Susan Bunnell’s husband has been one of the West Coast’s top winemakers for more than two decades, yet hungry wine tourists in the Yakima Valley probably know Wine o’Clock Wine Bar and Bistro more than Bunnell Family Cellar.
The relationship is so seamless that many diners don’t realize they actually stroll through the Bunnell tasting bar on their way to the bistro in Prosser’s Vintners Village. It also explains why a web search for Wine o’Clock redirects to the home page for Bunnell Family Cellar.
“There are times when we’ll be at something like Taste Washington, and people will say, ‘Oh, these are wonderful wines. Where can I taste them at?’ ” Susan said. “I tell them, ‘Well, at our tasting room in Woodinville and our tasting room in Prosser. And they will say, ‘Oh, where in Prosser?’ ”
At that point, Susan begins to share the story of Wine o’Clock, their 36-seat restaurant with a full-time staff, wood-fired pizza oven and patio dining that resumes each spring.
“Oh, I’ve been there!” they tell her.
It would be easy to sigh, but for a restaurateur, such recognition is not a bad problem.
“They don’t quite make the connection,” Susan said. “We don’t want to be a hard sell. People don’t come here to be sold like they would expect to in a tasting room environment. They want more of an experience, but we do have reminders that this is our tasting room.”
Understandably, the only wines available on the property are those made by Ron, whose career in California included such historic properties as Charles Krug, Beringer, Chateau Souverain and Kendall-Jackson. He was recruited to Washington in 1999 by Chateau Ste. Michelle, where he spent a half-decade as the red winemaker before launching Bunnell Family Cellar in 2005.
“One of the decisions a small winemaker has to make is ‘What is my focus?’ ” Ron said. “So we picked about a half-dozen growers that we knew we wanted to work with from my Ste. Michelle days and went off making Rhône wines. We’ve branched out a bit since then.”
Bunnell’s focus at Kendall-Jackson was Syrah, and the first releases under his eponymous new brand topped Wine Press Northwest’s 2006 judging of Syrah.
Six years later, when Wine Press Northwest revisited the variety, Bunnell Family Cellar again led the competition. Last fall, his 2009 alx, the Syrah cuvée he names after their son Alex, earned a gold at the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition. And a year ago, two of his blends from Rhône varieties — the 2008 Lia and 2008 Vif — earned Outstanding! awards in Wine Press Northwest’s Red Rhône blend judging.
Based on that success, it’s difficult to choose one wine over another. That’s why the wine flight concept works so well. And considering how Ron and Susan met, the delicious marriage of Bunnell Family Cellar and Wine o’Clock seems intuitive.
Her culinary career at in the California wine industry began in the 1980s and included collaborating with Gary Danko, named California’s best chef by the James Beard Foundation soon after he left Sonoma for San Francisco.
“When I first met Ron, I was working with Gary at Chateau Souverain — that’s when it was owned by Beringer — and I was in charge of intercompany entertaining,” she said. “I would do all the food and menu pairings and wine pairings and keep track of the sales reps guests, as well as work as the dining room manager.”
Then she moved on to Domaine Chandon, a seven-year span that also included managing the dining room.
“It was sort of natural that when we decided to do the restaurant Ron put me in that position,” Susan chuckled.
Each side of the business is a family affair. Susan’s mother, Paula Mauldin, helps out with the winery, the menu and caring for Ron and Susan’s children Alex and Amelia. A niece, Julie Brown, spent several years working in the winery and the dining room before becoming an assistant winemaker for Precept Wine. Her duties included work on the Waitsburg Cellars portfolio.
“It’s been great for us to see her evolve and become a part of the industry,” Susan said.
Susan also groomed Jonathon Orona to serve as head of the Wine o’Clock culinary team, taking over for Laurie Kennedy when she left for the new Horse Heaven Saloon in historic downtown Prosser.
“He started with us as a line cook and cooked with Laurie for several years,” Susan said. “He’s an incredible team leader, and we work on the menus together.”
The continued success of Wine o’Clock is apparent when seeing the reservation list, and folks in the Tri-Cities and Yakima think nothing of making the 30-minute drive for lunch or an early dinner.
“It’s always surprising to us when we see people who come every six weeks or so who are from Seattle or Portland or Spokane because they are on business and traveling through,” Susan said. “And the entire wine community in Prosser has been incredibly supportive.”
The expert food-and-wine pairings developed by the Bunnells make such support easy, and for their Match Maker red wine assignment, they offered the Bunnell Family Cellar 2010 Grenache with a new dish that Orona’s team will roll out this spring — Braised Duck Leg with Vegetable Puree and Crème Fraiche.
“For our Grenache, I usually go duck or pork,” she said. “We love mushrooms with it, but this particular time, since this is a spring dish, I didn’t want to go wintery with mushrooms. And Grenache is very complex wine, it’s just that it’s lighter body. We wanted something with complex flavors so we went with a really long and slow braise to build complexity. And we worked with some root vegetables to pick up those earthier notes.
“Now, If I was working with a Barbera or Sangiovese, I’d go with a tomato-based braise, but we were thinking of something more toward umami,” she continued. “So we went with anchovies. For the duck, it’s the leg and thigh portion, so it’s richer meat.”
A mainstay on the menu at Wine o’Clock is the Pear and Bacon Pizza, yet Susan still offered her recipe. Unless you have your own wood-fired pizza, you won’t come close to matching what Orona will place on your table.
“We’ve been doing it for six years, and it’s probably the most popular dish we do,” she said.
While she really enjoys Ron’s dry Gewürztraminer with that fruity and savory pizza, she opted for the 2012 Hélène — a new white released a year ago.
“It’s a Viognier-Roussanne blend, and I like the little extra body in it over the dry Gewürz,” she said. “It’s still a relatively dry wine. It’s got a little bit of fatness in the mouth from the neutral oak, but it’s not oaky at all. It’s more about the texture. But the acidity is still really nice and high, which is what I want because I’m looking for something that’s going to cut through the fat of the bacon.
“And we use an aged cheddar, and since the cheddar is still tart, we’re not worried about that getting flabby. And you’ve got that pear, which provides that sweet fruit. Now we don’t use a really ripe pear. We use one that’s on the firm side. But you’ve got the pretty aromatics on the pear, particularly when it’s still warm out of the oven. I’m wanting a wine that’s more of those fruit aromatics, almost toward the floral.”
When dining, folks can order a single wine by the glass or bottle. For the maximum experience and education, however, they should order the suggested flight of wines with that meal.
“The wines are tagged so that everybody knows and can remember what they are tasting,” Susan said. “We offer food because we want people to spend time with Ron’s wines, and the best way to get them to really spend some time and see how the wine changes in the glass is to put some food in front of them.
“Evaluating the differences between tastes is not so difficult, and people are more comfortable doing that,” she added. “And when they leave at the end of the meal, they know which wines they like best.”
Occasionally, guests and wine club members can go back in time and sample from the Bunnell library that dates to 2004.
“Obviously, the staff has to be very, very familiar with those older wines, so we do a lot of tastings with them,” she said.
Wine flights and dining are available from noon to 7 p.m. five nights a week, with dinner served until 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Wine tastings are held noon to 5 p.m.
“Even the people who aren’t having any wine at the time, I hope they still get an impression of us as a family and impression of our commitment to quality,” she said. “Maybe the next time they are looking to buy a wine, they’ll remember that place where they were really devoted to quality, where everything they made was hand-made, and say, ‘I’m going to go back and try their wine on a different visit.’”
It often requires time and effort to explain blended wines to potential buyers, which is why the Bunnells want guests to sit down with some bistro fare and really get to know Hélène.
The Rhône-style blend of Viognier (60%) and Roussanne is from Art den Hoed Vineyard — a cooler site also known as Far Away Vineyard — near Grandview. The property spans about 250 acres along the lower stretches of the Rattlesnake Hills, sitting at about 1,300 feet elevation.
Hélène is a new addition to the Bunnell Family Cellar portfolio, and the eighth-month program of neutral oak serves a purpose. There’s no hint of that subdued use of oak in the nose, which is filled with dusty apricot, lemon, starfruit and mineral notes. However, on the palate, those months in barrel create a marvelous texture on the entry, which carries flavors of apricot and pear, followed by a flourish of refreshing, food-friendly acidity.
And the label also shows a family touch, featuring a drawing of a flower by the Bunnells’ daughter Amelia.
All of the blends carry one of her drawings on the label, but the only other white wine in the Bunnell Family Cellar lineup is Fraîche, another Rhone-style blend that leads with Viognier, — only this includes Marsanne, Picpoul and Grenache Blanc. There are several whites made under the Wine o’Clock brand, including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and a dry Gewürztraminer. No whites fall under their RiverAerie brand, but Ron Bunnell recently released a wine as part of their partnership with Newhouse Family Vineyards. The 2013 Cottontop is made entirely from Aligoté off the Newhouse family’s Upland Vineyard plantings.
“You can probably count on one hand the number of wineries on the West Coast making Aligoté,” Ron said with a smile.
The Bunnell Family Cellar, Newhouse Family Vineyards and Upland Vineyard wines (made by Robert Smasne) are available at their shared BNU tasting room in Woodinville.
Braised Duck Leg with Vegetable Puree and Crème Fraîche
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 “leg and thigh quarters” of duck (we are currently using Muscovy Duck from Grimaud, and they are fairly small birds. If using a large duck leg/quarter, you may only want one per person rather than two)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup diced leeks
1/2 cup diced carrots
2/3 cup diced celery root (if available, if not use 1/3 cup diced celery)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
kosher salt to taste (1-2 teaspoons)
pepper to taste
6 large or 8 medium flat anchovy fillets, coarsely chopped (salt-packed are best, rinse well)
1 cup dry white wine
1 to 1 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock
If the latest stats are true, there was less Grenache harvested in Washington state in 2014 than in 2012.
For consumers, that’s a shame because it’s one of the state’s most food-friendly red wines. Now, for those growing Grenache in the Columbia Valley, that reduced production makes it Washington’s most expensive grape variety, slightly ahead of Malbec.
According to the Northwest Regional Field Office for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average price per ton for Grenache was $1,674. Final numbers will be published in July, but that marks a decrease of more than $200 per tons. Production stayed flat at 900 acres, off 100 acres from the 2012 vintage.
Prosser winemaker Ron Bunnell, who moved to Washington from California in 1999, shines with seemingly every Rhône grape he works with, including Grenache. The grape that’s native to Spain (where it’s known as Garnacha) and southern France can test a winemaker’s patience with its desire for heat and demand for extended hang time. That’s why it routinely finds its way into rosés or blends with other Rhône varieties such as Syrah and Mourvèdre. Those wines often are referred to on the bottle as GSM.
“I am always searching for better vineyards, and I’ve been fortunate to be at the right place at right time,” Bunnell said. “When I first started making Grenache, I felt like these wines were a little bit less full and complete than I’d like to be making. As the state got into new clones and plant material, I noticed a huge improvement.”
It’s no surprise that one of his top sources for Grenache is Dick Boushey’s renowned vineyard in the Yakima Valley. This 2010 bottling carries a theme of bright red fruit such as raspberry and red currant, amid a structure that leads with brisk acidity over mild tannin and finishes with Craisins. Those who enjoy Sangiovese should get to know Grenache. And while Bunnell does create some remarkable GSM blends, he saves his best barrels for this release.
“In 2010, which was a cool season, I thought this was the best Grenache I’ve ever made,” Bunnell said. “There’s been a lot of serendipity involved in getting to there, but it has worked.”
Pear and Bacon Pizza
2 cups of your favorite dough
2 ounces dry-cured thick bacon
3 ounces aged white cheddar, grated
1 Bosc or red Anjou, thinly sliced
2 1/2 ounces grated aged white cheddar
1/2 ounce, sliced green onions
1 teaspoon green peppercorns
1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seed
2 tablespoons semolina flour
2 tablespoons olive oil