Interview with a Cellar Master: Blake from Saviah Cellars
My first interview for this blog is with Blake, who is the cellar master at Saviah Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington. If you don’t know where Walla Walla is, then stick around and I will talk about it more than you thought possible. It’s not in Australia, but actually the southeastern corner of Washington State, and is home to approximately 150 wineries.
A bit of background on Saviah Cellars: it was founded by Rich and Anita Funk in 2000 and has grown from a 300 case production to a 25,000 case production. They work closely with the Brown Family, who are a relatively unknown driving force in the Walla Walla wine scene, as they converted many of their apple orchards to some of the top vineyards in Walla Walla over the last couple decades. Rich’s estate vineyard (The Funk Estate Vineyard) is in the Rocks District, a new AVA in an old alluvial fan, and his wines coming from that vineyard have been getting awesome attention from critics.
I worked with Blake at Saviah for a couple of years back in 2013-2015, where you could most often find him climbing racks of barrels, driving a forklift, out in the vineyard, or sneaking us barrel samples on quiet days. I caught up with him recently and he was kind enough to let me pepper him with questions about his job.
How did you get started in the wine world?
So the doctor that performed my first surgery at 2 months old, his daughter started a winery back in 2000 called Coeur d’Alene Cellars in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I would go to school and right after, I would head to the winery and work for a couple hours and all day on the weekends. In 2010 I consulted for another winery in Post Falls for two years. I decided to move to Walla Walla in 2012 to go through [the Viticulture and Oenology Program].
How long have you been at Saviah?
I started at Saviah in 2013, making this my sixth year.
Can you describe your typical day during each season?
During harvest we start with doing punch downs and then it’s my job to check up on the whites and then operate the press, which squeezes the berries after primary fermentation.
During the winter months we are putting blends together and bottling. We are also checking up on the 2018s which are still going through fermentation.
Summer time, we are out in the vineyards checking out the vines and clusters.
What is the hardest part about working in the cellar?
I would say the hardest part about being in the cellar is making sure you always keep your finger on the pulse. Making sure all the wines are happy and healthy. Records are kept on everything.
Best part especially with keeping such a small crew is we all have multiple hats, so to speak, and so we are working in the cellar, building drain fields, giving tours, out in the vineyard, and constantly trying the barrels.
What is your best harvest memory? And the worst?
Best harvest memory, I would have to say, is when me and the neighboring winery’s worker got T-Rex blow up costumes and had a wrestle off.
Worst harvest memory I was cleaning a press and it decided to start spinning with me in it and I was stuck in there for ten minutes before someone stopped it.
BACK UP, I have some more questions about both of those. How did the press get started?
The press situation was just a random act, not sure what happened or why it did, but it comes down to realizing that we deal with harmful equipment and chemicals, so just to be careful and be aware. Just recently had caustic soda burns so now have scars on my arm because I wasn’t paying attention.
And about this T-Rex wrestling match...how did that start?
So the T-Rex off started because I saw the Ellie Davidson from Sleight of Hand got one so I jokingly challenged her to a wrestle off, and I did not realize that this girl likes challenges. So before you know it, I ordered my suit and we were briefly wrestling on the Sleight of Hands grounds. I’ll find the video and send it to you.
Please do, that would make my day.
(Friends, he did send it, and the video can be seen here. Plus, a bonus photo of Blake dressed as a gorilla and taking over the accounting department.)
It’s awesome working in this industry, but during harvest when you’re working seven days a week, it’s always fun to throw a little curveball in there by dressing like a t-rex or a gorilla for a couple of good laughs.
It’s hard to move on from that, but what is your favorite Walla Walla wine and your favorite wine outside of Walla Walla? I would say my favorite wine in Walla Walla (besides Saviah, of course) would be Buty Rediviva of the stones. Loved every vintage they have ever come out with.
Favorite wine outside of Walla Walla would be any wines from Cotes du Rhône, I’m a huge fan of Syrah.
What is the best part of working in Walla Walla? Best thing about the Walla Walla region is that it has a small town feel but you’re ten minutes from the mountain and half hour from a waterfall. Everyone is smiling and the fact that there are so many boutique restaurants and stores.
What is your personal favorite AVA of Washington State? Favorite AVA hands down would be the Rocks District of Milton Freewater. The wines being produced from that AVA are so distinctive and different from anywhere else in the region.
What is so distinctive about this AVA?
So the Rocks District is different because 1) daytime and nighttime temps don’t have a huge swing because the rocks stay heated after sunset 2) the grapes stress more because whatever water they can grab is what they get compared to vines in soil they have time to grab the water. Wines from there tend to be not so jammy but have a certain gamey and mineral quality.
Favorite vineyard? Favorite vineyard is any of the vineyards that we pull from from The Rocks. I like them because we are really good friends with the grower and we are very meticulous about how the vineyard is trained, how many clusters per shoot. Pretty much we focus on quality over quantity.
How much of the winemaking is in the vineyard vs the lab vs the cellar? Vineyard, you are going to spend about 40 % of your time tending to, about 50% is winemaking from fruit coming in to blending to bottling. Constantly checking on the wines. The rest would be lab work. We only really test for ph, TA, SO2, Brix, and YAN.
In your opinion, what is the most important winemaking decision that affects the wine? In my opinion, it all starts in the vineyard with cluster count, your decision when to pick the fruit based off of sugar and acid levels. If your vineyard is overgrown, your fruit will be diluted. Guess also would be the blending of the wine, because once you blend the wine, there is no going back, so what you decide is what’s going to be put into bottle and poured to the public.