what’s in the bargain bin this month?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

As an occasional service to readers of this fine blog I comb through a few weeks worth of tastings and pick out the best values that I’ve come across. Naturally, most, though not all, are from Washington and Oregon, as those wines still comprise the majority of my tastings. But I am always on the hunt for value wines from around the globe, and welcome submissions from importers and distributors.

How do I define “bargain”? Well, in order to keep it simple, I stick to the Wine Enthusiast guidelines for wines designated Best Buy. Best Buys are wines are priced at $15 or less that reach a certain level of quality – reflected in both the score and the review – that places them in the top rank of similarly-priced wines. Some varieties meet this criteria more easily than others. But listed below you’ll find a wide-ranging list of wines in good distribution that will bring pleasure without causing your pocketbook pain.

a look back at the washington wine industry 30 years ago

Sunday, August 25, 2013

In my library of wine books is (not surprisingly) a pretty comprehensive collection of books specifically about Northwest wines. A fellow named Ted Meredith was one of the first to take up the subject, and leafing through the second edition of his “Northwest Wine” book, published in 1983, I found some notes that help to put the industry’s astonishing maturation in perspective.

Meredith had published his first edition in 1980, and only a half dozen Washington wineries were listed. Just three years later, the number had climbed to 27. “Until recent years,” Meredith wrote, “the Washington wine industry was a paradox, having a relatively large number of grapes, but very few wineries. Most of the wineries were located west of the Cascades, far from the source of the grapes."

“By the early 1980s,” he goes on the write, “the Washington wine industry finally had become truly diversified. The largest wineries grew still larger. Many small wineries began operations. New and distinct growing regions entered the scene, and wineries were opening all across the state.”

In the brand-by-brand listing of wineries that follows, it’s interesting to note how many no longer exist.

inside the head of... trey busch

Friday, August 23, 2013

When Trey Busch opened his tasting room in downtown Walla Walla a few years ago, it quickly became a must-see. A lovely young woman in dreadlocks was pouring the wines; vintage vinyl was rocking the room; and posters of magicians, conjurers and sorcerers adorned the walls. The wines were good, but the ambiance – the place exuded style – was spectacular.

Sleight of Hand Cellars has since moved into a larger location south of town. Along with partners Jerry and Sandy Solomon, Trey Busch is making the best wines of his career. More than just a sense of fashion and clever marketing, the wines are rooted in great vineyard sources, and the product of a relentless work ethic and maturing winemaking skills.

I chatted with Trey Busch as we tasted through the current lineup. Many of the wines have received high scores from the national press, and deservedly so, but quickly sold out. Still available and highly recommended: 2012 Magician Riesling ($18); 2011 Enchantress Chardonnay ($28); 2011 Conjurer Red (tasting room only, $28); and 2010 Illusionist Cabernet Sauvignon ($52). Out shortly will be the 2011 Levitation Syrah and the 2011 Funkadelic Syrah.

What distinguishes all of these wines are the impeccable vineyard sources. The Riesling comes from the original block at Evergreen; the Chardonnay from 35-year-old vines at French Creek; and the red wines from carefully-assembled blends of grapes from Les Collines, Blackrock, Phinny Hill, Bacchus, Blue Mountain and others. When I met Trey he’d just returned from French Creek, so I asked him for his thoughts on the upcoming vintage. We ran out of time, but continued via e-mail. I've posted up his wonderful account of his lifelong love for music in the form of a conversation.

why is wine advertising so predictable?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Wine, as anyone who cares enough about it to read this blog surely will agree, is an endlessly fascinating, deeply nuanced product that touches almost every aspect of our lives, our culture, and our history. Why then is it that advertising for such mundane commodities as toothpaste, toilet paper and soft drinks delivers memorable images, jingles, catch-phrases and taglines, and wine companies do not?

A search of Google images under “wine advertising campaigns” turns up a predictably shallow pool.

“At Paul Masson, we will sell no wine before its time” – a slogan not only laughable, but ancient, still tops the list. Nothing else remotely familiar pops into view. Some of the images have nothing to do with wine at all. One of the best is for the Sofa King, a low-budget U.K. furniture schlepper whose ads bellow “Our Prices Are Sofa King Low!”

waitsburg cellars news and reviews

Sunday, August 18, 2013

When I launched Waitsburg Cellars with my partners at Precept Wines it was a straight shot into unknown waters. As I’ve written here before, I had never considered the possibility of making wine until the opportunity was presented. I quickly decided to throw caution to the wind and put some skin in the game. A year later, the first wines were released, and now, some months down the road, I am able to breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to making the next vintage.

I’ve just returned from meetings in Seattle with the sales team at Unique, and a more excited and motivated group I could not hope for. I poured the wines at Vino Volo on Friday, chatting with a mix of travelers on their way in, out and through town. One couple, heading back home to Bordeaux, found the Three Red especially interesting, for its unusual blend of Bordeaux and Rhone grapes.

On Saturday I poured wines again, this time at Whole Foods in Lynnwood, where many busy shoppers stopped to sip, chat, and comment on the wines. Much like my previous Seattle visits, when I poured at Wine World, West Seattle Cellars, and the McCarthy & Schiering shops, it provided a most valuable perspective and assessment of the wines. Instant reviews, straight from the consumer to me. That’s something new in my experience.

Also new is the anxiety associated with having one’s own wines reviewed by THE PRESS.

rising stars and pick(s) of the week

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jason and Erin Morin are the owner/winemakers at Ancestry Cellars, a Woodinville start-up that shares production space with Lauren Ashton Cellars, Savage Grace Wines and William Grassie. All four new Ancestry releases are excellent, but the Chardonnays deserve special praise. The 2011 Reunion was so good that I kept it open overnight and re-tasted it on the second day, only to find it had gotten even better. It was one of those rare bottles that was actually drunk down to the dregs rather than consigned to the dump bucket after being formally reviewed. My full reviews and scores on the Ancestry and Lauren Ashton wines will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.

Ancestry Cellars 2011 Reunion Chardonnay; $25
Creamy, leesy, and instantly appealing, this brings a rich array of scents and flavors into play. Crisp tropical fruits, notably papaya and banana, are set amidst highlights of toasted walnuts and lightly buttered brioche. The overall balance, length and precision are outstanding.

Ancestry Cellars 2012 Reunion Chardonnay; $25
Much riper than the 2011, hence fatter, fuller and rounder across the palate. It brings comparable roasted walnut highlights, along with lightly cooked apple and pear fruit, and hints of grilled peach and apricot.

And what is it suddenly with Washington Chardonnays? Here’s another outstanding bottle, from Ancestry’s stable mate, Lauren Ashton.

wine scores are not eternal, but wine ads may be

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

There is a large billboard on the highway I drive during regular trips to and from Waitsburg, and for some time I barely noticed it. But lately, it's become annoying. In fact, more than just annoying.

In bold letters it carries the name of a Walla Walla winery, along with the tagline “95 points – Wine Enthusiast” Sometimes wineries, when quoting one of my reviews, will kindly include my name along with that of the magazine I write for. But in this instance, I am quite happy they did not. Why? Because this is a particularly egregious example of what can only be called disingenuous, if not outright dishonest, advertising.

First off, any time a score is quoted, it should be attached to a specific wine. Ideally, a complete review should be included. Granted, that is probably not possible on a billboard. So be it. But there is no wine mentioned (or pictured) here. So what is the real story behind this headline?

wine labels: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Sunday, August 11, 2013

I have no scientific proof for this, but I would bet a large sum of money that, along with good scores, attractive wine labels are responsible for a sizable percentage of all wine sales, and perhaps account for the highest percentage of spur-of-the-moment wine buying decisions.

So why are there so many ugly labels?

It's not as if most wineries don't give their packaging a lot of thought. They do! And it’s expensive, time consuming, and most importantly, it's their public face. What kind of bottle, what sort of closure, what (if any) capsule or neck label, are all topics up for discussion. But without a doubt, the label requires the most thought and attention.

I take a long look at most wine labels. If I am reviewing a wine, I must check every data entry point against what is printed on the actual label. Winery name... vintage... variety or blend... appellation... alcohol... vineyard or block or clone designation... and on and on. But like any consumer, I also have an immediate, visceral reaction to the overall design and impact of the label. And much of the time, that somehow correlates to the quality of the wine. But not always.

50 shades of gris

Thursday, August 08, 2013

For the past three years, I’ve been a featured speaker at the Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium, organized by Jo and Jose Diaz, and hosted by Greg Lint at Oak Knoll. This event has generated some excellent technical and marketing discussions, but until now, nothing to directly impact or inspire consumers.

Next weekend that will change. Taking my original proposal, for a designated Pinot Gris weekend shared by as many tasting rooms as wanted to participate, the members and guests at the Symposium have decided to fête the grape with two days of special events. I had hoped to call it 50 Shades of Gris, but cooler heads prevailed and it is being advertised under the title “Oregon, Get Your Gris On!”

Quite a fine lineup of wineries will be participating, with events spread over both Saturday and Sunday, August 17th and 18th. Though no ticket is required, it is always a good idea to call ahead to make certain of the hours for any specific tasting room you plan to visit.

In the newest (September) issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, I have written a feature on Oregon Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Here are the participating wineries, and their notes regarding their plans for the weekend:

an open letter to consumers of washington wines

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

From 2002 until spring of this year, I wrote a weekly wine column that ran in the Seattle Times. For much of this same period the column also ran in newspapers in Yakima and Walla Walla. It was my goal to focus these newspaper columns on topics specifically of interest to consumers rather than trade. Consumers are a unique audience, with different interests and needs. Writing for the trade, which I have also done, is generally more technical. Given my decades as a resident of Washington state, it was only natural to focus this part of my wine writing on the Pacific Northwest.

But when writing for consumers, I made a special point of covering not just the wines of Washington and Oregon, but regularly including wines from around the world. When I traveled to foreign countries, I wrote about those wines; and when I attended wine events or trade tastings, I always looked for the opportunity to taste wines from outside the region.

The reasons are simple enough.

the brilliant wines of peter lehmann

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Not long ago came the sad news that Peter Lehmann had passed away. The ‘Baron of Barossa’ was 82 and in declining health. But whenever one of the founding giants of the modern wine industry dies, there is an inevitable sense of loss, and a feeling, whether true or not, that we shall never see their like again.

I never met Mr. Lehmann, but I’ve long admired the wines marketed under his namesake label. His career in wine spanned 65 years, from a start as a cellar rat at Yalumba, on through stints at Saltram and Dalgety, and finally into an entrepreneurial venture named Masterson Wines (named for the rascal protagonist of the musical Guys and Dolls). That turned into PLW – Peter Lehmann Wines – which was, and is, though not small, a winery run on the principles of a family-owned boutique. Since 2003 it has been part of the Hess Collection, and seems solidly anchored on its established, independent path, though with a clear eye on the future.

In an obit published in Decanter it was noted that though “often abrasive – his outspokenness was legendary – but PL, as he was known, was popular with the 140 growers he had on his books, many of whom he saved from bankruptcy. It is said that he never entered a deal on anything but a handshake.”

pick of the week – poggio vignoso chianti

Friday, August 02, 2013

I am just returned from a truly exhilarating editorial conference at Wine Enthusiast headquarters in New York. Over the next weeks and months I will be writing about many of the upcoming events and updates and other new ventures, but right now I cannot divulge anything or I would have to kill myself.

So please excuse the short entry for today – unlike my friend and colleague Steve Heimoff, who tirelessly blogged his way through the week, I am made of lesser stuff and after four hours of sleep and 18 hours spent navigating limos, airports, flights and a long ride home, there wasn't much left.

Except this excellent Pick of the Week from Small Vineyards (now the August Group). As many of you know, I am a lover of fine Chianti, and a lot of the wines I purchase and cellar for myself are Chianti Classicos. That said, you can expect to pay $25 and up (usually up) to get to the really good stuff. Here's a bottle at half that price that I would happily drink now and over the next decade.

The 2011 Poggio Vignoso Chianti is D.O.C.G.–designated, a classification not often found in wines at this price. It's under the supervisions of Luigi Donato, whose family has owned the estate for 150 years. The property itself is nothing short of historic–with records going back 13 centuries. Together with expert winemaker Fulvio Galgani, Donato has chosen to focus on wines that are unique to the region, such as the ultra-rare Pulignano–a clone of Sangiovese that only grows on their hill. In addition, they maintain the vast botanical gardens of Fattoria di Pugliano.

The 2011 Poggio Vignoso Chianti is loaded with spicy cherry and cranberry fruit, shows good concentration and a clean finish. The hints of tobacco and leather are from grapes, not oak chips or brett, and the alcohol is a perfect 13.5%. The mix of grapes is traditional all the way – 85% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, and 5% Malvasia Nera. Suggested retail – $12.

Visit here for purchase information.