an evening with travis scarborough: a washington francophile at heart.

washington wine, Wine Blog, Wine Education

Just a few short days ago, I was invited to attend a dinner at Bittersweet hosted by Scott Thompson, the owner of Sauce Distributing. By his side was a winemaker I have wanted to shake hands with since the moment I learned of his project in Tukwila, Washington: Travis Scarborough of Scarborough Wines. Bearing a name with such weight and distinction, I can safely say he has done the family proud.

Every now and again, a wild hair can go a long way. That is precisely how this winery started—a crazy, far-flung notion that perhaps he had what it takes to make wine in a way no one really had in Washington. He wanted to make it, well, a little more Euro. By that, I mean that he wanted to put terroir and the variety itself up on a pedestal, not obscuring its sensational self with filtration or gobs of oak. And so he did, along with buddy Darryn O’Shea who has recently left to take on his own new adventure.

A native born Napa boy, Scarborough recalls moving to Washington in order to spread his wings. He was a full time accidental bartender/beverage manager at a French restaurant while working full time as a distributor as well when it occurred to him that he had a few more hours in his day to take on winemaking. Who needs sleep? Overrated when you are a young, ambitious buck! After a recent visit back home, he was disappointed with the vogue ‘hang time’ and new oak that sat between him and the wine. However, he was inspired to give winemaking a try. All his readings of Cornas and Bordeaux had him thinking there was a need for something a little different in the Evergreen state.

And so, it began with a garage. And it still goes on in a garage of sorts. He picks his plots with utmost scrutiny. As he said, land of his own would be a very sweet thing… but it ain’t cheap. Not every day do I come across garagistes with such passion and true talent as Scarborough. But man, he has it. The following are a few sips from that night…

2009 Desolation Chardonnay

If you think you know domestic Chardonnay, you will need to recalibrate your perception. Herein lies a wine that saw ½  used oak, ½ stainless steel for fermentation then reunited in used barrel on contact with their lees for 18 months. Racked only twice, this wine gains its rich bodice from that lees intervention that occurs. No malo—something Scarborough is quite quick and proud to point out. The balance is exquisite. Truly silk on the palate.

2009 Midnight ‘MSG’

They like to kid about the normally spelled GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) blend that goes into this red. I have to say. I have had many from both Washington and California. But not all are as memorable as this one. Harvested from young, rocky vineyards in Yakima Valley, this wine is a combination of 40% Mourvedre (giving it some beautiful aromatics of crushed rose, blueberries and smoked game), 40% Grenache (providing some heat, tart cranberries and rich ripe cherries and raspberry), and 20% Syrah (a nice touch to give it a little structure and presence across the board along with some distinctive notes of black pepper). While were having this wine, he discussed the importance of barrel integrity—how he meticulously tests each one after every racking. He gets to know them very well—as well as the wine. This is a detail that is often overlooked but critical in Scarborough’s opinion.

2009 Royal

A blend of Merlot (32%), Cabernet Franc (25%), Cab Sauv (24%) and Petite Verdot (19%), this blend is built to make you swoon. At least, it got me to that night. Deep plummy notes and cocoa hug the core, but interlaced are dark petaled floral tones and red, ripe fruit. It is an easy wine, but not overly simple. Scarborough feels it is best out of the gate, whereas some others need a little time to come out of their shell. I would have to agree that of the lineup, this was the chattiest that evening. A crowd pleaser without being compromising in character or elegance.

2009 Main Event

This one is made to age…and impress. For the big red drinker in your life, this is how you introduce them to Scarborough and his style of winemaking. For although it was the heaviest hitter of the evening, this red by no means crosses the line that so easily turns these hefty boys into flabby, uninteresting men. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (76%), Merlot (16%) and Petite Verdot (8%), Scarborough says if the Royal was his ‘Right Bank’ red, then this would be his ‘Left Bank’ alternative. I have always gravitated towards the right, so I must admit, I was a little more into the Royal. That’s how it’s supposed to be, though. Ask me to retry these in 5 years, and I bet I go the other direction.

But honestly? It was the Chardonnay and MSG really won me over. At least that night.

Thankfully, nutty notions such as Sacrborough’s get our country to move forward with creative, dynamic and diverse winemaking. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for a big, fruity oak bombs of wine (I think?). But they verge on all being clones of one another. One cannot discern if the wine is Central Coast or Mendocino, St. Helena or Walla Walla. And that’s a problem. What’s the point in the end? The most resonant thing Scarborough said that night was this: “I want to taste what the vineyard and vintage will do from year to year.” Take the good with the bad—that is life and that truly is the meaning of bottling a vintage.

Some people like to tease me that I am a Francophile. Truth is, I derive as much pleasure from wines like those of Scarborough, as I do those across the pond. The common denominator is that I can smell a sense of place…and passion. It is that personality I remember that makes an impression on me. The fact that there might be more in Europe at this point is just how it is. But damn, I get excited when I can discover how Washington, California and Oregon truly ‘taste’ through thoughtful wines like Scarborough’s.