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One on One with Winemaker: Dennis Murphy, Caprio Cellars

December 2, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Source: Caprio Cellars

It is a known fact that wine is produced in all 50 states in the US. And I will clearly risk it to alienate many people, but with all due respect to New York, Texas, and Virginia, there are only three belonging to the “big three” – California, Oregon, and Washington. It is Washington I want to talk about today.

I don’t know how this works, but when I think about Washington wines, I feel warm and fuzzy. I don’t know if it relates to wonderful experiences, such as the visit to Chateau Ste. Michelle, getting lost in Woodinville or exploring Walla Walla, or maybe it is because of some of the most amazing American wines being produced in Washington, such as the whole range of Cayuse wines, L’Ecole No41, Guardian Cellars, Mark Ryan, and countless others.

And today, I want to bring to your attention one of my very latest Washington wine discoveries – Caprio Cellars in Walla Walla.

On one side, Caprio Cellars’ story is absolutely “normal” (yes, an interesting choice of word here – what does “normal” even mean, right?). Dennis Murphy purchased a plot of land in Walla Walla Valley (previously a wheat field) in 2003. The first vines were planted in 2005, and the vineyard was called Eleanor in honor of Dennis’ grandmother, Eleanor Caprio; after the first harvest in 2008, the winery got the name of Caprio Cellars, and the rest is history. The second vineyard, Octave, was planted on the hillside in 2007. The latest high-altitude vineyard, Sanitella, was planted on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA. Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec are planted across all three sustainably farmed vineyards, with the addition of Sauvignon Blanc planted on Sanitella.

This is where “normal” ends. What is unique about Caprio cellars is that your tasting is always complimentary (okay, yes, this still can happen in the other places). You also have complimentary chef-prepared dishes accompanying your tasting flight, with the seasonal menu  – yes, complimentary, as in “free of charge” (I hope you are getting as impressed as I am because I’m not sure where else you can find that). And Dennis is very passionate about charities he supports. That definitely puts Caprio Cellars in the category of its own.

After tasting a few of the Caprio Cellars wines, I was ready to talk to Dennis. While we were unable to meet in person (something I really hope to rectify in the near future), we sat down with Dennis virtually, and he patiently answered all of my questions – and now I would like to share our conversation with you. Before we begin, one small note – this is a long conversation, and you definitely shouldn’t miss the answers to the questions at the end of this conversation. So I suggest you will settle in your favorite chair, pour yourself a glass of wine, and come along!

Dennis Murphy. Source: Caprio Cellars

[TaV]: Growing up, what was your exposure to the wine culture?

[DM]: Growing up, I remember my dad and grand parents making wine in the garage or the basement.  Some was good, some was not so good.  Wine was always a part of the dinner celebration, holidays and family gatherings.

[TaV]: Was there a pivotal wine in your life?

[DM]: The wine that brought me to Walla Walla was L’ Ecole No. 41 Merlot.  I tasted this wine at a restaurant in Seattle and was blown away.  I then started stopping at the winery and collecting the wine and eventually moved to Walla Walla.

[TaV]: When and how have you decided that you will own a winery? 

[DM]: After tasting some Walla Walla wines and visiting Walla Walla, I fell in love with the town and moved.  I could feel the energy in the wine scene emerging and moved to Walla Walla in 1999.  There were just a hand full of wineries, so I started to make myself available during harvest and made some friends in the wine industry.  In 2003 I purchased the winery estate property and in 2005 I planted my first vineyard, the Eleanor Vineyard.

[TaV]: Any plans for stepping outside of Bordeaux play – how about Syrah or Grenache which are so popular in Washington? Or maybe some Sangiovese or Tempranillo?   

[DM]: I only make wines that I love to consume.  I would look at Grenache, I love Grenache and think that the valley can produce some good fruit.  We are making sparkling wine, I am intrigued to make a sparkling Rosé.  I believe that focus is required to make world-class wine.  I am focused on making world-class red Bordeaux-style wines from Walla Walla.

[TaV]: Considering your Italian heritage, do you have any favorite Italian wine regions, wines, or producers? 

[DM]: It will not surprise you, I am a Super Tuscan guy.  I think that the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot show very well.  One of my favorite all time wines is the 1997 Ornellaia.

[TaV]: Are there any wineries and/or winemakers in Walla Walla who you would consider as your source of inspiration?   

[DM]: Seven Hills/ Casey McClellan makes my favorite wine in the valley, the Pentad.  Casey is a great winemaker, makes solid wines and the valley is fortunate to have him.

Source: Caprio Cellars

Source: Caprio Cellars

[TaV]: You are practicing sustainable farming – what does it entail in your daily routine?   

[DM]: Sustainable farming is really about being as hands off the vineyard as possible, letting the land and crop do their thing naturally.  Sustainable farming is very important for the industry and the environment.  Mother Nature can provide anything that a chemical or synthetic can provide, you just have to work at it.

[TaV]: Any plans to advance your farming towards biodynamics?  

[DM]:  I do not have any current plans to farm biodynamic, but I have not ruled it out either.

[TaV]: First harvest at Caprio Cellars was in 2008. Do you still have any of those wines in your cellar? How are they evolving?  

[DM]: Yes, I have the 2008 Caprio Cabernet Sauvignon, it was the only wine we made that year.  I keep about 50 cases per vintage in the library, this would be considered a lot, but I like to keep more wine around for winemaker dinners, etc.  The 2008 Caprio is holding up well and we get to visit it occasionally.

[TaV]: Any plans for more white wines in the future?   

[DM]: Caprio grows Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, these two varietals do well in our higher elevation Sanitella Vineyard.  We release our Sauvignon Blanc in the spring, it is a crowd-pleaser and sells out quickly.  We also make a rose’ of Cabernet Franc, this is a beautiful spring released wine as well.

[TaV]: Where do you see Caprio Cellars in 10-15 years? 

[DM]: Caprio will be at our production goal of 5,000 cases per year.  I believe this production is a sweet spot for a winery and you can still maintain quality.  We will continue to provide a unique approach to hospitality, I am not sure what is next on that front, but we will continue to be the thought leader in our industry in the Walla Walla valley and push the envelope, it is in our DNA.

Let’s take a little break and taste some wines. I had an opportunity to taste two of the estate wines, Bordeaux blend, Eleanor, from 2017 and 2018 vintages. Here are my notes – and some related conversation right after:

2017 Caprio Cellars Eleanor Estate Red Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $48, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 12% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc, 65% Octave Vineyard / 35% Eleanor Vineyard, 18 months in 100% French oak – 35% new oak / 65% neutral barrel)
Dark Garnet
Minerality, underbrush, herbal profile – fruit undetectable
Expressive minerality, cherry pit, espresso, massive presence – typical Washington red which needs time (and hope) – and these are second day notes. Too big for my palate on the first day.
7+/8-

2018 Caprio Cellars Eleanor Estate Red Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $48, 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 15% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc, 53% Octave Vineyard / 47% Eleanor Vineyard, 18 months in 100% French oak-  35% new oak / 65% neutral barrel)
Dark garnet
Blackberries, a touch of eucalyptus and cassis
Beautiful. Perfect mid-palate weight, silky smooth and velvety, cassis, cherries, supple, voluptuous.
8+, superb from the get-go.

[TaV]: This question is two-part about the wines I tasted:

First, the bottle of 2017 Eleanor is capped with foil, and 2018 is not. Why the change? Is this going to be the style moving forward?

[DM]: I am a traditional guy, I do love a foil cap on a bottle of wine.  In line with our sustainability efforts, we held a customer focus group and it turns out that most customers prefer not to have the foil.  We decided to leave it off in 2018 and it has been well received.  I believe all future wines will not have a foil cap.

Now, the question which I never ask, but this time I have to. I tasted first 2017 Eleanor Red, and the wine was massive and tight – very typical for Washington reds, I call this type of wines “liquid rock” – lots of minerality and limited fruit. The wine opened up a bit on a second day but still was very tight. 2018 Eleanor Red, on the other hand, was approachable from the get go – Bordeaux style fruit, layered and smooth. Can you explain such a dramatic difference between these two wines? The grape composition is very similar, was that the terroir? Winemaking?

[DM]: Acid – the 2018 was the first vintage I nailed the acid level.  It is a tight rope when it comes to acid, but 2018 and the 2019 are near perfect.  I was pretty excited when I opened the 2018 Eleanor after bottling.  Additionally, the vintages differed, 2017 was a tough year to get ripe, there were some photosynthesis issues that vintage.  The 2018 vintage was a playbook vintage.  What is funny is that in the tasing room we would taste the 2017 and 2018 side by side and the verdict was a 50/50 split.  The 2017 was the fastest selling Eleanor we have produced, but the 2018 Eleanor is a critic’s favorite.

[TaV]: I understand that Caprio Cellars also supports a number of charities. What was the motivation behind this program? How do you decide what charities to support? 

[DM]: Giving is a part of my every day living, it is in my fabric as a human.  I created the phrase “give as you go”, this phrase is at the core of the purpose statement for my construction company.   It was only natural for me to carry this belief to Caprio when we started.  Caprio gives resources to many charities, mostly in the form of auction donations of wine and winemaker dinners.  The winemaker dinners are very popular and bring a large amount of funds to the charity.  Caprio focuses most monetary giving to First Story and Big Brother Big Sister.  My construction company founded First Story and it helps families that otherwise would not have a home to get a home of their own.  I have been a Big Brother for 18 years now and was on the board of directors, so it is a cause near and dear to me.

[TaV]: Last question is from the “how do they do it???” line. I understand that the wine tastings at Caprio Cellars are complementary. Not only that, but you also feed people! I read a number of discussions on professional wine forums with explanations that winery is a business and that literally how dare the wine lovers to expect their tasting to be complementary. And here is Caprio Cellars which does exactly that. So how do you do it and why? How is it working for you?

[DM]: I had no interest in opening a tasting room and charging a tasting fee.  It seems like our industry has evolved into that business model.  That model doesn’t make any sense to me.  I wanted to disrupt the industry and focus on hospitality and the customer.  Specifically focusing on the customer journey.  We held focus groups at the beginning with Joseph Michelli (NYT bestselling author and consultant) from the Michelli group.  Joseph believes that most businesses do not pay attention to their customers’ needs until it is too late in the customer journey.  The Caprio tasting experience is based on the equity theory, I do something nice for you and in return, you will do something nice for me.  The majority of the industry takes a tasting fee from the customer and gives it back “if you decide to buy”.  We are all adults here; I do not need to take your money and give it back.  I spent hours in other tasting rooms watching the customers sit in their group and have an agonizing group discussion on “how are we going to get out of here alive with our tasting fee”, discussions about you not liking the Syrah or him not liking the Chardonnay.  Why put your customer through this process?  At Caprio, we skip this pain point and we add the pleasure of a hand-crafted food pairing from our Executive Chef Ian Williams.  My grandmother Eleanor Caprio is to blame or credit for the food pairing, if she knew I invited you over for a glass of wine and I didn’t offer you food, she would be very disappointed in me.  The food program at Caprio was nonnegotiable when we opened, it is part of our program and a distinguishing advantage to our experience.  Here is the punch line, if you like the food and wine pairing, we ask you to purchase a couple of additional bottles of Caprio to pay it forward to the next guest in our care.  So far it is working out well and the ecosystem is taking care of itself, it is a beautiful thing, but somebody had to have the guts to try it.

Here we are, my friends. A wonderful story of passion, good wine, and a unique business approach. If your travel will bring you to Walla Walla, Caprio Cellars should be on your visit list. And if your travel will not bring you to Walla Walla … change your travel plans! Cheers!

 

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