Mark Ryan McNeilly is a Washington wine star who started making wine in 1999. While Mark is now a seasoned wine industry veteran with more than a decade of winemaking success and tons of critical praise, has always been remarkably modest about his winemaking.
In 2009, Mike Macmorran moved from assistant to full-on winemaker. The collaboration between them has produced the best Mark Ryan wines to date.
The Early Days Time spent by Mark in restaurants waiting tables and bartending led to a sales job for a Seattle wine distributor.
"When I was in sales I was able to taste dozens of wines per week in an analytical situation, where everyone was talking about their perceptions and trying to understand the wine. That really helped my palate." That, in turn, led to a two year stint as national sales manager for Matthews Cellars in Woodinville.
Working at Matthews gave me a whole new skill set in selling wine and dealing with distributors," he says. "It also got me into the cellar where I was working more hands on with wine."
Those jobs, along with work at Steele Winery in Lake County, California where he worked in the lab, the vineyard and on the crush pad, provided the practical education which culminated in the launching of his own label in 1999.
Influences Anyone starting a new venture can use a little encouragement, and winemakers are no different. On the craft side, Mark McNeilly credits Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyards - then winemaker at Kiona - with being one of his early (and most patient) influences.
"I'd have him on the phone at all hours of the night and I'd be freaking out. Every conversation I had with him I'd start out by saying - I think I screwed it up again!"
Another early confidence building moment came at a dinner with famed Italian winemaker Domenico Clerico. "He actually loved my 2001 Dead Horse," remembers McNeilly. "I kept trying to hide my wine bottles behind his because I didn't want him to find them. He finally found them and he loved them!" A nice vote of confidence from a fellow maker of bold reds, as well a foreshadowing of critical success to come.
Future Ventures If you ask McNeilly to look into the proverbial crystal ball, he sees himself owning vineyards sometime in the future.
"Not owning the land where my grapes come from is always a little bit nerve wracking," he says. "I have great relationships with vineyards, so I'm confident in them."
But the grand winery facility, acreage and tasting room is not what he's ultimately after - it's control, every winemaker's nirvana. "I'm always looking at vineyard opportunities," he adds, "but I'd much rather plant a vineyard than build a winery."
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