The wine business is loaded with musicians, and I don’t mean celebrities who have parlayed rock star status into winery ownership. I mean winemakers and wine sellers who are also talented musically – people like Bob Foley, whose Robert Foley Band tours nationally; and Kermit Lynch, who has a new album out this month.
Four years ago I first tasted the wines of Fielding Hills, and was immediately dazzled. “This red wine specialist has just released their fourth vintage,” I wrote in my Seattle Times column; “and as I tasted through these five wines, I completely ran out of superlatives. I don’t believe I have ever given such rave reviews to an entire lineup of wines from a young winery. A good place to start is with the 2003 Merlot ($28), a brilliant, polished, beautifully nuanced wine that may be as good as any Washington merlot I’ve ever tasted. The winery’s cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah and RiverBend red releases (all $26 -$30) follow suit; spectacular wines. The RiverBend vineyard fruit plays a big part in their success, but owner/winemaker Mike Wade is equally important. He has a natural gift for crafting elegant, expressive wines.”
A year ago, while the Seattle Times was holding the company’s annual board meeting in Walla Walla, I had the pleasure of leading the owners and board members on a tour of a new, unknown winery, Reynvaan Family Cellars. I knew of Reynvaan through a Charles Smith (K Vintners) connection, and the owners were holding an open house, and showing their first, unreleased vintages.
I have been known to comment – OK rant – about the lack of awareness regarding the diversity, quality, and value of the wines made in Washington. A frequent critique is that Washington lacks a signature grape – as if doing many things well were a fault!
Even in a crowded marketplace and a down economy, some new wineries will manage to stand apart from the field. Gramercy Cellars, the project of Master Sommelier Greg Harrington and his wife Pam, has already won a decade’s worth of accolades. In addition, his project with Jamie Brown, the cleverly-packaged, affordably-priced Wines of Substance, has acquired a ballistic life of its own – witness the rave write-up/offering from Jon Rimmerman at Garagiste. Writes Rimmerman:
“Substance (the winery) broke through last year and they haven’t looked back. Their graphics, methodology, web site and youth-movement pro-consumer pricing have made them a large presence in the pseudo-underground here in the US. Very popular with the under-30 literary college set (no surprise), the name of the game here is value and a new take on the term “New World”. Instead of over-oaked, slathered “exciting fruit” and high alcohol, they prefer to under-oak (or none at all), tone down the fruit and allow the northern climate of Washington State to provide actual natural acidity (instead of adjusting it). The result is a wine that is slightly shocking for domestic fans as it can under whelm when the palate expects to be hammered with “substance” of a more extractive form.”
Winemaking has a seasonal rhythm, especially pleasing at this time of year. It’s a fascinating subject of immense depth, that reaches far, far beyond the simple “I like it – I don’t like it – what’s the score?” discourse that dominates much of the writing about wine, both online and in print.
The Naked City was an early sixties cop drama, based on the 1948 movie of the same name. Just as certain commercial taglines get stuck in the brain, the tagline of this show occasionally pops up out of nowhere. “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This… (dramatic pause) has been one of them.”
Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson have earned their places at the top, with classic works on wine, separately and jointly, that belong in every wine lover’s library. But two new updates – both significantly sub-par – suggest that the two may be flagging.
The 2010 edition of Johnson’s once-irreplaceable Pocket Wine Book is a mess. The icons and graphics are confusing, the type ridiculously cramped, the regions in which Johnson himself is not the specialist (a lot of contributors fill in the bulk of the New World material) are sometimes thin, often out of date, vague, and, at least in the case of the Pacific Northwest entries, an outright embarrassment.
Publisher Mitchell Beazley’s PR material trumpets the book as a “definitive, compact guide by the world’s pre-eminent wine writer, with the assistance of expert global contributors [e.g. PR and marketing people], [that] provides current news on 6000 wines, as well as regions, vintages, and growers around the world.” You may agree it is current and definitive if you find value in lists such as “A Safe Pair of Brands…” which points out corporate plonk from nine different countries, or vintage reports consisting entirely of a single phrase such as these for California: “2004 – Grapes ripened quickly with uneven quality. At best average. 2003 – A difficult yr all around. Overall, spotty.”
Recent releases from Adelsheim wrapped up my month-long tastings of Oregon wines, and there couldn’t have been a prettier ribbon put on the package. The two chardonnays presented a compelling case for Oregon – not California, and not Washington – as the west coast capital for truly Burgundian chards. The four pinots left me grabbing the bottles for second and third tastes – I finally threw in the towel and stopped spitting.
Wretched pun – wonderful wines. Last Sunday, the Betz Family winery held an open house for mailing list members only. The winery releases its wines twice a year, and in the late summer/early fall it is the syrahs that are on display. Bob Betz, who holds the rare Master of Wine (MW) certification, and who worked for almost three decades as a sort of creative director/educator for the expanding portfolio of wines under the Chateau Ste. Michelle umbrella, is now making his own brilliant wines. Though he has settled into a rhythm, built his dream winery, and prefers to work with established growers, under long term contracts, he is by no means standing pat.
Tim and Paige Stevens are the congenial owners of this Woodinville boutique. Though Stevens does not get the press coverage given to such superstar efforts as Gorman, Mark Ryan, and Betz, I would place their wines in that quality vector.
Their first release – 100 cases of a 2001 Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Franc – debuted just five years ago. Now up to about 2500 cases annually, the winery sells mostly to a mailing list (not yet closed, but I wouldn’t wait to get on it) and at the cellar door.
Sineann’s gifted winemaker is Peter Rosback, whom I know as a friend as well as a winemaker. Does that influence my critical evaluation of his wines? That’s a question that could apply to any number of winemakers who live and work in the Northwest, for I have never believed that I had to erect some sort of iron curtain between me and them. I have on occasion been rather strongly critical of wines made by friends, and I do not give them any extra consideration that I don’t extend to every winery, whether I know the owners or not.
Lemelson Vineyards, which debuted in 1999, remains a bit off the radar of many consumers. perhaps because a tasting room did not open until this past summer. Nonetheless, Lemelson wines get consistently good scores from the critics, who are in rare agreement about them. Located just outside of Carlton, the winery should be a must-see for anyone touring the region.
A recurring consumer complaint – I hear this over and over – is that Washington wines are overpriced. Rather than respond with yet another PG rant, I thought I’d bring in some other voices to comment.
Washington Wine Month is under way at state liquor stores – a month later than originally announced, but in some ways better timing. Now is a good chance to stock up on some really good deals for the upcoming holidays.
Wine Press NW has published a complete list of wines and prices on their website: http://winepressnw.com/wineknows/story/3378.html
A note from a reader with an eye for detail:
Q: Two interesting tasting scores have raised some discussion among my group and I thought it might be interesting to get your take.
My friend Peter Musolf has written a marvelous review of a book entitled “Dashi and Umami: the Heart of Japanese Cuisine.” His review appears in the current issue of the Journal of Wine Economics, and includes a thought-provoking discussion of the relationship between umami and wine, and some reflections on how it impacts wine palates and preferences in Japan. I have posted a link to the entire article at the end of this excerpt:
In his Wednesday New York Times wine column, Eric Asimov and his tasting panel rolled through 20 Oregon pinots, finding them “all over the spectrum” – not surprising considering they were from 2006 and 2007, two quite different vintages. Asimov went on to note that it was “one of our more difficult tastings; while we liked many of the wines, very few grabbed and held our attention.”
What a difference a year makes. Though I have known Myron Redford, and written about his wines, for more than 25 years, it was with some regret and dismay that I found myself struggling to appreciate Amity wines in some recent vintages. Though Myron has been growing grapes in Oregon since 1974, and producing wines at Amity since 1976, his wines seemed to miss the mark with uncomfortable frequency.
Dr. Karl Storchmann, who teaches economics at Whitman College, is also the founder of the Journal of Wine Economics. It’s a technical, often impenetrably geeky academic journal, but occasionally one of the contributors hits on a juicy topic of general interest, such as last summer when it was revealed that the Wine Spectator had given out an award to a restaurant that didn’t exist.