Canvasback winemaker Brian Rudin showed up at my home in Waitsburg with two vertical flights of his Cabernets, a stitched-up and banged-up right arm, and a tale of a near-brush with disaster on a rock-strewn, backcountry ski slope. A handsome devil in his late 30s, he’s married to winemaker Ashley Trout, the father of two young roustabouts, and a man whose motor seems to run at only one speed — flat out.
The ski accident aside, life is going great for the Wenatchee native, who claims he never saw, tasted or even thought about wine until after college, where he majored in political science. While waiting to apply to law school, he took a restaurant job at the Edgewater in Seattle, where tasting great wines every night was part of the staff training.
His holy (smoke) moment, he explains, came during a tasting comparing Washington reds to more famous bottles from California. “I realized we could do this just as well as anywhere else. I became smitten, scrapped plans for law school, moved to Walla Walla and took wine classes at the Community College from 2005 to 2007.”
Upon graduating, he quickly moved up through the winemaking ranks, from cellar rat at L’Ecole to production manager at Alder Ridge, winemaker at Middleton Family Wines (Cadaretta and Buried Cane) and finally, since 2014, heading up the ambitious Washington project for the Duckhorn Wine Company.
One of a number of California producers adding a Washington brand to their portfolio, Duckhorn set out specifically to make Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain grapes. They first planted the Longwinds estate vineyard under the supervision of Dick Boushey. While waiting for that to come into production, Rudin was hired to scour Red Mountain for grapes and to oversee the winemaking from the 2014 vintage forward.
From a 2000 case start, the brand has grown almost tenfold in just half a decade, spreading the winemaking out over three different rented facilities. A fourth was just purchased — the old Waters winery on JB George Road — which will also host their Walla Walla tasting room.
“We thought about building on Red Mountain,” Rudin acknowledges, “but with all the changes happening there, and limited growth potential, the highest and best purpose (for Red Mountain land) is as vineyard. Besides that, we want tourism and hospitality businesses.”
The winemaking focus remains Red Mountain, though not exclusively. A Walla Walla Cabernet and Syrah have been made and are currently on sale, as a stylistic counterpoint. But Rudin insists that a strong case can be made for telling the bigger Washington wine story through the narrow focus of what is arguably its best AVA for Cabernet Sauvignon.
When showing Canvasback wines to out-of-state buyers, he points out, it’s the Duckhorn name and reputation that quickly open doors.
“Red Mountain is so tiny that it doesn’t have a lot of reach beyond the Northwest. You get to Chicago, and they may never have tasted a Red Mountain wine,” he says. “It’s difficult to explain all the diversity in Washington, but with something so small and focused as Red Mountain, a site perfectly matched to Cabernet Sauvignon, you can tell a specific story about Washington state wine.”
Drawing from iconic vineyards such as Klipsun, Kiona and Ciel du Cheval, along with some of the most important newcomers, Rudin is able to make blends that truly capture the strengths of Red Mountain. The biggest winemaking challenge, he finds, is keeping the AVA’s rugged tannins in proportion. His goal is “to get tannins that are supple, generous, ripe and plush,” he explains.
As we tasted the 2014, 2015 and 2016 vintages of the Canvasback Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignons, which include small proportions of Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, it was clear to me that they deftly synthesize the chief characteristics that have long distinguished the best Red Mountain wines: chewy black fruits, buoyant acids, well-modulated touches of sagebrush and herb, and enough new oak to balance — without obliterating — those flavors.
Moving on to Rudin’s reserve-level Canvasback Grand Passage wines, the blends were closer to pure Cabernet, including just a bit of Merlot in the 2014 and 2016. These are not inexpensive wines (suggested retail is $80), but compare favorably to the sturdy Cabernets of Napa’s Stag’s Leap AVA, which can cost considerably more.
These Grand Passage wines, made in quantities of just a few hundred cases, are barrel selections from “the natural beauties that catch your attention from day one” Rudin explains, adding “I want to impress the discriminating collector, with the gravitas and weight to stand out.”