Search & Distill: A Rookie Winemaker in France

The rest of us talk about it, but Doug Graves really did sell all his belongings and buy a vineyard.

Seattleite Doug Graves started winemaking as a hobby a decade ago, because the wines of France's Rhône Valley were a particular passion. Doug and his wife, Debbie, made their first trip to the south of France in 1995, falling in love with the region—in particular the southern Rhône, a land of rolling hills and vineyards sprung out of sun-bleached stones. They dreamed that one day they'd move to and make wine in the area, but unfortunately Debbie passed away in 2004 after a long bout with breast cancer, leaving her husband to fend for their dream himself.In 2007, Graves heard about a little place in Sorgues. "Then the fear factor set in," he says. "Prior to that it had been all make-believe, a wonderful dream to tell others about but not have to act on. It was everything I wanted, and every question I asked just kept coming back, 'Why not?'"So he sold his house, cars, and most of his stuff; made it through the tangle of French law; and took ownership of Mas de la Lionne in the tiny French village of Sorgues in July 2008. The property covers 10 acres and is planted mostly with grenache, a dominant grape (along with syrah) in southern Rhône wines. A large percentage of Graves' acreage consists of old vines, and his land is right across a dirt road from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the most famous and well-regarded area for grenache in the world.Graves faced challenges early. "I was familiar with winemaking, but I knew nothing of growing, the plowing, pruning, and spraying, which turned out to be way more work than I had envisioned," he says. "Now that I've been through a full set of seasons, I have a much better handle on it." When Graves completed his first vintage, he contacted longtime friend Tamara Murphy, chef-owner of Brasa, who put him in touch with local wine distributor Noble Wines as a favor.Thing is, Graves' 2008 Mas de la Lionne Côtes du Rhône didn't need any favors. 2008 was a less-than-idyllic year in the Rhône, but Graves had a great wine on his hands. With old-vine grenache, when done right, you can smell a vibrant scent of perfumed, red-raspberry fruit that's like taking a whiff of an undeniably pretty girl. The flavor backs it up; red summer berries grab the back of your mouth, ending in a soft, tangy acidity. Unlike many modern syrahs, you can see through this one; the body is lighter, more along the lines of a baby version of the refined wine you get from bigger-named areas like Vacqueyras and Gigondas. It hits Seattle streets this week at $14 a bottle.As an American in Sorgues, Graves is a curiosity, in large part because he makes his wine himself. His French neighbors also find it most unusual that he is célibataire—alone with no family. "That's the piece that they have the hardest time understanding—why I would come by myself," says Graves. "But because of this, they have also embraced me, and try to help whenever they can."

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