Living Legends of Washington Wine

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The term “first ballot hall of famer” is a sports term. I don’t know about professional sports leagues outside the United States, but in America each of the major sports leagues has their own hall of fame, and every year new members are selected by a group of electors. Many hall of famers don’t make the cut the first year they’re eligible, but those who do are called “first ballot hall of famers” and the phrase is often used to refer to active players who will undoubtedly be elected in their first year of eligibility. Last Friday I attended a Washington wine event outside Seattle and the room was stocked with first ballot hall of Washington wine famers. I fanboyed pretty hard.

The occasion was The Auction of Washington Wines. Spread out over several days and several events, it is christened by Wine Spectator as the fourth largest charity auction in the United States. This year was record-setting for the auction, raising over $4.1 million for the Seattle Children’s Hospital and Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology Program. The event I attended, the Private Barrel Auction, was a trade-only event that a few media types were invited to attend as well.

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Twenty wineries each donated a barrel of wine to the auction, but the catch was that each barrel had to be a wine that was made specially for the auction and would not be made available to anyone other than the winning bidder, meaning these were unique barrels. We were treated to samples of each in the lead up to the auction, and clearly many of the winemakers had fun with the project. When an industry-leading winemaker gets to play with a barrel’s worth of world class fruit, the results can be good. When they know they’re putting their wine up against their friends and competitors in an auction where the participants are retailers and restauranteurs who are considering only the sellability of the wine, the motivation to perform skyrockets.

Real quick, because I know some readers are wondering, the following wineries participated: Force Majeure, Delille Cellars, Forgeron Cellars and The Walls (a collaboration), Mark Ryan, Va Piano, Col Solare, Long Shadows, L’Ecole No. 41, Fidelitas, Woodward Canyon, Sleight of Hand, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Quilceda Creek, Owen Roe, Januik, Pepper Bridge, Brian Carter, Leonetti, Dusted Valley and Betz. All of these, in one room at the same time, with the winemaker from each pouring their unique one-off projects. Holy crap, right? Exactly. Januik was our wonderful host for the tasting and lunch, which was prepared at their in-winery restaurant by their very impressive chefs using a range of local ingredients. We later transitioned to Chateau Ste. Michelle for the auction. Kudos to both for providing barrels and such generous hospitality.

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I made it through seventeen of the twenty wineries before lunch was served as I enjoyed talking to the winemakers not just about their barrels, but other topics as well, and couldn’t keep pace. The most magical moment came at Sleight of Hands when, after tasting my favorite wine of the day and catching up with one of wine’s most fun-loving personalities, Trey Busch, the legendary champion and producer of Washington wine Bob Betz stopped by to endorse Trey’s talents and have a sip of Busch’s wine with us. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity for a picture with the two of them.

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The author with Bob Betz (L) and Trey Busch (R)

The vast majority of the wines came from the 2016 vintage, which Owen Roe’s David O’Reilly told us began early. He has about 10 acres of cherries that he uses as his indicators of when the vitis will kick off, and in his 45 years he’s never seen it start so early. He braced for a really hot growing season, but by summer temperatures had regressed towards the mean. By the end of August, evening temperatures were in the 40s and harvest stalled. This gave the fruit extended hang time, preserving aromatics and flavors. The end result are wines lower in pH than normal with extremely deep colors (this was very evidence in the samples). He described the vintage as “unmistakably ripe, but every element sings at very high levels.” Rick Smalls of Woodward Canyon compared the vintage to those from the days of when he started his winery forty years ago, saying that now, across the industry, consumers are getting real senses of place in Washington wines as winemakers and vineyard managers learn more and more about their sites and fruit.

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L-R: Bob Betz, Ted Baseler, Rick Small, David O’Reilly

Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, attributed this evolution in part to Washington State University’s (WSU) Viticulture and Enology Program, saying that when Michelle brought viticulturists onboard not that long ago, they needed five-plus years of training, whereas now, getting them out of WSU, “they’re turnkey.” Baseler, whose prescience of the Washington wine industry is well respected, predicted that in twenty to twenty-five years, the state would see an increase in planted acreage from the 60,000 it has today to 200,000 (nearing parity with today’s Napa). He also predicted a rise from today’s ~900 Washington wineries to 3,000. These are bold predictions, but given the state’s growth to this point, it’s not impossible if current consumer trends continue.

The vast majority of wines on offer were cabernet sauvignon-dominate, not surprising for Washington, which is best known for the varietal. The outliers included a 100% grenache dubbed “Duex Dames du Vin” produced in partnership by the female winemakers of Forgeron and The Walls, a very impressive 100% petit verdot from Mark Ryan, a Bordeaux blend featuring majority cabernet franc from Brian Carter, and 100% syrahs from Force Majeure, Sleight of Hand and Quilceda Creek.

All of the wines showed like barrel samples, which is to say far from complete integration and with dense, mouth-coating tannins. I’m continually impressed when I see highly descriptive notes from barrel samples as it’s a significant challenge to get into the complexities of young, brutish red wine. From a small but growing amount of first-hand experience, I still take barrel sample scores with a great deal of salt, but that said, there were some real standouts in this bunch.

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On the cabernet front, Long Shadow’s “Winemaker Selection” blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and merlot showed a lot of developing complexity and intrigue that, with ten-plus years, is going to be spectacular. Woodward Canyon’s 100% cabernet from 40-year old vines in Champoux Vineyard had a real presence with layers of savory flavors, cassis, blackberry, mocha and spice. Leonetti’s barrel was filled entirely with cabernet from block 7 in the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard. My first scribble is “oh my, good.” It’s dark, dark stuff with smoke, iodine and bacon that could be mistaken for a syrah at this stage, though it had the fruit, mocha, graphite and mineral core that one would expect from Walla Walla loam soils that I imagine will emerge more prominently and eventually dominate with time. Col Solare’s Estate Blend of 70% cabernet sauvignon clone 2 and 30% cabernet franc clone 214 offered refreshing herbaciousness and spice, and I imagine I’d enjoy this quite a bit in the future.

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The three standout wines, however, had no cabernet in them. Mark Ryan’s 100% petit verdot was perhaps the most complex varietally bottled PV I’ve had (and it’s still young!). The nose was wild and briary, the tannins lush and already polished. The acid drove this pretty wine, delivering pepper, violets and loads of purple fruit. Quilceda Creek, known for its many 100-point single vineyard cabernet sauvignons, had fun with syrah in an effort that fetched the highest bid at the auction. They delivered what they described to me as “a cabernet lover’s syrah,” evident in its structure and mouth feel. Yet, it offered smoked meat and iron. It was very cool and quite delicious. The wine of the night, though, was Sleight of Hand’s 100% syrah from Lewis Vineyard that was raised entirely in concrete egg. Super funky stuff, it’s my kind of syrah. It’s level of polish and integration was the most impressive aspect of any wine of the day given its youth, and it will develop with time into something truly special.

As if this born-and-bred Washingtonian needed more evidence that Washington wine rocks, this event provided ample amounts. What it did expose me to, though, for the first time at such a high level, is the amount of camaraderie that exists at the pinnacle of the industry. No one in the room believed that Washington wine had reached peak quality, and they’re working together as much as anyone could reasonably expect in what is really a foolish effort to summit that mountain. The reality is that the mountain keeps getting higher.

Many thanks to The Auction of Washington Wines for allowing me to attend, to the wineries and winemakers for putting in great efforts to raise money for worthy causes, and to my friend Jesse for taking some great pictures.

 

 

 

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. ***