For the past two decades, Washington wine lovers have enjoyed the wines of Mark Ryan McNeilly.
Last fall, the world learned about Mark Ryan Winery when one of its red blends landed on the Top 100 list of Wine Spectator, the most influential publication in the wine industry.
And while it was the 2016 The Dissident that ranked No. 45 — and the best Washington wine that the magazine’s panel tasted in 2019 — the fanfare for McNeilly’s work goes well beyond.
McNeilly grew up in Bellevue, and his experience as a waiter and bartender gave him some insight into wine as well as consumers. The next steps were in wine sales, including a couple of years working for Matt Loso, founder of Matthews Cellars and one of Washington’s first cult producers. Then came a move to Northern California for hands-on winemaking for Jed Steele of Kendall Jackson fame.
By 1999, McNeilly was back in Washington and busy on Mark Ryan Winery. Early on, McNeilly recognized the long-term value of establishing and nurturing relationships with some of Washington’s leading vineyards and growers. As a result, his wines feature the likes of Ciel du Cheval, Kiona, Klipsun and Quintessence on Red Mountain and Yakima Valley sites Red Willow and Olsen. Perhaps the most influential figure in his early days as a winemaker was Ciel du Cheval owner Jim Holmes.
McNeilly ranks among the most recognizable Washington winemakers, in part because he participates and supports many of the region’s signature events. Among those is the Auction of Washington Wines, which advances the efforts of Seattle Children’s Hospital and Washington State University’s wine program.
Last year also marked the 10th anniversary of Mike Macmorran as head winemaker for Mark Ryan. Together, Macmorran and McNeilly have made a dizzying array of wines behind a series of eclectic labels and brands such as Board Track Racer, Numbskull and most recently Lu & Oly, which is geared toward restaurants.
There’s also his collaboration with Walla Walla producer Trey Busch called The Underground Wine Project, and they share a long-standing appreciation for Seattle grunge-era bands, particularly Pearl Jam. In fact, they issued a boxed set of red wine branded as “Home X Away” in support of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy Foundation. The set sold out in 15 minutes, raising $67,500 for homeless awareness in Seattle.
Back in 2003, McNeilly took the wines he’d crafted in his garage and the cellars of others, and planted his flag in Woodinville. That tasting room opening was about five years ahead of the proliferation that began when the price of gasoline hit $4 per gallon, prompting many wine lovers in the Seattle area to stay close to home rather than drive to Walla Walla.
Times have changed, and the economy has improved, so McNeilly opened a second tasting room for Mark Ryan - a highly visible space on Main Street in downtown Walla Walla. (He’s since moved production to Walla Walla.) Guests can get a glimpse of his passion for motorcycles in his tasting rooms, which includes a separate space in Woodinville’s Warehouse District for Board Track Racer, a tier he launched in 2008 with Macmorran newly onboard.
Those who appreciate Oregon Pinot Noir also have another prism through which to view McNeilly’s artistry. Megan Anne Cellars opened in 2016 as a collaboration with acclaimed Willamette Valley winemaker Isabelle Meunier of Evening Land and now Lavinea. The timing could not have been much better because the 2014 vintage is viewed by international critics as the first of three stellar growing seasons in a row. Those wines are available — when not sold out — at the Mark Ryan tasting rooms as well as The Carlton Winemakers Studio in Carlton, Ore.
Look for the following wines at wine shops and restaurants while the Mark Ryan 2017 reds are just around the corner.
Mark Ryan Winery 2016 The Dissident Red Wine, Columbia Valley, $38: For the first time, McNeilly cracked Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, scoring with a formula of Cabernet Sauvignon (56%), Merlot (24%), Cabernet Franc (17%) and Petit Verdot from sites such as Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun and Quintessence from Red Mountain, Red Willow in the foothills of Mount Adams and Phinny Hill in the Horse Heaven Hills. It’s constructed for more immediate enjoyment than some Mark Ryan cellar-worthy reds, but The Dissident — named for a Pearl Jam song — maintains a classy aromatic profile of cassis and black cherry with dusty minerality and toast. It continues to evolve in the glass, revealing flavors of cherry and bittersweet chocolate, medium tannins and a finish of black olive, moist earth and red currant. There were nearly 4,000 cases produced, but Spectator’s readership can drain a winery’s cellar or retail pipeline rather rapidly.
Mark Ryan Winery 2016 Dead Horse Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $60: When McNeilly started out at the turn of the century, Dead Horse was one of the two wines he opened with. Here, he maintains his long-standing relationship with Ciel du Cheval Vineyard and includes Klipsun, Obelisco and young Quintessence. Luxurious barrel influences of cocoa powder, vanilla and toasted cherry wood are joined by blackcurrant and dusty Red Mountain sagebrush. There’s ebullience to the bright approach of black cherry and plum that’s joined by Baker’s chocolate and capped by blueberry-pomegranate juice.
Mark Ryan Winery 2017 Olsen Vineyard Chardonnay, Yakima Valley, $40: This young program stems from three clones planted along a northern slope in a storied site, particularly with Chardonnay, outside of Prosser, Wash., for McNeilly. Nearly 90% of the fermentation came in French oak barrels, half of that wood was new, accounting for aromas of toast, Bosc pear and lemon. A rounded mouth feel brings with it dried pear, Gala apple and lemon oil, backed by a pinch of white pepper.
Board Track Racer Cellars 2017 The Vincent Red Wine, Washington State, $20: Here’s one of the least expensive wines offered by McNeilly, and this blend that leads with Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) also shows signs of Malbec’s juiciness (15%) among the Merlot. Its theme of Bing cherry, plum and pomegranate offers a nicely balanced structure with finishing touches of clove, mocha and Craisin.
The Underground Wine Project 2018 And Why Am I Mr. Pink Rosé, Columbia Valley, $13: Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand Cellars and Mark McNeilly first bonded as fans of rock music. A few years later, they decided to launch The Underground Wine Project. What started out in 2009 with 100 cases of red wine they dubbed “Idle Hands” has grown into a juggernaut spanning well beyond 30,000 cases. The lion’s share is devoted to Mr. Pink, a Sangiovese-driven rosé that’s bright and chock full of nerve. It’s decidedly pink in color and opens with a nose combining fruit (strawberry, clementine, summer melon), greens (mint, watermelon rind), citrus (orange peel and grapefruit) and subtleties of Aperol bitters. This is a refreshing summer stunner with mouthwatering natural acidity.
Mark Ryan Winery 2016 Long Haul Merlot, Columbia Valley, $55: It can be tough to get excited about Washington Merlot these days, however, this work by McNeilly and winemaker Macmorran presents a delicious example. The Sauer family’s famed Red Willow Vineyard plays the critical role, and the vines stretch back more than 25 years. Compelling aromas of blue fruit, sweet herbs and light oak lead to extraordinarily well-managed tannins that carry a fine grain. That structure allows the ripe blackcurrant and blueberry flavors to bring along subtle touches of cocoa powder and cumin..