I sat down with Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery at Big Mario's Pizza to ask him how he went from making wine in a garage in Greenwood to half of his parent's two-car garage to having his own winery in Woodinville. (And frankly, we're always--always--looking for an excuse to go to Big Mario's. And Mark's conference room in the winery was already booked.)
Rather than going the UC-Davis enology route to winemaking (though he did eventually take a class at the famed school), Mark's wine education began in restaurants. "Waiting tables led me to be exposed to wine. I got into selling wine because I wanted to make it." With no experience at all, Mark picked up a kit and took a stab at making a white wine. The next thing he knew, through connections, chance, and fate, he had two tons of Ciel du Cheval fruit to work with. Able to rely on relationships with winemakers cultivated through working for a local distributor, and with Jim Holmes (vineyard owner) on speed dial, Mark made his first vintage. There is a lot of self-deprecation going on as Mark describes the entire process, but, on the serious side, what I gleaned from his story is that sometimes you have to learn by doing and not be afraid to make mistakes (on the small scale). It helped that Mark "read a lot and asked questions."
Like many Washington winemakers, he started out making exclusively reds and later added whites to his roster. I asked him what the challenges of making whites versus reds were, and he told me that "making wines at other people's places make me realize I needed my own equipment." Whites require "more control" as people expect them to be "aesthetically perfect" in appearance, aroma, and flavor. In other words, people are less forgiving of whites. He also gave credit to the work of Enologist Erica Orr in making his whites especially successful. (The 2009 Chardonnay is an Esquin staff favorite and, trust me, we don't often agree on wines.)
I wanted to know more about the idea behind the Board Track Racer The Vincent, a 2008 Columbia Valley Cab/Syrah blend. Mark told me that wines like his have become "special occasion wines" and he wanted to be able to offer something in a price range that could be enjoyed on a more regular basis. (It's around twenty bucks. And look for a Board Track Racer white, a Chardonnay/Viognier blend, coming in the future.)
Probably my favorite of his reds, the Crazy Mary, is made from Mourvedre so I thought I would ask if he's playing around with any other grapes that aren't among the heavy-hitters in Washington. While no new single-varietal wines are on the current docket of releases, Mark added some Malbec to the new vintage of Dead Horse. It "enhanced the non-fruit side" of the wine, which he thinks is a great attribute. The structure it adds prevents his reds from becoming what he calls "fruit cocktail wines." (I am going to adopt this phrase to describe all syrupy reds that are overly sweet with oak; I love it.)
Oh, and one last important question. Which of his wines would go best with our pepperoni, sausage, and mushroom pizza? The 2008 Lost Soul Syrah, because, like our pizza, it's "meaty."
It's hard not to root for a guy like Mark who not only makes great wines but also is genuine, funny, and enjoys reminiscing about the late 80's and early 90's (my salad days as well) while the music of the era streams over Big Mario's sound system. (So it's not surprising he named a wine after the Afghan Whigs album, Black Love. Dude, you've got to send Greg Dulli a bottle!)
Full disclosure: Mark picked up the tab for lunch.