what’s in the bargain bin this month?

Monday, September 30, 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. On or about October 9th, I will post up the wines I’ve reviewed this past year that are included in the magazine’s Top 100 Best Buys for 2013. I think you’ll be delighted at the winners. Meanwhile, here are some recently-released Best Buy candidates to whet your whistle. All offer excellent quality for the price, and I’ve arranged the list according to potential score, from the highest on down.

a chasselas to a-doré

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

As many of you faithful readers may surmise, I taste a lot of wines. A lot. I also enjoy beer, amaro, gin, single malt scotch, and the occasional bourbon. Spitting all the way of course!

But inevitably, the constant flow of excellent beverages makes it just a little bit more difficult to be surprised. And surprise, as we all come to realize, is the key to excitement, in virtually all human pursuits of pleasure.

So when a wine surprises me, with its flavor, polish, finesse, uniqueness, and overall style, I tend to get excited. Such a wine was offered to me a few days ago thanks to my friend Matthew Domingo.

harvest report – sun, wind, rain, hail, haboob...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Planet Blog is loaded with harvest reports at the moment, which is de rigeur for this time of year, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. My own feeling is that there is little need for any of it, though it does fill space. The headline above captures a small part of the harvest here in the Pacific Northwest. You can fill in your own adjectives at will. Here are some to choose from (they all fit):

Early. Surprising. Warm. Prolific. Great. Easy. Challenging. Wet. Unpredictable. Hot. Cool. Humid.

Visiting a dozen vineyards in the northern Willamette valley last week, I heard all of the above and more. Some vintners were rushing to pick ahead of heavy rainfall predicted for the weekend (it didn’t arrive). Others were pulling in some early blocks but waiting for physiological ripeness in others. Some had barely begun. In other words, they were all over the map. And this was in a fairly confined area, in one small part of the region.

a perfect day in pinot country

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Some days in wine country are so packed with pleasure that summarizing them seems like an impossible task. Yesterday was one such day. As a guest of Travel Oregon, on the road with a small group of journalists, I enjoyed one of the most interesting and productive days I've ever spent in the Willamette Valley.

Crush is well under way at a number of vineyards, just getting started at others. What looked for most of the year like a perfect vintage – early bloom, warm, dry summer – shifted into a more worrisome mode with heavy rains a couple of weeks ago. With more heavy rain in the forecast, bringing the possibility of rot and mildew with it, vintners were caught on a familiar fence. Pick now and be safe, or ride it out and go for potentially superior fruit?

Such questions were in the forefront as we toured some of the great vineyards, chatting with Dai Crisp at Temperance Hill, with Alex Sokol-Blosser and Jason Lett (Eyrie) at their adjoining vineyards, Don Lange at Durant, and Dick Shea at Shea. At each stop wines were poured, and barrels tapped, providing a look at vintages past, present and future.

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.

update on waitsburg cellars and other highlights of the weekend

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I will be heading to Portland this week, for Feast Portland and some visits to vineyards and wineries, just in time for crush. Crush is beginning for Waitsburg Cellars also, bringing in grapes for the two Chenins and some new offerings that will be part of our Spring 2014 release.

The Wine Spectator reviews for all five Waitsburg Cellars wines were released a few days ago, and Harvey Steiman clearly took a good, thoughtful look at all five. I say that not only because I was delighted with the scores, which I was, but also because the notes that he wrote showed a more than casual understanding of what these wines can deliver. Full disclosure – Mr. Steiman and I were briefly writing for the Wine Spectator at the same time in the mid-1980s. We have had no professional relationship since that time.

Here are the notes and scores:

the cutting edge wines of savage grace

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Savage Grace winery, named for owner/vintner Michael Savage and his wife Grace, is tucked into the nondescript cluster of startups just north of downtown Woodinville. It was established in 2011, when a single wine – a Cabernet Franc from the Rattlesnake Hills AVA in the northern Yakima valley – hinted at some of the mineral-infused reds from the Loire valley.

However where those wines all too often (except in the ripest years) have a strong herbal/stem character, this Savage Grace wine showed something different, more elegant, more refined, focused and pure, even in such a cool vintage. The follow-up wines from 2012 are good enough to convince me that Michael Savage has performed the rare trick of establishing a strong identity with a new winery almost immediately. Better still, the wines he is making are fine-tuned to what I like to call the 21st century palate.

What that means is they are wines that favor purity of fruit, natural acidity, moderate levels of alcohol, and minimal intervention. No winemaking tricks are needed or wanted. The wines reflect grape, place and vintage, and the winemaker stands aside and lets them speak for themselves.

For far too long many of Washington’s most noteworthy wines have suffered from the Bigger Is Better syndrome. Talk to the winemakers and they almost always will decry the fact that alcohol levels have crept up by about 1% per decade since the early 1980s. And yet they throw up their hands and say that there really isn’t anything to be done about it.

Why not?

a close look at the 2010 cayuse wines (and one from 2011)

Monday, September 09, 2013

My tasting notes for Cayuse wines go back to May of 2000, when I first experienced three Syrahs from the upstart winery – a 1997 Columbia Valley; a 1998 Cobblestone Vineyard; and a1998 Cayuse Vineyards. Subsequently there are few releases I’ve missed, and many I’ve tasted on multiple occasions, at up to 10 years of age. Yet the wines remain mysterious, somewhat inscrutable, and assigning them scores seems somehow beside the point.

The fact is, when a Cayuse Syrah is placed in a flight of global Syrahs and tasted blind, it often does not impress. I’ve seen experienced and knowledgable tasting groups dismiss them completely, only to express amazement when the bags come off and they see the Cayuse label.

So what’s going on?

inside the head of... christophe baron

Friday, September 06, 2013

My most recent visit to Cayuse, to taste the next round of wines to be released, began, as usual, with a stroll through the vineyards that are directly adjacent to the winery. The property has been expanding, and now includes the 16-acre Armada vineyard, the La Paciencia vineyard (dedicated exclusively to the No Girls wines), and the recently (2008) planted, 2-acre Sur Echalas vineyard, the highest density planting in the Walla Walla Valley with 3' x 3' spacing equaling 4840 vines per acre. The first Sur Echalas grapes – Syrah and Grenache – were harvested in 2011 and will be released under the Horsepower label in the spring of 2014.

Along with the immaculate rows of manicured vines are large areas devoted to fruit trees, produce, chicken coops, and the care of other farm animals, all part of the Biodynamic bio-system that is the core of vigneron Christophe Baron’s winemaking philosophy. New to the whole enterprise is a huge hole in the ground, dug to a depth of roughly 15 feet, that will become the winery’s cave. Here, at ground level, the fermentation tanks will be installed, in time for the 2014 harvest. Below ground will be where the wines are aged. The existing winery space will become case storage.

Baron is nearing the end of his second decade making wine in Walla Walla, and it is no exaggeration that what he has accomplished is remarkable in every way. Yet he brims with plans for more.

spotlight on beresan

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Wine writers love to make discoveries, and once a promising new winery has been unearthed, praised, and publicized, most of us want to track its progress to see how it fares. I first tasted the wines of Beresan back in 2004, when the 2002 vintage was being released. I was instantly smitten with the quality, the value, and the expression of estate-grown fruit from one of – if not the – oldest vineyards in the region known as the Rocks.

I’ve visited the winery and tasted the wines frequently since, and more often than not I have felt that grower Tom Waliser and winemaker Tom Glase hit the bulls-eye with the wines. But everyone stumbles now and again, and a couple of years ago, though there were definite highlights (the 2006 TomFoolery Reserve in particular), the lineup overall seemed a bit lacklustre.

Last week I tasted new releases for the first time since, and found Beresan back in fine form across the board. These are releases from last winter and this past spring, but the vintages drift all the way back to 2008. No matter, the older wines are in their prime, and good to enjoy while the younger vintages grab a few more years in bottle. Prices, as always, are generously low for the quality.