Friday, January 25, 2008

Washington State Wine Tasting

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the Washington Wine Commission's tasting called Expressive Terroir of Washington Country. Primehouse New York hosted the event. Primehouse is the steak joint with the Himalayan Salt Room as their particular gimmick (every steak house has a special gimmick now). Actually, the more compelling gimmick might be the fact that there is a bull named Prime on a ranch somewhere who supposedly sires all of the beef that you eat at the restaurant. That is one busy bull. And if only he knew the end results of his efforts. Would he go on strike? Have a Brokeback Mountain style change of heart?

Sorry, back to reality. Washington wines have not made any kind of inroads in my cellar for two reasons: 1) they are mostly Bordeaux blends (there is plenty of Syrah and all sorts of other stuff too - I said "mostly"), not wines that I drink very often, and 2) prices are pretty high, even for the entry level wines. So this tasting was a great opportunity for me to get a sense of the wines.

There are some big name producers in Washington, among them Quicelda Creek, Betz, Chateau St Michelle (where Bob Betz worked for almost 30 years), L'Ecole, Andrew Will, and Abeja, to name a few. All of the above except for Quicelda Creek, were scheduled to have at least one wine at the tasting. But the Betz wine was a no show, which was a real shame, as I have never tasted a Betz and I hear they are superb. Something to look forward to.
Washington State should be great for growing wine grapes. There is certainly plenty of exposure and sunlight - even more per day on average than in the Napa Valley. The question in my mind when I walked into the tasting was this - are they making real wines or are they making boring enormous overripe wines with little character other than gobs of fruit? Are they an extension of the bad aspects of Napa, or are they making wines that reflect something about their own place? Of course the answer would vary from producer to producer, but I hoped also to learn something of the region as a whole.

In the end I did not find a whole lot to love. There are exceptions, but there were a lot of huge Bordeaux blends that just exploded with fruit, but did not offer much in the way of complexity or balance. Wines that I couldn't imagine drinking at home with a meal. Alcohol levels were routinely at 14% or higher. And the wines didn't work all that well with the lovely appetizers they passed around - even steak and things like that just couldn't stand up to some of these monsters.

That said, I imagine that people who love big California reds would love these wines too, and they'd spend a lot less money buying from Washington. So please don't take this as some sort of panning of the region. Most of what I tasted just isn't the style of wine I prefer, that's all. I could be wrong - please tell me if you think there is a Washington wine I should taste.

Here are the wines that I really liked:

2005 Chinook Cabernet Franc - Nice young cab franc nose of raspberries and rose petals, a bit of spicy pepper too. Light in texture, bright red fruits on the palate, light and pleasing tannic presence. Any surprise that this was 13% alcohol and done in neutral barrels? The website doesn't say much about wine making practices, but it does mention minimal processing, whatever that means. I imagine this would retail at about $20, a pretty good value for a delicious and young drinking Cabernet Franc. This is the wine I wanted to take home with me.

2005 Soos Creek Horse Heaven Hills Red Wine - this is 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cab Franc, all from Champoux Vineyard, a tiny and highly esteemed spot in the Horse Heaven Hills. Along with Ciel du Cheval (Horse Heaven) Vineyard, Champoux is thought to be the best place for Bordeaux grapes in Washington State. This wine had a complex nose, with hints of menthol that wafted over the red fruits and the cocoa. The palate was ripe but restrained with red fruits and cassis and very fine tannins and a nice lingering finish. Alcohol is 14.1%. I think this wine would retail for about $35, a steal if you're into high end Cabernet.

2004 Pepper Bridge Colombia Valley Merlot - at last, some brett - a breath of fresh air, so to speak. The first funky nose I happened upon and it made me take notice. Leather belt all the way, and some nice dark fruit. Interesting that the website says they used almost 60% new oak on this wine, because I didn't find it intrusive at all. The palate was a bit muddy, but there was again nice dark fruit and some cocoa. Alcohol is 13.9%, and the wine sells for $45.


Anonymous said...

As I started to read a decent amount of your post I could feel myself getting defensive of my fair state. That is probably due to the fact that I have lived here all my life and, naturally, feel it is the greatest place on earth.

I think that while producers like L'Ecole, Quilceda et al make great stuff there is wine coming out of the smaller wineries that gets little attention. Of course I don't know what you like exactly but here are some wines I think are just great.

-'Dusted Valley Vintners' 2006 Reserve Chardonnay
-'Trust' Reisling
-'Bergevin Lane Vineyards' or 'Russel Creek' Cab Franc (if you can find it).
- 'Otis Kenyon' 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon

Take care

Wicker Parker said...

I'd love to see your notes on what you didn't like. I, too, have rarely been inspired by Washington's meritage wines. Most of them seem (Robert) Parkerized -- as are, to be fair, many actual Bordeauxs.

OTOH, the Syrahs can be lovely. I strongly recommend the Reininger Syrah Walla Walla Valley, at least the 2003 rendition. It was vinified solely with used French oak barrels (no new) and it soars in the mouth; and an astonishing note of peach joins the predominate red fruits. And no, there's not a lick of Viognier here, just Syrah. Yeah, great with food.

Reininger's Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 is good, but nowhere near as inspiring. Their "second" wine, Helix, is again vinified respectably but is a merely decent meritage.

Given the evidence I've seen, I wonder if eastern Washington isn't truly Syrah country, above all.

brian said...

I pretty much agree with your assessment and I live here in WA.
Mostly new world fruit forward wines trying to compete for the Cali audience.
Quilceda 100 pters?...please.

Its a shame Betz was a no show. In my opinion he's making the best wine in the state. New world, but with real character and finese... classy and the nicest most humble guy you'll meet.
His syrahs are nothing short of stunning.

From your writing, I feel like our tastes are pretty similar, and its frustrating to me I can't find more to recommend for the tarrif.

Bunnell rhone varietals are pretty interesting, and I'm in love with a little bordeaux blend from Glacial Lake Missoula though you'll never find it on the east coast.

Dead on with the brett comment...most vintners consider it a flaw at any levels around here.


Brooklynguy said...

i understand completely jeff. and none of the smaller wineries you mentioned were part of the tasting. i don't know how the wines were selected but it must have something to do with membership or relationship with the Wash. Wine Commission. one day when i'm out west i'll try those wines. bet they don't make it here. thanks for your comments.

Mike - i was indifferent about most, and here are the few that i really didn't like: Abeja 2006 Chard, OS 2006 Cab Franc Champoux, L'Ecole 41 2006 Semillon, McCrea 2004 Syrah.

hey Brian, thanks for your comments. i was sad to miss out on Betz. some other time. you're the second person who suggests rhone varietals over bordeaux. tkae it easy-

Joe Manekin said...

BK -

Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla is worth seeking out. I have only had their Malbec but it sure was bright, high toned and tasty. I need to try some of their other stuff. All around $30.

Dussek makes a good, bretty/savory but balanced cab for about $30. Hedges 3 Vineyards, with a few years of bottle age, is a solid deal at $20.

Brooklynguy said...

hey old skool - malbec, huh? they grow it all out there. i tasted one seven hills wine at this event, the 05 merlot, my notes say: "13.5% alcohol, not bad. not much of a nose. pleasant mouth, but not very interesting." maybe it had just been opened or something. or maybe the malbec is a better wine.