Spotlight On: Rasa Vineyards [Wow! Alert]



By Kori ~ September 22nd, 2010.

Rasa Vineyards is a relatively new winery located in Walla Walla, Washington. Founded in 2007 by brothers Pinto and Billo Naravane, Rasa Vineyards burst onto the Washington wine scene and received numerous accolades for their inaugural releases. Currently, they produce around 2,000 cases per year, a level they plan to maintain for a while.

Originally from India, the brothers turned to an uncle for help in naming their winery. When they explained to him their idea of producing terroir-driven wines, he suggested Rasa, which basically means “terroir” in Sanskrit. He said that it means “essence” and is often used figuratively in regards to soil and fruit; and in slang, it also means “juice.” They felt that it was a nice way to encapsulate the story of what they are trying to create, was a good tie-back to India, and is a relatively simple word for people to say.

Both Pinto and Billo have engineering and mathematical backgrounds and worked in the computer industry. Bitten by the wine bug around 1990, they began tasting 500 to 600 wines a year and talking about starting a winery together someday. Billo received his BS in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science from MIT and his MS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. He worked in the computer industry for about 15 years, much of that time travelling as a consultant. He soon realized that he did not want to do that for another 30 years and applied to the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis in 2006. He graduated in June of 2008 and moved to Walla Walla full-time in September of that year. Pinto, meanwhile, still lives in New Jersey where the brothers grew up. He received his BE in Computer Science/Electrical Engineering and MS in Electrical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and runs his own computer networking company. Eventually, Pinto hopes to move to Walla Walla, but for the time being, he will continue to live in New Jersey in order to supplement their income until the winery becomes self-sustaining. Having him on the east coast has also opened doors for them in the New York and New Jersey markets which has proved quite beneficial.

Even though Pinto and Billo come from very technical backgrounds, they both felt the pull to express their artistic side through the winery. Pinto loves to write poetry and screenplays, and Billo loves music and plays classical piano.

“Our conservative Indian parents love the fact that we are throwing that out [our engineering and technical backgrounds] to make wine.” –Pinto Naravane, co-owner/managing partner, Rasa Vineyards

When the brothers decided that the time was right to pursue their dream of starting a winery and Billo started school at UC Davis, they put a lot of time into developing a business plan and deciding where they wanted to locate their winery. In addition to Walla Walla, they considered Paso Robles, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Oregon. When they visited Walla Walla, it reminded them of Napa and Sonoma in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

“We saw a real parallel to where Walla Walla and eastern Washington are and where Sonoma and Napa were. So we thought it was a great opportunity for us to come here and make great, world-class wines.” –Pinto Naravane, co-owner/managing partner, Rasa Vineyards

“We came here to Walla Walla where the industry is still forming with the intent to be one of the leaders longer term.” –Billo Naravane, co-owner/winemaker, Rasa Vineyards

As for official titles, Pinto is the managing partner and Billo is the winemaker. However, it is very evident that the brothers collaborate on everything. Even though Pinto lives in New Jersey, he travels to Walla Walla frequently. He is there for all of the blending trials and throughout harvest.

Speaking of blending trials, they taste everything blind over the course of three to four days. Then they go through and compare notes to determine the percentages that work best. Given our belief in blind tasting, I was particularly struck to learn that they taste that way too.

“We are huge fans of blind tasting. That’s really the only way to taste wine.” –Billo Naravane, co-owner/winemaker, Rasa Vineyards

On September 1st, Rasa Vineyards moved into its new facility south of downtown Walla Walla near the Washington/Oregon state line. Located on Powerline Road, their gorgeous winery is the former home of Hence Cellars. Prior to moving into their own building, Rasa had been making their wines at Artifex, Walla Walla’s custom crush facility. While Artifex has served them well, Pinto and Billo were anxious to find a place that they could call their own that would give them space to not only produce their wines but also have a tasting room and a place for events. By the end of September, they hope to be completely moved in and will be open by appointment only until harvest is done. After Fall Release Weekend in November, they plan to begin having regular tasting room hours.

We had the pleasure of visiting Rasa Vineyards in their new facility just three days after they got the keys. Pinto and Billo gave us on a tour of their new digs and tasted us through their wines. During our visit, they shared with us some of their winemaking philosophies.

They avoid pumps whenever possible, do very gentle punch downs, and are careful to manage the extraction level of their wines. While their wines have a considerable amount of tannins, they strive for a very silky feel. Their wines are built to age for 10 to 20 years.

“The key to producing wines that will age is to establish the balance young. Wines never gain balance with age. It is important to get that balance in terms of fruit, tannins, acidity, and alcohol just right in the beginning. One of our philosophies is that whenever that balance point is reached, no matter where it is in that cycle, we press off and immediately go to barrel.” –Billo Naravane, co-owner/winemaker, Rasa Vineyards

In stark contrast to their technical backgrounds, Billo and Pinto make their wines in as non-interventionist a manner as possible. They do not tinker with it. Billo’s knowledge of organic chemistry and microbiology only comes into play if something seems off-kilter. They also employ a minimalist oak program. Usually their Syrahs only get 18-25% new French oak. Even their Cabernet Sauvignon (which is still in barrel and set to be bottled in January) has only seen about 60-65% new oak. They have experimented with some American oak barrels but about 98% of the barrels they use are French.

“We are not huge fans of oak, honestly. You go through all this trouble to get these complex grapes, and get the flavors right on the grapes in the vineyard, and then it doesn’t make any sense to us to come in here, crush it, and put it into barrels in 100% new oak, and just mask all of those flavors that we worked so hard to get in the first place.” –Billo Naravane, co-owner/winemaker, Rasa Vineyards

Currently, their fruit sources include vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley and the Columbia Valley such as Les Collines, Seven Hills, Sagemoor, and Minick. They do have plans to plant their own estate vineyard “in the rocks” near Milton-Freewater, Oregon. They have purchased 28 acres near Seven Hills Vineyard that are currently planted to apples and cherries. They have cleared nine acres and put in a drip irrigation system. Their hope is to have the funds to plant at least some of those nine acres in March.

“Stylistically, our palates are much more aligned with France than California or Australia. We like those wines, but we are huge Rhone fanatics and Bordeaux fanatics. We love Cote Rotie and Hermitage, more terroir-driven wines rather than over-the-top fruit type wines.” –Billo Naravane, co-owner/winemaker, Rasa Vineyards

We tasted through seven of their wines, five from their primary Rasa label and two from their new second label, PB Wines. The PB Wines are made in an identical manner and get the same treatment as the Rasa wines but are just offered at a lower price point.

We were absolutely blown away by their 2007 Principia Reserve Syrah. It truly is a “Wow!” wine. At $85, it sports a hefty price tag but is worth every penny. We also thought that their 2007 QED and 2008 Vox Populi Mourvedre were outstanding.

The names of their wines are a nod to their scientific and mathematical backgrounds. QED stands for “quod erat demonstrandum”.

“When we started the winery, our friends said, ‘We know you know a lot about wine, but can you make great wine?’ So we decided to call this QED and say, ‘The proof is in the bottle.’” –Pinto Naravane, co-owner/managing partner, Rasa Vineyards

For their reserve line of wines, they decided to celebrate something profound in human history instead of calling them Winemaker’s Reserve or Artist Series or something that has been done by many other wineries. Their first reserve wine, Principia, is based on Sir Isaac Newton’s seminal work on the laws of mechanics and universal gravitation.

The Mourvedre that goes into their Vox Populi was originally sourced to be a blending grape in the QED. However, when some of their winemaker friends tasted barrel samples of it, they commented on how remarkable it was. Even some collectors who tasted it offered to buy it in futures and asked them to bottle at least some of it by itself. Therefore, Vox Populi or “voice of the people” was born.

Rasa Vineyards offers their wines through their mailing list first. They are also distributed in 17 states. If you have not had a chance to try one of their wines, I encourage you to keep your eyes out for them on the shelf at your local wine shop or go ahead and put your name on their mailing list. If their first releases are any indication, this winery is headed for superstar status. And if you are in the Walla Walla area, Rasa Vineyards is definitely a must-visit.

2007 Rasa Vineyards Principia Reserve Syrah (Walla Walla Valley, Washington): 100% Syrah. Deep, dark purple in color. Gorgeous nose with a lot going on aromatically. Blackberry, black plum, clove, pepper, smoke, and pencil lead fill both the nose and palate. Full-bodied with crisp acidity and high yet silky tannins. Well-balanced with a long, lingering finish. This wine hits it out of the park. Wow!
Quality: 5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $85

2007 Rasa Vineyards QED (Walla Walla Valley, Washington): 94% Syrah, 3% Grenache, and 3% Mourvedre. Deep, dark purplish red. Gorgeous nose with aromas of red and black fruits, game, and spice. Smoked meats, game, black fruits, and cinnamon come through on the palate. Full-bodied and crisp with high tannins. Well-balanced and smooth with a long finish.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $50

2008 Rasa Vineyards Vox Populi Mourvedre (Minick Vineyard, Yakima Valley, Washington): 100% Mourvedre. Dark, ruby purple. Very aromatic with red and black fruits, smoked meats, game, and white pepper on both the nose and palate. Medium to full-bodied with lively acidity, medium to high tannins and a long finish. Big yet smooth and well-balanced.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 4 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $45

2008 Rasa Vineyards QED (Walla Walla Valley, Washington): 83% Syrah, 10% Grenache, 5% Mourvedre, and 2% Viognier. Deep, dark purplish red in color. Beautiful bouquet with red and black fruits and floral notes. Blackberry, black cherry, and spice dominate the palate. Full-bodied and crisp with medium to high tannins and a long finish.
Quality: 4 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 3 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $50 [to be released in November]

2009 Rasa Vineyards The Composer Riesling (Sagemoor Vineyards, Columbia Valley, Washington): Pale, straw yellow in color. Nice nose with aromas of white peach and apricot that lead to flavors of apple, pear, and peach. Light to medium-bodied and lively with a long finish. Residual Sugar: 1.56%
Quality: 3 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 1 bang for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $30

2008 PB Wines Red Mountain Kiona Vineyards (Red Mountain, Washington): 66.7% Syrah, 33.3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark, purplish red. Aromatic with earth and dark fruits on the nose; black cherry, pepper, and chocolate on the palate. Medium to full-bodied and crisp with medium to high, silky tannins. Well-balanced and smooth with a long finish.
Quality: 4 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 4 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $29

2008 PB Wines Yakima Valley Syrah (Yakima Valley, Washington): Dark, deep purple. Aromas of black fruits, spice, pepper, and a hint of chocolate. Blackberry, black cherry, and spice come through on the palate. Medium-bodied and fruit-forward with lively acidity, medium tannins, and a long finish.
Quality: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 3 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $29


Filed under: American Wine, Five-Bangs For Your Buck Wines, Five-Star Quality Wines, Mourvedre, Red Wine, Riesling, Shiraz/Syrah, Spotlight On, Washington State Wine, White Wine, Wines Over $25

Reader's Comments

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