overachieving wines in underperforming categories

Friday, September 28, 2012

If you’ve been writing and reviewing wines as long as I have, certain personal prejudices (let’s be kind and call them conclusions) are inevitable. One such group I call the “underperforming categories.” These are certain classes of wines which by virtue of origin, grape and price may conveniently be seen as comparable. The underperformers are those groups in which a high percentage of the wines are simply overpriced.

Here are two examples. Along with my description of the group failings, I am happy to recommend a wine or two that overperform. The recommended wines are not just better than their sub-par peers; they are truly outstanding wines.

Group number one would be Italian pinot grigios. How many chain restaurants feature these wines on their lists, and how often do they charge a ridiculous amount of money for a small glass of some watery plonk? Even if you buy by the bottle, it’s tough to find anything above the swill level for under $18. Here are two inexpensive wines that rise well above the norm.

should we fret about brett?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I don’t like brett. There, I’ve said it. No ifs, ands, or (horse) butts about it. I don’t like brett. For me, there isn’t good brett. It’s not, God forbid, “terroir.” It’s not character or nuance or anything but stinky, leathery, barnyard stench that obliterates what I like best in a wine, which is fruit.

So the question I put to you today is, is it fair to call it a flaw, as much a flaw as say, TCA? If a brett-laden bottle of wine is served to you in a restaurant, is it fair to send it back? If a bretty bottle is sent in for scoring and review, is it right for a reviewer to criticize it as flawed?

I think the answer to both questions is definitely yes. Brett destroys fruit. It overtakes nuance. It can bloom in the bottle, so even if you have just a little, it can always get worse over time.It is not something that is intentionally introduced,like a designer yeast. It isn't something that a winemaker can control, or even choose. It blooms,like a weed.

I can’t tell you how many pricey, fancy wines I’ve had (admittedly,mostly French) with brett as a main “feature.” It’s a sham! Brett is not desirable. It does not enhance wine. It’s a flaw, plain and simple.

Or do you disagree?

no girls (from cayuse)

Monday, September 24, 2012

This weekend I had the chance to taste through some fascinating, under-the-radar releases from Cayuse, vigneron Christophe Baron’s biodynamic Walla Walla winery. The two pictured here, released under the No Girls label, are a collaboration between Baron and his GM, Trevor Dorland.

As Baron explained it to me, this is a stand-alone project, with its own unique vineyard, La Paciencia (patience). The vineyard was planted between 2003 and 2005, adjacent to the Armada vineyard, and the first couple of vintages of wine were declassified. In 2008 a small amount was offered for sale. According to Baron, it sold out in a half hour, and there is now a long waiting list.

“We got slammed! But I’m getting used to creating monsters,” he noted with a laugh. The name (and label design) are taken from a bit of graffiti on the wall of an empty building in downtown Walla Walla. You can see a picture here. At one time a haven for hookers, the building’s No Girls sign remains as a mysterious clue to a past shrouded in secrecy. Who painted it? When? Was it supposed to be a joke?

fire on the mountain

Friday, September 21, 2012

For the past week, evenings here in Walla Walla have seen red skies and technicolor sunsets. Then yesterday morning, residents awoke to find ash falling, like the second coming of Mount St. Helens. Only it was no volcano bringing the Biblical storm, but rather it was wildfires raging far to the west, in the Cascade mountain foothills.

News coverage of the fires was slim to say the least, until they really took off. Now it’s all over the papers and television. Virtually all of eastern Washington has been rainless for months. This is not all that unusual, nor is it necessarily bad, as far as grapevines are concerned. Most vineyards are irrigated, and dry weather – as long as it’s not too hot – brings even ripening.

The 2012 vintage has been unanimously hailed as one of the best ever – perfect in fact. And up until this week, not a dark cloud could be seen on the horizon. Now those dark clouds have appeared, and they are billowing clouds of thick, black smoke.

when, where and how should you submit your wines for review?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I began writing a weekly wine column in 1987, and I’ve had one in print somewhere ever since. About 12 years ago I was invited to join the tasting panel at Wine Enthusiast, and given the Pacific Northwest wineries as my territory. At that time, I adopted the 100 point scoring system, which has proven to be both useful to the trade, and helpful to consumers, despite the reams of critical prose it has attracted over the years.

In the past dozen years or so, the number of wineries in Oregon and Washington combined has roughly quintupled. Given that spectacular growth, it has been a pleasure to see how few wineries have opted out of having their wines reviewed. Oddly, it is rarely wineries that have received lackluster reviews that stop sending in new releases. It is more likely to be wineries that have been praised, but have decided that either they no longer need the publicity, or were not getting as much praise as they felt they deserved.

Speaking for myself and my editors, we encourage all wineries to submit new releases, especially the acknowledged leaders. Having the best wines from a region in the database elevates the standing of all wines. It encourages everyone to improve, by continually setting the quality bar higher. Even if your winery doesn’t need the publicity; even if your waiting list has a waiting list; it would be a service to your cohorts if you would continue to make your wines available for review.

an experiment - which is best - zinfandel young, old, or in-between?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A weekend with good friends provided the opportunity to do some deep level research on that thought-provoking question. A visiting couple from Seattle were in town to celebrate their wedding anniversary; another couple were finalizing the purchase of a new home here in the Burg; and Mrs. G and I were enjoying the first barbeque on our just-finished patio. A splendid occasion all around.

Zinfandel was the order of the day, given the barbecue we had going, and my Seattle friends had brought the 2001 Rafanelli and the 2006 Nalle Reserve with them to jumpstart the tasting. We rambled back into my cellar and pulled out the other four wines, which included a 1977 Sonoma Vineyards River West Old Vines, a Pezzi King 1997 SLR, a 2001 Trinitas, and a 2011 Sineann Old Vine.

All together, these six bottles spanned 35 vintages of Zinfandel. How does it age? What would be the “sweet spot”? Which would be the most complex? Which the highest in alcohol? Which would be the last bottle to be finished, and why? These were all questions we hoped to answer, in an evening-long quest to determine which Zin would be crowned Best of Show.

ellanelle 2009 cabernet sauvignon

Friday, September 14, 2012

It goes without saying that the wine industry attracts a great number of bright, creative, talented, hard-working people, from all walks of life. But beyond that, there are some who just stand out as exceptional human beings. Though I do not know them well, Leonard and Leslie Brown simply radiate kindness, compassion and competence.

A year or so ago, they came up from Milton Freewater, where they farm 1100 acres of apples, 100 acres of wine grapes, and are partners in Watermill winery and the Blue Mountain Cider Company. They wanted to show me a new wine, a personal project, called Ellanelle. I remember tasting and liking the wine, but for whatever reason, we agreed that this first release would just be quietly marketed and not “officially” reviewed.

Fast forward a year.

are your wines better off today than they were four years ago?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Since we are all, for better or worse, mired in the muck of the sprint up to the November elections, I will take a cue from the political mavens and ask one of the pressing questions of the day.

Are your wines better off today than they were four years ago?

Here’s my story. When Obama took office, my wines were in total disarray. Though I had once built and maintained a well-organized wine cellar in my Seattle home, time and circumstance had conspired to bring it to the point of ruin.

My problems were three-fold. First, there was the ongoing stream of wines coming to my door for review. On a daily basis, anywhere from 2 to 10 boxes would arrive. These required an adult signature (fortunately, I made the cut). Then they had to be opened, sorted, and stored for future consideration. The packing materials had to be broken down and recycled. Somehow all this had to be tracked and organized around my regular travels between Seattle and my home in Waitsburg.

charles smith’s hidden wine

Monday, September 10, 2012

One of the most interesting tastings of the year is when I work through the full lineup of wines from K Vintners and Charles Smith. There are always surprises tucked away, and this year was no exception.

Except for a single white wine – a 2011 Viognier – everything I tasted this weekend was red, and from the 2009 vintage. (Although the website is already listing some 2010s for sale, the winery prefers to present the wines with additional bottle age.) It was a warm year in Washington, and in many respects favored the vineyards that Smith likes to draw upon. It marked the last vintage that he was able to obtain grapes from Christophe Baron, which some might view as a stroke of bad luck. But good as those wines are, there are more than a few indications that Smith has already made the necessary adjustments – and improvements – that change often triggers.

Among the expansive K Vintners lineup of vineyard-designated Syrahs, there were many familiar faces, a few MIAs, and at least one stunning newcomer. All of these wines are notable for their extraordinary aromatics, their supple and vivid fruit, their incredibly silky, long chain tannins, and the specificity of place (OK – terr-wahr) that each wine expresses.

calling all sinners! don’t forget to vote.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Right on the heels of last November’s Washington state ballot initiative to kick the Liquor Board out of retail (among other things) comes one to legalize the sale of marijuana.

This is a wine blog, and will remain one – at least until someone perfects a technique for “spitting” smoke. But the two initiatives are linked in certain philosophical contexts. Looking at the first few months’ results of wide open liquor and wine sales, the dire predictions of the opposition regarding juvenile access, drunk drivers, etc. etc. have not come to pass. The higher prices should be no surprise to anyone – it’s just the state’s way of saying F--- You! to the voters. Don’t want to lose our position as the having the highest liquor taxes in the nation.

The pot bill debate is being framed along similar lines. But here there is one crucial difference, which is that the state should be in the business of retailing pot. Tax it to the sky, it won’t matter. Just stop making criminals out of anyone who grows, sells, or uses it. Stop funding cartels. And stop wasting public money on ridiculous anti-pot drug wars.

Case in point – taken directly from yesterday’s Walla Walla Union Bulletin front page. “Two Men Arrested At Marijuana Grow” read the headline on a story about a pair of Mexican nationals, caught camping near a grove of 1000 pot plants in eastern Columbia county.

hey wine guy – what wine goes with this goofy menu?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

I get letters... well, actually, e-mails. A lot of e-mails. Some offer criticism, some commentary, some suggestions. Most ask questions, as readers see me not only as a guide or critic, but also more as a sommelier or concierge. I help when I can, but honestly, there are only so many unpaid hours in a working day. At the end of the day, like most of you, I have to earn a living.

Here’s a recent query:

“Dear Paul, would like your help. Daughter and future son-in-law would like to feature local (Washington/regional) wine/beer for out of town guests. I'm father of the bride hosting backyard night-before-wedding dinner a week from Saturday.

I'm wine and beer ignorant and don't drink much - know what I like when I taste it. For the wedding (next day) it's salmon and A-Z Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (from Oregon). Beer is Pike Place Kilt Lifter and their Pale Ale.

But I need help with our Persian dinner menu (chicken, beef, lamb, egg plant, rice, falafel, humus, salads) local wine and beer selection. Any ideas (price range $10-15).”

washington wine may have a future!

Monday, September 03, 2012

A friend visiting us in Waitsburg recently passed along a yellowed copy of an article titled “Washington Wine” that ran in the Seattle Times magazine on Sunday, May 18, 1969. Author Richard Sawyer opened his chatty history of this state’s wine industry with these words:

“The fledgling Washington wine industry has been pushed out of the nest.”

The impetus for the article was the just-passed California Wine Bill, arguably the most important liquor legislation since the repeal of Prohibition 36 years earlier. What the bill did was loosen the taxes on imports – California was foreign country back then – and allow wine shops to exist, for the sole purpose of selling wine for consumption off-premise. Esquin and Champion Wine Cellars were, I believe, the first two Seattle-area wine shops to take advantage of the new laws.