Most winemakers, when asked what they wanted to be when they were growing up, will throw out standard answers like fireman or pro athlete. In that, among other aspects, Sean Hails is not like most of his peers.
“Growing up, a friend’s family had a vineyard,” said the affable Canada native. “The industry was coming into its own, and they were pulling out native grapes to plant vinifera [European grapes]. And I just loved that, and then couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
So he studied microbiology at Ontario’s University of Guelph, and immediately headed to Wine Country: Australia, then Canada’s Okanagan Valley and Niagara Peninsula. And finally California to work for the Gallo folks, who knew a good man when they found one and installed him as winemaker at Columbia Winery in Washington.
It was an apt fit.
“The legacy that struck me first was the older tradition, with David Lake,” Hails said of the man who released Washington’s first single-vineyard wines. “He was the first one up here to plant pinot gris, syrah and cabernet franc. So stepping into that role, I thought that was something I can’t not do.”
In a few scant years, Hails has rejuvenated the winery’s tradition of quality wines for affordable prices. The 2012 merlot is laden with gorgeous blue fruit, the cabernet replete with body and soul, plus darker fruits and cocoa. (Both have deft dollops of syrah, btw.)
The 2012 chardonnay, meanwhile, is stunning: refreshing and downright delicious, with just-right acidity, a splendid mouthfeel and a delightfully brisk finish. Good luck finding a better — or more food-friendly — $15 chardonnay than this one.
These wines spring from a combination of Hails’ science background and work ethic. He chooses and monitors every vineyard the winery uses. “Some days we’re driving and tasting for 10 hours,” he said, adding that most of the white grapes come from Yakima Valley and the reds from Wahluke Slope and Horse Heaven Hills. “The diversity of grapes is huge.”
So is the diversity of yeasts and oak treatments that this microbiologist explores. “I’m always using new yeasts and types of barrels. But I do have a few go-to yeasts and go-to coopers.
“We do a lot of work in the vineyards, and every day in the winery you’re making decisions. I don’t want [his bosses] thinking ‘what do I need you for?’ ”
Not much chance of that.