Home > Art, Grapes, one on one, Oregon wine, Pinot Noir, wine appreciation, Winemakers, Winery > Stories of Passion and Pinot: Tony Rynders of Tendril Cellars

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Tony Rynders of Tendril Cellars

Wine and passion are indelible. Yes, wine is a business for the most parts, but making a bottle of wine which someone else is desiring to drink is a labor of love, and every such bottle has a bit of the winemaker’s soul invested in it (feel free to call me melodramatic). Thus I’m always happy to talk to the winemakers, trying to understand what moves them, what drives them to do what they do. A lot of my conversations are virtual, and you can find most of them on this blog.

Many of interviews are truly random in terms of profiling the wineries and winemakers. However, about 2 years ago, with a prompt and help of Carl Giavanti, I started a series of posts called Stories of Passion and Pinot, which are dedicated (so far, at least) to the winemakers in Oregon, producing Pinot Noir wines. Winemakers are always passionate about what they do and the grapes they use – but it seems to me that Pinot Noir, being a difficult grape it is, really asking for a special dedication to allow itself to be tamed – hence the name for the series.

My latest addition to the series is a conversation with Tony Rynders, the proprietor and winemaker at the Tendril Wine Cellars, a young winery in Willamette Valley in  Oregon (the winery officially started 10 years ago, in 2008). While the winery is young, Tony is an accomplished winemaker, who started making wine back in 1989, honed his craft at the wineries around the world, including 10 years as a head winemaker at Domaine Serene, one of the best-known wineries in Oregon.

When Tendril Cellars started, it owned no vineyards, which essentially gave Tony a flexibility to bring the best fruit from the Oregon vineyards he was already familiar with. To my surprise, Tendril Cellars only offers one single-vineyard bottling in their line of  5 different Pinot Noir wines – but you will find an explanation below. In 2013, Tendril Cellars planted a 19 acres Maverick vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton district with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – the vineyard already producing the fruit which is going into the Tendril Cellar’s second line of wines, Child’s Play (a creative name for the wine, don’t you think?).

Tony 5 Courses instruction 2

Tony Rynders leading five course tasting

Tony calls his approach to winemaking “low and slow” – letting the nature to do its work. He is also aging all of his Pinot Noir wines for 16-17 months, which I find particularly appealing. And then, how many winemakers do you know who run organized tastings for their customers? That is what Tony does, presenting his wines as a “5-course meal” and explaining the concept of terroir to the wine consumers (after tasting Tendril wines, Tony’s approach to the tasting makes perfect sense to me – but we will discuss it in the next post).

After learning a bit about Tony and Tendril Cellars, I decided that the time came to sit down (yes, virtually) with Tony and ask him a few questions. Here is what transpired.

[TaV]: You started making wine for others in 1989. Was there something which prompted you to start making your own wines in 2010, a pivotal moment, or you simply decided that it is time to make wines “my way”?

[TR]: I have had several opportunities making wine since I began in 1989.  Each one has contributed in some way to influence my approach to making wine.  I can tell you that I am a much different winemaker today than I was when I started.  I think it is critical that we continue to evolve and adapt as the climate, consumers, and wine preferences change.

In fact, I started my own brand, Tendril, in 2008.  I was just coming off a 10-year stint as head winemaker at Domaine Serene.  It was a highly formative period in my career as there was a massive shift toward new, estate vineyards during my tenure. The creative “heavy lifting” took place largely during my watch.  I accomplished everything I set out to and more.  It was time for my next big challenge…creating a portfolio of wines for my own brands from scratch.  And tell a story about Pinot Noir in a way that it had not yet been told.

[TaV]: You worked at the wineries around the world. Are there any winemakers you would consider your mentors, either directly or indirectly?

[TR]: There is one fact in winemaking that I completely embrace: There is no way to learn it all…I will never stop learning, growing and evolving.   Every winemaker I have worked with has mentored me, including but not limited to, Rollin Soles, Ken Wright, Co Dinn, Jean-Francois Pellet and David Forsyth.

[TaV]: Can you explain your “low and slow” approach to the winemaking?

[TR]: Just like the “slow food” movement, I use top quality ingredients (grapes) from attentive, engaged farmers (vineyards) with whom I have a very close relationship.  I have hand chosen each of our vineyards myself and each brings a distinctive flavor profile (like spices) in order to make our signature “five-course meal” of Pinot Noir.

For all the Tendril wines, I over-vintage the wines in barrel (at least 16 months) and then bottle age 12 months or more prior to release.  The wines are then at the front end of their drinkability curve, with the potential for a decade enjoyment ahead of them.

[TaV]: I find it interesting that in your range of Pinot Noir you have only one vineyard-designated bottling – I always think that designated vineyards and even specific plots are better identify with quality of the grapes and the resulting wines – obviously you don’t see it like that?

[TR]: While I love to make single vineyard wines, I find that not every site is able to produce balanced, compelling and complete wines every year.  And that, simply put, is my goal as a winemaker.  So this is how the unique story and line-up of wines for Tendril was born.  When I started Tendril, I knew that I wanted to do something different with my portfolio of wines.  And it took 6 years to complete the lineup (Extrovert 2008, TightRope 2009, Single Vineyard (Guadalupe) 2011, C-Note 2011, Pretender 2013).

The common model that exists for Pinot Noir is the single vineyard model.  Wineries make 5-15 (or more) single vineyard wines in a given vintage.  The problem is that not all of the sites deliver on their promise of distinctiveness every year.  The true test is a horizontal tasting in which all of the wines are evaluated blind.  In a given year, some wines are great, some under deliver and some taste quite similar in a given line-up.  This is not consistent with my goal.

So, I created my own, unique model for Pinot Noir.  Each of my wines is distinctive and complete.  Collectively, they show a progression of flavors that mirrors the progression of dishes in a five-course meal.  My wines gain in intensity, darker fruit character and structure as the “courses” progress.  And each of the wines must re-qualify for their place in the lineup each and every year.

I believe single vineyard wines should be special.  Since all wineries charge more money for them, I think they should be worth it.  So we typically do just one offering per year that is, simply put, the “wine of the cellar” from just one site.  As I had anticipated, it has proven to be rotational (4 vineyards in 7 vintages).  It is like a Christmas present in that you don’t know what it is until you open it.

Tendril Cellars Pinot Noir

[TaV]: Your C-Note Pinot Noir is designated as “whole cluster fermented” – is that a substantial differentiator to make it the “top of the line” wine, or is there something else behind it?

[TR]: Of the Pinot Noir line-up, the C-Note is the most stylized wine yet at the same time requires the greatest amount of restraint.  Whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir is a technique that I have only attempted since 2011.  The was the first year I made a wine using 100% whole cluster…and it was so successful that it became our first C-Note bottling.

For C-Note, we use 100% Pinot Noir, 100% Whole Cluster fermentation, and age in 100% new French Oak barrels (air dried 3 + years).  The restraint comes into play in order to reign in the “whole clustery-ness” and tame the oak impact to mimic a wine with half the new oak exposure.  We are extremely gentle with our cap management to control the whole cluster notes and we select the most subtle, elegant barrels coupled with long aging to integrate the oak flavors.  C-Note is all about complexity, texture and mind-blowing length.  I love making wines that surprise and beguile.

[TaV]: You are one of the very few winemakers who conduct organized tastings. Can you explain what you are trying to showcase with your 5-course Pinot Noir approach?

[TR]: Yes, I believe the best way to showcase these wines and share this unique experience is to do seated tastings.  Like a five-course meal, our tasting take time (typically an hour and a half or more).  But people leave here feeling that that have experienced something truly special…and that is pretty rare.  They are shocked that they enjoyed each and every wine they tasted.

I began working in restaurants at a young age.  I cooked for several years and really enjoyed it.  A few years after I started making wines, I realized that I was using the exact same skill set to make wine that I used to cook.  I am truly a “wine cook” and make wine with that sensibility.

I wanted to showcase a diverse range of flavor profiles that can be accomplished on an annual basis with Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley.  Each offering is distinctive, unique and impeccably balanced.  Collectively, they showcase perhaps the greatest range of flavors and textures of Pinot Noir under one brand.

[TaV]: To follow on the previous question, how receptive are your customers (typically) to what you are presenting in the tasting? Do they get your point? Do you offer people to taste the wines blind and to try to identify what they are tasting?

[TR]: The beautiful thing about the “five-course meal” context of our tasting is that EVERYBODY can relate to that experience.  People completely get it and they really get into it.  The wines show a progression of flavors just like a multi-course meal.  They also increase in intensity much like turning up the volume on a radio.

At this stage, the tastings are not blind and are tasted one at a time.  And I don’t have the ability to pair food at this time.  But we have done the “five-course meal” here at the winery a few times. It was a huge success.

[TaV]: Maybe an odd-ball question here – wine is an adult beverage, and nevertheless, you called your line of wines “Child’s Play” (I personally like it very much, especially the labels). Do you think wine consumers might find this controversial? Did anyone ever comment on this wine name?

[TR]: I am a huge fan of the “double entendre”.  Here it is actually triple.  1) My kids playing…my two daughters paintings are the original artwork for all the labels 2) We winemakers are big kids and we get to “play” with offering unique wines (the Pinot Chardonnay is the only still version of Chardonnay and white Pinot Noir in the country…to my knowledge), Zinfandel from WA (a unicorn wine), and a stylistically different Rose of Pinot Noir.  The Pinot Noir is just damn good. 3) Child’s Play implies it’s easy…so easy a kid could do it.  We are taking the pretension out of wine with the packaging and the wines inside.  Great value for money…as it should be.

My customers love it.  The only objection came from the Feds…and a simple paragraph explaining point 3) above got us our label approval.

[TaV]: This one is more of the pet peeve question for me. Your Tendril wines are enclosed with the corks (makes me very happy to see it). The Child’s Play line uses screwtops, so obviously the screwtop idea is not foreign to you. I know that some winemakers in Oregon swear by alternative closures (like Don Hagge at Vidon with the glass stopper), but I personally think that the wine needs a cork to age properly. What is your take on this subject?

[TR]: While I like the idea of cork, the execution of the closure has haunted me for my entire career.  Corks are highly variable in both their flavor impact on the wines as well as the oxygen permeability.  Each one is unique and has an unintended impact on my wine.  I believe natural corks are a huge problem and as such, I no longer use them.  But I do gladly use a cork product in my Tendril wines (looks like a duck and quacks like a duck) that provides consistency of density and very low aromatic impact.  I would be happy to talk to you about this topic some time.  I have researched it for years.

Screw caps are new to me, but I love them in the Child’s Play line to further differentiate the brand from Tendril.  I think the MSRP $30 price point avoids any potential push back on the choice of closure.

[TaV]: Sparkling wines are so popular nowadays, almost everyone is making them, and often with very good results. Considering your experience at Argyle, should we expect to see Tendril sparkling wine at some point in the future?

[TR]: Maybe…but I will wait until we have a great sparkling wine vintage (cool and slow ripening) to make that decision.  If you asked my wife (who is a sparkling junkie), the answer would be yes.

I would only do it if it could have the potential to be a truly special offering.

Maverick Vineyard

Maverick Vineyard

[TaV]: What is in the store for your new Maverick vineyard? How are you planning to farm it – sustainable, organic, biodynamic? Out of 19 acres, you have 10.5 allocated for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – what about the rest? Any plans to expand beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – let’s say, Pinot Gris, Riesling, etc?

[TR]: At this time, Maverick is LIVE.  We plan to move towards organic over the next few years.  It is an incredibly well behaved site that is already producing strong personality wines.  I view this as a highly desirable trait for a young vineyard.  The Chardonnay for the Pinot Chardonnay (70% of the blend) is all Maverick.  This is the first bottled wine coming from Maverick.

No plans for other varietals at this time.  But the clonal mix for the Pinot Noir (943, Swan, Calera and Mt. Eden) is pretty unusual.

[TaV]: Oregon is clearly a leader in Pinot Noir, considered by many as simply the best in the world, and it is also getting to the same level of recognition with the Chardonnays. What is ahead for the Oregon wine industry? Is the future bright and sunny, or do you see any clouds on the horizon?

[TR]: To me, the only constant is change.  By that I mean that to continue to succeed as an industry, we need to be engaged (both locally and on a world stage), we need to be adaptive (as our climate continues to change, we are in for more and different challenges), and we need to be more concerned about the sustainability of our environment (both locally and throughout the world).

I believe we will have sun and clouds…and perhaps some rain.   Just the weather we always have in Oregon 😉

[TaV]: When you are not drinking Tendril wines, what are your favorites from the other producers and/or regions?

[TR]: Lately I have been enjoying Graham-Beck sparkling wine from South Africa.

Or give me a good single malt Scotch…

Here we are, my friends. I’m sure you are thirsty at this point, but we will talk about Tendril Cellars wines in the next post.

To be continued…

 

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  1. May 11, 2018 at 7:46 am

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