Washington Wine's Best Kept Secret: Pleasant Hill Cellars

In a wine culture that's increasingly about "The Buzz", Larry Lindvig remembers that people listen most closely when you Whisper...

Pleasant Hill's Mad Genius, Larry Lindvig

See that picture to the left? (Look closely because it's tiny.) That is everything you'll find on Google Images when you type in "Larry Lindvig", the winemaker and half the driving force behind the shocking and very successful Pleasant Hill Cellars in Carnation Yeah, I said "Carnation".

To say that Larry Lindvig is kinda unassuming is like saying the OctoMom is a tad fertile. Larry is a big, smiling, relentlessly-cheerful Scandanavian guy whose family pretty much built Poulsbo, that branch office of Norway just a short ferry ride - and a long cultural leap - from Seattle. Larry, like many of our state's most accomplished winemakers, caught the wine bug and then fed it as part of the Boeing Employees Wine & Beer Makers Group, the company-sponsored bunch that produced Cadence's Ben Smith, Willis Hall's John Bell, Austin Robaire's Ron Yabut, Nota Bene's Tim Narby, and Soos Creek's Dave Larsen, among others. After retiring from Boeing, Larry bought Pleasant Hill Estate, a cozy farm and grounds just off Carnation-Falls City Road, and began to realize his dream of making...a LOT of wine.

I would normally review as many wines as possible in writing a profile of a winery but, with Larry, that's nearly impossible. There simply is NO winemaker in Washington state who's as daring, whimsical, creative and, well, unhinged as Larry Lindvig. Mozart, asked once about his composition, said, "I write music as a sow piddles"...which is roughly how and with what brilliance Larry makes wine.

I first met Larry and his wonderful wife, Birgit Rolle, (the other half of the aforementioned "driving force" behind Pleasant Hill) one afternoon in 2005, shortly after we opened our new wine shop, VinElla, in downtown Woodinville. My door chime sounded and I looked up to see a handsome couple, maybe six-seven years older than me, entering the shop. Larry introduced them and asked if I'd mind tasting their wines. "Uh-oh," I groaned inwardly. In the previous two weeks, I had five similar encounters, three of which were couples who had bet the literal farm on creating a winery and, in all three cases, I had to exercise my Weak Suit: Tact. "Well," I managed, "These are nice wines but just not something I can sell here."

I watched Larry walk out to his car and return with three bottles. He set them on my tasting bar. Yep: Merlot...Syrah-Grenache..(hmmm)...and...MALBEC?

Good Lord, I thought, this guy has a friggin' MALBEC! I tasted the first two, aware that they were quit a bit better than the other local examples I had tried but my eye was on that Malbec. Could it possibly be....?

I tasted it.

You have to remember that, in 2005, there were not the legions of Washington Malbecs there are now. It's a nearly-abandoned Bordeaux grape that has been completely taken over by the Argentinians and brought to a fruity, leathery brilliance than the French had clamied it could never have. I'd loved it for years, especially a little gem that remains my Malbec yardstick, Broquel Mendoza Valley Malbec, made by the giant SA winery, Trapiche. It's been thirteen dollars, retail, for about twenty years, now, and they show no signs of raising prices. Any American Malbec, I reasoned, had to be better than that to get on my shelves.

Larry's is the first one that was.

I had no clue that the Malbec was the literal equivalent of trying to identify an elephant from looking at just the tail. Since 2005, I've watched Larry craft wines that are consistently excellent from almost every grape that's currently grown in this corner of the country. He made the first Washington Zinfandel that I would put in the same class as the better Zins from Sonoma and Plymouth counties. He's made a string of gorgeous Pinot Noirs, using Oregon grapes, that would cost $75 to $90 under somebody else's Yamhill County label. He's made a stunning, dry, steely rose out of Lemburger(!), crafted one of the best Viogniers I've ever tasted from this state, turned out a complex and mouth-filling Tempranillo, hatched what is arguably - along with Mike Januik's - the best varietal bottle of Petit Verdot ever made in WA, and has kept on sourcing and cranking out Malbec after Malbec, all hitting the standard of that original 2004 I tasted back at my shop. And those aren't even his best wines!

It's in the blends that Larry Lindvig really leaves his lasting impression. Having done several projects myself, by now, I can tell you that blending is part palate and part prognostication. You have to have the taste buds of a Codron Bleu chef along with the cojones of a West Texas cattle rustler to trust that what you just mixed with the beakers and pipettes is going to A) taste like anything after its beaten up in the racking, tanking, and filtration processes and, B) age into something grand and mellow or become a twenty-buck bottle of vinegar. I have several bottles of Larry's 2005-06 blends that I'm enjoying as slowly as my will power will allow and every one is aging better than Helen Mirren.

Larry dropped by my shop, one day, just to chat, and I took a phone call. He stood in front of my case of ultra-totsy wines, looking at the legendary Vega-Sicilia "Unico" 1987, one of the world's truly great wines and my personal swoon-inducing dream beverage. On my info tag, I wrote the blend: Tempranillo, Cabernet, and Malbec. "Huh," I heard him say to himself, "I could make one of those." And, astonishingly, he did. The Pleasant Hill "Ultimo Grande 2005" doesn't taste exactly like the Unico but it's shockingly close - at about $420 less a bottle. I tasted it again last week and, while it has better than a decade to go to match the average of thirteen years a Unico will spend in barrel and bottle prior to release, the early signs are nothing short of stunning. This is one heckuva wine now and is only getting better.

Larry's blends are among the most tremor-inducing tightrope acts in all of Washington winemaking. His "Renaissance" (25% Lemberger, 25% Syrah, 25% Merlot, 25% Tempranillo)(!) is one of the most irrational blends ever tried around these parts and it works beautifully, hauntingly. Of all his wines in the past five years - now well over 100 - Renaissance and now Renaissance II are the ones that nibble most persistently at the edges of my memory. My personal fave for just drinking on a crisp fall evening, his Super-Tuscan blend, the lovely "Donatella", is easily the best Sangiovese-based blend from Washington that I've ever tasted. And his Argentinian-inspired Cab/Malbec blend, "Tango", is, against all logic and reason, nearly identical to most of the best similar blends that are locally available from Argentina, some with price tags three and four times what Tango will set ya back. His ongoing experiments with Pinot Noir - sourced these days from one of the Northwest's most celebrated vineyards, Murto, in Dundee, Oregon - are turning out wines that any of the finer Pinot houses in Yamhill would love to hang their label on.

Even his one concession to typical Washington winemaking, "Omni", has turned out to be something head and shoulders above the quotidian Cab/Merlot/Cab Franc blends that litter wine shop shelves by the hundreds, here in 2010. A blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot, Omni is silken, viscous, and structurally impeccable, with a firm but supple tannic backbone, food-friendly acids, and a stately, expansive flavor palate that runs to blackberry, violets, currants, leather, tar, chocolate, woodsmoke, grilled bread, espresso, volcanic loess, black cherries, and spruce. Magnificent wine, at about half what you'd pay for any other similar Washington top 'o' the line Bordeaux blend.

I usually try to put a good bit of art into these blog entries but, with Pleasant Hill and Larry, there just ain't much out there. Larry, like most better winemakers, prefers to let his wines do the talking. Like Paul Draper and Charlie Hoppes and Mike Januik and Marcel Guigal, Larry Lindvig's head is squarely where it needs to be to turn out wines like this, year after year: in the winery. He may whisper but his wines are speaking loud and clear and, if you haven't yet heard about - and tasted! - Pleasant Hill, I urge you to seek out a bottle at any of the area's better wine shops, TODAY.