Valentine’s Day. Thanksgiving dinner. Random Tuesday nights. There are many great reasons to open a bottle of rosé throughout the year. But backyard gatherings seem to be the quintessential settings for these versatile sippers. And that’s exactly what you get at JM Cellars in Woodinville. With rosé–release season in full swing, I’ll shed light on what makes JM such a special place. And I’ll also reveal a couple of interesting things about Kit Singh, in honor of the 10th anniversary of his winery, Lauren Ashton Cellars. (How’s that for a teaser?)
Rosés are a little like jazz, partcularly in the Pacific Northwest. Because they provide winemakers with an opportunity to showcase their individual creativity through their riffs on the pink stuff. I was reminded of this on a visit to Woodinville the other day. A sunny Sunday afternoon brought a crowd out to the patio outside the Hollywood district space that Gorman Winery and Patterson Cellars share with Vivi Pizzeria. And the rosé was a flowin’.
Patterson’s selections include a sparkling pinot noir rosé and a dry rosé derived from sangiovese and tempranillo. And Gorman’s rosé is a deep salmon–colored blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah, with the latter providing a hint of spice. (Both tasting rooms let you nosh or feast on Vivi’s foods as you sip.) Nearby, the offerings at Long Shadows’ tasting room include Julia’s Dazzle, a rosé made entirely out of pinot gris. And Col Solare’s Shining Hill rosé, made with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah, is only available in its tasting rooms, including its glass-enclosed Bottega down the street, at Chateaux Ste. Michelle. Meanwhile, every other tasting room in the area seems to have its own, slightly different, approach.
[Photo: JM Cellars’ founder/winemaker John Bigelow, at the pond on Bramble Bump.]
Life on the Bump
As for my fascination with JM Cellars, just getting to the 7-acre hillside property is part of the fun. When you turn onto 137th Place NE, at the bend between Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Hollywood Tavern, you leave the masses behind. This short stretch of backroad feels like a portal to a secret lair. Like the entrance to the Bat Cave in 1960s TV Batman, only with a paved driveway and better landscaping.
The tasting room occupies the ground floor of a two-story house, offering wines by the flight, glass and bottle. And wine-barrel tables and chairs on the patio provide ample space to linger and sip. But you’ll want to stroll down the walking path from the patio to the pond. Along the way, you’ll pass a bocce ball court and the tallest cherry tree in the United States.
The grounds are also home to the nation’s tallest sea-coral cryptomeria, a massive east Oregon pine and several other arboreal gems. The land was once part of a dairy farm established by Frederick Stimson. But he lost the property (including the future site of Chateau Ste. Michelle) during the Great Depression. George McBride acquired the land in 1938. In 1965, he gave 7 acres of his land to his daughter and son-in-law, Jan and Smitty Smith. (He gave a nearby 7-acre tract to his other daughter, Alice.) The Smiths were avid horticulturalists from upstate New York. When they moved to Woodinville, they established an arboretum on their property, which became known as Bramble Bump. Their plantings included 120 Japanese maples and 400 rare conifers.
John and Peggy Bigelow had just established JM Cellars about a year before they purchased Bramble Bump. (J is for John, and M is for Margaret, aka Peggy). These days, the tasting room is open to the public Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–4 p.m. (Since it’s sometimes booked for private events, call first to make sure it’s open.)
In all, Bigelow produces about 6,000 to 7,000 cases a year, with red varietals and blends accounting for about 80 percent. In addition to his 40-acre estate vineyard in Walla Walla Valley, he sources fruit from prestigious Columbia Valley sites. The grapes for his cinsaut rosé, released earlier this month, came from The Benches, in Horse Heaven Hills. Harvested specifically for rosé, the grapes were picked at lower sugar levels than those Bigelow uses for his red cinsauts. This helped the wine retain a food-friendly acidity level. I’ve found this lightly colored beauty to pair particularly well with camembert and a French-inspired onion-chicken dish I’ve been experimenting with at home.
Meanwhile, recent trips to Europe have inspired Bigelow to embrace modern approaches to traditional winemaking practices. For example, he foot-stomps a portion of his reds to initiate fermentation. (Don’t worry, he sanitizes his feet and legs, first.) He’s aging a portion of his 2018 grenache in a clay amphora. When released, this will be blended in equal parts with a batch of the varietal aged in oak, and another aged in stainless steel. He also recently obtained a machine from Italy that removes the stems from his grapes, without macerating them. This allows him to better control the pace of fermentation. And he’s initiated a project to create a barrel of port each year for the next 15 years. This will put him on pace to release a 10-year tawny port in 15 years, based on the aging practices for port.
Lauren Ashton Cellars turns 10
And now it’s time to congratulate Singh and his wife, Riinu Rammal, for their winery’s 10thanniversary. Lauren Ashton Cellars produced nine wines and 1,200 cases from the 2009 vintage. Its early props included a 95-point score from Wine Enthusiast for its 2009 Cuvée Arlette. (The merlot-dominant Bordeaux–style blend was first released in 2012.) And they have been racking up 90+ scores ever since.
Named after Kit and Riinu’s children, the winery is a family affair. Kit makes wine in the Warehouse district. Riinu oversees marketing and other business matters. And they host release parties, live music and other fun events throughout the year at their tasting studio. The latter is set in Apple Farm Village, near the Hollywood Schoolhouse.
Kit expects to produce about 3,500 cases this year. In general, his wines tend to offer layers of complexity. Ripe fruit notes with enough acidity and, with the reds, tannins to retain their structure. The Proprietor’s Cuvée, a cab-dominant Bordeaux-style blend, is luscious enough to uncork with a book. But doing so would deprive you of a chance to relish its dried-cherry and spice notes, readily unleashed by hard cheeses or a juicy steak.
Interesting facts about Kit Singh
Kit studied dentistry at the University of Washington and established a dental practice in Redmond in the 1990s. He credits his chemistry background for aiding his understanding of winemaking. His training included an internship at DeLille Cellars and classes at U.C. Davis and South Seattle College.
“You will never find a fault in his wines, because he has such complete knowledge of the science of wine,” says wine educator Reggie Daigneault. (She ran the wine program at South Seattle, and taught classes, when Kit was a student.) “But don’t let that take away from his artistry in blending. He just has that perfect combination.”
After Kit finished his course work, he returned to South Seattle to teach wine science for a couple of terms. And, while winemaker seems like a glamorous job title, Kit still considers himself a dentist first.
“I have a lot of fun with the wines,” he told me, during the rosé release party at his winery’s tasting studio last week. (The 2018 Lauren Ashton rosé, made with grenache, mourvedre, cinsaut and counoise, is pure liquid pleasure.). “But I have a big investment in my practice, in terms of my patients. Kids who started coming to see me when they were very young are now grown adults. And now they are bringing their own kids to see me. That’s the investment that I can’t part with.”
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