- Written by Rand Sealey
Comments on "Stalking the Wines of Washington"
The Wall Street Journal's July 10 "On Wine" column by Lettie Teague has left me somewhat perplexed. It seems as though Ms. Teague purports to have been "Stalking the Wines of Washington" while on a visit to the state (including the Wine Bloggers Conference which I attended) only to ferret out a handful of examples to illustrate the promises and problems of Washington Wines. The article, in my opinion, shows only part of the picture.
The picture that emerges from this article is that Washington wines enjoy high price-quality ratios., adding, "But thanks to the current global wine glut there are a lot of great deals around, at prices that make those of Washington's producers seem rather high - and this has put a crimp in many Washington producers' wine sales." Part of the problem is in the Washington State wine brand. Aside from Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest (brands in themselves) few Washington wines are found in major markets like New York (I found this out myself on a visit to three Manhattan stores last June).
The article points to the scale of production of Washington Wines , in many instances a few hundred cases (I know a lot of these wineries) which make their wines more expensive to produce than their European or South American counterparts. But I know from experience that the overall quality level in our state is much higher. Of the diversity of varieties, the article says "... this seeming asset may be part of the problem." I, on the other hand, think the diversity of grapes is an asset. The ability to produce a multiplicity of varietals well stands in contrast to Oregon which is simply Pinot (Noir) and Pinot (Gris).
Ms. Teague points out that of the 700 registered wineries in the state, the actual number selling appreciable amounts of wine must be much smaller. "Perhaps their troubles were smaller as well.," Ms. Teague suggests. If so, why ask, "is all this growth actually good?" Why do tourists keep coming to Walla Walla, Woodinville and other areas? The article cites only three wineries having difficulty competing with the deep discounting of of high end California wines. (L'Ecole No.41's Marty Clubb is quoted as saying that the Napa Valley does a better job marketing itself.) I know of a substantial number of Washington wineries doing well selling $50+ wines. The two highly successful wineries mentioned are Quilceda Creek and Cayuse, the top two cult wineries in the state.
In conclusion, Lettie Teague's article is a well-written, illuminating column, but one which sheds light on only part of Washington's diverse wine scene.
An Outstanding New Viognier from aMaurice
This wine is not to be missed. It comes from the aMaurice winery's Estate vineyard which adjoins the winery on the hill above Mill Creek Road out of Walla Walla. Planted in 2006 on alluvial soils - 12 inches of topsoil, 20 feet of sandy loam, 60 feet of gravel, then basalt aquifer. I am reviewing it here as only 48 cases were made and likely will be sold out by the end of August.
2009 aMaurice Cellars "Sparrow" Viognier, Walla Walla Valley, Estate Vineyard ($33)
This wine exhibits a golden straw color and an exotic nose of pear, peach, lichee nuts, jasmine and orange blossoms, The stone fruit flavors are vibrant and resonate back and forth, with notes of stony minerals, anise and a twist of orange peel, followed by a squeeze of grapefruit juice and a hint of passion fruit on the lingering finish. Partially malolactic fermented, it steers a direct course that veers away from the tropical style of Viognier toward a firm cored North Rhone-like style (say, Condrieu). It is the finest Washington Viognier I've tasted so far. 19+/20 points.
- Written by Rand Sealey
A Barbecue for the Winemakers
On Sunday, July 18th, Lynn and I had a barbecue at our Walla Walla home. Several of the guests were local winemakers. Since many winemakers like to show their wines to their colleagues, quite a few bottles were taken to us. Here's a rundown of what we had.
Chris and Kelli Kontos (Kontos Cellars) brought their newly-released 2009 LeeVeeLooLee Gossamer White, a tasty, silky Chardonnay-Viognier-Roussanne blend. (To be reviewed in the August issue of the Review.)
Doug and Jan Roskelley (Tero Estates) took two bottles of their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. It wowed everyone so much that both were emptied quickly. (Reviewed June, 2010)
Brad and Ruth Riordan (Robison Ranch Cellars) brought the winery's 2009 Viognier. A lovely white, which steered a middle course between the Chardonnay-like and tropical styles. (Reviewed May, 2010)
Gordy and Kate Venneri (Walla Walla Vintners) brought a bottle from the winery's library collection, a 2005 Petit Verdot from the Frazier Bluff vineyard. Most of the Petit Verdot was used for blending, but part of the production was bottled as a varietal. It showed terrific aromatics.
Jim and Karen Waite, and winemaker son, Joel (CAVU Cellars) took a bottle of their 2008 Malbec. It came on as a fine example of Washington Malbec. (Reviewed July, 2010)
Mike and Penne Locati (Locati Cellars) brought their exquisite 2008 Walla Walla Valley Pinot Grigio (Reviewed February, 2010) one of only two (to my knowledge) bottlings of this varietal from the WW Valley AVA. The Locatis also brought a bag of their Locati Farms Walla Walla Sweets onions which made a wonderful accompaniment to the burgers.
Todd and Kirsten Telander aren't winemakers (he's an artist, she's a wine writer) but they took a bottle of Trust Cellars Rose of Cabernet Franc which made a delightful hot weather refresher. (Reviewed July, 2010)
Lynn and I also opened a few bottles from our cellar to show the winemakers wines from parts of the state outside of Walla Walla. The standouts were the 2007 O'Shea Scarborough Syrah and the 2008 Maison Bleue Liberte Syrah from the Boushey Vineyard (Reviewed April, 2010)
- Written by Rand Sealey
Finding the Wineries West of Walla Walla
Last Saturday, I drove from Walla Walla to Prosser to visit some wineries there and then back, stopping at Red Mountain on the way back. Going west out of town, I drove on the newly opened four lane Highway 12. On the way back I continued on the old Highway 12 and found myself forced to make circuitous detours back to downtown Walla Walla. Much of the old highway is being repaved and approaches to the new highway being constructed.
If you plan to be driving into Walla Walla in the near future and want to stop at some wineries on the way, be careful! Yesterday (Wednesday) I took a drive on the new Highway 12 to have a first hand look at what is going on and its impact on the wineries along old Highway 12. Here is what I found, going east to west.
There is an exit at Spalding Road with a sign for the Whitman Mission but no signs for wineries. At Reininger Cellars (to the right off Spalding; Three Rivers is across the old Highway 12 a bit to the east) I learned that a blue sign for wineries is being made in Yakima, but that may take some more weeks before it is erected. To get to Bunchgrass (Saturdays only) go east past the "Road Closed" sign at the Wallula Road exit and drive another half mile.
On the new Highway 12, at Frenchtown Road about another two miles west of Spalding there are makeshift orange signs on the roadway shoulders that read:
The problem is that by the time you see these signs, you will hardly have time to turn off to the exit. This exit will take you to Cougar Crest at the corner of Frenchtown Road and old Highway 12. To get to Glencorrie, go west past the "Road Closed" sign (there is a "Wineries Open" - actually only one winery - sign).
Needless to say, all this has had a negative impact on the wineries along the old Highway 12 (Waterbrook, L'Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon are located west of the junction where the new highway joins the old). Business is down 30 to 60 percent The most adversely affected is Skylite Cellars situated in the no man's land between the Myra Road interchange and the Wallula exit off old Highway 12. The new section of Highway 12 has been under construction for well over a year and obviously there was plenty of time to make advance preparations to have signage in place when the new highway opened. Both the state and local Departments of Transportation have screwed up royally.
Two New Summertime Wines
Here are two wines that were made in such limited quantities that they will likely be gone by August.
2009 Gifford Hirlinger Pinot Gris, Walla Walla Valley ($18)
This is a bright, attractive white from the winery's estate vineyard. Brilliant straw color. Enticing lilac-scented pear, melon and orange peel nose. The flavors are well-extracted and creamy-textured, counterpointed by touches of hazelnut and pineapple on the finish. 18/20 points.
2009 Tertulia Cellars Rose du Mourvedre, Yakima Valley, Den Hoed Vineyard ($16)
This displays a deep pink color and an attractive nose of raspberry and strawberry with whiffs of clove and allspice. The red fruit flavors are lively and vivacious, followed by a zingy squeeze of cranberry juice on the nearly dry finish. This recalls the fine roses of Provence. 18/20 points.
- Written by Rand Sealey
Noteworthy Washington White Wine Varietals
At the Wine Bloggers Conference (June 25 - 27) I attended a session on the "Washington Wine Industry." In it, Paul Gregutt asked "what is Washington's signature grape?" For reds, it's obvious: Cabernet Sauvignon (old vines on vinifera roots); Cabernet Franc and Merlot (the best in the U.S.) and Syrah (encompassing a remarkably wide range of styles). But what of Washington whites? Here's my rundown of the most noteworthy white varietals.
Chardonnay - This is the largest produced white variety in the state. But most of it was planted before much thought was given to picking the best sites. That will require further sorting out. There are a few outstanding Chardonnay vineyards though: Connor Lee, south of Othello is one of the best and Buty makes an exceptional one; Chateau Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge Estate overlooking the Columbia River; Stillwater Creek on the Royal Slope (Sparkman Cellars and Novelty Hill); French Creek - 30 year old vines used in Maison Bleue's Au Contraire Chardonnay.
Riesling - This variety is poised to make a comeback. See my blogs of May 26 and June 16 for more about this grape.
Sauvignon Blanc - This variety is getting better and better. Earlier versions tended toward the extremes of green and herbal or tropical and figgy. Now better balanced wines are being made that show characteristics of gooseberry, citrus and minerals (picked up by deep rooted vines). Also improved trellis management has let to better ripening and fruit-acid balance. Fine examples: Efeste "Feral"; Chateau Ste. Michelle's Horse Heaven Hills; Woodward Canyon (strikingly Sancerre like).
Semillon - This is one of Washington's best keep secrets. The variety can show elegant, complex characteristics of waxy fruits, crisp citrus acidity and stony minerals. Some top Semillons are: Amavi Cellars, Va Piano, Robison Ranch Cellars, L'Ecole No. 41. There are also outstanding blends of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc: DeLille Chaleur Estate Blanc, Buty, and Covington Cellars "Dress White."
Viognier - This Rhone varietal is becoming better known. Its sensuous tropical character makes it particularly appealing. There is a wide range of styles from crisp, elegant and Chardonnay-like to opulently rich and creamy. Some fine examples: aMaurice (refined and ageworthy); Maison Bleue, William Church, Syncline, Robison Ranch (these are in the middle of the road style); Stephenson Cellars (opulently styled).
Marsanne - This varietal, along with Roussanne, is responsible for the great Hermitage Blanc of the north Rhone. Several Rhone-style specialists have added it to their white wine repetoires: McCrea Cellars, Syncline Cellars, DeLille Cellars.
Roussanne - Some wineries make this exotically-styled wine into a varietal: Forgeron Cellars, Maison Bleue, SuLeri Cellars (terrific value). Some blend it with Marsanne and or Viognier: DeLille Cellars, McCrea Cellars.
Gewurztraminer - The "Spicy Traminer" which originated in Alsace grows best only in a few areas, most notably in the Columbia Gorge where the 30+ year old Celilo Vineyard is located. The younger Evergreen Mountain vineyard has considerable potential. Best examples: Dowsett Family (Celilo) Domaine Pouillon (Evergreen Mountain).
Pinot Gris - Until a few years ago, Washington Pinot Gris wines were light bodied and somewhat green-toned. Now they have improved to the point where they exceed their Oregon counterparts, showing rich floral aromas and creamy textures, counterpointed by fine fruit acids. Fine examples: Andrew Will Cuvee Lucia, Locati Cellars, Columbia Crest H3, Wines of Substance.
- Written by Rand Sealey
The Wine Bloggers Conference
Last weekend (Friday, June 25 - Sunday, June 27) I attended the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla at the Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center, this year's venue. It was the first tine I had attended. It turned out to be very stimulating and informative. Here are some highlights.
On Saturday morning, there was a discussion about the "Terroirs of the Walla Walla Valley" with Professor of Geology Kevin Pogue of Whitman College. The presentation illustrated the importance of terroir (loosely translated as "a sense of place") in Walla Walla Valley wines. In an upcoming blog, I will write a fuller summary of the session.
Later in the morning, Conference participants loaded up on buses in groups of 15 to visit vineyards and wineries. My group's first stop was at the Spofford Station vineyard southeast of Walla Walla on the Oregon side of the valley. Located in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, it is a site that was heavily impacted by the Misoula Floods 12-15,000 years ago. The owner, Lynne Chamberlain, was a gracious host and we sampled wines from that vineyard with winemakers (including Brad Riordan of Robison Ranch and Devin Stinger of Adamant). Next, we stopped at College Cellars of Walla Walla Community College, where we participated in a blind tasting of 2009 Syrahs that were aged in different barrels, three in French oak and two in American oak. The differences were striking and revealed how much oak aging influences the taste of wines. Then we went to Long Shadows for a delicious lunch accompanied by a selection of the winery's wines. The '09 Poet's Leap Riesling, the '07 Saggi and '07 Sequel Syrah were outstanding.
In the afternoon, I attended a Breakout Session, "The Washington Wine Industry" with Paul Gregutt (paulgregutt.com), Coman Dinn (Director of Winemaking for Hogue Cellars) and Sean Sullivan (Washington Wine Report). The panel packed in a lot of information given the limited time of 50 minutes. Co Dinn illustrated how much Washington has over California in terms of climate and diversity of terroir. Paul Gregutt asked the question of "what is Washington's signature grape?' For whites, he noted that Chardonnay still has yet to find the best sites, and saw great potential for Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (a great secret). For reds, there are Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from 35+ year old vines on vinifera roots, Merlot (the best in the U.S.) and Syrah which has a remarkable range of styles. Sean Sullivan noted the dramatic growth of Washington wine, accompanied by a string of excellent vintages (Wine Spectator: '08 and '07, 95+ points, '06, 94 points, '05, 93 points). Of the 650 wineries today, many are small (under 4200 cases a year). Future challenges remain, such as how to sustain continued growth and how to reach across state boundaries. (For a more extensive report on this session, along with graphs, charts, and added commentary, see Sean Sullivan's June 29 post in www.wawinereport.com.)
On Sunday morning, the Conference wrapped up with sessions on wine blogging including "Bloggers, Wineries and PR Firms" which explored the complex relationships among these groups. The constant theme of wineries and their PR is that "we are here to help you." There is an awareness on the need for being on the cutting edge. The Conference ended with a Wine and Food Pairing with Winebow South American, Italian and Spanish wines together with dishes developed by the Marcus Whitman Hotel Marc Restaurant Chef, "Bear" Ullman. A concluding session announced Charlottesville, Virginia as the site of the 2011 Conference.