A Nefarious Plot
December 21, 2009 by Erin Thomas
The juicy story of a chick, a couple of guys and a dog
By Erin Thomas
Heather and Dean Neff really are living the dream, as the signs up to their Chelan estate winery suggest. With the green and flourishing Defiance Estate Vineyard overlooking the rolling hills and glistening waters of Lake Chelan, the folks behind Nefarious Cellars are fully aware and grateful for the thriving luxury known as their life.
“We are just a chick, a couple of guys and a dog striving to blow your mind,” the Nefarious Cellars website states referring to Heather, Dean, and their children, George, 4, and Cooper, 9 months.
“The bonus to being the woman in the group is I do notice I tend to smell things a little better than Dean,” Heather said, “That’s my little asset.”
With a bag full of tricks and assets they bring to the blossoming Lake Chelan Valley AVA scene, the chick and the fathering guy have a longstanding history in the industry and as a couple.
The two met in 1996, both striving to crack into the soils of the wine business after attending Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon for enology and viticulture. They then decided to plant a test block vineyard on Dean’s property in Pateros, Washington. At the Rocky Mother Vineyard, named for its soils, Heather said they got a great sense of what they could grow in the Lake Chelan Valley.
The Neffs returned to Oregon, where Dean started working for a vineyard management company, then to study under the uncompromisingly gifted winemakers Isabelle Dutartre of De Ponte Cellars and later with Tony Soter at Soter Winery in Willamette Valley. Heather managed a small tasting room in Carlton, with the intentions of both retaining every aspect of the business but ultimately wanting to start a winery of their own, Heather said.
With the couple having equal parts of formal grape training, they said it was an obvious decision to split production by colors and ultimately give themselves a niche in the industry among giants.
“I’ve really come to love white winemaking,” Heather said, “I want them to be varietal and I always sort of want our wines to be sexy—subtle and clean and aromatic but not overpowering.”
Dean said he has dreams too. “Some day, I want to have a wine critic that finds my wine ‘spellbinding.’ I read that a long time ago, and that was the description they gave and I thought, ‘That is my goal.’”
“I think we’re making wines that people keep coming back for,” Dean said, “If you ever become complacent and think you’re doing everything right then something’s wrong. We’re always trying to improve.”
Since the first vintage in 2004, the 2,000 case production winery has respectfully been half white and half red with a more affluent harvest each year. The Neffs said they are no longer nervous heading into the crush.
“I’m a lot more comfortable than I used to be,” Dean said, “I think I’m still learning and still trying to. Every year we’re experimenting, doing something slightly different. We’re never doing the same thing year after year.”
So why not stay in Oregon and produce Pinot Noir like they had trained to?
“We love the diversity of Washington and the ability to make anything that we want to,” Heather said, “We’re drawn to Rhone varietals and we really love Pinot, but we weren’t sure if that’s what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives.”
The Neffs said they believe their Washington Pinots would never have all the classic and distinct characteristics that Oregon Pinots are known for.
“The thing that’s crazy to me about [growing Pinot Noir in Washington] is I don’t understand the motivation when we’re totally adjacent to one of the greatest regions of wine in the world – Bordeaux,” Heather said, “Why mess around with it?”
Surrounded by increasingly concentrated fruit and terroir paralleling that of the Bordeaux region of France, Dean said his inspiration to make his own wine came from the elegance, finesse and forward fruit extraction of his two mentors, Dutartre and Soter.
“I think it was great to learn from both of them as they were two totally different styles,” Dean said, “but there are so many ways to take the grape and make great wine out of it, to focus on different styles, on the vintage and the techniques I’m using all depending on the fruit.”
Exploiting and using their local and handfed fruit as much as they possibly can, like any job, it all comes down to why you do it in the first place.
“We drank so many things while making Pinot, and there were so many producers that were doing amazing things,” Heather said, “For us, it’s the desire to create things that someone opens up and says they’ve never had anything like it—in a good way.”
Dean said what’s unique about Nefarious Cellars is visibly the location and the people, but also the cornerstone of it all. “It’s the fact that we’re keeping it really small, trying to focus on what’s important—the wine—and just putting all of our energy into that.”