Category Archives: Event reviews

Walla Walla Musings

A few notes from the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting featuring 40 different Walla Walla wineries at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.

New (to me) Walla Walla Wineries that Impressed

With over 900 wineries, even the most avid Washington wine lover has a hard time trying to taste them all. Walla Walla, alone, is home to around 120 wineries so even this tasting provided only a slice of what the AVA has to offer. My strategy at events like this is to hit several new wineries that I’ve never tasted before revisiting old favorites.

Lagana Cellars— Poured 2 whites (Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay) and 2 reds (Syrah and Cabernet Franc) and while all 4 were solid, the reds were definitely a step above. The 2014 Minnick Hills Syrah was one of the few 2014 Syrahs that seemed to escape the reductiveness that (unfortunately) characterized several of their peers at this tasting and showed a beautiful mix of black fruit, mouthwatering acidity and spice. The 2015 Seven Hills Cabernet Franc demonstrated all the things that are beautiful about Washington Cabernet Franc (More on that below). It had vivacious, high intensity aromatics of violets and blackberry, medium-plus body with silky tannins.

Kontos Cellars— Poured 3 reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and blend) plus a bonus bottle blend named Beckett after the winemaker’s daughter. Founded by the sons of Cliff Kontos of Fort Walla Walla Cellars, the trademark seen throughout the Kontos wines was gorgeous aromatics and pitch perfect balance between oak, fruit, tannins and acidity. Even the two 2014 wines (Cab & Alatus blend) stood out but the star of the flight was the wine club member’s only release Beckett blend. A blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot and 8% Syrah, the 2013 Beckett showcased Kontos’s high intensity aromatics with a mix of red and black cherries, red floral notes and lots of savory spice.

I’m very glad that I didn’t miss this table.


Tertulia Cellars— Poured 3 reds (Rhone blend, Syrah and Cabernet Franc). This is a little of a cheat since Tertulia is not really a newbie. Founded in 2005, I did try some of their early releases several years ago and wasn’t that impressed. I figured after nearly 10 years, I should give them another shot and boy am I glad I did. The 2013 Riviera Galets “The Great Schism” Rhone blend was outstanding.

A blend of 50% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 7% Cinsault and 3% Mourvedre, this wine would do extremely well in a tasting of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Beautiful savory, meaty nose but with enough rich dark fruit to clue you in that it was a New World wine. This wine also had one of the longest finishes of the night. The 2014 Whistling Hills Syrah had some of the 2014 reductive notes but it blew off fairly quickly with some air. The 2015 Cabernet Franc, like the Lagana above, was delicious.

Other wineries that impressed me were Caprio Cellars (especially the 2015 Walla Walla Red), Solemn Cellars (especially the 2014 Pheasant Run Cabernet Sauvignon) and Vital Wines (especially the 2016 Rose).

Old Favorites that Shined

You can never go wrong with Woodward Canyon and their 2014 Artist Series is a worthy follow up to the 2013. The 2014 Old Vines also did very well. In fact, along with the 2014 wines that are noted throughout this post, Woodward Canyon seemed to be one of the few producers to have 2014 wines that weren’t showing any green or reductive notes. (More on that below)

Despite enjoying their estate red for several years, I actually never knew that Figgins produced an estate Riesling and it was fantastic! From the 2016 vintage, the Riesling is decidedly on the dry side and had all the gorgeous white flower, apple and apricot notes that Washington Riesling is known for. Truly a top shelf Riesling that would go toe to toe with the best of Alsace and the Mosel.

Anna Shafer of àMaurice continues to show why she is one of the best winemakers in the state working not only with her estate vineyards but also making a mouth-filling but elegant 2015 Boushey Vineyard Grenache and a 2016 Connor Lee Chardonnay that would tickle the taste buds of even the most ardent Meursault fan.

The Bledsoe Family rose was also very tasty.


Doubleback introduced their 2015 Flying B Cabernet Sauvignon. I got the first taste of a brand new bottle and I was highly impressed with how aromatic and flavorful it was for a pop and pour young Cab. While I enjoyed the regular flagship Doubleback Cabernet Sauvignon, I will say that for half the price the Flying B is giving it a run for the money. I would highly encourage folks to sit on the flagship Cab for 5-7 years from vintage date and drink the Flying B while it ages.

Geeky Grapes on Display

While Washington State and Walla Walla wineries are known for fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Riesling, it was fun seeing winemakers embrace more obscure varieties like Albariño (Adamant Cellars), Grenache blanc (The Walls) and Carménère.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that the Figgins family of Leonetti were likely the first to plant Carménère in the state with cuttings they got from Guenoc Winery in California. Those cuttings were eventually shared with Colvin Vineyards that produced the first varietal Carménère in Washington in 2001. Since then the grape’s acreage in the state has expanded with plantings in Alder Ridge Vineyard, Minnick Hills, Morrison Lane and Seven Hills Vineyard.

I tried to figure out what vineyard in the Wahluke Slope had Carménère but my question was brushed off because they wanted to “highlight the AVA and not the vineyard.”
Um….okay.


Among the numerous wineries featuring a Carménère at the tasting were Balboa/Beresan Winery, Drink Washington State (from Wahluke Slope), Reininger Winery and Skylite Cellars. I missed out on trying the Reininger but was fairly impressed with Drink Washington State’s offering. But admittedly at $26 you are paying for the uniqueness of the variety in Washington and, right now, it is hard to compete with some of the Carménère coming in from Chile that often delivers outstanding value under $15.

Probably the geekiest wine at the tasting was Foundry Vineyards’ Stainless Steel Chardonnay from the Columbia Gorge. A Chard? Geeky? It is when it has 6% Maria Gomes blended in. Also known as Fernão Pires, Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that this obscure Portuguese grape variety is actually the most widely planted white grape in Portugal with over 41,500 acres. It is believed to have originated in either the Bairrada DOC or in the Tejo region but it can be found throughout the country including in the Douro. In the US, though, it is quite the rare bird.

Pay Attention to Washington Cabernet Franc

Walter Clore encouraged the first plantings of Cabernet Franc in the mid-1970s as part of Washington State University’s experimental blocks. In 1985, Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima planted the grape which was used by Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery to produce the first varietal Cabernet Franc in 1991. Since then the grape has seen growth from 150 acres in 1993 to a peak of 1157 acres in 2006 only to decline to 685 acres by 2017.

Which is a crying shame because of how absolutely delicious Washington Cabernet Franc is!

The 2012 Spring Valley Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc was, hands down, one of the best wines in the entire tasting.


While Old World examples from places like Chinon and Saumur-Champigny in the Loire can be light to medium bodied and herbal with trademark pencil shaving notes, examples from Washington hold up to the weight and profile of the state’s best Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Here Cabernet Franc can develop perfumed blue floral aromatics with some subtle fresh forest floor earthiness that add layers. The dark raspberry and blueberry carry a juicy edge due to the grape’s natural acidity. With some age, a very enticing fresh ground coffee note often comes out–something that the 2012 Spring Valley Vineyards Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc was starting to develop.

Outside of Walla Walla, stellar examples of Washington Cabernet Franc include Chinook Wines, Barrister, Camaraderie, Matthews Cellars, Gamache Vineyards, Chatter Creek and Sheridan Vineyard’s Boss Block.

At the Walla Walla tasting, in addition to the Spring Valley example that was a contender for Wine of The Show, other tremendous Cabernet Francs were showcased by Lagana Cellars (2015 Seven Hills), Tamarack Cellars (2015 Columbia Valley), Tertulia Cellars (2015 Elevation), Tranche (2013 Walla Walla), March Cellars (2016 Columbia Valley) and Walla Walla Vintners (2015 Columbia Valley)

What happened in 2014?

Along with Woodward Canyon, Kontos produced the cleanest and best tasting 2014 reds I encountered at the tasting.


The most baffling aspect of the Walla Walla tasting was how many 2014 reds were disappointing. Despite widely being considered a very good year in Washington State and Walla Walla, in particular, several wines from even big name and highly acclaimed producers showed green pyrazine or reductive notes. One winery had massive volatile acidity (VA) issues with their 2014s. With many wineries also featuring 2013 and 2015 reds, sometimes even of the same wine as their 2014, the shortcomings in the 2014s stuck out like a sore thumb.

And it wasn’t very consistent with one winery’s 2014s being green while another winery’s 2014 example of the same variety would instead have the closed aromas of reduced wines or (at worst with at least 2 examples) the burnt rubber aroma of mercaptans. While the reductive issues are minimized with getting some air into the wine (like with decanting), the green notes don’t go away. I can’t figure a reason why there would be so many green notes in what was a very warm vintage.

As far as I can tell there were no reports of millerandage or coulure which can promote uneven ripeness and hidden green berries inside clusters of varieties like Grenache, Merlot and Malbec. Plus, it was the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrahs that were more likely to show green notes. My only theory is that with it being such a large vintage perhaps some vineyards were over-cropped? But given the pedigree of the producers, I feel like that is unlikely.

I honestly don’t know. As noted above, there were still 2014s that were drinking well (and I certainly didn’t get a chance to taste every single one that was being poured) so I encourage consumers not to avoid the vintage but be aware that there is some inconsistency. I’m just reporting on a trend that I observed during this one tasting event.

My Top 5 Wines of the Event

The 2016 Figgins Estate Riesling was an absolute gem.

There were plenty of outstanding wines featured at the 2018 Walla Walla Wine Tasting at McCaw Hall that give me reasons to be excited about the future of the Walla Walla wine industry. This region is well worth exploring at your local wine shops and restaurants. Even with my reservations about many 2014 wines, there were numerous wines poured that I could very enthusiastically recommend. But my top 5 overall were:

1.) 2013 Tertulia Riviera Galets
2.) 2012 Spring Valley Vineyards Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc
3.) 2013 Kontos Cellars Beckett
4.) 2015 Abeja Merlot
5.) 2016 Figgins Estate Riesling

Dancing with Goliath


“You buy the big houses for the name, you buy the growers for the wine.”

In my post Cristal Clarity, I featured the quote above while discussing the dichotomy in the world of Champagne between the mega-corp négociant houses and the small grower producers. As I sat down for dinner at Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue for their 10th Annual Champagne Gala, that quote began ringing in my ears from the moment the staff handed me my “long neck” of Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial.

For the second straight year, Daniel’s Broiler partnered with LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) for their annual gala. From listening to other attendees, a few years ago the gala was also LVMH-centric with the wines of Veuve Clicquot featured and it sounds like the very first Champagne Gala at Daniel’s was also based around Moët & Chandon.

It seems that LVMH dominants the attention of Daniel’s wine team as much as it dominants the global Champagne market.

Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial “long necks”
Treasure cove oysters with salmon roe, chili, ginger and chives. Crostinis with brown-butter scallions, wild mushrooms and ricotta.

This….was an interesting experience. I know the use of Champagne flutes is going out of fashion but being told that this was the “hot new trend” in drinking bubbles struck myself (and I suspect most of the room) as quite odd.

Trying to “smell” the long neck Moët & Chandon


The Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial is a non-vintage blend made up of more than 100 different wines with 20-30% being “reserve wines” from older vintages. The blend varies from batch to batch and will usually have 30-40% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 20-30% Chardonnay. I was quite surprised to learn from the LVMH brand ambassador, Coventry Fallows, that the dosage for the Brut Imperial has been lowered over the years to 9 g/l. That is still on the “sweeter side” of Brut but it is an improvement over the 12 g/l that skirted the line between Brut and Extra Dry and a huge change from the 20 g/l dosage of their White Star label that was once a staple on the US market but has since been discontinued.

I think Garth Brooks sang a song about this.


While we were sipping our long necks and pairing them with the oysters and wild mushroom crostini, it was hard not to notice how utterly nondescript and indistinct the Brut Imperial was. It could have been a Cava, a Crémant or a Prosecco and no one would’ve fluttered an eye. It could have even been a sparkling wine in a can and still deliver the same neutral experience.

I asked my table mates if, instead of the Moët, they were sipping the Coppola Sofia California sparkler, would they have noticed a difference? Everyone said no which I think is a big crux for Moët and why this marketing gimmick is missing the mark. The Brut Imperial Champagne, itself, is nothing spectacular and memorable and it kind of feels like LVMH is getting bored with the brand that they crank out around 30 million bottles a year of.

Is the message that LVMH truly wants to send with these “long neck Moëts” is that Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial is the Bud Light of the Champagne world?

I wonder if this will fit into a bottle of Bud Light?


First utilized by Moët for the 2015 Golden Globes, it appears that LVMH is trying their darnedest to make “fetch happen” with sipper tops on 187 ml splits. As a hugely successful multinational conglomerate, LVMH’s branding is closely associated with luxury (with many of their Champagnes like Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon needing that association as part of their branding) which makes it a bit humorous that they’re marketing their wine by making you feel like you’re drinking a beer.

But hey… it’s Champagne! And its gold colored so you’re being both chic and avant-garde at the same time! There’s that, I guess.

If you want to indulge in your inner Coachella hipster, you can purchase your own Moët sipper top on Amazon and, of course, can find Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial at virtually any wine shop, grocery store or gas station.

However, considering that you can get four 187 ml Sofia cans for the same price as one Moët Brut Imperial split (minus the $8 “long neck adapter”) and still have the same amount of care-free fun drinking your bubbles like beer, I think I’m going to pass. I’ve always been more of a SXSW girl anyways.

Seated hors d’oeuvre paired with Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut 2008
Seared scallops and prawns with tangerine-saffron cream, fresh herbs and vol-au-vent.

The highlight of the event was the expertise offered by LVMH Brand Ambassador Coventry Fallows who was a wealth of knowledge and is very skilled at presenting the wines she represents. It was unfortunate, however, that rather than give her more time to offer more in-depth and detailed information about each wine to the group as a whole, her presentation was shorten for each wine to just a few moments with her working the room, going from table to table with the overall noise of surrounding tables drowning out her answers to the various questions presented.


But, from the little bit that I was able to gleam from her in those brief moments, I learned that the general philosophy of Moët & Chandon is that “Bigger is Better” and that, in addition to being a significant négociant buyer of fruit, they are also the largest vineyard owner in Champagne and are constantly seeking out more quality land to add to their holdings. This is encouraging because as we discovered with the wines of Roederer, the more direct house control of the process from grape to glass, the more likely you are to get a high quality and character driven product.

With those thoughts in mind, I was eager to try the 2008 Vintage Brut which represents only around 5% of the house’s production and is made entirely from estate-owned fruit.

The 2008 Moët & Chandon Brut is a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 37% Pinot noir and 23% Pinot Meunier. It was aged 7 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 5 g/l that is the lowest among the entire Moët line. Much of the fruit sourced for the wine comes from Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards that have been declassified from the Dom Perignon range.

The wine had medium minus intensity on the nose with some candied hazelnut and spice pear notes. On the palate, the pear seemed to go away and was replaced by more appley-notes while the candied hazelnuts become more pastry dough–like a nut-filled apple strudel. The finish was quite short.

And the Vintage Brut is a huge step up from drinking beer.


The mouthfeel was the star with smooth, silky bubbles that showed great balance between the acidity and the low dosage. The reason why so many Champagnes veer towards the “sweeter side of Brut” is because sugar is the magic pill when it comes to insuring a smooth and velvety soft mouthfeel that is so desirable–especially for the American market. It takes high quality fruit and skilled winemaking to accomplish similar results without the crutch of sugar so I will certainly give Moët’s chef de cave Benoit Gouez his due credit for his craftsmanship and balance with this Champagne.

However, there are plenty of well crafted and well balanced Champagnes (including many 100% Grand Crus) that can be found for around $40-55, far less than the $65-70 that the Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut usually commands. On the other hand, as a “baby Dom”, it actually is a better value when compared to spending $130-150 for some of the less-exciting vintages of Dom Perignon. (More on that below)

For me, the food provided by Daniel’s head chef Kevin Rohr was far more exciting with the scallops being perfectly pan-seared and fresh. The tangerine-saffron cream added a delightful twist of flavor that seemed both light and rich. The prawns were more hit and miss with half the table having no issue but the other half describing a “chlorine” and overly fishy taste to them that suggest there may have been some bad ones in the batch.

Salad paired with Moët & Chandon Rosé Impérial
Crisped duck breast with butter lettuce, Laura Chenel’s chèvre, pink peppercorns and pomegranate glacé.

Another tidbit from Ms. Fellows was that the house style of Moët is that of “Freshness and Crispness”. Perhaps no other wine showcased that emphasis more than the Rosé Impérial.


The Rosé Impérial is a non-vintage blend like the Brut Imperial with the percentage of grapes in the blend varying from batch to batch. The blend is usually around 40-50% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 10-20% Chardonnay with the rose coloring come from the addition of 20% blend of red Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier wine. Like the Brut Imperial, the dosage is 9 g/l with around 20-30% of reserve wine to help insure consistency.

The wine had a medium-plus intensity nose with cherry aromas and fresh red apple peels. Outside of the 2004 Dom Perignon, it had the best nose of the night. The palate carried that lively freshness through with the apple peel being the strongest note but with some strawberry notes joining the cherry on the finish. The one major slight, which was an unfortunate shared trait among all the wines of the evening, was the incredibly short finish that completely disappears mere moments after swallowing.

At around $50-55, you are still paying a premium for it being a rosé (and the Moët name) but, in hindsight of the evening, the Rosé Impérial is one of the better values in the entire Moët portfolio.

Again, the food was excellent with the pairing enhancing the wine. The pomegranate glacé with pink peppercorns were immensely charming and complimented the sense of freshness of the rosé with the tanginess of the chèvre cheese adding some length to the short finish of the wine. Even though it was certainly not “crispy” by any definition, the duck was beautifully cooked and juicy.

Entrée paired with 2004 and 2006 vintages of Dom Pérignon
USDA Prime beef tenderloin with butter-poached North Atlantic lobster tail, green risotto and Béarnaise sauce.

While technically part of Moët & Chandon, LVMH prefers for people to think of Dom Perignon as its own house and entity. Indeed, its production is distinct from the rest of the Moët lineup with its own chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, overseeing production. Like the man himself, the wine has been the subject of many myths and breathless soliloquies.

Some of the hype is richly deserved with many bottles of Dom Perignon being ranked as some of the greatest wines ever made.

For myself, personally, the 1996 Dom Perignon will always hold a warm spot in my heart as a magical wine that made the light bulb flick on for me about the beauty that wine offers. In many ways, I’m always comparing every wine I taste to that sublimely perfect bottle of 1996 Dom which may be why I’ve been so dishearten watching (and tasting) the changing style of Dom Perignon.

Of course the change started happening long before my magical 1996, but at some point Moët & Chandon made the decision that Dom Perignon was going to be marketed as more of a brand and lifestyle rather than necessarily as a wine. When you no longer have to sell something based on just the intrinsic quality of the wine, you are no longer limited in how many bottles you can produce. Though notoriously secretive about exact production figures, as of 2013 estimates were that around 5 million bottles of Dom Perignon are produced each vintage.

If Daniel’s runs out of ideas for future Champagne Gala events, we know there will always be plenty of Dom available.

While I’m sure they are having no problems selling those 5 million bottles each year (especially since the excess production has allowed the price to drop from $200-240 to around $130-150) perhaps it is no surprise that companies are finding plenty of Dom Perignon available to make gummie bears with.

The concept of “Vintage Champagne” was originally centered around the idea of a special bottling made only in exceptional vintages, but we are now seeing more and more vintages of Dom Perignon declared with 13 of the 41 vintages made between 1921 and 2006 coming after 1990. There are upcoming plans to release a 2008 & 2009 vintages as well. The increase in declared vintages is credited to global warming producing better vintages but, in comparison, Champagne Salon has only released 8 vintages since 1990. And in the years that they do declare a vintage, Salon only makes around 60,000 bottles.

The trade-off, of course, is fewer gummie bears.

That said, while Dom Perignon is clearly no longer one of the top prestige cuvees in the world. It is still a good Champagne, sourced from Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in Aÿ, Avize, Bouzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Chouilly, Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, that can deliver adequate pleasure in the $100+ range so I enjoyed the opportunity to try two vintages side-by-side.

Double fisting Dom

The 2004 vintage is a blend of 52% Pinot noir and 48% Chardonnay with a dosage of 6 g/l. The exact details for the 2006 Dom Perignon weren’t given out at the dinner (and I couldn’t find them online) but I suspect the dosage is similar and Robert Parker has described the 2006 as more Chardonnay dominate. Each vintage of Dom Perignon is now released in three tranches called Plenitudes with the first (or regular) release of Dom being P1 that is released after the Champagne has spent 8 years aging on the lees.

My wife was originally annoyed about the uneven pours of the two Doms (2004 on left, 2006 on right) until she tasted them and realize she wasn’t missing much with not getting more 2006.


The second release of each vintage (P2) will see 16 years aging on the lees with the final plenitude (P3) being released after 21 years. While I have not had the privilege of trying a P2 or P3 release, there has only been 19 and 4 releases respectively, I will confess to being intrigued at their potential though admittedly not terribly excited to spend the $360-1600 to purchase a bottle.

The 2004 had medium plus intensity aromatics that was actually quite inviting. It had an intriguing mix of tropical fruit and spice that had me thinking of the grilled cinnamon rubbed pineapple you get from a Brazilian steakhouse. There was also a fresh cedar and tobacco box component that takes you to a cigar humidor. These are usually notes I associated with a nice red Bordeaux so I thoroughly enjoyed the extra complexity it gave to the Champagne.

Unfortunately not all these notes carried through to the palate which tasted more butterscotch like a Werther’s Original. The mouthfeel was still fresh, keeping with the house style, and while the finish was longer than any of the other Champagnes, it was still regrettably short. The finish did introduce, though, a spiced pear component that I found intriguing if not fleeting.

Both the rose and 2008 vintage overshadowed the 2006 Dom Perignon.


It paired very well with the beef tenderloin and, particularly, the lobster and Béarnaise sauce. Overall, the 2004 would be a wine that I would be content with for around $130-150 though certainly more thrilled with if I paid closer to $80-100.

The 2006, on the other hand, was pretty disappointing. I will give it the benefit of the doubt that it is a young release, and like with the Cristal, probably would benefit from more bottle age. You could also argue that it wasn’t benefiting from being compared next to the superior 2004 Dom Perignon (though technically the vintages themselves were of similar quality). But to be quite frank, the 2006 Dom Perignon lagged behind even the 2008 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut.

The nose was the most shy of the night with medium minus intensity. Some faint citrus peel and toasted coconut flakes. Very light and indistinct. It could have been served as a long neck beer like the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial and it might not have made a difference. To the wine’s credit, those faint notes did carry through to the palate and added a praline pastry quality that seemed more buttery when paired with the lobster. The finish, following the chorus of the evening, was fleeting.

Dessert paired with Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial
Champagne-poached pear with vanilla pot de crème and spicy glazed pistachios.

The Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial is the house’s demi-sec offering and like with Roederer’s Carte Blanche is a tasty little gem that shows how overlooked the demi-sec category is. Following the pattern of the other wines of Moët & Chandon, this non-vintage Champagne is a Pinot dominant blend that includes 20-30% reserve wines. The exact composition varies but is usually around 40-50% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 10-20% Chardonnay. The dosage is 45 g/l or 4.5% residual sugar. To put that in context, that is just slightly less sweet than a late harvest Riesling like the 2015 Chateau Ste. Michelle Harvest Select that had 47 g/l residual sugar.

But balance is the name of the game and you can not underestimate the ability of the acidity and bubbles to offer an exceptional counter to the sweetness. Even though I compared the dosage to the sweetness level of the CSM Harvest Select Riesling, truth be told, I would reckon that most people who tasted the Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial side by side with something like the 2015 Eroica Riesling (a relatively dry Riesling with great acidity and 11.8 g/l of residual sugar) would feel that the Riesling was sweeter.

The wine had medium intensity with candied oranges and fresh white peaches. Those notes carried through to the palate with the candied oranges morphing more into an apricot note. Next to the 2004 Dom Perignon, this had a tad longer finish than the other Moët wines which was a pleasant way to end the evening. While it didn’t jive with the raspberry sauce used in the dessert, it did very well with the vanilla pot de crème. While there are other demi-secs in the $45-55 range that have impressed me more, this was still a very solidly made Champagne with great balance that should be placed near the top of the Moët & Chandon portfolio.

Overall Impressions

At the beginning of the event, Shawna Anderson, regional sales manager for Moët Hennessy USA, talked about the difference between the wines of the big houses like Moët & Chandon and grower producers. She said that with growers you never know what you get but with houses like Moët you get a consistent experience each time. And she’s right.

While I’m sure most readers can gleam my transparent affinity for hand crafted wine by smaller grower producers, I do not discount that there are sub-par and disappointing wines made by small growers. I also do not discount that large houses are built upon decades of sustained excellence that lay the bedrock of their growth. Likewise, I can’t argue that houses like Moët & Chandon are not consistent.

But then…. so is McDonald’s.

Outside of the 2006 Dom Perignon, I wasn’t disappointed with any of the wines featured at the Champagne Gala. Though I could certainly name at least a half dozen other Champagnes at lower or equivalent prices to the Moët & Chandon line up (some by big houses, some by smaller growers) that out performed the Champagnes of Moët & Chandon in delivering character and complexity, I can’t say that any of these wines are bad and not deserving to be purchased and enjoyed by people wanting a reason to celebrate.

It’s perfectly fine if you want to go dancing with Goliath. But folks should be clear that what they’re paying for in seeking the privilege of that dance is not necessarily for the quality in the bottle but, rather, for the name on the label.

For a review of last year’s Champagne gala see A Toast to Joy and Pain.

Cristal Clarity


On November 29th, Esquin Wine Merchants in Seattle hosted a tasting featuring the Champagnes of Louis Roederer. The event featured 7 wines that was highlighted by a sampling of the newly released 2009 Cristal and curated by Roederer brand ambassador Cynthia Challacombe and Esquin’s Arnie Millan.

It was a wonderful evening of trying some truly outstanding Champagnes. I left the event not only with several bottles but also with two important lessons learned.

1.) The Roederer vintage Brut and Blanc de Blancs are some of the best bang for the bucks not only in the Roederer portfolio but also among all premium Champagne.

2.) Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to open their Cristal too soon.

The Geekery

There is a big dichotomy in the world of Champagne between the huge mega-corp producers like Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), which produces tens of millions of cases across its various brands like Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Moët and Chandon, Krug, Ruinart and Mercier, and smaller growers and producers.

While the wines of huge négociant houses like those of the LVMH stable aren’t bad, some, like Ruinart, in particular, are outstanding, it is a fair argument that sometimes the produce of these Goliaths can lack some of the character, heart and excitement of what you can find in the Champagnes of smaller growers. I say sometimes because magnificent wines can be found in many different incarnations–including in the cloths of Goliaths–but there is a reason why the marketing of the big mega-corps is more about the image and the brand than it is about the story of the vineyards and the people behind it.

As a sommelier friend of mine once aptly noted, “You buy the big houses for the name, you buy the growers for the wine.”

That said, while the house of Louis Roederer and its MTV-ready prestige cuvee of Cristal is often grouped as one of the big Goliaths, I can’t help but admire the twinkle of a “grower’s soul” that peaks out underneath the glitzy exterior of these wines.

The Champagnes tasted


Founded in 1733, the house is still family owned with Frédéric Rouzaud, great-grandson of Camille Olry-Roederer, being the 7th generation of the Roederer-Rouzaud family to run the estate. While officially a négociant, Louis Roederer owns a substantial amount of vineyards including nearly 600 acres of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards that supply the vast majority of their needs. I was very pleasantly surprised to hear from brand ambassador Cynthia Challacombe that the only Champagne that Roederer uses purchased grapes for are for its entry-level non-vintage Brut Premier and even that is 70% estate fruit.

While Roederer does make around 3 million bottles of Champagne a year (or 250,000 cases), that doesn’t even crack the top 10 in production/sales in the Champagne region–lagging behind not only Pommery and Piper-Heidsieck but also far behind the 48 million bottles combined produced by the LVMH mega-Goliaths of Moët and Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

This relatively small scale of production and majority control of grapes allows Roederer to be more hands on throughout the winemaking process from grape to bottle. This can also be seen in the house’s push towards converting eventually all of its vineyards to biodynamic viticulture. By 2012, they were Champagne’s largest biodynamic grower with around 160 acres (65 ha) being farmed under the system. Ms. Challacombe noted that the estate is now 41% biodynamic (around 246 acres) with the rest still being farmed organically and sustainably.

The Wines
Prices listed were the event pricing for the evening at Esquin.


NV Brut Premier- ($49) A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier that is aged 3 years on the lees and bottled with 9-12 g/l dosage. Considering that the minimum aging requirement for non-vintage Champagne is only 15 months on the lees, it is admirable that Roederer holds their entry-level non-vintage to the same minimum of 3 years aging that is expected of vintage Champagnes.

The extended aging does pay off with a medium-plus intensity nose with aromas of tree fruit, candied ginger and apple pastry tart. On the palate, the mouthfeel is round and smooth with more apple notes coming out. It’s a tasty Champagne but my qualm is with how quickly the flavors fade and how short the finish is. I was expecting more persistence on the palate with how aromatic the nose was. For a sub $50 Champagne it is solid but I wouldn’t pay above that price.

2009 Brut Nature (Philippe Starck edition)- ($79) A blend of 66% Pinot noir/Pinot Meunier and 33% Chardonnay that is aged 5 years on the lees and bottled with no dosage. Sourced from a single vineyard in the village of Cumières in the Montagne de Reims, with a label designed by French designer Philippe Starck, this wine stands out from the rest of the Roederer line-up in both aesthetics and in profile. With its zero dosage and intense acidity, this was a sharply controversial wine at the tasting with many people not preferring this style.


I, on the other hand, absolutely adored this wine. It was by far the most mineral-driven and complex wine of the evening. High intensity aromatics of spiced pears, white flowers coupled with Turkish figs and graham cracker crust. On the palate, another chapter of the story unfolds with apple peels, water chestnuts and white pepper all backed by a bracing streak of rocky minerality. Even after the glass was empty, you could still smell the intense aromatics of the Champagne inside the glass. Stunning wine. It’s not for everyone but, for someone like me, it is a remarkable value for how much complexity it delivers.

2010 Blanc de Blancs- ($79) 100% Chardonnay from declassified vines in the Grand Cru villages of the Côte des Blancs, particularly Avize, that are usually allocated for Cristal. The wine is aged 5 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Again going above and beyond the minimum aging for a vintage Champagne (3 years), the Blanc de Blancs is treated like a Tête de cuvée and, in many ways, this bottle of Champagne outshines many houses’ Tête de cuvée–even Roederers!

Essentially a “baby Cristal”, the medium plus intensity nose is extremely floral and fresh. It smells like Spring time with a neighbor baking cookies next door and the warm air bringing you a waft of that aroma intermingling with flowers and fresh cut grass. On the palate, the floral notes continue with an incredibly satiny mouthfeel that actually feels like you are drinking flower petals. The cookie notes on the nose morph into more brioche on the palate, still serving as a back drop to the overwhelming floral notes. Liquid lillies. Considering that this wine outshone the $200+ Cristal, and easily puts many other $100+ Champagnes to shame, this wine is an absolute steal for its quality level.

Tasting Sheet


2011 Brut Rosé- ($67) A blend of 63% Pinot noir and 37% Chardonnay that is aged 4 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. For the rosé color, both short maceration and blending with red Pinot noir wine is used. The keynote of “freshness” being part of the Roederer house style strikes through with this rosé taking me back to Plant City, Florida outside Tampa for their Strawberry Festival held every March.

Medium intensity on the nose with fresh strawberries and an intriguing streak of basil as well. Unfortunately the aroma fades rather quickly which made it a bit of a let down following the downright intoxicating bouquets of the Brut Nature and Blanc de Blancs. The mouthfeel is smooth and well balanced with the strawberry and basil notes carrying through. But, again, it fades with a short finish. There is always a bit of a premium when it comes to the pricing of rosés but this one is a bit of a stretch for delivering quality that matches its near $70 price point.

2008 Vintage Brut- ($70) A blend of 70% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay that is aged 4 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Like the Blanc de Blancs, this Champagne also gets some of the declassified lots (presumably Pinot noir) that are allocated for Cristal as well as being sourced from it owns dedicated estate vineyards in the Grand Cru villages of Verzy and Verzenay.

Medium plus intensity nose that was only bested by the 2009 Brut Nature for best nose of the night. Cream puff pastry and hazelnuts. What was most enthralling was how it evolved over the short sample tasting to show the many different stages of making cream puff pastry from the fresh dough to baking the golden puffs and filling them. The freshness of the cream is also quite noticeable on the nose and carries its way to the palate where it is met by a little orange zest.


The mouthfeel was knee-bendingly silky, bested again only by one other wine–the 2010 Blanc de Blancs. Between the nose and mouthfeel, this Champagne was as close to a complete package as you could get and overall was my wine of the night. At around $70, this is an absolute steal that should leap frog on any Champagne lover’s purchasing list many, many Champagnes that are much more expensive.

NV Carte Blanche Demi-Sec- ($44) A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier that is aged 3 years on the lees and bottled with 38 g/l dosage. As any sommelier or retailer who inwardly cringes when consumers request dry Brut bubbles to be served with their sweet wedding cake will tell you–the Demi-Sec category of sparklers is often woefully overlooked. I truly think it is because most people haven’t experience these wines and have painted a picture in their mind of wines that taste much more overtly sweet than they actually do.

The key to demi-sec wines is balance and the Roederer Carte Blanche is one of the most exquisitely balanced demi-sec bubbles that I’ve ever had. Medium intensity note redolent of fresh peaches with apple pastry tart mixed in. Focusing on the tip of your tongue, you can pick up the sweetness but it is so subtle and balanced by the acidity and bubbles that I would wager that even many experienced tasters would think it was more in the 12-17 g/l Extra Dry category than a Demi-Sec. Many Proseccos taste far sweeter than this elegant and exceptionally well made Champagne.


Unlike the premium pricing for rosés, this under-the-radar category is exceptionally undervalued with the Roederer Carte Blanche being a screaming good deal for under $60 much less under $45.

2009 Cristal ($232) A blend of 60% Pinot noir and 40% Chardonnay that is aged 6 years on the lees and bottled with 8 g/l dosage. Sourced exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards in the villages of Avize, Aÿ, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Verzenay and Verzy this is the crème de la crème of the Roederer portfolio. It’s a wine with a legendary history that was created for Russian royalty and is featured in music videos, movies and the Instagram pics of anyone wanting to show off. It elicits “oohs and ahs” whenever it is brought out. It truly is one of the Champagne world’s top prestige cuvees.

It’s also one of its most disappointing.

To be fair, this is because Cristal’s Veblen and “bling-worthy” status encourages people to pop and pour them almost as soon as they hit the market. Despite wine writers and Champagne lovers repeatedly urging people to hold onto their Cristals, these wines are often opened far too young. As Antonio Galloni of Vinous noted in his survey of Cristals from 1979-2002, this behavior is “… ironic, if not downright tragic, considering Cristal is a wine that starts peaking around age 15-20, and that can last much longer under ideal storage conditions.”

Now my experience with Cristal is no where near as extensive as Galloni’s but the opportunities I’ve had to taste of now four different vintages of Cristal (the 2004, 2006 and 2009 soon after release and the 1994 when it was 12 years of age) have followed a consistent pattern. The newly release Cristal Champagnes that I tried when they were 6 to 8 years old were very underwhelming with my tasting notes littered with descriptors of “short” and “simple”. While the 1994, which was still relatively too young and from a rather sub-par vintage, was vastly more intriguing and has ranked as one of the best wines that I’ve ever had.

This 2009 Cristal, while undoubtedly well made and with immense potential, ranked only above the entry NV Brut Premier in its showing at the tasting. And that’s not an indictment on the wine. It’s just a reality of tasting a wine that is miles away from it peak drinking window.


But it is not like the wine was undrinkable. It was just exceedingly simple. Medium minus intensity nose with vague floral and tree fruit notes. Some slight pink peppercorn. Its strongest attribute at the moment is the mouthfeel that shows hint of the silky flower petal texture you with get the Blanc de Blancs. In fact, the whole profile of Cristal is its litany of hints.

It has hints of the nose of the 2008 Vintage Brut.
It has hints of the mouthfeel of the 2010 Blanc de Blancs.
It has hints of the complexity of the 2009 Brut Nature.

If you could combine those 3 Champagnes into one bottle, and tell folks that it was Cristal, you would have legions of happy Champagne drinkers who would gladly shell out $200+ and feel like they’re getting more than their money’s worth. But, instead, you have a bottle that is drinking at this moment on par with what you can get from the Roederer house already for between $49 (NV Brut Premier) and $67 (2011 Brut rosé).

It truly is about this moment.

But, again, the 2009 Cristal is not a bad wine and I’m not saying that this is a wine that you shouldn’t buy if you have the money and inclination. I’m just saying that this isn’t a wine that you should open right now. The pedigree is there. The terroir is there. The care and dedication of the Champagne house is there. But if you are going to invest the money and your personal pleasure into getting a spectacular bottle of Champagne than you have to have patience and/or be willing to splurge for the premium of an aged example of Cristal that has been properly cellared.

Otherwise, do yourself a favor and save a boatload of cash by checking out some of the far less heralded and less “bling-worthy” bottles of vintage Champagnes from Roederer. There is truly some spectacular stuff coming out this house that over deliver on pleasure.

Gin Scratch Fever


In Edmonds, Washington by the waterfront is a must visit site for any gin lover– Scratch Distillery.

Founded by self-described “gin-nerds”, the story of Scratch is intimately tied with the motto of Kim and Bryan Karrick–Gin Equals Love. It was their shared love of gin and quest for the perfect martinis and gin & tonics, that led them to start their distillery in 2013. After years of attending classes, internships and reading nearly every book on gin they could get their hands on, they officially opened the distillery on July 10, 2015.

I got a chance to learn more about their story and making gin during one of their Giniology sessions hosted at the distillery. This was truly a one of a kind experience that immerses you into the world of gin production, getting up close and personal with the history of the spirit, its classic cocktails and the endless potential of the many different botanicals that are used it craft it.

An absolutely delicious Gimlet made with Scratch’s Martini-style gin

The Giniolgy starts with a pre-class Gimlet cocktail made by their staff mixiolgist using Scratch’s Martini-style gin. As you get settled in, Bryan Karrick explains how the Gimlet is a surprisingly simple cocktail made in 5-1-1 ratio of gin, lime juice and simple syrup that hides really well how strong and potent it is.

And he was quite right! Beautifully aromatic with the citrus notes of the lime playing off the spice of their Martini-style gin, and silky smooth to boot. I can easily envision this being a cocktail that someone would get seconds and even thirds of before realizing how much booze is in there.

The class then spends about 30 minutes going into the history of Gin, tracing the early origins of distilling, the development of the alembic still and the creation of medicinal tinctures to the birth of the malty Dutch jenever. The modern concept of gin really takes off in the 18th century in Great Britain which introduced to the world the slightly sweet Old Tom gin , the gun-powder ready Navy Strength, the historic Plymouth and, finally, the London Dry styles of gin that we see in marketplace today.

The class also touched a bit on the cultural role of gin and how it evolved from a public scourge during the “Gin Craze” of the 18th century to the choice tipple of naval officers before becoming the benchmark of white-collar sophistication in the mid 20th century with the “Three Martini Lunch”.

I came into the class with some familiarity about gin after reading Lesley Jacobs Solmonson’s Gin: A Global History and Dave Broom’s Gin Manual but I was impressed with Bryan Karrick’s concise but very detail-oriented intro into the world of gin. You can see the passion and “gin-nerdiness” at work and its hard not to be infected with his enthusiasm for the spirit and the role it has played in history. However, where the class leaped beyond the pages of any gin book is when Kim took over and brought the class into the distillery.

At its core distilling is very simple. You start out making essentially beer and then move it to a still where heat vaporizes the alcohols that are then captured and condensed backed into a liquid form. But being simple is the recipe for making Everclear. The art and craftsmanship in distilling comes in all the tiny decisions and the watchful eyes that follow the process from start to finish.


The most fascinating part of the entire Giniology session is watching Kim talk through each of these tiny decisions from creating the wash to moving it to the pot still for the first distillation and then the careful temperature control and sleepless nights monitoring as the distillate works it way through the multiple plates of the column still. Since different alcohols vaporize at different temperatures and you only really want the “heart” of the distillate, monitoring this process and making the decision of when to make the cut is one of the distiller’s most important tasks.

Just visible between the column stills in the picture above, the magic happens with the introduction of a gin (or botanical) basket. Here the Karrick’s commitment to doing everything “from scratch” with organic, non-GMO and locally sourced botanicals is put into practice to craft a high-quality product that is light years beyond the mass-market gin brands.


I really can not give justice to the wealth of information and eye-opening experience you get walking through the process of gin production with Kim and Bryan. Over the course of the 40 minute tour of their little one-room distillery, you are certain to leave with a deep-seated appreciation for the craftsmanship as well as the hours of time and sweat that goes into making something that a lot of people just think of as tipple for their gin and tonics.

And speaking of G & T’s, after the distillery tour, you are greeted with one made with Scratch’s Gin & Tonic style gin as you hunker down to indulge in your inner mad scientist. Here the Giniology class goes from strength to strength as Kim and Bryan walk you through how to come up with your own personal gin–starting with first really getting to know the ingredients.

The Core Four ingredients of gin–juniper berries, coriander, orris root and angelica root


Have you ever rolled juniper berries and coriander seeds between your finger tips? Ever smelled orris root on its own? Seen angelica root up close and personal? Played around with hop flowers? Have you ever even heard of galangal root?

Even if you could answer “Yes” to all those questions, I would still wager that you’d get a sense of childlike wonderment as the dozen or so jars of botanicals are passed around and you get a chance to fully engage your senses with each. I found myself thinking back to early herbalists across ancient cultures who would look at each and every one of these herbs, seeds, flowers and roots with an inquisitive mindset of what kind of healing or intoxicating properties each had.


After getting familiar with the botanicals themselves, you move on to smelling and tasting them in isolation. Using neutral potato spirit, Scratch isolated 30 different botanicals that are commonly used in gin to give folks a chance to experience what each individual component can bring to a recipe. It can be a bit overwhelming for the senses which is a testament to the discipline required by master distillers like Kim Karrick to sit down and really study each of these botanicals as they craft their proprietary recipes. Like a chef combining food flavors and textures, you see the art in the distiller’s blending of different flavors and sensations with the intermingling of citrus, floral, spice and heat.


While the possibilities are endless, going through the exercise you start to see some patterns in the process beginning with why the core four ingredients of juniper, coriander, orris and angelica root form the bedrock of nearly every gin recipe. With Kim and Bryan’s guidance, you also learn about some of the “house styles” of popular gin brands which is very valuable in crafting your own blend.

Do you enjoy Hendricks? Well that is a floral-focused blend with caraway, cubeb berries, cucumber, lemon, meadowsweet, orange and rose. Is Bombay Sapphire your go-to? That’s a citrus-driven blend with lemon, grains of paradise, cubeb berries, cassia bark, almonds and licorice.


Though more important than knowing your favorite brand is knowing what you want to do with gin. Gin’s versatility in cocktails is legendary but the perfect gin for a Negroni may not be the perfect gin for an Aviation. In crafting my recipe, I told Kim how I liked more citrus oriented Gimlets and Martinis (and that I absolutely adored Scratch’s Martini-style gin), so she steered me towards a relatively soft blend that was high on the citrus aromatics but with enough spice to balance.


If you are intimidated by the math and ml conversions–especially after enjoying two cocktails–don’t be. Thankfully, there are professionals there to do the blending for you. While the staff at Scratch are making your blend, you get an opportunity to try many of Scratch’s other offerings like their vodkas, “bier schnapps” and barrel-aged gins.


And then finally, after probably the most fun 3 hours of “work” you’ll ever have, you leave the Giniology class with your own custom bottle of gin and a recipe that is kept on file at the distillery and can be replicated whenever you like. If you’re like me, you’ll probably also leave with a few extra bottles of Scratch’s products like their crazy smooth organic wheat vodka that makes Grey Goose seem like a bottom-shelf pour and a pepper infused vodka (made from a blend of Jalapeno, Serrano, pink and black peppercorns) that is just begging to be used in a Bloody Mary.

Overall, this is truly an experience that is well worth the time and cost to attend. If you are already an avowed “gin-nerd”, you will revel in the geekery of playing with the botanicals and crafting your own personal expression of your favorite spirit. But even if your only experience with gin has been the occasional martini or G&T made with the handful of mass-market brands, its still worth checking out this small, family-owned distillery.

I guarantee that not only will you end up having a lot of fun but you’ll also just might find yourself Scratched with a case of Gin Fever.