Tag Archives: Red Blends

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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Whiskey and Wine Revisited

In 2016, I dipped my toes into exploring the strange trend of wine aged in whiskey barrels with my original Whiskey and Wine post.

In that post I did a blind tasting featuring 3 barrel aged wines and one regular red wine ringer thrown in. While I thought this fad would quickly fade, it looks like it has only picked up steam with new entries on the market.

I decided to investigate a little more with another blind tasting of as many different barrel aged wines that I could find. (Results below)

I got bottles of the Apothic Inferno, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrelhouse Red featured in the last blind tasting as well as new bottlings from Mondavi of a bourbon barrel aged Chardonnay (I’m not kidding) and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Barrelhouse. I found new examples from Cooper & Thief, 1000 Stories, Big Six Wines, Stave & Steel and Paso Ranches. For a twist, I also added the 19 Crimes The Uprising that was actually aged in rum barrels.

I tried to find bottles of The Federalist’s Bourbon barrel aged Zinfandel, Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz and 1000 Stories “half batch” Petite Sirah but to no avail.

So What’s The Deal?

Why are so many producers jumping on this bandwagon?

On Twitter, wine and lifestyle blogger Duane Pemberton (@Winefoot) had an interesting take.

A similar sentiment was shared on Facebook from one of my winemaking friends, Alan, who noted that the charcoal from the heavy toast of the bourbon barrels could function as a fining agent for wines with quality issues like bad odors.

Now considering that many of the mega-corporations behind these wines like Gallo (Apothic), Constellation Brands (Mondavi & Cooper & Thief), The Wine Group (Stave & Steel) and Concha y Toro/Fetzer (1000 Stories) process millions of tons of grapes for huge portfolios of brands, this actually makes brilliant business sense.

Even in the very best of vintages, you are always going to have some fruit that is less than stellar–often from massively over-cropped vineyards that aren’t planted in the most ideal terroir. Rather than funnel that fruit to some of your discount brands like Gallo’s Barefoot, Constellation’s Vendange and The Wine Group’s Almaden, you can put these wines in a whiskey barrel for a couple months and charge a $5-10 premium–or in the case of Cooper & Thief, $30 a bottle!

Trying to Keep An Open Mind

Bourbon Standards

In this tasting, I wanted to explore how much of the whiskey barrel influence is noticeable in the wine. In the last blind tasting, one of things that jumped out for me is that the Mondavi Cab and Barrelhouse red didn’t really come across as “Whiskey-like” and were drinkable just fine as bold red wines. Meanwhile the Apothic Inferno did scream WHISKEY but it came across more like a painful screech.

To facilitate that exploration, I poured some examples of “Bourbon Standards” that the tasting panel could smell for reference (and drink after the tasting if needed!). My Bourbon Standards were:

Larceny — From Heaven Hill Distillery. A “fruity sweet” Bourbon with noticeable oak spice.

Jim Beam — Old standard from Beam-Suntory. A light Bourbon with floral and spice notes.

Two Stars — A wheated Bourbon from Sazerac. It’s kind of like if Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark had a baby, this would be it. Caramel and spice with honey and fruit.

Bulleit — Made now at Four Roses Distillery. Sweet vanilla and citrus.

The Wines

Apothic Inferno & Cooper & Thief

Apothic Inferno — ($13) Made by Gallo. Unknown red blend. This wine is unique in that it only spent 60 days in whiskey barrels (as opposed to bourbon barrels) while most of the other reds spent 90 days. 15.9% ABV

Cooper & Thief — ($30) Made by Constellation under the helm of Jeff Kasavan, the former director of winemaking for Vendange. I did appreciate that this was the only red blend that gave its blend composition with 38% Merlot, 37% Syrah, 11% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% “other red grapes”. The wine was aged for 90 days and had the highest ABV of all the wines tasted with 17%. This wine was also unique in that it was from the 2014 vintage while all the other reds (with the exception of the 19 Crimes) were from the 2015 vintage.

Barrelhouse — ($13-14) Made by Bruce and Kim Cunningham of AW Direct. A Cabernet Sauvignon and unknown Red Blend aged 90 days in bourbon barrels. Both of these wines were unique in that they had the lowest alcohol levels in the tasting with only 13.2% while most of the other wines were over 15%.

Big Six — ($15 each) Made by god knows who. The back label says it is from King City, California which means that it could be a Constellation brand or it could be made at a custom crush facility like The Monterey Wine Company. They offer a Cabernet Sauvignon, unknown Red Blend and Zinfandel aged 90 days in bourbon barrels with ABVs ranging from 15.1% (Red blend) to 15.5% (Zinfandel).

Paso Ranches Zinfandel — ($20) Made by Ginnie Lambrix at Truett Hurst. While most wines were labeled as multi-regional “California”, this wine is sourced from the more limited Paso Robles AVA. Aged 90 days with a 16.8% ABV.

Robert Mondavi — ($12 each) Made by Constellation Brands. A Cabernet Sauvignon aged 90 days and a Chardonnay aged for 60 days with both wines having an ABV of 14.5%. Like the Paso Ranches, these wines were sourced from the more limited Monterrey County region.

Stave & Steel Cabernet Sauvignon — ($17) Made by The Wine Group. This wine was unique in that it was aged the longest of all the wines with 4 months. Like the Barrelhouse, this wine had a more moderate alcohol of 13.5%

Got only crickets from them on Twitter as well.


1000 Stories Zinfandel — ($17) Made by Fetzer which is owned by Concha y Toro. This was one of the first wineries in the US to release a bourbon barrel aged wine back in 2014 with winemaker Bob Blue claiming that he’s been aging wine in old whiskey barrels since the 1980s. This was the only wine that I could not figure out how long it was aged with the bottle or website giving no indication. The ABV was 15.6%

19 Crimes — ($8) Made by Treasury Estates with wine sourced from SE Australia. Unknown red blend that was aged 30 days in rum barrels with 15% ABV. This was the youngest wine featured in the tasting coming from the 2016 vintage.

The Blind Tasting

To be as objective as possible, especially with some of the wines like the Cooper & Thief having very distinctive bottles, I brown bagged the wines and had my wife pour the wines in another room. We also “splash decanted” all the wines (with the exception of the Chardonnay) to clear off any reductive notes.

After trying the Chardonnay non-blind, my wife would randomly select an unmarked bag, label it A through L and poured the wines in 6 flights of 2 wines each. We then evaluated the wines and gave each a score on a scale of 1-10. Below is a summary of some of our notes, scores and rankings with the reveal to follow. My friend Pete contributed the colorful “personification” of the wines in his tasting notes. The wine price ranges are from my own notes.

To keep our palates as fresh as possible we had plenty of water and crackers throughout the tasting. And boy did our poor little spit bucket get a work out, needing to be emptied after every other flight. But even with spitting, it was clear that we were absorbing some of the high alcohol levels. After 6 reds, we also paused for a break to refresh our palates with some sparkling wine.

Mondavi Chardonnay (Scores 4, 7, 6, 5.5, 4 = 26.5 for 7th place) Vanilla, butterscotch, canned cream corn & tropical fruit like warm pinneapple. More rum barrel influence than bourbon. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range

Wine A (Scores 6, 7.5, 6, 7, 6 = 32.5 for 3rd place) Baby powder and baking spice. Noticeable Mega-Purple influence. Maybe a Zin or Petite Sirah. Minimal oak influence. Some burnt char. Kind of like the girl you met at the carnival, take for a ride but don’t buy her cotton candy. Drinks like something in the $10-12 range.

Many wines were very dark and opaque.


Wine B (Scores 2, 3, 4, 2, 2 = 13 for 11th place) Very sweet. Lots of vanilla. Noticeable oak spice and barrel influence. Little rubber. More rye whiskey than bourbon. Taste like oxidize plum wine. Very bitter and diesel fuelish. Reminds me of a Neil Diamond groupie. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range.

Wine C (Scores 7, 7, 7, 7, 3 = 31 for 5th place) Smells like a ruby port or Valpolicella ripasso. Some wintergreen mint and spice. Cherry and toasted marshmellow. Noticeable barrel influence. Reminds me of Karen from Mean Girls. Drinks like something in the $10-12 range.

Wine D (Scores 3, 4.5, 5, 2, 2 = 16.5 for 10th place) Very sweet, almost syrup. Burnt creme brulee. Burnt rubber. Toasted coconut. Rum soaked cherries. The color is like Hot Topic purple hair dye. Super short finish which is actually a godsend. If this wine was a person, her name would be Chauncey. Drinks like something in the $5-6 range.

Wine E (Scores 6, 7, 6, 8, 7 = 34 for 2nd place) Raspberry and vanilla. Graham cracker crust. Not as sweet as others. Very potpourri and floral. Really nice nose! Smells like the Jim Beam. Little Shetland pony earthiness. High heat and noticeable alcohol. Reminds me of the guy who is really ugly but you like him anyways. Drinks like something in the $14-16 range.

Wine F (Scores 3.5, 5.5, 4, 5, 5 = 22 for 8th place) Toasted marshmellows. Noticeably tannic like a Cab. Raspberry and black currants. Not much barrel influence. This wine seems very robotic. Drinks like something in the $12-14 range.

That spit bucket rarely left my side during this tasting.

Wine G (Scores 6.5, 7, 3, 6.5, 6 = 27 for 6th place) Tons of baking spice. Very noticeable oak. Reminds me of a Paso Zin. Lots of black pepper–makes my nose itch. Slightly sweet vanilla. Most complex nose so far. Would be a really good wine if it wasn’t so sweet. Reminds me of a Great Depression era dad. Drinks like a $14-16 wine.

Wine H (Scores 2, 3, 3, 1, 2 = 11 for 13th last place) Burnt rubber tires. Smells very boozy. Fuel. Taste like really bad Seagram’s 7. Cheap plastic and char like someone set knockoff Crocs shoes on fire. Reminds me of Peter Griffin. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range.

Wine I (Scores 7.5, 6.5, 7, 8, 7 = 36 for 1st place) Dark fruit and pepper spice. Turkish fig. Juicy acidity. Not as sweet. Round mouthfeel and very smooth. Creamy like butterscotch. Not much barrel influence. Reminds me of a sociopath that you don’t know if they want to cuddle with you or cut your throat. Drinks like something in the $14-16 range.

Wine J (Scores 4, 4, 3, 4, 3 = 19 for 9th place) Marshmellow fluff. Caramel. Very sweet. Smells like a crappy Manhattan with cherry. Seems like a boozy Zin. Not horrible but still bad. Not much barrel influence at all. Reminds me of children. Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

The tasting sheets.

Wine K (Scores 7, 6.5, 8, 4, 6 = 31.5 for 4th place) Big & rich. Juicy cherries. Sweet but not overly so. Little pepper spice. Very easy drinking. Something I would actually drink. Not much barrel influence. Makes me think of the “I’ve got a Moon Ma” guy. (author’s note: I have no idea what Pete is referring to here. This is my best guess.) Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

Wine L (Scores 1, 4, 2, 4, 1 = 12 for 12th place) Stewed plums and burnt rubber. Lots of tannins and acid. The worst thing I’ve had in my mouth all week. Pretty horrible. Long unpleasant finish. Reminds me of Sloth from The Goonies. Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

The Reveal

After tallying up the scores, we revealed the wines. In order from best tasting to worst tasting of the barrel aged wines:

The closeness in style and rankings of the 3 Big Six wines were surprising.

1st Place: Barrelhouse Red (Bag I)
2nd Place: Stave & Steel Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag E)
3rd Place: Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag A)
Big Six Zinfandel (Bag K)
Big Six Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag C)
Big Six Red Blend (Bag G)
Mondavi Chardonnay (non-blind)
Barrelhouse Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag F)
19 Crimes The Uprising (Bag J)
Cooper & Thief (Bag D)
Paso Ranches Zinfandel (Bag B)
1000 Stories Zinfandel (Bag L)
Last Place: Apothic Inferno (Bag H)

Final Thoughts

One clear trend that jumped out was that the top three wines had moderate alcohol (13.2% with the Barrelhouse to 14.5% with the Mondavi). Overall these wines tasted better balance and had the least amount of the off-putting burnt rubber and diesel fuel note which tended to come out in the worst performing wines like the Apothic Inferno (15.9%), Cooper & Thief (17%), 1000 Stories Zin (15.6%) and Paso Ranches Zin (16.8%).

Another trend that emerged that was similar to the previous tasting (which had the Barrelhouse Red and Mondavi Cab also doing very well) is that the most enjoyable wines were the ones with the least overt whiskey barrel influence. This was true even with the 2nd place finish of the Stave & Steel that was the wine that spent the most time in barrel at 4 months. That is a testament to the skill of the winemaker where the whiskey barrel is used as a supporting character to add some nuance of spice and vanilla instead of taking over the show.

Comparing the 4 month aged Stave & Steel to the 2 month aged Apothic Inferno is rather startling because even with a shorter amount of barrel time the Apothic seemed to absorb the worst characteristics from the whiskey barrel with the burnt rubber and plastic. The 19 Crimes that only spent 30 days in rum barrels didn’t show much barrel influence at all.

It also appears that, in general, Cabernet Sauvignon takes better to the barrel aging compared to Zinfandel though the Big Six Zinfandel did fairly well to earn a 4th place finish. The most difficult task for winemakers is to try and reign in the sweetness. Several of these wines had notes like Wine G (the Big Six red blend that is probably Zin dominant) that they would actually be decent wines if they were just a bit less sweet.

One last take away (which is true of most wines) is that price is not an indicator of quality. Three of the worst performing wines were among the 4 most expensive with the $17 1000 Stories Zin, $20 Paso Ranches Zin and the $30 Cooper & Thief. In fact, the Cooper & Thief tasted so cheap that I pegged it as a $5-6 wine. It is very clear that you are paying for the unique bottle and fancy website with this wine.

Only the $17 Stave & Steel that came in 2nd held its own in the tasting to merit its price though the Barrelhouse Red at $13 and Mondavi Cab at $12 offer better value.

It’s clear that this trend is not going away anytime soon. If you’re curious, these wines are worth exploring but be aware that they vary considerably in style, alcohol and sweetness. Grab a few bottles and form your own opinion.

But take my advice and have some good ole fashion real whiskey on standby. Those “bourbon standards” certainly came in handy after the tasting.

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The Facade of Choice

The Wine Industry Advisor posted their list of most read articles of 2017 with the number one article,from March, being on the launch of Liberation Distribution‘s web-based platform designed to connect small wineries with retail and restaurant clients.

LibDib aims to fill a huge gap in the traditional three-tier distribution network where the wholesale tier is dominated by a few large players who virtually ignore all but the largest portfolios. This is an exciting development for wine lovers to watch because when small family owned wineries gain more avenues to reach retail shelves and restaurant wine lists, consumers get a chance to have real choice when it comes to their wine purchases.

That’s not the case right now with most consumers having their choices at grocery stores and restaurant wine lists limited to an assortment of brands made by just a handful of producers.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a stroll to a local grocery store and look at the shelves.

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Here’s a snapshot of 20 Cabernet Sauvignons. That’s a lot of Cabs right? Well out of the 20, we have 5 of the wines being brands that belong (either whole or partially) to E. & J. Gallo. That’s 25% of the shelf right there. Of course that percentage could be higher if we include Gallo’s recent purchase of Orin Swift wines or add other popular and well known Cabernet Sauvignons from the Gallo brands of Bridlewood, Carnivor, Souverain, The Naked Grape and Vin Vault.

Let’s move over to Chardonnay where Jackson Family Estate holds considerable weight in the market place. Both the Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve and La Crema Sonoma Coast regularly vie for top-selling Chardonnay in the United States but Jackson Family Estates can also control the shelf with Chardonnays from their Carmel Road, Freemark Abbey, Brewer-Clifton, Byron and Matanzas Creek brands.

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In recent years, the Jackson Family has been aggressively acquiring brands in Oregon and now includes such notable names as Penner-Ash, Zena Crown and Willakenzie in their portfolio.

If we head over to red blends, we see a lot of familiar names and many of them are under the umbrella of Constellation Brands. The past couple of years, Constellation has been spending mad money buying virtually everything from high-end Napa estates like Schrader Cellars, several of Charles Smith’s Washington labels to distilleries like High West and breweries like Ballast Point.
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Constellation Brands has been buying up so many labels that it is becoming something of a parlor game to guess who they are going to swallow up next. For many observers, the betting money is on Constellation making a move to acquire Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Speaking of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, a quick peak at the Syrah and Merlot section of our local grocery store shows what a commanding presence they have in Washington State. Of the 17 skus featured on the shelf here, an astounding eight of then (nearly 50%) are made by this one company.

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That doesn’t even include their other well known brands like Seven Falls, Drumheller, Northstar, Spring Valley Vineyards, Stimson, Tenet/Pundit, Col Solare and their original Chateau Ste. Michelle label. It also doesn’t include some of their partnership projects and recent purchases of California wineries like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Patz & Hall to go with their previous holdings of Conn Creek, Villa Mt. Eden, and Erath in Oregon.

In fact, it is entirely possible for many restaurants in Washington State to have a wine list of 100+ wines made up of nothing but brands owned completely or partially by Ste Michelle Wine Estates.

And this is not unusual in the world of wine. The consolidation of distributors and flurry of mergers and acquisitions of wineries by big corporations puts immense pressure on dwindling shelf space.

For many small wineries its virtually impossible to break through so it is no surprise that a start up like Liberation Distribution is capturing attention. It potentially could be a game changer for many family wineries.

It’s something worth watching and worth raising a glass to toast the success of–even if that glass, right now, is made by one of the handful of mega-corporations.

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Whiskey and Wine

Author’s note: For an updated tasting that featured 13 whiskey/rum barrel aged wines check out the post Whiskey and Wine Revisited.

As I’ve admitted before, I can be a bit skeptical about newfangled wine trends but I always try to keep an open mind. So when I walk into stores and see big displays of Gallo’s Apothic Inferno (“A Wine With a Whiskey Soul” they say) supported with advertising campaigns featuring tatted up and vested hipster bartenders playing with fire, I know I need to try some wines aged in bourbon and whiskey barrels.

By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I love Woodford Reserve in my Old Fashioned, not necessarily in my wine.


But first, a little background

Henry H. Work’s 2014 book Wood, Whiskey and Wine gives a nice backstory on the love affair between wine and wood barrels that extend over two millenniums. He also goes into the sharing of barrel technology with other beverages like whiskeys and beers. I highly encourage folks interested in geeking out more about this topic to give it a look.

In the 17th century, the convenience and availability of excess Sherry barrels from the bustling Jerez to London trade led to a “happy accident” of Scotch makers discovering the rich dark fruit flavors and deeper color that Oloroso Sherry barrels impart on whiskey aged in them.

In recent decades, the concept of cask-finishing for whiskeys has expanded to include barrels that previously housed Port, Madeira, Sauternes, Amarone and even First Growth Bordeaux and premium Super Tuscan and Barolo producers.

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

Across the pond, American Bourbon and whiskey producers also discovered the interesting flavors and added complexity of aging in former wine barrels. Of course, Sherry and Port casks were popular choices but producers also branched out with California Chardonnay like Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer finish. Even winemakers started getting in on the gig, like Dave Phinney’s partnership with a distillery to create a Bourbon aged in barrels that formerly held his Orin Swift Napa Cabernet Mercury Head. (Not sure what the status of this project is after Phinney’s sale of Orin Swift to Gallo)

Whiskey Returns the Favor (maybe)

Perhaps taking a cue from the beer industry which has seen a huge explosion in popularity of barrel-aged beer, it may have been inevitable that we would see wine aged in whiskey barrels.

The first mentioned of a whiskey barrel aged wine that I could find was back in 2010 when a winemaker in Australia some how got his hands on Pappy Van Winkle Barrels to age his 2008 McLaren Vale Shiraz. What became of his Southern Belle Shiraz, or if you can still find it, I don’t know as there are scant tasting notes on the web. I do find it interesting that the 2010 article from Garden and Gun noted that the expected release price for the 2008 was $25 USD but the average price of the three vintages available on Wine-Searcher (2009, 2011 & 2013) is only $9. If any one has further details about this wine (or know of an earlier whiskey barrel-aged wine), let me know in the comments below.

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker


As with most things in the wine industry, people usually don’t start paying attention to a trend until the big-money players get involved and that is what happened in 2016 when Pernod-Ricard (Jacob’s Creek), Constellation Brands (Robert Mondavi), Concha y Toro (Fetzer) and E. & J. Gallo (Apothic) released their whiskey barrel-aged wines.

Are these wines any good?

I was able to get my hands on 3 brands of whiskey barrel-aged wines–Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon, Barrelhouse Bourbon Red (made by Bruce and Kim Cunningham of AW Direct) and Apothic Inferno (aged in whiskey instead of Bourbon barrels). Tasting these wines with colleagues in the retail wine industry, I wanted to be as objective as possible so we decided to do this tasting blind and with a “ringer” of a popular dark red blend (which was the most recent hot trend in the industry till the whiskey-aged wines came barreling in). In this case, I chose Cloud Break Black Cloud from O’Neil Vintners.

Here are my notes before the reveal:

Wine A- Sweet smelling on the nose. Very ruby port-like nose with figs and dark fruit. Some vanilla.
On the palate, rich fruit, very smooth but with noticeable RS. Yep, definitely very port-like with more overt oak spice flavors on the palate. Medium acidity. Medium-minus tannins.
My guess is that this is one of the bourbon barrels one. Drinkable, good for sweet(ish) red wine drinkers. Actually this may be an improvement over many of the “Dark” blends since the oak spice seems to add some complexity.

Wine B-This smells like a whiskey. But whiskey that smells like burnt rubber. Noticeably sweet nose. Roasted marshmallows and burnt flambe cherries. It smells like someone took a shot of cheap lightly peated whiskey, mixed with a really pungent Pinotage and then added it to someone’s Seagram 7 and Coke.
On the palate, Burnt rubber and roasted marshmallows. Medium-minus tannins and medium-minus acidity, maybe even low acidity. It’s no where near as sweet as I expected it to be based on the nose but I can’t tell if that is a positive or negative at this point.

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a "regular" red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a “regular” red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)


Wine C- Much more subdued nose, medium-minus intensity but that may just be a scale down effect compared to Bag B. I don’t really smell any oak at all, just some subtle red fruit–red berries, maybe a little red plums.
On the palate, I can get some vanilla but it is still very mellow. Medium+plus acidity, actually has some good life to it. Definitely still red fruit. Medium tannins, very ripe and smooth.
My gut is telling me that this is the regular red blend but I’m a bit confused with the fruit being much more red than dark, knowing in the back of my mind that the “ringer” is one of the Dark Red styles. Whatever this is, its fairly enjoyable and with the medium plus acidity, can actually see this being a decent drinker and food pairing option.

Wine D- Medium nose. Still way more subdued than Bag B and less fragrant than Bag A. Much more overt vanilla on the nose. This has a bit of a “whiskeyness” to it but its not in your face. A little dark fruit but, again, subdued.
On the palate, this has some great texture. Medium+ acidity. Medium + tannins but very velvety and great full body. By far the most impressive mouthfeel. This feels like a decent $15-17 Cab. The flavors are very Cab-like as well, being more black currant with a little tobacco spice. The finish lingers with the vanilla and I do almost feel like I can taste a bit of roasted corn. Not enough to be weird but at this point I’m wondering if my palate is shot.

The Reveal and Final Thoughts

Bag A.) Cloud Break Black Cloud — (The Dark Red blend “ringer”) I was totally fooled on this. The ruby-port aspect had me thinking that THIS is what these Bourbon barrel-aged wines should taste like. Definitely a wine for the smooth, bold (but slightly sweet) red crowd. 3rd favorite of the group.

Bag B.) Apothic Inferno – As you could probably infer from my notes, this was my least favorite wine of the bunch. It certainly had the most in your face “whiskeyness” but, in my opinion, that didn’t add up to a pleasurable drinking experience in the slightest. Personally, I would rather drink any of the other examples in the Apothic stable (the regular red, Apothic Dark, Apothic Crush, etc) than the Inferno. It’s just not my style of wine at all.

Bag C.) Barrelhouse Bourbon Red – This pleasantly surprised me. It definitely wasn’t what I expected from this category. As I noted, I strongly thought this was just a regular red blend. Very solid and very drinkable. Probably the 2nd best of the whole bunch.

Bag D.) Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Age Cabernet Sauvignon – the clear winner of the group and a very solid wine. I don’t think this wine needs the marketing gimmick of the “bourbon barrel age” (neither does the Barrelhouse really) and could easily stand on its own as regular, every day drinker that would do well paired with food or at a party with a crowd.

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

So there you have it. It’s worth having an open mind and I would encourage all wine drinkers to give these wines a try and form their own opinions.

Some of these wines, like the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrelhouse Bourbon Red, are pretty solid and legit red wines. Others…..do have their own unique personality. I definitely recommend trying these wines side by side with either other whiskey barrel-aged wines or just general red blends. That is, by far, the best way to judge the character of these wines and see how they stake up against what you enjoy in red wine.

Cheers!

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Tripping into Wine’s Loopholes

What if I told you that the Cabernet Sauvignon you were drinking was really a red blend with at least 6 other grapes in it? What if I told you that the bottle labeled as Pinot noir on your table was also a blend, but not necessarily a “red” one since it had Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay in it. Or how about that bottle of Napa Valley wine that you ordered at a restaurant in Texas which was actually made in Texas?

By W.carter - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The red pill pairs with Albarino while the blue one pairs with Pinot grigio

Now to some degree, none of this really matters because blissful ignorance is truly blissful if you are enjoying the wine that you’re drinking. That is the blue pill of wine and while it would make a boring blog post (and movie), everyone is welcome to take it. But if you want to know the truth and be a little bit more dangerous as a wine consumer, lets take the red pill and look at some of the loopholes in US wine laws.

Fighting Varietals (or not)

The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) provides a nice brochure with a breakdown of the minimum standards for a wine label in the US. Here we’ll note some key details.

To be labeled as a single grape variety, you only need to have 75% of that grape- This is the fallacy of the grape varietal snobs who drink “only Cabernet Sauvignon” and think red blends are inferior wines made from the “left overs” or would never buy anything unless it says Merlot on the label. HA! Just kidding about that last one. The truth is that most of the red wines in the world are blends. Even if you want to discount many of the amazing European wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone, Tuscany, Valpolicella, Rioja, Douro, etc that have historically always been blends, you still have this huge 25% loophole in American “varietal” wines that US winemakers are all to happy to exploit.

My personal favorite of Ginny's wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her "Peanut butter & Chocolate" pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

My personal favorite of Ginny’s wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her “Peanut butter & Chocolate” pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

Why? Because blending helps them make potentially better wines. I remember listening to winemaker Ginny Lambrix of Zinfandel specialist Truett-Hurst talk about how she loves blending a little Petite Sirah with Zin because the rich plums, blackberry and pepper spice marries so well with the similar (but sometimes uneven with its ripening habits) flavors of Zinfandel. Of course, Zinfandel can make outstanding wines on its own and, yes, Petite Sirah can also make some great bottles. But, as Ginny described, putting the two together is like adding a little chocolate to peanut butter. Great by themselves but absolutely scrumptious together.

No one can discount that Joseph Wagner developed a recipe for Pinot noir that, literally, hit the sweet spot of American palates with blending in the white wine grapes of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay to add sweetness and make the wine more soft. Yet with that 25% “other grape buffer”, he (and now Constellation Brands) could still market Meiomi as a Pinot noir. While there are many incredible 100% Pinot noirs out there, its clear that the blended grapes have been vital to Meiomi’s smashing success and growth yet I don’t know if anyone can credibly argue that Meiomi would have been anywhere near as successful if it was marketed as a Red(ish) blend.

By Steph Laing CC BY 2.0

Only a true confectionery snob would say that the flour alone taste better than this blended creation.

Likewise, the Lohr family has built a very successful brand for Cabernet Sauvignon with their Seven Oaks label yet every single year they are just hitting that 75-76% minimum of Cab and rounding it out with other grapes. You have to give major props to the Lohrs for being transparent with their blends and tech data which is something that not many wineries do. You can tell that they’re proud of the wines they are making but you better believe that they are still making the business decision that they are going to sell more wine labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon than they would if it was labeled as a red blend.

That is my personal gripe about this loophole. I’m very pro-blend but disheartened that the reality of the wine business is that wineries are basically rewarded for hiding the fact that what they are truly making are blends dominated by a particular variety.

Now, of course, we should note that individual states can add their own conditions to tighten some of these laws. For instance, in Oregon a wine labeled as Pinot noir needs to be at least 90% of that grape. Though, curiously, 18 other grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) are “exempt” from these stricter wine laws so, hey, a loophole to a loophole!

Napa with a Twang

Another of the TTB’s bare minimums relate to the use of wine regions or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on the bottle:

To have an AVA listed, only 85% of the grapes needed to be sourced from that region— Napa grapes are expensive with the average price of a ton being over $4300 in 2015. To put that in perspective, 1 ton equals about 2 barrels or 50 cases of wine. This is just the base grape costs and speaks nothing to the cost of labor, winemaking equipment, barrels (new French oak barrels can cost over $3000 each), packaging and marketing. This is one of the reasons why it is hard to find Cabernet from Napa under $20. Unless……

You turn some corners. With your grape truck. On the roads between Napa and neighboring counties.

When you go next door to Sonoma County, the cost for grapes is closer to $2400 a ton with Lake County clocking in at around $1600 a ton. And in the southern Central Valley around Fresno, you can get a ton of grapes for around $300. So clearly there is some financial incentive in offsetting the cost of production for your bottle of “Napa Valley wine” with that 15% loophole of grapes grown elsewhere.

But is it really still “Napa” or, at least, what a consumer would expect from a Napa Valley wine? That’s an interesting question but this loophole goes far deeper when you realize that that 15% could include grapes from places like Texas and Georgia. I’m not kidding y’all.

Big Tex portion of pic from By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)Email the author: David R. TribbleAlso see my personal gallery at Google Picasa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

To be fair, I think Napa stole the idea of erecting big signs from Texas first.

The TTB is currently holding a comment period over a particular loophole that allows a winery to buy fruit from outside their state, truck it into their state and maybe even blend it with local fruit, but still label it under the AVA where the 85%+ of the fruit came from as long as they only sell it within their home state. So, yes, a winery in Texas can buy Napa Valley fruit and potentially blend in 15% of Texas fruit and still sell it as a Napa Valley wine to the wine shops and restaurants of Texas.

The comment period for discussion over this particular loophole will run till December 7th, 2016. For those who like to indulge in some not-so-light reading, you can take a look at the diverse perspectives of people who are both for closing the loophole and against it.

I’m going to bet on the law being changed and this loophole closed, if only because of the big money involved with the Napa brand itself. But, as we’ve learned, there are still plenty of other loopholes to trip over. Maybe its best for all of us to sit back and chase down the blue pills while enjoying our $20 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.

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Feeling low on Merlot

Let’s talk about Merlot. And let’s talk about it with only mentioning the movie Sideways once. There. We’ve got that perfunctory obligation out of the way.

Yes, Merlot has been down for a while though Forbes contributor Thomas Pellechia will tell you that it has had a little bump in popularity lately. However, it is still a far cry from the powerhouse it once was.

As a Washington wine lover, Merlot’s downfall has been disheartening. The grape holds a special place in this state because it help put Washington on the national wine map (far from the Potomac) when wineries such as Leonetti, Andrew Will and L’Ecole earned numerous accolades in the late 1980s and early 1990s for their Merlots.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.


Washington Merlots are also very distinctive–richly textured with medium plus to high tannins and moderate acidity that sew together dark fruit flavors with floral and spice notes that can not help but capture the attention of both “big red drinkers” and those who adore elegance and subtle complexity in their reds. If Goldilocks was a Napa Cab fan and Bordeaux lover, she would find Washington Merlots to be “Just right”. There are many reasons why wine writer Lettie Teague calls Washington State a missionary for Merlot.

This distinctiveness and incredibly high quality of Washington Merlots help catapult it to the top of the state’s production, leading the way from the mid-1990s till 2006. But then it dropped.

And dropped.

It wasn’t just Washington State that fell out of love with Merlot. It was nationwide with winemakers sensing the changing tide a couple years before you-know-what premiered in 2004. The movement was already afoot with Merlot vines being uprooted in favor of new Rhone varietals like Syrah and Grenache as well as some of its old Bordeaux buddies like Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Why? It’s easy to blame a movie but I think that overlooks something important.

Merlot is boring.

You weren’t expecting that after the first few paragraphs were you?

By Chilli Tuna - Cropped from El bosque, CC BY 2.0

Plot twist!


Now don’t get me wrong. Merlot wines can be absolutely delicious but be honest with me for a moment. When was the last time you were at a restaurant and your heart soared with intrigue when someone at the table asks for “a bottle of Merlot”? Not a particular producer or a region like Pomerol, just a Merlot. Now think about that same situation if someone asked for a Syrah, a rosé, a Grüner Veltliner, a sparkling wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir. I’m willing to bet there would be a bit more arching of the brow and sense of anticipation in wondering what was in store as one of those bottles was brought to the table.

It’s just not the same with Merlot. And to be fair, I think a lot of people have the same reaction with Chardonnay as the ABC Movement (Anything But Chardonnay) is still alive and kicking with nary a film to blame for its strength. Part of it is the ubiquitous nature of both grapes. You see them everywhere. But, as a millennial, I often hear another refrain among my cohorts.

Our parents (and grandparents) drink Merlot.

They drink Cab too and maybe this trickle down apathy will eventually topple that red wine king, but for millennials it’s hard to get excited about something that you strongly associate with older generations. In the tech world, there is similar discussions about why younger users are leaving Facebook for other social media platforms. More and more, Facebook is being associated with mom and dad, aunts and uncles and that weird dude you shared one study group with back in high school. Facebook is becoming boring and that is the realm that Merlot has been in for some time.

What do millennials find exciting?

That’s the million dollar question for wineries and marketers the world over. Many virtual trees have been slaughtered as article, after article, after article, ad infinitum is written about millennials’ influence on the wine industry and how wineries are (or aren’t) adapting. We can nitpick about correlation and causation but its hard not to notice that the growth in the millennial wine market has coincided with the decline in Merlot. It’s also hard not to notice that this has also overlapped with the rise of red blends.

The irony, in a semi-Alanis sort of way, is that many of the most popular red blends in the market today feature Merlot very heavily.

By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr; cropped, and resized by Hajor. - Agência Brasil [1], CC BY 3.0 br,

It’s like Cheval Blaaaaaaaaaaanc
in a fast food cup


Apothic Red – Merlot with Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Menage a Trois – 35% Merlot with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon
Cupcake Red Velvet – Merlot with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah
14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend – Merlot and Syrah
Radius Red Blend – 57% Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Tempranillo.

On the higher end we have restaurant wine list staples like Duckhorn Decoy Red Blend (52% Merlot), DeLille D2 (57% Merlot) and Chappellet Mountain Cuvee (43% Merlot) leaving Merlot’s mark on consumers’ palates.

This doesn’t even count the huge influence of Merlot in Bordeaux where it is the most widely planted grape in the region. Even in the “Cab-dominated” Left Bank, many top estates of the Medoc feature Merlot quite heavily in their blends. Check out some of the recent blends of Chateau Palmer, such as the 2013 which was 49% Merlot and the incredible 2009 that was majority Merlot!

This all makes perfect sense because Merlot is delicious. The grape’s rich plum and cherry flavors, subtle chocolaty notes, lush tannins, moderate acidity and ability to marry well with the flavors of new oak barrels hit many of the cues that make wine consumers sing with pleasure. People love Merlot. People drink Merlot. It’s just in the form of red blends.

But SSSSHHHHH ….. don’t tell anyone. Especially not Mom and Dad.

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