity mellows and the earthy notes come to the forefront. This wine will be memorable for the developed floral, darker plum impressions that caused the balance to match our Porcini Lamb Raviolis – and be drunk rather quickly.
Red Blend (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon) Columbia Valley 2017
For fans of red blends, this wine fills expectations of dark, oak-aged red at a great price. The crisp acid of the Sangiovese and the mellowed tannins of the Cabernet let the charred, sweet vanilla tannins of the oak show through to accompany grilled foods and preparations including bleu cheese. The oak influence is prominent, so for lovers of the style, this is a clear win.
Merlot Connor Lee Vineyard 2016
I understand why many people wrestle with choosing Merlot; there are light versions and tannic versions that confound those of us looking for a comfortable choice. This Merlot is a comfortable choice. This wine responded well to aeration and three days open – wow! The crisp red fruit and tannins mellowed into a structured and easy-drinking dark cherry, cedar version that was a delight to finish. What this means is that it is built to save in the cellar for a few years. Ageable wine does not come at this price very often, grab it while you can and save it for the 2024 presidential campaign when we may need to remember how good people and wine can be.
Cabernet Franc Connor Lee Vineyard 2017
Brighter, but not vegetal as so many Cabernet Francs, the ripeness is all fruit with finer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, built for highlighting the beefy New Yorks and Tenderloins of the world. This version does not display the bold oaking, nor the bell pepper, herbaceous quality that turns off so many Franc taste testers. The finish shows the broader spectrum of red and blue fruits with mild tannins. If this is the direction for Washington Cabernet Franc, it will be a more popular variety. These wines place somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for most tasters and choose it next to dishes with goat cheeses, mushrooms and grilled lamb.
Cabernet Sauvignon Stillwater Creek 2017
There are many powerful Cabernets of the world and this is not among them; instead it is among the beautiful Cabernet wines of the world – the wines of Graves, maybe or Spring Mountain definitely, where typicity is plain to see, but the force is restrained by a cooler climate or a lighter touch by a winemaker. There is a mild influence of charred oak. There are cherry fruits to this wine that do not always indicate Cabernet Sauvignon – but in the context of Washington, these redder fruits indicate a wine balanced to the lower tannin side of the spectrum. The wine will also age well for the next decade by the brighter acidity. I would choose this wine on hot, humid summer days over the next 4-6 years where the cuisine is fresh or grilled, or both, and the wine needs to have both in it as well.