New wineries launch in Washington all the time. Many fail. Some succeed. And a select few succeed so meteorically that they achieve cult-wine status, with filled mailing lists whose members wait with breathless anticipation of new releases. Woodinville’s Avennia is fast becoming a member of the latter camp, which raises the question: How did this winery do it in such a short time?
To start with, there was robust critical praise. “This was the best set of new wines I tasted in Washington,” enthused influential critic Stephen Tanzer of International Wine Cellar soon after Avennia’s first release in 2012—one in a series of accolades from the national wine press.
Since then, the wines have become more and more difficult to find. The majority of bottles are sold through Avennia’s mailing list, which offers members the opportunity to buy wines directly from the winery twice each year, with one spring release and one autumn release. The list is still open (for now), and the winery itself is only open three days each year for release events (and by appointment), making bottles even harder to come by.
Avennia is as buzzy a winery as there is in Washington right now, and according to winemaker/partner Chris Peterson, its success is “the result of two people with complementary skills meeting at a fortuitous time.” Peterson had the winemaking skills, after many years working at DeLille Cellars. He brought on Marty Taucher, a local executive looking to branch into the wine trade, as his harvest intern for the 2009 crush at DeLille. “I didn’t bring Marty on as an intern with the idea of starting a winery,” Peterson points out, but “after the dust of harvest had settled, we started to dig into his business plan, and I started to see the potential there.” Taucher, whose 15-year career at Microsoft included a five-year stint as a director of marketing and brand strategy, has the business side locked down.
By 2010, Avennia was up and running, crushing grapes at Efeste that year until its own winery was completed in 2011 and began crushing grapes in 2012. While many wineries take years to find outstanding fruit sources and develop a house style, Avennia launched with both already intact, the result of long conversations and Peterson’s “brand manifesto” and “winemaker’s point of view” documents.
The conversations weren’t always easy. “I came into this with a Napa Valley Reserve Cab mentality,” Taucher says. “I thought I would have this big, teeth-staining Red Mountain powerhouse wine, but I quickly came around to Chris’ point of view on our house style.”
That house style is summed up in the winery name, which is the Latin name for the city of Avignon in southern France. “One thing I always admired about French wines,” notes Peterson, “is the balance between fruit and non-fruit character. So I had this vision that we could make Washington wines that portrayed this balance, but would still unmistakably be Washington.” In other words, he wanted a house style that would retain the character of Washington’s terroir and yet also embrace a measure of ribald earthiness more commonly seen in European bottles.
To make this style of wine, Peterson knew exactly where to turn. “The first wine I always wanted to make that exemplified this idea was a Boushey Vineyard Syrah.” Dick Boushey, who grows highly sought-after grapes in the Yakima Valley, notes that along with Chris Peterson’s experience with DeLille, timing worked in his favor. “Avennia started when the wine business was feeling the effects of the economy,” Boushey says. “Premium wine sales were struggling, and consequently, there were extra grapes in vineyards that cater to high-end wineries.” Boushey sold Peterson and Taucher some of his famously earthy Syrah grapes, which have gone on to comprise several of the most striking wines in the broadly thrilling Avennia lineup.
(All five Avennia wines are outstanding, but these three are most likely to be available.)
2012 Avennia Oliane Sauvignon Blanc ($25)
Along with Syrah, Dick Boushey also sells Sauvignon Blanc grapes to Avennia. These grapes make up two-thirds of the blend; the remaining third comes from another venerable Yakima Valley site, Red Willow Vineyard. Oliane is barrel-fermented in 20 percent new oak. Aromatics combine floral components (petals and stems) with stone fruit (peaches and nectarines). The overall effect is akin to sticking your nose into a peach blossom. From a warm vintage, this is a ripe, creamy mouthful of peach fruit, with just a hint of Sauvignon Blanc’s grassy character. It is as supple as Sauvignon Blanc gets. Pairs with: Oysters Rockefeller.
2011 Avennia Justine ($38)
A blend of 46 percent Grenache (Alder Ridge Vineyard), 30 percent Mourvèdre (Kiona Heart of the Hill), and 24 percent Syrah (Angela’s Vineyard), Justine is a lovely mix of berry fruit (boysenberry, marionberry) and piercing underbrush notes. It is lushly textured, with the perfect amount of savory/gamey nuance from the Syrah and Mourvèdre to balance the plush Grenache fruit. Balance is the watchword across the entire Avennia lineup. These wines are tightrope walkers. Pairs with: Short ribs braised in a mix of porter beer, sweet onions and lots of fresh herbs.
2011 Avennia Arnaut Syrah, Boushey Vineyard ($48)
The new vintage of Seattle magazine’s 2013 Red Wine of the Year, this is 100 percent Syrah from a singular Washington vineyard, and it saw a very low (15 percent) proportion of new French oak, so it’s the fruit that shines brightest. If you like smoke, bacon fat and a whole mess of other charcuterie-related reference points in your wines, this is a wine to get you salivating. The balance between fruit and savory characters is spot-on. If you haven’t experienced “the Boushey funk,” this would be the place to start. Pairs with: Pork belly and wild mushrooms over creamy polenta.