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How Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of W.T. Vintners Balances Life and Wine

By day, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen serves as winemaker at Washington’s W.T. Vintners and Raconteur Wine Company. Nights, he heads the wine program of RN74 Seattle. He talks with us about making wines for his two projects, as well as what’s hot in the Seattle wine scene.

How did you first become interested in becoming a sommelier?

I’d had an interest in wine for a long time. I got a job waiting tables and found my way into some pretty mediocre restaurants that had no wine program. When people would ask me what wine I would recommend, it was usually a beer or a martini. After a couple years, I got into fine dining and learned about this person who was a sommelier, and [it] was a real, viable career where I could share my burgeoning passion for wine with people every day and get paid for it. So I ran at that as fast as I could.

What style of wines are you going after at W.T. Vintners?

All the wines are single-vineyard wines and see no new oak. I have a global perspective, and my palate is very attuned to Old World wines. So, I try to apply a more Burgundian or Northern Rhône model in that I’m not really worried about the sum being greater than its parts. I would rather have the vineyard express itself and the voice of the vineyard be the loudest note in the song. I’m trying to capture the essence of the places we’re working with. The wines that I like to drink are definitely more about focus. I seek higher acidity and, depending on the vineyard, more structure and less focus on fruit. I’m more interested in all of the other flavors that a vineyard can bring to a wine.

How does being a sommelier influence your winemaking?

I’ve had the good fortune of working in extraordinary restaurants with extraordinary chefs, so I’ve been able to try nearly every great wine region’s benchmark, both young and old. Those reference points help me in my decision-making as a winemaker….I didn’t go to UC Davis or any other winemaking program. I just learned from people who are connected to the land that they’ve worked with. 

George White and Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of W.T. Vintners
George White and Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of W.T. Vintners

You’re just starting Raconteur Wine Company as a second label at more of a value tier. What are some of the challenges and benefits of making value-priced wines in Washington right now?

You have to be really savvy and be smart about packaging to help shave some of the costs to get the wine into the bottle. The margins are so low. You need to scale it up a bit in order to make it viable. But you can make something that has wonderful fruit, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be the most expensive fruit. Overall, Raconteur allows me to tinker with other varieties that are compelling and delicious, build blends and release them at affordable prices.

I recently wrote an article on the state of Washington Syrah. What’s your take on the variety here?

I think it’s the grape in Washington that expresses the place it’s grown with far more transparency than anything else. If you line up the four single-vineyard Syrahs we make at WT Vintners side by side, they are all different. They were made by the same person, spent the same amount of time in the winery and were bottled on the same day, but they are each so unique. I don’t think any other varietal [wine] in Washington right now has that kind of clarity.

What’s hot right now at RN74?

I read in various magazines about the challenge that selling Rhône varieties presents. At RN74, it’s effortless. We’re selling lots of Grenache-based blends. We’re selling quite a bit of Mourvèdre…we sell a tremendous amount of Syrah. I hear, “I don’t like Syrah,” a lot less than I used to.

You’ve got a family, a fulltime job at RN74, a second job at the winery in Woodinville. How do you find the time to get it all done?

(Laughing) I don’t sleep a lot. The fortunate thing about making wine is that the barrels can’t wait to be tended, but they also don’t care what time of day it is, so I can get work done at 2 o’clock in the morning or 6 in the morning. Also, being in a restaurant, it’s not a 9-to-5 job, so I do have the time once the kids get dropped off at school until I need to be at the restaurant to make sure things are getting done. I just try not to stop for too long.