Tag Archives: Red Willow Vineyard

Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot from Paso Robles.

The Background

Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Erich Russell founded Rabbit Ridge winery in 1981 in Healdsburg, Sonoma. Originally a home winemaker in San Diego, Russell’s wines caught the attention of the winemaking team at Chateau St. Jean who offered him a position. From there he spent time at Simi and Belvedere Winery before starting out on his own.

Over the years, Rabbit Ridge has earned numerous accolades and acclaim. They’ve had 3 wines featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. Connoisseur’s Guide named Russell it’s “Winemaker of the Year” in 1998. Wine writer Jay McInerney noted in his 2002 work Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar that if you wanted to guarantee yourself a good bottle of Zinfandel, seek out the “R wineries” of Rafanelli, Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenbloom, Renwood and Rabbit Ridge.

In 2001, the winery moved to the central coast of California. Here, the Russell family planted 200 acres on the west side of Paso Robles. Today the winery produces around 10,000 cases from their sustainably farmed fruit.

Rabbit Ridge is a family operation from top to bottom with Erich and Joanne Russell running the estate with their daughter, Sarah Fleming Garrett, and her husband Brice. In addition to working at Rabbit Ridge, the Garretts also have their own label, Serrano Wine, that was launched in 2018 in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles. According to Barnivore, all the Rabbit Ridge wines are “vegan friendly” with only bentonite and yeast fining used.

The 2011 Petit Verdot is sourced from estate fruit with a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon blended in.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Petit Verdot was in Bordeaux in 1736. However, the grape may not have originated there. Ampelograhical evidence of similar varieties suggest that Petit Verdot may have been a domesticated wild vine that originated somewhere in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department south of Bordeaux on the border with Spain.

Photo by Eric 先魁 Hwang. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Petit Verdot grapes growing in Portugal.

The name Petit Verdot references the small berries with thick skins that produce green (French vert) and acidic flavors if the grape doesn’t ripen fully. A very late-ripening variety, Petit Verdot is often harvested several days or even a couple weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite contributing deep color and spiciness to blends, the risk of not fully ripening caused Petit Verdot’s plantings in Bordeaux to sharply decline in the 20th century to around 338 ha (835 acres) in 1988. However, global warming has sparked renewed interest with a jump to 526 ha (1300 acres) by 2009. Mostly grown on the Left Bank, classified estates that have notable plantings of Petit Verdot include Ch. Margaux and Palmer in Margaux, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, Léoville Poyferré in St. Julien and La Lagune in the Haut-Medoc.

Petit Verdot in the US

Varietal versions of Petit Verdot have always commanded a premium in the United States. The reason has been because of limited supply and planting compared to other varieties. Matt Kramer notes in his 2004 book New California Wine that while a ton of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon would average around $3,921 and Pinot noir $2,191, Petit Verdot usually cost around $4,915 a ton to harvest.

Today, there are 2,897 acres of Petit Verdot planted throughout California with Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles being the home for a majority of those plantings.

Outside of California, the grape can be found in Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and Washington State. In Canada, it is also grown in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Petit Verdot leaf growing at the Hedges Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Red Willow Vineyard pioneered Petit Verdot in Washington State in the mid-1980s. Here Master of Wine David Lake encouraged Mike Sauer to plant UCD clone-1 Petit Verdot in his Yakima Valley vineyard. However, as Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines, those early plantings failed and the blocks had to replanted with new clones in 1991.

In Walla Walla, the Figgins family of Leonetti planted Petit Verdot at the Spring Valley Vineyard.  Today Petit Verdot is still a significant component of their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Other early plantings of Petit Verdot in the 1990s took place at the Mill Creek Upland vineyard in Walla Walla, Destiny Ridge in Horse Heaven Hills and Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. As of 2017, there were 254 acres of Petit Verdot in Washington State.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Brambly fruit like elderberry and boysenberry with some blue floral notes and forest floor earthiness. With a little air some tobacco spice and a distinct streak of graphite pencil lead emerges. The nose reminds me a bit of Cabernet Franc.

On the palate those dark brambly fruits carry through. The wine has full-bodied weight but I wouldn’t have guessed a 14.8% alcohol. There is no back-end heat or jammy fruit. Moderate oak contributes some baking spice but doesn’t play much of a role. Medium-plus acidity gives the fruit freshness and balances well with the ripe, high tannins. This wine is mouth-filling and mouthwatering. Moderate length finish brings back the spice and minerally graphite notes.

Some Personal Thoughts

I have to confess a bias of sorts. Stories like that of the Russells and Rabbit Ridge fuel and sustain my love for the world of wine. It’s so easy to get lost in the doldrums of supermarket shelves dominated by portfolio of brands owned by a handful of mega-corps that you lose sight of what wine is really supposed to be about. Wines like this remind me of why I geek out about wine.

The 2014 Rabbit Ridge sparkling Pinot noir Brut was also really tasty as well. Look for a 60 Second Review of this wine in December.

I’ve been following Rabbit Ridge Winery on Twitter and highlighted them in my article The Winery Twitter Dance as one the best winery Twitter account worth following. While I don’t know the Russells personally, it’s hard not to feel like I do because of all the great behind the scene tidbits that they share about the hard work and joys that comes with managing a small family winery. Likewise with the Serrano Wine Twitter, you feel like you are with the Garretts on their journey in launching a new winery from the ground up.

For folks like the Russells, the wine that you open up to share on your table with family and friends isn’t just a brand. It’s their life work and the result of hours upon hours of toil, and gallons upon gallons of sweat, spent over every step of the process. From first putting the vines into the ground to finally the cork in the bottle, they’re putting a part of themselves into each wine.

When you share their wines, you’re not sharing something thought up during a marketing department’s brainstorming session and tested on focus groups. Instead, you’re sharing something that was dreamed up by person who looked out at a vineyard or into a great glass of wine and thought “I could do this. I should do this.” and tested that dream over and over again on their own table–with their own family and friends.

The Verdict

I opened this bottle of 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot with higher expectations than I do for a commodity brand.  And I certainly savored that it lived up to those expectations. At $20 (yes, $20 for a varietal Petit Verdot!), this wine has character and complexity that opens up even more in a decanter over the course of dinner.

No, it’s not a jammy, hedonistic red like many Paso wines can be. Its best role is definitely on the table where its acidity and structure can shine with food. But it is a bottle way over delivers for the price and worth trying.

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Geek Notes — I’ll Drink To That! Episode 331 Featuring Greg Harrington

Screenshot from I’ll Drink To That! channel on SoundCloud.

As part of our celebration of Washington Wine Month in August, I’m reviewing some of the resources that folks can use to learn more about Washington State wine.

For this edition of Geek Notes, I’m encouraging readers to check out Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That! podcast episode 331 featuring Washington winemaker and Master Sommelier Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla. To listen to the full podcast on Sound Cloud click here.

The first half of the 2 hour podcast covers Harrington’s pre-Washington story including his path to Master Sommelier and his experience working with Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Joyce Goldstein and Stephen Hanson as well as the Vegas wine scene during his time developing the wine program at the Bellagio. That later segment in particular includes several intriguing anecdotes about opening up the Bellagio with 150 cases of 1982 Petrus (Wine Searcher Average $5,835 a bottle now) that was completely sold out within 6 months (43:27 mark) as well as how wine comps are handled for high rollers. (Yeah, I think I’ll just be content playing my Somm Game in Vegas)

Harrington also makes some great points about how his experience working in restaurants taught him how to run a business (a “MBA in a box”) (1:48:32 mark) with skills that he still uses in his winery today.

The whole episode is well worth a listen but at around the 1:10:00 mark, Dalton and Harrington turn their attention to the Washington side of his story.

Some Washington-related items I learned from this podcast.

(1:16:40) While Harrington bought at a really good time in the mid 2000s, he still thinks there is about 10 years (from 2017) left where buying vineyards in Walla Walla is still a good financial decision.

Photo by Stephan Ridgway. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

While Grenache has huge potential and promise in Washington State, we still have a long way to go before we can reap the benefit of old vine plantings like this Grenache vineyard at Charles Melton Winery in South Australia.

(1:19:42) Harrington thinks Grenache offers a lot of potential but the freeze of 1984 killed nearly all of the Grenache that was previously planted in the state so the grape is being rethought now with new plantings in new locations.

(1:20:25) Whites in Washington don’t seem to excite Harrington as much as the reds though he is intrigued at the potential of the Columbia Gorge for white wines like Sauvignon blanc and even unique varieties like Trousseau gris and Fiano. Very interesting commentary especially considering how delicious Gramercy Picpoul is.

(1:22:43) The “blessing and curse” of Washington is its long growing season with Harrington noting that Syrah could be harvested in some vintages anywhere from September 1st to November 1st, producing a wide variance of style in the same year. Harrington notes that Gramercy is usually among the first in all their contract vineyards to pick Syrah.

Located on the eastern edges of the Walla Walla Valley, the Forgotten Hills Vineyard is very cool climate site that is usually harvested later in the season.


(1:23:50) A really great explanation of the frost issues that can impact Walla Walla as well as what actually happens to the vine when it is damaged by frost. Super geeky and one of my favorites tidbits from the podcast.

(1:25:30) “Syrah likes a view” with Harrington preferring higher altitude vineyards above 1300 feet including the Les Collines Vineyard.

(1:26:17) Harrington talks about both the positives (the aromatics) and negatives (too high pH) of fruit from the Rocks District. He prefers to use Syrah from here as “salt & pepper” seasoning for blends.

(1:27:03) He is also a big fan of Red Willow Syrah and considers that vineyard to be one of the premiere areas in the state for the grape.

(1:28:19) The benefit of fermenting with the stems with Syrah and answering the myth about using “green stems”. Really informative section! From here the podcast gets into a lot of geeky winemaking stuff about dealing with reduction, volatile acidity and native fermentation that isn’t necessarily Washington-centric but definitely worth listening to.

(1:34:33) Dalton asks Harrington if Syrah from Washington is less reductive than Syrah grown elsewhere. Harrington gives a very interesting answer and notes that perhaps the fact that Washington vineyards and wineries here tend to use less sulfur treatments on the grapes and in winemaking could play a role. He also notes that all of Gramercy’s estate vineyards are organic.

(1:38:40) Harrington thinks the drinking curve for Washington Syrahs starts at around 5 years from vintage date while Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be more approachable younger after around 2 years in the bottle. He also feels that Washington Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be soft and needing tannin.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The warm climate, steep aspect and poor sandy soil of the Alder Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills seems to be particularly well suited for Mourvedre.

(1:42:01) Among Washington vintages, Harrington is very high on the 2007 and 2010 vintage as among the best in Washington. Both 2010 and 2011 were very Old World-style vintages. 2012 was a great Cabernet Sauvignon vintage but not as much for Syrah.

(1:43:26) Harrington is high on Mourvedre in Washington but it needs to be planted in spots warmer than areas like the Rocks District in Oregon. He cites Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Alder Ridge as promising vineyards for the grape.

(1:45:50) Dalton asks how often Washington winemakers look to the Old World for inspiration with Harrington encouraging more winemakers to explore the classic wines of the Old World.

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Getting Geeky with Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre

We’re back after a vacation to take the nieces and nephew to the happiest place on Earth. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to play the Somm Game in between rounds of chocolate milk, lemonade and Sprit soda. Though absence does make the heart grow founder. And boy, am I ready to get back into the world of grown-up beverages!

So let’s continue our celebration of Washington Wine Month by taking more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2010 Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre from McKinley Springs Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Full disclosure: During the 2012 vintage, when this 2010 Mourvèdre was just released, I did an internship at Robert Ramsay Cellars. Here I worked under the mentorship of Kristin Scheelar who was head winemaker at the time.

The Background

Robert Ramsay Cellars was founded in 2005 as a specialist in Rhone-style wines by winemaker Bob Harris. The winery’s name is a combination of Harris’ full name “Robert” with the last name of his great-uncle Mason Ramsay who helped raised Harris’ father when his grandfather was working overseas.

Before starting his winery, Harris served as winemaker for Coeur d’Alene Cellars and was mentored by Kristina Mielke-van Löben Sels of Arbor Crest, Nicolas Quille of Pacific Rim, Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery and Ron Coleman of Tamarack Cellars.

Inspired by the great wines of Côte Rôtie, Harris’ first vintage was 125 cases of Syrah. A tasting room in Woodinville was opened in 2009. By 2014 the winery was making over 3000 cases. Among the notable vineyards that the winery was sourcing from include Red Heaven on Red Mountain, Phinny Hill and Mckinley Springs in Horse Heaven Hills, Dineen Vineyard in Yakima Valley and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

Kristin Scheelar

In 2010, Harris hired Kristin Scheelar, a 2009 graduate of the Wine Production program of the Northwest Wine Academy (NWA) at South Seattle College. Prior to joining Robert Ramsay, Scheelar served as a harvest intern for Patterson Cellars under the tutelage of John Patterson.

My wife Beth also did an internship working with Kristin at Robert Ramsay. Here she is doing punch downs during the 2012 harvest on some Dineen Syrah.

Scheelar would stay at Robert Ramsay for four years, leaving just before the 2014 harvest to join Goose Ridge winery as an assistant winemaker. During her time at Robert Ramsay, she was an influential mentor to many female winemakers in the Woodinville wine scene including Lisa Packer of Warr-King Wines and her successor at Robert Ramsay, Casey Cobble–another NWA graduate.

Along with Packer, Cobble and Hillary Sjolund of Sonoris Cellars, Scheelar is a founding member of the Sisters of the Vinifera Revolution which aims to promote women in the wine industry. Through the years the organization has grown to include several wineries owned and headed by women winemakers including Lisa Swei of Three of Cups Winery, Pam Adkins of Adrice Wines, Lisa Callan of Callan Cellars, Mari Womack of Damsel Cellars, Toby Turlay of Ducleaux Cellars, Jody Elsom of Elsom Cellars and Kasia Kim of Kasia Winery.

Winemaking is messy work. This is me after working the sorting table near the destemmer at Robert Ramsay.

Today Kristin Scheelar is currently an assistant winemaker with Gallo at Columbia Winery.

The Vineyard

McKinley Springs Vineyard was first planted in 1980 by Robert Andrews in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Located at an elevation of around 1000 feet, the sandy loam soils over broken basalt of the vineyard are noted for producing early ripening fruit that create well-structured wines with intense aromatics.

Today the vineyard covers more than 2800 acres with over 20 different varieties of grapes planted including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chenin blanc, Viognier, Malbec, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cinsault, Roussanne, Counoise and Mourvèdre. Along with their Mourvèdre bottling, Robert Ramsay produces a varietal Cinsault and Syrah from McKinley Springs and uses some of the vineyard’s fruit for their Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blend Le Mien and Bandol-style Par La Mer wine.

In addition to Robert Ramsay, several wineries source fruit from McKinley Springs including Thurston Wolfe, Domaine Pouillon, Forsyth Brio, Maryhill Winery, Cor Cellars, Coeur d’Alene Cellars, Mercer Estates, Hestia, Robert Karl, Bunnell Family Cellars and Syncline.

In 2002, the Andrews and Roswell families of McKinley Springs established a winery that focuses on their estate fruit.

The Grape

In their book Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note that Mourvèdre origins are likely Spanish with the first written account of the grape variety being under the synonym Monastrell in a 14th century document by Catalan writer Francesc Eiximenis.

The name Monastrell is derived from the Latin monasteriellu, meaning monastery. It is likely that the grape was first propagated by the Church.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to wikimedia commons as user:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mourvèdre grapes from the Columbia Valley of Washington

By 1460, the Valèncian doctor Jaume Roig noted that Monastrell was the most widely planted grape in València–particularly in the region of Camp de Morvedre where the synonym Mourvèdre emerged from. Another common synonym, Mataro, likely comes from town of Mataró in the province of Barcelona. Located north of València, it would have been along the grape’s likely route out of Spain into Southern France.

Today, Mourvèdre/Monastrell is the 5th most widely planted grape in Spain with over 150,000 acres. It’s only behind Airén, Tempranillo, Bobal and Garnacha in acreage. Most of these plantings can be found in the València, Murcia and Castilla-La Mancha regions. It is the primary red wine grape in the DOs of Jumilla, Alicante, Almansa, Valencia and Yecla.

In France, plantings of Mourvèdre rose sharply in the late 20th century. It went from around 517 ha (1,278 acres) in the 1950s to 9,363 ha (23,136 acres) by 2009. It is most commonly found in the Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence and Southern Rhone regions. In Provence, it is the primary grape of Bandol. Here it must make up 50-95% of the blend along with Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Syrah.

Mourvèdre in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Harry Karis notes in The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book that today Mourvèdre accounts for around 6.6% of all grape plantings in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Historically, the grape was known as Estrangle-Chien (“dog strangler”) due to its harsh tannins and high acidity. This thick-skinned grape thrives on warm, south-facing slopes that receive plenty of heat. This allows the vine to fully ripen the tannins and metabolize some of the hard malic acid.

photo taken by self and uploaded to wikimedia commons as user:agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mourvèdre sample and a saignee rosé sample taken after 24 hours of skin contact. The thick skins of Mourvèdre contain lots of anthocyanins that contribute deep color to blends.

However, Mourvèdre is also very susceptible to drought conditions.  Karis notes that water-retaining clay soils and drought-resistance rootstock like 41B and 110R are ideal for the variety.

In the traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend, Mourvèdre contributes structure via its high acid and tannins. It also provides ample alcohol and color. In the winery, winemakers have to balance the reductive nature of Mourvèdre with the very oxidation-prone Grenache.  To do this you need to ensure that Mourvèdre has plenty of oxygen during fermentation and élevage. Meanwhille, Grenache needs to be kept more anaerobically protected.

Varietal Mourvèdre wines are known for having meaty and spicy (particularly tobacco spice and clove) characters. They often have ample dark fruit flavors that can age into tertiary aromas of game and leather.

Mourvèdre in Washington State

photo taken by self and uploaded to wikimedia commons as user:agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The original block of Mourvèdre/Mataro planted in 1993 in Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley of Washington.

In Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide, Paul Gregutt notes that the first plantings of Mourvèdre in Washington was by Mike Sauer in 1993 at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

By 2017 there were 126 acres of the grape planted in the state where it is used as a component in both Rhone-style blends and as a varietal wine.

Vineyards with notable plantings of Mourvèdre beyond McKinley Springs and Red Willow include Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain, Alder Ridge, Coyote Canyon and Destiny Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills, Elephant Mountain in the Yakima Valley and Northridge Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope.

Gregutt describes the style of Washington Mourvèdre as “…medium-bodied, lightly spicy with pretty cherry-flavored fruit and occasionally a distinctive, gravelly minerality.”

The Wine

The 2010 Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre from McKinley Springs has medium-plus intensity aromatics. Very much in the spicy and earthy category. There are some slight red fruit notes in the red currant and raspberry range. But they are very much overshadowed by the black pepper spice and forest-floor earthiness.

On the palate, the pepper spice is still the dominant note. The medium-plus acidity gives juiciness to the red fruit flavors and keeps them hanging around. The medium-plus tannins are very present. However, they have a soft, velvety-ness to them now that holds up the full-bodied weight of the wine. The finish unfortunately fades fairly quickly. It does bring back, albeit for a short moment, some of those savory earthy notes from the nose.

The Verdict

At nearly 8 years of age, this 2010 Mourvèdre is still delivering ample pleasure in the $30-35 range. But I suspect its peak may have been 2 to 3 years earlier.

There is definitely a good amount of complexity and balance. However, there is also the sense that the wine is on the wane with the short finish and fading flavors. Still this wine is in a good spot for those who crave more savory and tertiary-driven flavors in their wines. The wine will shine with a food pairings that compliments its spicy and earthy notes.  I can see it going particularly well with roasted lamb or a savory mushroom dish.

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Geeking Out About Grape Variety Clones

As part of the Wine Production Program at South Seattle College our instructor, Peter Bos, arranged for a private tour of the famed Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley with Mike and Jonathan Sauer back in 2012.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mike and Jonathan Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard

In Washington State, few vineyards are as legendary and influential as Red Willow. Working with both Dr. Walter Clore and Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery, the Sauers and Red Willow helped pioneer the commercial plantings of numerous grape varieties in the state. This include Viognier, Malbec, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Syrah among others.

On the trip, a question was posed to Mike Sauer about what the future focus should be for the wine industry–not just in Washington, but globally.

Without missing a beat he replied with one word–Clones.

What The Heck Are Clones?

Essentially clones are examples of grape varieties with a slight genetic mutation. These mutation could allow the vine to ripen a tad earlier, bloom a bit later, have tinier berries or thicker skin, absorb nutrients better, etc.

To best understand this, let’s take a step back to look at how grapevines are propagated in the nursery and vineyard.

Rather than plant seeds (which will produce a completely different grape variety), new vines of particular grape varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc are most often propagated via cuttings from an original mother vine. Here a branch with fruiting buds is removed from an active vine and then either planted to develop its own roots or, more commonly, grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock and planted. In theory, this new cutting is genetically identical to its mother vine.

But sometimes growers observe differences in the vineyard or the nursery among these seemingly identical vines. The clonal mutations with the most beneficial traits are selected for future propagation and eventual commercial use.

What Does This Mean For Winemakers?

Photo by scrumpyboy (Mark Shirley). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Grapevine cuttings

Clones add another shade of color to the winemaker’s palette. Instead of just having one shade of blue (Syrah), you can plant multiple clones of Syrahs in similar terroir and end up with a multitude of shades. With these colors (Cerulean, Azure, Cobalt, etc), you can paint a deeper picture and potentially make a more complex wine.

They also allow viticulturists and winemakers to narrow in on exactly which clones perform best on different kinds of terrior, essentially following the path of the natural self-selection that we’ve seen in varieties like Sangiovese. Over centuries of time, this grape has adapted and developed its own unique clones. In the galestro clay soils of the Chianti Classico region, we have Sangioveto.  In the more limestone and schist based soils mixed with galestro in Brunello di Montalcino  produced Sangiovese Grosso. Meanwhile, the Pliocene-era sand and clay based soils of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano brought about Prugnolo Gentile.

Take one of these unique clones, plant them in different soils, and you will end up with different wines. Such is the magic and possibilities of clones.

A Few of My Favorite Resources On Clones

*Pl@ntGrape Project (yes, it is spelled with that silly ‘@’) — a joint project between several French agencies to catalog all the different grape varieties and their clones in France. When you search for a particular grape variety, at the bottom of the page is a listing of popular clones. The site also notes where they originated and their characteristics.

For example, Syrah has over 600 clones studied with 12 approved for commercial propagation. These include clones 100, 174, 300, 470, 471, 524, 525, 747, 877, 1140, 1141 and 1188

Photo by Stephan Ridgway. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the Hunter Valley of Australia.

Chenin blanc has over 200 clones studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation. These include clones 220, 278, 416, 417, 624, 880, 982 and 1018.

Riesling has nearly 190 clones that have been studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation. These include clones 49, 1089, 1090, 1091, 1092, 1094, 1096 and 1097.

Malbec (Cot) has around 220 clones that have been studied with 16 approved for commercial propagation. These include clones 42, 46, 180, 279, 353, 419, 592, 593, 594, 595, 596, 597, 598, 1061, 1127 and 1128.

*UC Davis Foundation Plant Services page on Pinot noir probably has the most extensive listing (in English) and description of Pinot noir clones I’ve found. This is pretty impressive since Pinot noir is known to have over a 1000 different clones.

*The Science of Grapevines: Anatomy and Physiology by Markus Keller. There is some hardcore geeking here with this viticulture textbook. It not only covers clones but also the science behind how the mutations happened. It also goes into the broad spectrum of grapevine anatomy and physiology. These factors, like disease resistance, nutrient utilization, etc. plays into the decisions of how different clones are selected.

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Getting Geeky about Malbec

Photo by Marianne Casamance. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0Continuing our celebration of the oddly named Malbec World Day we’re going to get geeky here at Spitbucket about the Malbec grape.

What’s In a Name?

In Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the entry for Malbec is under Cot (or Côt) because of the association with grape’s likely birthplace in the region of Cahors in the historical province of Quercy in southwest France. Ampelographers note that like Côt many of the other early names for the grape such as Cos, Cau, Cor and Cors all seem to be contractions of Cahors.

However, the first written account of Malbec was actually in the Bordaux region of Pomerol in 1761 when the grape was called Noir de Pressac (black of Pressac), likely referring to the individual who first cultivated the grape. From Pomerol, the grape made its way to the Left Bank region of the Medoc where it was called Èstranger (stranger) or Estrangey.

The name Malbec came from a grower named Malbeck who propagated the grape in what is now known as Sainte-Eulalie in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux AOC of the Entre-Deux-Mers region.

When a Mommy Grape and a Daddy Grape Cross-Polinate…

In 2009, DNA analysis discoevered that Magdeleine Noire des Charentes–the mother grape of Merlot (Check out the Academic Wino’s Who’s Your Daddy? series on Merlot)– and an obscure grape from the Tarn department called Prunelard were the parent varieties of Malbec.

In addition to being a half-sibling of Merlot, Malbec has done a bit of its own “cross-pollinating” being a parent grape to Jurançon noir (with Folle blanche) and Caladoc (with Grenache).

Malbec in Bordeaux

Photo by   Ian L. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Malbec used to be far more prevalent in the Bordeaux region. In fact, Stephen Brook noted in The Complete Bordeaux that it was the most widely planted grape in the vineyards of Lafite in the 18th century. Many of the estates that were classified in 1855 had Malbec account for as much as 50% of their blends in the early 19th century.

However, the later half of the 19th century would usher in the decline of the variety due to its sensitivity to coulure and mildew. Following the devastation of phylloxera, many growers who did replant choose to replace Malbec in their vineyards with the more popular and easier to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Into the 20th century, Malbec still maintain a presence, particularly in the Right Bank, but the devastating frost of 1956 killed off a significant number of plantings and practically signal the death kneel for the grape in Bordeaux.

There are still some small plantings of Bordeaux with the Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Blaye being the most significant strongholds. In St. Emilion, Cheval Blanc and Jean Faure are two notable estates with some plantings of Malbec. In Pomerol, Chateau L’Enclos (owned by the Adams family who also own Chateau Fonplegade in St. Emilion) also maintain some Malbec.

On the Left Bank, a small 1 ha block of old vine Malbec is still producing for 2nd Growth estate of Ch. Gruaud Larose in St. Julien. Fellow 2nd Growth Ch. Brane Cantenac in Margaux grows a few parcels of Malbec (as well as Carmenère). In the Graves region of Pessac-Leognan, Ch. Haut Bailly owns a 4 ha block of 100+ year old vines that includes a field blend of all six Bordeaux varieties–including Malbec and Carmenère.

Malbec in Argentina

Photo by PABLO GONZALEZ. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Malbec vines growing in Argentina.

Michel Pouget is credited with introducing Malbec to Argentina, bringing pre-phylloxera cuttings of the grape from Bordeaux to the country in the 1850s.

Compared to their French counterparts, clusters of Malbec in Argentina are smaller with tighter berries. These smaller grape berries create a skin to juice ratio that tends to produce more deeply colored wines with intense black fruit.

The Bordeaux influence in Argentina is still felt today with producers like like Léoville Poyferré (Cuvelier de Los Andes), Michel Rolland (Clos de los Siete), Cheval Blanc (Cheval des Andes), Hélène Garcin-Lévêque (Poesia) and Lafite-Rothschild (CARO) having projects in Argentina making both varietal Malbec and using it in Bordeaux style blends.

Malbec in the United States

The grape is widely planted throughout the US including in states like Missouri, Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Maryland, Texas and Michigan. Here it is made as both as varietal wine and as a blending component.

In Napa Valley, despite being a regular feature of popular blends like Opus One and Joseph Phelps Insignia, Malbec is sometimes considered the “Gummo Marx” of the Bordeaux varieties. Part of the grape’s low standing in the region was historically due to poor clonal selection but as better clone options from Cahors and Argentina become available, Napa is seeing increased plantings of the variety on Mt. Veeder, Coombsville and Atlas Peak.

Outside of Napa, Malbec is most widely planted in the San Joaquin Valley where it is used for mass produced bulk blends. However, there are quality minded producers making varietal Malbec wines throughout the state, particularly in regions like Paso Robles, Dry Creek Valley, Santa Ynez, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 and released under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Red Willow Vineyard in Washington State.


In Washington State, Malbec has the curious distinction of being the most expensive grape per ton with the average price for a ton of Malbec in 2016 being $1,587 as opposed to varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon $1,442/ton, Merlot $1,174/ton, Chardonnay $940/ton and Semilion (the most expensive white grape) at $1,054 ton.

While Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley helped pioneer the grape in Washington State, Paul Gregutt in Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide notes that Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery was the first to plant the grape in Walla Walla in the early 1990s.

Want More Malbec?

Check out the hashtags #MalbecWorldDay and #WorldMalbecDay on Twitter and the Malbec tag on Instagram for more fun.

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The Legend of W.B. Bridgman


With more than 900 wineries producing over 17.5 million cases, the future of the Washington wine industry looks bright.

But as we wrap up Taste Washington Wine Month, it would be remiss to not take a look at a pivotal figure of the past who put Washington on the path to such a future–A Canadian ex-pat from Sunnyside, Washington named William B. (W.B.) Bridgman.

Early History and Irrigation Laws

Born in 1877, W.B. Bridgman grew up on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario where his family grew Concord grapes. Ronald Irvine notes in The Wine Project that it was at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota where Bridgman met Walter Hill, son of railroad tycoon James J. Hill. To help pay his way through law school, Bridgman became a tutor for the younger Hill and this arrangement led Bridgman to accompany Walter on a rail journey to the Pacific Northwest in 1899.

Intrigued at the opportunities in this new frontier, Bridgman found work at a local irrigation company and settled permanently in the Yakima Valley in the town of Sunnyside–about 175 miles southeast of Seattle. An expert in irrigation laws, Bridgman wrote many of the early statutes that outlined access and development of irrigation usage for agriculture in Eastern Washington–several of which are still on the books.

Due to the rain shadow effect of the Cascade Mountains, a significant portion of the central basin of Eastern Washington averages only around 8 inches of rain a year–most of it in winter months. To grow grapevines that often need 3 to 6 gallons of water a week during the heat of summer to avoid heat stress, the development and use of irrigation proved vital to the growth of viticulture in Washington.

Planting of Harrison Hill and Snipes Mountain

Settling into Sunnyside, Bridgman was elected mayor twice and in 1914 purchased land on two uplifts that are today separated by Interstate 82. Among the first vines he planted on Harrison Hill were Black Prince (Cinsault), Flame Tokay and Ribier. In 1917, he planted Muscat of Alexandria and Thompson Seedless on Snipes Mountain.

Map a derivative from Washington State AVA map provided by the Washington State Wine Commission for public use.

The Snipes Mountain AVA with a rough approximation of the location of Harrison Hill and present-day Upland Vineyard bisected by Highway 82.

Eventually Bridgman expanded to plant Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Carignan, Mataro (Mourvedre), Pinot noir, Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Black Malvoisie and many other varieties.

In the early years, Bridgman mostly sold grapes to the Italian and Croatian immigrants in the towns of Cle Elum and Roslyn. But when Prohibition was enacted in 1919, Bridgman actually saw demand skyrocket as a “loophole” in the legislation permitted up to 200 gallons a year of self-made wine–essentially producing overnight what Ronald Irvine describes as “a nation of home-winemakers”.

Upland Winery

Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2 that by the end of Prohibition, Bridgman had over 165 acres of vinifera planted. He decided to open a winery in 1934, hiring German winemaker Erich Steenborg–a graduate of the famous Geisenheim Institute who had worked for several wineries in the Mosel.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Soil sample from Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.


At Steenborg’s urging and with his connections, Bridgman brought in around a half million cuttings of Riesling, Sylvaner, Gutedel (Chasselas), Blauer Portugieser and Müller-Thurgau vines. (Incidentally, Irvine notes that most of the Riesling cuttings that Upland brought in turned out to actually be Scheurebe.)

Named Upland Winery, Bridgman and Steenborg desired to make dry European-style table wines from vinifera grapes. However, post-Prohibition wine drinkers favored sweet dessert and fortified wines made from a mix of vinifera, hybrid and labrusca grape varieties so, to pay the bills, Upland also produced “ports” and “sherries” as well.

When Steenborg left in 1951, Bridgman hired Marie Christensen, who had been working as a lab assistant at Upland, to take over winemaking–making her the first woman in the state to head winemaking at a major winery.

Dealing with market forces that favored sweet and boozy wines eventually proved too much for Bridgman who sold the winery in 1960 to George Thomas. Thomas changed the name to Santa Rosa Winery and continued to operate it in some degree until 1972 when the winery was shuttered.

Grenache made by Kerloo Cellars from Upland Vineyard.


Today, the old buildings of Upland Winery and vineyards have been owned by the Newhouse family since 1968 with several of Bridgman’s original 1917 Muscat of Alexandria vines still producing grapes. Paul Gregutt speculates in Washington Wine that these may be the oldest Vitis vinifera vines in the state.

In addition to selling grapes from Upland Vineyard to over 20 different wineries like Betz, DeLille, Pomum, K Vintners and Kerloo–the Newhouses produce wine under Todd Newhouse’s Upland Estate and Steve Newhouse’s Newhouse Family Vineyards made in partnership with Ron Bunnell.

Influence on the Washington Wine Industry

While Dr. Walter Clore is considered the “Father of Washington Wine”, W. B. Bridgman can rightfully be called “the Grandfather“.

After Prohibition, Bridgman and his Upland Winery were charter members of the Washington Wine Producers Association. Founded in 1935, Bridgman was the only charter member from the east side of the mountains as most of the winemaking during that period was done on the west side of the state by fellow charter members St. Charles Winery and Davis Winery on Stretch Island, Wright Winery in Everett, Werberger Winery on Harstine Island and Pommerelle Winery in Seattle.

In Goldendale, Bridgman advised Samuel Hill (who married Walter Hill’s sister, Mary) to plant a mix of vinifera and American hybrids developed by Thomas Volney Munson in what is now Maryhill in the Columbia Gorge AVA.

Pinot gris from Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.


Dr. Walter Clore

In 1940, Bridgman encouraged a young horticulturalist from Washington State University named Walter Clore to plant wine grape varieties at the Irrigation Experiment Station in Prosser. With Bridgman supplying many of the initial vine cuttings, this experimental vineyard would eventually become known as “The Wine Project” and include over 250 different varieties of vinifera, hybrid and American wine grape varieties.

Observing the success of several varieties in the vineyard, Clore authored academic papers extolling the viability of a wine industry in Washington State. Spurred on by the results of Dr. Clore’s work, the Washington wine industry today is responsible for more than 27,000 jobs with an economic impact of nearly $15 billion dollars.

Associated Vintners

In 1954, W.B. Bridgman sold grapes to a group of University of Washington professors making wine under the name of Associated Vintners. Impressed by the wines made by Lloyd Woodburne, Bridgman gave the young academics advice and encouragement in their endeavors. In 1960, Bridgman met with the AV group at the Roosevelt Hotel in Seattle to discuss the future of the Washington wine industry.

A Columbia Valley Syrah made under the W.B. Bridgman label by Precept Brands.


That meeting would lead to a long term contract for grapes that eventually turned into Associated Vintners purchasing the 5.5 acre Harrison Hill Vineyard in 1962 from Bridgman. Uprooting most of the older plantings, AV replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other red grape varieties. While Associated Vintners is now known as Columbia Winery and owned by Gallo, those Cab plantings at Harrison Hill Vineyard (managed by the Newhouse family) are today some of the oldest and most prized plantings in the state.

Legacy Today

William B. Bridgman died in 1968 at the age of 90, leaving a last imprint on the Washington wine industry even as his name has faded into obscurity.

Beyond the irrigation laws he authored that allowed viticulture to prosper, the roots of Upland Vineyard and Harrison Hill Vineyard continue to produce world class wine grapes. The first Chardonnay in the state was planted here and cuttings from AV’s replanting of Harrison Hill was used by Mike Sauer in the 1970s to plant Red Willow Vineyard.

To help keep the name of Bridgman alive, Washington Hills Winery (co-founded by Brian Carter) created a special line of wines in 1993 to honor the pioneer. When Precept Brands acquired Washington Hills in 2003, they kept the Bridgman Cellars label and today still produce wines that bare the name and legacy of W.B. Bridgman.

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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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Getting Geeky with Savage Grace Cabernet Francs

I make no effort to hide my enthusiasm for Washington State Cabernet Franc. As I noted in my Walla Walla musings, Washington Cabernet Francs have the structure and depth of our best Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines but with an intoxicatingly gorgeous bouquet that can range from perfumed and floral to savory fresh forest floor and coffee nuances.

It truly is a grape variety that every Washington wine lover should explore. For wine drinkers outside the state, these wines may be hard to come by but they are worth the hunt. Simply put, if you see a Washington Cab Franc on a restaurant list or wine shop shelf, try it!

I suspect that Michael Savage of Savage Grace Wines shares a similar love affair for Cabernet Franc because he makes two fantastic examples of the variety–one from Two Blondes Vineyard and the other from Copeland Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills. He also makes a Cabernet Franc rosé from grapes sourced from Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

The Backstory

Full disclosure, I was in the same wine production class as Michael Savage at the Northwest Wine Academy so I got to see the nascent beginnings of his winemaking career. He started his winery in 2011 with his very first release being a Cabernet Franc from the Columbia Valley.

Inspired by the wines of Oregon producers J. Christopher and Cameron Winery, Savage makes his wines in a distinctly “Old World style”, using native fermentation and a light touch of oak. The wines rarely go above 13.5% alcohol with a yearly production around 2400 cases.

The Grape

Photo taken by self as User:Agne27. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The original 1985 Cabernet Franc plantings at Red Willow Vineyard.

Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, notes that Washington State University planted the first experimental blocks of Cabernet Franc vines in the 1970s with Red Willow Vineyard following suit in 1985. From these Red Willow plantings, David Lake of Columbia Winery released the first varietal Washington Cabernet Franc in 1991. From the 1998 vintage, Kay Simon of Chinook Wines released the first varietal Cab Franc rosé that today has a cult-following among Washington wine lovers.

Cabernet Franc is prized in Washington and Bordeaux for adding color, aroma and acidity to Cab and Merlot-based blends. Varietal wines are trademark by vibrant berry fruit that can range from red raspberry to blueberry. Wines often have floral aromatics (particularly violets), juicy acidity and savory nuances like freshly ground coffee, olive tapenade and forest floor. With oak, chocolate and tobacco spice can emerge.

Cabernet Franc is valued in the vineyard for ripening earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also more winter-hardy than Merlot. Despite this, acreage of the variety has been steadily dropping from a high point of 1157 acres in 2006 to 685 acres in 2017.  Today, Cabernet Franc is the 4th most planted red grape in Washington behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah.

Other producers making great Cabernet Franc include Sheridan Vineyard’s Boss Block, Convergence Zone Cellars’ Downburst, Camaraderie Cellars, Owen Roe’s Rosa Mystica, Hestia Cellars, Spring Valley Vineyards’ Katherine Corkrum, Gamache, Lagana Cellars and Cadence’s Bel Canto.

The Vineyards

Copeland Vineyard was planted in 2000 in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA of Yakima Valley. Owned by the Rawn brothers of Two Mountain Winery, the vineyard was converted from an orchard planted by their grandfather in 1951.

Covering 26 acres on a sandy, rock strewn slope in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, this warm-climate site averages 2980 degree days. In addition to Cabernet Franc, Copeland also produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Lemberger, Merlot, Riesling, Syrah and the Portuguese grape variety Touriga Nacional.

Two Blondes Vineyard was planted in 2000 by Chris Camarda of Andrew Will and Bill Fleckenstein.  Located next door to Sheridan Vineyard, the name references the hair color of both men’s wives.  A bit cooler than Copeland, the 30 acre vineyard averages around 2200 degree days.

Chris Hoon, a 3rd generation farmer, manages the vines as well as those of neighboring Sheridan Vineyard. Beyond Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec are also planted.

The Wines

2016 Savage Grace Cabernet Franc from the Copeland Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills

The 2016 Copeland Cabernet Franc was sourced from the Rattlesnake Hills AVA with around 260 cases made. Savage aged the wine 6-7 months in neutral oak barrels. Inspired by the Loire Valley Cabernet Francs of Chinon, Saumur-Champigny and Bourgueil, this young Cab Franc has high intensity aromatics of raspberry and rhubarb pie as well as blue floral notes. There is also a little herbal aromatics that add complexity but not enough to describe it as green.

On the palate, those raspberry and rhubarb notes come through and are heighten by the juicy, medium-plus acidity. The wine feels heavier in the mouth than what it 12.5% ABV would suggest with grippy but approachable medium-plus tannins. Some of the rhubarb “pie spice” notes come out on the palate like cinnamon and nutmeg. Long, mouthwatering finish.

Two Blondes Vineyard Cabernet Franc

2016 was the first release of the Two Blondes Vineyard Cabernet Franc and this wine couldn’t be more different than the Copeland. High intensity aromatics as well with similar blue floral notes but this wine uniquely has savory pink peppercorn spiciness and olive tapenade that gets your mouth watering before even taking a sip. There is also fruit in the bouquet but it’s more blueberry than raspberry. It doesn’t have the freshly ground coffee notes yet but I can see that emerging in this wine with more bottle age.

On the palate that tapenade savoriness takes on a meaty element that would have me thinking in a blind tasting of a lighter style Côtes du Rhône until the minerally graphite pencil lead note emerged. The pink peppercorn spice carries through as well with the medium-plus acidity keeping the mouthwatering action going. The medium tannins are very soft for such a young wine and almost velvety. Like the Copeland, the Two Blondes Cab Franc has a long finish with the blueberry fruit lingering.

The Verdict

Both the 2016 Savage Grace Copeland Cabernet Franc and 2016 Two Blondes Cabernet Franc are outstanding bottles. They exhibit very well two shades of this grape variety’s personality in Washington State. Very food friendly and approachable now, I can see these wines continuing to give pleasure over the next few years.

At $28-32, they are both very solid wines for the price point. However, I would give the nod to the Two Blondes as being the most complex and layered. There is so much nuance and character in this wine that it’s worth getting multiple bottles to watch it develop.

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The Mastery of Bob Betz

Washington State is ridiculously spoiled with talented winemakers.

Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek, Christophe Baron of Cayuse, Chris Figgins of Leonetti, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon, Scott Greer of Sheridan, Anna Shafer of àMaurice, Greg Harrington of Gramercy, Kay Simon of Chinook, Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas, Chris Upchurch of DeLille/Upchurch Vineyard, Ben Smith of Cadence, Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas, Rob Newsom of Boudreaux, Kerry Shiels of Côte Bonneville, Chris Peterson of Avennia/Passing Time, etc.

And that is only a small sliver of the immense talent in this state.

But if you asked me to give you just one expression of winemaking talent that exhibits the best of Washington, I would answer without any hesitation that it is Bob Betz.

From Chicago to the Chateau

A Chicago native, Bob Betz moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1954. He attended the University of Washington with the goal of entering med school but, when those plans didn’t work out, he spent a year in Europe with his wife, Cathy, where he discovered a passion for wine.

After working at a wine shop for a year, he was hired by Charles Finkel (now of Pike Brewing Company) to work at Chateau Ste. Michelle back when the Washington powerhouse was a small winery operating on East Marginal Way in Seattle. There he was mentored by the famed consultant André Tchelistcheff of Beaulieu Vineyard fame.

Starting in communications with the estate, as Chateau Ste. Michelle moved to Woodinville and grew into Washington’s largest winery, Betz worked his way up to Vice President of Winemaking Research–working closely with an All-Star roster of winemaking talent such Mike Januik (Novelty Hill/Januik Winery), Cheryl Barber-Jones (Sozo Friends), Kay Simon (Chinook Wines), Joy Anderson (Snoqualmie Vineyards), Erik Olsen (Clos du Bois/Constellation Brands) and Charlie Hoppes (Fidelitas). During this time, his own passion for winemaking and starting his own label developed.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Bob Betz (in grey sweat shirt) talking with guests at a release party at Betz Family Winery


In the mid 1990s, he embarked on completing the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) program, earning his Master of Wine (MW) in 1998. To this day, he is one of the few MWs who are practicing winemakers (Billo Naravane at Rasa/Sinclair Estate is another), with the vast majority of individuals who hold that title being writers, educators, wholesalers and retailers.

In earning his MW, Betz won the Villa Maria Award for the highest scores on the viticultural exam as well as the Robert Mondavi Award for the highest overall scores in all theory exams.

Betz Family Winery

In 1997, Greg Lill of DeLille Cellars offered space in his winery for Betz to make six barrels of his first vintage. Sourcing fruit from Klipsun vineyard on Red Mountain, Harrison Hill on Snipes Mountain and Portteus vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, it wasn’t long before the accolades came in with Betz having numerous wines featured on Best of Washington lists by the Seattle Times and Seattle Met as well as earning Winemaker of the Year from Sunset Magazine in 2007. Moving from DeLille, he was one of the first wineries in the now-famous “Warehouse District” of Woodinville before building his own winery.

Just as he was mentored by Tchelistcheff and others, Betz has mentored other budding talents such as Kathryn House (House of Wine), Tyson Schiffner (brewmaster at Sumerian Brewing), Ross Mickel (Ross Andrews), Chris Dickson (Twill Cellars), Casey Cobble (Robert Ramsay) and his eventual successor as head winemaker at Betz, Louis Skinner.

La Côte Rousse, a “New World style” Syrah from Red Mountain


In 2011, with Bob & Cathy Betz’s daughters expressing no interest in taking over the winery, Betz worked out an agreement to sell the winery to South African entrepreneurs Steve and Bridgit Griessel. Agreeing to stay on with the winery for five more years, a succession plan was worked out with Louis Skinner, a South Seattle Northwest Wine Academy alum and former assistant at DeLille Cellars, taking over the winemaking duties at Betz Family Winery in 2016 with Betz as a consultant.

In 2017, Bob Betz returned to Chateau Ste. Michelle as a consultant for Col Solare, a joint project with the Antinori family located on Red Mountain. Here Betz will be working with Darel Allwine and Antinori’s head enologist Renzo Cotarella.

Tasting the Best of Washington

While the future of Betz Family Winery looks strong with the Griessels and Louis Skinner, there is something magical about “Bob’s vintages” of Betz that are worth savoring. Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, describes Betz Family Winery as one of the “Five Star Wineries” in Washington and ascribes their success to Betz’s “painstaking planning and attention to detail”, noting that if even a single barrel of wine didn’t meet his standards then it would be sold off rather than used in the wines.

La Serenne, a “Northern Rhone-style” Syrah from Boushey Vineyard.

The list of vineyards that Bob Betz has worked with includes some of the “Grand Crus” of Washington like Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow in Yakima; Ciel du Cheval, Kiona and Klipsun on Red Mountain; Harrison Hill and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

2010 La Serenne Syrah – 100% Syrah sourced from Boushey Vineyard. This cool-climate site north of Grandview, Washington is often harvested more than a month after the Syrahs that go into La Côte Rousse from Red Mountain are picked. Around 535 cases were made.

High intensity nose with a mixture of dark fruit–black plums and blackberries–smoke and spice.

On the palate those dark fruits come through but it is the savory, smokey, meatiness that is the star of the show. Medium-plus acidity keeps it fresh and juicy while the medium-plus tannins have a velvety feel at this point. The long savory finish on this wine would make any Côte-Rôtie lover weak in the knees. Stunningly beautiful and well worth the $70-75.

2011 La Côte Rousse – 100% Syrah sourced from Ciel du Cheval and The Ranch At The End of The Road Vineyard in Red Mountain. The parcels from Ciel du Cheval include some of the oldest plantings of Syrah on Red Mountain. The wine was aged in 45% new oak barrels. Around 559 cases were made.

Medium-intensity nose. A bit more oak driven with the baking spice. Underneath there is a core still of dark fruit but it is not as defined.

On the palate, the fruit is still struggling to be defined. It seems to be a mix of black cherries with a little red pomegranate. Medium acidity and soft medium tannins add lushness to the mouthfeel. The oak is still fairly noticeable with a sweet vanilla edge and rich dark chocolate note that lingers through to the moderate finish. Definitely a more “New World” style that reminds me of a less sweet Mollydooker. Not my personal style but at $70-75, it is well in line with Mollydooker’s Carnival of Love and Enchanted Path for those who enjoy those bold, lush wines.

2011 Bésoleil – A blend of 54% Grenache, 15% Cinsault, 12% Counoise, 12% Mourvedre and 7% Syrah. Sourced from vineyards in Yakima, Red Mountain and Snipes Mountains, this was the first vintage to include Counoise. Around 662 cases were made.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very evocative mix of blue flowers–violets and irises–with spicy black pepper, anise and Asian spices. This wine smells like you walked into a fantastic Indian restaurant.

On the palate, a mix of dark and red fruits come out but the spices get even more mouthwatering with the medium-plus acidity. The medium tannins are very silky at this point, helping the fruit to wrap around your tongue and linger for a long finish. Still fairly New World in style but at $50-55, this is inimitably charming and complex to entice a Châteauneuf-du-Pape fan.

2011 Clos de Betz – A blend of 67% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. Often features fruit from Ciel du Cheval and Kiona on Red Mountain, Red Willow and Dubrul in the Yakima Valley and Alder Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills. The wine was aged in 45% new oak. Around 1186 cases were made.

Clos de Betz, a Right Bank Bordeaux style blend.

Medium intensity nose–a mix of red and black currants with a floral element that is not very defined. With some air, tertiary notes of tobacco spice emerge as well as an intriguing graphite pencil lead that would have me thinking Cabernet Franc is in this blend even though it’s not.

On the palate, the tide tilts more towards the red fruits dominating with the medium-plus acidity adding a sense of freshness to the wine. The graphite pencil notes disappear and seem to be replaced with an espresso chocolately note that plays off the tobacco spice that carried through. Medium tannins are well integrated and velvet–showing that this wine is probably at its peak drinking window now. Moderate length finish brings back the floral notes though I still can’t quite pinpoint them.

At $65-70, you won’t confuse this for a St. Emilion or Pomerol but this wine amply demonstrates how fantastic Bordeaux varieties–particularly Merlot–do in Washington State.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/3/18 — Rose Cider, Parker Points and Washington Wine History.

Photo by THOR. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
This is what I’ve been reading today in the world of wine and beverages.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

The Year of Rosé Cider Is Upon Us by Mike Pomranz (@pomranz) for Food & Wine magazine (@foodandwine). This made its way to my dash via #WiningHourChat (@WiningHourChat).

Good to see a legit article from Food & Wine after the BS they published from their “Champagne Master/Wine Prophet”. The picture of the red fleshed Amour Rouge species of apple is gorgeous and makes my mouth water. But where the article really shines is in shedding light on all the many different ways that cider producers can add color to their ciders–hibiscus and rose petals, maceration with red wine grape skins, etc. Very interesting and worth a read to stay a step ahead of what will undoubtedly be one of the top beverage trends of the summer.

Do Parker points matter any more? from @jamiegoode

The blog post (from one of my favorite wine writers/tool) is worth a read but so are the comments in reply to Jamie’s tweet which includes insight from The Wine Cellar Insider (@JeffLeve), Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay (@LizGabayMW) and several others.

I think my view is summed up well in the reply made by MW student and Waitrose category manager Anne Jones (@AnneEJones). Points matter to the wine drinkers who want them to matter while other drinkers could care less. Different strokes for different folks.

March is Taste Washington Wine Month

All this month I will be focusing on Washington wines with my 60 Second Reviews. While researching for my reviews of the 2014 Scarborough Stand Alone Cabernet Sauvignon and 2015 Browne Family Vineyards Site Series Cabernet Sauvignon, I came across two links that caught my eye.

Associated Vintners — Washington’s Academic Winemakers (April 2016) by Peter Blecha for the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Red Willow Vineyard where David Lake and his team at Columbia helped Mike Sauer and his crew at Red Willow plant the Syrah that would become one of the first commercial bottlings of the variety in Washington.

Tremendous essay on the history of Associated Vintners (AV). So much history was made by this winery (now known as Columbia Winery) including having the first vintage dated varietal wines, first Pinot gris, first commercial Syrah with Red Willow and first Washington Master of Wine with David Lake. I learned several things from this article including the interesting connection between William B. Bridgman (of Harrison Hill fame) and AV.

Regular readers may remember from my Wine Clubs Done Right post that Columbia Winery holds a special place in my heart as one of the first Washington wines to make me go “WOW!” and the first wine club I ever joined. It was also were my mentor, Peter Bos, served as cellarmaster to David Lake and much of what I learned about winemaking was about how things were done “back in the day” at Columbia. Seeing the changes in style of Columbia was one of my first big disappointments in the wine industry. Still, this engaging and well written piece about such an important part of Washington wine history was a joy to read.

Another Seattle winery served legal papers over naming issue (May 2015) by Lindsey Cohen of KOMO News.

This is not as much about the joy of the Washington wine industry as a “WTF are you serious?” piece about the realities of the wine world. I came across this while researching the Scarborough article where I learned that Travis Scarborough got hit with a cease and desist letter from former 49ers exec Carmen Policy’s Casa Piena vineyards because the name of one of his wine club tiers (Full House) was similar to the English translation of Casa Piena.

As if that wasn’t outrageous enough, Cohen interviews another small local Washington producer, Bartholomew Winery, that had similar issues because a wine named after one of the owner’s sons, Jaxon, was apparently too close to Jackson Family Estates (of Kendall-Jackson fame). Good grief! The sad truth of the matter is aptly summed up by Scarborough in the article–“They’ve already won…because when they send that out they know I can’t fight back.”

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