Tag Archives: Douro

Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.

Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto.

These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off.

With nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.

The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow!

I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!

Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt!

This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses.

But, again, Kyran when above and beyond as he brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.

With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new.

You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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Oh dear heaven — the woeful ‘7s’

Recently I came across a tweet that made me chuckle.

I absolutely adore Lynch-Bages but I’m not sure that this is the best marketing approach for Duclot. While I get the point of this tweet, I fret that the 2017 Bordeaux vintage may have a bit more in common with the other “7 vintages” than the legendary 1947 and it’s probably not wise to remind folks of this woeful trend.

2007The quintessential “Cellar Defender” vintage. A wet and rainy summer saved by a warm September that produced wines that are exceptionally light on fruit and alcohol but have enough charm for short term consumption–especially when paired with food. While it certainly wasn’t a vintage for wine drinkers who favor big “New World-ish” style wines of Napa, it’s a vintage that still holds some positives for fans of “classic clarets”.

Especially compared to their 2008 & 2006 counterparts, the value of many 2007s right now are terrific.


If you have a 2007 in your cellar as well as some 2009/2010, this is the bottle you pull tonight for dinner–even if it is just pizza or a burger. Several of these wines–such as the 2007 Léoville Poyferré I reviewed–will certainly deliver more than enough pleasure to merit their price.

1997Rainy vintage that diluted flavors and brought mildew problems. However, this vintage like 2007 (and 2017) is a beneficiary of increased knowledge and technology that has tempered the impact of troublesome vintages. Good wineries, especially those who can afford to be highly selective in the vineyard and final blend, will still make good (albeit not great) wine–just in much smaller quantity. Ian d’Agata notes that this vintage (as well as 2007, 1994, 1999 and 2002) is one that shouldn’t be written off.

1987A cool year that favored the early ripening Merlot grape on the Right Bank and the warmer soils of the Graves. Until 2017, this was probably considered the best “7 vintage” since 1947. The biggest problem for 1987 was that it followed a string of gorgeous vintages in the early 1980s which artificially inflated the prices for the quality. Though I have to admit that I would have been tempted by a $75 Chateau Lafite.

Following the very successful 2015/2016 vintages and with quite a bit of 2009/2010 still on the market, you have to wonder if 2017 will follow the same fate?

1977“Worst vintage of the Decade” says Jeff Leve of The Wine Cellar Insider. Ouch. Severe frost from late March into April particularly ravaged the early budding Merlot vines on the Right Bank. However, for 1977 birth year babies it was fantastic for vintage Port in the Douro.

1967A cool spring followed by a hot July/August only to be capped by a cold September and then a rainy harvest month of October. Particularly rough for the Medoc.

1957Another rainy, wet vintage marked by a very cold summer. If you have a 1957 Bordeaux still lying around, you better hope that it is a Sauternes.

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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

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