Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tasting Group

The tasting group assembled yesterday. Here's what we tried:

Sorry for that terrible iPhone picture. Here's a review (including my miserably embarrassing blind tasting attempts):

2006 Lan Rioja Crianza: Light ruby color, medium intensity. Notes of red raspberries and red currant as well as citrus fruits (grapefruit rind), along with a bit of spice. Not a lot of oak influence. The palate was medium bodied, and I got an intense pepper note on the back end. All in all I thought it was pretty pleasing, but not ethereal. I called it a Spanish Garnacha because of the lightness of color, the citrus note, and the pepper note. There's probably some Garnacha in it, so I don't feel terrible about that one.

2006 Seia Alder Ridge Vineyard Syrah: Ruby color, medium intensity (which will be a trend). This wine stunk. Green olives, barnyard, funkiness. Actually, not a displeasing little experience if you're in the mood for something bretty. I called it a Cotes-du-Rhone, which is unfortunate. HOWEVER, the fruit had subsided to a level that made me think it must be an old world wine. So, wrong for the right reasons (which will also be a trend).

McKinley Springs 2006 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon: Ruby color, high intensity. This wine had some pretty intense oak influence. Chocolate, mocha, baking spice, cloves, et cetera. Hidden under all that was some dark plum and blackberry fruit. All in all not bad, though a little new-worldy for my mood. I called it a Napa Valley Cabernet, so I'll take the points on that one.

Clif Lede 2006 Stag's Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon: Ruby color, medium intensity. I HATED this wine, which is unfortunate, because I recommend it all the time! Anyway, I thought that it was over-oaked in a disgusting way. I said that I thought it was oak chipped at one point. Oy. There were some pencil shaving elements that were kinda nice (and should have pointed me toward Napa Valley), but for the most part it was just 2x4 wood with no fruit concentration. The body on the palate was miserable as well - thin, and not able to hold up to all that oak. I should say that my cohorts liked it more than I did; I think I was in a funky mood yesterday evening. Anyway, I forget what I blinded it as except for absolutely awful - an overcropped Cali Merlot or something like that. Too bad; I still like Clif Lede as a winery, I think.. Also, I have a couple of these in my cellar. Bummer.

Plungerhead 2009 Lodi Zinfandel: Ruby color, medium intensity (yet again). This was unpleasant as well, but at least that's to be expected. Overoaked and thin, et cetera. Actually, not that unlike the Clif Lede in flavor profile (mostly because they're both oaked to Hell), but with less tannin structure. I don't really have much to say about this wine. It was spicy and oaky and had red brambly fruit. I think I called it a watered-down Cali Syrah, though Zinfandel was thrown out there as an option.

Arrowood 2007 Sonoma County Chardonnay: Golden color, bordering on amber. At least I pegged this one! And right on the head, too, though I knew where the person got it, so it wasn't that hard. It's blatantly obvious Chardonnay - everyone in the group smelled it and said 'Well, that's Chardonnay.' I rather enjoyed it for what it was; big, slutty California Chardonnay has always been a guilty pleasure for me. It is that, too, and in spades: Creamy, oaky, big, fat, and fun to drink. For $10 (the price Esquin has it on special at right now) I'll drink it all day long.

Sauvion 2007 Vouvray, Demi-Sec: Pale hay color, tinged with green. Despite the color, this wine was showing notes of oxidation: Petrol and nuttiness. The only thing that I could find that made it varietally correct was a hint of spiced applesauce, which I rather enjoyed. On the palate its sweetness is pretty apparent, as is its one-dimensionality. However, chilled down on a hot day this is eminently chuggable. I knew what this was, as I brought it, and it was obvious. A couple of my cohorts pegged it, though, so good for them!

Not shown was the 2006 Le Boscq St Estephe that I brought, as it was corked. Bummer.

SO how did I feel about this tasting group? Pretty miserable. I wish I'd gotten more of them right - I really only pegged one, though I got close enough on at least one other to give myself the point. However, as they say (and as I keep repeating over and over again to salve my ego), at least I was wrong for all the right reasons.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tumble Along With Me!

I've set up a companion Tumblr blog for Bottle Variations! I hope to use it for quick-fire content, and reserve this space for more reasoned writing (as reasoned as I ever get, anyway). Please check it out at

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Blogger Shout Out: The One, The Only, Arnie Millan

Some people have all the luck.

My coworker Arnie recently returned from a nice, long trip to Bordeaux. He apparently had a fabulous time. While I'm sure it must have been hard on him to tour all of those chateaux and try all of those barrel samples, he took it upon himself to do so for our edification. We all must bear our burdens, and this one is surely his.

Feel free to enjoy his ramblings on the trip (including pictures of pig-face delicacies) here. In truth, they're quite enjoyable.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Today In Wine Porn

Yeah, I drank that. It was pretty fucking delicious. The 1985 Pichon-Lalande showed it up, though (didn't get a picture, but whatever. Use your imagination). Classic Pauillac! Black currants and pencil lead for just absolute days (and some brett, but in a tolerable, kinda-delicious way). It's experiences like these that make me remember why people talk about Bordeaux like it's the tits. Of course, I'm not super-rich, so I won't be shelling out the cash for these super-seconds any time soon, but I'll gladly enjoy them when millionaires pull them out of their wine stash. Thank you, oligarchic overlords, for your overwhelming benevolence.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Washington Winery In Focus: Grand Reve

One of Washington’s newest up-and-comers, Grand Reve (French for ‘Great Dream’) skyrocketed to the top of everyone’s to-watch list last year, when their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded 97 points from The Wine Spectator AND The Wine Advocate. I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Paul McBride from the winery (who's the nicest guy in the world, by the way) and try a couple of their new releases.

Despite how I might talk about the wine press (from time to time) on this site, there are times that I agree with them. These wines are something to look out for; they're a part of what I'm thinking of more and more as a holistic vision for Washington State: A place where wines of all shapes and styles can be made. These are wines of the press-friendly style, and by that I mean big. But I still like them, for I find a certain grace lingering within their muscularity. As I say: In Washington there is room for wines great and small.

Grand Reve’s methods are as ingenious as they are intuitive. They buy impeccable parcels of fruit from Ciel du Cheval, one of the greatest vineyards in Red Mountain, one of Washington’s most prestigious AVAs. They then turn around and give these parcels of fruit to some of the best winemakers in the state: Mark McNeilly from Mark Ryan Winery, Ben Smith from Cadence, Ross Mickel from Ross Andrew, Chris Gorman from Gorman Winery, and others. These winemakers are given carte blanche to do what they will with these great grapes. Like top-notch chefs being given excellent ingredients in a well-stocked kitchen, these master craftsmen create wines that are as unique as they are fascinating, each bringing their own personality to the project.

The most amazing thing about this idea is that the nature of the vineyard manages to shine through all of the enological tricks that these winemakers bring to the table. Silty, high-pH soils combine with an arid climate to grow stressed, low-yield vines. These grapes can produce wines of incredible, massive concentration, but a perfumed elegance tends to linger as well. In all, some might argue that Ciel du Cheval is Washington’s premier grape-growing site to date. Who am I to argue? The important part is that the wines from the site often have it all: The bold ripe fruit that New World wine drinkers love, along with the minerality and sense of place that makes great wine special.

Below are my notes.

Grand Reve 2007 Collaboration I ($53ish)
Here’s a bruiser for you. Grand Reve’s homage to Pauillac, the Collaboration I is created by Ben Smith of Seattle’s own Cadence Winery. And while you can see the notes that might make one think of Pauillac (cassis, black currant), this wine is truly Washington. Dark, bold, incredibly pure black plum fruit combines with a liberal and well-defined mocha-coffee oak element to create a textured, full-bodied experience that lingers on the palate for quite a while. Though decadent now, you might give this one another year in the cellar before drinking to allow the flavors to fully develop. 63% Cabernet, 13% Cabernet Franc, 13% Petit Verdot, 11% Merlot. A mere 200 cases produced.

For comparison, here are the winery's notes: "The goal for the Collaboration Series I blend is to show off the elegance of Ciel du Cheval fruit in a powerful, opulent package. In the glass, the wine is a deep, vibrant garnet color and the nose offers up a sophisticated bouquet of pencil lead, blackcurrant, flowers and spices. On the palate it is seamless from front to back, impeccably balanced, and displays an impressive swath of black fruits and minerality. It will deliver prime drinking from 2012 to 2025. Try pairing this beauty with rib eye or beef short ribs."

Not too far off! One man's mocha-coffee-oak can easily be another man's pencil lead and spices. As far as flowers go, well, maybe they (whoever wrote the winery's notes, that is) saw something that I didn't. I think their drinking window might be a little optimistic; 2025 is pretty damned far off. However, only time will tell; I'm not convinced that I always have my ageability estimation skills down (though I do think that certain reviewers are smoking crack when they come up with their drinking windows sometimes).

Grand Reve 2008 Collaboration II, ($48ish)
Grand Reve gives Ross Mickel from Woodinville’s Ross Andrew Winery free reign to flirt with Chateauneuf-du-Pape on this Southern Rhone blend. Extremely concentrated red fruit characters are the result: Strawberry and raspberry preserves, red currant, and ripe red plums balance beautifully with a remarkable acidity and the slightest perfumed edge to make one of the more elegant (but still full-bodied) wines from the Grand Reve portfolio. That being said, this is certainly a cellar selection; the fruit has yet to mature in the bottle. When it does, I expect this to be a wine that people were glad they held on to. 40% Grenache (something of a rarity off of Red Mountain), 38% Syrah, 20% Mourvedre, 1% Viognier, 1% Roussanne. Again, only 200 cases were produced.

And again, the winery notes: "Selected from some of the most sought-after vines at Ciel du Cheval, the 2007 Collaboration II is a stunning Washington rendition with the soul of the Southern Rhone. Dense, dark purple in color, this wine's aromas leap out of the glass: black cherry and cranberries, espresso, cooked meats, and smoky spices all contribute to the distinctive nose. In the mouth intense black and ripe red fruits, spice, and minerals coat the palate while the classic Red Mountain structure adds volume and persistence to the finish. Delicious now decanted but should deliver prime drinking in 3-5 years. Recommend pairing with lamb or smoked duck confit."

Again, how do they compare? I wouldn't say that I disagree with what they have to say about this wine. Funnily enough, I thought that the Collaboration II was the more ageworthy wine, whereas they didn't mention a drinking window at all. They did say that it needed time in the bottle, which my notes concurred with.

All tasting note sophistry aside, I think these wines are good. There's a certain amount of 'Oh, there seems to be so much money behind these wines, and how could they ever be anything but hype' questionability about the project, but I think that's misleading. Certainly it is a high-end project, but they do deliver a high-end product as well, and for a price that (for what you're getting as far as fruit sourcing, vinification talent, and proof-is-in-the-pudding deliciousness) is relatively reasonable. It feels like it's going against my nature to speak well of a Red Mountain money project, but I can't deny quality in the bottle.

I wasn't sold on Grand Reve when I tried them for the first time more than a year ago - the wines were awkward and oak-driven at that time (these were the previous releases). However, they came together in the bottle, and when I tried them a few months later they had fleshed out, the fruit had come back to the forefront, and they were showing very well. The winery's notes show significant bottle aging before release; maybe they learned something.

To sum things up: These are Washington wine drinker's wines. All comparisons to the old world aside, you should buy them if you like rich, full-bodied, fruit-driven wine. They are that, done in a style that is refined and focused. While big, they're not fruit-bombs or oak-bombs. These are serious wines made in a bold style.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Posting Resumes - Court of Master Sommeliers

Sorry for the hiatus - I moved, and that took a while, and I haven't gotten internet in my new place yet. I have taken it upon myself to schlepp (a word that spellcheck recognizes) myself all the way to the coffee shop that is blocks- blocks!- away in an overwhelmingly committed effort to reconnect with you, the reader.

I'm in the process of taking the Level 1 Court of Master Sommeliers exam right now - there are two days of classes, followed by a written examination. Today was day one of the classes, and I have to say that it's a really fun experience. Listening to people who are passionate about wine and in there element talking about it is an engaging and thought-provoking experience. Some of the material covered was a bit rudimentary (it is level 1) for my knowledge base, but it was peppered with enough kernels of new knowledge to make it an invigorating experience.

It also reminded me of the joys of blind tasting. When you're presented with fairly typical examples of a variety/region, it is fascinating to deduce what it may or may not be. My previous deductive tastings have all been themed, and I think that's the wrong way to do it. Comparative tasting can be very good for knocking solid tasting notes into your mental library (which you can hopefully pull out later), but developing your ability to utilize deductive reasoning when determining the typicity/quality of a wine seems far more rudimentary, and I think must be a necessary foundation upon which to build comparative knowledge (which is then utilized in deductive tastings, so it's all related). Briefly, deductive tasting goes like this (shortened because I'm into the whole brevity thing and paraphrased because I don't have the exact terms right in front of me):

All wines are blind. Hopefully, the bottle is not at all seen (even bagged) and there are no indications as to what the wine might be (such as, for example, knowing that it is on a list that is particularly heavy in one category - that will skew your deductions toward that category).

Step one: Visual.
Clarity: Is it murky, cloudy, hazy, clear?
Brilliance: Is it dull, bright, star-bright, incredibly-freaking-brilliant?
Color: For whites, is it watery, straw, yellow, gold, etc? For reds, is it purple, ruby, garnet, orange, brown?
Intensity: Is the color low, medium, high in intensity? Somewhere in between one of those?
Viscosity: Low, medium, high, what? Are the legs tinged with the color of the wine?
Some other stuff that I'm probably forgetting.

Step two: Aromas.
One: Is the wine sound, or faulted?
Two: Name three fruits.
Three: Does the wine have any earth qualities? If so, what?
Four: Does the wine display the presence of oak? If so, new, neutral? Any idea on what kind? Other notes?
Five: Other notes?
Six, Seven, More: Notes on dryness, body, fruits (name 3!), oak, tannin, alcohol, acid, other.

Step Three: Initial Conclusion.
Start with Old World or New? From there, go to country. From there, region within country. From there, grape variety(ies). Vintage. At this step, multiple options can be explored.

Step Four: Final Conclusion.
After considering the multiple options brought up in Step Three, this is your final determination of what the wine is, right or wrong (and you will very, very often be wrong). State your opinion with confidence! What is the grape variety(ies), country of origin, region within that country, level of quality (village cru, 1er cru, grand cru, et cetera?)? Finally, vintage.

Then... The big reveal!

Sorry, you were wrong. Try again later.

So that's pretty much what I've been doing today. It was fun!

Disclaimer: I probably cocked up the description of deductive tasting completely there. I in no way claim to be a master anything, and should not be thought of as a definitive source of knowledge. Go here instead.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rough and Dirty Tasting Notes: Brittan Vineyards 2007

Here are the rough and dirty notes for the two Brittan wines I'm trying right now. I like the winery, and will try to append something about the vineyards or some such later, but here are notes:

2007 Brittan Vineyards Gestalt Block Pinot Noir, WIllamette Valley: Nice little purple/ruby color, just starting to thin at the edge. Nose of a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Seriously, that's exactly what it seems like to me. With a little bit of a spice-box element, but peanut-butter and (blackberry?) jelly is the primary component. The palate is nice, the acidity is present but not obnoxious, and the tannins are mellow and soft. I think it's drinking well now, and would probably drink it over the next 3-5 years.

2007 Brittan Vineyards Basalt Block Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley: A bit of a darker color, still a bit more youthfully purple. The nose is much more spice/herb driven. Hints of some sort of floral element - lavender perhaps? And the slightest minty tinge. This is also smooth and luxurious on the palate, but without being super-flabby and overripe. Nice wine. The acid really brings out a red fruit element that's quite pleasing. This might last a bit longer than the Gestalt, but I'm still going to say the next 3-5 years are the time to drink, as the tannins are not present or obnoxious. That being said, these wines have been open overnight, so I don't have all of the information about how they tasted upon opening at my fingertips.

This is a very nice experience! I don't think these wines are cheap (in the $30-$50 price range), but that's what you get when you buy Oregon Pinot. They're solid wines.

Blogger Shout Out

Great discourse on phenolic ripeness and reduction over here. Never been to the blog before, but that's what you get when you Google search for random wine terms.

God, I love this hobby.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

White Rose

Alright, let's get to the nitty-gritty about the phenomenal stuff being done at White Rose Estate.

Nestled between such illustrious neighbors as Domaine Serene and Domaine Drouhin, White Rose Vineyard is producing grapes of incredibly high quality in the heart of the Willamette Valley.

(I realize that I sound like a marketer for the winery here, but nothing could be further from the truth. I was just so blown away by the wines I tried the other day that I haven't been able to stop thinking about them.)

While the vineyard may be best known for wines produced at other wineries from its grapes (ie, St. Innocent, Torii Mor, and Panther Creek, just to name a few incredible producers sourcing from White Rose), that is about to change. I had the opportunity to try three different wines of theirs from the 2008 vintage, and they are phenomenal. The purity of fruit that I experienced is, undoubtedly, one of the better Northwest wine experiences of my life. Let's discuss the winery. From their website:

In the summer of 2000, Greg Sanders knocked on the door of an old farm house sitting at the top of the Dundee Hills in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The house was just up the gravel road from a few of Oregon's most notable wineries: Archery Summit, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Domaine Serene. Surrounding the farm house was a small vineyard, self-rooted in 1980, that over the years had become known for the quality of its fruit. St. Innocent, Panther Creek and Torii Mor, had all purchased fruit from this site, bottling wines and designating them as "White Rose Vineyard". Having been an impassioned fan of pinot noir for many years, it was Greg's dream to own a vineyard from which he could produce artisanal, hand-made wines of outstanding quality. His search had led him to the top of this hill, and when he left, he took with him the deed to a dream.

All hyperbole and mystification aside, the proof is in the pudding: This is a great vineyard site; the concentration-combined-with-elegance found within their wines leaves me without doubt of that.

Another interesting aspect: The utilization of whole-cluster fermentation, something that I always find fascinating! I asked the winery representative (whose name escapes me - forgive me!) if the goal was to introduce a green element, and he said that they felt that with Pinot whole-cluster fermentation actually could improve the purity of fruit! Very intriguing stuff.

I tried three wines:

2008 White Rose Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir - This was the wine that I felt was fully evolved. It was ripe, full (for Pinot), and luscious. My first reaction was 'yum!'

2008 White Rose Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir - This wine had a fair bit more tannin and grip than the previous one, and might have a nicer mouth feel in a few months. The winery calls this their 'appellation series.' Really nice black cherry layers, along with the classic Willamette herbal element. Very nice.

2008 White Rose Estate White Rose Vineyard Pinot Noir - The top tier of the three that I tried, this is the one made entirely from White Rose's estate vineyard. They do the most whole-cluster fermentation on this one - up to 40% (I think) as opposed to the other two, which might have been only 10%-20%. Very spicy, very nice. Made in a seductive, smooth style, but with enough going on to be intriguing. Balanced, delicious. Certainly the best of the three, and also the most expensive - about $75, compared to about $41 and $26 for the other two.

So - I guess I can add Dayton, OR to the top of my list for wine destinations. White Rose, Serene, Drouhin, and Archery Summit are enough to make a trip of it. I'm going to try and head out there in the next few months. Anyone have any good suggestions for wine stops in the Willamette?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

So just a quick note: Wow. Just had the White Rose Pinots from 08. My socks are blown so off that I might catch pneumonia. I'm going to go in depth further when I have time, but wow. Excited.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Monday, February 28, 2011

Walla Walla, Part One: The Trip Is Half The Thing

This time last week, I was in Walla Walla.

I left Seattle bright and early, at about 6:30 or so in the morning. Having just gotten my first car in several years, I was excited (and perhaps slightly nervous) for the road trip. This was to be my first time traversing long distances behind the wheel on my own. I know, I'm insulated here in the city.

I decided to take the long way to Walla Walla - from Seattle down to Vancouver, WA, and east from there- for a multiplicity of reasons. Firstly, I had never been that way, whereas I had gone several times via the more standard route through The Pass down to Yakima, the Tri-Cities, et cetera. Secondly, the weather had been cold and wet lately, and the mountains would likely require chains - a safety measure that I neither possessed nor wanted to purchase. Finally, the lure of attractions in the Columbia Gorge region drew me towards it. My intention was to stop at several locales along the way: Syncline Wine Cellars, COR Cellars, and the Maryhill Museum of Art. I failed miserably on all accounts, twice due to my own foolish nature, and once due to the vagaries of timing.

Syncline Wine Cellars and COR Cellars are both located in scenic Lyle, Washington. I'm quite fond of the wines that they both produce - you should check them out if you see them on a list or shelf! I had checked into their tasting room hours just before my trip, and saw that neither of them had Monday posted as a regular tasting day - certainly not in tourist-sleepy February. However I, in my inestimable foolhardiness, decided that I would leave my fate in the hands of the Moirae and try my hand at a visit anyway.

What I didn't realize was that I certainly should have gotten some sort of directions to their facilities before leaving.

As I drove down the winding, windy, scenic, and generally lovely Highway 14 (also known as the Lewis and Clark Highway), I came to a sign. 'Tourist Attractions Ahead.' I was moving at a relatively fast rate of speed (ah-hem), but I had time to note both COR Cellars and Syncline Wine Cellars on the list. 'Oh, the town must be coming up soon,' I thought with intense trepidation. This was the first time at which I realized that other than the name of the town, I had no idea whatsoever where these destinations I had in mind might be. The speed limit reduced, and I obediently reduced my speed. There were several houses, shops, et cetera. I continued driving. This is not the first time in my life that it has come to my attention that I have difficulty measuring distances and the amount of time that it might take to travel them. 'One Mile Ahead' and 'Two Miles Ahead' were clearly posted on the aforementioned sign. Only after traversing what must have been five miles down the road, I thought to myself, 'I wonder if I might have missed them.' However, in my obstinate stubbornness I refused to admit this as a possibility. Another five miles and I accepted it as unmitigated fact.

At the same time, I was filled with a velocilust that would not allow me to turn back. I was making great time, and nothing as silly as 'goals' or 'plans' would allow me to undo that. With nary more than a glance behind myself at missed opportunities (kind of; I've had the wines of both wineries before, and quite liked them, but had been-there-done-that) I forged on ahead.

The Maryhill Museum of Art was my next target, and was perhaps an hour down the road (less? more? It all blends together from this vantage) from Lyle. 'Why,' you might be asking, 'would you ever choose the bustling metropolis of Maryhill, Washington (population 98 in the 2000 census) for a museum stop?' Your incredulance (not a word) would be justified were it not for this exhibit of 87 (!!!!!) works by French master sculptor Auguste Rodin. Sleepy hamlet Maryhill has iconic Quaker and town founder Sam Hill to thank for this absurd bounty of art and culture in what would otherwise be technically known as 'the ass-side of nowhere.' I'd heard legends about the exhibit's exquisite sculpture, and being an art enthusiast, this opportunity was in fact more than half of my reason for going the way-longer route to Walla Walla from Seattle. Alas, timing was again my bane: The gate was closed, with a sign up saying that the Museum would not reopen until March 15th.

So all of my hopes for tourist activities were dashed (I considered going to Maryhill Winery, but then just kept driving...), and I was left with the long drive to Walla Walla. This in itself was quite the experience: Long, straight desert roads allowed me to get the kinks out of my new car (aka the new love of my life, though it's a conflicted love, as I'm hardly a gas guzzler by nature) and push the speedometer to the right. Google Maps claimed that the drive would be seven and a half hours; I accomplished it in six and change.

Next Time: Part The Second: I Make It To Walla Walla, Washington Wine Mecca

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I am a bad blogger, part two: Brickhouse

As previously noted, I am clearly terrible at the 'go to a wine and food event and take tons of delectable-looking pictures of wines and food and happy people, so that everyone who reads it realizes that I lead an amazing lifestyle and they should be incredibly jealous that they're not in the wine industry' style of blogging. For a great example of that kind of blogging, please check out my coworker Jameson's work at Esquin's official blog. (P.S.: This blog is in no way associated with that store. In NO way. My boss doesn't even know about it, I don't think, and probably wouldn't care about it if she did. Anyway, the opinions held are mine and mine alone and don't reflect anything on anyone else.)

However, I promised that I would at least take a stab at it, and so here's what I've got: No pictures, only my rather-fuzzy account of how things were. Please remember my official disclaimer: I am a human, and an extremely flawed one at that, and my mind could have easily fooled me into thinking that I tasted/smelled/saw something that I didn't. Buyer beware.

Part The Second: Brickhouse

We started out with a sample of Brickhouse's 2009 Chardonnay, fresh from tank and bottled only a few days previously. It was nice- a light peachy amber in color, with muted aromas of stone tree fruit and baking spice. I thought it was a little bit closed down, but having just recently been bottled, I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. Bottle-shock is a bitch, after all. However, there was a nice bit of a mineral element to it. I'd really like the opportunity to try it again in a few months when it's calmed down.

Next up from the Brickhouse table was their Gamay (of which I have no idea what the vintage was; by the time I got to it I had had a few other wines, and things were starting to get a little bit warm and fuzzy). Wow! This was a great experience: The fruit was vibrant, the acidity was exciting, and the length was long. This is the sort of thing that a cru Beaujolais producer would (I imagine, not actually being a cru Beaujolais producer myself) love to produce! It had great concentration for a wine made of a lighter-skinned grape, lots of character, length, and depth of flavor. I was very impressed - especially since I'm not the biggest Gamay advocate. I used to hate the grape, and it's grown on me in the past year or so - having had the opportunity to taste some of the better examples of Gamay wines undoubtedly aided in that - but I rarely think of it as one of the more noble varieties. This, however, pushed me further in the direction of 'Gamay fan-boy.' Out of everything that came out that evening, this was the most food-friendly wine. The acidity present in the glass afforded it the ability to stand up to rich, fatty dishes and lean seafood-driven dishes alike, while the flavors and tannin profile were lean enough as to take a back seat to the flavors of the food. Yum.

The last wine that Brickhouse offered was their 2008(?) Boulder Block Pinot Noir. I put the question mark there because it was another unlabeled bottle that the woman (whose name I unfortunately didn't catch) pouring for the winery said had been bottled only a few days previously. I have to wonder at the wisdom of presenting a wine in such a fashion. On the one hand, it offers a feeling of exclusivity to the person trying the wines; they're in a position to try something not yet available to the average consumer, and this is a special thing. It's particularly common at industry tastings such as this one for something like this to take place. However, as is evident from my confusion about the vintage, it can be difficult to recall the specific details of a bottle that is unlabeled and so therefore has no visual memory to present to the recipient. Also, the wines don't always show well - as was the case here. This wine was tight as a drum, showing plenty of structure and tannin but little by way of fruit - some high-toned red elements were about all that I could get out of it. Again, bottle-shock can ruin a tasting; just because a wine seems amazing when it's in barrel or tank doesn't mean that is going to necessarily be true right after it is bottled. So I don't want to pass judgement on this wine; if I have the opportunity to try it several months from now, I'll go ahead and develop an opinion on it then.

It just goes to show you that sometimes more can be less.

All in all, the Brickhouse wines showed the least well at this tasting. That's not to say that they were bad wines; the opposite is the case. However, the method that they were presented in hindered their ability to shine. Also, they are not necessarily made in a style that works particularly well for chaotic events such as this one; they are (or at least, I have noticed them to be in my limited contact with them) structured, tightly-wound, and need patience and age. The Beaux Freres wines (and the Soter wines, as I'll write about later) on the other hand are lush and soft, fruit-driven and approachable, and captivating in this kind of environment - they draw the drinker's attention in, while the drinker has to draw the Brickhouse wines out.

Up next: Soter

Blogger Shout Out: Wine Terroirs

Wow, this website is awesome. How have I never seen it before?

I'll let the content speak for itself, but let this be said: The pictures are amazing, the detailed treatment of the producers is fascinating, and it's easy to lose yourself here for hours.

Wine Terroirs

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I am a bad blogger, part one: Beaux Freres

Well, I told you a couple of days ago that I'd be posting tons and tons of photos from the Mistral Kitchen event that I was going to on Thursday.

Unfortunately, I decided to drink a bunch of wine and enjoy myself immensely instead.

Fortunately, I have wonderful news to report about both the quality of the wines and the quality of the food at Mistral Kitchen. Let's start with the wines. I'm not normally much for the 'let's give a list of the wines with tasting notes' format- partly because I don't organize my thoughts that way, partly because I think that it's a lazy way to talk about wine, and partly because I think that it implies a permanence of experience that I don't believe exists in wine. However, there were so many good wines that I want to talk about at this event, so I feel like I need to give them each their own space. Let me just start with this disclaimer: My imperfect memory tells me that these wines smelled and tasted like this to me on that evening. Your experience will likely vary, possibly greatly.

Also, I think I'm right about vintages, but might be off. Again: I am a bad blogger. Shame on me.

Also also, I'm going to break this up into several posts, firstly in order to focus on each winery featured individually, and secondly because it makes my life more manageable.

Part The First: Beaux Freres

This isn't the first time that I've written about Beaux Freres, but this time I was able to try a larger line-up of their wines all at once. I am happy to tell you that the quality of these wines is phenomenal. They show very well in a chaotic environment; they are expressive and open, while still hinting at more right outside the bounds of sensory perception.

2008 Beaux Freres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir:

Aromas of blueberries, strawberries, toasted nuts and dried sage dominated the nose of this wine. The palate was tarter than expected - think cranberries - but with a red fruited sweetness as well - think ripe strawberries. The herbal element from the nose carried through to the palate in a 'forest floor'/'Willamette Valley herbaceousness that I never know how to describe' kind of way. The wine was appropriately concentrated; that is to say, not watery, but not to the extent that makes me call a wine 'Syrah-ized.' My basic conclusion about this wine is that it's good because it tastes like Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. That may seem like an obvious statement, but in the world of international/industrialized wines, finding something that shows a sense of the character of its variety and place is an event to appreciate and savor.
Please note that this wine is $50(ish). That is not cheap. I can understand the price point - low yields, expensive fruit, uncompromising method of production, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Should you buy it at this price point? I won't tell you that you absolutely must. However, if you want to experience a wine, sometimes you have to go ahead and forget about the price. This might be one of those times.

2007 Beaux Freres 'Upper Terrace' Pinot Noir:

The Upper Terrace is Beaux Freres' second estate vineyard. From their website (I love websites with tech specs):

This adjacent parcel is located on the crest of the next hill north of The Beaux Frères Vineyard. The 'Upper Terrace' vineyard consists of ten plantable acres of southeast-facing hillsides. The soils are also Willakenzie at elevations similar to those of The Beaux Frères Vineyard. Eight of the ten acres are currently planted to five of the new Dijon Pinot Noir clones (777, 667, 115, 114, 113) and the remainder to Grenache. Our first bottling of the Beaux Frères - Upper Terrace Pinot Noir was the 2002 vintage.

This was nicely concentrated for the vintage. Rich, juicy dark fruit dominated, but the Willamette herbal element shined through as well. A long, lingering finish, but with a slight bitter edge that was only minorly off-putting. I know they're gentle with their production methods at Beaux Freres, but they seem to have gotten a bit of green tannin in this one. Still, all in all a really nice glass of wine.

2008 Beaux Freres 'Beaux Freres Vineyard' Pinot Noir:

Again, from their website re: the Beaux Freres Vineyard:

The Beaux Frères Vineyard is located on an 86-acre farm atop Ribbon Ridge in the Chehalem Valley near Newberg (Yamhill County, Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA). Tall and stately Douglas fir trees cover nearly 50 acres of the farm, with homestead and winery buildings occupying another 6 acres. The vineyard is situated on 30 acres (24 of which are planted) of steep, contiguous southeast, south and southwest facing hillsides of Willakenzie soils at elevations of around 400 feet.

Planting began in 1988 with Pinot Noir vines planted tightly spaced at a density of about 2200 plants to the acre. Currently (2010) the vines range in age from 11 to 22 years and are predominately a mixture of own-rooted Pommard and Wädenswil clones inter-planted with several Dijon clones on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.

Now THIS was what I was waiting for. Fruit! Spice! Elegance and power all mixed together to form one great, big, powerful statement of grace in a glass. I, frankly, loved this wine. It had the muscular elements that I look for in a solid glass of Pinot Noir: Firm tannins, medium-high acidity, lean but pervasive fruit. Their oak treatment seemed to be just right; it was present in the form of pleasant spice box and cedar without being so potent as to overwhelm the (strong but still delicate) Pinot Noir fruit. And it lingered on and on and on. This is made in a slightly hedonistic style, but not so much as to be considered Syrah-ized at all. Delicious.
At $100 (or $90 or whatever, but why mince words? Once you go over $85, your wine might as well be $100) this bottle is fricking expensive, but I don't care. If I were a millionaire I would have two cases of it. As it is, I'm not even vaguely a millionaire, and so therefore I will have zero bottles, but will gladly drink it when it is purchased by others.

They also poured the 2009 Les Cousins Pinot Noir, but I've written about it here before, so I won't waste your time by going into it again. Let it be said that I found it to be consistent with my previous notes. I still think it is an excellent value, and is the Beaux Freres wine that I will actually consider buying, as it fits into my (extremely low) budget.

As I am a terrible blogger, I have absolutely no pictures of any of these wines. I am sorry. I won't let it happen again.

Part the first: End.
Tune in next time for: Brickhouse.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lifetime pricing?

I totally stole this fact from Wine Peeps, but this is fascinating. Rotie Cellars is offering "Lifetime Pricing" on his wines to his club members. As he explains on the site:

Revolutionary “Lifetime Pricing” perk given to all Rotiesians who sign-up during the first year of The Club. This means as the world changes and our prices grow, your price stays the same.

He goes on to say that it's for a limited time, sign up while you can, yadda yadda (might be a good idea; the Rotie wines are pretty killer). But the sheer chutzpah of this incentive boggles this not-so-humble blogger's mind. I can't decide if it's genius, madness, or mad evil genius. On the one hand, it's a pretty strong incentive to buy. Short-term, I could see a lot of people signing up to be dedicated customers because of this offer. That's a lot of guaranteed wine sales - something that an up-and-coming winery like Rotie definitely needs as they try to stay afloat and expand. So if it's successful, this is the sort of thing that could keep him in the black right now.

However, one has to wonder whether it's penny-smart and pound-foolish. As time goes on and economic growth drives the dollar towards inflation, will this prove to be a money loser? Ten years from now, $35 undeniably won't get you what it used to - unless you've got Lifetime Pricing with Rotie Cellars, in which case it will buy you exactly what it used to. Does this affect the value of his wines by unnaturally undervaluing them, even if just for these few dedicated customers? Beyond that, should they want to expand their facilities, buy new equipment, and generally spend more money on the production of their wines, will Rotie Cellars be stymied in these efforts by an inability to raise their prices accordingly?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but contemplating them certainly is interesting.

Up And Coming

Just a quick note, since I'm sitting in the tea shop with a laptop and wifi, about what's coming up in the near future for me and, therefore, for this blog.

First of all, tonight - in just a couple of hours - I'll be attending an event at Mistral Kitchen that features the wines of Tony Soter, Beaux Freres, and Brickhouse - three powerhouses of Willamette Valley wine (plus a little bit of Napa Valley from Mr. Soter). I'll make sure to take plenty of terrible iPhone 3G pictures, so get ready for a blurry-but-hopefully-fun vicarious wine-and-food experience (was that enough hyphens for you?).

Second of all, my newfound mobility has inspired a trip to wine country. In a couple of weeks, I'll be making the trek out to Walla Walla and (one assumes) enjoying myself enormously out there. Expect even more blurry, terrible iPhone pictures, as well as a half-coherant ramble on the nature of the Walla Walla wine community.

That is all. Please continue with your lives.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Parker Speaks, and The World Trembles

Hey all,

Sorry for the hiatus in posting over the last couple of weeks. Personal tragedy has inflicted itself upon my life, and I've been picking up the pieces. However, it's time to begin living life normally again, and that includes regular posting on this blog.

I would be absolutely remiss to not mention the changes occurring at The Wine Advocate. Vinography has the scoop:

In an e-mail to subscribers today, Robert M. Parker, Jr. announced that he was handing over primary responsibility for reviewing California wines to his associate Antonio Galloni. Parker will continue to conduct vertical and other special tastings of California wine, but the regular critical coverage has been ceded to Galloni.

Without going into parsing this to terribly much, let me just begin by saying: Holy crap! I'm led to immediately speculate upon the possible implications of this change on the reviewing standards for the WA in CA. Considering that Cali's bread-and-butter is French grape varieties, turning the territory over to the Italian reviewer could get interesting.

Antonio will continue to focus on the wines of Italy as well as Champagne, but two new areas of responsibility for Antonio will include the red and white Burgundies of the Côte d'Or as well as the crisp white wines of Chablis, and the wines of California. These vast regions will benefit from the increased depth of coverage, as will all the major wine regions of the world.

Taking on both Cali and Burgundy means that Galloni's going to be carrying a much heavier load over at the Wine Advocate. Here's hoping his palate can take the strain...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wine Ramblings

The point that I'm trying to make with all this, and that I'll return to repeatedly, is that wine is not quantifiable; nor is any experience with wine perfectly replicable. Therefore, it seems absurd to try and break it down the fashion that the wine press attempts to do so: into a consumer good that is certain, finite, and readily describable. They do so because it is their job to do so, and because it sells a certain amount of advertising space, but it demeans the product to pretend that it is something that it isn't. When a consumer opens a bottle and drinks it on any particular night, they are creating for themselves an experience that they will only have once, and that noone else in all of human existence will have. That is the beauty of wine, and it is its ultimate downfall as a piece of consumer art, for it is replicability that is required for that to be the case. It is not Pop Art; Andy Warhol has no place in the wine industry, despite what Dom Perignon may have to say. What anyone who knows anything about wine loves about it is that each experience is singular in nature, and each taste of any given wine is its own experience. These experiences can vary minorly, as intra-bottle sips of wine show new and intruiguing elements, or majorly, as one experiences different bottles of the same wine over a period of years.

One of the major points in favor of collecting wine in large quantity - by the case or more - is that the collector can return to a certain wine and see how it has changed over the years, how each bottle opened at a different time can show a completely different character. In essence, a collector on this level can have a wine in its youth, see it evolve over the length of its existence, and in the end, see it die. This is one of the true beauties of great wine - that it has a shelf life, but one that (in the case of the greatest wines of all time) rivals the length of any man’s time on Earth. Thus does it have the ability to become a constant companion; a collector’s favorite wines can age along with them, starting out youthful and exuberant, growing into maturity and peaking, and eventually becoming old, complex, and fragile.

Am I romanticizing this fermented grape juice beverage as much as the over-exuberant wine critics that I tend to disparage? Perhaps. But my perspective seems to be at the polar opposite of those who speak of wine in finite terms, in definite this-is-good-this-is-bad phrases. I think that each consumer has to take wine for what it is, and not necessarily overanalyze it, but instead just recognize its beauty or its inferiority for them personally at that moment. It's so easy to be a know-it-all, but it doesn't mean that you actually know anything more than anyone else.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blogger Shout-Out!

Really great post about wine pricing here from The Gray Market.

What IS that bottle really worth? What does that even mean?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Fermentation: Spontaneous or Inoculated?

I'd like to spend some time talking about various methods of wine production, decisions winemakers make, and their ramifications on the final product: The wine that comes out of the bottle when you pull the cork (or twist the Stelvin, or pop the glass cap, or.. Well, whatever). I want to start this discussion with the principal player in winemaking, the true winemakers, the yeasts. Today I'm going to post some half-coherant ramblings on the differences between spontaneous fermentation and commercial yeast fermentation.

To quote (and not for the last time) the great group-wisdom conglomerate of the 21st century, Wikipedia: “Yeasts are eukaryotic micro-organisms classified in the kingdom Fungi, with the 1,500 species currently described[1] estimated to be only 1% of all yeast species.” Fungi are, of course, that little-understood third branch of biology, not quite plant nor animal. Out of those 1,500 known species of yeast, one is of primary importance to fermentation: Saccharomyces cerevisiae. What does this little beauty do? Well, it converts the sugars existant in grape juice (or must, as is the winemaker’s term) into wonderful, intoxicating alcohol. Simple enough, yes? But even here, we run into some very complicated decisions for the winemaker. The first of these being: Spontaneous fermentation, or inoculation?

As discussed previously on this site, “spontaneous fermentation is exactly that: fermentation that occurs spontaneously, as opposed to occurring due to an inoculation of commercial yeast strains into the wine by the winemaker.” This is done for a plurality of reasons. For starters, it is the original method of winemaking; thousands of years ago, long before the development of commercial yeast strains (or even an understanding of what yeast was), fermentation just happened. This no doubt led to a somewhat mystical viewpoint on intoxication, as evidenced by the many mythical intoxication gods: Dionysus, Silenus, Ninkasi, et cetera. Secondly, many winemakers believe that it adds more complex elements to the wine; when doing spontaneous fermentation, it is actually several different species of yeast that start your fermentation. However, by the time the fermentation is complete it’s sacchararomyces cerevisiae (SC) that’s finished the job. That’s because it’s a species of yeast particularly well-suited for survival in the 3.5-4.0 pH that exists in (most) wine. Therefore, all the other species of yeast- such as Klockera, Zygosaccharomyces, et cetera- die off before the spontaneous fermentation is complete.

One of the fears with spontaneous fermentation is that the non-SC yeasts will produce off aromas in the wine. While complexity can be a good thing, it is in essence only good if it’s appealing; no consumer (or at least very few) enjoys the smell of rotting garbage in their Cabernet. Another fear is that spoilage bacteria will set in as well. When doing spontaneous fermentation winemakers must be very careful with their use of sulphur dioxide- the infamous sulfites found on the label of every bottle of wine sold in the United States.

Sulphur dioxide is a wine additive used for its antioxidaisic and antimicrobial properties. When a winemaker is doing a conventional fermentation with cultured yeast, they will generally add a certain amount of SO2 after crushing but before fermentation. The reasoning behind this is that it will suppress spoilage bacteria in the must. They will then add a mixture of cultured yeast and nitrogen-rich yeast nutrients, which will be strong enough to begin fermentation while the spoilage bacteria are still weakened. The bacteria then cannot survive in an increasingly alcohol-laden environment, and the wine (ideally) comes out clean and without spoilage imperfections.

You can see some positive and negative attributes to both spontaneous fermentation and inoculation already. However, there are many more. Another reason that some winemakers like to rely upon spontaneous fermentation is the oft-used and sometimes-maligned concept of terroir.

Spontaneous fermentation is supposedly one way for a winemaker to allow a vineyard’s terroir to express itself in his or her wines, and thus to push the wine further toward the natural end of the spectrum. The reasoning behind this idea is that the yeast involved in spontaneous fermentation is native to the vineyard; that is why the process is sometimes described as ‘native yeast fermentation.’ This is in harmony with the concept of keeping the vineyard as a closed cycle, introducing no man-made pollutants into the production of its wine. This is one of the major tenets of biodynamism, a school of thought that many works in harmony with the goal of expressing terroir.

If any winemakers are reading this, I'd be curious to learn their opinions on this subject (or anyone else's opinions, for that matter). Yeast selection is an area where a winemaker can really geek out, and I'm still trying to expand my knowledge in this area.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Oregon, The Other Northwest: Beaux Freres

The Willamette Valley wine producing community, like much of Eastern Washington, is comprised of people passionate about place. These people who want to produce wines that have their own character and individual traits rather than being innocuous commercial products. Obviously this is not true of all producers in either region; a winery on the level of Chateau Ste Michelle needs to make a sound product at a reasonable price level. However, both regions are blessed with a high percentage of winemakers and vineyard managers dedicated to their soil, their climate, and the concept of minimal processing.

This isn’t always an easy thing to do, though the idea of doing less work on your product in order to increase its quality seems counter-intuitive. Take for example, though, the reasoning behind spontaneous fermentation, one of the methods used by winemakers trying to develop complexity in their wines.

Spontaneous fermentation is exactly that: fermentation that occurs spontaneously, as opposed to occurring due to an inoculation of commercial yeast strains into the wine by the winemaker (or whatever assistant, cellar rat or lowly unpaid intern to whom the task is assigned). Imagine the nerve-wracking anxiety associated with waiting for your fermentation to just start happening with no assurance whatsoever that it will ever take off, no knowledge that it will occur to completion (stuck fermentations being the bane of a winemaker’s existence), and no certainty that you haven’t just completely wasted the several thousand dollars worth of premium wine grapes you have before you.

In what other industry is such prima facie risky behavior encouraged in order to increase the quality of the product?

Enter the protagonist of our story: Beaux Freres. To quote the winery at length:

“Since our first vintage in 1991, the Beaux Frères philosophy remains the same; to produce a world-class Pinot Noir from small, well-balanced yields and ripe, healthy fruit that represents the essence of our vineyard. In pursuit of these goals, the Beaux Frères Vineyard is planted with tightly spaced vines, and yields are kept to some of the lowest in our industry. The grapes are harvested when physiologically (rather than analytically) ripe. Our winemaking philosophy is one of minimal intervention with clean fermentations utilizing indigenous yeast. The wines are stored in French oak for 10 to 12 months adjusting the percentage of new oak to compliment [sic] the wine the vintage has given us. Beaux Frères is never racked until it is removed from barrel for bottling, which occurs without fining or filtration. These non-manipulative, uncompromising methods guarantee a wine that is the most natural and authentic vineyard expression possible. Previous vintages demonstrate that these methods also allow our Beaux Frères to develop significant perfume, weight, and texture in the bottle.”

You’ll notice that they use the term ‘indigenous yeast’ rather than ‘spontaneous fermentation.’ Beaux Freres states on their website that fermentation “is typically allowed to occur spontaneously (usually within five or so days) with indigenous yeasts though we will intervene and inoculate with cultured yeast strains under certain conditions.” I assume that ‘certain conditions’ means ‘if spontaneous fermentation doesn’t occur within the first five days.’ Other wineries cultivate in a laboratory the yeast strains found in their estate vineyards, and then use those strains to inoculate their lots. This is a compromise position taken in an effort to have the best of both worlds: complexity and location-specific character, but also assurance that fermentation will occur.

I find their emphasis on spontaneous malolactic fermentation intriguing; I don't hear many winemakers talking about that, and hadn't really considered it as a feature of noninterventionist winemaking. It makes sense, though; if you're not going to mess with the wine in so many other ways, why not that one, too?

Not racking their wine is an interesting point as well, but I think it's an obvious choice for a Pinot Noir producer. The wine is delicate, without the heavy phenolic load of wines made from Syrah or Cabernet. Why risk oxidation? They even refer to it on their tech page as "reductive winemaking." By the way, their website has some detailed things to say about their methods of production and philosophy in winemaking. I found it to be a fascinating read.

So why the long, rambly post about BF? Because I just had a chance to try a fantastic wine from them: The 2009 Les Cousins Pinot Noir.

Beaux Freres decided to declassify barrels of their other 2009 cuvees, and blend them into this early-release second label. I can only assume that they selected barrels that were showing high levels of maturity, because this wine is a showstopper at this early age. It is grand and delectable; the fruit is buxom, dark, and robust- very expressive. At the same time, it tastes like Pinot - no Syrah-ized glop here.

The price is the kicker: $25.99. While that doesn't make it the cheapest thing in the world, the quality makes it well worth it. I've had other wines that they've made, but at $60-$80 a pop, who can afford them? I also consider its early drinkability to be a positive feature; cellarability is great and all, but sometimes you want a wine that you can just drink and enjoy.

Go! Find it, drink it, love it.