For grape grower Ziegler, winemaker Steinfeld, it’s all about ‘relationship’

Nathan Ziegler ... not far from the grapes.
Nathan Ziegler … not far from the grapes.

For a brief three-year period, Nathan Ziegler had his name on the front of wine bottles. He was making wine with his own grapes, competing for shelf space with the likes of Naked Winery.

Then life came along and told him things would be just fine if he stepped into the background, and turned his focus to growing great grapes. These days, he says he would be quite happy if his name appeared on the back label of a release or two from Naked, as the owner of a vineyard that produced the juice.

Odds are good, after Ziegler signed a six-year contract to provide Naked Winery with tempranillo grapes from roughly three acres that slope gently toward the Columbia River.

Ziegler comes from a long line of farmers. Five generations of Zieglers have farmed the western slopes of Underwood Mountain in Washington, just to the west of the White Salmon River valley. Ziegler loves farming, and when he’s not tending grapes, he builds custom homes.

For Ziegler, selling his last bottle of pinot gris in 2012 meant he could reclaim a bit of freedom, to spend time with his wife and kids, to chase the sun to Arizona and Baja in the winter, to get out on the White Salmon in a doofus raft when the temps top 90.

Ziegler smiles, recalling the reactions when he told people he was quitting the winemaking business.

One chef told him, incredulous, “You’ve just pushed the nut to the top of the hill.”

Trouble was, the nut was still too big. Starting and running a winery was looking too limiting. Ziegler just reached a point where he realized growing grapes was enough.

“I realized I didn’t want a winery,” he recalls. “I just want a consistent relationship with a good winemaker. Naked said ‘I want it all.’ I said, ‘Done.’”

His father, Ken, and uncle Clark Ziegler started growing tempranillo in the late 1990s. Their property lay farther to the west, adjacent to the noted Celilo Vineyard.

“Clark tried it, and kicked its butt,” Nathan says.

Uh, that means the vines thrived, suggesting to the younger Ziegler that it would be a good grape to replace the riesling vines on his property when he acquired it in 2005.

That was right around the time Ziegler recalls first meeting Naked founding partners Dave and Jody Barringer. Ziegler was at a meeting of the nascent Columbia Gorge Wine Growers Association, chatting with longtime local winemaker Joel Goodwillie, when the Barringers joined them.

They shared their vision for Naked Winery.

“Everybody was taking it in, ‘Uh-huh, that’s interesting,’” Ziegler recalls. “Dave is an amazing marketer. They’ve done it. At the end of the day, they’re enjoying their IPA.”

That’s his way of expressing respect for people who work hard, and can kick back with a cold beer at day’s end.

It’s how he likes life. He’s also liking the chance to work closely with the Naked team, in particular winemaker Peter Steinfeld. Ziegler sold 8.5 tons of tempranillo to Naked from the 2013 harvest, which he thinks was the best since 2009.

The upper half of Ziegler’s land supports pinot gris. Ziegler hopes to share that as well with Naked.

“Eventually, we’d like to work with his pinot gris,” says Steinfeld. “Right now, it’s just tempranillo. His tempranillo is very clean fruit, nicely balanced, delivered in perfect condition with even ripeness.”

The first juice from Ziegler grapes is still in the barrels, “coming along nicely, tasting good,” Steinfeld says.

He’s not sure how he will bottle it – by itself, or blended with juice from other tempranillo sources.

“We are about delivering the best wine possible, and that’s why we get it from different sources,” Steinfeld says. “I like to work with Nathan because you can talk to him, and know you can have a long-term relationship.”

And, if all goes well, maybe some day slap his name on the back of a bottle.

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