The current issue of Wine Enthusiast carries a column I wrote entitled Wine Myths Debunked. Find it here.
In it I tried to examine a number of commonly-held beliefs and show how they would limit one’s ability to taste outside of the box, if you will (actually, tasting inside a box is outside the box when it comes to fine wine, but that’s another story).
Anyhoo, number two on the list was ‘Big corporations only make good wine, never great wine.’
“This is simply not true,” I wrote. “Big companies have deep pockets, rich resources and the talent to make boutique-style wines within the context of a mass-production facility. Not all of them rise to the challenge, but there are many that do.”
As it happens, just this week I tasted a trio of wines that made the point very well.
The current issue of Wine Enthusiast carries a column I wrote entitled Wine Myths Debunked. Find it here.
The second of this year’s Top 100 lists has just been posted online, this one focusing on the Top 100 Cellar Selections from the editors of Wine Enthusiast, based on reviews published during the past year.
Inevitably, some – if not most – of these wines will be difficult to find. But the notes point the way to those producers whose wines are deemed cellar-worthy, and it’s a good bet that they will remain so in subsequent vintages. So... what makes a wine a Cellar Selection?
Well, as the magazine's introduction states, “since most of these ageworthy wines come from established regions and top vintages, the emphasis is on quality, not value.” But that is not to imply that they are over-priced for what they deliver. Designating a wine a Cellar Selection is an option that those of us who review and score wines for the magazine take very seriously. For myself, I look for wines that are not only at the top of any list of their peers in terms of QPR, but also exceptional reflections of the vintage, the place, and the grape(s) from which they have been crafted.
The short list of the very best wineries in Washington can be quickly divided into two distinctly different camps. There are those wineries who make a small number of wines extremely well, and retain a tight focus on just those few – generally a half dozen at most. Examples: Leonetti Cellar and Quilceda Creek. And there are those wineries who produce a vast number of wines and somehow excel at virtually all of them. At the top of this list is the sprawling vino empire of Charles Smith.
Included are over a dozen wines bottled under the K Vintners label, another sizeable group bearing the Charles Smith label, and budget-priced wines for his ViNO, Charles & Charles, and Secco projects. A still-to-be-named label with a Chardonnay focus is in the works, though nothing has been released.
Focusing on just a small slice of this enological feast, I was struck by the clear differentiation among a portfolio of a dozen K and Charles Smith Syrahs. Priced from $30 on up to $140, and sourced from several widely-separated AVAs, every single one of these wines makes a strong case for its separate existence. That is hard to do. Consider how many wineries in this country put out up to a dozen Pinot Noirs, as a comparable example, and you won’t find many examples where each one has a clear and unique style.
A poem by Ezra Pound was a fixture on our kitchen bulletin board when I was a child. It had come from my Aunt Lily, who was my mother’s closest sibling, in both age and temperament. I read it repeatedly, barely comprehending it, and certainly unclear about the fact that it seemed to provide my mother with great amusement, especially come autumn.
These days I understand. Though eastern Washington, especially here in Walla Walla County, is enjoying a thrilling and spectacular Indian Summer, with gorgeous colors and warm, sunny days, the night are chill and the end of Daylight Savings time draws ever closer. And by God, an ague hath my ham!
So here you go, Ancient Music, by Ezra Pound, based on a traditional English round written about 1250.
Drinking, toasting, hosting, maybe doing a little wine-related boasting, all come into play during the holidays. I mean that stretch from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day when all the world takes time to party. But we’re not there yet – Thanksgiving is still five weeks away. So what we need is... more holidays!
A brief story that ran today on the drinks business website sparked my thinking on this important, and sadly neglected, topic. The headline reads “On This Day... the London Beer Flood” Who can resist a headline like that? The gist of the story is this… on October 17th, 1814, the Meux and Company Brewery suffered a tragic blow, when one of its huge vats of beer – 3550 barrels worth of porter – blew apart at the seams and sent 323,000 gallons (571 tons!) of beer sloshing through the streets of London.
It’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, Rhône varietal wines were considered to be bleeding edge experiments in this country. Here in Washington, there were a handful of wineries trying out Syrah – Columbia, McCrea and Glen Fiona come to mind – but no hint of the whites, or red grapes such as Mourvèdre. Even Grenache, a stalwart in the early days of the industry, had all but disappeared.
Today there are literally hundreds of Syrahs released annually just in Washington, and certainly dozens of red blends featuring Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Viogniers are abundant, as are varietal Roussannes, Marsannes, and their blends. The occasional Picpoul and Grenache Blanc pops up as well. I’m especially fond of the latter, and in fact will offer a blend based on Grenache Blanc as a Waitsburg Cellars wine next spring.
Clearly, there has been a swift and impressive change in what can be grown, what is being grown, and what winemakers want to be grown, not just here in Washington, but up and down the entire west coast. And we have Tablas Creek to thank for it.
From time to time, I take a deep dive into my wine cellar and pull together a vertical tasting from a single winery. It’s one of the best reasons to have a wine cellar, and my decades-long focus on Northwest wines means that I have a lot to choose from.
Apart from the sheer fun of it, there is educational value, in seeing how certain vintages are developing. And much like a garden that needs regular tending, a wine cellar can become overgrown and dysfunctional if it is neglected, or allowed to spread uncontrollably.
A small group of friends, whose arrival at our Three Maples cottage yesterday co-incided with my decision to pull together a vertical tasting, were invited to join in. I chose a group of 10 wines from Robert Karl, a winery I’ve long admired. Notable for their focus on a small portfolio of red wines, sourced (since 2003) entirely from vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Robert Karl produces the sort of tightly-wound, reductive wines that are difficult to evaluate upon release. I always thought that they’d age well. This was the chance to find out if I was right.
Certainly one of the highlights of my fall is the appearance of the Top 100 lists that look back on all the wines reviewed by myself and the crack team (that’s crack – not cracked!) of correspondents with whom I work at Wine Enthusiast. Though we are scattered around the globe, and only get together in person once or twice a year, we very much enjoy each others’ company and commentary.
When the three Top 100 lists appear, in successive issues of the magazine at the end of the year, I’m certain that everyone does as I do, which is scan them to see which wines from our particular regions are ranked. Virtually without exception, the wines of Washington and Oregon play a large part in these lists, and occupy favored positions that would be the envy of many much larger and more prominent wine regions.
This first list looks at all the year’s Best Buys, and culls the top 100 out of a total of 922 Best Buys. These represent about 5% of all the wines that were reviewed throughout the past 12 months, so this list is the best 10% of that 5% – quite an honor! And once again, the Pacific Northwest is amply represented. Here’s a quick rundown, listing them by their Top 100 rank and their scores. Full reviews are posted online. The entire database is offered at no cost, unlike other subscriber-based websites. Note that all of these wines carry a suggested retail price of $15 or less, and many can be purchased for under $10.
Two special wines lit up my weekend, and stole the spotlight at an informal dinner with friends last night. First up was the Kenwood 2009 Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon, the 35th vintage of that remarkable run.
The label, as usual, is iconic, thoughtful, and riveting. This year the artist is Markus Linnenbrink, a German, best known for his sculpture, installations, and resin paintings. The winery website describes his technique in these terms:
“He pours, pools and brushes paintings with layers of opaque and translucent color, opening windows to the wood support beneath manifesting a complex interplay between fore and background. The decadent glossy finish of this work is truly eye-catching, but Linnenbrink’s skillful layering technique that forms deep and exquisitely chromatic concentric circles is the real draw.” Or the real drawing?!?
Whether you know your art or not (count me in the not camp), the painting pictured, entitled ‘THESTATEYOU’REIN” does in fact put your head in a good place, and serves as a fine introduction and background to the wine.
On The Wine Curmudgeon blog this morning is an interesting post about how “awfully low” wine prices are these days. Jeff Siegel (AKA The Curmudgeon) quotes a mailer from Total Wine with a mix of discounted brands, ranging in price from just under $5 to $57 for a benchmark Napa Cab. He mentions a Pinot Gris from King Estate knocked down to $11.97.
That’s a wine I’m quite familiar with, as I’ve reviewed the last several vintages for Wine Enthusiast. And I agree, that’s a mighty low price, for a very fine wine that is listed at $17 suggested retail.
But there’s more to the story than just a discounted price. Heck, every few days in my local paper is a pull out flyer from Macy’s, listing “the lowest prices of the season” on a variety of goods from jewelry to shoes to bedding to furniture. Does anyone really think that the prices quoted as original retail are in any way legit? When this stuff comes at you not annually, not quarterly, not even monthly, but almost daily, who in their right mind expects to pay full retail?
There are many factors that may account for discounting wines. Among them: changes in the law that allow volume discounting at the wholesale level; the rise of big box booze retailers; the economy; the expansion of the number of wines and wineries globally; the so-called glut of supply... and so on.
But there is really and truly only one final explanation for wine prices being stuck in the basement. Consumers don’t want to pay any more!