Review of Washington Wines Blog
The Syrah Conundrum
Written by Rand Sealey   
Monday, 01 October 2012 12:53


"The Grape that Doesn't Sell"

About a month ago, I received Gramercy Cellars' Fall Relase newsletter. In it, Greg Harrington wrote that "I am convinced that Syrah is Washington's best grape," comparing it to the best of the Northern Rhone Valley. He concluded by saying, "Thank you all for devouring the grape that doesn't sell." (Note: the Gramercy 2010 Syrah will be reviewed in the November issue of the Review of Washington Wines.)

Why is Syrah such a popular grape that grows well in Washington and yet "doesn't sell?" I think part of it has to do with the diversity of styles. I remember back in the 1980's that Syrah acquired a cult-like status from the "granddaddies" Mike Sauer (Red Willow) and Dick Boushey who were the first to plant the variety. Since then, there has been such a proliferation of Syrahs around the state to the point where many consumers have trouble differentiating them. I can categorize them into four main groups.

The Generics - This is what the bulk of Washington's Syrah production goes into: wines costing $20 or less. These can offer solid, well-fruited wines with some varietal character, but without much complexity or site-specific terroir.

The Cultists - These are the high-end Syrah producers, highly sought-after and often unavailable outside of winery mailing lists, such as those of Cayuse and Charles Smith's Royal City bottlings. They are highly distinctive wines, earth and mineral laden, and sometimes meaty and leathery. They have a loyal following.

The Purists - These are the wineries that strive for varietal purity, modeled after the wines of the North Rhone such as Hermitage (100% Syrah) and Cote Rotie (co-fermented with 2 to 8% Viognier). The wines are noted for their bold, distinct Syrah character. Noteworthy practicioners of this style are Gramercy Cellars (see above), Kerloo Cellars (Ryan Crane), Rotie Cellars (Sean Boyd), and Long Shadows' Sequel (John Duval).

The Terroirists - These are the producers that focus on the distinctive soils in which their Syrahs are grown. There are those from "the Rocks" in the Walla Walla River's cobblestone laden riverbed left after the river changed to it's present course, such as the Cayuse, SJR and Funk vineyards and other newer plantings. The Les Collines Vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountains has a distinctive loess soil terroir. Dick Boushey's vineyards and Mike Sauer's Red Willow (both with Missoula Flood alluvial soils) also have distinctive terroirs. Some wineries make site specific Syrahs from single vineyard blocks such as Rasa's "Occam's Razor" from Block 10 of the Seven Hills Vineyard.

These are just generalizations. There are overlappings. Cayuse is both a cult winery and terroir-driven. Reynvaan, whose wines I greatly admire, is a terroir-focused emerging cult winery (there is now a waiting list) whose wines come from the "Rocks" and the estate vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

All this is just to say that there is Syrah, and then there is Syrah with distinctive characteristics. When people ask me what my favorite varietal is, I say Syrah (but I also add that I like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). I agree with Greg Harrington that Syrah is Washington's best grape.



Last Updated on Monday, 01 October 2012 14:07
Smoke in the Air / Liquor Privatization
Written by Rand Sealey   
Tuesday, 25 September 2012 14:13

This is last week's blog whose posting was delayed due to a spur of the moment trip to the Grand Teton and Yelowstone National Parks. On the way, Lynn and I stopped in Driggs, Idaho (near Grand Targhee) for a tasting of Tero Estates Wines at Alpine Wines with Doug and Jan Roskelley. Alpine Wines is owned by friends of the Roskelleys, Denis and Linda duNann, and if you ever happen to go through that area, be sure to check it out. The nearby Fox Creek inn is a great B & B. We returned to Walla Walla through Montana and Idaho, and stopped at Coeur d'Alene Cellars and Barrister Winery and Robert Karl Cellars on the way (to be reviewed in the November Issue of the Review of Washington Wines).


There's Smoke in the Air

As we drove back to Walla Walla on September 22nd, on the last leg of our trip to Yellowstone and back, we saw hazy skies and, as we turned westward, the sun was a glowing orange orb on the horizion. There was smoke in the air from wildfires scattered around Eastern Washington.

There has been considerable speculation among growers and winemakers about the effects of smoke on the grapes now maturing on the vines. Some have been concerned about the possibility of "smoke taint" affecting the wines. Research on this subject is somewhat sketchy. See Sean Sullivan's Washington Wine Report (www.wawinereport.com) for information about the topic. Paul Gregutt (www.paulgregutt.com) also has some commentary. Yesterday, Allison Peck told me that Brian Rudin, Cadaretta's winemaker, sprayed the grapes at the Southwind vineyard to wash off smoke ash. As of this writing (Monday, Sept. 24) the sky seems clearer. If there turns out to be evidence of ash in wines (although not considered likely) we may have to add "smoke ash" to the lexicon of wine descriptors.


Liquor Privatization - Month Four

(This is the article which was supposed to have been posted last week.)

September is the fourth month that the private sale of spirits in Washington State has been in effect. So far, the impact has been mixed. There have been countless complaints about higher prices and reports that consumers have been going over the borders into Oregon and Idaho (both with state-run stores) to buy liquor. But a news article in the Seattle Times (Sept. 10) indicates that in-state liquor sales increased in July - up 15.4% - which the State Department of Revenue attributes to buyers stocking up in May, cutting back in June, then buying again in July. But more monts of sales reports are needed to establish a trend.

One thing that is certain is that spirits are more readily available in more populated areas and that large stores are the biggest players and offer the best prices. A few weeks ago, I visited Total Wine and More in Bellevue and found thousands of wines and spirits on rows and rows of shelves in a 30,000 square foot store. On the other hand, the Walla Walla state store that was bought by an investor has gone out of business. The buyer bought the state's store inventory only to put it on sale at deep discounts (I purchased a couple of single malt Scotch whiskys at 30% off and a Remy Martin XO Cognac at half price). Before long, all that was left were stacks of flavored vodka. Not a good business plan. Numrous small towns around the state will have to rely on local marketeers with limited selection and higher prices.

It will be interesting to see how privatization shapes up over the coming months. If high prices persist, I think it will be the wholesalers who are the main culprits (see my blog posting of 6 June - scroll to the bottom of the page and then back to previous pages).


The next Blog posting will be on October 1, along with that month's issue of the Review of Washington Wines.







Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 September 2012 16:59
The Third Quarter of 2012 Review Compilation
Written by Rand Sealey   
Friday, 07 September 2012 14:30

Last June, I published a compilation of the wine reviews for January through June 2012. I have just done a compilation of the reviews for July through September. Both compilations can be found on your subscription page: Your Membership Information (the one that appears after you login). Click on "Wines Reviewed July - September 2012" underneath "Newsletter Archive," and the list will appear. The link to "Wines Reviewed January - June 2012," will also be found on that page. Below is a listing of wines in the categories that may be of the most interest. Some of these wines may be sold out.


The 20/20 Points Wines

2009 Adams Bench Cabernet Sauvignon, Yakima Valley, Red Willow Vineyard ($60) - August

2010 Maison Bleue "Gravière" Red, Snipes Mountain, Upland Vineyard ($45) - September


The 19.5/20 Points Wines

2009 Doubleback Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley ($89) - August

2011 Dowsett Family Gewurztraminer, Columbia Gorge, Celilo Vineyard ($22) - August

2009 FIGGINS Estate Red, Walla Walla Valley ($85) - August

2010 Kerloo Cellars Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, Va Piano Vineyard ($38) - September

2010 K Vintners "The Beautiful" Syrah, Walla Walla Valley ($60) - August

2009 Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley ($85) - August

2009 Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley ($60) - August

2009 Rasa Vineyards "Occam's Razor" Syrah, Walla Walla Valley ($60) - July

2009 Rasa Vineyards "Doctina Perpetua" Syrah, Columbia Valley ($60) - July

2009 Seven Hills Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain ($60) - September

2009 Seven Hills Winery "Pentad" Red, Walla Walla Valley ($60) - September

2008 Tero Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Windrow Vineyard, Hill Block ($53) - September

2008 Tero Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Windrow Vineyard, Plateau Block ($55) - September

2008 Tero Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Windrow Vineyard, Old Block ($57) - September


Wines Scoring 19 Points for $40 or Less

2011 Abeja Chardonnay, Washington State ($36) - August

2010 Abeja Syrah, Walla Walla Valley ($38) - August

2009 Adams Bench "Artz & Shaw" Red Wine, Red Mountain ($39) - August

2010 àMaurice Cellars Viognier, Columbia Valley ($25) - July

2009 àMaurice Cellars Syrah, Columbia Valley ($34) - July

2009 àMaurice Cellars Malbec, Columbia Valley ($35) - July

2009 àMaurice Cellars "The Cummings" Red Blend, Columbia Valley ($35) - July

2010 Amavi Cellars Syrah, Walla Walla Valley ($29) - August

2010 Cote Bonneville Riesling, Yakima Valley, DuBrul Vineyard ($22) - September

2008 Corvus Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain ($39) - July

2010 Kerloo Cellars Grenache, Horse Heaven Hills, Alder Ridge Vineyard ($40) - August

2010 Kerloo Cellars Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, Les Collines Vineyard ($38) - August

2010 Kerloo Cellars Tempranillo, Columbia Valley ($34) - September

2010 K Vintners Syrah, Wahluke Slope, Pheasant Vineyard ($35) - August

2011 Long Shadows "Poet's Leap" Riesling, Columbia Valley ($20) - August

2009 Mackey Vineyards Merlot, Columbia Valley ($36) - July

2011 Maison Bleue "La Famille" Rosé of Mourvèdre, Yakima Valley ($20) - July

2011 Maison Bleue "Au Contraire" Chardonnay, Yakima Valley, French Creek Vineyard ($25) - July

2011 Maison Bleue "Notre Vie" Viognier, Yakima Valley, Arthur's Vineyard ($25) - September

2007 McCrea Cellars Syrah, Yakima Valley, Ciel du Cheval Vineyard ($36) - September

2009 Nota Bene Cellars Conner Lee Vineyard Red, Columbia Valley ($35) - August

2009 Nota Bene Cellars Syrah, Red Mountain, Ciel du Cheval Vineyard ($35) - August

2009 Nota Bene Cellars Ciel du Cheval Red, Red Mountain ($35) - August

2011 Rotie Cellars "Northern White" Marsanna, Columbia Valley ($25) - August

2010 Seven Hills Winery Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Seven Hills Vineyard ($30) - September

2009 Seven Hills Winery Petit Verdot, Walla Walla Valley ($32) - September

2009 Walla Walla Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Sagemoor Vineyard ($40) - July

2011 Waters "Prelude" White, Columbia Valley ($30) - July


Wines Scoring 18.5 Points for $25 or Less

2011 Forgeron Cellars "Ambiance" White, Columbia Valley ($25) - September

2011 Guardian Cellars "Angel" Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Valley ($20) - September

2011 Hollywood Hill Vineyards Roussanne, Yakima Valley ($22) - September

2010 McCrea Cellars Viognier, Red Mountain, Ciel du Cheval Vineyard ($25) - September

2009 Nota Bene Cellars Malbec, Yakima Valley, Verhey Vineyard ($25) - August

2011 Otis Kenyon Cellars Riesling, Columbia Valley ($16) - August

2011 Otis Kenyon Cellars Roussanne, Columbia Valley ($20) - August

2011 Revelry Vintners Riesling, Columbia Valley ($16) - September

2011 Sparkman Cellars "Pearl" Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Valley ($22) - September

2009 Steppe Cellars Malbec, Wahluke Slope, Stone Tree Vineyard ($25) - September

2009 Thurston Wolfe Petit Verdot, Horse Heaven Hills ($25) - September

2010 Walla Walla Vintners Sangiovese, Columbia Valley ($24) - July


Special Awards:

Outstanding Value Winery: àMaurice Cellars - Kudos to winemaker Anna Shafer for turning out four new releases, scoring 19 points for $35 a bottle or less.

Stellar Performances: Seven Hills Winery and Kerloo Cellars for each turning out two 19.5 points and two 19 points wines.

Trifecta Scoring: Tero Estates for producing three single block Cabernet Sauvignons from the Windrow Vineyard, each scoring 19.5 points.







Last Updated on Friday, 30 November 2012 15:18
About the September Issue and More
Written by Rand Sealey   
Friday, 31 August 2012 19:29

The Biggest Issue so Far

This issue is the largest since the inception of the Review of Washington Wines in December, 2008. There are fifty wines reviewed for September. Of these, one received 20/20 points, six scored 19.5 points and fifteen, 19 points. Most of the remaining wines received 18.5 points, also exceptional, some costing $25 or less.

Over the past months, I have found the number of exceptional wines meriting inclusion to be steadily increasing. The quality of Washington wines has been getting better and better. This is certain to continue, as more meritorious wineries (such as Avennia and Lauren Ashton which will be reviewed in October) emerge and established ones continue to improve. The October issue will have 51 wines, including one scoring 20 points, four 19.5 points and fifteen, 19/20 points.

I am not the only wine reviewer to observe an increase in the number of outstanding wines coming out of Washington State. Sean Sullivan in the Washington Wine Report has stated that "I agree that there is an abundance of extremely high quality Washington wines under $50."


What Winemakers have Said about My Reviews


In the process of producing each month's issue, I send proofs of reviews to winemakers to check for accuracy. Most say "Great. Thanks, Rand." But for the September issue, I received the following comments:

"Lovely writing, Rand. Captures the personality of our house style, too." - Casey McClellan, co-owner, winemaker, Seven Hills Winery

"As always, the prose is poetic and spot on." - Erik McLaughlin, V.P. of Sales and Marketing, Seven Hills Winery

My comment in response to the above is that conveying wines' style as well as quality is what I always strive for.

"Sounds yummy. Beautiful reviews, Rand. Very descriptive." - Susan McBride, Force Majeure Vineyards.

And then, Chris Sparkman (Sparkman Cellars) made this terse statement: "Dig it. Thanks, Rand."


Another Recommended Rosé


A few weeks ago, I visited the Lauren Ashton Cellars in Woodinville with owner-winemaker, Kit Singh. Among the wines we tasted was a delightful Rosé, made fronm Sangiovese. A full report on the winery will be in the October issue, but I am reviewing the Rosé here to make it more timely. It is being poured by the glass at Purple in Bellevue and Woodinville and can be purchased at Total Wine and More.

2011 Lauren Ashton Cellars Rose of Sangiovese, Yakima Valley, Red Willow Vineyard ($18)

Pale salmon colored, this Rosé offers intriguing aromas of strawberry, orange peel, sandalwood, jasmine and oriental perfumes, with brightly fruited, well extracted flavors. The back picks up notes of grape skin, orange peel,  and ruby grapefruit, followed by a lingering, citrus accented dry finish. 18.5/20 points.


The Outlook for the 2012 Harvest


Washington winemakers and growers are very optimistic about the prospects for this year's harvest. After a cool spring, warmer weather in eastern Washington eased in, with tempratures mostly in the 80's and 90's, with only a few spikes above 100 degrees. Ideal weather. Veraison - when grapes start turning purple - commenced a few weeks ago and is progressing nicely. Daily, winemakers and growers have been posting pictures of their grapes on Facebook. Harvest is expected to commence in mid-September and continue through October.

Greg Harrington (Gramercy Cellars) summed it up nicely:

"How is it possible that harvest is upon us as summer just got here? Unbelievable! So far, 2012 looks to be a fantastic vintage, though. We seem to be tracking 2008 temperatures which produced great wines. That said, mother nature has a funny way of surprising us sometimes, so we never know what is going to happen until we get into September and through the October freeze scares."








Last Updated on Saturday, 01 September 2012 13:39
Is the 2010 Vintage a Classic?
Written by Rand Sealey   
Friday, 24 August 2012 13:39

I've been tasting quite a few 2010 Washington reds as more wineries deplete their inventory of 2009's and move into the next vintage. As you may recall, 2010 saw a protracted harvest through sometimes cool weather and occasional showers. It was in mid November that the last grapes were harvested.

One thing I have heard winemakers say is that the 2010's show more phenolic compounds than the 2008's and 2009's (from warmer vintages). The main phenolic compounds are flavenoids which give red wines flavors and tannins, mainly from the skins. As a consequence, the aromas and flavors are more on the dark fruit (e.g. blackberry, black currant) than the red fruit (e.g. raspberry, cherry) part of the spectrum. Also, the phenols impart more bush-like aromatics (mulberry, brambles, etc.) than in warmer vintages. I recently retasted Rotie Cellars' 2010's (first reviewed in the May issue of the Review of Washington Wines). Here are my notes:


2010 Rotie Cellars, Southern Blend, Columbia Valley ($40)

Deep ruby-garnet colored, this blend of 75% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre emits rich aromas of blueberry, cherry, cassis, licorice, coffee beans, brambles and incense. The medium-bodeied flavors show a moderate richness, with notes of licorice, cocoa powder and earthy minerals. The back reveals notes of dried cherries, bitter orange peel, roasted walnuts and moderate toasty oak, followed by a chewy, sweet-dry tannin finish. Approachable now. Straddles the "old" and "new" world style. 19/20 points.

2010 Rote Cellars Northern Blend, Columbia Valley ($40)

Composed of 95% Syrah, co-fermented with 5% Viognier, this displays a purplish ruby color and a dark nose of blackberry, blueberry, black currant, black roses, burnt orange peel and smoldering incense. The dark fruit flavors mirror the aromatics, with a penetrating direct intensity that is reinforced with notes of dark chocolate, roasted coffee beans, dried currants, and vanilla bean, followed by a squeeze of macerated blueberry juice and a touch of leather, all leading into a slightly nutted sweet-dry tannin finish. 19/20 points.


Here, with these two wines, the phenolic aromatics (burnt orange peel, brambles, incense) are forward, and the fruits are dark (e.g. black currant) rather than ripe, and are focused, rather than ample. Ester-oriented aromatics such as roasted nuts and macerated fruits emerge on the back of the nose.

Another thing I have heard some winemakers say is that the 2010"s are more "Old World" than usual for Washington wines. That is to say that they are more structured and classically styled. They sometimes straddle the old and new world styles (as indicated in the last sentence of my notes on the Rotie Southern Blend). Along these lines, here's another review of a 2010 "Rhone Style" blend:


2010 Murphy & Ott "Double Bluff" Red Wine, Horse Heaven Hills ($18.99 at Esquin)

According to the back label, this Syrah/Grenache/Cinsault blend is "Inspired by the great everyday wines of Southern France." Deep ruby colored, it offers a nose of black cherries, black currants, anise, tobacco, dried roses and mulberry. On the palate, the fruits are direct and focused, with notes of coffee beans, Horse Heaven earth and minerals, continuing on the back with notes of dried cherries, bitter orange peel and cinnamon bark, followed by a dryish tannin finish, with just a touch of ripeness. More old world than new world. 18/20 points.


Will the 2010's be more ageworthy than, say, the 2008's and 2009's? My answer would be yes and no. Some wines that I have tasted from the barrels have shown great potential (including a killer Petit Verdot from Sleight of Hand). But the best are yet to come. Some wines, such as the Murphy & Ott above, are much like the "value" wines of Spain and Southern France, well-structured but not highly complex, ones for near to mid term consumption.


Best Buys for August


Here are some great values, found at Esquin and other places, that should not be missed.


2010 Waters Syrah, Columbia Valley ($18.99 at Esquin)

Deep purplish colored, this shows an attractive nose of blackberry, blueberry and cherry, with scents of anise, black roses, lavender and rubbed sage. The aromas are echoed by the dark fruit flavors, intermixed with licorice, bittersweet chocolate, espresso and minerally earth. The wine's directness continues on the back with notes of squeezed berry juices, tart cherries, roasted chestnuts and bright fruit acids on a moderate tannin finish, marked by savory spices and herbs. Almost an 18.5 points wine. 18+/20 points.

In view of the above discussion of the 2010 vintage, it is interesting to note that the Waters back label states: "From some of the best cool-climate vineyards that Washington State has to offer, this Syrah offers natural balance and generous acidity that one would expect in a Syrah from the "Old World."


2010 Idilico Garnacha, Washington State ($18.99 at Esquin)

Garnacha is the Spanish name for Grenache, so named here because the owner-winemaker, Javier Alfonso, is from Spain. Purplish ruby colored, it emits an intriguing nose of black cherry, Damson plum, anise, brambles and black roses. The flavors are medium-bodied, yet reveal a black fruited intensity, intermixed with licorice, dark roasted coffee beans and loamy, minerally earth, followed by sensations of dried cherries and orange peel on a lingering sweet-dry tannin finish. Again, more old world than new in style. 18.5/20 points.


2010 Array Chardonnay, Columbia Valley ($23.99 at Esquin)

The Array winery makes only Chardonnay. This one comes from three highly-respected vineyards: 41% Conner-Lee, 33% Dionysus and 26% Stillwater Creek. Brilliant gold colored, it offers an attractive nose of pear-apple, white peach, apple blossoms, acacia flowers, flintstone, citrus, and a wafting of toasted oak. The flavors are true to variety and well extracted (from full cluster fermentation in oak barrels) and equipoised, integrating apple, stone fruit and stony minerals. The back picks up notes of peach pit and a touch of cream (from full malolactic) counterpointed by a squeeze of lemon zest on the finish. 18.5/20 points.


2009 Cor Cellars "Momentum" Red, Horse Heaven Hills ($14.99 at Esquin)

Composed of 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 24% Petit Verdot and 14% Malbec, this wine exhibits a deep ruby color and rich, sultry aromas of raspberries, plums, cherries, brewed coffee, black roses and loamy earth. The medium-bodied flavors are generous and fleshy, marked by chocolate, mocha and wind-blown Horse Heaven earth and minerals. The ripeness continues on the back with notes of macerated plums and spiced cherries on a supple moderate acid and tannin finish. 18/20 points.


2011 Chateau Ste. Michelle, Riesling, Columbia Valley, Cold Creek Vineyard ($15.49 at Thriftway)

From one of the oldest Riesling vineyards in the state (planted in the 1970's) this displays a brilliant greenish-tinted gold color and fragrant aromas of green apple, white peach and grapefruit, with scents of honeysuckle, clover and wet stone. On the palate, the white fruit flavors are fresh and lively, accented by notes of peach stones, grape skin extracts and alluvial minerals. The back picks up touches of citrus, passion fruit, flintstone and honey on a lingering, racy medium-dry finish. 18.5/20 points.


2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard ($20.99 at Thriftway)

This Merlot shows a deep ruby color and an intense nose of raspberry, cherry, plum, rose petals, sandalwood and sweet spiced incense. The flavors are generous and full, abounding with ripe fruits that are intermixed with licorice, Swiss chocolate, roasted coffee beans and Horse Heaven earth and minerals. The richness continues on the back, with notes of squeezed plum juice, mocha and toasted almonds on a lingering, moderately oaked sweet-dry tannin finish. 18.5/20 points.







Last Updated on Saturday, 19 October 2013 00:05

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