washington wines catching fire

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Amidst the gloom ‘n’ doomers populating the wine business these days, some upbeat voices are starting to be heard. In recent days I spoke with a couple of widely-traveled winemakers who independently noted that they are getting a much warmer reception out of state, especially from somms and retailers who are paying attention to domestic wines that offer some Euro styling, pretty fruit, and good value.

The case for Washington quality has been effectively stated by now. The Washington Wine Commission road shows have taken this region’s top wines to London, Tokyo and points in-between for years. My first book (UC Press – Washington Wines & Wineries) was written specifically to synthesize and summarize the reasons for accepting Washington wines as world class. My upcoming book moves on from there, assuming that readers already have heard the quality message. It’s now time to talk about value.

Ron Coleman, who founded Tamarack Cellars in 1998, talks the talk and walks the walk. His Firehouse Red should be the poster child for Washington value and style. In 2008, production is up to 15,000 cases, and the end is not in sight.

“I always wanted to make affordable wine,” Coleman explains, “and it’s almost impossible to do that without volume. It covers a lot of things. Not cheap wine, but affordable wine.” Coleman is not some starry-eyed romantic with winery dreams. He came out of the sales world, plugging wine in restaurants and retail. He moved to Walla Walla in 1993, sold wine for Waterbrook and Canoe Ridge while learning how to make his own, and did his first crush, in 1999, in an old fire station. The first release – 3000 cases of Red Table Wine (“the most boring name in the world”) was changed to Firehouse Red in 2000, and the label has been on fire ever since.

“I don’t like the California model where you make the wine and then produce a few hundred cases of your best (reserve) wine and charge triple for it. The Firehouse Red gives me a lot of flexibility; it’s a place to go with older wood, it gets you in the door a lot of places; distributors love it. I buy from about 15 vineyards, but a lot is just for the Firehouse.”

In fact, as I noted yesterday after tasting through 10 new Tamarack wines, including several single vineyard reserves, the Firehouse is not a “second” wine, though it is the high volume blend. But it’s made first, and it is the reserves that are made after, with a barrel or two left over. So in effect, Coleman’s reserves are his second wines.

He chuckles at that notion, but it pleases him, because he loves the Firehouse, and for good reason. It’s not just a workhorse red, it’s a terrific bottle of wine. The 2008 vintage, just coming out, is typical. Let me run down the stats for you.

It’s 37% cabernet sauvignon, 30% syrah, 16% merlot, 7% cab franc, 3% malbec, 3% sangiovese, 3% petit verdot and 1% carmenère. Included are grapes from top vineyards in five AVAs – Red Mountain, Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope and Rattlesnake Hills. The wine saw 40% new oak barrels (“briefly” Ron notes). Unlike many such mongrel blends, this one has a sense of completeness and focus. It doesn’t meander. Deep purple in the glass, it coats the throat with plummy fruit and substantial tannins, lightly chocolatey, textural and medium-grained. Suggested retail is $18, but you’ll find it closer to $15 at many outlets.

In this economy, what are challenges for many wineries are money in the bank for Coleman. “The future of this wine will get better and better,” he says; “more and more wineries are walking away from grapes. I can step up and get fruit for half the price; bad economic times help wines like this.”

And wines like this are good for consumers, who get to taste outstanding Washington fruit at about half the price it might have cost previously. Tamarack’s very limited reserves are certainly worth your attention also, though most are sold only through the tasting room. But you’ll find such gems as single vineyard offerings of DuBrul, Ciel du Cheval and Sagemoor priced below other vintners’ wines from the same vineyards.

I hope that the next round of road show tastings organized by the Wine Commission will be devoted to wines such as Firehouse Red – and there are many more now than there used to be, for obvious reasons. Washington quality is no longer a question mark. It’s time to make the case for value.


Anonymous said...

This wasn't an article about Washington wines, as it was titled. It was about A Washington wine. I have to wonder about your objectivity in managing it this way.


PaulG said...

PB I have no clue what you are complaining about.

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