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.

* * *

Did you enjoy this post? Would you like an alert whenever we post new material? Click the stacked lines menu icon top left, to access an e-mail alert signup option.

Vineyard manager Kimiko Atkins puts her art degree to grape expectations

Evelyn Atkins, Terrence Atkins, Kimiko Atkins and Takashi Atkins.
Evelyn Atkins, Terrence Atkins, Kimiko Atkins and Takashi Atkins.

When you tip a glass of Naked Winery’s Climax Red, Oh! Orgasmic Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, just remember to toast Kimiko Atkins.

Atkins, who spends most of her days out on the gently sloping banks of the Columbia River’s north shore near Maryhill, Wash., descends from a long line of farmers who came to the Columbia Valley from Japan in the early 20th century.

Her ancestors on her mother’s side of the family grew truck crops and orchards.

Crop trends change. Today, Kimiko manages vineyards.

Orchards, too, until they stop producing fruit. Then the trees come out and vines go in.

Kimiko is one of Naked’s silent partners, quietly pruning and training the vines that will bud and leaf and develop those marvelous, curvy clusters full of juice that is just begging to squeeze inside a glass bottle.

Kimiko Atkins with mourvedre vines near Maryhill, Wash.
Kimiko Atkins with mourvedre vines near Maryhill, Wash.

She says Naked buys about five tons each of her sangiovese, nebbiolo and barbera harvest – maybe six acres worth of fruit from the 35 acres of vineyards that she manages with her brother, Takashi. The vineyards also supply juice for the Waving Tree label, made by her father, Terrence.

“They seem to like our grapes,” Terrence says of Naked’s appetite for the family’s fruit. “From a quality standpoint, their wines are really nice.

“Peter is doing a great job,” Atkins says of Naked’s winemaker Peter Steinfeld.

Growing up in a farm family, Kimiko at first thought she might try something different. She went to Central Washington University, extracting a degree in fine art and graphic design.

But her path to a degree took a bit of a detour, when her dad’s growing interest in winemaking created a powerful pull on her talents.

The property had hosted wine grapes since the late 1800s. The sandy loam began a return to those roots after Kimiko’s mother died in 1998, and she and her brother, Tahashi, inherited the property.

Terrence decided to make some wine from the old vines. Not bad, he thought. That led him to take his home winemaking hobby to the next level.

Reading books from the University of California at Davis.

Poking into the winemaking process at neighboring wineries.

And, ultimately, enlisting Kimiko to help produce grape.

“This is what you can do with a BFA in sculpture,” Kimiko says, laughing at the turn of events that put her hand to the fine art of growing grapes.

At first, she recalls, she knew only how much she didn’t know. Lucky for her, she found her way to a viticulture certificate program from Washington State University in Prosser. It was there that she met the vineyard managers from such well-known labels as Kestrel and Columbia Crest.

“Those people were very generous with their help and knowledge,” Kimiko says. “I had one year of experience – enough to know I was in trouble.”

Not any more. As she walks through her vineyards, she talks about the different pruning styles for each grape, how she trims the leaves to let in sunlight and air, how she limits the amount of irrigation water to force the growth of smaller berries to boost the ratio of skin (and flavor and color) to juice.

The family vineyard has been supplying grape to Naked for three years, she says. Kimiko works closely with Jody Barringer, an owner and director of operations at Naked, to cultivate the grapes that Naked wants. She says it’s a symbiotic relationship.

“We have a great working relationship,” Barringer says. “Kimiko has a passion about grapes and continuing to learn vineyard management. I have learned a lot from her about the growing process and things to look for in a vineyard. I enjoy walking the vineyards with her and discussing the upcoming harvest.”

And, a few months down the road, tasting the fruit of their shared labors.