- Written by Rand Sealey
Harvest 2010: An Initial Report
After a cool spring and summer, the 2010 grape harvest is starting to get under way, about two weeks later than normal. The Yakima Herald Republic reported on September 20 that "The Washington State University Extension Center in Prosser says the overall grape season has been about 14% cooler than average."
This year, the first grapes to be harvested are whites: Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer, with Pinot Gris coming in shortly. Merlot will be the first red to be harvested starting about now (Thursday, Sept. 23) in the Yakima Valley and on Red Mountain. On the Wahluke Slope Merlot is approaching maturity. In the Walla Walla Valley, the Seven Hills Vineyard is about to harvest Merlot. Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are to come in later as the current Brix readings are still in the low 20's.
After some rainy days last week, the weather outlook is hopeful. In Walla Walla, the highs are currently in the 70's with partly cloudy mornings. Highs are expected to be in the low 80's over the weekend into early next week. There are similar forecasts for Prosser and Red Mountain. If this can stretch out for another three weeks...
Wine growers have been concerned about a harvest like 1999, another cool year that challenged winemakers. That concern seems to be easing a bit, but there remains the possibility of a repetition of last year when frost in mid-October brought the harvest to an abrupt end with a rush to collect and crush the remaining grapes. As one grower stated, this could be the best or the worst harvest yet.
For more information, go to Sean Sullivan's Washington Wine Report (www.wawinereport.com).
- Written by Rand Sealey
Visits to Mazama, Chelan and South
On September 12, Lynn and I drove to Mazama in the Methow Valley for our annual trek with friends we have been meeting up with over the years to take day hikes and do other activities. While there, I visited the Lost River Winery in Winthrop and tasted the current releases with winemaker John Morgan. These will be reviewed in the October issue of the Review.
On Wednesday, the 15th, we took an excursion to Chelan to visit some wineries: Vin du Lac, Hard Row to Hoe, Nefarious Cellars and Tsillan Cellars. I will report on these in the November issue. The next day, we stopped at Fielding Hills in East Wenatchee and Cave B near Quincy before heading south for Walla Walla. For pictures of the vineyards and winemakers, go to the Review of Washington Wines Facebook page (click on the link in the current issue).
At most of the places we visited, there was concern about the late maturing of the grapes on the vines. We stopped at Nefarious Cellars' Stone's Throw vineyard near Pateros on the way. The grapes looked healthy, but seemed to be another two weeks away from maturing. This is what most winemakers indicated. A fuller report on the prospects for the upcoming harvest will be in next week's blog.
For pictures of these visits, go to the Review of Washington Wines on Facebook.
- Written by Rand Sealey
More About the 20 Point System
Now that the Wine Advocate has come out with Dr. Jay Miller's reviews of Washington wines, the 100 point wine rating system used by that and other publications has come into increased focus. It is a compelling testimony to the strides that Washington wine making has made to have 338 wines score 90 points or more and 810 recommended in the Wine Advocate. That said, this event reinforces my belief that the 20 point system is a more precise gauge for evaluating wines.
The first thing I must state is: do not multiply 20 point scores by five to get the equivalent 100 point score. The 20 point system has very different gradations. I have written before (Sept. 4, 2009 and March 2, 2010) about the Davis 20 Point System which was originated by the University of California at Davis in the late 1950's. Here is a recap from these articles.
The Davis 20 Point System was commonly used in evaluating wines until the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator came along with the 100 point system (I have used 20 points ever since I started Esquin in 1970). The Davis faculty experimented with 100 points in the 1940's, then came to the conclusion later that a 20 point system provided more precise results. The Davis system assigned points on a form with the following standards.
Clarity (2 points) - Brilliant, near sparkly, clear with no haze or particulates.
Color (2 points) - Appropriate color for varietal/type and age.
Bouquet (4 points) Distinct varietal characteristics, balanced bouquet ("corked" is a defect here).
Total Acidity (1 point) - Proper balance, appropriate for varietal/type and age.
Sweetness (1 point) - Appropriate sweetness, well enhanced/well balanced.
Body/Texture (2 points) - Appropriate body for varietal/type and age.
Flavor/Taste (2 points) - Complex flavors, appropriate for varietal/type and age.
Acescensy (Bitterness) (1 point) - Well balanced, no perceptible bitterness.
Astringency (1 point) - Appropriate levels of tannin for the varietal/type and age.
Overall Quality (4 points) - Wine's of "noble" quality with distinct and distinguishing character. (It is here that there is room for subjectivity. Wines that are "charming" with some special character get 3 points. Typical or unexceptional wines get fewer points.)
The scores are totaled for a given wine to obtain the following ratings:
17 - 20 points - Wines of outstanding characteristics having no defects.
13 - 16 points - Standard wines with neither outstanding character or defect.
9 - 12 points - Wines of commercial acceptability with noticeable defects.
5 - 8 points - Wines below commercial acceptability.
1 - 5 points - Completely spoiled wines.
One interesting thing about the U.C. Davis System is that wines scoring 17 - 20 points are considered "wines of outstanding characteristics having no defects." This must mean that some wines are more outstanding than others. This is what the 17 - 20 point range means to me:
17 points - Very good, above average wines.
18 points - Exceptional, fine wines.
18.5 points - A step higher, more complex and nuanced.
19 points - Outstanding wines with much complexity.
19.5 points - Great wines that show extraordinary character.
20 points - Wines that are not only flawless, but possess superlative depth and complexity.
Occasionally (but not often) I will use a + to indicate a wine that is a notch above it's point level in complexity.
The beauty of the 20 point system is its simplicity which reduces (but does not eliminate) the influence of subjectivity in the evaluation process. Wines get rated on the basis of their overall balance and total performance. This is what I strive for.
Initially, when I started the Review of Washington Wines, I was going to use the 100 point scale as it seemed to be the one most widely understood by wine consumers. But in talking with Chris Camarda of Andrew Will on a visit to his winery on Vashon Island, he convinced me to do otherwise. Chris pointed out that almost no one will buy a wine that gets 85 points, even though using school grading that would be a B and hence very good. Most 100 point scale ratings peak out at about 92 points, so there is a range of 89 - 92 points for most Recommended / Highly Recommended wines, a level of precision that is actually lower than that of 17 - 20 points. Under the 100 point system, few wines get 93 or more points which becomes a Holy Grail that wineries strive for. In sum, the 20 point system, in my opinion, delivers a more precise estimation of a wine's overall quality than the 100 point system.
- Written by Rand Sealey
More About Maison Bleue's Whites
As I stated in my review of Maison Bleue's 2009 whites, I believe Jon Martinez has taken "white wine making to a new, higher level." Here, I'll tell you a bit more about this.
When I visited Jon in Prosser, I tasted through the wines and was fairly blown away by how impressive the whites were. It is no secret that red wines are Washington's strongest suit, but here I see terrific potential for whites as well, especially from Jon's French Creek Vineyard and Dick Boushey's vineyards.
After tasting at the winery, Jon drove me over to the French Creek Vineyard; a ten acre parcel planted with 30-year-old Chardonnay vines. There, I saw a gently sloped hillside with near-perfect southwestern exposure. The gnarled vine cordons were surrounded by by stony, well-drained soils. Interspersed were chunks of granite (one of which I took) that had been strewn there by the Missoula Floods of 15,000 to 13,000 years ago. The site is a true "gem." On the way back, we drove past a nearby vineyard of 35-plus year-old Chenin Blanc vines whose grapes Jon plans to buy to produce a dry white in the manner of a Savennieres from France's Loire Valley.
I returned home (after a delicious lunch with Jon at Wine O'Clock) to Walla Walla with samples for re-tasting. I went through them one by one over the course of a couple of days. I checked my notes and scored the wines on the modified U.C. Davis 20 Point System score sheet. (See my blog of March 2, 2010 to see how this system works.) I found three of the four wines to merit 19 or more points on a qualitative basis. The fourth, the "Jaja" received 18.5 points, the highest yet that I have awarded for an under $20 dry white. Their respective levels of complexity were highly impressive as well. The quality-price ratios on these wines are phenomenally high.
- Written by Rand Sealey
An Update on Nicholas Cole Cellars
Back in March of 2009, I did a Focus write-up on Nicholas Cole Cellars. I found owner-winemaker Mike Neuffer's Estate wines to be highly impressive, rating them 19+ points. Recently, I revisited these wines at the Nicholas Cole tasting room in Walla Walla with General Manager Jeanie Inglis-Chowanietz. The ratings remain the same, but the prices have been reduced considerably in the light of today's wine market. As such, these wines now represent exceptional value for their high quality levels.
My notes (August 16, 2010) in order of tasting:
2005 Nicholas Cole Cellars "Camille," Walla Walla Valley Estate ($35)
This blend of 45% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Cab Franc and 1% Petit Verdot offers a smoky, exotic raspberry, boysenberry and cassis nose with scents of dried roses and tobacco. The chewy, textured flavors show a dried fruit character, with tones of licorice and mocha that lead into a ripe, chewy tannin finish. 18.5/20 points. (Not reviewed 3/2009 - new addition).
2006 Nicholas Cole Cellars "Juliet," Walla Walla Valley Estate ($34)
This 53% Sangiovese, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cab Franc blend, with dashes of Merlot and Petit Verdot, exhibits a rich berry nose with scents of tobacco, sandalwood and clove. The flavors are medium-bodied, but show a classy character, with lovely supple fruits that lead on to a long, complex pomegranate and orange peel finish. 19/20 points.
2005 Nicholas Cole Cellars "Michele," Walla Walla Valley Estate ($38)
A blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this is a head-turner. It emits an exotic bouquet of raspberry, cassis, sandalwood, crushed roses, oriental perfumes and cigar box. Finely-fruited and focused, it displays an exoticism that continues through the back, laced with orange peel, silty minerals, mocha and licorice, supported by chewy tannins and fine acidity on the lingering finish. 19.5/20 points.
2006 Nicholas Cole Cellars "Dauphine" Syrah, Walla Walla Valley Estate ($36)
Deep purplish colored, this wine offers a sensuous blackberry and cassis nose with whiffs of lavender, incense, spice and pepper. On the palate, the flavors are lush and chewy, yet well-focused - the essence of Syrah. A juicy back is accompanied by licorice, coffee grounds, chocolate, semi-dried fruits and silty earth minerals, followed by a seductive lingering, lightly spiced finish. 19/20 points.
2005 Nicholas Cole Estate Reserve, Walla Walla Valley ($75)
This blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot is a stunning wine. It shows an exotic, intoxicating nose of wild semi-dried berries, with scents of lavender, rose petals and oriental perfumes. The flavors are deliciously silky, yet well-defined, flowing seamlessly through a ripe, berried backdrop, marked by nuts, silt earth and vanilla bean. The oak is subtle, never obvious, even though 100% new Taransaud barrels, and is accompanied by spices, orange peel, toffee and pomegranate on a long, fine-grained tannin finish. 19.5+/20 points.
A Subscriber Comment on Last Week's Blog, "Is Walla Walla going to be the next Napa?"
A few days ago, I received this email from Rick Johnson, owner of Walla Faces winery and Walla Faces Inns in Walla Walla.
"I have to agree with most comments in this article. I think that the remoteness of Walla Walla is why it will never be another Napa. I grew up in Seattle and never travelled to Walla Walla until five years ago. Walla Walla is on the way to nowhere. It has not been a destination until the recent wine industry success. However, that being said it is still not easy to get here. As mentioned in your blog it is a 4.5 hour drive from either Seattle or Portland. Airline access is extremely limited. Horizon currently has only two flights a day coming from Seattle.
I see Walla Walla not as a future Napa. But rather, I see it as a unique wine area in the state of Washington. It has many boutique wineries, scenic interest with the Blue Mountains, and as Debbie says a "cute Downtown" that harkens back to days of old. I know that there are some locals that are afraid of seeing this remote corner of the state changing. I don't think they need to worry too much."
(To see last week's blog, scroll down.)