washington wines in the spotlight

Friday, September 24, 2010

The current issue of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate has been scrutinized and celebrated since it appeared a couple of weeks ago, lavishing praise on the wines of this state. Even the Washington Wine Commission, a politically-savvy enterprise that carefully sidesteps commentary on all but a handful of critical efforts, put out a press release trumpeting the fact that out of 810 recommended wines, reviewer Dr. Jay Miller had “scored 469 Washington wines 90 points or higher… up nearly 40% from the 338 Washington wines that scored 90+ in 2009.”

There is absolutely no doubt that such praise is manna from heaven at any time, but especially now, and I am certainly not going to cast a shadow on any of it. But I would like to comment on a few missing and/or under-rated (in my view) wines and wineries, beginning with three that were rather mysteriously left out of the tastings organized for Dr. Miller.

In my new book, “Washington Wines & Wineries: the Essential Guide” I profile well over 200 wineries. Only 20 of these receive the book’s highest (five star) rating. How and why these 20 were selected is explained in great detail in the book, but believe me, a vast amount of soul-searching was involved, and all of them are wineries with long track records for excellence. So I was a bit surprised that three of them are not even mentioned in this latest Wine Advocate.

Abeja, Dunham Cellars and McCrea Cellars are missing in action. By choice or chance, I cannot say. Among the other 17, a few get rather lukewarm reviews. Now, no two critics think, taste or write alike, and it is not my place to criticize someone else’s point of view. But I do want to chime in, over the next few posts, with some thoughts of my own. I’ll start with Woodward Canyon.

I’ve tasted Woodward Canyon wines since the first release (the 1981 vintage), and thanks to the generosity of Rick and Darcey Small I have also tasted verticals of these wines on several occasions. The new releases from this seminal winery are, in my opinion, the best wines they have ever made. I do not say that lightly, and I mean it sincerely.

The Advocate gave them excellent scores and praise. However, in the light of the monster numbers that other producers received, a casual reader might think that Woodward Canyon was doing a good but not a great job. I tasted through seven current releases this week, and at least two of them are wines that must absolutely be experienced to be believed. All of them are standouts.

The Woodward Canyon 2009 Washington Chardonnay ($39) was apparently not reviewed (the Advocate reviewed the 2008 instead) as it had only recently been bottled. It will be the highest scoring Washington chardonnay I have ever tasted. (As an interesting footnote, the 2009 Abeja Chardonnay will be the second highest). WWC made 616 cases of the wine, a blend from the Celilo vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, and the estate vineyard in Walla Walla. Fermented in French Burgundy barrels (20% new), it explodes with flavor. Luscious, rich and balanced, this smorgasbord of fruit flavors runs from candied citrus into intensely tropical, tossing in streaks of lemon verbena, caramel, toast and butter.

I couldn’t believe how good it was, so I left the half-finished bottle on the counter and returned to it the following day. Just as good, if not better. On the third day it was still fresh and lively, fully there. On the fourth day (down to about a quarter bottle) it was drinking 95% as well as on the first day. I gulped down a glass and put the rest into a mushroom and onion sauté. OMG what a wine.

The other mind-blower in the lineup is the Woodward Canyon 2007 Columbia Valley Merlot ($39). A hefty 15% alcohol, this massive beast is muscular and dense. But locked into the deep, dark fruit flavors of strawberry preserves and black currant jam are concentrated veins of black olive, coffee and iron. This immense wine never seemed monolithic, but it took days to fully open. Like the chardonnay, it was still drinking quite well on the fourth day after being opened. Will this titan age? Probably a good 20 years or more.

Woodward Canyon


Unknown said...


To me Woodward Canyon is just the best. I far more enjoy a merlot or a cab from Woodward than a Cabernet from Quilceda or most other "cult" wineries. Also, please don't compare your knowledge of WA with Jay Miller. Mr Miller tastes 100's of wines in two days and does not come back to WA for 12 to 24 months....

Woodward Canyon said...

Paul -

Thank you from all of us here at Woody. We are humbled and appreciate your kind words. It's always a pleasure to have you out to the winery!

Shari, guest services

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul
Love the book. I recommend it to everyone interested in Washington wines.

Of the three overlooked among your Top 20, Dunham's reviews appeared on the website but not the print copy. Editor's decision. Even so, this is one where I'd have to disagree with you. Abeja is my fault, I simply overlooked it. That is a winery I should visit very year. McRea I feel less strongly about. The wines are good but it's not an automatic visit for me.

As for Woodward Canyon, they're a definite Top 20 for me but among Cab/Cab blend producers, I'd have to place Quilceda, Leonetti, Sheridan, and Cayuse ahead of Woodward.

I'd just say to Mike that I spend 2 full weeks in Washington annually visiting 60+ producers face to face plus the tasting of collected samples which took place over 4 days. If there is a non-resident critic who covers Washington more comprehensively than I do, I'd like to know who it is.I make no claim to knowing the Washington scene as well as Paul. To do that, I'd have to live there; then I wouldn't be able to cover the other 6 regions in my portfolio

Keep up the great work, Paul.

Regards, MrBigJ, aka Dr. Jay Miller @ Robert Parker's Wine Advocate

PaulG said...

MrBigJ - thanks for the clarification. I confess I did not check the online reviews (I'm still a print guy at heart). I saw for myself how hard you worked while in WA, and I have told many people that I don't know how you (or Tanzer) can do what you do. But I have no doubts about your effort and commitment to doing the best job possible. Let me know when you decide to move to Washington; that'll be the day I retire!

Hampers uk said...

Woodward Canyon wines are definitely the best. Does anybody know other wines that taste good 4 days after being opened?

Unknown said...

Dear Jay,

Thank you for the answer. Did not realize you were coming to WA every year for two weeks. Apologies.

Dan Merkle said...


We went to Prosser recently for the balloon festival and most of the wineries had special events. I had a chance to stop by Coyote Canyon and vist with Mike Andrews. It was a wonderful visit and it was great to talk about their family history and their cab sauv. grapes for Columbia Crest. But they produce excellent wines in their own right.

I have both copies of your book and am surprised and disappointed there is no reference to their winery although there is a brief reference to their vineyards.

I assume you have visited the winery and are familiar with their wines so please explain the omission.

Thanks and we are big fans of Waitsburg.

Dan Merkle

PaulG said...

Dan, I went to great lengths to explain, in the book's introduction, my methodology, and to note that only about one third of Washington's wineries are listed. So inevitably, as I also wrote, there will be many good wineries that have a legion of admirers that are not in the book. I cannot possibly explain, winery by winery, for over 450 wineries, why each did not make the cut. But I'm glad we can agree on Waitsburg!

Hampers uk said...

I think it's obvious that you can't write about all good wineries.

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