I just returned from a delightfully hot and delicious weekend in Walla Walla, Washington. It had been a couple of years since my last visit, and this was the first time I had ample time to explore on my own and not within the context of a workshop or event.
We visited five tasting rooms during a full Saturday of touring, and some of my favorite tastes are noted below. Plus three terrific restaurants -- WhoopEmUp Hollow Cafe and Jim German Bar in the quaint, quiet town of Waitsburg where we stayed at the pooch-friendly Dogwood Cottage, and Salumiere Cesario in downtown Walla Walla. Highlights included the Whoop mac 'n cheese, beignets and coca cola cake (something this southern gal had never before tried), Jim German's schnitzel and potatoes (absolutely sinfully decadent -- who knew potatoes could be this good) and Salumiere's sopressata and great salt and cheese collections.
What most struck me is the vast valley there -- miles of green rolling hills with relatively few wine businesses scattered between. In Walla Walla, a wine tasting room is just as likely to be located downtown or around the airport as at a more traditional winery property. Duane Wollmuth, Executive Director of the Walla Walla Wine Alliance -- which is putting on what promises to be a terrific June event in Celebrate, let me know the organization has 110 members. (I have many more tasting rooms to visit and thankfully, am already looking forward to my next trip there.)
We began the day at A Maurice, a pretty and understated property making quite elegant wines. I particularly enjoyed the 2011 Viognier, which had pleasant aromas of citrus, gardenia, herbs and a refreshing zippy acidity with a very clean finish. The 2010 Conner Lee Chardonnay had lime, passionfruit and very well integrated barrel spice. The third standout, "The Graves" Red Bordeaux Blend had tons of blackberry, cherry, a little mocha and very silky tannins. The common thread between the three was a perfect balance of fruit, acid, structure and finish -- elegant restraint. They left me wanting more, in the best possible way.
Next stop across the street -- Walla Walla Vintners, a long-time producer focused on reds. The winery's 2010 Cuvee, a Bordeaux blend with added Syrah, had great blackberry, cherry pie, leather and mocha notes with a particularly good balance of fruit and oak. The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was another treat -- lots of black fruit with sweet curing tobacco, toffee, eucalyptus and more.
We then visited K Vintners, home of wines made by the media savvy and witty Charles Smith (whom we spotted downtown enjoying lunch later in the day). I've long known of K's focus on Syrah -- big Syrah, but what most stood out to me was the incredible 2011 Lawrence Vineyard Viognier. What a beautiful expression of this variety. Tons of tropical fruit with a little honey and slatey/mineral character that I just loved.
And finally, we ended the day at Gramercy Cellars. Janel and I met Greg Harrington at Taste WA and Auction of WA Wines last year, and his tasting room has been on my "must visit" list ever since. Everything at Gramercy was terrific -- from the wines with personality (L'idiot du Village Rhone blend and Inigo Montoya Syrah) to hospitality by Steve Wells (who is noted as Director of Awesome on the winery' site). The 2012 Rose immediately transported me back to a favorite beach in St. Martin -- it's pretty grapefruit character, bright acid and clean finish were so captivating it was almost like being on a vacation. The L'idiot had great black cherry, rosemary, white pepper notes with a chalky texture on the palate that is oh so old world. The 2010 Syrah just sung with purity of black and cherry fruit, a little pie crust and more pepper notes.
In summary, these visits were terrific, with wine quality being the stand out take-home message. (There is one tasting room I do not mention as I found the wines to be quite average and one to be flawed -- interesting they had quite a discount deal on it; I'd have removed it rather than damage the overall brand.) In general, the welcomes were friendly -- not exactly full of warmth, but we felt quite welcome given the seemingly laid back nature of those we visited. I also noticed that tasting fees tend to be very reasonable -- usually $5, sometimes $10 and refundable with purchase. (Gramercy gives tastes free for those who find them -- their signage is not stand out there on the edge of town, but I have a feeling that could be on purpose.)
The one major area of improvement is something we see over and over again: not one winery representative asked for the sale. In our industry, we tend to be very wrapped up in describing flavor, oak influence, clones, vineyards, etc., and therefore miss the opportunity to learn about what our customers value.
Engaging people with conversation -- trying to discern preferences and create a relationship, makes consultative style selling much easier. Something for all tasting room manager and staff to keep in mind when dealing with the public. I could have just as easily been a restaurant buyer, member of the media or consumer looking to fill up my SUV trunk that day. Few of those we visited would have known because only two took the time to ask!
PS - although not a tasting room visit, I did get the opportunity to try 2012 “Cheninières", a delicious and dry Vouvray style Chenin Blanc from Waitsburg Cellars. Rather than try to comment about a respected wine journalist's wine, I'll forward you to a site that will do a much better job and give you quite a chuckle -- HoseMaster of Wine!
This past weekend was my sixth Taste Washington weekend in Seattle. As usual, it was a fantastic event -- particularly the seminars which bring together top media and industry panelists, fabulous wines and the opportunity to taste in a more structured setting. The grand tasting was wonderful, too, given the breadth of exciting wines, chance to connect with clients and industry folk.
Below are my notes from the two seminars I attended; Janel will share hers in a future post:
Washington versus the World
This seminar paired five Washington wines with five wines from France, Australia and Napa. What a treat!
1999 Woodward Canyon Special Selection
Deep blackberry, black cherry, graphite, vanilla; chalky tannins. Some hints of rosemary and celery root. Still quite youthful; beautifully integrated. Smooth! Long life ahead of this wine...
2000 Leoville Las Cases
Dear God. A damn fine St. Julien. Cassis, blackberry, spice rack; subtle yet complex in the way a French wine can be; oregano, dried cherry and lots of depth in the palate. Mineral note at finish. Still pretty tight and much less fruit-forward compared to Washington. (At this point I was loving the tasting but also feeling odd comparing them because they are not really comparable -- it's like two amazing but very different musical scores. Doesn't matter which one is better because both are amazing. That's why you can ask for more than one glass at a table!)
2005 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon
Very juicy black fruit with hi-toned cassis note. Quite round on the palate with good, chalky tannin. Youthful. Not my style of wine, actually.
2005 Cos d'Estournel
Coffee grinds, butterscotch, mocha. Not your typical Bordelaise approach. Silky with great, smooth, depth; some graphite at palate with chalkiness and long, tannic finish. This is complex and very special. Seems in between new and old world (I couldn't quite place this wine because even though I knew it was the Bordeaux, it didn't present that way.)
2005 Araju Eisele VIneyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Very concentrated black fruit, graphite, curing tobacco; ripe with silky tannins.
2010 Betz La Cote Patriarche
Youthful -- nearly felt like California even though I knew it was from Washington. Cinnamon, blackberry pie; big concentration -- just a baby; slight cured meat character but mostly hidden by youthful fruit. There is luscious weight here that just doesn't quit.
2009 The Standish
I don't have much experience with Aussie wines because I tend to find them to be huge fruit monsters and I prefer some complexity with other aromas and flavors. This wine was awesome. Super youthful with great depth; forest floor, black cherry, pepper; nice velvety palate.
2010 Avennia Syrah
Wow! Black cherry, concentrated pepper, hi toned graphite; silky with some exciting zippy acidity and good, prominent rich fruit. Integrated. Un peu d'animal -- makes me want more. Would love to see this wine again in 10 years. Palate weight is just wow. Damn. Will be thinking about this for awhile.
2006 M. Chapoutier Ermitage le Meal
I'm usually the Francophile who loves the "stank" of the old world. This wine had stewed tomato (too much), bay leaf, caramel, cured meats and lots of cherry. Nice complexity but just not my style -- definitely needed food -- like a very stinky cheese. Not sure if this is/was typical but seemed on its way out.
Yakima Valley 30th Anniversary
I've been to Yakima a few times to judge the Washington State Fair, but must admit I had no idea! Yakima is "the craddle of the Washington industry and has been growing grapes for over 100 years". It is also home to 12,000 acres of vineyards or about one third of the state's acreage, 75% of the hops produced in our country and the number one producer of mint.
This area is also home to the sub-appellations of Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain and Snipes Mountain. There are some incredible vineyards here including Boushey, Red Willow, Ciel du Cheval and more.
Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut Rose
DSM is the state's largest grower of Pinot Noir which is used in this wine. Lovely red apple, rose, cranberry and a nice, creamy palate. Heck of a value!
2010 Owen Roe Red Willow Blend
Inky blakcberry, black cherry pie, basil, a little toffee; smooth, bright with cocoa at palate -- it just feels good in the mouth; mouth-filling yet somehow balanced; rich with a little touch of brown sugar on the finish.
2010 Betz La Serenne Syrah
Little bit of an old world style. Black peppercorn, fresh oregano, white pepper and black fruit; more angular; very youthful and juicy but with balancing minerality; very focused nose -- if an aroma could have a texture, this would. Intriguing wine.
2010 Smasne Cellars Ancient Rocks Rhone Blend
Chalky, raspberry jam, dried cherry and nutmeg -- great aromas; really nice complexity on the palate with a velveteen texture; little mid-palate mineral and coffee note on the finish. Love it!
2009 DeLille Harrison Hill Red Blend
A Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wine with hi-toned blackberry, roasted red pepper, garlic butter and raspberry. Long finish with rich fruit throughout palate -- it just goes and goes. There is subtle slately character.
2010 Soos Creek Ciel du Cheval Red Blend
Blackberry puree, fresh leather and oregano, sweet black cherry; juicy and huge on palate; slately/mineral on mid-palate with clean finish. Delicious.
This Monday I had the pleasure of judging the 2011 Idaho Wine Competition, which is run by Wine Press NW and hosted by the Idaho Wine Commission. I truly enjoyed experiencing these new wine regions and discovering some gems.
Idaho has grown from approximately 11 wineries just a decade ago to over 40. The commission seems to have improved its marketing significantly, and I'll be following them to monitor developments and growth. For those thinking of visiting, the greetings are friendly and Boise is a well-maintained college town that is easy to navigate.
As is typical with me, I offer some of my favorite "gold" wines below -- these are not necessarily competition gold medal winners.
Williamson 2010 Riesling, $9 - This wine ultimately received a silver, but was nearly a gold in my opinion. Tangerine, lemon cream, floral and basil notes filled the nose, which was confirmed on the palate that offered good balance and a clean finish. For $9 it's a great buy!
Cinder 2010 Chardonnay, $18 - Lime, pear, green apple aromas were quite pretty, with noticeably nice oak integration on the palate. This is a polished Chardonnay that showed best in its class. It could stand up against competitors from known Chard regions and with the quality:price ratio, knock them right out of the running.
Williamson 2010 Blossom Rose of Sangiovese, $12 - Another winner from this winery, the rose features pretty pear, floral, lavender and cherry aromas. There is a nice acid balance on the palate which leads to a clean finish. Great "summer sipper" all year long (we shouldn't give up rose just because the sun is hiding).
Snake River 2009 Arena Valley Vineyard Syrah, $17 - I gave this wine a gold, as did my colleague panelists, so it was rated a double gold medal. I loved its smoky cherry, blackberry fruit aromas and notes of bacon fat and pepper. The palate is filled with rich fruit and it brings a long finish. (The website is beautifully done -- can't help the marketing note.)
Wood River 2008 Cabernet Franc, $28 - An impressive showing and gold for this variety, which tends not to be made on its own. The nose has cedar, black fruit, raspberry and bell pepper. The palate features great balance with good acid:tannin: fruit ratio for structure. Delicious. It won best red of show.
Koenig 2009 Riesling Ice Wine, $20 - Wow this was a fun wine to taste -- I may have even swallowed a sip :) Aromas of apple, pear and lemon zest were complimented by slight graham cracker and herbal notes, which added complexity. The palate featured very ripe peach and apricot notes and a very long finish. In short, this is downright delicious.
If you haven't ever tried a wine from Idaho, I encourage you to look for these gems and explore -- afterall, one of the reasons that wine is so engaging is because it offers a way to discover the world.
PS - a special thank you to my colleague, Janel, who participated in research for this post
This month I had the pleasure of judging the Washington State Fair wine competition held annually in Yakima. Wade Wolfe, noted winemaker who with his wife owns Thurnston Wolf, was my panel's head judge. Together, the six of us on the panel tasted about 150 wines including white blends, Bordeaux blends, Cabernet Sauvignon and dessert style.
Some of my top scoring wines are listed below. (Note that these are not necessarily the medals awarded by the competition.)
Coyote Canyon Horse Heaven Hill Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 - smoky raspberry with slight toffee note; nicely oaked with a herbal character. Good length.
Kiona Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 - raspberry, mocha, peat moss and graphite aromas with cedar, sweet curing tobacco notes; great structure and length.
Kiona Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 - blackberry, cedar, leather -- a deep, inviting notes with tea leaf notes; rich and ripe on the palate; nice structure and finish -- well integrated.
Maryhill Tudor/Gunkel Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 - inviting notes with cigar box, blackberry, tea leaf; cool herbal note at palate; good structure.
Windy Point Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 - mint, black cherry, boysenberry with a solid structure and pretty finish.
Cougar Crest Cougar Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 - cedar, black fruit, graphite -- very pretty! A hint of a peppery note with a solid finish.
Vin du Lac Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 - cedar plank, blackberry, tea leaf with a hint of almond; good length.
I had the pleasure of judging Washington's Sunshine wine competition on June 12. My panel, headed up by AndyPerdue of Wine Press Northwest, saw Viognier, white blends,Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux blends, dessert whites and fruit wines. As usual, Washington Cabernet Sauvignon shined.
Below is a list of my favorite wines with tasting notes and two medal notations -- the one I personally awarded and the wine's ultimate award given by the panel.
In wine competitions, everything is done "blind", so we only know what variety and perhaps vintage we're tasting. First, individual judges taste and note their scores (you'll see my notes below are not full reviews because we only have 30 seconds to a minute to evaluate each wine). After each flight, the panel discusses the individual wines and must come to agreement on a final medal.
2006 Le Chateau Bordeaux Blend - aromas of blueberry, graphite, cedar and cassis; smooth, pretty and integrated on the palate with a soft finish (Gold from me and overall)
2007 Foxy Roxy Vixen Bordeaux Blend - earth, moss, and blackberry aromas with a similar palate offering dusty tannins; nice finish (Gold from me; Silver overall)
2007 William Church Sur La Mer Bordeaux Blend - pencil shavings, deep blackberry fruit with a little rhubarb burst; palate has herbal, coffee and raspberry notes; nice lingering finish (Gold from me; Silver overall)
2006 Robert Karl Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon - sweet black cherry, cigar box and herbal aromas -- great blend; good depth and finish (Silver+ from me; Gold overall)
2006 Portteus "Old Vine" Cabernet Sauvignon - graphite and sweet curing tobacco aromas (reminds me of home in NC); awesome black fruit, minty, herbal and graphite flavors; good tannic structure and complexity (Gold from me*; Silver overall)
* We had so many Cabernets and Bordeaux blends that we actually judged two rounds of each. The first was a "retain/eliminate" round where we decide collectively whether or not to send the wine to the medal round. This makes it interesting because I have two sets of notes on every wine. Since I remember liking this one so much, I went back to my "retain/eliminate" notes to see if I was consistent. Indeed I had given it a "retain ++" and noted its "herbal, older world style with mint and leather and nice graphite". It retails for $38.
2007 William Church Cabernet Sauvignon - apparently I like this producer's style -- stewed black fruits, cedar, tobacco; silky and slightly spicy palate with nice mouthfeel (Silver+ from me; Gold overall)
2007 Rio Vista Cabernet Sauvignon - graphite, dusty black fruit and cedar aromas; very nice integrated fruit on palate with good tannin level; doesn't have a super long finish but I like it (Gold from be; Bronze overall)
2008 Kiona Chenin Blanc Ice Wine - very deep gold color with nose of golden delicious apple, pear flambée, and a hint of very ripecantaloupe; honeyed on the mouth with a little fresh spritz (Gold from me and overall)
2007 Northwest Totem Cellars Viognier Ice Wine - tangerine, white peach, lavender with a hint of fresh cut grass; nicemouthfeel with hint of acidity (Gold from me and overall)
2008 Kestrel Semillon Ice Wine - nose of rose petal, tangerine,and a little fresh hay -- very pretty (Silver+ from me; Bronze overall)
For a complete listing of winners, visit the Sunshine & Wine competition website.
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