“Yeah, one of my best friends, who I was in love with at the time, said, ‘There’s nothing sexier than a man who knows how to order wine,’ ” Norris said. “That’s how I got into wine. I was like, ‘I’m in! Whatever it is!’ And so this has all happened because of that interaction.”
More than a decade later, Norris is surrounded by bottles from some of the most hip and talented winemakers in Washington. The following he has built prompts many of them to drive to the Kent Station shopping village southeast of Seattle and pour for Norris’s legion of consumers.
“We’ve developed a community of regulars who are fiercely loyal and love to drink wine,” Norris said. “It’s been really, really cool. Winemakers will come in and say, ‘I’ve never seen a tasting event like that.’ The winemakers are running around filling up glasses, and people are buying up wine in a hurry. That’s the way these people are. If they like it, they are going to buy it — right now.”
For example, the recent pouring by Brad Binko of Eternal Wines from Walla Walla got into the second case of Carrménère that he brought.
“Tim’s got a very good following, and Reds has been very steady for us,” said Binko, a certified sommelier from New York. “It’s nice when you go there to pour because he’s already prepped his customers about who I am and what I’m doing, so we move past the questions like, ‘So, where are you from?’ They are actually asking educated questions.”
Then there was the tasting at Reds for Doubleback Winery. Soft-spoken talent Josh McDaniels was pouring some of the Walla Walla Valley wines he makes for retired NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
“Josh was freaking out, telling me, ‘People are opening the signed bottles!’ ” Norris chuckled. “I told him, ‘Yeah, those are our people!’ They were buying magnums and just opening them at the bar. These people are consumers in the most literal sense. It’s a fun group.”
Slotted into the bins that wrap around the inside of Reds are bottles that show Norris to be on the inside of the Washington industry — Avennia, Bartholomew, Cairdeas, Cor, Covington, Damsel, Dillon, Drink Washington State/Eternal, Gorman, Kana, Kerloo, Lagana, Latta, Structure Cellars, Two Vintners and Upsidedown to name a few.
In nearly every case, there’s a common thread to the vibe from each brand — a lack of pretentiousness that Norris finds refreshing.
“I would love to see the stuffiness go away,” he said. “It’s a people business, and too often we start looking at wineries as commodities and not people. When I look at a bottle, I see the winemaker or the staff, and I want my customers to have the same connection that I do. I want them to look at a Two Vintners bottle and think of Morgan (Lee) or look at Eternal and think of the Buffalo Bills because that’s where Brad is from. To me, they are what’s on the table — not the wine.”
Each Tuesday, there’s Trivia Night for “Geeks who drink.” Wine Wednesdays in April brought Fielding Hills Winery from Chelan, Eternal from Walla Walla and Australian wine importer Red Earth Wines of Seattle. The month’s lineup of musical talent on Saturday nights included buzzworthy Seattle singer/songwriter Jessie Siren.
“People always ask me, ‘What do you do when you are away from the wine bar?’ I say, ‘I drink wine. What else would I do?” Norris chuckled. “It’s an all-consuming fun thing. There are so many Washington wineries that people don’t know about, and now I’m learning about how great some of the Idaho wineries are. I would love to bring some of them in.”
While there are plenty of award-winning red wines here, don’t go looking for anyone named “Red.” The original owners, who became friends of Norris, sold the business in 2014, but the name remains, even though it doesn’t mean much to anyone unless they saw co-founder Angela Xavier hoop it up for Kentridge High School.
“She would wear red basketball shoes when she played, so that’s why it’s called Reds Wine Bar,” Norris said. “She played well, and they went to state. Angela said she always wanted to have an extension of their living room so that’s why this was opened — to offer something like that.”
The Xaviers developed a following, and Norris helped with that nearly from the beginning.
“I happened on this place by accident as a customer a month after it opened,” Norris said. “I hit it off with Nick, her husband, and he asked if I needed a job.”
Two months later, Norris, who had managed a restaurant in Arizona, began working for the Xaviers.
“They said they could pay me in wine, and I said, ‘Sweet!’ ”Norris said. “What it did was it opened up my world to Washington wine, but honestly at the time, our list wasn’t really reflective of Washington state wine.”
Norris was born at Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma and grew up in Yelm. It took awhile for wine to become “sexier” for him, and his first sip came as a freshman at Washington State University — Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill.
“I still want to get a bottle of that, put it on the wall with a $150 price tag on it, and see what people say,” Norris said with a smirk.
Rick McMaster, who opened Vino at The Landing in Renton, created a sister project when he purchased Reds Wine Bar from the Xaviers on Jan. 1, 2015. He wisely expanded the role of Norris when he married the restaurants six years after launching Vino at The Landing, which has become a watering hole for employees of Boeing, Blue Origin and REI.
Later in 2015, Reds Wine Bar earned the Washington State Wine Commission’s Award of Distinction. It helped raise the profile of Norris, one of the few African-Americans in the Northwest wine trade.
“I can walk into most places now, and I’ll hear, ‘Tim!’ because I’m recognizable,” he said. “And in this industry right now, there’s not a lot of people who look like me. There are a few, and there will be more.”
Each year, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance brings 50 wineries to Seattle's McCaw Hall for Walla Walla Wine — a tasting that involves not only consumers but also members of the wine trade. Reds Wine Bar and Norris have used it to help forge relationships with Eternal, Lagana and others.
“That’s one of the reasons why I go to that event," said Lagana co-owner/co-winemaker Jason Fox. "There's a two-hour trade portion at the beginning, so we are able to pour for retailers and wholesalers and hopefully move some product. Through that, we met Tim, he tasted through our wine and bought wine from us over the years, so it’s all good.”
Both producers have subsequently held tastings for Norris's customers, and the return rate of winemakers to subsequent pourings at Reds reflects success.
“Our customer base is in for whatever is ‘the next thing,’ so for us, we’re getting smaller, not bigger, as far as who we deal with wine,” Norris said. “My job is to find value in unexpected places and give people an experience.”
Norris himself has a creative side. Beyond his love of the Seattle Seahawks and sports in general, he’s stepped off the stage as a bass player to devote time to graphic design. That artwork helps draw attention to the Facebook Live video segments he’s broadcast for the past two years each Wednesday around 2:30 p.m., which promote upcoming wine tastings and concerts.
“Then we open the doors at 3 p.m., and off we go,” he said. “We want this to be a safe place, where the consumer can make mistakes. No one is going to judge you. You can ask for mur-LOT or cabinet sauvignon and we won’t laugh at you. We’ll be cool. I might ask, ‘You mean Cabernet? I’ll get that for you.’ ”
His approach meshes with soft-spoken Guatemalan-born chef Wilson Tojin, who has taken Reds beyond its original mission. Tojin, 26, attended Seattle Central Community College prior to moving into the confined kitchen at Vino at The Landing. He was promoted and transferred to Reds last year.
“Chef Wilson has not just changed the menu at Reds, he has changed a culture in the back of the house,” Norris said. “He continues to push the culinary boundaries or definitions of what kind of food can be enjoyed at a wine bar.”
Tojin said, “I try to make the recipes for the customers just as I make them at my home.”
For this Match Maker project, we selected two graduates of Walla Walla Community College’s vaunted winemaking program. On the list at Reds is Binko’s Eternal Wines 2017 Grenache Blanc from Painted Hills near Mabton, Wash., and Fox’s Lagana Cellars 2014 Minnick Hills Vineyard Syrah from the Walla Walla Valley.
“I love the roundness that Brad puts into his Grenache Blanc,” Norris said. “It’s not going to have crazy acid. It’s well-balanced. The acidity is still there, but it’s more of an easy drink. You still get the lemon peel and lemon curd coming through. He doesn’t put it through concrete, but there’s still a really nice mouth feel when you taste that one.”
It screamed deliciously through the Creamy Crimini Mushroom Bruschetta and the Garlic Roasted Broccoli, which are among the signature plates at Reds refined by Tojin.
“I love pairing cream dishes with Grenache Blanc because the acidity cuts through it,” Norris said. “Honestly, I love anything garlicky with it. It’s a very underrated wine because everyone does Chardonnay. Everyone does Pinot Gris. Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc are different. They are made for food.”
He backs that up by listing several examples of Grenache Blanc at Reds, most of them from Washington.
“Yeah, we love Grenache Blanc,” Norris smiles.
The Lagana Cellars 2014 Minnick Hills Vineyard Syrah also was created in a style that lends itself to food with dark purple fruits akin to black cherry and Marionberry, backed by blueberry acidity. Production included 33 percent whole-cluster fermentation, yet if the tannins were once on the crunchy side, they now are deliciously resolved. As a result, they paired with both the marinara-based Meatball Appetizer and the Flank Steak marinated in red wine mushroom sauce served alongside the Garlic Roasted Broccoli and jasmine rice.
“It works really well with the Bacon Jam Burger, too,” Norris said. “To me, this is what Walla Walla Syrah tastes like. It is very straight-forward, nice and round with good flavor. It pairs well with a lot of things. They let the grapes talk rather than force them into what we think Syrah should be. For my palate, I don’t want massive funk just to have funk. I appreciate finesse, not overextracted or bombastic Syrahs. With the Lagana, you get that minerality along with funkiness that’s not over the top.”
Norris views the key component as the everything cracker that gets crunched up for the meatball binder.
“So it has the sesame seeds and the garlic,” Norris said. “Garlic and Syrah I love. And the spice from the red pepper flakes brings out the black fruit in the Syrah. The nuttiness of the cheese in the meatball comes out with the Syrah. And while broccoli and red wine isn’t a traditional pairing, we think it works.”
These days, the Xaviers return to Reds as occasional customers, and they can appreciate the elevated culinary program that came with Tojin.
“Our food sales have gone up 57 percent, so Wilson gets whatever he wants as far as I’m concerned,” Norris said. “And he works from open to close. He’s not one of those who takes a smoke break every 15 minutes. He changed the culture here. Before, people loved us and loved the wine, and the food was OK.”
So don’t be surprised if there’s a tweak to the name. Reds has become a Washington wine industry bistro rather than a suburban wine bar.
Eternal Wines 2017 Eternal Perspective Grenache Blanc, Columbia Valley $29
— 42 cases, 12.5% alcohol
Brad Binko wants to simplify his life and take it easy on his 1976 Chevy flatbed truck that hauls grapes back to his winery near the Walla Walla airport.
But his work with Grenache Blanc provides a delicious snapshot of Painted Hills Vineyard, the dramatic 400-acre planting by Art den Hoed tucked between the Yakima Valley and the northern flank of Horse Heaven Hills near Mabton, Wash.
"That truck gets about eight miles to the gallon, and I can only drive it 55 miles an hour, so I’m scaling back on the vineyards that are more than a couple of hours away from me," Binko said. "But I’ve kept Painted Hills. It’s such a pretty vineyard; it’s a nice drive, and it does have a gorgeous view of the Yakima Valley."
Tiny pockets of coveted Grenache Blanc, a brisk white grape native to the Rhône Valley in France, have sprung up across Washington. Binko achieved success with his first example, receiving a double gold medal for the 2016 Eternal Perspective Grenache Blanc at the 2017 Seattle Wine Awards.
"I named it Eternal Perspective because the view from Painted Hills is an awesome perspective," he said. "That’s one reason why I’m hesitant to leave."
Binko abandoned his career as a sommelier on the East Coast to make wine in Washington state. Now, the 2016 graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s program is feeding two young brands. The larger-scale Drink Washington State lineup is focused on blended wines. His Eternal Wines program, on the other hand, is devoted one-ton snapshots of individual vineyards. All combined, he makes 24 styles of wine from more than 15 growers.
"I have a hard time saying ’No’ to good fruit," he said, which helps explain why he also has a Mourvèdre from Painted Hills.
"It’s a cool little story about how I got into that block of Grenache Blanc," Binko said. "Art had ordered Grenache and planted it, then all of a sudden when the clusters started changing colors, some of them didn’t. That’s when he found out some of the vines were Grenache Blanc."
Grenache Blanc, one of the six official white grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, often comes across as a "lipstinger" to Binko. To deal with that natural tartness, he aged it on the lees for six months after the Oct. 18 harvest, and half of the lot rested in a neutral French oak barrel. Combined, they shave down the citrusy edges just a bit. Binko reaches for his Grenache Blanc when he wants a refreshing palate cleanser on a hot day.
"I tend to drink it in the afternoon," he said.
Distribution in the Seattle area is limited to a few outlets, including Reds Wine Bar. In the Columbia Valley, his wines are available at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser.
Eternal Wines and Drink Washington Wine are featured in a downtown tasting room at 9 S. First Ave., Walla Walla, WA 99362. The winery is among the Port of Walla Walla incubators near the airport at 602 Piper Ave., Walla Walla, WA, 99362, (509) 240-6258, eternalwine.com, and drinkwashington.wine.
Creamy Crimini Mushroom Bruschetta
6 slices of focaccia
3 cups crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 cup Chardonnay
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon garlic, minced or puréed
1 pinch of salt
Freshly grated Parmesan
1. Sauté the wine, garlic and pepper flakes and reduce for a few minutes.
2. Add the mushrooms.
3. Cook for a few minutes.
4. In the meantime, lightly grill the focaccia.
5. To complete, serve over the bread, topping with shaved Parmesan.
Meatball with Marinara and Grilled Focaccia
1 pound of ground beef
2 tablespoons of broken crackers (everything crackers work well)
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
1/4 teaspoon sour cream
1/4 teaspoon water
1/2 yellow onion
1/4 teaspoon roasted garlic
6 slices of focaccia
1. Take all of the ingredients except the ground beef and purée.
2. Add the puréed ingredients to the beef and mix well.
3. Form the meatballs using a # 20-sized scoop.
4. Place on a cookie sheet and bake at 500 degrees for 20 minutes.
5. Serve with marinara sauce and grilled focaccia
Lagana Cellars 2014 Minnick Hills Vineyard Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $30
— 220 cases, 13.4% alcohol
Jason Fox admits the driving passion early on with Lagana Cellars had been with white wines, not reds. That refreshing niche has served him well in the Walla Walla Valley.
“I love making white wine,” Fox said, “but we’re working with more and more red varieties now.”
The graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s acclaimed winemaking program has his alma mater to thank on many levels for that, which includes his internship at Walla Walla Vintners, the iconic red-roof barn that’s been home to some of the Northwest’s best-known red wines. In 2012, he learned from head winemaker William vonMetzger and assistant winemaker Todd Bernave, whose father, Rich, worked at Walla Walla Vintners early in its history.
“I kept in contact with Todd and became awesome friends,” Fox said. “Things changed there in 2017 when the winery sold, so he signed on as co-owner here in September 2017. We’re 50/50 across the board. I take care of the bulk of the whites for now, and he’s in charge of the reds.”
It’s obvious that Fox’s talents go beyond his work with white wine, which includes a 2018 Platinum Award from Wine Press Northwest for his 2016 Cockburn Vineyard Chardonnay.
Earlier this year, Lagana Cellars earned a double gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for the 2016 Breezy Slope Vineyard Pinot Noir and gold for the 2016 J&S Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, both grown in the Walla Walla Valley.
Prior to those awards, however, the 2014 Minnick Hills Vineyard Syrah earned a gold medal at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition in 2016.
Three years later, this Syrah continues to purr. And it began with the harvest date of Sept. 30, 2014, which continues to keep the wine bright, age-worthy and food-friendly with an alcohol-by-volume percentage not often seen in Syrah from the New World.
“I’d rather not have my alcohols get to 14 to 14.5, and this is only 13.4, so it’s not crazy,” he said. “I try to shoot for a style similar to Gramercy (Cellars), and I like to pick things earlier. Syrah (grapes) tends to dimple if you don’t.”
And of the nine-barrel lot, only two of those casks were new French oak, so the wine comes off as precise rather than toasty from wood.
Syrah is an important part of the Lagana Cellars portfolio at 20 percent of the 1,000-case program. His 2013 Syrah from Minnick Hills garnered him a gold at the 2016 Seattle Wine Awards. However, winter damage led Lagana to work with Patina Vineyard south toward the foothills of the Blue Mountains for the 2015 vintage. Fox and Bernave used Patina for their Nox Perpetua tier, and their bottling from the 2016 vintage is a Minnick Hills-led blend with some Patina.
“Patina is heavier, and it’s from a different soil type, whereas Minnick has more minerality and is finesse-driven,” Fox said.
He and Bernave are so smitten with the profile of Minnick Hills that they have begun sourcing from young Eritage Vineyard, another of the rare sites north of Highway 12 edging toward the Palouse.
“It’s not a super big Syrah like you’d find from Red Mountain or Australia or Paso Robles, and it’s not too oaky,” he said. “I go on the lighter side of meat, a heavier pasta salad and it’s a good burger wine.”
Lagana Cellars, 16 N. Second Ave., Walla Walla, WA, 99362, (509) 876-0001, laganacellars.com.
Flank Steak with Grilled Vegetables and Jasmine Rice
Served Cabernet mushroom sauce ingredients
2 cups Cabernet Sauvignon
2 cups crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon garlic purée
1 tablespoon beef base (Better Than Bouillon works well)
1 tablespoon balsamic glaze
1 teaspoon butter
1. Create the balsamic glaze by reducing 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar down to 1 tablespoon.
2. Mix all of the ingredients together with mushrooms, butter and let simmer long enough to reduce
8 ounces flank steak
1 cup jasmine rice
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 cup broccoli, chopped
1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1. Sauté the onion, broccoli and green peppers in two turns of olive oil
2. Grill the flank steak to medium rare.
3. Plate the steak, grilled vegetables and jasmine rice.
4. Drizzle the sauce over the steak and alongside to also enjoy with the vegetables and rice.
Garlic Roasted Broccoli
1 cup fresh broccoli
3 cloves minced garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1. Toss broccoli and garlic together in a large skillet.
2. Drizzle olive oil over the broccoli and toss to coat.
3. Add crushed red pepper flakes.
4. Sauté to preferred level, and season with salt and black pepper.
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.