some rock ‘n’ roll wines from silverback vineyards

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Visit the Silverback Vineyards website and you learn a great deal about this under-the-radar boutique. Grapes are sourced from the Wallula vineyard, old world craft (special barrels, extended aging) is in play. The wines are rare and expensive. Winemaker Charles Herrold is an ex-rocker, living in White Rock, B.C., who formerly owned Blackwood Lane winery. He says his approach to winemaking "is to apply minimal intervention, focusing on well-tended grapes from proven vineyards and to make the right choices in the winery to avoid compensating with chemicals – a common practice in the wine industry. Few faults or tweaks get past Herrold’s refined nose and palate,” the site goes on to say, “leading him to, essentially, strive to produce wines that pass his own critical sniff test.” Then it finishes with a line that might be right off a dating site: “Charles is a former musician, enjoys cooking seafood dishes and loves to meet new friends.”

The odd mix of bravado, geek speak, and regular guy talk can’t help but fascinate, and I was especially intrigued to learn that the Silverback wines have been made right here in Walla Walla, first at Artifex and more recently at another custom crush facility, AmeriCold.

I requested a visit and Charles and his Sales and Marketing Director, Monique Guiger, made a special trip out to the site (neither lives in Walla Walla) to meet with me. Tasting a dozen unfinished wines from barrel, and following it up with a look at the five wines currently released, provided the opportunity to dig past the obvious and get a better sense of what Silverback is all about.

Let me first deal with the rhinoceros in the corner – the pricing. I try not to make comments about cost, other than general ones, because it is my firm belief that wineries are businesses, and it is entirely up to the owner(s) to set pricing. But when a new winery debuts with wines that rival, or exceed, anything ever seen in Washington, it’s more than a head-scratcher. It’s a statement. And it puts me on guard. At the very least, I’m going to be highly critical of any perceived flaws. A winery with this much bravado better deliver the goods.

Well, Charles Herrold may be the Richard Sherman (Seahawks All-Pro cornerback) of wine. He talks a lot, but he delivers the goods. “I drank 370 bottles of white Burgundy last year...” he casually announced, as we dipped into three different barrels of 2012 Wallula vineyard Chardonnay. The wines had used different yeasts and were each quite distinctive, though likely headed for blending into a single wine. The current release, a 2011 Silverback Wallula Vineyard Chardonnay ($55) gives just a hint of what’s to come. A lovely wine, with fresh natural acidity, hints of toast, coconut and almond, mixed melon, citrus and pear fruits, it displays excellent structure and moderate (13.2%) abv.
185 cases were made.

We went on to taste unblended barrels of 2012 Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, all dense, dark, and smoky, ultimately destined for Silverback’s Bordeaux blend, called Référence. The 2010 Wallula Vineyard Référence ($105) is the current release. A blend of 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec, it is – you guessed it! – deep, oaky, dark and smoky – like drinking an Edgar Allan Poe story. The wine is totally loaded with the blackest flavors of cassis, toast, black coffee, and raw wood. At first it seems like a classic steakhouse red, but it also showed (over a three-day period) that it could ultimately soften and age into something more elegant, if given the time. How much time? I’d guess at least a decade, maybe two.

The real show stoppers at this point are the Syrahs. The Silverback 2010 Columbia Valley Syrah ($80) is smooth and supple from the moment the cork is pulled. Spicy and well-built, it continues to add layers of iodine, tar and asphalt as it breathes open. With still more time, the mid-palate expands, and luscious black cherry fruit overtakes the darker barrel notes. Just 149 cases were made.

When I queried Herrold about the price of the Silverback 2011 Reserve Syrah ($240) – the highest price ever charged for a new release of a Washington wine – he more or less shrugged. Only 55 cases were made; it’s a wine for collectors, and it’s already being picked up by select restaurants in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. OK then, how good is it?

Well, this wine took awhile (24 hours) to come around, but come around it did. At 15% abv, it was packed tight and almost impenetrable when first opened. It wasn’t until the second day that the fruit began to emerge from a black sea of barrel toast, tar, smoke, charcoal, graphite, cacao, licorice and espresso grounds. But ultimately, the wine showed that it had the stuffing to support the frame. The black fruits were plentiful, muscular, rich and ripe, without tilting into the jammy goo that seems to happen with many such efforts. Just 55 cases were made.

Clearly, this is a winemaker with the intent to spare no expense to make wines at the highest possible quality level. And Silverback is a winery to watch closely, especially for those who believe, as I do, that Washington Chardonnays, Cabernet blends, and Syrahs can equal or surpass those from anywhere in the country. If you are intrigued, I encourage you to sign up on the website for purchase information. Private tastings and barrel tastings are also offered.

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