Some of the most colorful, clever and unusual wine labels in Washington come from Sleight of Hand Cellars, a small and fairly new producer, though owner Trey Busch is no stranger to winemaking.
In 2000, Busch left his job as a Nordstrom salesman in Seattle and moved to Walla Walla, landing at acclaimed Dunham Cellars and learning his craft while on the job. Hard work paid off quickly, as he was offered the position of head winemaker for nearby Basel Cellars in 2002. By 2007, he went out on his own, launching Sleight of Hand Cellars with wife, Jen, and partners Jerry and Sandy Solomon. He came up with the name from the song Sleight of Hand, which appeared on the Pearl Jam album Binaural.
"It's an obscure album that didn't do well commercially, but it's one of my favorite albums," Busch said.
The name provided an opportunity for him to craft an eye-catching label, and he was inspired by magicians' posters from the '20s and '30s. He turned to Phelyx Hopkins, a professional magician (Professor Phelyx) and artist, who created five posterlike labels for Busch.
"They turned out exactly the way I wanted," he said with enthusiasm.
Now in his 10th vintage in the Walla Walla Valley, Busch is a veteran winemaker, and the unusual labels help him stand out in the ever-widening Walla Walla Valley wine scene. When he arrived in 2000, Walla Walla had 14 wineries. When he left for Basel in 2002, there were 40. And when he launched Sleight of Hand, there were more than 100. Today, the valley is home to more than 130 wineries.
"There is too much great wine out there," he said. "You have to put some thought into marketing and packaging to be successful."
Busch produces 2,500 cases of wine under the Sleight of Hand label and now has launched a second label called Renegade Wine Co., which adds another 5,000 cases of wine to his portfolio.
Here are a few Sleight of Hand wines we've tasted recently:
Sleight of Hand Cellars 2008 The Magician, Columbia Valley, $17: This easy-to-like blend includes Gewurztraminer (85 percent) and Riesling. Aromas of pear, apple, honeysuckle, lemon curd and coconut milk send the mind spinning. There's a continuation of that orchard fruit, deliciously balanced with lingering grapefruit and lemon acidity, finished dry (0.8 percent residual sugar) with citrus pith.
Sleight of Hand Cellars 2007 Spellbinder, Columbia Valley, $19: This blend of Cabernet Franc (42 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon (21 percent), Syrah (14 percent), Merlot (12 percent) and Sangiovese is versatile food wine. Strawberry fruit leather, dark cherries, blackberry and boysenberry notes make for a sense of being at the breakfast table with cinnamon toast and coffee accents. There's a rich entry with black fruit, yielding to marionberry acidity and an Aussie black licorice finish.
Sleight of Hand Cellars 2007 Illusionist, Columbia Valley, $40: Busch continues to show consistent excellence at producing high-acid blends, and this melange is Cabernet Sauvignon (35 percent), Petit Verdot (20 percent), Malbec (16 percent), Cabernet Franc (8 percent) and Merlot (5 percent) with Syrah filling in the gap. Boysenberry, cassis and plums stay smooth and well ahead of the French oak.
Sleight of Hand Cellars 2007 Archimage, Walla Walla Valley, $40: This Bordeaux-style blend includes Merlot (54 percent) and Cabernet Franc (46 percent). There's some influence of oak with hints of coffee, but it doesn't slow down the aromas of boysenberry, blueberry, pomegranate, cherry and chalk. Blueberry and pie cherry tartness shines nicely above the tannins, and chocolaty oak accents create a lingering finish.
Sleight of Hand Cellars 2007 Levitation Syrah, Columbia Valley, $40: There's no hocus-pocus here as Busch built a wine that's unmistakably Syrah. Out come aromas of blackberry, blueberry, smoked meat, Costa Rican coffee and star anise. Tasting is believing as blackberry and blueberry notes continue with richness and complexity. There's lingering tartness from boysenberry and chocolaty tannins.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.