Indie vintner Mark Nicholl started his own label for an elegantly simple reason: He wanted the freedom to make wines that he loved, whether that’s a dry riesling or a Müller-Thurgau white.
After spending 20 years producing wine in regions like Italy’s Apuglia, France’s Burgundy, Australia’s Barossa and California’s Sonoma, the Australian knows his craft. Until this spring, he served as head winemaker for Sweet Cheeks Winery while also independently producing his own small batches of artisanal wine under the label William Rose Wines for the past two years. Now it’s his full-time job.
With his diverse experience and eclectic taste, I met up with Nicholl, curious as to what led the wily Australian to this small, damp corner of the earth. “Oregon and Northern Rhône — the parallels are amazing, underrated,” he says. “I love syrah and pinot noir and I’m a riesling nut. So I get to make the wines I love and also what I sense that here in Oregon is what the region does best. It’s not just the Willamette Valley pinots either.” Nicholl points out that the Oregon wine industry is relatively young and producers are still testing out what varieties grow well here, leading to a greater capacity for innovation and experimentation in winemaking for the region.
“When you’re making wine for somebody else, you have to curb that risk taking,” he says. With William Rose, Nicholl gets to “play around with different varieties or blends,” which he gets from vineyards mostly in southern Oregon. He currently produces his vinos at J. Scott Cellars. He emphasizes that he strives to make wines that are expressive of the fruit they come from, are food-friendly and have good structure so they maintain longevity. “I like to make interesting wine,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be big and rich and doesn’t have to punch you in the face. But it does have to stimulate the senses, whether on its own or with a meal.”
But the freedom of running your own label also comes with a lot of responsibility and risks. “It’s a very expensive industry to be in … my lifetime savings are in this brand,” he says. Nicholl not only makes the wine, he works on the website, delivers his product and manages the bookkeeping, and then there’s the networking. For such a small operation, he says, advertising isn’t financially feasible and shelf space is hard to come by. “It’s very much hand-selling because it’s a crowded market,” he says. “I’ve just released a couple of new wines and went around yesterday peddling my wares.”
In the end, it’s worth the risk for Nicholl. “I get to make the wines I actually want to drink!” he says. Right now that’s a dry riesling, the perfect wine to sip on a spring eve.