One Man's Wine

Suppose that, right out of college, you decide you want to spend your life making wine—your own wine, not someone else's. Your family isn't wealthy, nor does it own vineyards or a winery, both fairly high-capital enterprises. What do you do to break into a very high-stakes game? Ross Mickel is doing it the hard way. To get a toehold in the business, he worked the harvest in Oregon's Willamette Valley, picking up what he could during the most frenzied weeks in the winemaker's year. With a little experience under his belt, he began apprenticing to established winemakers, trading his labor for their experience. In time, he established an ongoing year-round relationship with Bob Betz, one of the Northwest's most respected wine scientists and educators, and, in a very small way, one of its most respected winemakers as well. Delivering Betz wines to the specialty shops selected to carry them, Mickel made more connections, so that when, in 2003, he released 250 cases (3,000 bottles) under his own Ross Andrew label, he wasn't just another unknown competing for top retailers' attention and shelf space. Mickel's ongoing association with Betz also helped when buying grapes; his second (2001) release, due out this fall, was composed of fruit from name acreage like Alder Ridge, Boushey, and Hedges. Many beginning winemakers try to hedge their bets by making half a dozen different wines; often, distracted, they fail to ring the bell with any. For the foreseeable future, Mickel plans to make just one, labeled as cabernet sauvignon but containing a legally permissible admixture of merlot fruit. This choice has both advantages and disadvantages: In Washington, as in California, the cabernet market is dominated by famous labels with long pedigrees and commanding high prices. A newcomer has to price his product modestly enough to persuade sophisticated buyers to experiment (Mickel's '01 Ross Andrew will run $25), but high enough to indicate that he's serious about contending with the big names. (Fair or not, wines priced under $20 rarely develop much buzz where buzz counts.) A lot of cabernet winemakers go for maximum heft and impact: The result can be impressive but rough, and need a few years in bottle to lose their asperity. Mickel prefers a suaver approach; the wine he's releasing this fall has been a year in bottle to date, but, a distinctive cabernet aroma apart, it's as easy on the palate as wines made mostly from the traditionally softer merlot grape, though the blend is actually four-fifths cab. Mickel upped his production slightly for the '01, to 350 cases; 425 cases of the '02 are slated for '05 release. When you consider that the '03 Ross Andrew is already waiting to be blended before the '01 is released, you can see why Mickel favors a wine that asks to be drunk right away. "It's a pretty big investment, spending three years making wine before you find out whether anyone likes the style of wine you make."

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