Finding Structure and Balance in Morgan Wine

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We’re deep into the holiday season, which is a period when a lot of wine gets consumed. Between office parties, potlucks, family dinners, Friendsgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, New Years and everything else going on, the opportunities to pull corks are seemingly endless. Kayce and I hosted Thanksgiving this year, which meant having enough wine on hand for eight very thirsty people.

Back in the spring, Morgan Winery asked if I’d like to receive samples. Morgan is located in the Santa Lucia Highlands of California, one of California’s lesser known wine producing regions. My only prior exposure to Morgan was their Santa Lucia chardonnay, which is available by the glass at a place I frequent and performs strongly in that role. I figured sure, why not. Then, two full cases showed up. Twelve wines, two bottles of each. Perfect, I thought, one set for Good Vitis and one set for Thanksgiving.

The Menenberg-Seifert Thanksgiving p/b Morgan Winery went well. The food and the wine delivered. Morgan makes a wide range of wines, and we were lucky enough to receive the grenache blanc, sauvignon blanc, Metallico (un-oaked chardonnay), Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay, rosé of grenache, dry Double L riesling, off dry Double L riesling, Cotes de Crow’s southern Rhone-style blend, tempranillo, Twelve Clones pinot noir, Double L pinot noir and G17 syrah. No matter the food you put on your plate, there was a Morgan for it.

Part of what made the Morgan line up well-suited for the diversity of a Thanksgiving meal is the style the winery produces, which is driven by the climate and terroir of the Santa Lucia Highlands – referred to as “the SLH” to those in the know – and the broader Monterey area from which they grow and source their grapes. The SLH has, probably among others, two elements going for it that helps winemakers produce elegance and refinement: natural warmth absent the wind, and routine wind patterns that bring in cool air. The result, if leveraged like Morgan does, is bright acid combined with sturdy but smooth tannin. That’s a recipe for good food-pairing wine.

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To understand how Morgan gets this profile, it helps to talk a bit about the SLH. The wine growing areas in the SLH are located on the inland slopes of the Salinas Mountains, which run north-south, paralleling California coast. Across the Salinas Valley from the vineyards lie the Gabilan Mountains. The warm air of the Salinas Valley pulls the cold air from cooler Monterey Bay located to the north down into the vineyards, which moderates temperatures.

I spoke with Sam Smith, Morgan’s winemaker, who told me that were it not for this wind phenomenon, SLH would be a warmer wine growing region that produced bigger wines. “The wind gives us a cool climate. We have foggy mornings that blow off by 11am, giving us generally a few hours of sun and low wind. But by 2pm, the wind starts ripping down the Valley off Monterey Bay and continues southward.”

“It has a big effect on ripening,” Sam explained. “It can close the stoma [little valves in the grape skins that regulate gas exchange] on the vines, which effectively helps develop acid and serious phenolic [tannin] structure” without a quick rate of sugar production. This explains why Morgan wines can exude a precise style consisting of both depth and restraint.

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Morgan’s own, and the SLH’s only certified organic vineyard, Double L Vineyard

Morgan’s premier vineyard is called Double L. The 48-acre vineyard is long and skinny, effectively divided into two halves. The entire vineyard has loam soil, though the “upper field” has more clay and a higher water-retaining capacity, giving it more fertility than the “lower field” and its more lose sandy soil. Double L is the only certified organic vineyard in the appellation, and Morgan reserves its fruit exclusively for its own wines. Most of the Double L fruit goes into Double L designated wines, though the non-vineyard designate SLH chardonnay and Twelve Clones pinot noir receive a small amount of Double L fruit. The vineyard produces pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and riesling.

With prior experience in Santa Barbara and the Northern Rhone, Sam Smith brought some of the right kind of know-how to Morgan and the SLHF, where he has been the head winemaker for the last four years. “The amount of natural acidity [in the SLH] is incredible,” Sam said when asked to compare the new-ish digs to his old ones, adding that “it’s one of the things I love about growing and making wine here.”

Sam pointed out something about this natural acidity that hadn’t crossed my mind: “[The naturally high acid] can be tough to make wine [in the SLH] without it being over-ripe” because the naturally high acidity gives growers the ability to extend hang time for the fruit on the vine, which leads to higher sugar accumulation in the grapes that results in “big, rich and boozy” wines. “If you have the intention [of making more restrained, elegant wines] and you are on top of sampling, you can nail your pick [dates] and hit great balance while retaining fruit-driven profiles. The balance that we can get in most vintages is killer.”

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Speaking to this killer balance, we enjoyed the case of Morgan over a period of three days, and nearly every wine improved over the first 48 hours, if not the entire 72 hours, as we exposed it to more and more oxygen. This included some of the white wines as well, and is a sign of overall quality for a number of reasons. One important reason is that it indicates a hard-to-find quality in the balance of the structure of the wine, which is composed of acid, tannin, alcohol and fruit. Initial exposure to oxygen can help some wines fully express themselves, but extended exposure will degrade all wines and expose imbalances in the structure. 48-72 hours is a long period of exposure for a wine to survive, even with the bottles re-sealed, and Morgan gets two enthusiastic thumbs up for taking the oxygen and making the most of it.

I want to focus in on four wines that stood out to me. The first two are the Double L rieslings, the dry and off-dry versions. People don’t think of California in the discussion of riesling, and it’s to their detriment. I’ve been an advocate for several California rieslings, especially the bottle produced by Smith-Madrone off Spring Mountain in Napa. But in full disclosure, I haven’t looked to the SLH for the variety, so I was surprised when the Morgan shipment included two rieslings. After tasting them, I can add “pleasant” to “surprised.”

Sam treats the riesling similarly to the other grapes planted in Double L. He typically does not drop fruit, getting between 4 and 5 acres a ton while retaining sufficient acid and aromatics. Sam noted that part of the Double L riesling signature is an herbal, minty quality and white tea freshness, which struck me on the finish of both wines, especially the dry version. The balance of these wines is what really impressed. Riesling can be a controversial grape for some: if it has high acid and poor balance, the acid is accentuated in unfortunate ways. In America, where the prevailing palate is highly sensitive to acid, that balance better be spot-on. I put the Morgan rieslings in the category of those I’d pour for riesling skeptics.


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2018 Morgan Riesling Double L Vineyard Dry – The nose boasts a nice range of tropical fruits – think honeyed pineapple and guava – plus lemon-lime citrus, mint and dried green herbs. It’s a full-bodied wine with medium weight and lush acid that carries traditional varietal flavors of lime pith, banana leaf, herbal tea, crushed rock minerality and an unusual nice hit of spearmint. A very well-balanced riesling with immediate appeal and medium-range upside. 89 points. Value: A-.

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2018 Morgan Riesling Double L Vineyard Off Dry – The very pleasant nose offers guava, pineapple, honeysuckle, limeade, yellow peach and some stone minerality. It gets towards the heavier end of medium body with the residual sugar adding body and balance to the modest acid, the latter of which could be turned up just a bit. Flavors hit on honeyed tropical fruits, including guava, pineapple and banana, plus white tea leaf, sea mist and some slate minerality. In a welcomed turn of events, the acid comes on a bit more on the finish and leaves the mouth with a slightly gritty sensation and herbal flavor. 89 points. Value: A-.


Staying on the Double L train, I want to talk briefly about the Double L pinot noir, which was the strongest wine in the lineup. The depth and seamlessness of the tannins, especially after 48 hours of oxygen exposure, where what stood out as quite impressive. The grapes for this wine, and generally all of Morgan’s reds, are entirely destemmed. This means the tannin development comes primarily from the skins which accumulate high quantities of something called anthocyanin, which is the smoother type of tannin as compared to the corser phenolic tannins that come from seeds and stems.

We discussed how Sam gets these gorgeous tannins, and he walked me through his vineyard approach which revolves around opening the canopy (the leaves) while protecting the grape clusters from sun burn. On the side of the grapes that get morning sun, which presents a low risk of sun burn, Sam and his team completely clear the leaves. On the other side, which gets the more radiant afternoon sun, they do what is called “tunneling,” which means removing the leaves that are between the clusters and the vine, while leaving the leaves on the outside of the clusters.

Sam finds that this approach strikes the right level of tannin development and produces tannins that mature in the vineyard, which he points out are the easiest to extract when making the wine and require little else be done in the winemaking to achieve tannin development. The Double L pinot gets a relatively short amount of maceration, just one to one-and-a-half weeks on the skins. He limits fermentation temperatures to 85 degrees in order to avoid over-extraction and retain aromatics. Most agitation is push down, with just a bit of pump over at the beginning. Cold soak comes only in the “voluntary” form, meaning the time between crushing the grapes and when fermentation begins. The goal is to “nail the structure and aromatics. If you do, that’s the holy grail.” He seems to be on the right track with this one.


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2017 Morgan Pinot Noir Double L Vineyard – Smells like a cool climate pinot with crushed red berries and plums, baking spice, tangerine peel and dark cocoa. It’s medium bodied with dense, fine grain and balanced acid. I think another 2-3 years of cellaring will help this unwind a bit. I’d love to have it in five years. Right now it’s offering juicy strawberry and blackberry to go with baking spice, dark cocoa and scorched earth. The depth is there, the complexity is there, it just needs more time. 72 hours out from initial opening, it’s really singing a beautiful structure and aroma. This is promising stuff. 92 points. Value: A-.


If the Double L pinot noir was the strongest Morgan I tasted, the G17 Syrah may be the most promising. It also happens to be the wine with which Sam is doing some whole cluster experimentation because syrah “sucks up whole cluster” better than the other red varieties Morgan is producing. The goal with the experimentation is to add aromatics and flavors without adding woody or green notes. “Whole cluster is similar to new oak,” Sam explained, “you want new oak to help frame the wine, but if it tastes like oak then that sucks.”

While whole clusters are an interesting experiment, picking the grapes on time is the most important thing. “There’s a real risk of waiting too long to pick. To a large extent the earlier you pick it, the more savory and floral it’s going to be. You have to check the syrah’s ripeness pretty closely and that’s what helps retain the elegance.” I asked Sam about the future of syrah in the SLH, and he pointed out that the granite origin of the loam soil is “a natural for syrah; you pair them and it’s a no brainer.” His Rhone experience shows through in the quality and profile of this wine.


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2017 Morgan Syrah G17 – The nose is a bit meaty, offering bloody red meat and gamey aromas to go with dark cherry and strawberry. I get the sense the nose is a bit underdeveloped. It’s almost full bodied with clean, juicy acid and fine grained tannins that have reached an advanced stage of integration for the youth of this wine, though it seems to lack just a bit in depth. The overall structure finds good balance and a slightly grippy texture. Sweet cherry and strawberry, blackberry, saline, tar, black pepper and blood orange. Another great value from Morgan. 90 points. Value: A.


I’ll conclude by making a genuine pitch for trying Morgan’s wines. In addition to the four discussed above, I’d also recommend the SLH chardonnay as a great value American chardonnay (yes, it’s not buttery or heavy, don’t worry) and the grenache blanc as a great entry-level wine for experimenting with something a bit different. Regardless of which wines you ultimately pick up, they represent an honest effort to produce high quality wines from an area where elegance and balance are achievable in unique ways.

Other wines reviewed:

2017 Morgan Cotes du Crow’s (grenache, syrah and tempranillo) – The ripe nose offers ripe cherry, raspberry, spiced plum sauce, freshly tanned leather and purple florals. It’s medium bodied but coats the palate with vibrant acid and finely grained tannin that together form a good balance and pleasant mouthfeel. The fruit is mostly red and slightly sweet, featuring plum, raspberry and cherry. There are some earthy notes of wet dirt and chai spice that come in on the finish. 89 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Grenache Blanc – The mineral-driven nose wafts seashell, petrol, sharp lemon, Marcona almond and slate. Blind I might’ve called a 5 year-old dry riesling based on the aromas. It’s on the lighter side in terms of weight with clean, pure acid that leaves a juicy finish. The flavors include lemon, raw yellow corn (minus the sweetness), thyme, orange pith, sea water and a riesling-esque minerality. Blind I might’ve called it a young riesling based on the flavors. A very intriguing if simple wine that with extended air takes on additional complexity. 89 points. Value: A.

2018 Morgan Rosé of Grenache – The nose shows signs of watermelon, strawberry fresca, lime sorbet and white pepper. It’s barely medium bodied with juicy acid and a modest acid backbone. The balance and texture are both nice. Flavors include cherry Sprite, tart strawberry, tart cherry and white pepper. Overall a fresh rosé with flavors that pop off the acid. 89 points. Value: C-.

2017 Morgan Metallico Chardonnay – The nose offers classic chardonnay aromas of lanolin, creme brûlée, banana peel, white tea and buttered popcorn. Surprisingly heavy for an un-oaked wine, the acid is appropriately leveled and nicely integrated. Unencumbered by oak, Meyer lemon, grass, limesickle, firm peach, cantaloupe, white tea and a streak of salinity fill the palate. An expressive Chardonnay. 88 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Monterey County Sauvignon Blanc – A slightly soapy aroma blows off early, revealing white peach, starfruit, honeydew, lemongrass and just a hint of spearmint. The body is almost medium in weight with a slightly creamy finish and bright acid. This is a clean wine. Flavors include bitter herbs and greens, lemon, firm peach, honeysuckle and white flowers. An impressive wine for the price. 88 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay – Classic chardonnay aromas of vanilla curd, lemon, creme brûlée, lime zest, preserved apricot and salted popcorn. It’s medium bodied with crisp acid that provides a bit of textural grip. There’s just a slight edge of creaminess. Lemon-lime, orange sorbet, green apple, vanilla curd and a sea spray kind of minerality that brightens the wine. This is tasty stuff. 90 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Tempranillo – Aromas include blackberry, black plum, prune, Maraschino cherry, sweet leather and tobacco. It’s a bright medium body with densely grained fine tannin and nice acidity. Flavors are a variety of cherry pie filling, raspberry, leather, tar, violet and a healthy dose of cracked black pepper. This is a fun chugger that offers a lot of food pairing coverage. 90 points. Value: B.

2017 Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir – The nose wafts crushed red berries and plum, scorched earth, underbrush fungal aromas and baking spices – pretty much everything you would figure in a pinot noir. Very true to type. It’s a round, soft medium body with nice acid and fine tannin. I get the sense there’s some extra depth to this one that a few years will unwind. Right now, it offers strawberry, raspberry, huckleberry, rhubarb, cinnamon, bell pepper and moist earth. Excellent value. 90 points. Value: A+.

Try this Wine: Good Memories Juice

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I’ve mentioned many times on this blog that I love aged wine. The really good stuff transforms into something beyond its constituent parts, taking on flavors and aromas of complicated dishes rather than mere ingredients – Christmas spiced-poached pear with caramel sauce, for example, rather than simply pear or even yellow pear. And the structure becomes otherworldly as the years, or decades, smooth the edges and melt each part into a single, glorious sensation.

Wine can’t do this when it’s young. Tannin needs time to smooth out and integrate, that’s why we sometimes refer to tannin “integration.” Acid magically “mellows.” Flavors fascinatingly “develop.” Wine needs time to mature and evolve, not unlike we do as humans. Sure, all the bits are there when a wine is first bottled to become something great, but many bottles need years and years to improve, just like us.

Some wine doesn’t get better with age, because it’s made to be its best right away. It’s big and it’s bold, or it’s enjoyable in a simple way that time destroys. I’m not sure there’s a great human parallel to this, perhaps a student athlete who flames or burns out before their chance to go professional comes along could be comparable. For the purpose of this Try this Wine post, though, this type of wine doesn’t qualify.

Count me as someone who appreciates the wisdom of elders who have something important to share from their life’s experiences. Maybe that’s why I appreciate the story that older wine tells, a story it needed a lifetime to develop.

I recently undertook an unintentional experiment with aged wine when I bought a 2004 Delille Doyenne Syrah from Winebid.com, an online auction website. As I was removing the foil to pop the cork, it dawned on me that in 2004 I turned 21 years of age and could buy good wine for the first time.

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Mean Girls was released in 2004

A whole host of memories flooded my mind from that great and transformative year in my life. That was the year I became a college senior, and I was living with one of my closest friends, dating someone who remains a close friend and entering my first real year of retirement from serious competitive cycling. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was learning the words to Usher’s “Yeah.” And because I could finally buy alcohol from stores, it was the de facto first year of my self-guided path to wine snobbery.

Delille Cellars was my gateway. Founded in 1992, Delille has been one of Washington State’s wine industry staples since. Robert Parker once pronounced Delille “The LaFite Rothschild of Washington State.” It helped to pioneer the Bordeaux-style red (and white) blend in the state, and also makes very good wine from Rhone varieties under the Doyenne label. The fruit comes from vineyards that are among Washington’s very best, the oak program is serious and well-resourced, and the winemaking talent is champion-level.

I was introduced to Delille before my 21st birthday by a neighbor who gifted me a bottle of their Harrison Hill blend, which became my favorite wine for the next decade or so. I joined their wine club before I could responsibly afford it, and before I realized how getting a case each year of wine that demands serious aging can lead to storage nightmares. Yet I looked forward to each shipment as it meant growing a collection that mattered to me.

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Delille and Doyenne wines are built for serious aging, and Harrison Hill is among their wines that require the most aging to reach their peak. I’m still sitting on Harrison Hill and other wines from the 2008 vintage that I received while in the club that won’t be opened for at least another two or three years. When I saw a bottle of 2004 Doyenne Syrah on Winebid.com a few months ago, I pounced on it because it was a chance to jump the line on aging wine myself and drink a properly-aged Delille now.

As I mentioned earlier, only after getting the wine did I realize its significance. It added an incredible amount to the experience. The wine was good, which was to be expected, but it was better because of the significance of the vintage and producer in my life and wine story. It was essentially experiencing my history from a perspective that was not my own, but complimentary to it; not from a personal point of view, but from a wine’s point of view. In 2004, although I didn’t know it to the extent that I do now, what happened in the creation of the Doyenne that year was part of my wine creation story.

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Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that people try to find a wine that is now nearly impossible to acquire (though if you can, it’s worth getting). My recommendation is to find a wine from a producer and vintage that both mean something special to you. Relive the memory, but from a different angle, through some combination of a place or winemaker and a year when something special happened in your journey.

Tasting note: The nose is just the other side of vibrant, but beautiful in its refinement and subtleties: signature Red Mountain graphite minerality, crushed cherry and strawberry, violet and crushed rock. This is a saturating medium bodied wine with integrated bright acidity and smooth and refined tannin. The structure strikes a brilliant balance between forgettable and dominant. It offers flavors of texturally-driven graphite minerals, brambly red and purple and black fruits, loads of currant, kirsch, black pepper and licorice. It’s probably two or three years past it’s prime, but it’s still damn good. DeLille really does hit another level with significant age. 94 points. Value: A+.

Where to buy:

Ha! Like I’d know what wine was right for you… Here are some means for finding that special bottle:

First, check out online wine auction websites. The one I use is winebid.com, which is an online auction site with auctions that begin on Monday and end Sunday evening. The inventory is refreshed weekly. The website, which is easy to use, is currently selling more than 8,000 wines with opening bids from $7.99 to $16,995 (a 1.5 liter 2005 d’Yquem), which is all to say, there’s something for everyone. Other online auctioneers include Sokolin, K&L, Spectrum, Sothebys and others.

Second, there’s always wine-searcher.com, which allows you to search for specific wines. Make sure you have the search settings appropriately set for your needs (e.g. the checkbox that includes stores that will ship to your state if checked).

Third, there are retailers who specialize in finding rare and old wines. Zachy’s (which also runs auctions) and Rare Wine Co. are two well-known stores with national reputations. If you live in a major wine market, chance are you have at least one or two retailers who provide bespoke services for tracking something down.

Forth, go direct and contact the winery, they might have something that fits the need.

 

Try this Wine: Melville Estate Syrah

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Credit: winery-sage.com

Syrah may be one of the most misunderstood – or perhaps confusing – red wines out there. Unlike cabernet or merlot, there is very little syrah produced domestically outside two buckets: mass-produced, sub $15 wines, and small production, high end bottles starting around $40 and going into the hundreds. The quality and style of these two buckets differ dramatically, and so it can be challenging to feel like you “get” the grape.

This is somewhat less true in France, where the Rhone Valley is syrah’s global epicenter and quality is not hard to come by at any price, but French wine labels are challenging for Americans because they usually do not list the grape(s) included in the wine and so they contribute to America’s misunderstanding of syrah. It is also less true in Australia, where syrah is called “shiraz” and is the most widely produced wine. However, because it’s labeled shiraz even when sold in the United State, it’s easily confused as something different, either varietally or stylistically, from syrah produced elsewhere. And thus the misunderstanding continues.

Syrah is not the most popular grape in this country, but its popularity is growing. On the production side, there are 106,00 acres of chardonnay grown in the United States, making it the most widely-grown wine-making grape in the country. Cabernet sauvignon isn’t far behind at 101,300 acres. Syrah sits at just over 22,000, which makes it the sixth most grown wine-making grape in America.

Syrah can be grown in different climates, and wears its terroir on its sleeve. In warmer climates, it is often big, round and fruit-forward. Most of the lower-end syrah tends to fall into this style because it’s relatively easy to make on a large scale with a good price margin. In cooler climates, it is gamey and savory and often smells and tastes of smoked or cured meat, iron and olives. This style is found most commonly in the more expensive category as it is more sought-after and costlier to produce than the other style. These dynamics mean that, depending on what one is spending, they are getting dramatically different experiences in terms of flavor profile, not just quality.

Within the premium wine world, syrah has been a stalwart regarded as a macro-level under-performer in that it hasn’t sold well despite its appeal. Syrah is also a very difficult sell because either the less expensive forward-style often smacks of generic red wine and makes no unique appeal, or a person is unaccustomed to, and perhaps initially turned off by, the savory taste and higher price point of the better quality stuff.

The niche appeal of high end syrah tends to emanate from that uniquely savory profile I described as well as its ability to change dramatically with extended aging. This has motivated articles along the lines of “American Syrah: Can It Ever Rival Pinot Noir?” that discuss and attempt to prognosticate syrah’s future.

Part of the tailwind pushing syrah lovers’ desire to see the variety perform better may be that we believe syrah offers bang for the buck, even at the high end, and that while it’s easy to find an underwhelming expensive cabernet or pinot noir, it’s much harder to be disappointed by an expensive syrah. This is at least something I’ve discovered as I’ve talked with other syrah lovers.

To test this out, I went to Wine Enthusiast and pulled review data for syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and merlot. I took this data and put together pie charts for each variety that show the breakdown of scores. Looking at the charts, for example, 2.83% of merlots reviewed by Wine Enthusiast received scores between 94 and 97 points (the orange slice on the graph).

To interpret these charts, it’s critical to know the sample size, so here they are:

Syrah: 11,991

Merlot: 15,992

Pinot noir: 24,332

Cabernet sauvignon: 27,682

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These graphs tell me two things, effectively. First, with the caveat that this is the perspective of just one journal, there isn’t a lot of great merlot on the market as measured by review scores. That’s a discussion for another time. Second, with the same caveat as the first, people have roughly the same chance of getting an enjoyable/satisfying bottle of syrah as they would cabernet or pinot if they were at a quality wine store that stocked roughly equal amounts of all three. This is to say, my friends and I may be wrong about there being a glut of high quality syrah relative to more popular reds.

All that said, it remains difficult to find a good syrah without dropping a good chunk of change, not unlike pinot noir, because wine stores stock much less of it than the more popular wines. Further, it remains difficult to find a savory syrah priced similar to the fruit-forward syrahs.

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This edition of Try this Wine aims to shoot that gap as reasonably as possible with the 2014 Melville Estate Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara, California. After trying a bottle ourselves for the first time, we were motivated to write this piece because we believe everyone should experience the uniquely savory profile of quality syrah at least once, and now have a reasonably priced example to recommend.

Melville is legendary Santa Barbara, a wine region that deserves more attention and respect than it gets. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is eventually considered part of California’s top echelon of wine regions. Located a short drive north of the Los Angeles area, it sits just off the Pacific Ocean on plateaus and hill sides that jut up from the coast line. Direct access to ocean breezes keep the area cool, and much of the wine produced there skews more reserved and nuanced than the standard California reputation. Think producers like Au Bon Climat, Ojai, Donkey and Goat, Qupe and Jaffurs, none of whom are going to make inroads with the jammy wine crowd.

Try this Wine because: The Estate syrah from Melville clocks in around $30-35, which is a fair price for the quality. At this price you get great accessibility to the savory profile as well as good approachability – it won’t require aging to show itself off. While not as layered and complex as many more expensive syrahs, it represents one of the more modest price points for a wine of its profile and quality. We recommend that you try this wine if you want to access the savory syrah profile without spending a ton of money or waiting years for a bottle to develop into an enjoyable stage.

Tasting note for the 2014 Melville Estate syrah: Bright, shiny nose of Acai, raspberry, strawberry, wet soil, tanned tobacco leaf, bacon and cinnamon. It’s full bodied with pleasant, mellowed acidity and very plush tannin, striking a pleasing feel and structure. The flavors are predominantly savory and salty; the fruit is secondary. It offers doses of iron, saline, smoked beef jerky, black olive, pomegranate, raspberry and licorice. This is a nice, straight-forward New World syrah with some Old World stylings. There is a small amount of dusty tannin towards the finish suggesting good mid-term drinking. 90 points. Value: B+.

Where to buy:

The current release of the Estate syrah at the winery is 2016, which is available directly through the winery. Most of the vintages available in stores include the 2014 and 2015, which is nice because of the additional and complimentary age on them. Here are a few shops around the country that showed up on the wine-searcher.com search.

St. Louis, MO: Wine & Cheese Place, 7435 Forsyth Blvd, Clayton, MO 63105. Phone: 314-727-8788.

Los Angeles, CA: Woodland Hills Wine Company, 22622 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills, CA 91364. Phone: 800-678-9463.

Tampa, FL: Craft & Curd, 2908 W Gandy Blvd. Suite B, Tampa, FL 33611. Email: Tom@craftcurd.com.

St. Paul, MN: Sunfish Cellars, 981 Sibley Memorial Hwy, 55118 St Paul, MN. Phone: 651-600-5164.

San Francisco, CA: The Wine Club, 953 Harrison St, San Francisco, CA 94107. Phone: 800-966-7835.

Aaron on Aaron on Paso Robles

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30-35 Degree Slopes in Paso Robles. Picture credit: 100% lifted from Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

Welcome to 2018, Good Vitis style! I’m very excited to kick the new year off with my favorite title of any post thus far. When I received a collection of samples from Paso Robles and pulled out a bottle of Aaron Wines, I thought it might be a practical – and very endearing – joke by the PR firm. I looked up the winery and realized it was no joke, and then emailed the firm and asked for an interview with the owner and winemaker, Aaron Jackson. A few weeks later I sampled the wines, confirming their quality and appeal, and a few weeks after that we were on the phone, confirming my suspicion that Aaron was a wine lover’s winemaker.

The lineup at Aaron Wines is strongly weighted towards petit sirah. When I asked Aaron why he chose to focus on that varietal, he said it was for the same reason that I felt motivated to ask the question: “Because you had a reason to ask “why petit sirah?” and I had to have an interesting answer. If you asked winery owners in Napa why they made cabernet, the honest answer would be that “it’s most popular and what people want, and I want to make what people want.” With real inquisitive wine people, there are questions. Petit sirah is undiscovered and there are still things to discover.” Aaron Wines is sixteen years old, but he’s still trying to discover. That’s a wine lover’s winemaker.

Aaron Jackson got into the wine business in Paso Robles, near where he grew up, as a teenage in the late 1990s as a summer vineyard hand. At that time, Aaron describes Paso as going through an identity crisis in which the industry was trying to emulate Napa Valley, making predominantly red Bordeaux varietals and chardonnay because that is what people bought. The problem, though, was that when consumers thought about California cabernet, merlot or chardonnay, they thought Napa, not Paso, and so a few wineries began searching for other varietals to begin carving out a niche in the market.

However, shifts in varietal plantings are slow, long changes due to the significant monetary risk of introducing something completely different into the market and the timeline of (re)planting vineyards. And so, well into the 2000s, it was the Bordeaux varietals that remained the bulk of Paso’s wines. As Aaron worked his way through several wineries, he become quite adept at dealing with these varietals, though they didn’t ring authentic to the region to him.

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Aaron (Author) tasting Aaron (Jackson) Wines

“It’s a really authentic region and people,” Aaron said. Comparing Paso to Napa, he said Paso is “like good barbecue, it’s not white table cloth. Winemakers spend time on tractors; I’ve never worn a polo shirt or button up to work.” Most interesting to me, he boasted about how the fluid narrative of Paso as a wine region is driving innovation. “The wines are unique and speak to consumers who like big, powerful wines. Within [more] established regions there’s a high degree of rigidity; you can’t go into Napa, make a red that isn’t based on cabernet or merlot, and know you’re going to survive. Russian River grenache? That’s a risk. There are big waves going against you. In Paso there’s still experimentation, a lot of energy and exciting wine, and really cool people.”

Aaron wasn’t the only to have this observation that emulating Napa wasn’t the route Paso should be pursuing, however. Thanks in large part to efforts like the partnership between California’s Haas family and France’s Chateau de Beaucastel called Tablas Creek Winery, a few people in Paso began to embrace the varietals of the Rhone Valley, namely syrah, grenache and mourvedre. He recalled, “over time you saw developments and interesting wines [being made in Paso] as people wrapped their head around those varietals. With Rhone varietals they had international benchmarks [to compare quality], but not really any domestic ones, so in that sense they were writing the book for American Rhones at the time.” It was exciting because it was new.

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Harvest 2017. Picture Credit: Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

However, when Aaron decided to open his own winery, the Rhone varietals weren’t exciting him enough to be his impetus because at that point they were common, even if they hadn’t replaced cabernet and merlot as the standard of Paso Robles. Aaron was motivated by a desire to “bend the status quo.” He was “looking for my own way to put my fingerprint on the region” and so, driven by a particularly fond memory, he chose petit sirah as the cornerstone of Aaron Wines.

When he worked at Four Vines Winery, Aaron had a chance to make a wine from old vine petit sirah. “It blew me away, it was incredible, and no one was making it,” he said. “Benchmarking the wine was difficult [because] the thing about petit sirah is that there’s no benchmark anywhere. Trying to make Chateauneuf de Pape or Cotes de Rhone in Paso, you can do that [because you have these well-established regions to learn from and their name recognition to trade on]. With petit sirah, it’s uncharted territory.” He saw it as “a huge opportunity to do what I wanted, to make my own mark.”

Aaron began by meeting growers, forming relationships and using his skills of persuasion to talk them into planting petit sirah in areas where he hoped to source grapes. Though he still sources all his fruit, he would like to have some estate fruit eventually. In the meantime, he continues to fine tune every year what he wants for each site as the climate changes in ways requiring significant modifications. For example, the common preference for southern facing slopes in the Northern Hemisphere is no longer true, Aaron says, at least in Paso where average temperatures have been rising dramatically each year. Now, rather than seeking out the heat of southern facing slopes, there’s a need to find less exposure to the hot sun, and the preferred exposure has become northern.

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New Mourvedre Plantings. Picture Credit: Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

Having never been to Paso myself, and with little exposure to its wines, I asked Aaron to describe it for me and explain why it’s a great place to grow vitis vinifera. He began by comparing it to the geography of Spain’s Priorat, describing it as featuring “incredibly steep hills with vines clinging to the side of hills. You can’t drive through it and say the wines are not going to be unique. You look at the vineyards and you just know they will be [unqiue].” Driving into Paso Robles from the coast, it takes less than three minutes after you’ve lost sight of the ocean and you’ve entered these steep hills with white soil. Terroir-wise, “it looks different; every aspect – the soil, orientation, etc. – is extremely varied.”

Aaron’s wines offer uniqueness as well, even within Paso. Aaron Wines is just him and one full time employee, so there is a personal touch on every detail of ever wine; “no big marketing campaign, no smoke and mirrors” used to sell wine. “Everything is supposed to tell an authentic story.” Each named blend has a genesis story. Sand and Stone, for example, came from his desire to make a grenache-heavy wine. In Paso, there wasn’t a lot of grenache being made in the mid-2000s when Aaron took a brief break from California to study enology in Australia. Living in Adelaide, Aaron was exposed to the old vine Grenache grown in the sand dunes of Mclaren Vale that blew him away (“if you drove your car into the vineyards you would get stuck in the sand”). Upon his return, he went to work at Saxum, famous for its grenache, where it was grown in limestone. So, when it came time to make his own, he combined the sand of Australia with the stone of Paso to produce Sand and Stone. “I don’t want to be corny, but I do want people to see what we’re doing is real and legitimate and understand why we make our wines the way we do.”

Aaron S&S

Speaking of his wine, it’s quite good. The 2014 Sand and Stone (44% petite sirah, 43% grenache, 13% syrah) has a hedonistic nose that, while boasting concentrated aromas of dark plum, black currant and blackberry, isn’t fruit-driven. Rather, it’s the moist Earth, dung, loam, fungus and white pepper that give it a nose that is surprisingly mature for its age. The body is blessed with dense but linear and refined tannin. There’s just a tick of an alcohol that’s more spicy than boozy in affect. The acid is ripe and drives juicy red, blue and black fruit, especially Acai and Pomegranate. There is complementary lilac, violet, graphite and orange rind. It finishes with a bit of bacon. It’s bright and refreshing now, but I’d suggest giving it at least 2-3 years to further develop, though it will do well for a good deal longer than that. 91 points, value B.

Having recently done a library tasting of his own wines, I asked Aaron about the experience he had with the aging curve of them. He mentioned that the 2002 vintage (his first) is still very much alive but on its downward slide, while the 2003 is drinking nicely, with tons of fruit still left, but has probably peaked. The 2006 was the best of the line-up. While the wines do have immediate appeal, Aaron believes some can be two-decade wines.

Aaron Citizen

The wine I’d be most interested in cellaring is the 2014 Citizen (53% petite sirah, 47% syrah), whose nose is still a bit reticent and requires a lot of aeration to coax out strawberry, iodine and dense smoke. The palate is lush and polished on entry, while the body is medium in stature and boasts crisp acid. On the flavor front it delivers a decidedly Earthy profile with iodine, fatback, thyme, cherry, blackberry and huckleberry. The finish brings in saline and rosewater. I believe it will benefit with five years of cellaring and could be one of those two-decade wines Aaron referenced. 92 points, value B+.

Aaron told me that the tannins on the wines I tasted are reserved compared to the older school Paso style, and that is purposefully done so they can be approachable upon release (I’ve read that something like fewer than 2% of wine sold in America is aged). Aaron commented that only in the last decade have Paso winemakers learned they should trim their yields and pick earlier to tame tannins. Paso is full of limestone, which Aaron called a “builder of acid.” This is evident in his wines, which all delivered higher doses of acid that I wasn’t expecting, but was happy to find. In fact, Aaron sources from one particular site that is relatively low in acid development in order to blend it to tame the acid on some of his wines as well.

Aaron Trespasser

The 2014 Trespasser (61% petite sirah, 27% mourvèdre, 7% syrah, 5% grenache) was the most acidic of the flight for me. The nose is quiet but pretty, with aromas of lilac, lavender, scorched Earth, cherry juice and crushed SweeTart. The surprisingly plush and buoyant palate offers a cornucopia of Acai, pomegranate, blackberry, rose petal, tar, smoke, pepper and sage, while it finishes with saline and bacon. 92 points, value B+.

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Finally, we come to Aaron’s signature grape, and he doesn’t disappoint. The 2014 Petit Sirah (100%) offers a particularly high-toned nose of plum, maraschino cherry and something (?) stewed. The full body has an almost creamy feel as the tannins are impressively managed. The wonderful fruit is all over the place: cherry, blackberry, Acai, pomegranate, apricot and orange. There is also chocolate covered rose petals, lavender and a slightly peppery kick. The integration, balance and structure of this wine are all quite impressive. A beast of a wine, it knows how to be graceful. This is impressive winemaking. 93 points, value A.

I hope someday to visit Paso Robles. Between Aaron Wines and the other samples I received from the region, which will be reviewed in a future post, I’d like to experience more. For those searching out exciting big-styled wines, Paso is a great place to begin.

2017’s Most Memorable Wines

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Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.

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#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.

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#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points.

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#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.

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#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “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?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – 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. 94 points.

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#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.

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#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points.

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#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points.

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#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 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.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.

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#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.

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#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.

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#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

Bigger, Badder and Better than Ever: Old Westminster Winery

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Old Westminster Winery was full of energy when I showed up, having just completed bottling a 2017 Nouveau, their first attempt at that style of wine. Nouveau, made famous by the French region Beaujolais, is a light style wine that by French law (when it is produced there) must be sold within the same calendar year that the grapes are harvested. Traditionally made from red grapes, this means as much aging as to mean very little. The wine ends up being a very pure expression of a red wine, something we consumers almost never experience as the reds we drink usually spend a fair amount of time aging in oak barrels that alter everything about the wine. It’s extremely difficult to find Nouveau wines from anywhere other than Beaujolais, which is to say for someone like me, a frustration. The winery’s crew was running around, the bottling truck humming on the crush pad, but here came Drew Baker, the winery’s vineyard guru and my host, sauntering across the lawn towards me as I got out of my car, a big smile on his face delivering a warm welcome. What a way to arrive. And that’s Old Westminster in a nutshell: “what a (fill in the blank)” said with great esteem.

Jumping way ahead to right before I left, Drew took me to a tank in the winery and poured a sample of a wine called Farmer’s Fizz, which will be sold in a 375ml can (the equivalent of half a bottle). As we tasted it, Drew’s sister Ashli, who runs the wine club (and many other things), came over and showed me the video that would announce the canned wine project. Both beaming with pride, they talked about how they had long schemed the project and were still a bit nervous about how it would do. “Do you think it’ll cheapen our brand?” Drew asked.

What a stupid question (sorry Drew). Old Westminster is developing a reputation for being on the cutting edge of the industry, and not just in Maryland. What Drew, Ashli and their sister Lisa (who makes the wine) are doing has drawn praise from every serious wine person I know who has tasted their wine or spent time with them. I’m clearly a cheerleader, as is nationally known wine writer Dave McIntyre, who has written about them several times in The Washington Post. Despite being more than capable of selling their entire inventory through their wine club and out of their tasting room, their wines are being distributed around the tri-“state” area of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as in Chicago and San Francisco. They may also be available further north up the Atlantic Coast in the near future. That’s what happens when distributors active in some of the very top markets in the country taste their wine.

Ring ring.

“Yes, hello?”

“Old Westminster Winery?”

“Yes.”

“Great, send me your wine.”

It’s not just the killer juice that sells people on the winery, it’s the fun and adventure they create for their customers by making things like a Nouveau and canned wine. And, oh, by the way, they now have a skin contact (a.k.a. “orange wine”) pinot gris available as well that is, of course, a complete joy to drink. Then there’s the expanding line of pet nat wines that sell out in no time. And, of course, there are the bottled still wines that are, as I’ve written before and will intimate again in this post, world class. Put all of this together and you have a winery doing a lot of things that a lot of people appreciate. I tasted Farmer’s Fizz, and no, Drew, your reputation won’t suffer. If anything, it will improve.

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Old Westminster has expanded; the second room is new.

How does all this magic happen? It’s hard to describe in one post how much thought these Baker kids put into each and every situation, each and every decision, they make. Here’s one example. The first wines we tasted were “two chardonnays done two ways” from the 2016 vintage. Hailing entirely from the home vineyard (their estate), roughly half the grapes were picked on the early side with the rest harvested five days later. Both were fermented with indigenous yeast. Although they had originally intended to make one blend, as the wines were coming to life in the winery, they realized they had two distinct wines, and so treated them differently and bottled them separately. One was almost entirely raised with stainless, the other a combination of 50% new French, 25% used French, and 25% stainless. The results were distinctively different wines that could be appreciated as coming from the same vines, and better than an amalgamation of the two would have been. Seems like an obvious choice, then, to do two different wines, right? Well, not necessarily. The amount of effort required by dividing the harvest into two separate wines is bigger in time and money than making a single wine. Most wineries would’ve stuck to the original plan. The Bakers made the choice to follow where the grapes were taking them.

Here’s a second example. The Baker family purchased serious acreage on a property called Burnt Hill a year or two ago where they will plant a large vineyard. They consulted with experts, did a ton of research, dug soil pits and tested the crap out of the land, and thought long and hard about what to plant there. The driving question wasn’t “what grape do we need to sell out every vintage?” It was, “what will grow best here?” And it wasn’t just the varietal, it was the clone. Or clones, because the plot is large enough with diverse soils and nutrients to benefit from a variety. Roots stocks are likely a question, too. Up until this visit, I had been told, it’s going to be all about cabernet franc, though different clones for different parcels. Fine, great, I love a good cabernet franc, especially if it’s grown where it should be. Their 2014 Antietam Creek cabernet franc is special, they know how to make the varietal.

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Not Burnt Hill, but Maryland is gorgeous, right?

But I love syrah more than cabernet franc, and Drew knows that, so when he told me that research on Burnt Hill had continued and that they now intend to plant parcels of syrah near the top of the hill, I got excited. I got excited because I can’t wait for an Old Westminster syrah – if anyone in Maryland is going to produce the best syrah, it’s going to be them (no offense to the current banner carrier of Maryland syrah). And it’s going to be them because, and this is really why I got excited, the amount of research and study that went into that decision is what produces the best wine. I’ve not known a single winery that puts this amount of time and effort into deciding what to plant, let alone what to produce, and does it seemingly purely from the perspective of ‘what can we do best?’ Most wineries, they’d buy the land, do some research, and lay down vines sooner rather than later; let’s get the revenue stream going. The diligence with which the Bakers are approaching Burnt Hill is going to yield amazing wine.

A final example: the canned wine project. To be fair to Drew, because I mocked him about this above, the consumer jury is still out on canned wine. The major projects already rolling in this category are decent but not serious wine. Old Westminster, for all the fun they have, only put out serious wine, even if it’s playful. When Ashli showed me the announcement video, it reminded me of the professionalism and thought they put into their marketing. The design of the can is beautiful, the production of the video as good as they come, and the themes of the video will resonate with consumers. Look at their Facebook page. Check out their regular Facebook Live #WineForDinner series and, I guarantee, you will learn something new about wine every time. Do yourself a favor, take the next two minutes to watch this video. It encapsulates what I think Old Westminster is namely about: an effort to make world class wine in Maryland in a way that people enjoying it understand why it’s so good and feel like they’re an integral part of it.

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Pet Nat capping

Drew and I talked a bit about how it is that Old Westminster gets to be so playful. The answer, he says, is their ability to “enjoy a unique position flexing experimental muscles” that is afforded to them by their direct-to-consumer sales model. Visit the tasting room and you may well be served by Drew or one of his sisters. This gives them the opportunity to explain why their wines are so cool, and why one should try a pet nat or an orange wine. It means they can convey to you why you shouldn’t be surprised that Maryland wine can taste this good. If Old Westminster was relying on other people to sell the wine, they’d have to convince “the trade” of these things, and then hope that their distributors and the retailers take the time to try the wines, let alone understand them and, and this is really a stretch, push them with customers. On the rare occasion a distributor wants to carry their wines, they know it’s because the distributor gets it precisely because selling Old Westminster in Illinois or California is going to take some perseverance. Distributors are about sales, and so will only take on something like Maryland wine if they’re true believers themselves and willing to hustle.

There has to be some wine geek elements to this post, and here they come. Since they were bottling the Nouveau, Drew and I spoke briefly about the 2017 harvest. He described it as a vintage he’d take again, but one that, while solid, will be forgotten in ten years. It began early and warm; Drew recalled pruning in March wearing a t-shirt. June and July were hot with sporadic thunderstorms, which is fairly common. August, however, took a turn for the worst, delivering unusually cold and wet conditions. At the end of the month, Drew felt very pessimistic knowing that there hadn’t been any growing degree days (meaning days warm enough to continue ripening the grapes). Thankfully, September was kind to the vintage and saved it. Temperatures warmed and no rain fell. Harvest came about a week earlier than normal, but the duration of it remained normal. We tasted a number of 2017 wines in tank, and of course, tasted the 2017 Nouveau from a bottle that had been filled and sealed no more than an hour earlier. I’m excited for the final products because the Bakers are making them and will give customers the best of the vintage can offer.

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On to the tasting, which I’m going to cover with formal notes below. I’ve now had probably twenty or more wines from this producer, and all have been good. More than a few have been great. As the family expands their projects, I have no concern that they can maintain the quality. The Bakers seem to learn and grow with every harvest, and I imagine the quality will only improve the more they experiment and experience.

When wines are provided to me for free because of this website, I note that. I wasn’t charged for the tasting or the visit. However, I did come home with eight wines that I purchased myself as part of my wine club membership. Old Westminster is a project of passion for the Baker family. I am all too happy to be a paying beneficiary of their work, and am honored to be allowed to spectate from time-to-time.

One note: some of these wines are yet to be released, and so retail price points are unknown. Wines that aren’t given a value rating fall into this category.

2016 Chardonnay – Aged in 85% stainless and 15% new French oak and harvested on the earlier side. The nose offers sparkling aromas of tropical fruit, florals, sweet cider apples and marzipan. The wine glides onto the palate with a glycerin sensation, but the acid doesn’t mess about and provides a wonderful balance creating a mid-weight wine. Flavors of green apple, lemon zest, starfruit and pineapple fill the mid palate as chalk kicks in on the finish and the acid turns twitchy. I really enjoyed this. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Premier Chardonnay – Aged in 50% new French oak, 25% once-used French oak and 25% stainless steel. The reticent nose is honeyed and slightly buttery but will fill out with some bottle age and oxygen in the glass. The body could be considered almost full, and delivers ripe apples, white pepper, honey drew and that wonderful, nervous, acid. 90 points.

2016 Greenstone – A blend of 58% viognier and 42% gruner vetliner fermented with native yeast, it was bottled unfined and unfiltered. Spicy and floral aromas jump out of the glass and are backfilled with big apples and banana leaf. The body is nicely in the mid weight category, offering baking spices, white pepper, stone fruit and a little bit of saline on the finish. The lovely acid and flavor profile suggests the viognier wasn’t allowed to hang on the vine for too long. This is a brilliant wine. 92 points. Value: A-

2016 Alius – Latin for “something a little different,” this is a semi-carbonic, skin fermented pinot gris with whole berries going into the tank that were allowed to ferment spontaneously. The nose requires air to bloom, but offers cider spice, apple and high-toned smoky pepper at the onset. The palate gives you honeysuckle, ripe strawberries, watermelon and huge amount of texture to ponder. I’ll take this wine in any setting. 90 points. Value: B+

2017 Nouveau – Predominantly cabernet franc, this wine was harvested five weeks before bottling and racked directly into the bottling line. The nose is unmistakably cabernet franc, offering huge doses of cherries, cranberries, baking spices, funk and smoke. The palate goes even further, delivering brilliant and thirst-quenching juicy acidity that makes the fruit shimmer while the masculine texture only briefly distracts from the svelte body. Tannins are light and finely grained. It bursts with cherries and strawberries, and delivers red currant, orange peel and black pepper as well. The question this wine poses is: do you really want to share it? 91 points. Value: B+

Tapestry Third Edition (non-vintage) – A blend of the 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages and consisting of 42% cabernet franc, 21% merlot, 21% petit verdot, 11% cabernet franc and 5% syrah, this is the latest red wine release. The nose is a bit meaty, and air develops red berries, plums, crushed cherries, huckleberries and hickory smoke. The palate delivers olive brine, smoke, iodine, and black pepper, but the beautiful acid really elevates the fruit, which is dominated by crushed cherries and blackberries. This will age gracefully and with purpose for many years. 92 points. Value: A

2014 Black – Consisting of 38% Antietam Creek merlot, 25% South Mountain cabernet franc, 25% Antietam Creek Petit Verdot and 12% Pad’s View syrah, you might as well call this a reserve wine as it comes from premier vineyards and is a brand-new release having spent a year and a half in oak before resting for another year and a half in bottle. The nose delivers bruised cherries, Acai berries, cinnamon, scorched Earth, hickory smoke and black pepper, and is utterly captivating with extended decanting. The palate is mouth-coating with round but firm tannins that will require time to fully release. Bright acid delivers a medley of red, black and blue berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, subtle olive and smoke. It finishes with a kick of cracked black pepper. This is just a baby, it stands to improve with your patience. 93 points now, likely more in the future. This is up there with the 2014 Malbec and 2014 Antietam Creek cabernet franc as my favorite Old Westminster reds to date.

Gateway Duero: Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial

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Abadia Retuerta (Picture credit: ledomaine.es)

We like a good weeknight wine at Good Vitis. Something thirst-quenching, something fun, something that brings grace after a long, hard day. We also like a versatile food wine. Something with enough complexity to pair with a variety of food, something a bit acidic and juicy, something fun. A little bit of weight, real physical substance.

The wine at hand makes a compelling case for an elevated weeknight wine, a complex food wine, and, I think a good Thanksgiving wine. And, at ~$25, it’s well priced as a gateway to a prestigious wine region. The Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial from Spain’s Sardon de Duero region, which is part of the Duero valley located just west of the more well-known Ribera del Duero, provides more than a hint of the Duero profile and plenty of intrigue.

The Selectcon Especial is essentially Abadia’s field blend sourced from across the estate’s more than 500 acres and 54 unique plots that begin at the Douro river and cascade up the valley to altitudes as high as 2,800 feet. With such a variety of soil types, slopes and elevations from which to source fruit, Abadia is able to put together a blend each year that represents the best of what the winery believes it has to offer.

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The 2013, which I tasted, is three-quarters tempranillo, and is filled out with 15% cabernet sauvignon and 10% syrah. I sampled it over the course of several hours to see how it evolved, and enjoyed it at every stage. Upon initial uncorking, it was a big wine that showed mostly saline, fruit and tobacco. As it took on air, relaxed, and released itself, it developed a wider variety of flavors and aromas, showing a strong note of tomato that I found quite enjoyable. Not especially tannic at any point, it retained nice structured and good acid throughout, leading me to believe that it will stand up to hefty meals like a steak, pasta or barbecue.

The wine was provided as a trade sample and tasted sighted. Here is my formal note:

The nose offers hyper aromatics of tobacco leaf, crushed cherries, tomato leaf, scorched Earth and black plums. The full-bodied palate offers nice acidic cut while the alcohol is tamed and integrated. Tannins are nicely polished and round. Savory notes of iodine, saline and tomato juice kick things off and stick through the finish. The fruit department is stocked with strawberries, huckleberries and blueberries. Cigar tobacco, espresso beans and dusty cocoa play supporting roles. 90 points. Value: B.

While you can find the Selecion Especial at retailers around the country, Abadia is selling it on its website as well, offering vintages going back to 1995. With the structure of this wine likely giving it the ability to stand up to time, I imagine tasting through a range of vintages of this wine would be a fascinating experience. Whatever the vintage, though, it’s a wine worth trying.

Zachys DC is Open and Raring to Go

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The new opening of a location of Zachys in Washington, DC is a big deal for the local wine market. Even though the location won’t have a retail storefront – at least for now – bringing one of the most influential names in wine to the District says something about the growing power and sophistication of the market here.

Zachys is bringing a number services to DC: wine storage; direct-to-consumer sales of wines otherwise not offered DTC to DC customers; tastings and classes; wine dinners; a customized corporate tasting service; collection assessment; other TBD events; and, for the first time in thirty years, a live wine auction. That last one isn’t an insignificant deal.

Wine auctions signal an opportunity to at least be around, if not acquire, the world’s best and often rarest wine. Putting aside for now the recent past proliferation of fake wine facilitated in part by wine auctioneers, including Zachys – a topic to be discussed in an upcoming Good Vitis review of In Vino Duplicitas – Zachy’s DC existence means a new and much higher level of access in DC to wines that likely wouldn’t otherwise be available to locals. While I imagine the best of Zachys’ lots will remain the purview of its New York auctions, Zachys wouldn’t have made the decision to enter the DC market if it didn’t think our market wasn’t craving a higher level of wine.

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Wine auctions are held in the biggest, most prestigious wine markets in the world: New York, London, Hong Kong, Geneva, and Paris are the standards. Although the biggest general auctioneers like Christie’s and Sotheby’s haven’t visited DC in a while, within the world of wine auctions Zachys is among the very top and their decision to auction wine in DC – their appropriately named inaugural “Capital Collection” auction will take place on October 27th and 28th of this year – marks Washington’s entrance onto that top stage, something that shouldn’t go unnoted.

Last Friday, I attended a grand opening party at Zachys, which featured sixteen different tables pouring wine from California, Virginia, France and Italy ranging in price from $14 to $1,110. From top to bottom these were good wines, many hitting their price point with impressive quality. The ability to source such a lineup is indicative of what I think Zachys is going to bring to my local market: a large range of impressive wines where anyone – even those who will never lift a bidding paddle – can find what they want. Welcome to town, Zachys!

Before signing off, I’ll highlight a few of the wines I found particularly impressive:

2014 MacMurray Range Central Coast Pinot Noir: At $19.99 it’s the best $20 California pinot noir I’ve had.

2013 RdV Vineyards Virginia Rendezvous Red Blend: While many feign spending $70 on a wine from Virginia, it stood out among the domestic offerings as the most multidimensional.

2015 Domaine Leon Boesch Sylvaner Les Peirres Rouges: a Sylvander for Sylvander haters and lovers, everyone should try this pleasurable $16 wine.

2014 Domaine Blain-Gegnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru La Boudriotte: The best white Burgundy of the night for me, I placed an order. Hard to beat at $59.99.

2014 Jl Chave Selections Saint Joseph Offerus: Year-in and year-out, this is a classic from one of the regions of the Rhone valley producing some of the prettiest syrahs. The 2014 doesn’t disappoint, and is a real value at $32.99.

2008 Chateau Larcis Ducasse St. Emillion: Really popping right now, it has all the classic St. Emillion notes and is far from poorly priced at $64.99.

2011 Chateau Margaux: Yes, it’s barely crawling at this stage, but when it gets to a full gallop…

2004 Roberto Voerzio Barolo Rocche dell`Annunziata Torriglione: From a 3 liter. Dear God, this was the best wine of the night. The bittersweet cocoa that comes with age on a fine Barolo is out in force. What a pleasure and treat.

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2012 Antinori Marchesi Pian Delle Vigne Brunello Di Montalcino: Despite having attended the Consorzio del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino’s 2012 vintage tasting in New York earlier this year, I hadn’t yet had this marvel of a wine that is, for me, a standout wine in a standout vintage. I grabbed a few for myself.

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.

 

 

 

For the Love of Wine

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Caught in the embrace of one of the Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge pinot noirs reviewed below

I’m far, far behind on uploading wine reviews so I’m doing Good Vitis’ first post focused exclusively on reviews to clear out the closet. What follows is an assortment of wines that have nothing other than cohabitation in my cellar as their commonality. These are not samples, but wines I’ve collected over the years, those I’ve shared with friends and a few that I received as gifts.

It is, I must admit, a bit exciting to share wines that I selected myself as opposed to most of the wines I write about on Good Vitis, which I receive as samples, drink at wineries and media/industry events. While I’ve many great wines through those means, I’m almost always happiest drinking wines I’ve collected myself because they are wines that are of particular interest to me. It isn’t surprising then that several of the wines below are likely to be among my top wines of 2017, notably the 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge, 2012 Cameron Clos Eletrique blanc, 2011 Domaine Fevre Montee de Tonnerre and the incredibly cool and impressive 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ, which is a white wine made from the Pedro Ximenez grape that is normally used to make Sherry.

2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge (Oregon) – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points. Value: A.

Backstory: Cameron’s Abbey Ridge means a few things to me. First, right now it’s the best pinot noir I’ve ever had. Second,I’ve had the 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2010 vintages in the last year and they’ve been proof that high quality pinot benefits from extended aging. And third, they’re incredibly hard to find, so for a wine hunter/chaser like myself there’s an extra thrill earned by simply finding a bottle, especially older vintages. At the moment this is my favorite winery.

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2007 DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill (Washington) – Smelling beautifully these days, offering aromas of cow blood, high toned cherries, red plums, soy sauce, graphite, smoke and a not insignificant amount of heat. The body holds an upright stature, it’s full bodied but the acid is strong and keeps it from becoming cloying. The alcohol is a bit hot here as well, though the tannic structure is gorgeous. The flavors are Earthy with a lot of iodine, graphite, smoke, garrigue, lavender, black plums, crushed blackberries and a lot of slate-y minerality. This is still a gorgeous, complex wine, but it was better a few years ago. The heat, which wasn’t there three years ago, tells me it’s starting to decline. I’d say drink up remaining bottles soon.  93 points. Value: B

Backstory: Delille’s Harrison Hill is the first great wine I ever had. For many years I would buy two of each vintage, age them 5-8 years before opening the first, and have one per year on my birthday. I still do this, except I stopped buy them in 2011 when the price shot up to $90 and I found myself gravitating away from Bordeaux-style blends. It may not be my favorite wine anymore, but it’s no less special.

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2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre (France) – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: My favorite white wine, pound-for-pound, is Montee de Tonnerre chardonnay from Chablis. My favorite Montee de Tonnerre is made by William Fevre. I’ve finally figured out that extended aging of Chablis tends to lesson the nervous edge and wily verve that draws me to Chablis, and now I know how to maximize my Fevre investments. This 2011 was the final data point in that research project.

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2010 Soos Creek Ciel du Cheval Vineyard (Washington) – Classic Red Mountain wine. The expressive nose offers scorched Earth, loads of graphite, a little cola, orange rind, cocoa and high toned cherries. The full body offers fine, dusty tannins that are developing some polish as they get close to full integration. The acidity is bright and plays off the barely sweet red and black fruit, which is led by cherries, plums and pomegranate. There’s a lot of graphite, some saline and just a bit of smoke and mushroom. This is drinking nicely right now, I get the feeling it’s just starting to emerge of a long slumber. It has the tannic backbone and acid to go for at least a few more years, though I’m not sure the concentration will hold pace. An impressive 2010 that winemaker David Larson told me “was a challenging vintage and required all of my skills to make.” 92 points. Value: A

Backstory: Soos Creek is one of the very best values in America wine, especially for someone with a cellar and some patience. Many of their wines are sourced from  the upper pantheon Washington vineyards, yet none go for more than $45. Comparable, bigger name wineries that source from the same vineyards are often priced at least $15 if $20 higher, if not double the price. They’re also built to benefit from short to medium term cellaring, a solid 3-8 years post-release from my experience, and so if patience is exercised, not only is the wine spectacular, but for people like me who appreciate value there is an added bonus.

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2009 Waters Syrah Forgotten Hills (Washington) – Opulent unami nose of bacon fat, venison jerky, saline, hickory smoke and green pepper. No real fruit to speak of and it’s nothing worse for the wear. The palate is medium plus in stature with fully integrated and polished tannins and well balanced, but quite prevalent, acid. Again, there’s little fruit here with really just hints of cherries, crushed blackberries and boysenberries. It’s the savory notes that speak the loudest: pork belly, venison blood, general iodine, saline, hickory smoke, thyme and soy sauce. What a masterclass in New World syrah. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: the 2007 vintage of this wine was my gateway to savory syrahs. I know for most that gateway is the Rhone Valley, but growing up in Seattle I owe Waters for that lesson. This 2009 was the first time I was able to revisit Waters’ wine and it brought back memories of that epiphany many years ago.

2011 Avennia Gravura (Washington) – This is in an interesting stage in its evolution. From the get-go, the tannins seem advanced in their textual integration. However, on the palate they are still binding some flavors up tight. The nose is a bit quiet, but has nice cherry, raspberry, wet dirt, black pepper, and orange zest aromas. The body is medium in weight with dense but polished tannins, juicy acidity and nearly integrated alcohol (just a slight bite). The palate offers cherries, blueberries and black plums along with a lot of graphite, some iodine and smoke. Overall a nicely-executed and satisfying wine, but fairly straightforward and uninspiring. This has a liveliness now that will fade with time, and I’m not convinced that it’ll be replaced by anything more compelling, so I’m drinking my stash in the next year or two. 91 points. Value: C-

Backstory: When Avennia came onto the seen I got excited because its winemaker came from Delille Cellars. I immediately started buying half a case a year to lay down and recently I’ve begun to test them out. Their syrahs are very, very good. This Gravura, a Bordeaux Blend, was a little underwhelming, but given the rough vintage it was enough to satiate my Avennia craving for another few months until the syrahs in my cellar start emerging from their developmental stage.

2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ (Spain) – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: A local retailer near me, Chain Bridge Cellars, introduced me to Silvia Puig’s En Numeros Vermells side project (executed in her garage) a few years back, and I’ve been a dedicated fan ever since. Each year the importer pours the wines and I enjoy tasting with him. This year he introduced a new white made from the Pedro Ximinez grape, which is used to make Sherry, and I was instantly captivated. It’s a wild experience and I took several bottles home. I’m not sure it’s going to benefit from any aging, but I don’t care because it’s that good right now.

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2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique (Oregon) – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points. Value: A

Backstory: Back to Cameron. I said above their Abbey Ridge is my favorite pinot noir. Their Clos Eletrique blanc is giving Montee de Tonnerre a run for it’s status as my favorite chardonnay. I’ve many debates with winemakers about whether it’s worthwhile to age chardonnay, and as I find my footing with aging Chablis I’m going through the same process with Cameron’s various chardonnays, which I’ve been stocking up on. This 2012 was really great when I had it last month, and I’m at odds with myself over how long to hold my remaining stash of the vintage. I’ll end up metering it out just to see, but that means exercising serious restraint.

2014 Drouhin Oregon Roserock Chardonnay (Oregon) – A generally pleasant and agreeable chardonnay, but a bit forgettable. It has evidence of oak on the nose and palate, and in the structure, but it doesn’t hide nice tropical and citrus fruits and standard chardonnay field notes. Solid and well made, but it won’t knock any socks off. Drinking nicely right now, the acid is solid but isn’t sufficient to suggest longer-term cellaring. 90 points. Value: C

Backstory: when this wine came out there was a rash of positive reviews in the professional wine media and blogosphere. I didn’t exactly rush out to find a bottle, but I kept my eyes open. While a solid wine, it just didn’t speak to me like it apparently did to many others. A good reminder that you shouldn’t put too much credence in others’ opinions when the topic is something as subjective as wine.

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2013 Bodegas El Nido Jumilla Clio (Spain) – Big briary nose: tons of black and blue fruit and barrel notes on this one. Crushed blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, sweet vanilla, toasted oak, baking spice and licorice. The full, lush body has nicely integrated chewy tannin and sufficient acid to balance the sweet fruit. There’s big alcohol on this one that is evidenced not in bite, but body, so it doesn’t detract. The palate offers a ton of black plum, blackberry, licorice, black pepper, graphite and cinnamon. I enjoyed this straight out of the bottle and over time, it’s ready to go now. Too big a wine for me on most days, but when I want a big, bold and beautiful wine this is near the top of my list. 93 points. Value: B

Backstory: the review has the critical piece: when I want a big, bold and beautiful wine the Clio is near the top of my list. I had a 2006 El Nido (non-Clio) a few years back, which is their ~$125 flagship wine, and found it incredibly disappointing. It’s made by a very famous and respect Australian winemaker and it tasted like an Australian wine made from Spanish grapes, which to me was a real sin. The Clio doesn’t make this mistake, it’s entirely a big Spanish wine, and I love it for its authenticity. The Clio usually benefits from a few years of bottle aging, but more than that and it loses it’s most appealing asset: it’s outlandish youthful vigor.

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2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullon (Spain) – Holy florals, Batman! The nose is a flower store, a bit of everything, with crushed strawberries, cranberries, Sweet Tarts and tar. The body is medium in weight with juicy acidity. The fruit is a bit darker here, with overripe strawberries, cherries and boysenberries. There’s lovely violets and rose, along with creamsicle, although over time the flowers fade as cola and chocolate emerge. I really like this, and will be very interested to follow it over the next five-ish years. 93 points. Value: B

Backstory: I was really taken with the comeback of the mencia grape in Spain when I was introduced to it through Palacio’s entry-level bottle, the Petalos. The Corullon is the next step up in that winery’s line of mencia bottlings and for $20 bucks more than the Petalos you get something really very special with many pretty notes.

2010 DeLille Cellars Syrah Doyenne Grand Ciel Vineyard (Washington) – Decanted for two hours, seems like a good first move at this stage with the wine. The nose is dominated by French oak, and offers macerated blackberries, black plums, iodine and lightly tanned tobacco leaf as secondary notes. The body is full and the acid is juicy. The tannin structure offers really well formed and grippy tannins that integrate seamlessly and avoid locking up the wine. The texture reminds me of a Cote Rotie in a very good way, it’s the highlight of the wine. Concentration is a bit lacking, though that’s a vintage liability. This is fruit forward with raspberries, strawberries and cherries, but offers substantial baking spices as well. Beautifully crafted wine from a tough vintage, this is enjoyable stuff. Modest depth and concentration hold it back from greatness. 92 points. Value: C

Backstory: I acquired this as part of a wine club shipment from a number of years back. The most appropriate thing I can say about it is that it’s an excellent example of the fruit-forward stylistic type of Washington syrah. Unlike the Waters mentioned above, it doesn’t offer savoriness as it’s focus is on the fruit and baking spice.

2012 Crowley Pinot Noir Entre Nous (Oregon) – Nose: quite reticent, even after two hours in the decanter. Dark cherry, plum, cola wet soil and graphite. The body is full with fully integrated polished, lush tannins that is evidence of the warm vintage. The acid finds a nice stride but is secondary. Concentration is a big lacking here, but the flavors include slightly tart cherries, blood orange, sassafras bark, and mild black pepper. It finishes a bit tart. Nice profile but the thin concentration really holds it back. A bit disappointing. 89 points. Value: C-

Backstory: essentially the same as the Drouhin chardonnay mentioned above. A few people in the blogosphere freaked out about this and I found it disappointing in that in a vintage known for full flavor and density it lacked concentration.

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2010 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge (Oregon) – Really benefits from a 2+ hour decant. The nose is classic Cameron Abbey Ridge: brooding red fruits, blood orange, wet dirt, underbrush, highly perfumed rose and petrol. The body is medium in weight and stature, offering bright acidity and light, chewy tannin. The fruit is just slightly sweet, but offers nice tartness: raspberry, cranberry, cherry, huckleberry and plum. There’s thyme-infused rose water, sweet rosemary, smoke and a big spike of orange zest in the mid palate. Not my favorite vintage, but still an upper pantheon pinot noir. This may have a bit more to unpack with another five-ten years, but it’s drinking nicely right now. 92 points. Value: C-

Backstory: I’ve said enough about Cameron already, but I’ll just point out that I drank this too young. It’s a very important piece of data in my research on how long to age Abbey Ridge pinot.

2013 J. Bookwalter Conflict Conner Lee Vineyard (Washington) – Better with some serious decanting. The lovely nose offers crushed cherries and blackberries, loads of dark plum, cassis, black currants and cracked pepper. The body is full with thick, lush tannin and good grip. The acid is bright while the alcohol is still integrating. There’s a solid amount of graphite to go with loads of plum and cherries and strong undercurrents of black tea, cocoa and cinnamon and a saline finish. A solidly enjoyable wine now, it stands to improve over the next five years. 90 points. Value: D

Backstory: this was a gift from a family member. Bookwalter is know for big wines, and when I want that, as noted above, I go for something more like the Clio. That said, the Conflict was very enjoyable with some decanting and it didn’t last long. Ideally, I think, this is consumed between 2019 and 2022.

2013 Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley (Washington) – A bit muted at the moment, the deliciously dark nose offers jammy blackberries, bark, stewed plums, licorice, spearmint and smoke. The body is full with dense, slightly grainy tannins and good acid frame a dense core of black and blue fruits, licorice, wet soil, pencil lead, burnt orange rind and mocha. The alcohol is well integrated, this has great balance. Very pleasing now, give it five years to unwind and it will be fantastic. 92 points. Value: B

Background: another family gift, it had been years since I’d had an Abeja cabernet. I was taken by Abeja years ago but as I developed a taste for wines typically more restrained that Washington cabernets I strayed. While this 2013 doesn’t have me begging to get back into Abeja’s good graces, I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t start buying a few in the years ahead. It’s very, very tasty stuff with really nice complexity and depth.

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Sun setting over Mutiny Bay, Washington (I’m enjoying my summer vacation)