Vintner Interview: Kurt & Vicki | Rulo Winery
NATION!!!!! We need to talk about Washington.
OHHH, no, no, no….not the Washington occupying its own district, rife with divisive, corrupt political shenanigans and teeming with lobbyists adding fuel to our already frustratingly gridlocked system.
No, NOT that one. We can leave that one alone. I’m not a KILLJOY!
The OTHER Washington! Nestled in the upper left corner of “Merica” and forever linked to fantastical musicians, Pike Place Market, technology, coffee, Sasquatch, RAIN and more rain, and numerous natural knockouts such as the Olympic Rainforest, the Puget Sound, home of the iconic Orca and Pacific Salmon, where both the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges tower and also, in the center of the state, the behemoth, Columbia Valley.
The Columbia Valley is a massive sprawling high desert valley and the result of the Missoula Floods that occurred during the Ice Age. The floods, over time, naturally and quite savagely created lush plains and valleys in some areas and simultaneously carved a massive jagged gorge of basalt corridors throughout which the mighty Columbia River flows, and consequentially along the way, deposited silt and sand and loam, oh my! There’s no place like home!
Within that gigantic valley lies one big massive 11,000,000 acre AVA (American Viticultural Area) with over 40,000 acres planted to vines and aside from being chock FULL of beautiful grapes that become our favorite beverage, it’s also home to much of our states agricultural production… how do you like them apples?
Map Credit: Wine Folly (If you don’t already know about www.winefolly.com , please pay them a visit! They are a bounty of info and make learning a blast!)
But I am not here to bore you with too much talk around geological data and agricultural factoids, although we should know at least a little bit about that stuff if we want to be able to grasp why this is such a productive growing region.
What I really came here to share with you though, are some of the things that I love most about living in close proximity to a huge, young burgeoning wine region.
Mostly, it’s the accessibility and the fact that you can actually connect to the people behind the wine, learn about new wineries, real-time, as they’re forming, watch as new sub-appellations gain formal designation or perhaps visit a brand new tasting room or go to winery parties that feel like they could be in your own living room with their laid back, welcoming and convivial spirit and then in the next moment, bump into those same winemakers promoting their wines in the market, etc, etc, and ETC!
Because, at least for me, a self proclaimed, certified and proud cork dork , it’s EXCITING!
There are, to date, over 900 wineries here in Washington, but the reality is, that unless you live here or study wine, you *might* have heard of maybe fifty (?) of them and this may be me being hopeful and liberal in my guess. (This is only MY observation based on my studies and conversations with folks around Washington wine.)
Why is this? It’s partly because the majority of these wineries are so tiny, their wines likely aren’t produced in numbers allowing them to distribute, let alone bear the burden of the costs associated with getting them to you. SO, then how are you supposed to get exposure to the myriad of wines produced here, all with their own nuance and personality when, for the most part, the only ones you can find if you live out of state come from brands that are the wine equivalent to Starbucks?
This is a big challenge for the greater promotion and appreciation of Washington wine.
Don’t get me wrong! These few wineries, that you CAN find, have paved the way for those that came after them and some of their wines are really good but they only scratch the surface of what we are capable of and what is actually being produced. Therein lies the challenge faced on both sides of the aisle. How do YOU gain access and how do WE tell the story of our regions diversity when there are only a few big guys representing the whole of the industry? It makes it hard to spread the gospel and plant the seed into the minds (and glasses) of wine drinkers and build confidence in the depth and breadth of our abilities.
Sort of related… Sort of not… If you haven’t seen Bottle Shock, you should. It’s the story of the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also known as the Judgment of Paris. I won’t divulge the guts of the film but, in the story, the people of Napa, who even in their dedication to being taken seriously and making some great wines, were portrayed (and seen by the French and others) as “hayseeds from a po-dunk town” trying their hand at “hobby” winemaking. The tie-in here is that it seems that the Columbia Valley AVA of Washington has also had to endure that same “Kid Brother-Kid Sister” syndrome that Napa suffered for years…. not being taken seriously and having to “prove worthiness”. Growing pains.
Speaking of growing…. One of my happy places here in Washington is Walla Walla…. Rustic, precious, raw, sparkly gem of the high desert. Teeny tiny for now but rapidly expanding.
There are 100+ brands calling Walla Walla home but that doesn’t necessarily mean there are physical wineries attached. Many brands use custom crush facilities and some are negociants with tasting rooms but the number of actual wineries is closer to 65-70, according to the Walla Walla Wine Alliance…. Say that five times in a row after a glass (or 5) of wine!
Those numbers don’t include the multitude of other wineries (brands/facilities) that are situated within all the OTHER sub-appellations that are part of the Greater Columbia Valley AVA of Washington State. We are INTO making wine!
If you’ve followed even a small part of the evolution of the Washington wine industry, you’ve probably heard that Walla Walla is now a benchmark for the entire AVA for consistently churning out some of the most sought after wines of the region. It’s not just sweet onions anymore, folks!
Walla Walla is to Washington, what Napa was to California in the sense that it helped put wine on the map, although I don’t personally or thoroughly subscribe to that comparative analogy because Walla Walla isn’t the only part of Washington wine country deserving recognition and we are our own unique place not needing to be compared to anyone, let alone California.
After having lived here now for almost 20 years, I have enough ownership and pride in us that I needed to mention that. And now that it seems EVERYone is moving here, I am, admittedly, a bit more defensive about “home”… and I feel “hashtag blessed” to live in my beautiful state.
Now….NOW we are getting to the heart of the matter and if you haven’t gathered this already….If talking were an actual fuel, I would be a nuclear reactor!
What really inspired me to write my first article for The Vintner Project is Rulo Winery.
Rulo Winery, in the heart of Walla Walla, owned and operated solely by a dynamic duo…. Kurt, part mad scientist/winemaker and Vicki, part nurturing goddess/glue of the operation… and together, 100% bad ass.
Established in 2000, Rulo Winery is truly a labor of love and is Kurt and Vicki Schlickers “dream realized”. She will say that “it’s actually Kurt’s dream and she is just lucky to ride on his coattails” but I think HE would say what I also believe to be true… that it couldn’t be the way it is without her 😉
Shared on the back labels of every bottle produced, is their “motto” of sorts….”Relive a Memory, Realize a Dream!”
This dream realized is ALSO their backaches realized considering they do virtually EVERYthing at the winery on their own, including crush. With the exception of occasional help from family and local friends/fans helping on wine event weekends and bottling day, they truly are THE show and if you know even a little about what it takes to make wine, then you understand the backache reference. These two are tough little shits and I mean that in the most reverent and loving of ways.
Both Kurt and Vicki come from science and medical backgrounds so there is loads of brain along with that brawn, another absolute necessity in winemaking.
Rulo is the name of the grain elevator that is located about 12-13 miles away from the winery. In Kurt’s family, there are wheat farmers whose ranch is one of the properties within a mile or two of the RULO grain elevator. Old farmer GPS; if you belonged to the family of one of the nearby properties of the grain elevator, then you, “lived at RULO” and not 12.9 or 13.1 miles out of town near the intersection of Luckenbill and Sudbury roads.
The locals/farmers knew exactly what that meant and to which family you belonged. Rulo is actually a circle on the State of WA map because it remains an active elevator on the rail line. As a kid, Kurt and family would visit grandparents, aunts/uncles and cousins and they always referred to visiting Walla Walla as ‘coming to RULO’ as the ranch is where the kids stayed while parents went into town for adult time.
Just shy of 6 acres, their property is home to the Butler buildings that house the entirety of their operation and their home. The tasting room, Kurt’s lab, tank room, bottling area and also the barrel room and cased goods storage which is digitally temperature and humidity controlled to ensure consistency to see that the beautiful, aging wines can safely endure the wildly erratic and sometime unforgiving weather swings of this rugged, arid continental climate. Temperatures as low as -16 have been recorded in January and highs of 100+ during the dog days of summer. Uff Da!
Rulo, while expertly run and modernly equipped, remains to this day, one of the most humble wineries in Walla Walla that consistently puts forth wines of focus, depth, freshness and character.
Lucky for us, they are able to offer these high quality wines without emptying our wallets.
HOW DO THEY DO THAT??? Well, aside from the aforementioned “do everything” approach (No labor overhead) they also intentionally have no investors and are a 100% self distributing, no advertising and word of mouth winery. DTC (direct to consumer) is the main avenue by which one can attain their wines although they do ship to states that allow them to do so.
These are all factors contributing to their NOT having to jack up prices unnecessarily and this business model is in line with their commitment and need to remain in control of every phase of production from vineyard to cellar to you. And the wines, as a result, remain accessible to the people who have come to support them,who continue to be impressed by them and remain loyal buyers.
Their generous pricing in no way reflects the quality of grapes selected or their vineyard choices nor all the work that goes into each and every bottle.
They call their pricing structure “Fair and Globally Competitive’. I agree!
Rulo went from producing 319 cases with their first releases in 2001, reaching a high of 4300 cases at one point but is now (in 2018) happy settling in at around 2000 cases a year currently. The sweet spot for them.
It’s a unique challenge for Rulo, and an intentional choice, working that way while being situated in the increasingly popular Walla Walla Valley, where many other wineries/brands with BIG investor dollars are also producing high priced, allocated wines and some have even achieved “cult status” over the years.
When wines attain that almost “cultish” status, fetching astronomical amounts of cash and then you add in that tasting rooms are physically starting to stack densely upon each other, it can really load the deck and not always in your favor as a small independent winery.
And it’s a small town, Walla Walla. These same folks I talk about, with money to burn on advertising and fancy tasting rooms, are essentially sharing borders with Rulo’s homespun production winery. And make no mistake.. It is competitive out there.
I like to describe things this way for those who don’t know about Rulo……….
Rulo is the feeling you get when your best friend walks into the room at an exclusive party that you’re attending and you don’t know anyone else. I mean, y’all feel honored to have been invited to the party and that someone can even afford to throw that kind of a thing but really, all you wanted to do to begin with was just hang out in your friends backyard in jeans and a tee, fire up some really tasty bbq and drink whatever they were serving which is ALWAYS on point!
This is Rulo, their wines, their ideology and the feeling I get when I visit them and why I tell others about them. And they will make you feel that way too… and they probably might not even realize it!
I guess the emphasis here should be this…. they COULD be charging you a LOT more for the quality of wine they are producing. But they don’t….and their dedication to their craft and subtlety about it is why I am telling you about them. Rulo is a slow burn and I like it that way. Even if that means that by sharing this information, there might be less RULO for ME. But it’s WINE. And wine people are inherently good people and that’s what you DO. You share. Because you are kind and human and life is short, and hard, and there are enough assholes out there, right? Repeat… be kind… pour me another.
OK…enough of my waxing verbosely and hopefully informatively and somewhat entertainingly. You can clearly see my passion here, no?
Here is a short interview I did with Kurt and Vicki to get some details regarding the sourcing and process of their wines and also a bit about THEM… the people behind those wines.
Although I have known you both for some time, would you mind giving me the backstory of how you met and what you were doing prior to Rulo, in your own words?
Sure! Kurt was born in Seattle and raised in Bellevue. His Mom’s family is 5-generations Walla Walla. He went to Stanford undergrad and UW for medical school. Residencies included pediatrics and anesthesiology at UC Davis and a fellowship at Seattle Children’s.
I (Vicki) was raised in Ohio and went to Kent State University and graduated with a BSN.(Bachelor of Science in Nursing) I worked as a traveling O.R. nurse which took me, eventually, to Sacramento where I met Kurt. We lived 5 years in Lompoc, CA (Central Coast) Kurt had briefly worked at a winery there where he learned to make wine while acting as their enologist between undergrad and postgrad and he got the bug to make wine commercially. He had always made a small amount of wine at home but wanted to produce wine on a larger scale. California was untouchable for us as we were not from money and wanted no investors/partners/employees. Kurt was asked by a fellow anesthesiologist to join his group in Walla Walla. It took a few years of coercing but he finally agreed and we moved to Walla Walla in May of 2000. Kurt went to work full-time practicing anesthesia taking his vacation in Sept-Oct for harvest and crush.THEN the bank loaned us an astronomical amount of money allowing us to start building the winery in 2001 and eventually finishing the house in 2002. I worked part-time at a surgery center for 2 years and then went to work for 5 years for our friends waiting tables at their newly opened restaurant. This allowed me to entertain wine tasters while Kurt was working… We tapered Kurt to part-time and finally retirement from medicine in 2012. It was important to us and our lives that he only have 1 full-time job!
Where do you source your grapes and what varieties are you currently working with?
*Yakima Valley for White Rhone varieties and Grenache
Managed and owned by Dick Boushey, a pioneer of early plantings there.
*Wahluke Slope (Clifton/Clifton Hill/Sundance) for Syrah and Chardonnay.
*Red Mountain from 2 different vineyard sites: Ranch at the End of the Road for Syrah and Heart of the Hill for Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Owned and managed by Scott Williams.
*Birch Creek (formerly Vanessa) further south in Walla Walla Valley for Chardonnay
Owned by Dr. Jim and Regina Vandersloot. Vineyard in Milton-Freewater, OR.
*River Rock Vineyard for Viognier and Syrah and Freewater Rocks Vineyard for Chardonnay, Grenache and Cinsault. Both in the Rocks District
Milton-Freewater. Owned and managed by Dana Dibble. Vineyards planted in the ancient Walla Walla Riverbed. ( *ONE OF THE NEWEST AVA’s*)\
Which wines are currently in production and available for purchase?
4 whites… Grenache Blanc, Viognier and two very different styles of Chardonnay
One Rosé and 4 reds….ORB (our red blend), Syrah, Silo (a reserve Syrah) and a Petite Sirah. 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon to be released in November 2018.
How sustainable are Rulo and their sources?
All the vineyards we source from are sustainable. No dry-farming due to lack of sufficient rainfall through the growing season. Growers utilize whatever means they feel necessary to preserve the health of their vineyards. All are cognizant of the health of their soils and the planet.
Are your wines ever/often/never inoculated or do they do their thing solely from native/ambient yeast. If they are inoculated, how do you decide what cultured strain to use on them?
Kurt inoculates all of our fermentations with yeasts of his choosing. On occasion, indigenous fermentation has taken place but again, Kurt inoculates with yeasts of his choosing in all of our wines. His ability to know what strains to use comes from experience and his breadth of knowledge regarding microbiology and fermentation science.
Are the white wines all made in stainless and red wines all in French oak and what percentage is new/2-3-4 pass/neutral barrel?
Viognier, Sundance Chardonnay and Rosé are fermented in stainless steel barrels. All other wines are fermented/aged in French oak barrels from a selection of cooperages/forests that Kurt knows well and fit his wine-making style. We purchase approximately 35 new barrels a year and the oldest barrel in use is 3yrs. Old.
Okaaayyyy… enough technical stuff. Let’s get some fun stuff on YOU guys:
I’ve got some questions and just answer them naturally even though I know you both notoriously hate the spotlight! INDULGE US! What is your favorite thing to eat at the end of a LONG day and what do you pair with that favorite thing? I am guessing maybe BEER but definitely know you love your bubbles, Vicki!
Hands down bubbles for us both! And keep it flowing. We enjoy all wine and drink globally. Long days usually involve crush so some favorite meals would be Tater Tots with poached eggs or just popcorn…both with bubbles or whatever Kurt opens. If we have planned well, there is a country terrine in the fridge that Kurt put together and we hunker down on that and again with the bubbles or whatever Kurt opens.
What are your most favorite and least favorite things about this crazy industry?
Favorite for Vicki: Experiencing her best friend’s dream with him.
Second Favorite: The people who are now dear friends because they walked through our winery door.
Favorite for Kurt: Combining his love of science with his love for wine and producing world class wines in a new wine region. Being a pioneer in Walla Walla Valley.
Least favorite: The amount of non-truths in this industry. Lipstick on glasses in the tasting room. Sport drinkers vs wine tasters. Most frustrating aspect of the winery: selling wine. Even at the quality we believe our wines to be, selling is not easy.
Favorite place to travel?
Favorite golf travel: Big Island, HI. Europe, thus far, for wine and food. France, Italy, Portugal, Spain… Paris is an absolute favorite City. Lyon a close second.
Thank you both so much for your time and for your contribution to our greater appreciation and enjoyment of wine!
We welcome everyone to visit our website www.rulowinery.com (which may possibly be undergoing a little maintenance/updating) or just call 509-525-7856 with any questions or to arrange a visit!
So there it is… in a nutshell, the last sentence pretty much sums up the spirit and intention of Rulo…..
“Just call us!”
Cheers to Kurt and Vicki of RULO Winery for allowing me to put them in the spotlight which they would NEVER do for themselves but deserve to be in all the same!
AND>>>> To those of you who live out of state, they DO ship, if its legal to do so where you live. And as the kids say, I too, am “Just sayin’”