Tag Archives: Sauvignon blanc

Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Impressions

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

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

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

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — Les Faverelles Bourgogne Vézelay

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Les Faverelles Le nez de Muse Bourgogne Vézelay.

The Geekery

Les Faverelles was founded in 2001 by Patrick Bringer and Isabelle Georgelin in the village of Asquins tucked in the foothills of the Morvan massif in northwest Burgundy.

Part of the Yonne department, south of Chablis and the Sauvignon blanc AOC of Saint-Bris, Vézelay is a Chardonnay-only AOC that was recently promoted to village-level classification (like Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet) in 2017. Red wines produced in the region qualify for only the Bourgogne AOC.

The husband and wife team of Les Faverelles farm all 13.5 acres of Pinot noir, Chardonnay and César organically with some plots biodynamic. Adhering to several Natural Wine principles, the wines see little to no sulfur additions and are bottled unfined and unfiltered. The entire estate produces around 20,000 bottles a year.

The Le nez de Muse Bourgogne Vézelay is 100% Chardonnay from vines that are over 18 years of age. The wine saw no oak and was aged in stainless steel.

The Wine

Medium intensity. A mix of citrus and apple notes with some subtle floral notes like lillies. Very fresh and clean smelling.

On the palate the citrus notes dominate and are still very fresh–like you just plucked a lemon off the tree and sliced into it. Noticeably high acidity but the medium weight of the fruit balances it surprisingly well. Moderate finish brings a suggestion of some stoney minerality but fades fairly quickly.

Photo by Andrew Comings. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Fresh cut lemon notes dominate this wine.

The Verdict

This was my first time trying a Vézelay and it was certainly pleasant enough. I paired it with seared scallops which, given the racy acidity and citrus notes, was probably the best approach.

At $16-20, it is priced like a Petit Chablis and while there are some similarities, I do think you’re paying a premium. Especially when you consider the value of an over-performing Petit Chablis like the Dauvissat from my review of the SommSelect Blind Six, it’s hard to say this wine is a compelling value worth hunting for.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Product Review — SommSelect Blind Six

Master Sommelier Ian Cauble (of the movie Somm fame) has a unique subscription program designed to teach people how to blind taste better–the SommSelect Blind Six.

Each month for $199 you receive 6 bottles (3 whites and 3 reds) that are individually wrapped in black tissue paper. I decided to give the subscription a go. Below is my experience with my first month’s box (Spoiler alert if you haven’t done April’s wines) and my thoughts on if the subscription (and wines) are worth the cost.

What You Get

In the box, you’ll find 6 individually wrapped bottles numbered 1-6 as well as an envelop containing both instructions and an answer packet to reference after you’ve tasted the wines. The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was that they didn’t indicate on each bottle if they were red or white nor was there any info in the Blind Tasting Instruction Packet. The numbered stickers on each bottle are different colors but not with a consistent pattern to distinguish white versus red. I took a wager on the most logical set up being trying the 3 whites first so I went with trying bottles #1-3 which, happily, were all white.

In the instruction packet, Cauble gives tips on what to look for in each stage of the evaluation as well as what common “clues” often mean. These tips range from things that are fairly well known–like under Sight the tips about looking at the meniscus and how the color varies from the intensity of the core to the rim is a sign of age–to more interesting observations like his note under Nose & Palate that the aroma of dry bay leaf is common in Cabernet Sauvignon from moderately warm climate regions like Napa. While the former can often be found in discussions about blind tasting, the later is the kind of insight you usually only get first hand from someone with experience in blind tasting.

Likewise, the answer packet (which I’ll discuss below) also gives numerous precise details about things to look for in evaluating color and structure that you don’t readily find from other resources.

Tasting the White Flight

Using the Coravin on the white wine flight.

Cauble recommends having a neutral third party person open the wines and pour them into a decanter. While I clearly see the benefit of this approach–not the least of which is that splash decanting is probably the most underutilized tool in wine appreciation–I went a different route for three reasons.

1.) Neither my wife nor I wanted to miss out on the fun so we didn’t have a “neutral third party”
2.) I didn’t want to open up and waste 3 bottles of wine. [Note: Cauble does recommend doing the tastings as part of a multi-course dinner and with friends]
3.) I didn’t have 3 decanters of the same size and shape–which does make a difference
3.5) I also didn’t want to clean 3 decanters along with 6 wine glasses to be brutally honest

So we decided to break out the foil cutter and as carefully as possible use scissors to cut off the tip of the black tissue paper and remove the top of the capsule without seeing any identifying markings. Wine #3 was a screwcap so I just closed my eyes and twist. It felt like I was kid back at home trying to get something out of my parent’s closet while deliberately avoiding the corner where they kept the presents. Then we Coravin each bottle to pour out 2 samples of the cork-sealed wines.

Now other people might take the approach of just blind tasting one bottle a night and enjoying the wine with dinner or what not. It’s certainly an easier and less wasteful approach. However, we really wanted to compare the 3 together because we felt that it allowed us to go back and forth with contrasting color and aroma. It is also more conducive to the blind tasting format of formal examinations. The beauty of the Coravin is that it allows us to only pour two samples of each without pulling the cork and wasting the wine.

Wine #1

The most noticeable thing about this wine was the “onion peel” color with pink hues.

Medium intensity nose with apple and citrus notes along with a white floral element that wasn’t very defined. There was also a subtle doughy element that made me think of raw pastry dough as opposed to something toasty like oak or Champagne.

On the palate the apple fruits came through much more than the citrus with a lot of weight and depth for a medium-plus bodied white wine. This wine had texture that filled the mouth which started my brain going towards Oregon Pinot gris. Medium acidity was enough to keep it fresh but not racy or citrusy like I associate with Italian Pinot grigio. No signs of new oak but that doughy element from the nose could have been from partial neutral oak. Moderate length finish ends with the lingering white flower notes that I still couldn’t quite pin point.

My guess: An Oregon Pinot gris in the $18-20 range. At this point in my practice I’m not going to focus on guessing age.
Turned out to be: 2016 Scarbolo Pinot grigio, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave: $14)

Wine #1 — Should have paid more attention to the color.


In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the color that comes from a practice of skin contact that is far more common in Italy than Oregon. I let the stereotype of “light, citrusy” supermarket Italian Pinot grigio sway me into thinking that this wine was too good and too weighty to come from Italy. Granted, living in the Pacific Northwest I’m naturally bias due to my greater familiarity with Oregon Pinot gris.

Also, (thanks to Cauble’s notes in the Answer Packet) I realized that I should have paid more attention to that “subtle doughy element” from the nose. In Cauble’s notes he describes “hints of peanut shells, stale beer” which plays along those lines of what I was picking up. It wasn’t Champagne biscuity or Muscadet leesy but there was something there that I now know I should look out for–particularly in higher end Italian Pinot grigio from regions like Friuli.

Wine #2

Light yellow color, almost watery with some green specks.

High intensity nose. Wow! This wine is screaming out the glass with lemon citrus (both fruit and zest) and the smell of concrete after rain.

On the palate, those citrus notes comes through but so does the stoniness. This wine is screaming minerality–like liquid stones in your mouth. There is also a sense of salinity in the wine that amplifies the minerality. Clearly I’m thinking Old World here but which grape? Medium-plus acid tilts me away from thinking Sauvignon blanc/Sancerre and more to Chardonnay/Chablis. Medium body with a long finish that lingers on those stoney notes. Very fantastic wine and my favorite of the flight.

Crazy good Petit Chablis. Minerality for days.


My guess: A village-level Chablis in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Agnes et Didier Dauvissat Petit Chablis, Burgundy, France (Wine Searcher Ave $17)

Outstanding wine and a scorcher of a deal for a Petit Chablis. I was even tempted into thinking this could be a Premier Cru instead of a village-level Chablis because of how vibrant it was. Ultimately I defaulted back to village level because, while it did jump out of the glass, my notes on the wine were still rather short. You expect more layers and complexity with a higher level Chablis. But still, an outstanding bottle and way above what a Petit Chablis typically delivers.

Wine #3

Moderate yellow. Definitely darker than #2 but not golden or anything that would hint at oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Spiced d’Anjou pear with LOTS of white pepper. I tried really hard not to jump to conclusions but this was screaming Gruner Veltliner right from the get-go.

On the palate the spiced pear carries through and is joined by some ripe apple notes. The ripeness of the apple and the pear had me wondering if this was maybe a warmer climate Gruner like from California or (Northwest bias again) Oregon. Medium-plus acidity and a sense of stoney river rocks ultimately brought me back to Old World and Austria. No signs of oak. Light bodied with a moderate finish that lingers on the white pepper spice.

My guess: An Austrian Gruner Veltliner in the $14-17 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Weingut Bauerl Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, Wachau, Austria (Wine Searcher Average $9)

Another crazy good value. Would be a killer glass pour at a restaurant.


While not “New Zealand Sauv. blanc easy”, this was definitely the easiest one in the entire Blind Six. Cauble promises to pick classic examples of each wine style and I don’t think he could have picked a more classic Gruner Veltliner than this.

Tasting the Red Flight

I had a bit of a ego boost with the white flight getting 3/3 grape varieties right and 1.5/3 with the regions–going to do a half point for that way over-performing Petit Chablis. However with the red flight my ego got thoroughly deflated.

My wife and I did the red flight tasting before a meal and decided to make a game of it. After we sampled and evaluated the wines, we compared each to our meal to see what was the best pairing. The “winning bottle” got the cork pulled to be finished with the rest of the meal. We really liked this game and think we’ll make it a staple moving forward with doing the Blind Six.

Wine #4

Light ruby color. Can read through it. Some fuschia hues.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very ripe Rainier cherries, cranberries with herbal notes–mint and fennel.

Those red fruits and herbal notes carry through but the cherries taste more richer on the palate than they smelled on the nose. Almost candied even. High acidity balances that richness and still keeps the fruit more red than black. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the wine feeling a little thin. Rather short finish ends on some spice notes that aren’t very defined though hint at being in the baking spice family (cinnamon, clove) suggesting partial new oak? Definitely thinking Old World Pinot with this.

Should have paid more attention to the fuschia hues and candied cherry notes.

My guess: A basic Bourgogne rouge (maybe Cote de Beaune-Villages?) in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorees Morgon, Beaujolais, France (Wine Searcher Ave $18)

My wife briefly suggested Gamay as a possibility but we dismissed it because the acids were too high–though in his notes Cauble rates the acidity of this wine as medium-plus. In hindsight, the “candied cherry” and the fuschia hues should have registered more.

Yeah, this was a total miss for me.

Wine #5

Moderate ruby. Can still read through it but much darker than #1. Slight blue hues.

Medium intensity nose. Noticeable oak spice and vanilla. Black cherries and black berries.

On the palate, the oak still dominate with the dark fruit. Medium-plus acidity keeps it from being syrupy with medium tannins holding the structure well. Moderate length finish ends on the oak. This is screaming California Pinot.

While you probably wouldn’t suspect Syrah being blended in, it would be hard not to peg this as anything but a Cali Pinot.


My guess: A California Pinot noir in the $33-38 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Tyler Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, USA (Wine Searcher Ave $36)

This was, by far, the easiest one of the red flight and I was seriously close to taking a stab that it was Central Coast as well. It was very oak driven and didn’t have any of the elegance I associate with Sonoma Coast, Russian River or Carneros Pinot noir. It wasn’t bad at all (and it certainly not a huge Kosta Browne wannabe) but it definitely was as stereotypical “Post-Sideway Cali Pinot” as you can get.

Wine #6

Medium garnet with some rim variation that has an orange huge. Can’t read through the core.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dried roses and tarry tobacco spice. Some red fruits–cherries, pomegranate and cranberries. Also a little animal earthiness.

The red fruits carry through but aren’t as defined on the palate as they were on the nose. It’s the tarry tobacco and high tannins that dominate. Still just medium-plus body though with the alcohol weight. High acidity makes your mouth water and highlights tobacco spice notes and helps keep the floral rose petals from the nose alive. The animal earthiness become more defined and linger on the moderate finish.

This isn’t your “modernist” style Gaja, Antinori, Renieri or Banfi style Brunello. Tasting this made me realize that I need to look into more “old school” style producers.


My guess: A basic Barolo in the $40-45 range.
Turned out to be: 2012 Padelletti Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave $48)

Once again my wife had the suggestion that maybe this was Sangiovese–which we evaluated more critically this time. The orange hue and the cherry notes played along. But ultimately we thought that the high tannins and high acidity fit the profile of Nebbiolo/Barolo much more than Sangiovese. Turns out, our scale of “high” is apparently Ian Cauble’s medium-plus.

In hindsight, and after reading Cauble’s notes, I realize that I have vastly more experience with “modern” style Brunello producers than I do with some of the classic, old school style of Brunello that Cauble describes in the Padelletti. A big takeaway from this experience is that I need to branch out more in this area.

For dinner we were having Italian sausage with penne and red sauce so this was the “winning bottle” from a food pairing point of view though the Morgon with the fennel notes was a close second.

Ian’s Notes — aka Where You Went Wrong

It’s incredibly enlightening (and humbling) to read a Master Sommelier’s notes on a wine you just tasted. For each wine there are numerous “clues” in color, aroma and structure that Cauble points out that make perfect sense when you go back and revisit the wine.

Like how did I miss the crushed raspberries with the Morgon Beaujolais–one of the tell tale signs of Gamay? How did I not notice the fennel and orange peel from the Brunello?

Tasting a Pinot grigio and Gruner in a flight together really highlighted the similarities and differences between the two.

While there are going to be subjective differences (like the high/medium-plus ratings), overall there is immense insight to be gained in reviewing Cauble’s notes. Beyond just laying out all the clues that you may or may not have gotten, Cauble chimes in with tips about other “lateral wines” that blind tasters often confuse with each other.

For instance, Pinot grigio, Albarino and Gruner Veltliner are part of a trio of “neutral bitter varieties” that often trouble blind tasters. Cauble encourages you to look for a subtle sensation of “over-steeped green tea” at the back of the palate and front of the lips and then try to differentiate from there. Gruner will have the distinctive white pepper (and apparently daikon-raddish which I need to look for) while Albarino will have more canned peaches and Pinot grigio will have that “stale beer” and “peanut shell” element that I also need to start looking more for.

With the Morgon Beaujolais that I completely whiffed on, Cauble goes into brief detail about how different Cru Beaujolais are from the popular associations with Gamay and describes how they are commonly confused for Northern Rhone Syrahs and Loire Cabernet Franc from Chinon. While I, personally, didn’t confuse the Morgon for either of those two–I have a motivation now to actively compare good quality Cru Beaujolais with each.

In fact this is a suggestion that Cauble makes repeatedly throughout the tasting packet–if you have trouble with something then do comparison tastings (non-blind) with what you tasted and what you thought it was. This is another area where the Coravin becomes a valuable tool. The next night after we did the red flight, my wife and I grabbed a Beaune Montrevenots (a tad higher than Cote de Beaune-Village level) and compared it side by side to the Morgon. That was immensely educational (the candied cherry of the Beaujolais was even more pronounced compared to the tart cherry of the Beaune) and we plan to do the same with getting a Barolo to compare side by side with an old school Brunello.

Is it Worth it?

Depends.

If you are looking at it from a straight dollar value of the wine, then maybe not. At $199 for 6 bottles you expect an average wine value of around $33 a bottle. I don’t know how close this month’s box is to the norm but going off of Wine Searcher’s average prices (which is based on retail and not the wholesale that SommSelect is likely getting), I received $142 worth of wine for an average of $24 a bottle. Assuming that SommSelect is already making a healthy retail mark up, it’s fair to see how some subscribers might chaff at the hard numbers.

That said, these were exceptionally well curated wines that in nearly each case drank at a higher price point. If I went with the upper end of my price ranges for each wine (which, like how I score wines with my 60 Second Reviews, is mostly based on what price I feel would be a good value for this wine) that would be $180 for an average of $30 a bottle. Not ideal but not feeling like I’m getting ripped off either.

But the bigger value in the SommSelect Blind Six is truly with Cauble’s notes. For students seeking higher level certifications with WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers, there is a dearth of material out there when it comes to learning more about blind tasting. There are some online resources (and great podcasts) from GuildSomm and each program includes some material when you pay for courses. When it comes to wine books, Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is pretty much the only game in town.

Truthfully, for the most part, budding wine geeks are on their own in this arena.

If you are serious about wanting to be a good blind taster and are already investing thousands into seeking higher level certifications–this will probably be well worth it to you.


The benefit of the SommSelect Blind Six is that you can easily structure your own self-study program for blind tasting with essentially a Master Sommelier as your personal tutor. The examples that Cauble pick are truly classic and while you might disagree with some of his assessments, you can’t fault the logic and soundness of his conclusions.

But, most importantly, along with the individual wines you taste in the Blind Six, Cauble’s notes helps you pinpoint the strengths and weakness in your approach. With his suggestions of other things to taste and insight into his own personal approach, you can craft a game plan to tackle those weaknesses so you can become a better blind taster.

After one round of the Blind Six, I feel that, yes, it is undoubtedly worth it. Maybe not for the casual wine drinker but most definitely for the wine geek or ambitious wine professional who truly wants to get better at blind tasting.

I’ll continue to review each month’s box to not only track my own progress in blind tasting but to also see how the value/price per bottle ratio trends.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2015 Gramercy Picpoul from Walla Walla.

The Background

Gramercy Cellars was founded in 2005 by Master Sommelier Greg Harrington and his wife, Pam. Prior to starting a winery, Harrington managed wine programs for restaurants owned by Joyce Goldstein (Square One in San Francisco), Emeril Lagasse, Stephen Hanson and Wolfgang Puck (Spago). At the time that Harrington passed his MS exam in 1996, he was 26 and the youngest person to have achieved that honor.

According to Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, while sommelier-turned-winemaker is somewhat common in California and other parts of the world, Harrington was the first to traverse that path in Washington State.

In 2006, Gramercy started a partnership with Jamie Brown of Waters Winery that eventually led to the development of Wines of Substance (later sold to Charles Smith) and 21 Grams (now owned by Doug Roskelley and Mike Tembreull, owners of TERO Estates and Flying Trout Wines).

In 2008, Harrington was named by Seattle Magazine as “Best New Winemaker in Washington” and followed that up in 2014 as the magazine’s “Winemaker of the Year“.

Along with Harrington, the wines of Gramercy Cellars are made by Brandon Moss who joined the winery in 2009 after stints at King Estate in Oregon, Indevin in New Zealand and Waters in Walla Walla.

Drawing from Ampélographie Viala et Vermorel. Uploaded by JPS68 via photoshop to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Picpoul blanc grapes by Viala et Vermorel


Gramercy started making Picpoul in 2013 because the variety was a favorite of Pam Harrington. That first vintage came from Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley from a block that was scheduled to be uprooted and planted over to Grenache. The cuttings were sourced from Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles from original vines at Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Subsequent vintages of Gramercy Picpoul have been sourced from Los Oídos Vineyards located in the Blue Mountains of Walla Walla which are managed by Ken Hart and sustainably farmed. In addition to managing Los Oídos, Hart was also involved in the planting of Ash Hollow, Nicholas Cole, Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills East vineyards and today helps manage the vineyards of Abeja, àMaurice, Dunham and Walla Walla Vintners.

The Grape

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the first mention of Picpoul (or Piquepoul) was of the black skin variant in 1384 near Toulouse in the Occitanie region that borders Spain. The name is believed to have been derived from the Oc dialect words picapol or picpol which loosely translates to a “place with a peak” and may refer to the cliff-side vineyards where the grape was planted.

The first account that explicitly described the white skin mutation of Picpoul was in 1667. There is also a pink-skin Picpoul gris that is nearly extinct. All three color variants are part of the 22 grapes that are authorized to be grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

A Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc.


In 2009, there was over 3500 acres of Picpoul blanc planted in France–mostly in the Languedoc area where it is the notable variety of Picpoul de Pinet–the largest white wine producing AOC in the Languedoc. The grape is valued in the white wines of the Languedoc and Provence for its high acidity and lemon, floral aromatics.

In the United States, Tablas Creek was the first to plant Picpoul blanc in 2000. In California, Tablas Creek has noted that the variety is early budding but late ripening and tends to produce rich tropical fruits along with its trademark “lip stinging” acidity. Several producers in Paso Robles will occasional produce bottlings of Picpoul blanc including–Adelaida Cellars, Denner Winery, Derby Wine Estates, Halter Ranch, Lone Madrone, Bending Branch Winery and Broc Cellars.

Outside of Paso Robles, the grape can also be found in Calaveras County where Twisted Oak Winery and Forlorn Hope make varietal examples as well as in the Arroyo Seco AVA of Monterrey County which supplies Picpoul for Bonny Doon. In Arizona, Cimarron Vineyard in Cochise County is growing Picpoul blanc for Sand-Reckoner Winery and in the McLaren Vale of Australia, Picpoul blanc has been produced by Coriole Vineyards since 2015.

In Washington, outside of the Los Oídos Vineyards supplying Gramercy, the grape is being grown at Boushey Vineyards, Corliss Estate’s Blue Mountain Vineyard in Walla Walla and at Tanjuli Winery’s estate vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Wine

Photo by Vegan Feast Catering. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The lemon custard aromatics and creaminess of this 2015 Gramercy Picpoul is just one of the many complex layers to this wine.

High intensity nose. There is a lot going on here. Initially it starts out very floral and lemony with subtle pastry crust like a lemon custard tart. Underneath the lemon zest is some dusty gravel mineral notes. In a blind tasting, this would have my brain start thinking white Bordeaux. There is also a white floral note in the background that is not very defined.

But on the palate the wine switches gears and starts getting more tree fruit oriented with spicy d’Anjou pears and the floral notes morphing more into lemon verbena. The custard note from the nose carries through adding a richness to the mouthfeel–creamy but not buttery like a California Chardonnay. Even with this weighty creaminess the high acidity is quite present, offering exquisite balance and freshness. The gravel mineral notes come through and have a “crushed rock” element that is almost electric. The long finish brings a subtle hint of hazelnut that would have me wondering in a blind tasting if this was a village level Meursault.

The Verdict

Incredibly complex wine that jumps out of the glass and leaves a lasting impression on the palate. At around $20 bucks this is an absolute steal for all that this wine delivers.

But even if you can’t find a bottle of Gramercy’s Picpoul, do yourself a favor and find any bottle of Picpoul to try. If you are looking to trade out from your same ole, same ole Sauvignon blanc and Pinot gris, this grape is perfect.

Picpoul has the freshness and zip of a great Sauvignon blanc but with some of the spice of Gruner Veltliner and depth of a well made Chardonnay. Examples from Picpoul de Pinet can be had for $10-13 and are often far superior to what you usually find among Sauvignon blanc, Pinot gris/grigio and Chardonnay in the under $15 category.

This is definitely a grape that should be high on any wine geek’s list to try.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — Lauren Ashton Cuvee Meline

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Lauren Ashton Cuvée Méline from the Columbia Valley.

The Geekery

Lauren Ashton Cellars was founded in 2009 by Kit Singh, a dentist by training, with the winery named after his two children. Full disclosure, Kit was one of my wine science instructors when I was going through the wine production program at the Northwest Wine Academy.

The labels for each of Lauren Ashton’s wines feature notable architecture from Singh’s wife, Riinu’s, home country of Estonia.

The 2016 Cuvée Méline is a white Bordeaux-style blend of 55% Semillon and 45% Sauvignon blanc that was aged in a combination of stainless steel, new French and neutral oak barrels. The fruit source for this vintage was Mercer Estates in the Horse Heaven Hills and Cave B Vineyard in the Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley AVA. Around 300 cases were made.

The Wine

High intensity nose–lots of citrus zest and white floral notes like wisteria and lillies. Around the edges there is a little tree fruit trying to peak out but is overwhelmed by the citrus and floral notes.

Photo by Zeynel Cebeci. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

The rich tropical citrus note of this wine adds a lot of depth.


On the palate those tree fruit notes come out more and become defined as very ripe white peaches with the citrus becoming more tropical like pomelo. The wine has a lot of weight and texture to the mouthfeel that hints at the oak but you don’t taste any oak flavors. The medium-plus acidity keeps the fruit tasting fresh and balances the weight very well. Moderate length finish brings back the floral notes from the nose but they quickly fade.

The Verdict

It’s clearly a New World style white with the big body and weight but there is a lot of white Bordeaux-like elegance with this wine. Only thing missing is minerality.

At $23-28, it is a solid value for a very well made and food-friendly white. Definitely a white wine for a red wine drinker that wants something different than a light Sauvignon blanc or an oaky Chardonnay.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Wine Geek Notes 3/5/18 — Zinfandel, World of Syrah and Washington Wine

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

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

The Week in Zinfandel (2/26/18) by Tom Lee (@NWTomLee)

This is a frequent series by Lee on the Zinfandel Chronicles that highlights reviews and articles that discuss Zin. He was gracious enough to include my recent review of the 2014 Two Vintner’s Zinfandel in his recent round-up but I was most excited to explore several of the other links he posted. Below were two of my favorites.

Have We Taken the “Less Is More” Wine Aesthetic Too Far? by Jon Bonné (@jbonne) for Punch (@punch_drink)

With Bonné being one of the big proponents for lighter, lower alcohol wines (pretty much the anti-thesis of “Parkerized”), this was not an essay I expected to read from him. But he does make a lot of great points about the value of diversity as he bemoans the lack of interest in what he terms “Ferdinand wines”–big wines that have beauty even at high alcohol levels–such as California Zinfandel, Amarone, Brunello di Montalcino, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat.

Heart of Zinfandel: Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley (Paywall) by Stephen Brook (@StephenPBrook) for Decanter (@Decanter)

As I described in my post Zin-ful Thoughts, my opinions of Zinfandel are evolving and I’m eagerly looking for new areas to explore. Brook gives a nice overview of Dry Creek Zins and has me particularly intrigued by the offerings of Joel Peterson’s Once & Future from the Tedeschi Vineyard, Fritz Underground Winery and Passalacqua’s PQZ.

Cayuse manages to be weird in both taste and marketing. Though, IMO, their Cailloux and En Chamberlain Syrahs–with their boring orange labels–are the best.


World of Syrah Kick-off at Celebrate Walla Walla by Bean Fairbanks of Wine Beer Washington (@winebeerWA)

Part 1 of a series from the World of Syrah presentation given by writer Patrick Comiskey (@patcisco) and Master Sommelier/Master of Wine Doug Frost (@winedogboy). Nice overview of the distinction between the regions where Syrah is used as the primary grape versus more of a blending variety but my favorite quote is the one Bean highlights from Comiskey “The Syrah taste needs to be weird NOT the marketing”.

The beauty of Syrah, especially from the Rocks District in Oregon, is the funky weirdness. But gimmicky marketing is just….gimmicky marketing. If the wine can’t stand out on its own without the gimmicks than that should be a red flag.

Taste Washington Wine Month Links

March is Taste Washington Wine Month which at SpitBucket means that I’ll be nose deep in studying more about the history of the vineyards, wineries and people that make the Washington wine industry so exciting.

The women of wine are taking their rightful place (Jan 2015) by David LeClaire (@SeattleUncorked) for Seattle Dining (@SeattleDINING1)

March is also Women’s History Month and I loved this article from LeClaire highlighting kick-ass women who are not only winemakers (like Kay Simon of Chinook and Cheryl Barber-Jones of Chateau Ste. Michelle) but also sommeliers, writers (Braiden Rex-Johnson of Northwest Wining and Dining), chefs, and educators (Joan Davenport of WSU and DavenLore Winery).

Purple Gold: The influence of Husky alums can be tasted throughout the Northwest wine industry (December 2012) by David Volk for the Columns alumni magazine of the University of Washington.

I stumbled across this link while researching for the The Mastery of Bob Betz post. Every Apple Cup, I want to do a tasting of Husky wines vs Coug wines but, while it is easy to find wines made by WSU grads, until I came across this link I didn’t have an easy resource for wines with UW connections.

Washington’s great vineyards: Upland Vineyard (August 2013) by Andy Perdue (@GreatNWWine) for Great Northwest Wine.

Inspired by Peter Blecha’s essay on the history of Associated Vintners that I highlighted in my 3/3/18 Geek Notes, I wanted to research more about the role that William B. Bridgman played in the history of Washington wine.

That research brought me to Perdue’s article on the history of Upland Vineyard that Bridgman first planted in 1917 with Vitis vinifera varieties like Zinfandel and Sauvignon blanc. Today the vineyard is owned by the Newhouse family who continue to farm old blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin blanc, Merlot and Riesling that were planted in the 1970s. There is also a block of old vine Black Muscat that the date of planting is not quite known but it is possible that these vines are approaching the century mark.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — 2011 Carbonnieux Blanc

A few quick thoughts on the 2011 Chateau Carbonnieux Blanc from Pessac-Léognan.

The Geekery

Stephen Brook notes in The Complete Bordeaux that Carbonnieux has a long history dating back to the 12th century. Vines were first planted by Benedictine monks in the 18th century with the church tending the vines till the French Revolution. In 1787, this was one of the estates that Thomas Jefferson visited in Bordeaux.

In 1953, Carbonnieux was recognized as Grand Cru Classé in the Graves Classification for both red and white. Located on a large gravel hill in the center-east section of Pessac-Léognan near Haut Bailly and Smith-Haut-Lafitte, the 3 sections of vineyards have diverse terroir. Cabernet Sauvignon & Semillon are planted on the higher gravel while Merlot and Sauvignon blanc are planted in the lower clay-dominant soils.

The 2011 Carbonnieux Blanc is a blend of 65% Sauvignon blanc and 35% Semillon. Including their red, Carbonnieux produces around 400,000 bottles a year with a second wine, Ch. Tour-Léognan also produced in both colors.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of grass and hay straw. Some pithy citrus notes and dried apple chips as well.

On the palate, those pithy citrus notes carry through and is joined with a waxy lanolin note. Medium-plus acidity still has some life but doesn’t add freshness to the fruit. Long finish.

The Verdict

Photo by Jan van der Crabben. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Hay straw notes dominant in this 6+ year old White Bordeaux.

The more I taste aged white Bordeaux, the more I realize that they aren’t my style. As opposed to aged Chardonnay in White Burgs and aged Red Bordeaux, I don’t find the tertiary notes of older Sauvignon blanc and Semillon–dry straw, raw honey and lanolin–very compelling. I feel like I’m missing too much of the freshness I crave from those varieties.

That said, I can’t deny that this is a wine still with impeccable structure and life. For those who enjoy this style, it probably will continue developing beautifully for another 3-5 years and is a solid bet between $35-45. But for me, I probably would have enjoyed this wine more 2-3 years earlier.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — Emmolo Sauvignon blanc

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Emmolo Sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley.

The Geekery

Emmolo is made by Jenny Wagner, daughter of Chuck Wagner of Caymus fame. The winery was founded by her mother, Cheryl Emmolo, in 1994 where she got the “pick of the litter” from her parent’s vineyard on Mee Lane in Rutherford. For years the Emmolos sold most of this fruit to wineries like The Hess Collection, Robert Mondavi Winery and Villa Mt. Eden.

Emmolo’s roots in Napa Valley date back to the 1920s when Salvatore Emmolo started a rootstock nursery in Rutherford. He built a winery on the property in 1934 which Jenny uses to make Emmolo wines today. The first vintages were made by Cheryl with the help of Ric Forman. Jenny took over in 2014, however, she had been working with her mother for several vintages so the 2011 Merlot and 2012 Sauvignon blanc are considered her first releases.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity. A bit surprised at how fragrant it is for 5 year California Sauvignon blanc. A mix of floral and tree fruits like apple and peaches.

On the palate, those tree fruit notes come through, particularly the apple but you can tell the age as the fruit taste more rich than fresh. The wine has medium acidity with weight on the palate, almost like a Chardonnay that has spent time in a neutral oak barrel. Not quite creamy but heavy. On the finish some citrus notes like pomelo pop out.

Photo by High Contrast. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

Apple fruit dominants but the pomelo note on the finish adds complexity


The Verdict

It’s clear that this Sauvignon blanc is on the wane of its life but it was still quite enjoyable. As noted in the review above, the aromatics are inviting and impressive.

At around $20, I’m quite satisfied with this Emmolo Sauvignon blanc and would certainly be open to trying newer vintages. If you have a bottle of the 2012, it’s worth opening up and enjoying now but I probably wouldn’t hold onto it for more than another year or two.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!