Taste Camp 2017: Maryland. Hits, misses and near misses.

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Taste Camp takes over Black Ankle

No one told me that what happens at Taste Camp stays at Taste Camp, but I can’t help but think that there are things that happen at Taste Camp that should stay at Taste Camp. It’s that kind of thing, essentially wine camp for fully grown adults where our basic needs are taken care of for us. We’re given the schedule, driven around in a bus, go where we’re told to go and taste what’s put in front of us. After dinner, people meet in the hotel to consume wine and stay up late. People who fall asleep on the bus get their picture taken and mocked (as I learned firsthand), inside jokes develop at supersonic speed, and practical jokes aren’t uncouth. So what happens at Taste Camp stays at Taste Camp seems like an appropriate rule.

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The author, asleep, on the Taste Camp bus

This was the eighth year of Taste Camp, but my first. Organized by Lenn Thompson of famed The Cork Report blog, each year focuses on a new state and its wine. This year’s locale was Maryland, which made life easy for me.  Informal activities began on a Thursday night while official programming kicked off Friday morning with the crew from Old Westminster. I was unable to join the group until Saturday, and so my coverage unfortunately does not include what I still believe is the best Maryland winery. If you’re curious to find out more about Old Westminster, you can read a prior post I wrote about the winery and the family behind it. As far as I’m concerned they remain the only “don’t miss” stop on the Maryland wine trail.

Throughout my Maryland wine adventures, not just Taste Camp, I’ve noticed a few things. First, Maryland can be the home to world class wine so long as, and only so long as, the wine industry embraces Maryland’s uniqueness. For example, Maryland does not get enough warm days to produce big wines. This means grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot turn out wine a lot less like California or Bordeaux than some wineries seem to desperately want. They end up more subtle, leaner and often with under ripe fruit flavors. To counter this they attempt to do things like age the wine in 100% new French oak and end up turning out wines dominated by the influence oak, which wipes out nuances and personality. Many of the Maryland reds I’ve had aged in French oak take on an overwhelming tannic structure that takes far longer to release than the underlying juice can survive without declining. I’ve tried a number of newly released and aged red blends from across the state that saw either full or close to full new oak aging that don’t have, and won’t have, any of the rich fruit characteristics inherent to the style they’re modeled after. That may be fine for the casual wine drinker, but they’re often priced well above the price point the casual consumer buys with any regularity.

Another example of the choice many Maryland winemakers make to produce grapes that aren’t the most comfortable in Maryland is creating white programs that don’t include vidal blanc. Many wineries produce a chardonnay, usually barrel fermented, and may focus on albarino, the grape many winemakers in the state feel can be its signature white varietal, or sauvignon blanc, and even gruner vetliner. The challenge in Maryland for any white production is again the lack of consistent patterns of sustained heat, and none of these varietals have a history of producing great wines under such a climate (although gruner gets the closest). This often shows in the glass with whites that fail to achieve a good concentration, which leads to simple wines. The grape actually made to work in such a climate is vidal blanc, and although it doesn’t carry the cache of these other white varietals or the ability to develop the complexity or depth of them (when grown where they thrive), when approached from day one as a meticulous winemaker would approach any other, it can be, and in several examples I’ve tasted, much better than the vast majority of these other varietals coming out of Maryland.

The final observation I’ll share is that the industry is incredibly young and has a ceiling it hasn’t come close to touching yet. It can get there, if my opinion matters, by embracing what the state can do well and then focusing on that. This means, in addition to taking a look in the mirror and questioning their varietal selection, going deeper into the ground and really, truly examining what their soils can offer and then align those with not only the best varietals, but the best clones. Maryland, especially like Virginia but really like every other wine producing region in America, has seen an influx of wineries that far outpace vineyard planting and production. This rush to produce wine means that the state isn’t yet producing enough fruit to satisfy its wineries, and in that rush wineries are purchasing out-of-state grapes, juice and shiners while planting vineyards without taking the requisite time – measured in years, not months – to do the necessary research and trials prior to committing to a crop.

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A Big Cork Vineyard

In winemaking there is often the unfortunate reality that there is a difference between what you want to produce, what you can produce, and what you should produce. I may be biased, but the winemakers behind many of my favorite wines from around the world usually begin with the belief that wine is made in the vineyard. From what I’ve seen in Maryland, I can count on one hand the amount of wineries taking that perspective. The best of these is Old Westminster, which Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post recently profiled as taking exactly this approach. I went into Taste Camp hoping to see more recognition of this, and while I got the impression from one or two wineries I hadn’t yet come across that they get this, it seems pretty clear to me that the industry as a whole has yet to acknowledge this reality.

I joined the group bright and early on Saturday morning as we boarded the bus to Black Ankle, one of the pioneers of the renaissance of the Maryland winery movement that began in the mid-2000s and since their first vintage considered among the state’s very best. They gave the Taste Camp crew a real treat: vertical tastings of their two signature red wines going back to the first vintage of each. We began with their Bordeaux-styled Crumbling Rock and tasted the 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages. The 2006 did not seem old at all, with a discernable tannic structure still in place. The fruit had mellowed and was slightly burnt, but still enjoyable, while there were fantastic herbaceous notes and some orange zest. It was my second favorite of the lineup falling just behind the 2012, which is a baby still showing primary fruit. It was quite smooth, well integrated and balanced. The 2010 was also  nice, my third choice, and featured very juicy red fruit, nice florals and a dense, grainy tannic structure. It is no coincidence that these three vintages were the only ones to receive less than 100% new French oak. The second vertical featured Black Ankle’s Leaf-Stone 100% varietal syrah. The youngest, the 2007, was my favorite as it hit on the savory side of the syrah slope: leather, hickory smoke, and maple syrup bacon. It was fantastic and one my top-five wines of the weekend. The 2013 stood out as well, though is a few years too young at this point. The profile of smoke, mint, herbs, saline and florals crowds out the fruit at the moment, but I imagine this will develop into a top-flight syrah.

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The Black Ankle lineup

From Black Ankle we ventured to Big Cork, who put us through a tasting of current releases. We began with the 2016 sauvignon blanc that offered sweet tropical fruit, florals and musty aromas and was full bodied on the palate with peach, apricots and some creaminess. I found it to be too clean and watery, lacking in personality. Up next was the 2015 viognier, which was aged in 70% stainless and 30% oak (which was fermented in the barrel). The nose was a bit reticent but offered some soapiness, lean tropics, citrus and vanilla. The body offered very nice acidity, citrus and baking spices. I wouldn’t have necessarily picked this out of a blind tasting as a viognier, which is neither a good nor bad thing, although I found it lacking an identity.

We moved onto the 2016 rose of syrah, an excellent effort with a gorgeous nose and lush body full of red, black and blue berries and rose water. Next was the 2015 Meritage red blend, which offered a skunky nose that suggested Brett. There was also a fair amount of cedar and dark fruit. The body was medium in stature with grainy tannins and restrained fruit. The florals were pretty and played off a little petrol and cassis on the mid palate. I found this to be neither good nor bad. They then treated us to their 2013 Reserve Malbec, which had a lovely nose of potpourri, red berries and black pepper. The medium body gave flavors of acai, raspberry and dark plum, lavender, wet soil, and pepper. All of this was very appreciated but unfortunately the barrel influence weighted heavily on the wine and overshadowed everything else.

The next wine was the 2014 nebbiolo, which was fantastic. The nose offered licorice, tobacco, red berries and leather while the palate at this point is an acid bomb with good tannic structure, meaning this is going to age gracefully and develop over time. There is huckleberry, salmon berry, cranberry, spice, leather and balsamic flavors at the moment. It needs five-plus years before uncorking. We finished with their Black Cap, a port wine made from raspberries. While enjoyable, it was myopically raspberry on the nose and palate, although it came off a bit medicinal at moments.

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The tasting at Big Cork

After our tasting of Big Cork’s wine, their hospitality extended to allowing smaller wineries to use space in the winery to pour their wines for us. I will say that I am incredibly impressed by the camaraderie and gentility Maryland wineries share among themselves. There’s a recognition that a rising tide raises all boats that engenders an honest effort to rally around this principle. The bigger names seem to enthusiastically pull heavy loads in an effort to assist the collective effort to improve the state’s reputation for wine.

We tasted a number of wineries in the back of Big Cork, including Knob Hall, Mazzaroth Vineyard, Antietam Creek, Catoctin Breeze and Hidden Hills Farm and Vineyard. All of these, I believe, were new to me and were a welcomed shift in our itinerary to smaller producers. Knob Hall poured three wines including their 2015 cabernet franc rose, 2015 chambercin and 2014 Reserve cabernet frank. The rose stood out among the three as quite lovely, offering a little spice, florals and very pure but not over the top red fruit. Mazzaroth was only pouring one wine as it had sold out of everything else (a nice problem to have), a vidal blanc that offered a gorgeous nose of honeysuckle, cantaloupe and vanilla custard. The body was lush but leaned out a bit by crisp acidity that exposed honeydew, vanilla and some herbal elements. This is one of the vidal blancs I’d use to demonstrate that the varietal can be as good as, if not better than, any of the others.

Antietam Creek poured its 2015 chardonnay, which spent eight months in oak, half of it new, but was not put through malolactic. The result was a prototypical American chardonnay that offered notes like banana, vanilla, apricot and primary barrel flavors with a structure driven by oak aging. While not my flavor of chardonnay, it was a solid. The 2015 Antietam Reserve red is a clearly well-made wine that was medium in body and dominated by red and purple fruit, petrol, smoke and pepper. Their third offering was a varietally-labeled petit verdot that impressed. The nose was a bit reticent with its pepper and cherry, but the body was impressively smooth for a wine featuring 75% petit verdot (the remainder is merlot, which was the right choice to smooth out the edges and provide more body). It has nice cherry, hickory smoke and pepper.

The standout producer, not only at this stop in our itinerary but throughout the weekend, was Catoctin Breeze Vineyard. They presented three impressive wines that were all among my top-5 from the weekend. Their 2016 chardonnay was pitched as a Chablis-styled effort, and I was dumbstruck when it actually delivered a bit on that approach. Far too many domestic chardonnay producers boast about aiming for what is a particularly difficult style to emulate and utterly fail. Chardonnay from Chablis is racy, streaky, and nervous, not to mention layered with complexities. Catoctin Breeze ages some of its chardonnay in stainless and some in oak, 90% of which is second-year barrels. It turns out a ripe, round nose with classic tropical, vanilla and gravely aromas while the body achieves a very desirable balance with good acid and a deft leanness. It has nice minerality, limestone and lime notes and is just a touch creamy while it finishes with a Chablis-esque verve.

Their 2015 cabernet franc was equally great. The fantastic nose had high-toned cherries and huckleberries with petrol and pepper. The medium body featured elegant, polished tannin and penetrating red fruit including cherries, rhubarb and plums, plus that vegetal profile that most wineries unfortunately steer away from. Really awesome stuff. The last wine was their 2015 Oratorio barbera, which had a pretty nose featuring florals, orange zest and pepper while the body, quite full in stature, had wonderful leather, mint, cherry and rose. The tannic structure was substantial and will allow this to age for quite some time.

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Backroom Big Cork tasting

The next day we ventured to Boordy Vineyards and Winery, one of the biggest producers in the state. Again, we were graciously hosted as were several smaller wineries who were able to pour their wines for us. Boordy recently completed a winery makeover that is truly spectacular and would make any winemaker drool. The winery receives more than 80,000 visitors annually which as driven big growth in direct-to-consumer sales.

Boordy’s 2016 albarino showed why many believe it deserves to be Maryland’s signature white varietal. The Boordy rendition offered lime, peach, mango and flint on the nose while the medium-sized body offered sweet lemon, pineapple, green apple and marzipan. Their 2015 chardonnay, which saw 30% new oak and barrel fermentation, had a mineral-driven nose with a little chalk, lemon, lime and oak vanilla. The body is on the lighter end of the spectrum and featured bright acidity, good minerality, white pepper and reserved citrus, though the structure is clearly driven by its extensive relationship with oak. I found myself, however, wishing for greater concentration as the flavors were a little too lean.

We were then poured the 2016 cabernet franc rose, which was dominated by strawberry on the nose and palate, but also featured raspberries and huckleberries. The 2014 cabernet franc had a nice bloody nose along with cherries, smoke and pepper. The body was medium and had nicely polished tannins, but again the concentration was insufficient to establish a real presence and personality. We finished with their flagship Landmark Reserve, made in only exceptional years. This one was the 2013. The nose is quite young and hasn’t yet come together, but is promising. The medium body is very smooth and offers red and black fruits, iodine and saline, parsley, tobacco and dark cocoa. It is reticent and still too young, though the dense grainy tannic structure suggests it might improve with age. Again, however, I experienced low concentration in this one and a lack of distinction owing to the dominance of oak.

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Boordy’s new winery

Following Boordy, we tasted a number of smaller producers. The first was Chateau Bu-De whose consulting winemaker poured the wines. Bu-De sources grapes from Maryland, Pennsylvania and California and focused on vineyard-designates. Naturally we tasted their Maryland wines. The first was the 2015 Bohemian Manor Farm sauvignon blanc, which had a reticent nose giving off elements from malolactic fermentation. The body is full and round, crisp but not particularly acidic. The palate is soft and features lychee, lime, slate, spearmint and vanilla. It’s a very easy drinker, I’d say a porch pounder. We then tried the 2015 Bohemian Manor Farm gruner vetliner. A majority of the wine was fermented in barrel, which is an unusual approach to producing the variety and showed in the final product. It is full and lush with low acid, which is not how one would typically describe gruner. It offered lime, apricot and white pepper on top of a chalky sensation. The structure is good but it doesn’t offer a ton of varietal character, making me wonder why one would take such an approach. I’d only recommend it for people who don’t like traditional gruner.

Next was their 2015 barrel fermented chardonnay, which was fresh and bright on the nose but full and creamy on the palate and dominated by zesty lime rind. This was entirely dominated by oak and uninteresting. We finished with the Bohemian Manor Farm cabernet franc, whose reticent, sweet nose belied what is a full bodied wine with blue fruit that pops. It also offers wet dirt and a nice green pepper spice. The tannins are big and this wine will improve with time, I found it to be the most compelling of the lineup.

I also tasted through wines from Dodon, Royal Rabbit, Harford and Crow Vineyards (whose vidal blanc I called a standout at the Maryland Wineries Association’s 2017 Winter Wine Festival). I’m not going to go through all the wines, but I do want to call out Dodon’s 2015 Dungamon blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot which is a wine to follow over the next 10 years, and Royal Rabbit’s Il Barone barbera which I found quite interesting with funky and fresh aromas and flavors and great concentration.

I owe some sizable and sincere gratitude for the weekend. Lenn Thompson, Taste Camp’s founder and organizer, is the man. Thanks dude. Visit Frederick, who helped facilitate much of the weekend, was a fantastic host, as was the city itself. It’s a great city to spend a long weekend, with or without the kids. If you live or are traveling through the Mid-Atlantic, I strongly urge you to give it some time. The Maryland Wineries Association, who helped organize many of the tastings, is doing a good job representing the state’s wines. And finally, a thanks to my fellow campers who made the weekend a lot of fun. And finally, a big thanks to those whose pictures I ripped off for this post.

Final thought: don’t skip Maryland wine, but as I’ve suggested to the state’s wineries, pay close attention to how you do it. Find those who are approaching wine production intelligently and you stand a good chance of being impressed.

A GRAND American Riesling Tasting

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Just some of the bottles we sampled. No oranges were harmed in this tasting.

Major reasons for the miserable commercial demand for riesling in the United States include, but are not limited to, the following myths:

  1. Riesling is too sweet. Sorry, but this is just a lazy myth. Yes, many Rieslings, especially those under the $10 price point, are stupid sweet. However, most riesling isn’t too sweet; you just have to try more of it.
  2. Riesling is sweet: Also a big myth, though slightly less lazy. Yes, much of the riesling on America’s shelves are sweet, but not all. It’s not a lazy myth because the labeling on many rieslings doesn’t indicate the sweetness of the wine, which is an industry fault. Still, shop at a dedicated wine store and the staff will be able to guide you to your desired level of residual sugar. Also, think you don’t like sweet riesling? Try it with foods that are rich, savory and salty to experience the brilliance of a little residual sugar in your wine; there’s hardly a better food-wine pairing.
  3. Riesling only pairs with vegetables and white protein. Ha, don’t even. Riesling is the most versatile food pairing grape alive and goes well with other colors of protein. Don’t believe me? Well-aged dry riesling hits gets rich and intensely nutty, and is a great pairing with red meat. Further, unless you’re eating a naked steak, it’s the sauce on the meat that should be the target of the wine pairing, and there’s a riesling for any sauce likely to be poured over red meat.

If you believe one of these myths, it’s time to prove yourself wrong. Keep reading. If you love riesling, keep reading. If you love wine, yeah, keep reading.

“Epic” is an appropriate way to describe our grand American riesling tasting. It all started when my friend and Terroirist blogger Isaac Baker submitted over Twitter that Smith-Madrone Winery in California makes the best American riesling. It’s a legitimate candidate for the title. I’ve reviewed the wine (and the winery) myself and I couldn’t think of a better suggestion, which got us thinking: how well do we really know domestic riesling? The answer was something like ‘not well enough to make that judgment,’ so we decided to become better informed. What followed was a month-long effort to collect samples from around the country that netted thirty-four bottles from eighteen of the best riesling producers we knew. Last weekend, we tried them all.

Before I get to the wine and the tasting, let’s discuss the status of riesling in America for a moment. The major headline is that demand for riesling is weak. According to the 2017 State of the Wine Industry report from Silicon Valley Bank (an important annual industry study), “demand for premium wine has been healthy, especially for cabernet, red blends, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and pinot noir. Merlot, syrah, riesling and zinfandel haven’t seen the same degree of consumer demand, and the varietals have struggled.” A 2015 Nielson report showed that riesling was the only grape varietal with negative growth in the US market in terms of volume sold. Early this year, Wine Folly predicted that riesling “will tank,” arguing that while it “has had its chances [with] several waves of interest between 2011 – 2015 [and has] plateaued,” “you only get so many chances. It’s not you Riesling, it’s us.” I could list more statistics, but they all tell the same basic story: Americans don’t buy much riesling.

The ‘it’s not you, it’s us’ line sums up my diagnoses of America’s perception of riesling. Riesling is a wine geek’s wine. It’ reflects terroir like no other, and since it does well in many, many climates and is therefore grown all around the world, we can experience a lot of different terroir through the lens of one grape. Further, it ranges from bone dry to very sweet, which makes it even more diverse a grape to explore, especially with food (wine pairing: one of the most passionate interests of a wine geek). These factors combine to make riesling exponentially interesting to people who like to pay close attention to their wine, which makes riesling’s commercial struggles all the more frustrating because it puts an artificial ceiling the amount of production by providing a lot of financial disincentive for wineries to produce the grape, let alone put a lot of effort into it.

It is fitting that Smith-Madrone was the inspiration of the tasting as its owner and winemaker, Stu Smith, is an outspoken proponent of the grape who makes it despite the difficulty he has selling it because he believes so fundamentally in its importance and worth as a varietal that speaks to the very best of what wine can be. In addition to myself and Isaac, our tasting panel included other riesling lovers who we felt would understand why we were doing the tasting and enjoy the experience: Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntrye, wine consultant Alison Smith Marriot, and two serious oenophiles/drinking buddies of mine. And then we had a special guest…Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery!

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The man, the myth, the legend. Stu Smith.

Stu and his wife, Julie Ann, were in town for their daughter Charlotte’s high school graduation (congratulations Charlotte!) and were able to swing by about fifteen wines into the tasting, though Stu was able to catch up to the group by the end. It was a real pleasure to have Stu and Julie Ann join us in an effort to further appreciation of the grape Stu seems to feel the most passionate about. The wines were tasted blind in a randomized order and, knowing that his wine was the impetus for the tasting, the unveiling of his wine as a consensus top-3 pick came as what I would imagine was at least a little relief, though who were any of us, really, to pass judgment on the wine of a Napa icon? More than anything, I (and I imagine the rest of the group) am just thankful Stu continues to prioritize a high quality riesling given the lowly demand for it.

The thirty-four wineries represented were scattered across California, New York, Oregon and Washington State, America’s four largest wine producing states, and came from many of the most respected riesling producers in the country. The largest contingent came from New York, the region whose reputation is probably most dominated by riesling. Though Washington used be known as the riesling state and still produces more of the grape than New York, it’s far less a signature grape for Washington than it is for New York at this point. The New York passion for riesling is evident in the wine we sampled, and here I need to make a special shout out to Peter Vetsch of pop & pour wine blog and Dan Mitchell of Fox Run Vineyards for hooking us up with so many good Upstate wines.

The wines ranged from syrupy sweet to bone dry, and, despite the reputable producers on-hand, we were surprised to find no dud among the cohort (though each of the tasters found at least one wine they didn’t care for), which spoke to the effort the wineries put into the commercially struggling varietal. If you’re a riesling lover, and/or want to ensure America keeps making high quality riesling, and/or want to become a riesling lover, buy from those on the list below.

These wines form a great shopping list for another reason as well: a major takeaway from the tasting was that while the riesling market isn’t doing well in America, America’s rieslings are in very good shape quality-wise. We threw a few imported ringers into the blind tasting from highly respected German, Australian and French producers, and while they tended to show up among many of the tasters’ favorites, none stood out as clearly better than the American wines nor did any of them dominate the discussion of consensus favorites. This truly was a Tour de Force showing from the red, white and blue.

With so many wines to taste, I didn’t score them beyond rating each one on a 1 to 5 star (asterisk) scale. I’m including my tasting notes below, but want to call out seven wines that really captured my attention. Washington’s Rasa Vineyards gave me the only five-star wine of the evening with their 2013 The Composer. This gorgeous wine has enough bottle age on it to have developed some secondary notes, but it has the legs to develop tertiary ones as well. Their 2011 The Lyricist was also fantastic, receiving 4.5 stars (the equivalent of “****(*)” as you’ll find below). Close behind Rasa was Stu Smith’s 2014 Smith-Madrone, the inspiration for this event. Fellow Californian Chateau Montelena’s 2015 Potter Valley is a real achievement as well. Chehalem’s 2014 Corral Creek Vineyard offered the best schnoz of the lineup and some very diverse flavors, and was my favorite of the offerings from Oregon. Fox Run’s 2012 Lake Dana, with its perfect play between fruit, Earth and Spice, and Hermann J. Wiemer 2014’s HJW, with its awesome profile of spice, sweet fruit and bitter banana, demonstrated that New York is producing exceptional riesling.

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A major, major thanks to the wineries who supplied the samples, not only for making this event possible but for taking a risk by producing them in the first place. There isn’t a riesling in this lineup that I would discourage anyone from trying. We were quite lucky to have had this experience, and I hope it lights a fire under a few butts to dive deep into American riesling. For more coverage of the tasting, and likely some differing thoughts on the wines, head over to Terroirist and check out what Isaac Baker has to say.

2015 Penner-Ash Hyland Vineyard Old Vine (OR) – a little soapy and reticent on the nose, with grass and lime zest emerging. The body is lean with cutting acidity. Quitely limey with good minerality, it gets a little creamy with air and adds marzipan and dried fruit. ***

2015 Charles & Charles Den Hoed Vineyard (WA) – the nose is still a bit musty and tropical, quite pleasant. It offers a voluptuous structure with big lime, stone fruits, tropics and hay. ***

2015 Anthony Road Dry Riesling (NY) – class riesling nose with a leaner, crisp body that delivers peach, apricot, Meyer lemon, white pepper and parsnips with a mouth-drying acid streak. ****

2015 Sleight of Hand The Magician (WA) – rich, tropical nose with a very interesting palate offering savory saline, stone fruits, banana and a little effervescence. ***

2015 Chehalem Three Vineyard (OR) – very mild, young nose waiting to offer more with age. The palate is round and ripe with white pepper, lemon curd, petroleum, apricots and a lot of grass. This one offers real depth and a lot to consider. ****

2015 Red Newt Cellars Knoll (NY) – gorgeous nose dominated by grass cuttings and honeyed fruit. The palate is driven by big acid and is quite dry. The flavors are dominated by lemon pith, celery seed, cilantro, lemon and strong pepper. One of the more unusual profiles, it really spoke to me. ****

2013 Rasa The Composer (WA) – classic tennis ball canister gas on the nose with an amazing palate offering sweet fruit, almond paste, petrol, vanilla and honey. Tastes like a sunset. ******

2013 Red Newt Cellars Tango Oaks (NY) – a truly biting nose that tingles the nostrils with high toned citrus and pepper. The palate is lean and quite crisp, balanced by vegetal flavors. ***

2014 Chehelam Wind Ridge Block (OR) – clean nose with little to write home about, but the palate really delivers with parsley, lime, root vegetables and under ripe stone fruit. It’s a very strange profile that simply works. ****

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling (CA) – reticent nose but a compelling palate with streaky flint and slate, dandelion and orange zest held together by perfectly balanced acid and weight. It just needs more time in the cellar to bring that nose to bear and fully develop. ****(*)

2014 Lauren Ashton Riesling (WA) – the nose is dominated by peaches, but also offers marzipan and papaya and, if you close your eyes real tight, a little smoky. The palate is almost overwhelmed by guava and papaya, but thankfully has some white pepper kick and really nicely balanced acid. ****

2014 Fox Run/Anthony Road/Red Newt Tierce (NY) – the nose is all about fresh asphalt as the palate offers nice florals, bitter greens and under ripe stone fruit. The acid is nice but it seems just a little watery, which holds back the concentration. ***

2016 Trisaetum Wichmann Dundee semi-dry (OR) – very honeyed nose with stewed peaches and apricots, parsley, and vanilla bean custard building out the  palate. Very cool ****

2012 Fox Run Lake Dana (NY) – a lot of pine and baking spice on the nose, which made me suspect Washington. The body is full, ripe and delivers perfect acid. Flavors include sweet pineapple, mango and arugula. My favorite wine of the day from New York ****(*)

2014 Boundary Breaks Lot 239 (NY) – not a lot on the nose at the moment but time will rectify that. The palate has lime sorbet, green pepper, apricot and petrol. A solid ****.

2016 Trisaetum Wichmann Dundee Dry (OR) – young nose with a bit of lemon zest and pine, the palate is a little watery but has nice lime zest, red pepper flake spice and apricot. I think it needs some time. ***(*)

2015 Eroica (Chateau Ste. Michelle) (WA) – the nose has honeyed citrus fruit and Evergreen, while the body has a lot of pine, apricot nectar, quince and coriander. ****

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer Magdalena (NY) – this big nose is dominated by almods, while the palate delivers big quantities pineapple, banana and pine. The acid is on-point here, but I think this would benefit from a few more years of rest. ***(*)

2015 Anthony Road Semi Dry Riesling (NY) – not much on the nose, but the palate is round and lush with vanilla, banana cream pie and lemon-lime soda. ***

2011 Rasa The Lyracist (WA) – the nose offers quintessential NW pine, tennis ball canister gas and starfruit. The palate has no hard edges but maintains great acidity, and delivers honeyed starfruit, crystalized lime zest, slate and just a little bit of fat. ****(*)

2014 Red Newt Cellars The Big H (NY) – the nose is a little fungal, in a good way, musty and tropical. The palate offers lime, vanilla and under ripe peach. ***

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer HJW (NY) – the young nose is still reticent, while the palate delights with Asian 5 Spice, restrained stone fruits and banana leaves. The acid is in great balance and this clearly has a long and prosperous life ahead of itself. ****(*)

2014 Chehalem Corral Creek Vineyard (OR) – The nose is almost plummy, offering honeysuckle and a jasmine tea aroma. Might be my favorite nose of the lineup. The palate is also floral and honeyed, offering additional pepperiness and lychee. Really cool stuff. ****(*)

2014 Fox Run Vineyards Dry Riesling (NY) – a funky and engaging nose, the palate is all about lime sorbet but gets a little diversification with pepper. ***

2016 Trisaeutum Coast Range (OR) – a must nose with an earthy palate that is zesty and creamy. I love the complementary play between acid-driven zest and creaminess, as well as the real sense of place this one has. It’s not a typical riesling. ****

2016 Tirsaeutum Ribbon Ridge (OR) – the nose gave off what I can only describe as a fenugreek aroma, whle the palate was round and full with barely enough acid to keep it on keel. The dominate flavor was Sprite. **

2014 Boundary Breaks Lot 198 (NY) – Unfortunately not much to write home about with this one, the main element I wrote down here was “sweet.” *

2015 Chateau Montelena Potter Valley (CA) – the nose is still in hiding, but the palate is zesty, spicy and high toned with big limestone and even some mint. Very good. ****(*)

2015 Galerie Terracea Spring Mountain District (CA) – a honeyed and flora nose, quite pleasant, with a big but well integrated palate featuring banana cream and big zestiness. ***

2015 Penner-Ash Willamette Valley (OR) – a lot of sweet cream on the nose with Meyer lemon and Key lime. The palate offers lovely honeyed orange blossom, ginger, graham cracker and a lot of texture. Enjoyable but not particularly layered. ***(*)

2016 Long Shadows Nine Hats (WA) – not a lot on the nose yet (clearly young), but the palate had exceptional acidity with a little saline, sweet citrus, flowers and spice. If the nose is awoken, this will be lovely. ***

2015 Long Shadows Poet’s Leap (WA) – pine and lime on the nose, with big lime zest, orange, petrol and banana on the palate. ***

 

Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers

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Picture credit: rombauer.com

I started Good Vitis to document my journey to find as much good wine as I can. Much of this journey had been underway well before the start of the website, although the winemaker dinner has been a new excursion owed entirely to this blog . Until Good Vitis I had avoided these events because they seemed like a rip off: doing the calculations, the wine and meal seemed overpriced, even when packaged with a tasting guided by the winemaker. Four winemaker dinners (or, rather, three dinners and a lunch) later and I’ve gone one-hundred and eighty degrees: if you come across one featuring wines you like, it’s a must-attend event.

As I wrote in the post about a dinner I attended with Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine, “Shane was right – drinking with the winemaker makes the wine better. If this post hasn’t made it clear, he’s a very engaging guy, and loves talking about his craft. The banter was as fun as the wine, and the combination made the night. It seems to me this is why you go to winemaker dinners. I imagine the more engaging and fun the winemaker, the more engaging and fun the dinner. So long as the wine can keep up, you’re going to have a good time.” A subsequent winemaker dinner with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone reinforced this point. A recent lunch with Richie Allen, head winemaker of Rombauer Vineyards in California, further confirmed these findings while introducing me to another example of why California deserves its reputation for outstanding wines.

The first thing to know about Rombauer is that it is obsessively focused on quality. You can say that about a lot of wineries, and a lot of wineries say that about themselves, but few walk the walk like Rombauer. I’ll give you a poignant example: somewhere between the merlot and cabernet sauvignon, Richie told us about the winery’s optical sorting machines. These machines fire the berries pasted a high resolution and high speed camera at 10 meters per second (roughly 22 miles per hour) that take a picture of each berry and, in a fraction of a second, accept or reject it based on size, color and shape. These factors combine to eliminate problematic berries that may be raisined due to heat stress, may be sunburnt, are under or over ripe, etc. Those that are rejected get a little jet of air to send them in a different direction to become what Richie called really expensive compost, while the good fruit goes on to become wine. Depending on many factors, rejection rate is between one and thirty percent at Rombauer. The machine is calibrated with each new lot of fruit that passes through the machine. As you can imagine, these machines ain’t cheap, and Rombauer has three of them. I’ve come to understand that (nearly) no cost is too much to improve quality for the Rombauer family.

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Joan’s Vineyard, a Rombauer estate vineyard. Picture Credit: rombauer.com

I’ll give you a second poignant example: Richie’s obsession with improving barrel quality. There are three important elements to a barrel: wood origin and selection, how it is seasoned, and how much it is toasted. The last factor has the biggest impact on the outcome and has therefore seen the most industry research. However, the first two factors, Richie believes, have such an impact that the absence of sufficient research means the industry has missed the boat on taking them into adequate consideration. So, over the last ten or so years Rombauer has spent considerable time and resources looking into them because they believe it’s another way to improve consistent and desirable outcomes in the wine.

Despite it’s 150,000 case production, Rombauer has always been a family-owned winery, though it does operate with a board of directors comprising zero family members. This arrangement seems to have struck a successful balance between authenticity, quality and profitability that has allowed the winery to produce consistently excellent wine from year-to-year. Rombauer’s wines have always struck me as perhaps a bit underpriced given the quality of the juice, and so I asked Richie about their pricing logic. He explained their basic pricing structure as, I’m paraphrasing, “cost plus profit margin equals price,” which seems pretty simple but also illuminates the modest profit quest Rombauer seeks. The winery uses grapes from some of the most expensive vineyards in the country (and in the world, for that matter), yet their wines are usually, and noticeably, less than many of their competitors (and often times better tasting). Many winery owners, especially in California, satiate their ego through the price point of their wine. As Richie explained, there’s no ego when it comes to price point of Rombauer wines. When costs go up, as they inevitably will, so too will Rombauer’s prices, but rest assured the extra cash you’ll shell out isn’t being demanded to feed someone’s ego.

Richie is obviously a big reason for the winery’s good vitis. I arrived early for the lunch and had a chance to chat with him before tipoff. Richie is a charismatic guy and clearly loves what he does. Vastly experienced in a few climates (and hemispheres), he has zeroed in on what he needs to do to produce the best possible wines with the significant resources Rombauer provides. Rombauer’s confidence in Richie seems to equal his own confidence in himself, as the quality of the wines can attest. The consumer is the beneficiary.

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Richie Allen. Picture credit: J.L. Sousa/Register/Napa Valley Register

Richie started with Rombauer in 2004 and took over as head winemaker in 2008 where he has earned near carte blanch control over winemaking and vineyard management. He’s stayed with Rombauer because they’re giving him the opportunity and means to make the best wine he can, which is support and trust he knows many of his colleagues in Napa don’t enjoy. The family and board take the same approach to this goal as Richie, which is to say that every year the wines get better, but they are never good enough. Richie has his sights set on making wine that can compete with the very best, and he knows Napa is one of the few places capable of providing the raw material to do that. With the support he has at Rombauer to do that, he knows he’s lucky and he’s seizing it to pursue his goal.

The first wine we tried over lunch was the 2016 sauvignon blanc. I’m not a fan of 99% of sauvignon blanc on the market today, largely due to the flood of myopically limey sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and California. I feared this might be another wine in that category given Richie’s Southern Hemisphere roots and winemaking experience. Does the world really need another sauvignon blanc, especially one that retails for $25? It turns out yes, yes it does. Richie has strong opinions about sauvignon blanc’s place in the pantheon of wine and a very clear idea of where good sauvignon blanc should be grown, when to pick it, and how to produce it. So far Rombauer has sourced their grapes, and while Richie is very pleased with the quality of the fruit he is on the voracious hunt for land to purchase for sauvignon blanc plantings that is “well drained and too cool for cabernet sauvignon,” which means there isn’t much of it in a place like California. Richie aims to pick his sauvignon blanc at a lower brix when it is “at peak varietal intensity” to ensure good aromatics, the most important element of sauvignon blanc. He claims that any new winemaker should learn to make a good aromatic white, and that if they can’t do it then they shouldn’t be a winemaker.

Rombauer’s 2016 sauvignon blanc offered the gorgeous aromatic profile Richie is going for with tropical and stone fruits and an undercurrent of chalk. With a small percentage aged in 5 to 6 year-old neutral oak, the body is medium in stature with firm structure and zippy acid. It offers nice depth with Key lime, apricot, peach and salty vanilla. It’s one of the very best New World sauvignon blancs out there that’s worth its price tag, and I’d up there with my personal favorites: Greywacke’s “wild” bottling and Efeste’s Feral bottling.

The 2015 chardonnay was, as always, a gold standard for California chardonnay, an all-around iconic wine. Richie explained Rombauer chardonnay has having five core components that fall into a natural balance: (1) ripe fruit, (2) vanilla oak, (3) a creamy palate, and (4) buttery finish all bound together by (5) good acid. “If you don’t have all five, you have a Rombauer competitor.” Well, mission accomplished. It’s weighty without being overwhelming. It has green apple, butterscotch, zesty lemon-lime and toasted oak. It’s among the best values in quality chardonnay from anywhere in the world, and a go-to high value answer for lush but non-butter bomb California chardonnay along with Smith-Madrone Winery.

We then transitioned to the red wines with the 2013 merlot. Like all Rombauer wines, this one was hand-picked and the berries were de-stemmed using a berry shaker instead of a de-stemmer. One-third of the vintage was fermented in barrels that were rolled instead of pumped over, an approach Richie pursues to fill out the mid palate of the finished product. The end result is quite good. The nose is bursting with cocoa, cherries, black current and plum, graphite and a small amount of iodine. The palate is full bodied offering just enough acidity to balance great density that doubles down on dark cherries, mocha, and smoke. There’s a nice dose of saline in the mid palate. This is a great wine to pour blind for people who claim they don’t like merlot, and just as great to pour for those who say they do.

Like the merlot, the 2013 cabernet sauvignon saw barrel fermentation. 70%, to be exact, was fermented in barrel. This one is still young. The nose is still reticent but its dark aromas tease what will likely blossom into a tantalizing bounty of full-blown scents. It’s full on the body, very smooth and round. Richie called it an “iron fist in a velvet glove” which seems exactly right to me. It offers candied cherries, blackberries and dark plum, along with cinnamon, cocoa, graphite and a refreshing amount of orange zest. I imagine this will offer a lot of depth while retaining its refinement as it ages.

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An optical sorter. Picture credit: rombauer.com

The star of the lineup was the 2013 Diamond Selection cabernet sauvignon. My first note from the tasting is “that’s a special wine,” followed by “so dynamic, so young.” As Richie said, this will outlive us all. It offers ripe red, black and blue fruits buried deep in an elegant tannic structure balanced by perfect acidity. It also features toasted hazelnuts, blood orange, dark chocolate, and anise. This would be a shame not to try, and an even bigger shame not to age for as long as you can be patient.

This Rombauer line up was superb, but only a fraction of what Richie and his team produce. Much of their wine, including single vineyard wines and a late harvest chardonnay, among others, are available exclusively at the winery and through their wine club. Based on this experience, the limited productions wines are likely worth the trip.

My conclusion after this experience is really quite simple: the wine of Rombauer is so good because the people behind it are obsessively focused on delivering their very best to their customers and they put their all into the effort. As I said above, many wineries speak like this about themselves, but few offer products that are convincing. Rombauer leaves no question.

Words escape me: The country, food and wine of Georgia

The country of Georgia is, legit, the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. I mean, just look at these mountains, which are part of Europe’s tallest mountain range, the Caucuses:

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We logged around 20 hours in the car in Georgia, a country of just 3.5 million people, which means we saw roughly a third the country. It didn’t matter which mile, though: what we saw out the window could have been the subject of an award-winning National Geographic photograph. Here’s another one from a totally different region of the country. This is Tbilisi, the country’s capital city:

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And this is the cave city of Vardzia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a valley away from Turkey:

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As if that weren’t enough, the view from the cave city looking across the valley:

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I could put together a photo essay entirely about Georgia’s beauty, and if I were more humble that might be all I’d do as I’ve been writing this post for a week and still haven’t found the words that can appreciably describe my Georgia experience. However, since this is a wine blog I need to suck it up and put something out on Georgia’s wine, which they’ve been making for 8,000 years and longer than anyone else. It’s in their blood, their DNA. Average household daily wine consumption in the country is measured in liters. (Or so I was told, but I mean come on, right? I’m not printing the number I was given because it just can’t be right, even though I was assured that it is. Amazing. Anyways…) It’s routinely served with lunch and always with dinner. It’s a major percentage of their economy (likely around 10% if you include the considerable homemade and black market stuff), and it’s their sixth largest export. It’s also one of the major drivers of tourism.

Alice Feiring wrote what is probably the go-to text on Georgian wine in the English language, a book called For The Love of Wine, which focuses on the two central elements of Georgian wine: natural winemaking and aging in qvevri, a unique and very special ceramic vessel buried underground. When both are used, the wines’ flavors and textures are a Georgian signature that is unique in the wine world. She contextualized the wine within the Georgian culture, appropriately so as wine is a natural fit with what is an especially family-centric, gregarious and warm people. It is the fluid that lubes the country, and that is no exaggeration. I’ve spent time in Italy and France, and wine is far more central to the Georgian identity and lifestyle than it is in either of those two countries.

These factors put Georgia on the top of my travel wish list for years, and two weeks ago it finally happened. We explored the country and the wine over eight days, and I’ll write more about the broader experience in a future post. For now, I’m going to focus on one evening that illustrates Georgia’s special nexus between wine and people: a supra with Gia Togonidze, owner and winemaker of Togo Winery, and his family at their home in Telavi in the Kakheti region.

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We met Gia on our first day of the trip at a wine festival in Tbilisi (more on that in the subsequent post). Gia doesn’t speak English, but some of his family does and were able to translate my questions while trying his wines. Of all wines I tried at the festival, Gia’s seemed the most honest, a trait that always appeals to me. And this is saying a lot because the boutique wineries at the festival weren’t trying to commercialize anything. Gia isn’t trading on Georgia’s reputation as a hip wine producer, and isn’t even trading on the country’s niche style as his wines get very little time in qvevri. He’s fully invested in his wine from vine to bottle and it’s an honest representation of what Gia seeks in wine. That’s wine to admire, even if it isn’t your style. Thankfully I liked it, too. After chatting with him and his family, we asked if we could visit the winery a few days later. Before we knew it we had invited ourselves to a Georgian traditional dinner called a “supra” that Gia and his family would prepare for us.

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Gia’s Saperavi resting atop qvevri that will soon go into the ground.

When we arrived Gia took us on a tour of his home and winery, which is spread across a few small buildings on his property in the Kakheti Valley. The house is, as much as I can mean this word, incredible. Gia is an artist, and makes his money by working in the world of colors while producing artwork on the side. As we toured his home, each room was a revelation unto itself.

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I have a hard time describing my design style, but at least now I know where to hire my interior designer. I don’t like conformity, consistency or straight lines in my interior if it can be helped. Show me a house decorated and outfitted with seemingly inconsistent and random objects, furniture and arrangements and it speaks to me. Compare the picture above of a spare bedroom to the one below of a sitting room. Nothing made to be a pair, nothing meant to highlight something else, yet all with individuality and in perfect harmony.

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Gia and his family also do a wonderful job of using objects as art, and displaying them in compelling ways. The eclectic nature of this style is captivating. Go ahead, linger on the next few pictures.

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Somehow the glass bottles and paintbrushes, which have nothing to do with each other, rest in harmony in what seems like the ideal pairing.

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This wouldn’t look nearly as good if the frames were level.

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I can’t begin to explain how this looks so good. With this kind of personality, attention to detail and artistry, it won’t be a surprise later when I rave about his wine.

Once we finished with the house and went out to the wine making area, Gia began by telling me about the vineyards he sourced from in the valley below. He supplies his growers with his own chemicals, none evasive and all used in moderation, and purchases the grapes at full market price to maintain quality relationships to ensure an adequate, reliable annual supply of high quality grapes (a hard thing to secure in Georgia). Recently, he found a different kind of Saperavi grape that is cylindrical in shape growing on a neighbor’s property, which he has purchased and will be planting himself.

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Gia’s winery takes its name from the beginning of his last name: Togonidze

None of his grapes receive irrigation. Grape pressing is done by his wife’s feet(!). Aging is a combination of tank and qvevri as Gia aims to impart the classic footprint of the qvevri in the wine without moving the wine into a common flavor zone found in heavily qvevri’d wines where Earth flavors completely overwhelm fruit and tannins are overly astringent. Fermentation is done with native yeasts and takes up to three months to complete(!). Production is a family and neighbor affair, which many people participating in the bottling and labeling process, which is all done by hand.

Gia only started making wine five years ago, but from a much younger age it stung him that he hadn’t followed his family’s tradition of winemaking. It got under his skin. When I asked him why he finally started making wine, he response was that he should have started a lot sooner. ‘It’s a shame not to make wine [in Georgia],’ he told me, ‘I should be doing it.’ He wasn’t speaking in English, but even through translation it was clear that he meant that it was his duty. Gia was taught by his grandfather, who was the family’s most well-respected winemaker through the generations. ‘Now that I make wine,’ he said, ‘I have another child. My wine is my baby, and I like to show it off.’

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Gia Togonidze

The word supra means “table” in Georgian, but it’s a feast (and a half). Supras have a master of ceremony who is responsible for giving multiple toasts, and everything gets toasted. The mother. The mother’s mother. The mother’s mother’s neighbor’s daughter who babysat the mother’s daughter. Love gets a toast. Wine gets a toast. Guests each receive a toast. If anyone else wants to toast they must ask permission, and are not guaranteed a permissive response. The table is filled with traditional Georgian foods, most of them usually regional.

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Gia, his wife, and the supra

In Kakheti that meant lamb in two ways: barbecued over a fire made of old grape vines, and a spicy herbed lamb stewed with greens. It also included about seventy-two local cheeses (only a slight exaggeration), the region’s bread (a salty bread not unlike ciabata, but better), and an arugula salad with ham. There was the local honey, which my friends from Seattle traveling with us ate by the spoonful and from which they will likely contract diabetes. There was also a traditional Georgian salad of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and a walnut paste that is to die for (as are the tomatoes, which burst with flavor in a way that makes American tomatoes taste like bitter water). A dish of fresh mountain strawberries nearly stole the show. And, of course, there was copious amounts of wine and, later in the evening after the meal, Georgia’s traditional liquor called chacha, a distilled spirit made of the pomace of the winemaking process (left over bits and pieces of grapes, stems, etc.) that tastes quite similar to grappa.

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Gia offered many toasts, featuring both his Mtsvane and Saperavi wines, a white and red, respectively, that punched with some serious alcoholic weight (14.8% for the white and 14.6% for the red). Round after round of toast had our heads spinning for a long, long time. Gia toasted our group, each of us individually. His wife, who made the fantastic meal. Zaza, our friend, driver and interpreter (more on him in the subsequent post. If you want to travel to Georgia you must use him). He toasted to a bright future for the country, and for US-Georgian relations. The conviviality on display wasn’t forced, it wasn’t rehearsed, and it sure wasn’t contrived. It was genuine, it was fun, and it was authentic (in every way). For that night I felt genuinely Georgian and surrounded by old, close friends. That’s the power of the Georgian people, and their wine. I’ve visited many countries and have spent extended periods abroad, but unlike anywhere else Georgia was warm and caring to the core.

Given all the toasts, thank goodness the wine was fantastic. Georgian wines taste distinctly different from elsewhere, and that’s mostly t to do with the grapes and the winemaking. Georgia has a lot of native grapes that aren’t grown elsewhere, and like most Georgian winemakers Gia focuses on those. His 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint. We had an amber wine (a white wine fermented with its skins, not unlike an orange wine but due to the particular skin pigment truly amber in color) made of Rkatsitelli that had an incredibly tropical nose of passion fruit, guava, papaya and strawberry, and also smelled of sweet vanilla bean and dried apricot. It was medium bodied with big skin tannin, and tasted of mellow honeyed melon, vanilla, baking spice, and trio of green, chamomile and jasmine teas. Another stunner. The Saperavi, a red grape, was picked at 25 brix and finished at 14.6% alcohol. It’s young nose was still a bit reticent, but the palate profile of hickory smoke, olives, bacon fat, strawberries and cherries spread across a lush and filling structure delivered by the meter.

I’m very glad Gia decided to show his wine off to us. I had over 30 wines while in Georgia, and Gia’s were among the very best. The only thing sad about the signed bottle he sent me home with is the understanding that it will be my last experience with his wine until I return for another visit, which will happen. Georgia is wild place, a country with only a recent history of democratic governance still advancing towards something we in America would recognize. It’s geography, it’s people, it’s food and its wine are all quite beautiful and distinctly Georgian, bound by a history of overcoming centuries of occupying forces, Soviet occupation, and a truly tough climate. Georgia is, at the same time, one of the longest-living cultures in the world and a people, held back by a Russian neighbor anything but keen on Georgian independence, persevering to build a rapidly modernizing and Westernizing home in the 21s Century. As I’ve meditated on the trip the ultimate realization I’ve had about my experience is that Georgia is its own place, its own beast, and it’s the differences that set it apart and the authenticity it doesn’t hesitate to ooze that make it such a special, wonderful place.

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The story Georgians tell about the creation of their country is that when God was dividing up the world to different people, the Georgians were the last to arrive, late and drunk, and so God gave them the only plot of land that was left: the land he had intended to keep for himself, the very best. It’s a cute story, some people offer it as a joke, others with a wink and a nod. It seems entirely capable of being true.

Does Bordeaux Deserve its Reputation?

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Picture: Gateway to La Cases. Credit: Le Figaro

How does one begin to write about drinking the 1975, 1982, 1986, 1989, 1990 and 1996 vintages of Gran Vin de Chateau Leoville du Marquis de Las Casas with the Chateau’s managing director, a small group of serious collectors and industry professionals? Apparently by stating he really isn’t sure, and that’s probably because he’s never been as impressed by Bordeaux as its reputation suggests he ought to be, especially when factoring in price, and so he doesn’t have a wealth of experience in which to contextualize the experience.

That’s actually not bad to start, but let’s tweak it just a bit and go with the following question as an introduction of sorts to how I approached my analysis of the experience: are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?

Two items of background before we start evaluating whether I’ve erred in marginalizing Bordeaux in my wine adventures thus far. First, Las Cases has a reputation for needing at least ten, if not twenty, years of age to begin revealing its best side, which means that these great vintages are well-suited for the experiment at hand. And second, Las Cases is made with the attention to detail and from similarly qualified terroir as first growths, so we’re dealing with sufficient quality in our test subject.

Let’s also establish a benchmark wine with which to compare the Las Cases. The week before the Leoville tasting I enjoyed a bottle of Baer Winery’s Actos cabernet sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux-style blend from Washington State. The vintage, 2010, was relatively unheralded but one of my favorites. Known for cooler temperatures and a little more rain than most desire, the vintage provided the raw ingredients for talented winemakers to produce a more refined style than Washington’s general reputation. When properly aged, like this particular bottle was, 2010 can offer quite a bit. While it may be an underdog, I rated the wine 94 points and because it retails for under $50 gave it a value rating of “A.” Here’s what I wrote about the Baer:

“Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place.”

While Washington doesn’t carry the same pedigree and panache as Bordeaux, I do think it’s reasonably accurate to say that Baer has a status in Washington comparable to what Las Cases has in Bordeaux. Not many would thrust Baer into the category of the state’s “first growth” wineries but many a Washington winemaker has called Baer a winemaker’s wine: deft winemaking that results in a product offerings many of the best elements a winemaker would want to detect. No frills and everything in balance, the wine speaks for itself and its terroir.

This further refines the central question: did I get sufficiently more satisfaction and enjoyment out of 20+ year old $150 Leoville Las Cases than I did a 7-year old $43 Baer to justify swapping a future Baer purchase or two for Las Cases?

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Credit: JW Wines

The evolution good Bordeaux like Las Cases goes through is described by its admirers as though it is a mystical creature itself, surrendering itself over the years to the simple confines of acid, tannin and alcohol to obtain total unity as it achieves a state of being that cannot be appreciated in its entirety by the vulgar human consciousness. I’ve heard people describe Bordeaux in effectively these terms, and I always smiled and wondered what, exactly, they were experiencing that made them describe it that way. To be fair no one at the Las Cases tasting promised such an experience nor talked their way through it in those words. But I went into the tasting, if I’m honest, hoping for some similarly-transcendental experience.

Such a moment was probably too much to expect, let alone hope for. The reality was something less than rendering my words unworthy of their subject, but something more than the simple dismissal that I’d rather have three Baer than one Las Cases every time. It was clear from first sip that there aren’t many places in the world where terroir could produce something as complex as these wines. Winemaking is an art and a science, but the central component – the grape – is agriculture. Winemakers, even if they don’t manage their vineyards, are farmers (and also soil nerds, amateur meteorologists, janitors, and a wealth of other profession quasi-professionals). You can do things to the ground to shift something in one direction or the other, but the base starting point is what nature gives you and if you want to retain character in your wine you cannot overwhelm it. The combinations of flavors in the Las Cases, as well as its ability to retain acidity and tannin over twenty, or even thirty, years, suggest that Bordeaux has earned its reputation for complex wines on the back of its soil. As much as I loved the Baer, and as special as its profile is, it simply does not offer as much diversity or depth of flavor, and I have a hard time believing it would dominate the test of such a long period of time as the Las Cases has. This in itself was the biggest takeaway for me.

That said, I’m not entirely sold. The tasting notes of the wines are below so you can read for yourself. Several of the wines were among the most complex and intriguing I’ve had, but none captured my imagination. None transported me to a forth dimension. It’s interesting that my generation has not latched on to Bordeaux the way previous generations have because it comes at a time where a number of other regions from the around the world are, or already have, caught up to Bordeaux’s general level of quality without demanding the same prices. I wonder if the rise of the rest that my youth has allowed me experience has had an impact on my openness to other regions and wines, and so the cost of Bordeaux has tainted my view of it despite its reputation.

Generational-Differences

Credit: Initiative One

At the same time, those who have been captured by Bordeaux and pay for and age wines like Las Cases seem to shun or discount many of these upstart regions. Washington State and our benchmark wine from Baer is a good example. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations with those around me at the Las Cases dinner, and my old soul tends to identify with the perspective, more or less found at this dinner, that it takes more than a few generations for a winemaking region to earn its stripes. Washington State is again a good example of this, as many of its wineries subsist on the naiveté and simplicity of their clients. But I found myself wondering during the dinner, if I snuck the Baer in as a blind ringer, how would those around the table react to it? Objectively different than the Las Cases it would have stuck out, but it’s more than just hope that leads me to believe it would have been treated as a wine worthy of enjoying. And that’s what still gets me about Bordeaux: pedigree aside, is it necessary to prefer Bordeaux in order to be a real wine aficionado? If anything, this experience taught me that appreciation, rather than preference, is sufficient.

So, to the central question of did I get sufficiently more satisfaction and enjoyment out of 20+ year old $150 Leoville Las Cases than I did a 7-year old $43 Baer to justify swapping a future Baer purchase or two for Leoville? The answer is no, though I’m more open to it than I was before.

One final note. All of the wines we tried – the six Las Cases plus a bottle each from Domaines Delon’s other four estates and a “vin surprise” – came before the year that Pierre Graffeuille, Las Cases’ managing director, said climate change clearly began affecting the estate: 2009. Since then, the estate has seen a noticeable and impactful warming in the vineyards. As temperature has such a profound impact on the grapes, it would be a very interesting experiment in another twenty or thirty years to taste the before and after of appropriately aged Las Cases.

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Credit: Domaines Delon

I did not score the wines. My scribbles that evening included a range of plus signs, from one to five, with five being the best, to track how each compared to the others. I’ve carried that “scoring” over here. Many thanks to Panos Kakaviatos and Pierre Graffeuille for this phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime experience…hopefully we’ll do it again!

2009 Petit Lion du Marquis de las Cases: God that’s a gorgeous nose. Big, dark fruit (blueberries, blackberries), cassis, black current. Smoke and sweet tobacco. Cedar. The palate is full and rigid. Flavors of sweet tobacco, black pepper. Cherries and pomegranate seeds. Celery seed. Subtle, nice acidity. It’s a firm and fleshy wine with some structure left to release. ++

2005 Clos du Marquis: Modest aromatics of black currant, orange zest, mushrooms and raspberries. The body is medium in structure with juicy acidity and perfectly integrated thin grained tannin. Flavors of cranberry, raspberry, and huckleberry. Also undergrowth, oak vanillin and green vegetables. A nice and complete wine. +++

2003 Chateau Pontesac: A nose reminiscent of Red Mountain with graphite, iodine, dark cherries and Herbs de Provence. A huge hit of red fruit punch. Full bodied with bright acidity and unfocused, fleshy tannin. Dark smoke, graphite, juicy raspberry and blood orange provide the foundation with licorice dominating the mid-palate. Complete and well balanced, it becomes lost in the mid-palate. I wanted to like this more. ++

2001 Chateau Nenin: A sharp nose of black and blue fruit, very nice pluminess to go with a delicate amount of game and smoked red meat. It is full bodied and quite juicy with red fruit and green vegetables. It’s extraordinarily clean, actually so much so that it has very little personality. I wrote down “clearly well-made but…?” It is demonstrably better with food. +

1996 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose is still quite reticent and eventually produces some rubber. The body is medium in stature with the dominant element of structure being the acidity. The tannins are in good balance and provide a solid frame. The palate is quite herbal and vegetal with crisp red berries. It’s very elegant but still tight. The entire package is let down by the nose at this point. When the nose does bloom and the palate releases this will be a true gem. +++/+

1990 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: A very woodsy nose with a lot of cedar. Smells like a musty log cabin. The palate is full, big and thick but kept light by a hit of acid. Cherries, cedar and a nice menthol kick to go with smoke and saline. Voluptuous in shape, it takes over the dance floor with big moves and doesn’t give space. I prefer more a little more finesse. +++

1989 Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose has tertiary aromas all over the place along with tobacco, saline and big cherry. The body is full. I wrote down “magical.” It is still tannic but spreads and coats the mouth. Rich, sweet raspberries, huckleberries and salmon berries. (Incidentally, these are three berries we had in copious amounts on the property where I grew up, so this was memory lane of an afternoon of berry picking). White and black pepper. Smooth, bright acidity. Tobacco and cocoa. An elegant and masculine wine, it still has plenty of life ahead of it. ++++/+

1986 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: Perfumed flowers on the nose along with spiced tobacco, cassis, cedar and peppermint. It’s a nuanced and special bouquet. The palate is extraordinarily pretty with rose water, lavender, cherry, white pepper, orange ride, sweet tobacco, smoked meat and cedar. All of this is integrated seamlessly in a dynamic profile. Wine of the night. +++++

1986 “Vin Surprise” Las Cases 100% petit verdot: Not yet released for public sale. Thirty years old but still hasn’t fully released its profile. A burley wine one diner aptly described as the “unshaved wrestler in the room.” Lot of pepper and game, not much else. An excellent demonstration of why petit verdot is an important, but small, component in the Gran Vin blend. +/+

1982 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose captures one’s attention. Dark fruit, rhubarb, cured red meat and minty tobacco. It leaves a ruby impression. The palate still appears young but is very complete. Frankly, too many adjectives come to mind to write down. This is an old soul’s wine. Close second to the 1986 for wine of the night. +++++

1975 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: Aromas of freshly tanned tobacco leave, mint and chili pepper spice. Damp cardboard and just a bit of acetone. The palate has crisp acidity from which blackberries, strawberries and Acai spawn. The tannins are still present but in the background. It’s slightly minty as well. It’s quite round, but has a sturdy body and real depth. ++++

 

 

 

Good Vitis Unplugged: Stu Smith and the wines of Smith-Madrone

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I know which way I’m going. Picture: Mumu Les Vignes

I already knew I liked Stu Smith when he told me he had worked for André Tchelistcheff when he was young. By that point in the night we had left the dinner crowd and found a nearby wine bar to talk one-on-one, and Stu had moved on to a glass of beer. I was still sipping wine, but had transitioned from Stu’s Smith-Madrone line up to a cabernet franc from Chinon, which frankly tasted more like an inexpensive, cloying California red blend than the funky fruit from the Old World I was seeking. When you can count Tschelistcheff as a former boss and mentor, you don’t have any legitimate excuses for making bad wine. Thankfully for Stu, he doesn’t need excuses because Smith-Madrone is for real. Stu and his avid followers don’t need me to tell them that, though.

André Tchelistcheff could be the subject of an entire book, let alone a blog post, but for now he’ll have to be simply a reference for this blog post. I know about him because of the crucial role he played in the early development of the wine industry in Washington State where I’m from and whose wines takes up half my cellar. He is one of the maybe three most important figures in the state’s wine history. Stu was lucky he didn’t mention the relationship until the end of the night, otherwise we wouldn’t have discussed anything else the entire night.

What we did discuss, though, was quite interesting and wide-ranging. Being just a few blocks from Congress we discussed politics, both in the context of general musings and those specific to the wine industry, meaning how local, state and federal decision-making affects the industry (not who is buying you-know-who’s used barrels which may or may not be tainted with brettanomyces (wink wink)). Stu is one of the more politically engaged winemakers I’ve met and when he decides he is willing to go on record about politics, I may have to start a Good Vitis podcast.

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Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

We also discussed a great deal of Stu’s thoughts about running a winery. For instance, he’s managed to avoid having to start a wine club, which for a winery that celebrated its 45th anniversary last year and makes around 4,000 cases a year is a remarkable feat. Wine clubs are the business model these days for small producers of coveted wine like Smith-Madrone because they bank on future sales to club members. And I say ‘managed to avoid’ because he’d rather not go that route. Why, goes his thinking, do that when you can sell the wine on its merits without having to resort to marketing gimmicks. Even still, he does care about continually expanding his market and building upon his already well-established reputation. That’s the answer, more or less, that I received to my question of why he needed to make the rounds in Washington, DC, let alone sell his wine in the area, given the long-standing high demand for his limited production. It’s an astute answer because it implicitly recognizes that no customer can be counted on for repeat purchases – even wine club members come and go.

Over dinner earlier in the night with a number of other Smith-Madrone admirers, Stu began his remarks by stating the belief that ‘you can only make the best wine from the best grapes, and you can only grow the best grapes in the mountains’ because ‘Bacchus loves the hills.’ Stu had the wherewithal in 1972 to plant the vineyards used to make Smith-Madrone’s wines, to this day, on the side of a mountain in the North Coast of Napa Valley, and he chose one with slopes as steep as 30 degrees. Situating each varietal within the vineyard where it was best situated (“eastern exposure for the Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the cabernet sauvignon; the coolest north-facing slopes for the chardonnay” according to the website), Stu has moved to dry farming to ensure vine struggle sufficiently to produce smaller berries to achieve a higher, and more desirable, skin-to-pulp ratio (most of the flavors and nearly all of the structure of wine comes from the grapes’ skin). Stu defined his winemaking style as the antithesis to “OTT” (Over The Top).

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Smith Madrone’s hillside vines. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

These days, many American consumers like to buy a story, not just a product. Although Stu can deliver his compelling story with thoughtfulness and humor, by the time the competition for his attention bowed out, leaving just me, he was ready to talk about something other than wine. Because I was going to be writing an article about Smith-Madrone we tried to return the topic of conversation to winemaking on several occasions, but we didn’t stay on it for long before going off in the direction of the state of the Republican and Democratic parties, or the regulatory challenges wineries face (especially in land use), or whether winemakers were inclined towards one particular political persuasion, or the value of a good distributor (I can attest to this having heard more than a few horror stories), or if a Parker 89-point review is worse than no review at all (answer: it is), or any of the other dozen topics we discussed. By the end of the night I came to like Smith-Madrone’s story because I liked the man at the center of it. Stu is real people, and you get a deep sense of that in his wine. It’s honest wine for honest people, or at least that’s my slogan for it. I’m quite glad we didn’t dwell on winemaking any longer than we did.

Coming from one of the best areas in Napa for more classically-styled wine, Smith-Madrone’s offerings are fantastic. If you want reserved, classy wines with especially deep and complex layers, all at what amounts to a steal for the quality and pedigree, made by a real person genuinely more invested in the quality of his life’s work than the potential fame or fortune of it, then you need to look into Smith-Madrone. The reviews below are from bottle samples the winery sent me that were tasted sighted.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay – The nose dazzles with banana, oak, lemon-lime Sprite, and vanilla bean with nice streaks of flint and smoky white pepper. Super engaging profile. The palate is full with a glycerin sensation but avoids becoming cloying by offering a fine balance of bright acidity, slight grainy tannin and honeyed fruit. The flavors feature Meyer lemon, pineapple, tart Starfruit, nectarine, cider, saline, tarragon, slate and just a bit of chili flake kick. This is top shelf chardonnay at a fantastic value. 93 points. Value: A

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling – Bright nose of tennis ball, limey minerality, apricot, banana leaf and peach. The palate is medium bodied with a high viscosity and cutting acidity. Loads of lemon, lime and slate on the initial hit, followed by white pepper as it turns to key lime pie with whipped cream and a hint of nutmeg and gets lush. The acid carries through on the long finish. Expertly crafted riesling with a promising decade of evolution ahead. 91 points. Value: A

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is funky, dark and smoky. Hickory smoke, olive brine, dark cherries, blood, dusty cocoa and tangerine peel. With more air the raspberry pops. It’s medium bodied with mouth-coating dusty tannins. The palate is also quite savory and very refined. There are multiple layers to this that years in the cellar will expose. Right now it’s under ripe cherries, maraschino sauce, dark plums, loam, tarragon, black pepper, mocha, a bit of iodine, and saline. Quite dry at the moment with a quick finish, I do expect it to fill out a bit with age as the tannins smooth and release. If this happens, the score will improve. 92 points. Value: A-

When (and Why) You Should Attend a Winemaker Dinner

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A Gran Moraine vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton (Picture: oregonlive.com)

Winemaker dinners, usually advertised for $100-plus per person, are a thing of luxury and, unless you live in a decently sized wine market, a bit of a rarity. I’ve stayed away from them because they seem like a rip off. I imagined the wine pours, food portions, and the winemaker’s ability to give one-on-one attention are all limited, which means I’m likely to feel like I’m neither getting my money’s worth nor like I’m able to really familiarize myself with the wine. A recent experience, however, has shown me not to assume that this is the case.

The basic anatomy of a winemaker dinner is one in which people meet at a nice restaurant for a prix fixe menu paired with wines from a specific winemaker or winery (or wineries). The winemaker will introduce themselves, their winery and their approach, and then offer stories behind each wine as it is poured and share their own impressions of it. The dinners can vary in size and quality, but are generally scoped either to introduce wine to a market or, in some cases, to a targeted selection of people in the industry.

A few months back I interviewed Shane Moore, the winemaker a Zena Crown and Gran Moraine wineries, both in Oregon, about his prior experience making wine in Israel. Shane and I stayed in touch and when he was in town last week invited me to attend a small winemaker dinner. I had enjoyed my conversations with Shane and wanted to meet him in person; the chance to drink his wines, with him, was only going to be a bonus.

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Shane Moore (Picture: granmoraine.com)

The gathering was small, maybe fifteen people, most of whom were attached to the industry in one way or another. The atmosphere was collegial and anything but snobby. Our meal was three courses, though we had five wines (plus a bonus Champagne before we sat down). Shane regaled us with anecdotes about each wine and explained his approach and style. It became clear, immediately, that he has a passion for what he does that is matched by his knowledge, which is saying quite a bit. He dropped some Shaneism on the group when he told us that wine tasted best under at least one of three conditions: at the winery, when it’s labeled, and when drinking it with the winemaker. He proved the last one; drinking with the winemaker isn’t merely a bonus, as I had thought it would be, but the selling point for winemaker dinners.

As we placed our orders, Gran Moraine’s 2016 rose was poured. Shane told us his rose inspirations are Domaine Tempier in Bandol and Domaine Ott in Provence, and although his rose is made from a grape not found in either of those wines – pinot noir – the inspirations were demonstrated in the wine. The nose was especially boisterous, pretty and layered. I detected honeydew, kumquat, strawberries, and cherries along with nice florals. The palate was full but very crisp, a nice balance that comes from the use of breathable plastic bins for fermentation that allow extra oxygen to get into the fermenting wine to build up its body. It has nice astringency and just a bit of tannin, which isn’t surprising giving how it’s made: the grapes are picked early, most of it made into pinot blanc, and then blended with carbonic macerated pinot noir. It’s a grand slam at $29.

We then moved on to the 2014 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay, which might have been the wine of the night for me. Everything about it is classic Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay, which means it could double as a Montrachet in a blind tasting if it weren’t for its zing and salinity. This one had a gorgeous nose of white pepper, toasted hazelnuts and sesame, starfruit, apricot, green apples and some coconut barrel notes. The body is silky and full, evidence of battonage. It had a nice dose of chalk, sweet lemon, salty pretzel, stone fruits, a mint/basil note along with nice saline and great flintiness. The pH is quite basic at around 3.1, and the grapes were picked in the 21-22 brix range. Primary fermentation was all native and took “forever.” “One of the most stressful wines I’ve ever made,” Shane said. “It spent a lot of time without sulfur…” he said as his voice trailed off and his eyes rolled in the back of his head, remembering those nerve-racking times. Malolactic fermentation was partial. It’s an automatic selection at $45.

As the main course arrived we moved to the 2013 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton pinot noir. Shane called Yamhill-Carlton pinot an ephemeral style that he compared to Burgundy’s Volnay. Around 30% used on this was French, and the barrel aging went for approximately 9 months. This treatment gives the wine good structure but doesn’t overwhelm the more delicate elements of the profile. The nose offers really nice fruit and not an unnoticeable amount of funk reminiscent of wet soil, underbrush and fungus. It finishes with some nice pepper. The fruit on the palate is dark and just a little tart, showing Acai, huckleberries and cherries. Shane said they picked at just the right time to keep any greenness from working its way into the profile. Bravo. It also offers a classy amount of Asian Five Spice. There’s a good tannic backbone to this one but it’s balanced and smooth. Among the best $45 Oregon pinot noir I’ve had, and certainly the most developed of the 2013s at this price point that I’ve had to date.

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Zena Crown Vineyard (Picture: zenacrown.com)

We then transitioned to the Zena Crown label as they poured the 2013 Sum from Eola-Amity. I think it was around this time that Shane, Isaac Baker of terroirist.com and I discussed the 2013 Oregon vintage. The press raved about the 2012s, a warm vintage that produced very approachable and sweet pinots throughout Oregon’s AVAs while the cooler 2013 received a more tepid reception. I made the comment that I bought very few 2012s and was much happier, and more invested in, 2013 because the cooler vintage produced less hedonism on the body and structure of the wines and kept the brix in check so the acid could highlight the secondary and tertiary flavors. Shane wasn’t a fan of 2012 either, dismissing the wines from that vintage as “singular.”

The Sum’s nose was incredibly deep. Acai gave way to rhubarb, and then to chocolate covered raspberries and macerated cherries. There is also smoke, sweet tobacco, cinnamon and nutmeg. It took me a while before I was ready to remove my nose from the glass. The body is led by polished tannins, but is well balanced with good acidity. This one was 40% whole cluster using grapes grown in (volcanic) Basalt soils. The name “Sum” is meant to convey that every little thing, from cradle to grave, matters. The palate was as deep and complex as the body, and it’s $75 price tag is reasonable for the quality and complexity it offers. I’ve had a good amount of expensive Oregon pinot noir that isn’t nearly as good as this one.

We finished with Zena Crown’s top-shelf wine, the 2013 Slope, which retails for $100. Shane called this one his “winter wine” for it’s serious presence (each of the four Zena Crown wines represents a different season for Shane), and because it has no “elbows.” The nose is heavy and serious; I wrote down “serious flowers, serious species and serious fruit” when smelling it. It had some nice graphite, Herbs de Provence, and smoked meat as well. The palate? Also “serious.” Cherries, green herbs, graphite, iodine, saline, rose and lavender. I mentioned that I noted cola as well, though Shane kind of shook his head “no.” I’m sticking with it. Mark it cola, Dude. This one will be long lived, and is among the two or three most complete and complex 2013s I’ve had from Oregon. If stocking up on Zena Crown, I’d buy the Sum to have over the next five years, and the Slope for the following ten.

Shane was right – drinking with the winemaker makes the wine better. If this post hasn’t made it clear, he’s a very engaging guy, and loves talking about his craft. The banter was as fun as the wine, and the combination made the night. It seems to me this is why you go to winemaker dinners. I imagine the more engaging and fun the winemaker, the more engaging and fun the dinner. So long as the wine can keep up, you’re going to have a good time. If you come across one of these dinners and are wondering whether to go, my suggestion is do some research into the winemaker and decide based on what you find.