by Susan Hamilton

Local wineries Robert Carl Cellars and Barrister Winery have recently gone bottle to bottle against some hefty competition from around the world and come out on top.

Joe and Rebecca Gunselman own the boutique winery, Robert Karl Cellars, producing handcrafted, premium wines from grapes grown in the Columbia Valley. Their 2001 claret, a Bordeaux-style blend, has garnered numerous awards of late. It received a double gold at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition. (A double gold rating is unusual in that all the judges gave this wine a gold medal.) At the Indy International wine competition, one of the larger venues in the country, this claret also won a gold medal. Wine reviewers have dubbed this wine "simply delicious" and "full of lush black fruit and sweet oak flavors." The tasty claret also took three top awards at this summer's Washington State Wine Competition -- Best of Show, Best Red and another gold medal.

Why did this vintage do so well for a small Spokane winery? "We honed in our fruit sourcing and changed our oak sources a bit," reveals Joe Gunselman, who took time out of the busy harvest season to answer my questions. "God gave us a great vintage," he adds simply.

But what about the human touch in this process? "Having a better understanding of the science of winemaking gave us an edge," Gunselman explains. The physician is a self-taught winemaker who continues his education at the Walla Walla Institute for Enology & amp; Viticulture and at the University of California at Davis.

When asked about his winemaking philosophy, Gunselman says, "Even though we make a Bordeaux-style wine, it's still a delicate process. We hand-harvest the fruit and don't rush the harvest. We use whole-berry fermentation with a punch-down technique so we don't overpress the fruit. The cave-like atmosphere we maintain gives our wine an even aging with an even temperature."

So what was his goal in producing a $17-a-bottle claret that's taken so many awards? "We wanted to make a wine that appealed to a broad base," he says. "This vintage was fine-tuned to produce an explosion of flavors that are fruit-forward and palate-friendly with oak nuances."

How has a winery that only started production five years ago and opened just more than two years ago (in a converted fire station built in 1912 that housed horse-drawn wagons, no less) come so far in so little time? "We did a lot of homework before we started," Gunselman answers. "In 1994, we began researching the different processes involved in winemaking. We don't cut corners. We put our money into the wine by having a functional winery and the best equipment possible. Partnering with vineyards that are interested in quality has been very important."

Gunselman began his family-run winery in 1999 with a vision to produce quality, handcrafted cabernet sauvignon. The claret was made to complement the cabernet sauvignon, since it's a blend of 80 percent of that wine as well as 8 percent merlot, 6 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent petit verdot and 3 percent malbec.

"We envisioned that our wines would win gold medals," he reveals. "If you can't make a wine that will win a gold medal, you're in trouble."

And how about the future of Robert Karl Cellars? "We expect our wine to get better and better," Gunselman says.

Two attorneys, Greg Lipsker and Michael White, are the winemakers behind Barrister Winery, a boutique winery in Spokane's Davenport District that produces premium-quality, handcrafted red wines. Their 2002 cabernet franc took four major awards at this year's Los Angeles County Fair's Wines of the World Competition, considered by many to be one of the top five most important wine competitions on the planet. With 700 wineries from around the world participating in this competition, Barrister's '02 cab franc received Best Wine of the Competition, Best Red Wine, Best of Class and a gold medal in the limited production category (under 2,500 cases). This wine has been described as a full-bodied cabernet with a nose of dark cherry and berries wrapped in toasted oak.

"We knew it was a good wine; we were happy with the fruit," says Lipsker when asked how Barrister swept these awards. "We did extensive blending trials to see what we could do to emphasize the rich mouth feel, soft oak and fruit-forward taste."

Obviously they succeeded with a vintage that contains 85 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon from Pepper Bridge Vineyard and 5 percent cabernet sauvignon from Bacchus Vineyard, both in the Columbia Valley.

"Mike and I are both pretty passionate about wine, and we try to make wine in the style we like to drink," Lipsker adds. "We hope when people drink our wine, they'll say, 'Oh, I like that!'"

Barrister Winery had a very humble beginning. In 1997, Lipsker and White bought a home winemaking kit and made their first five gallons of wine in Lipsker's kitchen. They graduated to the garage, crushing 3,000 pounds of grapes in 2000. Wanting some objective evaluation, the pair entered each of their 2000 vintage wines -- a cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and cabernet franc -- in that year's Indy International Wine Competition. Amazingly, the wines won three gold medals and a silver.

"Since then, winemaking has become the little hobby that got out of control," Lipsker explains.

Lest you think that these winemakers had no formal training, it should be pointed out that Lipsker took his first wine class at Gonzaga University while he was an undergraduate student there. In 1990, he attended the L'Ecole du Vin in Bordeaux, France, to learn the craft of winemaking. Lipsker and White have also taken enology classes at Walla Walla Community College.

"We've had wonderful help and mentoring from winemaker Myles Anderson of Walla Walla Vintners," Lipsker reveals. "I represented them as a lawyer, and then Myles worked with us when we started our winery."

The little winery has come a long way from the kitchen table and garage. This May, Barrister moved to new digs "for a permanent home in the downtown area, with space for expansion," Lipsker explains. The winery's new home is in a 100-year-old building just south of the railroad viaduct. It features a tasting room and production area on the main level. A 7,000-square-foot stone cellar was already part of the building -- the perfect spot for the winery's barrel aging room.

So where does Barrister go from here? "We've always wanted to have a small winery that would make outstanding wine that was reasonably priced," Lipsker says. "We want to remain small, producing about 2,500 cases a year, and give individual attention to each person who comes to our winery. The passion that we feel about our wines is reflected in the bottle."

Publication date: 10/14/04

  • or