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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington is one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants to visit. Each year they host a Champagne Gala that we love going to. Even when we’re not thrilled with the wines selected, we nonetheless always enjoy the exquisite food crafted by Executive Chef Kevin Rohr and a chance to try interesting food pairings.

Recently I got to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Stags’ Leap Winery with Assistant Winemaker Joanne “Jo” Wing.

The Background

I geeked out about some of the backstory of Stags’ Leap Winery in my 60 Second Review of their 2013 Napa Valley Merlot. With a long history dating back to the late 19th century, the winery is one of Napa’s most historic properties.

In California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube notes that the rise of the modern-era of Stags’ Leap Winery under Carl Doumani went hand in hand with the “Cabernet boom” of the 1970s that saw the notable Cabs of Burgess, Cakebread, Caymus, Clos du Val, Mount Eden, Mt. Veeder, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps hit the scene. It also saw the birth of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and decades-long legal intrigue.

The War of the Apostrophe” soon took off with Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (and winner of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris) suing Doumani–who promptly counter-sued.

The two men eventually settled their differences in the mid-1980s and released a special collaborative bottling between the two estates called Accord from the 1985 vintage to commemorate. The agreement was that Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would have the apostrophe to the left of the ‘s’ while Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery would have it to the right.

You could tell that the Treasury Wine Estate rep at the dinner wasn’t too happy about the apostrophe typo on the menu.

Around this time, the two wineries faced another challenge with other wineries in the area like Gary Andrus’ Pine Ridge Winery, Steltzner Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards and more wanting to use the Stags Leap name and petitioning for American Viticultural Area (AVA) approval under that name for the region. After more legal challenges, a compromise was struck for the name of the new AVA to be the Stags Leap District (SLD) sans apostrophe.

Today the winery is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a vast portfolio that includes 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead wines, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Ch. St Jean, Penfolds, Provenance, Hewitt Vineyard and more.

The current winemaker is Christophe Paubert who succeeded Robert Brittan when the later left Napa to make wine in Oregon at his own Brittan Vineyards and consult for wineries such as Winderlea.

A Bordeaux trained winemaker, Paubert has extensive experience working at such illustrious estates as the 2nd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Gruaud-Larose and the First Growth Sauternes estate of Chateau d’Yquem. Prior to joining Stags’ Leap in 2009, Paubert was the head winemaker for 4 years at Canoe Ridge Vineyards in Washington State.

Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing is a New Zealand native who started out at Indevin, one of New Zealand’s largest wine producers. She gained experience working harvest across the globe from Saintsbury in Napa to Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley of Australia as well as in Bordeaux before accepting a position at Stags’ Leap as a harvest enologist and working her way up to Asst. Winemaker.

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Viognier
Smoked sablefish with soft scrambled farm egg, ikura, chives and Chevre crostini with watermelon beet, grilled apricot, chili spice

I’m not a big beet person so I let my wife try the Chevre Crostini while I had the smoked sablefish with the ikura roe caviar. Both were smashing pairings with the Stags’ Leap Viognier with the wine being a particular revelation.

Sourced primarily from cooler climate vineyards in the Carneros AVA and Oak Knoll District, the Viognier had medium-plus intensity nose of orange blossoms and white peach notes.

On the palate, those white peach tree fruits carried through but also brought some tropical notes of passion-fruit and papaya. However this Viognier never came close to the tutti-fruity “Fruit Loop Cereal” style that unfortunately befalls many domestic Viogniers–especially those fermented and aged only in stainless steel. To avoid that pratfall, Paubert and Wing fermented the wine in neutral French oak barrels with weekly batonnage for 4 months. This very “Condrieu-style” approach produced a Viognier with textural weight and depth but with enough medium-plus acidity to keep it from being flabby or overly creamy.

The acidity also matched perfectly with the hors d’oeuvres, cutting through the “fishiness” of the sablefish and roe. My wife was particularly impressed at how well the acidity matched with the Chevre–the tangy goat cheese that often calls for high acid whites like Sauvignon blanc.

At $22-27, this is an outstanding Viognier with loads of personality and complexity that I would put on par with the àMaurice Viognier from Washington State as one of the stellar domestic examples of this variety.

The preserved kumquat vinaigrette on the salad were quite a treat.


First Course paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay
Spring Salad with Belgian endive, baby kale, avocado, marcona almonds, preserved kumquat vinaigrette

Sourced from the Carneros and Oak Knoll District, this Napa Chardonnay counters the stereotype of over-the-top, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. With 25% fermented and aged in new French oak, 50% in “seasoned” French oak and the rest in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay aimed for an elegant and food-friendly style.

The wine had a medium intensity nose with apple and citrus lime notes. A little subtle baking spice from the oak rims around the edge.

On the palate, the citrus notes came through the most and played off the baby kale and avocado very well. Medium-plus acidity maintained freshness and balanced the moderate creaminess in the wine. The clove oak spice and an almost marzipan nuttiness lingered on the moderate finish.

Overall, this was a very drinkable and pleasant Chardonnay that did hit the target for food-pairing. But, admittedly, at $25-30 it didn’t jump out as anything wow-worthy–especially following in the footsteps of the scrumptious Viognier. It’s a very well made California Chard but it is still one of hundreds of similar well-made and similarly priced California Chards.

The star of the night. I can still taste the braised short ribs and that delectable sauce.

Second Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Braised short ribs with seared sea scallops, morel mushrooms, chervil

From a food perspective, this was the winning course of the night. The braised short ribs melted in the mouth and had you dearly wishing you had more than just the bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and while I was skeptical with pairing them with a big Cab, the morel and au jus sauce from the short ribs offered just enough weight to carry the pairing.

As with other wines in the white label Napa Valley series, the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon includes some estate fruit but is mostly sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Joanne Wing noted that while Paubert likes the flexibility of having some fruit from warm climate sites like Calistoga, he’s far more excited about the fruit from the cooler southern reaches of Napa like Coombsville, Oak Knoll and Yountville.

Medium-plus intensity with rich dark fruit–black currants, black plums, blackberries. This screams Napa Cab from the nose but it is not as overtly oak-driven as the norm with a little tobacco spice element.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through but there is a little earthy forest-floor element that emerges that adds some intrigue. Medium acidity adds juiciness to the fruit but not enough to be mouthwatering. The oak is a little more pronounced but is more spice driven than vanilla. The medium-plus tannins are still quite firm and young but are more tight than biting. Moderate length finish ends on the fruit which testifies to the youth of this wine.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

At $45-50, this is priced in lined with many of its Napa peers as a sort of “entry-level” Napa Cab. It’s hard to say it is a compelling value compared to what you can get for equivalent pricing from other regions like Washington and Paso Robles. Like the Chardonnay, I feel like this Cab is certainly well made but not blow-your-socks-off-you-must-find-it good partly because of the premium you are paying for the Napa name (and the winery’s history).

However, I do suspect that this wine could kick it up a couple notches with a few more years of bottle age that potentially could make it far more compelling.

Third Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap “The Investor” Red Blend
Piedmontese New York Steak with herb polenta, spring vegetables, blackberry demiglace

Admittedly, this was one of the few times I’ve been disappointed with a Daniel’s steak. Perhaps it was just this cut but I found it was in the weird position of being both too fatty and too dry and lacking flavor. The polenta and blackberry demi-glace were excellent though. But I found myself again wishing that the braised short ribs were the main course.

A unique blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, The Investor pays homage to former owner Horace Chase who made his fortune investing in gold and silver mines during the Gold Rush days of California. The Merlot and majority of the Petite Sirah come from estate fruit in the Stags Leap District and Oakville while the Cabernet and Malbec are sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley.

The medium-plus acidity and savory, herbal element of The Investor red blend definitely helped interject some much needed flavor into the Piedmontese New York steak.

Medium-plus nose with a mix of red and dark fruits–plums and currants. There is more overt oak vanilla on the nose of this wine than with the Cab but it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Underneath there is also a blue floral element that is not defined.

On the palate, the mix of fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity tilting the favor towards the red fruit. Some savory herbal and smokey notes join the party that dearly helps the food-pairing with the flavorless Piedmontese New York steak. The vanilla oak notes add a layer of velvety softness to the high tannins that still have a fair amount of gripe. Like the Cab, the moderate length finish ends on the youthful fruit.

At $50-60, The Investor intrigues me a lot more than the Napa Cabernet (and the Napa Merlot) because of the savory, smokey element and mouthwatering acidity. It’s still young and has some “baby fat” of oak that needs to be shed but this is a unique blend that could turn into something exceptionally good.

Dessert paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Chocolate torte with Devonshire cream, coconut crisp

While the chocolate torte was amazing and sinfully delicious and the wine outstanding, this was not a winning pairing. The wine was nowhere near sweet enough to balance with the torte.

While delicious on their own, the pairing of the chocolate torte with the Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah just didn’t do it for me.

Still, it was somewhat fitting to end the Stags’ Leap Winery dinner with the wine that truly epitomizes the estate. While the name “Stags Leap” is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap Winery was always a vanguard in cultivating and promoting Petite Sirah.

High intensity nose that started jumping out of the glass as soon as the waiter poured it. Blackberries and boysenberries with some peppery spice and violets.

On the palate, the first thing that hits you is the weight and richness of the wine with the full brunt of the dark fruits and high tannins. But there is an elegance with the juicy medium-plus acidity and fine balance that keeps the wine from being overbearing. On the moderate finish, there is some subtle dark chocolate notes that come out but not enough to make the food-pairing work. This was definitely a wine to savor on its own.

At $32-40, this is a more premium-priced Petite Sirah but it is well worth not only its price but also its reputation as the winery’s flagship. During this course, Jo told us about the Ne Cede Malis block of Prohibition-era vines that is a field blend of majority Petite Sirah with Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and up to 9 other varieties. The grapes are harvested together and co-fermented to produce a limited release bottling. I have to admit that if Stags’ Leap Winery’s mobile ordering website wasn’t so buggy and difficult to navigate, I would have purchased a bottle of the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (as well as several bottles of the Viognier) right then.

Overall Impressions

Attending this dinner left me wondering if Stags’ Leap Winery is a victim of its own name and location in Napa Valley. While the winery absolutely shined with its Viognier and Petite Sirah, their more typical Napa offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were just “ho-hum”.

I do appreciate that Treasury Wine Estates has let Paubert, Wing and Co. continue producing their more obscure bottlings but I have no doubt that the health of the winery’s bottom line depends on the case sales of the bread and butter Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. It’s where the money is–especially in Napa–and that is what they’re out to sell.

Yet after tasting their outstanding Viognier, scrumptious Petite Sirah and very character-driven Investor blend, its hard not to think about what more the winery could do with their talented winemaking team and unique approach if they didn’t have to live up to the name Stags’ Leap.

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Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar

Every year as part of Taste Washington weekend, the Washington Wine Commission host several education seminars to highlight the unique terroir, wines and personalities of the Washington wine industry.

This year I participated in the Washington vs the World: Old World, New World, Our World seminar that was moderated by Doug Charles of Compass Wines. The event was presented as a blind tasting of 5 flights–each pairing a Washington wine with a counterpart from elsewhere in the world.

Featuring a panel of winemakers including Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of WT Vintners, Keith Johnson of Sleight of Hand and Anna Schafer Cohen of àMaurice Cellars as well as Damon Huard of Passing Time Winery and Sean Sullivan of Wine Enthusiast and The Washington Wine Report, the one and half hour event was a terrific opportunity to learn insights from the panel while honing your blind tasting skills with some world class wines.

Below are my notes from each of the flights followed by the reveal of what the wines were.

Flight 1

Wine 1: Opaque ruby with more red than blue hues. Medium-minus intensity nose–floral roses with red berries. Some oak spice.
On the palate–red cherry and currant. High acidity, medium-plus tannins. Little skeletal and thin. Short finish but the floral notes come back and seem promising. Feels like a young Cab that needs some time to flesh out. No minerality so likely New World. Cool climate Washington–Yakima/Walla Walla?

Wine 2: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #1. Little hazy so likely unfiltered. Medium-minus intensity–dark fruit but also a noticeable green note. Vanilla.

The sediment from wine #2. There was no sign of age so clearly this wine wasn’t filtered.

On the palate, the noticeable oak vanilla comes to the forefront but the green leafy notes are also there. Dark fruits but still not very defined, especially with the oak. Medium-plus acidity and high tannins that have a chalky grittiness to them. Some clove spice from the oak. Likely a Cab like wine #1 and it feels like a New World Napa with dark fruit and all the oak but the green notes are throwing me off. Napa Mountain AVAs? 2014 Walla Walla?

Flight 2

Wine 3: Opaque with more red than blue hues. Medium intensity nose. Chocolate covered cherries and spice.

On the palate, chocolate cover cherries still with blue floral notes (Cab Franc?) and a mix of oak baking spice and Asian cooking spice. A lot of layers to evolve. High acidity–very juicy cherries. Medium-plus tannins, very velvet. Some pencil graphite minerality on the long finish (Cab Franc x2?) Kinda Old Worldish but the chocolate covered cherries seem New World or a very modern Right Bank Bordeaux? Very lovely.

Wine 4: Opaque ruby with a little fuchsia hues. Pretty similar color depth to #3, just slightly different shades. Medium intensity nose with some floral and perfume nose. Vanilla blossoms. Smells like a Macy department store. Some blue fruits.

On the palate, the blue fruits–plums and blueberries–carry through and has noticeable oak. Medium-plus acidity and high grippy tannins. Seems very Cab-like with that big structure. No minerality and really short finish. Like wine #1 this seems a bit skeletal and young but I don’t think this one is as promising as #1. Washington BDX blend?

Flight 3

Wine 5: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. High intensity nose. Smokey tobacco and meatiness but also an earthy forest element. It smells like you’re hiking through the forest to get to a brisket BBQ.

On the palate, lots of dark fruit–black currant, black raspberry–but lots of smokey, meatiness too. Some leather. High acidity, high tannins. Big wine! Long finish with cigar notes. Taste like a Left Bank Bordeaux and Cote Rotie had a baby. Fantastic wine but I can’t think of a WA producer doing this.

Wine 6: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. A tad darker than #5. Medium-plus intensity nose. Dark fruits. Chocolate covered acai berries. Lovely blue floral notes.

On the palate, rich black fruits–black plums, black currants. Noticeable oak vanilla. Juicy medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Very well balanced. Long finish. Taste like a high-end Napa so high-end WA? Both of these are outstanding.

Flight 4

Wine 7: Opaque ruby with some blue hues. High intensity nose with leather and smoked meat. More intense than Wine #5! A little green olive tapenade on toasted bread. Grilled rosemary skews. Floral violets. Roasted coffee. Lots and lots of layers!

On the palate, blackberries and bacon. The roasted coffee notes come through as well as most of the bouquet. Medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Little back end heat. Long finish. Very Northern Rhone-like. Really delicious wine that I want more time with.

The panel for the seminar. (Left to Right)
Doug Charles, moderator
Casey McClellan, Seven Hills
Jeff-Lindsay-Thorsen, WT Vintners
Keith Johnson, Sleight of Hand
Damon Huard, Passing Time
Anna Schafer Cohen, àMaurice
Sean Sullivan, Wine Enthusiast


Wine 8: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #7. Medium-intensity nose. Almost shy compare to #7. Black fruits. Citrus-lime zest? (WA Syrah?) Medium acidity and medium tannins. High pH. Little rocky minerality on moderate finish. Warm climate New World. Seems like a Red Mountain Syrah. Reminds me a little of the Betz La Cote Rousse.

Flight 5

Wine 9: Clear ruby with red hues. First wine that I can see through. Medium-plus intensity nose. Roasted chicken herbs–thyme and sage. Some blue floral notes.

On the palate, a mix of red and dark fruits–cherries and berries–with the herbal and floral notes. High acidity. Medium-plus tannins. Little minerality on the moderate finish. Seems like a cool climate New World or Old World Rhone.

Wine 10: Clear pale ruby. Lighter than #9 but darker than a Pinot noir. High intensity aromatics with earthy notes and red fruits. Some bacon fat smokiness.

On the palate, all red fruits–cherries and tart cranberries. The smokey bacon fat also comes through (Syrah?). High acidity and medium-plus tannins but way more biting. Not as well balanced as #9 and coming across as more thin and skeletal. Short finish. Seems young.

The Reveal
My favorite for each flight is highlighted with ***

Wine 1: 2012 àMaurice Cellars Artist Series Ivey Blend Columbia Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $43)***
Wine 2: 2013 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $213) Update: Sean Sullivan informed me that this was poured from a magnum which likely highlighted how young tasting and underwhelming this wine was.

Wine 3: 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $47)***
Wine 4: 2014 Seven Hills Winery Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $45)

Wine 5: 2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac (Wine Searcher Ave $114)***
Wine 6: 2015 Passing Time Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills (Winery price $80)

Wine 7: 2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $61)***
Wine 8: 2015 Glaetzer Wines Amon-Ra Shiraz Barossa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $75)

Wine 9: 2015 WT Vintners Rhone Blend Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley (Winery price $40)***
Wine 10: 2014 Sadie Family Columella Coastal Region (Wine Searcher Ave $107)

My Top 3 Wines of the Event

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard — WOW! This wine was so funky and character driven that I can still memorably taste it over 4 days later. I’m usually not that blown away by Sleight of Hand wines–finding them well made but often jammy and fading quickly–and while I don’t think this wine is necessarily built for the cellar, it certainly built to deliver loads of pleasure and layers of complexity over the next few years.

The Sleight of Hand Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard was my Wine of the Event.


2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac — I don’t know what kind of decanting this wine saw before the event but this wine was tasting exceptional for a young Pauillac–more so for a young Lynch Bages! I suspect it was opened earlier in the morning with the somm team pouring the glasses at least an hour before the event started–which is still a relatively brief amount of time for a top shelf Bordeaux. Update: I learned from Nick Davis of Medium Plus and the somm team at the seminar that the 2012 Lynch Bages was opened only 40 minutes before the event and poured 20 minutes prior to the tasting beginning. That only adds to how impressive the wine was showing.

The 2012 vintage in Bordeaux is not getting a lot of attention being bookend between the stellar 2009/10 and 2015/16 vintages. Like 2014, you hear Bordeaux lovers note that 2012 is much better than 2011 and 2013 but that almost seems like damning with faint praise. It’s clear that there is a lot of great value to be had in this vintage–compare the Wine Searcher Ave for 2010 Lynch Bages ($190) & 2015 ($142) to the $114 average for 2012–and if it is starting to deliver pleasure at a little over 5 years of age then it’s worth investing in as a “cellar defender” to enjoy while waiting for your 2009/10 and 2015/16 wines to age.

2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley — I was not expecting this result. During the blind tasting I was very intrigued by this wine and ultimately pegged it as a Right Bank Bordeaux made in a style along the veins of Valandraud, Fleur Cardinale, Monbousquet or Canon-la-Gaffelière. Never would have pegged it as a Napa Merlot! In hindsight the chocolate covered cherries should have been my clue but they were so well balanced by the acidity and minerality that it didn’t come across as “Napa sweet”. Well done Duckhorn!

An honorable mention goes to the 2015 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. I was very impressed with how how Napa-like it has become. I was already a fan of the winery and tried this 2015 as a barrel sample at last year’s release party where its potential was evident. Still, I wasn’t expecting it to be this good, this quickly. It was rather unfair to compare the Passing Time to the 2012 Lynch Bages which was so different and so fantastic in its own right. A better pairing would have been with the Joseph Phelps Insignia or any other high end Napa like Silver Oak, Caymus, Frank Family, Cakebread, etc and I have no doubt that the Passing Time would have came out on top for most tasters.

Things I Learned About Blind Tasting

Admittedly I was a tad concerned finding myself consistently liking the first wine in each tasting flight but I can’t think of any systematic reason that would lead to that result. The wines were all poured in advance and I cleared my palate with crackers and water between each so I have to chalk it all up to coincidence.

For the most part, the varietal character and identity of each flight stood out and I was fairly accurate in identifying them. The main outlier was the Merlot flight (#2) featuring the Duckhorn and Seven Hills Merlots. The Duckhorn was tripping some of my Cab Franc notes while the Seven Hills was exceptionally Cabernet Sauvignon-like so that led me to deduce Right Bank Bordeaux blend which was wrong but at least in the ballpark.

The more difficult task was trying to nail down the region and which was the Washington example versus the World example. Here I felt like I only solidly hit 2 of the 5 flights (Flight #1 and Flight #3–Cab and Cab-dominant blends) but that was mostly just by 50/50 luck–especially in Flight #1.

The WT Vintners Rhone blend from Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley is a tough wine to pin down in blind tasting because of its mix of Old/New World characteristics.

I was often tripped up by how “Old Worldish” many of the Washington wines were–especially the Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard in the Rocks District. In hindsight, this should have screamed “ROCKS!” to me much sooner. While technically Oregon, this sub-AVA of Walla Walla produces some of the most complex and interesting Syrahs being made in Washington. I commented from the audience that putting this Syrah in a blind tasting is a little evil because of how Old World and Cote Rotie-ish it is.

Another thing that makes Washington a bit difficult to peg down is how frequently “cool climate notes” like red fruit, juicy medium-plus acidity, bright floral perfumes and subtle herbal notes appear in wines that are actually grown in rather warm climates (especially compared to Old World regions like Bordeaux). This is largely because of the significant diurnal temperature variation in Eastern Washington that can swing as much as 40℉ from the high heat of the daytime to cool low temperatures of night. This allows Washington grapes to get fully ripe and develop some of those dark fruit notes but, especially in cooler areas like Boushey and Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima and parts of Walla Walla, also maintain ample acidity and some of those cool climate characteristics.

From a blind tasting perspective, I need to solidify in my mind that getting a wine with that mix of warm/cool climate characteristics should be a tip off that I’m dealing with a Washington wine.

Is it Worth it?

Hell yeah. While I wasn’t impressed at all with attending The New Vintage, I will certainly make an effort to attend future seminars at Taste Washington.

At $85 a ticket, this was one of the more expensive seminars with others being as low as $45 a ticket, but the experience (and tasting over $800 worth of wine) delivers more than enough value to merit the cost.

A lot of great wine to taste through.


The only slight criticism is the rush between tasting each wine and getting the panel and audience to start commenting on them. Especially being a blind tasting, I wanted more than just a minute or two to critically taste and evaluate the wine before I start hearing other people’s comments that may sway my assessment.

Granted, I’m sure I’m in the minority here as I could tell that for many other participants in the audience, tasting the wines and being able to ask questions of the panel was a bigger draw than getting a chance to sharpen their blind tasting skills. When you have 10 wines being presented over 90 minutes–and allotting time for questions about vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking style, etc–something got to give so I understand why the tasting time got the short shrift.

Still, it was an exceedingly worthwhile experience that I highly recommend for Washington wine lovers and wine geeks alike.

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Quilceda Creek Release Party

If you ask Washington wine lovers what are the “cult wines” of Washington–the Screaming Eagles, the Harlans or the Grace Family Vineyards of the state–one name that would be unanimously mentioned is Quilceda Creek.

With the mailing list long since closed, and a healthy waiting list to boot, my wife and I were lucky to get on the members list back in 2009. Each year we look forward to the release of the Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Below are some of my thoughts from this year’s release party.

But first, some geeking.

The Background

Quilceda Creek was founded in 1978 by Alex and Jeannette Golitzin. Alex’s maternal uncle was the legendary André Tchelistcheff who helped Golitzin secure vineyard sources and provided barrels from Beaulieu Vineyards. At the time of Quilceda’s founding, there were only around 12 wineries operating in Washington. In 1992, their son Paul joined the winery and today manages both vineyard operations and winemaking.

In addition to Tchelistcheff, the Golitzins can also count Prince Lev Sergeyevich (1845-1915/16) of the House of Golitsyn as another winemaking ancestor. Sergeyevich was the official winemaker to Czar Nicholas II with the sparkling wines produced at his Crimean winery, Novyi Svit, served at the Czar’s 1896 coronation. It is believed that Sergeyevich’s sparkling wines were the first “Champagne method” bubbles produced in Russia.

Quilceda Creek has received six perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate–for the 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2014 Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain. In 2011, the 2005 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was served by the White House for a state dinner with Chinese president Hu Jintao.

The winery has been featured several times on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including twice being named #2 wine–in 2006 for the 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and in 2015 for the 2012 edition of that wine.

The Vineyards

Photo by Williamborg. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain–which played an important role in the early wines of Quilceda Creek.


Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, notes that in the early years of Quilceda Creek, Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley was the primary source of fruit.

In the 1980s, the focus moved to Red Mountain with Kiona Vineyards providing the fruit for several highly acclaimed vintages. Eventually Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval and Mercer Ranch (now Champoux) were added to the stable.

Today, Quilceda Creek focuses almost exclusively on estate-own fruit, making four wines that are sourced from five vineyards.

In 1997, Quilceda Creek joined Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Bill Powers of Powers Winery/Badger Mountain to become partners in Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. First planted by the Mercer family in the 1970s, fruit from Champoux Vineyard has formed the backbone for nearly all of Quilceda Creek’s 100 pt wines. In 2014, when Paul and Judy Champoux decided to retire, the Golitzins purchased their interests in the vineyard.

The author with Paul Golitzin.


In 2006, they acquired a 4.5 acre parcel next to Champoux which they named Palengat after Jeannette Golitzin’s side of the family. Located on the south slope of Phinny Hill, the vineyard was planted between 1997-2002.

In 2001, the Golitzins partnered with Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard to plant a 17 acre estate vineyard, the Galitzine Vineyard, on Red Mountain next to Ciel du Cheval. The vineyard takes its name from an old spelling of the family’s surname and is planted exclusively to clone 8 Cabernet Sauvignon. Originally derived from 1893 cuttings taken from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, clone 8 is highly favored by acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

Planted in 2010, Lake Wallula Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills is 33 acres planted exclusively to Cabernet Sauvignon on a plateau overlooking the Columbia River.

The Wallula Vineyard near Kennewick was developed by the Den Hoed family in 1997 in partnership with Allen Shoup (now with Long Shadows Vintners).

The Wines

In addition to tasting and releasing the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend was also tasted.

2015 Columbia Valley Red Blend is a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot that was sourced from the Champoux, Galitzine, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. Essentially a “baby brother” to the flagship Cab and vineyard designated Galitzine and Palengat, the CVR is selected from declassified lots that have been aged in 100% new French oak 18-21 months.

The 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend (CVR) just wasn’t doing it for me at this tasting.


Medium intensity nose. Surprisingly shy as this wine is usually raring to go. Some dark fruits–blackberry and cassis–and noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through but become even less define than they were on the nose. Medium acidity and a bit of back-end alcohol heat contribute to the disjointed feeling with this wine. The medium-plus tannins are firm but do have a soft edge that adds some texture and pleasure to the mouthfeel. Moderate length finish of mostly heat and oak.

2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cab sourced from the Champoux, Lake Wallula, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. The wine was aged 20 months in 100% new French oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Rich dark fruits with razor sharp precision–black plums, blackberries and even blueberries. There is also a woodsy forest element that compliments the noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, a lot more of the vanilla and oak baking spice notes carry through–particularly cinnamon–that adds a “pie-filling” richness to the wine. However, the medium-plus acidity balances this hefty fruit exceptionally well to add elegance and freshness. High tannins are present but like the CVR have a soft edge that makes this very young Quilceda Cab surprisingly approachable now. You can very much feel the full bodied weight of its 15.2% alcohol but, unlike the CVR, there is no back-end heat tickling the throat. Still only a moderate length finish at this point but the lasting impression is the juicy, rich fruit.

The tasting and barrel room of Quilceda Creek in Snohomish.


The Verdict

This tasting was a complete role reversal of the CVR and Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Usually it is very consistent that the CVR is happily ready to be consumed young while the Cab needs some cellar time to fully integrate and shed the baby fat of oak.

Though that “baby fat” of new oak is still present in the 2015 Columbia Cabernet Sauvignon, the precision of the fruit and elegance is striking right now. This is, by far, one of the best tasting new releases of the Columbia Valley Cab that I’ve had. While I’m still concerned with the high alcohol level, I’m very optimistic about how this wine will age and develop in the bottle.

While I was able to get this for the member’s price of $140, the Wine Searcher average for the 2015 is now $218. Putting this in context of similar priced Napa Valley wines like Opus One, Caymus Special Select, Pahlmeyer Proprietary, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Mondavi To Kalon and Dominus—there is no doubt that the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon belongs in that league and should probably be batting clean-up in that line-up.

Pallets of the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Even at the member’s $140 a bottle price, this is still over a million dollars worth of wine.

The CVR was $42 for members ($65 on Wine Searcher) and is usually one of the most screaming deals in wine. I would compare previous vintages of the CVR to $70-100 Napa wines like Silver Oak, Frank Family, Groth, Cakebread and Caymus and watch the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Red blend blow them out of the water.

But this 2015 vintage…I don’t know. It’s very possible that I got an awkward bottle or that the wine, itself, is just in an awkward phase of its development. It’s worth keeping an eye on but till then I would recommend the almost ironic advice of enjoying your 2015 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon now while waiting for the “baby brother” 2015 CVR to age.

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60 Second Wine Review — 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Geekery

Mark Herold got his start in the wine industry as a research enologist for Joseph Phelps before founding Merus in 1998 in his garage with his then wife, Erika Gottl. Jim Gordon notes in Opus Vino, that over the next 10 years Herold turned his small 1500 case production of Merus into one of the most acclaimed wines in Napa. In 2007, Merus was sold to Foley Wine Group with Herold leaving the following year as Camille Benitah and Paul Hobbs took over winemaking.

After leaving Merus, Herold continued consulting at estates like Buccella, Celani Family, Kamen, Kobalt, Harris, Hestan and Maze. As part of a divorce settlement and non-compete, he agreed not to make any Cabernet Sauvignon under his own label until 2010.

According to Barnivore, Mark Herold Wines are vegan-friendly. The 2012 Brown Label is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with around 575 cases made.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of sweet oak spices and vanilla. Rich dark fruit–currants, blackberries. There is also a smokey, roasted coffee element to the nose as well.

On the palate, the wine is very big and full-bodied with medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. The dark fruits carry through but the oak still dominants with the vanilla adding a lushness that rounds out the tannic edge. I wished the coffee note carried through with the smokey element instead being more toasted wood on the palate instead of roasted coffee. Moderate length finished.

Photo by Paolo Neo. Released on Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain

Rich dark fruits like black currant and oak are abundant in this Cab.

The Verdict

The 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label falls in line with your classic big, bold Napa Cabs that have noticeable oak. Though while it does have rich dark fruit and vanilla lusciousness, it is a bit better balanced than most of its peers with the tannins keeping it from being sweet and the acidity bringing freshness.

At around $95-110, it is very much in line with wines from estates like Cakebread, Silver Oak, Frank Family and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

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60 Second Wine Review — Lloyd Chardonnay

Some quick thoughts on the 2014 Lloyd Cellars Carneros Chardonnay.

The Geekery

Robert Lloyd is a veteran winemaker with more than two decades of experience working at some of the some of top names in California. He started out working in the cellar and tasting room of Cakebread and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars before finishing his Masters of Enology at UC-Davis in 1999 while interning at Kent Rasmussen.

After graduation, he worked at La Crema as a winemaker before leaving for Rombauer in 2001. At Rombauer, he worked his way up from Assistant to Head Winemaker before leaving in 2008 to start his own winery.

The 2014 vintage of the Carneros Chardonnay is sourced from Sangiacomo Vineyards (including the Kiser, Home Ranch and Green Acres blocks) and Truchard Vineyards.

Other wineries that work with Sangiacomo fruit includes: La Follette, Sojourn Cellars, Rombauer, Barnett Vineyards, MacRostie, Sonoma-Loeb, B.R. Cohn, Adobe Road, Neyers, Athair and Saintsbury. From Truchard, outside of their own eponymous label, Nickel & Nickel makes a notable Chardonnay.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose that is a mix of ripe tropical fruits like pineapple and citron as well oak baking spice. Not as much sweet vanilla on the nose as I would have expected with his Rombauer pedigree.

Photo by Renee Comet. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD from National Institutes of Health images

Julia Child would love this wine and appreciate its balance.


On the palate the wine is very full-bodied and creamy–there’s the Rombauer! But the wine also has medium-plus acidity that adds much needed balance and freshness that you usually don’t see in butter bombs. The ripe tropical notes carry through as well as the baking spices with a little bit of floral-ness on the long finish.

The Verdict

The Lloyd Cellars Chard is hedonism in a bottle and is tailor-made for anyone who likes luscious, buttery Chards. It is a very well-made example of its style with more freshness and balance than its Cali cohorts.

At around $40-45, it is priced in line with its peers though with its balance and depth, it probably could go up to the $55 range and still be a compelling bottle.

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