the joys of j. bookwalter

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Though it is my usual practice when reviewing wines to taste them over a period of many hours, often days, it is rare that I spend an entire evening completely engrossed in them, as I did last night with five new reds from J. Bookwalter.

Founded in 1983 by Jerry and Jean Bookwalter, the winery has been managed and re-invented by son John Bookwalter during the past decade. And re-invented is not too strong a word. Currently serving as president of the Washington Wine Commission, John Bookwalter is dynamic, motivated and completely dedicated to quality.

All but one of his first nine vintages were made under the guidance of the legendary Zelma Long. She has now moved on (to pursue a Ph.D. I am told) and Claude Gros, who also consults for SeaSmoke, is her replacement. The 2007s, begun with Long and blended with Gros, are the best ever from J. Bookwalter.

Credit a superb vintage, to be sure, but also the tireless efforts by John to do whatever it takes to improve his wines. Most recently he has gone to double sorting, gentler pumping, and thicker barrel staves (for less oxygen exchange) in order to tweak the process.

We tasted his excellent Anecdote riesling, then moved on to five new reds. I made quick notes as we chatted. Later, after the wines had been open for about six hours, I sat down to taste through them with my evening meal, and compare them to each other. That’s when I found myself lost in a world of flavors.

The wine I kept returning to, and ultimately concluded was best of show, is the J. Bookwalter 2007 Conner Lee Vineyard ‘Conflict’ Red ($50). It carries a white label – reserved for the winery’s small production, barrel and/or vineyard selection wines. The blend is two thirds merlot, one quarter cabernet, with small amounts of malbec, franc and petit verdot. The backbone of the wine is fruit from the ’92 and ’88 blocks at Conner Lee. The vineyard is still managed by Jerry Bookwalter, and eagerly sought out by a number of this state’s best vintners. But I know it mostly for its chardonnay. Neither John nor I could recall who (if anyone) had done a vineyard-designated red wine previously. This is his first, but it surely won’t be the last.

The complex and site-specific aromas suggest wild herb, lavender, lemon verbena, and black olive. The tannins are supple and ripe, with no green edge at all. The fruit combines mineral-soaked black cherry, sweet raspberry compote, and deep cassis. It’s a marvelous wine, dense, detailed and seductive.

Two wines bearing red labels – what Bookwalter has named the Foreshadow series – were also thrilling. The J. Bookwalter 2007 Foreshadow Merlot ($36) is supple and layered, and nicely captures the scope and scale of the vintage. It’s still young, tight and quite compact, but shows threads of tobacco, anise, stone and pencil lead, along with full, fleshy, plum and cassis fruit. Great structure and dense, ripe tannins. This is a perfect illustration of why Washington merlot can claim to be the best in the world outside of Pomerol.

The dense complexity of the J. Bookwalter 2007 Foreshadow Cabernet Sauvignon ($42) is immediately apparent in the nose. It offers hints of Asian spice, cinnamon, and cardamom, leading into supple layers of purple and black fruits. The tannins are substantial and fine-grained, perfectly ripe, and the threads of black olive, smoke, tar and coffee weave seamlessly into the finish. There is a balance point here – it has not reached too far; it’s just right.

Though I very much admired the Protagonist Red ($50) and the reserve-level Chapter 3 Red ($78), I favored the three wines profiled above (though John Bookwalter might challenge me on that). The bigger wines, though delicious, did not have the extension of more delicate flavors all the way through the finish, and after several hours of (serious!) consideration, I concluded that for me the first three wines were the best of a very fine lineup.

Lest some of you blanche at the prices, consider that the Foreshadow merlot easily challenges all but a handful of $100+ California merlots. The other reds can stand alongside Andrew Will, Betz Family, Leonetti Cellar and Quilceda Creek in this stellar vintage – pretty good company.

J. Bookwalter has tasting rooms in both Richland and Woodinville, and hosts a very active wine club. Club members get a 20% discount on all purchases, along with other benefits. And visitors to either tasting room may sample all but the Chapter 3 for a $5 tasting fee (try finding something comparable down in Napa – believe me, you won’t). The $5 is refunded with any purchase, including the $15 riesling. I say go for it.


Rob Thorlakson said...

Great winery! They will be featured at a wine dinner at Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop, WA on Saturday night July 24. Save the date. Special room rates of $150 per night for wine dinner attendees. Visit for details.

Anonymous said...

MMM I love Bookwalter wines!

Ellie said...

I always looking forward to tasting Bookwalter wines at the Woodinville Passport weekend. Yummy!

Anonymous said...

The J. Bookwalter 2007 Conner Lee Vineyard ‘Conflict’ Red is Salmon-Safe certified. I like to support wineries that source fruit from certified vineyards. Makes me feel better knowing that the grapes were grown sustainably.

Paul said...

Paul you can make a guy thristy!
I believe, if I understand your comment correctly, that Liberty Bay Cellars made a Conner Lee Merlot and Cab in 2005. Dave Prigmore the former sommelier at Met Grill is the winemaker/founder.

Don said...

The 2007 Merlot is outstanding. In the top five all time Merlots I've tasted and at a price of $30, you cannot beat it!!

ibglowin said...

I'm hooked. Visited the winery in July. Joined the Book Club and snapping up as much as I possibly can before the word gets out. Just fantastic!

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