A recurring blogger topic is how does one actually make a living at it? The commitment in terms of time and expense goes far beyond simply writing and posting an entertaining and informative piece of writing (and/or video) on a regular basis. Doing the research takes time. Costs money (for wines, gas, etc.) And it is all (or almost all) uncompensated.
Yesterday I had a chance to sit down with Precept Brands Founder/CEO Andrew Browne at the company’s North Lake Union (Seattle) headquarters. Precept is certainly the fastest-growing and most youth-oriented big wine company in the Northwest – founded less than a decade ago, and on track to produce 750,000 cases (across multiple brands) this year.
I will have an extensive interview with Andrew in an upcoming issue of Vineyard & Winery Management, but I wanted to take just one of his comments and riff on it today, as well as look at some of the latest releases from Precept.
Last Thursday a massive Tweet-up focused on Washington merlot took place. It was organized by a blogger consortium headed up by Josh Wade of drinknectar.com. The idea was to taste and tweet about Washington merlots, and quite a few wineries and retailers hosted open house events and poured multiple vintages of their wines. Others chose to participate from their own homes, as I did, here in Seattle.
For my wine I chose a 2002 Spring Valley Vineyard Muleskinner Merlot. I wanted to focus on a single wine, and I thought it would be interesting to check on the aging curve of one of Washington’s best bottles. I’ve found that 8 to 10 years is often when these wines are at their peak. I also was curious to taste a wine I had rated quite highly when it was released, and not tasted again since.
Definitions of outlier:
1) a person, thing, or part situated away from a main or related body
2) a point in a sample widely separated from the main cluster
The outlier AVA in Washington state – Puget Sound – fits perfectly. It is no criticism whatsoever to point to its outlier status, but it may offer a place to begin understanding how and why it exists.
Driving east from the Columbia Gorge AVA (see yesterday’s blog), you cross immediately into the Columbia Valley AVA. This reaches across the river also into parts of northern Oregon, and some vineyard development is occurring on both sides of the river. The landscape quickly changes, as you leave the rain shadow of the Cascades for the scrub desert of eastern Washington and eastern Oregon.
The view is spectacular from either side of the river. From the Oregon side you’ll get a better look at some of the Washington vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (a sub-set of the Columbia Valley), which reaches down to the river but does not cross it. Some of this state’s largest and most productive vineyards are located here, including Alder Ridge, the two Canoe Ridges, the vast Columbia Crest vineyards, Champoux and its satellites, Destiny Ridge, McKinley Springs, and Wallula/The Benches. But I digress.
I thought about calling this Washington’s most confusing AVA. In part because for many people, even those who live in the Northwest, the name Columbia Gorge is most closely associated with a different gorge on a different stretch of the same river – also known as The Gorge at George (George being the name of the nearby town). That Gorge is a worldclass concert venue.
The rest of the confusion arises because the Columbia Gorge AVA, which straddles the Washington/Oregon border east of Portland, has never been shown well on maps. The official Washington state AVA map has had it wrong for years (a fix is in the works).
Continuing a pre-blogger conference stroll through some of Washington’s more unusual AVA’s, here’s a bullet point overview of this state’s newest and smallest (in terms of total cultivated vineyard land) – Lake Chelan. The salient facts:
• Lake Chelan AVA is Washington’s 11th
• The AVA is a subset of the all-encompassing Columbia Valley AVA
• About 265 acres of vineyards are under cultivation (as of 2009)
• It includes the southern portion of the largest natural lake in the Cascade Range
• Unique soils with layers of glacial debris, sediment from stream erosion, and airborne volcanic loess
What would be your guess if you were asked to name the most obscure AVA in Washington state? (OK, who’s the wise-a-- who said “all of them”?). I would venture that the hands-down, least-known is Snipes Mountain. Snipes Mountain became Washington’s 10th AVA a little more than a year ago. Like the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, its neighbor to the north, and Red Mountain a few miles east, it is a subdivision of the Yakima Valley AVA. Its boundaries are based on altitude as well as the usual criteria of history, soil and topography, though like Red Mountain, it isn’t much more than an anthill by West Coast standards.
My recent Seattle Times column on the use/abuse of new oak barrels brought a lot of comments. A glitch on the newspaper website meant that no one could post comments, so I’ll run a few here. The basic premise of the story was summed up in the concluding lines: “Many Oregon and Washington winemakers are showing off the fruit rather than the barrels these days. Why shouldn’t they do that in California as well?”
This was not intended as a dump on California, but arose from a series of conversations with a number of winemakers on my recent swing through Napa and Sonoma. And yes, I know that there are many in California who are cutting back on the new barrels. I also understand that some folks really like those flavors, and it is certainly not up to me to dictate to a winemaker how he or she should practice their craft. All that said, I found that reader feedback was solidly – almost 100% – in favor of fruit over wood.
According to a story posted on Palate Press yesterday, no blogger with any hope of success should post tasting notes. So here we go – tasting notes! New releases!! Feel free to ignore this!!! But just in case anyone actually wants to hunt down some spectacular new wines (BTW, for anyone who is humor-impaired, these are NOT boring, the illustration is supposed to be funny), we are approaching Taste Washington and wineries all across the state are putting out new releases. Since I probably have more access than most I’m going to point out some highlights, to give you an idea of where you might wish to aim your palate in the coming weeks.
A break today from wine-related posts. Whatever actual historical significance St. Patrick's Day may have once had, has been entirely lost. It's simply become a day to sell green anything: Domaine Chandon is pouring green bubbly today. Your local supermarket has green hats and beer and flowers. Buy green is the prevailing message. And it's a day to have a parade if you're Irish and drink too much whatever you are. OK, no big deal. But an unusually sober statement by the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland puts the day in a different perspective.
A visit to the Pacific Rim winery, an industrial box on the dusty outskirts of Richland, Washington, is always enlightening. The creative brain of Randall Grahm, the business and marketing savvy of Nicolas Quillé, the dedication to immaculate winemaking with a focus on Washington riesling, all make this an exceptional project. But there is always more going on than just great winemaking, though there is plenty of that.
Pacific Rim is one of a handful of Washington wineries using social media to great effect. On his Facebook page, Quillé, winemaker and general manager for Pacific Rim, will occasionally post up valuable riesling-related stats, such as this note from a few months ago:
It’s a little too soon for baseball’s all-star nominations, but as far as Washington winemakers are concerned, I think we can put Caleb Foster and Bob Betz in the starting lineup right now. Brand new releases from both winemakers show them in top form, working with a vintage (2007) that many of this state’s winemakers consider to be superb.
As the most-anticipated red wines from 2007 hit the shelves, I find myself agreeing. 2007 is going to be counted among a handful of truly great Washington vintages.
The ‘R’ was AWOL when I visited Kurt and Vicki Schlicker at their Rulo winery last spring. It had blown off in a windstorm, but upon my return to the winery this week, I found the Rulo sign fully restored (though not as photogenic) and the wines as fresh and vivid and stylish as ever.
Bloggers coming to Walla Walla take note: you won’t find Rulo on the itinerary. They are not included in the official 2010 Walla Walla winery brochure available free at many tasting rooms. Unless you know they exist, you won’t have much help finding them.
1WineDude has an outstanding blog today headlined “Useless California Vintage Reports: a Template” (see link to the left). It brings up a topic I’ve been saving for a special rant – I mean discussion. Which is, why rate vintages at all?
The Dude’s point, well taken, is that the standard vintage overview provided by winery PR folks is so predictable that apart from being lampooned it’s completely useless. I’d go a step farther and say that the same basically applies across the board. Though many old school critics, newsletter writers and consumer publications insist on doing vintage ratings, I don’t think that they have the meaning or importance that they once did.
My “Drowning in Social Media” post (February 26) brought this late-breaking query from blogger Erika Szymanski, who writes:
As a brand-new wine blogger, I can't fathom asking anyone for a free bottle even ten years down the road and if I had a substantial readership. On the other hand, I have wondered what etiquette and protocol deem suitable as far as tasting and tasting fees go. If I visit a winery or tasting room with the intent to write about the experience, is it:
1. Reasonable to mention my intentions and ask about points they might like me to mention?
2. Acceptable to ask for waiver of the tasting fee?
Mrs. G and I have been tracking the real estate market pretty closely these past couple of years. We have a couple of properties on the market right now ourselves.
But what I have not seen much evidence of is a fire sale among Washington wineries. I get the eerie sense that more than a few are holding on to a 30th story ledge by their fingernails, but they are still in the air. A recent news story in Business Week claimed that seven percent of the vineyards and wineries in the Napa valley had finances that were “very weak” or “on life support.” The story went on to profile a number of people who paid way too much and now find themselves in deep doo-doo. Nothing surprising about any of it.
Temperatures throughout the Northwest have been well above normal, but in Walla Walla wine country the fact that the thermometer has been hitting 70 degrees is not necessarily a cause for celebration. Looking at her Waitsburg garden for the first time in several months, Mrs. G noted that “it looks more like early May than early March.” Buds on the service berry trees are about to burst into leaf. The ancient apricot tree is not only loaded with buds, but many are open and already attracting bees.
I mean no criticism when I say that wine writing – and blogging in particular – pays a lot of attention to what is going on at this exact moment, and very little to history or even context. It’s only natural, it’s a sign of the times, and it’s definitely tied into the lightspeed of digital communications. But one of the enduring and endearing aspects to wine is its insistence that things not be rushed.
The onrushing deluge of social media options for wine commentary and review has made it imperative, I would argue, for each and every person who elects to adopt the role of critic/commentator to explain her or his basic operating principles.
By that I mean, give your readers/viewers some idea of the basic criteria that you apply to the task. There are no set or fixed “rules” other than this – the individual should have some personal guidelines, goals, standards, a methodology if you will, and should be able and willing to describe it accurately. The print publications and newsletters that do the more formal scoring and critiquing all impose such guidelines on their editors, and I believe it’s helpful to their followers.
But as a soloist, rather than a member of any particular orchestra, you really have to set your own program.
Some years ago – OK, about 20 years ago – I took a weekend trip to a secluded mountain valley in north central Washington. I was traveling with a golfing/drinking buddy, and we were staying in the home of his older brother, who was on an extended vacation. Jimmy the Fish immediately attained legendary status in my mind, simply by virtue of the furnishings (a penis lamp was particularly noteworthy) and photos of him and his wife naked in various exotic locales.
My buddy and I soon exhausted the supply of wine I had packed for the occasion, and couldn’t help but notice a small wine rack placed next to a wood-burning stove in the living room. As I poked through the bottles, a motley assortment of aged plonk, I found a hidden gem.
In the spirit of ‘Open That Bottle Night’ – and inspired by the many posts on this blog referencing older Washington wines that seem to be aging quite nicely – I popped a rarity over the weekend. I admit to having only a semi-organized wine cellar. It’s split among three locations, and with the amount of wine flowing in and out every week it is less than tidy. But I was rummaging through the older Washington bottles and came across this one. The back label reads: