Andrew Rich pioneered the development of Rhone varietal based wines in Oregon. Today, he makes small amounts of Rhone varietal based wines with such a following, the wines are largely sold from the winery before release.
Back when Syrah was no more than an occasional novelty on a winery's list of offerings, Andrew was asking the owners of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard to plant Malbec, Roussanne, Syrah, Mourvedre, and additional Rhone grapes for him. That effort, which started in the mid-1990's, has blossomed into a lineup of Andrew Rich wines that incorporate the now mature grapes he pushed for ten to fifteen years ago. While Andrew makes popular, highly regarded Pinot noir and Sauvignon Blanc as well, it’s the possibility of making truly great Rhône-style wines in the Northwest that excites him most.
Though he feels a primal connection to old-world Syrah, he sees a distinctive balance in the Rhône varietals in the Northwest that is well suited to the wines he wants to make. “The Rhône varietals in Washington, not unlike their Bordeaux counterparts, show more fruit here than in the Rhône,” he observes, “but they’re not as obvious, I think, as the California Rhônes. The acids tend to be low, as in the southern Rhône valley. But I think our tannins may ripen better than in California, making them very approachable, and easy to drink early on.”
Although Rich says his first love is Syrah, particularly from the northern Rhône, he went overseas to receive his oenology and viticulture training in Burgundy. He began at a program in Dijon, recommended to him by Ted Lemon, the first American winemaker to take up the reins of a Burgundy domaine. After receiving his degree in France, Rich wrote to Randall Grahm seeking employment at Bonny Doon, then the biggest producer of Rhône wines in the U.S. He started in the cellar earning a meager wage, and soon afterward faced a rather unexpected challenge. “They said, ‘oh, you’re going to distill,’” he recalls. “I mean this is typical Randall Grahm. I said, ‘I don’t know anything about distilling,’ but I didn’t really know anything about working in the cellar either, so I guess it didn’t make any difference.”
He spent a few years making eau-de-vie and brandy, distilled from whole fruit and wines. When they weren’t selling, Grahm soon gave up on them, but he clearly recognized ingenuity in Rich, putting him in charge of his new cellar for white wines in Santa Cruz. There Rich made the estate’s first Marsanne and Roussanne and also developed his expertise with dessert wines—for which he remains justly known.
“The experience was invaluable,” he says of working with the maker of such charismatic American Rhône translations as Le Cigare Volant and Old Telegram. The two clearly shared the same venturesome spirit and profound affection for Rhône varietals. But with the rapid expansion of the winery, Rich began to feel that all he was ever doing was bottling, and he started to consider launching his own enterprise farther north. Moving to Oregon in 1992, he contacted friends and founded Andrew Rich Wines, culminating in his winery based out of the Carlton Winemakers Studio.