Tag Archives: Viognier

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re secondary notes in this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

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The Sleeping Giant of Italian Wine

A couple of days ago, Harper’s UK posted an article about the dominance of Old World wine in the Chinese on-trade sector (restaurants, bars, etc.). While New World regions like Australia are making an active play, France still rules the roost with a 36.7% market share.

Mauro Sebaste Roero Arneis

But the French have been focusing on China for a few decades now–starting not long after France and China formally established diplomatic relations in 1974. Interest was strongly led by Bordeaux estates, which still make up a sizable chunk of the French-Chinese market today.

However, the most eye-raising stat from Harper’s report was the very solid share of Italian wines at 17.9%. Though, as the article noted, Italian wines still only account for 6.3% of total Chinese imports–which includes grocery and retail sales.

But considering that you don’t hear much about marketing Italian wines in China, there is plenty of room for optimism if I’m an Italian wine producer.

And it’s not just China that is seeing growth in Italian wine sales.

Italian wine sales in the US have been steadily growing as well–and, no, it’s not your grandma’s straw basket Chianti or cheap Pinot grigio that’s fueling that growth.

Luigi Pira's Dolcetto d'Alba

Luigi Pira’s Dolcetto d’Alba is a screaming good deal in the $12-16 range retail and is rarely seen above $35-40 at restaurants.

Instead, backed by a huge marketing push, Americans are discovering the vast diversity of Italian wines. With its bounty of unique and exciting grape varieties, as well as thousands of small producers, Italian wines are particularly enticing to Millennials who desperately seek something different from the same ole, same ole.

Even better, because Italian wines are still lingering in the straw basket shadow of fiascos past, many of these wines are crazily underpriced. Especially in the $10-20 range, you can often find bottles that way overdeliver on the price. Simply put, Italian wines are nailing the Millennial Math.

In the race to capture the hearts of the elusive Millennial market, Italian wine producers have a great head start. Wineries across the globe are well advised to pay attention to a sleeping giant that is poised to take more of their market share.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go check out your local wine shop and meander over to the Italian section.  Look for examples of these grapes below and see for yourself what the hype is all about.

Seven exciting Italian wine grapes to try.

Below are varieties that most good wine shops should carry at least one, if not multiple, examples of. All of the pictured and referenced wines are ones that I’ve personally found in the United States, though a few of them I did first try on producer visits to Italy. But, while they were all excellent, you don’t need to look for these particular producers. It’s more about just trying the grape.

BTW, if you want to geek out more about Italian grapes, I very highly recommend getting Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy as well as Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. That last recommendation currently has many used paperback options available on Amazon for less than $10 bucks. Great buy for wine students.

Aleatico

Fubbiano Aleatico

This Aleatico with dark chocolate covered raspberries was a heavenly pairing.

One of the oldest grapes in Italy, Aleatico can be found as far north as Elba and Tuscany and as far south as Sicily and Puglia. DNA evidence has shown that it has some parent-offspring relationship with Moscato bianco, but it is not yet known which grape is the parent and which is the child. Still, a good comparison of Aleatico is to think of a black Muscat with more racy acidity and spicy aromas of cinnamon.

Made in the passito style (with dried grape), this Fattoria di Fubbiano Aleatico reminded me of a richer and spicer ruby port. This wine was beautifully balanced with sweetness and deep dark fruit but still lively and fresh tasting. For around $25-30 for a 500ml bottle, it’s an excellent choice for that bedeviling pairing of red wine and chocolate.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers who want balance and complexity in their sweet dessert wines.

One of the biggest things that separate wine geeks from wine snobs is that geeks can appreciate good sweet wines. After dinner, many sweet wines are perfect as dessert themselves or as pairing partners. If you have a snob friend who always turns their nose up at sweet wine or who thinks Port is too alcoholic, challenge them with a great bottle of Aleatico.

Arneis

Photo by Virginia Scarsi. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The same fog conditions that are so valuable for maintaining freshness in Nebbiolo can help Arneis retain its acidity in the right locations.

In the 1980s, Arneis was one of Italy’s most popular white wines, but this Piemontese grape eventually took a back seat to the global thirst for Italian Pinot grigio (and later Moscato). Still, quality minded producers like Mauro Sebaste never lost faith in this fresh and aromatically floral grape.

In the Piemontese dialect, the name “Arneis” is derived from the word for “rascally individuals,” and the grape can be a bit of a rascal in the vineyard. Producers have to pay attention to the vine throughout the growing season and make sure that it is planted in the right locations to thrive. The sandy, chalky soils of the Roero on the left bank of the Tanaro has shown itself to be particularly well-suited for Arneis.

Before DOC/G laws were tightened, the low acid Arneis was often blended into the higher acid Barbera and even Nebbiolo of Barolo to help soften those wines and add aromatic lift. It was a practice not that dissimilar to the co-fermenting of Viognier with Syrah in Cote Rotie. The best examples of varietal Arneis attest to the wisdom of that old practice with gorgeous white floral notes, subtle herbalness and creamy mouthfeel.

A great choice for: Fans of white Rhones like Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.

But also red Rhone drinkers for that matter too. The combination of lovely floral notes with a mouth-filling body makes this another great white wine option for red wine drinkers.

Barbera

Mauro Veglio Barbera d'Alba

Pro tip: Producers who make really good Barolo and Barbaresco (like Mauro Veglio) will usually make a very kickass Barbera.
If you’re at a restaurant and don’t want to pay a fortune, compare the Barbera and Barolo/Barbaresco sections for producers.
I can guarantee that the Barbera will be a great buy.

One of the biggest surprises for me in visiting Piedmont was how much Barbera dominates the wine lists of local Piemontese restaurants. While Barolo and Barbaresco are the region’s pride and joy, Barbera is what they drink most regularly. And it makes sense because the grape produces immensely delicious wines that are very approachable young.

It’s also no shocker that Barbera is one of top 5 most planted grapes in Italy.  What is a little more surprising is that it is one of the 15 most widely planted red grapes in the world.

Unoaked examples are going to show lively acidity and be redolent of red fruits. Meanwhile, some oak will introduce more vibrant chocolate notes. In general, the wines from Barbara d’Alba tend to be more full-bodied with more prominent tannins.  While I find those from Barbara d’Asti to be more floral and velvety.

A great choice for: Folks getting knee deep and geeky into the Cru Beaujolais trend.

There are rocking bottles coming out of Beaujolais, but people are catching on and the prices are starting to rise. I actually find Barbera to be a little more consistent than Gamay. Plus, with it still being under the radar, amazing bottles can be easily found for less than $20.

Dolcetto

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

The “red stemmed” version of the Dolcetto has even made its way to the US. This cluster pic was taken at a vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA of Washington in mid-October just before harvest.

The “little sweet one” that is never sweet and rarely a little, light bodied wine. The name likely came from Dolcetto’s favoring as a table grape. I haven’t had the privilege of trying Dolcetto grapes off the vine. But I’ve heard from producers that they are quite a treat. Apparently, you can taste the bright red berry and plum flavors of Dolcetto as well as a subtle saline note that the best Piemontese examples exhibit.

While we don’t talk about clones as much for Dolcetto as we do for Sangiovese or Pinot noir, Dolcetto has quite a bit of clonal variation. In the vineyard, these can be readily apparent by looking at the cluster stalk. Most have a greenish stem, but one particular clone (or biotype as Ian d’Agata prefers) known as Dolcetto dal Peduncolo Rosso has a fiery red colored stem. It is a specialty of the Tassarolo area near Alessandria. However, it can be found in many vineyards in the Dolcetto d’Alba zone as well.

The Dolcetto d’Alba area tends to produce the biggest, most full-bodied Dolcettos with a mix of red and dark fruit. While not as tannic as the Nebbiolo of great Barolo and Barbaresco, these wines will have some heft. In the Dolcetto di Dogliani area, the wines tend to exhibit more floral notes. This is also the area where I pick up that saline minerality the most.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers wanting something between a Pinot noir and a Merlot.

While, undoubtedly, more tannic and bigger bodied, I get a lot of Pinot quality in some Dolcetto. Particularly with the floral and minerally nature of Dolcetto di Dogliani. However, those from the Dolcetto d’Alba area can have more opulent dark fruit. With oak influence, even some chocolate notes can come out. You wouldn’t ever confuse a Dolcetto for a plush, hedonistic Napa Merlot. However, the lively acidity and freshness can hit a lot of pleasure spots for Washington Merlot fans.

Falanghina

Donnachaira Falanghina

A great white wine option in the $14-16 range for pairing with medium to heavy body food dishes.

This is another ancient Italian wine grape with likely Roman origins. However, the association of Falanghina with the famous Roman wine Falernian is probably misplaced.

Part of this is because there are so many different types of Falanghinas out there. Ampelographers are not yet sure how many are different clones/biotypes or if they’re distinct grape varieties. For the most part, what you’ll see in the US is Falanghina from the Benevento IGP in Campania.

In the rich clay and volcanic tufa soils of Campania, Falanghina produces heady, full-bodied wines with tree fruits and floral notes. Some examples can also have a subtle leafy greenness. It’s not quite New Zealand Sauvignon blanc green but more reminiscent of an excellent white Bordeaux.

A great choice for: White Bordeaux fans!

But as with the Arneis above, I can also see Falanghina capturing the attention of white Rhone drinkers as well. It definitely has the body and structure to appeal to many wine lovers. Likewise, drinkers of unoaked or lightly oaked (but not buttery) Chards can find this wine to be a charming change of pace as well. It will pair with many of the same food dishes.

Friulano

Schioppettino Friulano

I had to hunt for online retailers that offered this Schioppettino Friulano but, even paying a premium, this was still an absolute steal of a wine for under $25.

When I had my big cellar-clean out parties before moving to France, this Schioppettino Friulano rocked my world. I was pretty much dragging this bottle to everyone at the tasting and telling them that they had to try this wine. If you ever wanted a textbook example of minerality, this was it.

Formerly known as Tocai Friulano, legend has it that Italians shared this grapevine with the 13th century Hungarian King Bela IV where it was once used for that country’s famous Tokay wines. Ampelographers and wine historians now believe that there is little truth to those tales. But the racy acidity, green apples, nutty almonds notes and flinty minerality of Friulano is not that far off from a dry Hungarian Furmint.

A great choice for: Fans of exciting, minerally whites.

Dry Riesling, Chablis, Sancerre. You’re probably not going to confuse Friulano with any of those. However, there is a kinship in the electric way that all these wines dance on your tongue. There’s a nerviness about them that is just absolutely intoxicating once you find a great example.

Another tell-tale distinction between wine geeks and wine snobs is the cyclic journey that geeks take in appreciation of great whites. Both snobs and geeks often start out drinking white wines. Maybe sweet Rieslings before moving on to the Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Pinot grigios of the world. Then comes the dabbling in red wines. Here most snobs get stuck with the occasional allowance for the “appetizer” white wines of Great Burgundies and what not. All before you get down to the seriousness of red wines, of course.

But wine geeks eventually circle back to the wonderful world of whites. They can appreciate the seriousness and winemaking skill that making great white wines entails. Without a doubt, Friulano is a wine geek’s wine.

Dry Lambrusco

Dry Lambrusco

While it’s great with my wife’s homemade Margherita pizza, dry Lambrusco would elevate even Totino’s Party Pizza.

Yes, dry Lambrusco. We’re not talking about the Riunite or Cella Lambruscos that your Aunt has hidden under the cupboard. If you want the surest sign that you’re shopping in a good wine shop, it will most definitely be the presence of dry or Secco Lambrusco. Often with a slight effervescence, this is one of the most perfect pizza wines that you can find.

June’s #ItalianFWT Twitter chat–which I recently profiled– focused on Lambrusco with a lot of great write-ups and reviews of different wines (almost all of which can be found in the US). I highly recommend checking out the #ItalianFWT hashtag which featured links to many great blog posts. A few of my favs were:

The Wine Predator’s Bugno Martino’s Organic Lambrusco Defy Expectations.

The Asian Test Kitchen’s TOP 5 FAST FOODS PAIRINGS WITH LAMBRUSCO.

Linda Whipple’s SIPPING LAMBRUSCO IN STRAWBERRY SEASON

A great choice for: Pizza lovers.

While the blogs listed above gave other great pairing ideas, my heart still goes to pairing dry Lambrusco with pizza. The tang and sweetness of the tomato sauce pairs gorgeously with the bite and rambunctious berry fruitiness of Lambrusco. Plus the saltiness of the cheese and toppings is the perfect foil for the tannins and subtle earthiness.

This really is one of those magical pairings that everyone should try. You can see how vividly the wine and food change when you have them separate compared to having them together.

Want more? Check out these 60 Second Reviews of a few more Italian wine favorites

60 Second Wine Review — Lanzavecchia Essentia . A crazy delicious Nebbiolo, Barbera and Merlot blend that I’m still smarting over not buying more bottles of.

60 Second Wine Review — 2008 Ferrari Perlé. A $30-35 traditional method sparkler that blows most mass-produced negociant Champagnes in the $40-50 range out of the water.

60 Second Wine Review — Armani Colle Ara Pinot Grigio. Think all Italian Pinot grigios are cheap and watery? Think again.

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Winery Tasting Notes Done Right

JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards did a terrific write-up on the problem with winery tasting notes. If you own a winery, this is a must read. Tasting notes are certainly one of the necessary evils of selling wine.

Photo by Simon A. Eugster. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Next time you’re at a wine shop, look at back labels. Try to count how many times you see the words chocolate, mocha or cacao used in tasting notes.

For wine students, particularly those studying for Unit 1 of the WSET Diploma on the Business of Wine, it’s helpful to critically examine the usefulness of these notes.

Whether on the back label or website, we should ask if tasting notes really help consumers in selecting wine. Do flourished descriptions of flavors, bouquet and mouthfeel help distinguish one winery’s wine from its thousands of competitors?

Do they answer the important question of “Why should I buy this wine?”

Probably not.

In his post, Williams notes the usual results of these tasting notes.

Enter the wine marketer. We interject ourselves into the equation by telling you what to do, and how you’re going to do it. If I say, “now this Cabernet has a really nice chocolate note,” there are three potential outcomes that I think are the most likely:

1.) The power of suggestion is very strong. If I say chocolate, you taste chocolate.
2.) You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. Since I am speaking from a position of authority, you decide you’re doing something wrong, and slowly nod your head in faux agreement.
3.) You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. You are suddenly aware that your eyebrow is twitching because you’ve just realized that I must be full of $*%#. You slowly nod your head in faux agreement.

None of these are good outcomes.
— JJ Williams, Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?, 12/11/18

What are the benefits of telling consumers that a wine has notes of chocolate? Sure, there may be a halo effect on the wine from positive associations with chocolate. That may help someone pick up a bottle. But there is also a risk of negative associations backfiring too. Back in my retail days, I once had a customer get turned off by a wine described as chocolaty because she was lactose intolerant. (Yeah, I know.) But you get the same issues with virtually every descriptor.

If you think of the tasting note, on a website or bottle, as valuable real estate—are overly common (and, ultimately, subjective) words like “chocolate” truly worth that space?

Putting That Real Estate To Work.

Photo by Aromaster. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Some winery tasting notes feel like they threw darts at the Aroma Wheel and wrote down what they hit. I once had a California red blend with a back label describing flavors of orange blossom, fig, hazelnut, chocolate (*ding*) and hay.

Consumers pick up bottles to read back labels and will often visit wineries’ websites to buy wine or find more details. This space is valuable. Extremely so.

As much attention and care that a winery puts into crafting stylish front labels and web-page design, should be put towards their tasting notes as well. Wineries need to leverage this space.

Writing the same boring tasting notes populated with platitudes and whatever descriptors they get from the Wine Aroma Wheel is not going to cut-it. Wineries have to give consumers a reason to take home their wine over the multitudes of other bottles being described with those same tasting notes.

A tasting note should convey what sets one “balanced, Bordeaux-style wine [that] coats the palate with a velvety richness and fine tannin structure” apart from every other balanced, velvety rich and finely tannic wine.

Otherwise, it is just blowing the same useless marketing BS that virtually every other bottle is blowing. Where is the consumer being helped in this?

Outside the Bottle — In the Consumer’s Cart

Williams highlights a brilliant approach that Kiona uses in crafting their tasting notes. They categorize their “wine speak” into what relates to “Outside the Bottle” details and what pertains to the more vague and subjective “Inside the Bottle” experiences.

1.) Outside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that is interesting about a wine that happens outside the bottle. Vineyards, geography, growing philosophy, winemaking goals, winemaking process, blending process, etc.
2.) Inside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that the drinker experiences once the cork is pulled.

We make a concerted effort to talk about the “OtB” aspects of a wine only. This extends up and down our operation, including our website, our tech sheets, our tasting room collateral, our employee training and our general vernacular. In the rare circumstances where we dabble in “ItB” language, it’s almost always in generalities. You might read something along the lines of “fresh black fruit characteristic”, but never “brambly vine-ripened summer blackberries.” — JJ Williams, Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?, 12/11/18

Kiona's Lemberger tasting note

Example of Kiona’s “Outside the Bottle” approach for their Lemberger.

Inside the bottle, almost all wine is the same–especially before a consumer pulls the cork. It has potential and possibilities but every wine is promising potential and possibilities.

However, what is outside the bottle makes the wine unique. It’s the people, the place, the story and craftsmanship that sets it apart from each and every other bottle.

That is real estate that pays for its space.

Examples of Tasting Notes That Work

On their website, Kiona has several examples where they use “Outside the Bottle” tasting notes to make their wines distinctive and interesting. One I particularly like is for their Lemberger shown above. This is a bloody hard wine to sell because of the name. But Kiona gives some intriguing history as well as details about what makes their Lemberger different from other domestic examples and Austrian Blaufränkisch.

Personality Not Platitudes
Upside Down Malbec's tasting note

I don’t know why but “Dead Poplar” sounds like an awesome vineyard name.

Upsidedown Wine by Seth & Audrey Kitzke note that their 2014 Gold Drop Malbec is made from one of the fastest growing varieties in Washington State. That piques curiosity. Why are people so excited about Washington Malbec? Maybe I should buy a bottle and find out.

The tasting note also shares that the wine has some Petit Verdot (another grape getting a lot of buzz) blended in to make it distinctive from other Malbecs. Additionally they highlight the small production (only 98 cases) and single vineyard sourcing. While it does have the typical big dark fruits and pepper descriptors of many other Malbecs, those notes act as side bars rather than the main feature.

For their 2016 Viognier, Serrano Wines injects a ton of personality into their tasting note by sharing that this wine was inspired by drinking Guigal’s Le Doriane Condrieu.

Instead of being grown with the typical cordon or guyot vine training methods that most domestic Viogniers use, Serrano points out that they’re using a special tee-pee (or eschalla) training common in Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. (Their website has pictures of this unique–and very labor intensive–vine training.)

While many consumers are not going to care much about vine training, Serrano’s tasting note works by highlighting why the consumer should care–i.e. why this bottle of Viognier is different from all the other options they have.

That is leveraging every bit of precious real estate to stand out from the pack.
Serrano Viognier tasting note

When evident care is put into crafting a great tasting note that tells a story, it tells the consumer that a lot of care went into crafting the wine as well.

Instead of being a “necessary evil”, tasting notes can be tools.

Wineries should follow the advice of JJ Williams of Kiona. They shouldn’t farm this task to marketing departments writing the same blathering blurbs. They need to think “outside the bottle” and use these notes to tell consumers their stories.

Of course, wineries will benefit by selling more wines. But consumers will benefit as well from better tasting notes.

Instead of standing in an aisle, reading label after label of fruit-forward, divinely complex, approachable and exceptionally food-friendly and layered aromas of black currant, blueberry and cherry [that] are accentuated by an authentic barrel bouquet of hazelnut, cocoa powder [ding], and dark roasted coffee, they actually get words that have value and meaning.

They get words that tell them something–about the people and place this wine comes from. Most importantly, they get answers to the question that all consumers have when they pick up a bottle.

Why should I buy this wine?

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Exploring the Cascade Valley at WBC18

As I was looking back at my notes and photos from the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference, I realized that I had a serious Day 2 omission. That Friday was a jam pack day. Between the panel on Wine Blogging vs Influencing, Lewis Perdue’s keynote speech and the mystery dinner excursion, I totally forgot to note all the fun discoveries at the lunch sponsored by Cascade Valley Wine Country.

Which is a downright shame on my part because this area is a hot bed for great family wineries. It was also the source of one of the best wines I had at the entire conference.

Some Geekery

Located in north-central Washington State, Cascade Valley Wine Country includes the winemaking hubs of Lake Chelan, Wenatchee and Leavenworth. The area is home to over 50 wineries and many more satellite tasting rooms.

In some ways, the Cascade Valley Wine Country is more geography–rather than terroir–oriented. Just like Woodinville Wine Country, the vast majority of wines made in the area comes from fruit sourced elsewhere in the state like Red Mountain, Wahluke Slope, Horse Heavens and Walla Walla.

However, that dynamic is changing. Several of the wines I tried at the Wine Bloggers Conference (like Hard Roe to Hoe’s Lake Chelan Pinot, Tipsy Canyon’s Viognier and Stemilt Creek’s red blend) came from fruit grown in the valley. With the establishment of Lake Chelan’s own AVA in 2009 and the potential for Wenatchee to get one, the growth potential in this area is immense.

It’s particularly intriguing for an industry grappling with the impact of climate change. While eastern Washington is a lot warmer than many people give credit for, the higher elevation sites around Wenatchee and Leavenworth and the moderate lake effect of Chelan does offer a more temperate climate compared to the very hot AVAs of Red Mountain and Wahluke Slope.

The Ancient Lakes region south of Wenatchee was designated as an AVA and has already shown an affinity for producing outstanding cool-climate wines.

It’s very likely that the future of the Washington wine industry is emerging here in the Cascade Valley.

Wines I Tried

In addition to the lunch sponsored by Cascade Valley Wine Country, I also got a chance to try some of the region’s wines at the speed blogging events on day 2 and day 3.

Hard Row to Hoe 2016 Pinot noir from Lake Chelan

Outside of maybe Otis Kenyon, this winery has the best backstory in Washington. Let’s just say the ladies of Moulin Rouge would be proud. If you are in Manson, it’s well worth the visit to the Phelps family winery just to experience it and hear more of this place’s fascinating history.

Pinot noir is a tough grape to market in Washington. As I noted in my review of Whidbey Island’s Pinot noir from Puget Sound, few Washington Pinots have impressed me. But I do see a lot of potential in this Lake Chelan Pinot noir. It had bright acidity, good balance with oak and nice juicy fruit. It just didn’t quite deliver the depth and layers that you can find from Oregon for the same $40 mark. I strongly suspect that vine age will play an important role because the climate and terroir of Lake Chelan seems, on paper, to be ideal for Pinot.

Succession 2017 Viognier from the Columbia Valley

Owned by Brock and Erica Lindsay, Succession Wines was named this year by Wine Press Northwest as the 2018 Washington Winery to Watch.

Their tiny production of 138 cases of Viognier definitely demonstrates the very fruity, tropical side of the grape. At around $26, I can see these appealing to fans of Pinot gris. I couldn’t find any technical notes but I suspect this wine has a touch of residual sugar which amplifies the fruitiness.

Tipsy Canyon 2017 Viognier from the Columbia Valley

Owned by the Garvin family, this Viognier is sourced from the Antoine Creek Vineyard north of Lake Chelan. That vineyard is also the source of an outstanding sparkling Viognier made by Cairdeas Winery as well.

I will admit that this Tipsy Canyon Viognier was more of my personal style than the Succession one. It tasted noticeably drier with crisp medium-plus acidity and a little stoney minerality. You wouldn’t confuse it for a Condrieu but it is a bottle that you could empty very easily in one sitting.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have much of a website or web presence so I couldn’t find out what this Viognier costs. For myself, I would rank this just slightly behind àMaurice’s sinfully delicious Viognier that runs $28-35. If this Tipsy Canyon falls into the $23-28 range, I would have no problem buying multiple bottles of it.

Stemilt Creek 2014 Boss Lady Red from the Columbia Valley

Founded in 2001 by Kyle and Jan Mathison in Wenatchee, Stemilt Creek sources primarily from their own estate vineyard that they farm sustainably. The 2014 Boss Lady is a blend of 46% Syrah, 30% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot.

I am a huge fan of the “Hermitage’d” Bordeaux-style wines that add Syrah to the traditional Bordeaux blend. It takes the structure and dark fruit you typically associate with Cab-Merlot and adds gorgeous spiciness. At $24, this Boss Lady Red from Stemilt Creek is a killer value that should probably be priced more in the $30-35 range.

Baroness Cellars 2016 Riesling from Red Mountain.

Founded by Danielle Clements, Baroness Cellars is based in Leavenworth where Clements makes food-friendly European style wines.

While details on this 2016 Red Mountain Riesling is scare, I’m incredibly fascinated with how well she succeeded here. Though off-dry in style, this wine still had crackling acidity that reminded me a lively German Kabinett. Really surprising to see this came from the very warm Red Mountain AVA.

Put Chateau Faire Le Pont on your radars

By far one of the most impressive wines at the entire conference was the 2014 Chateau Faire Le Pont Sangiovese from the Wahluke Slope.

Making good quality Sangiovese (especially domestically) is tough. Despite the proliferation of Chiantis, Brunellos and other Tuscan wines, the grape is actually rather finicky to grow outside of its native Italian homeland. The Antinori family invested millions into their Atlas Peak Antica project–feeling that was the ideal spot for Sangiovese–only to have to admit defeat and move many of those parcels over to Cabernet Sauvignon. For a family with 26 generations of winemaking experience, that’s a tough pill to swallow.

Can Washington do better? Leonetti has been making a tasty Sangiovese sourced from vineyards in Walla Walla but that bottle is usually $80+. For rosé, it has shown great promise such as this delicious example from Davenport Cellars sourced from Ciel du Cheval fruit on Red Mountain. Kaella Winery in Woodinville also used to make a great Sangio rosé from the same vineyard before an ownership change altered its style.

Wine Notes

The 2014 Chateau Faire Le Pont Sangiovese had a terrific medium-plus bouquet with a mix of bright red cherries and savory spice notes. Ripe medium-plus tannins gave it great structure and held up the full-body fruit of the wine well. The medium-plus acidity enhanced the savory spices and contributed a mouthwatering quality which lingered on the long finish. Sangiovese’s best role is usually on the table and this was certainly a winner at lunch with several bloggers going from table to table to find more bottles to finish off.

Again, details are unfortunately scarce outside of noting it was sourced from the Wahluke Slope and that it runs for around $40. Well worth that price.

Other Cascade Valley wineries I’ve enjoyed in the past

Ancestry Cellars (Manson)

Full disclosure, I went to winemaking school with Jason Morin so I’ve had many opportunities to try his great food friendly wines. His 2017 Pinot gris, in particular, hits it out of the park and shows that not all Northwest Pinot gris have to been on the fruity, slightly sweet side.

Cairdeas Winery (Chelan)

Another disclosure, Charlie Lybecker is also a Northwest Wine Academy alum and I’ve been a big fan of his wines for a while. His Rhones are outstanding and the 2014 Caislén an Pápa Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blend was one my top wines from the 2017 Taste Washington Grand Tasting.

Karma Vineyards (Chelan)

By far, some of the best domestic sparklers in the US. I may only rank Schramsberg in California above them but, honestly, the separation is not much at all. Their wines featured at this year’s Taste Washington The New Vintage made dealing with that hellish cattle-call almost worth it.

Seriously, if you love bubbles. Check them out.

Boudreaux Cellars (Leavenworth)

Rob Newsom is one of the most interesting figures in Washington wine. A trained musician, tasting a bottle of Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon while passing through Walla Walla turned his life around. He learned a lot about winemaking from the Figgins family of Leonetti which he’s used to produce very big, almost Napa-like wines in Washington. I’ve yet to have a bottle of Boudreaux that didn’t beg to be paired with a juicy prime rib. If you like big, bold wines then you need to seek out Boudreaux.

Recommendations for Cascade Valley Wineries

By far, one of the biggest barriers to success for the Cascade Valley wineries is getting their message and branding out.

I would definitely advise them to by looking at what message their websites are sending out. While tasting room traffic and one-on-one dialogue is great, in today’s digital age there will be a lot of customers who are first introduced to a brand via their online presence–including social media.

As much as I enjoyed the wines from this region, I have to admit that writing this post was incredibly difficult. I had a heck of a time trying to find more info about the wineries and wines featured. As a geek, I acknowledge that I sometimes have to play detective and sleuth out details from a variety of sources but 99.9% of wine consumers aren’t going to put in that same effort. You have to make it easy for them to find you and learn more about your wines.

While there are certainly great websites from Cascade Valley wineries (check out Cairdeas and Hard Row to Hoe in particular), most of the sites had very little information or were difficult to navigate. At the very least, tech notes of current and past vintages with details on vineyards and farming practice would go a long way towards filling in the blanks. Beyond that, it would be fantastic to hear more about the stories of the wineries and what make this region so unique and dynamic.

The future looks bright for Cascade Valley Wine Country, folks just need a little help to find these hidden gems of Washington wines.

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60 Second Wine Review — Santa Julia Torrontes (Tasted Blind)

A few quick thoughts on the 2017 Santa Julia Torrontes from Mendoza, Argentina.

The Geekery

Santa Julia is made by the Zuccardi family who founded their winery in the Maipú region of Mendoza in 1963. Julia, the wine’s namesake, is the granddaughter of founder Alberto Zuccardi.

The family originally sold wine in bulk to larger producers until a financial crisis in the 1980s saw many of those bottlers go out of business. At this point, the Zuccardis moved towards bottling their own production.

Today the Zuccardis produce 2.2 million cases of wine from 1001 ha (2474 acres). The family’s vineyards are primarily in the Santa Rosa and Uco Valley sub-regions of Mendoza with 180 ha (445 acres) still in Maipú.

The Santa Julia line was created in the 1990s to highlight the diversity of Argentine wine. While there is a Malbec made, the brand features Viognier, Pinot grigio, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Torrontes.

While the Zuccardis’ main Torrontes comes from the Salta region, the Santa Julia comes from the warmer Mendoza area. All the fruit for Santa Julia is sustainably farmed with several of the vineyards certified organic.

In addition to the Santa Julia and main Zuccardi brand, the family also produces wine under their Fusión label.

The Wine

Photo by Zeynel Cebeci. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Very fragrant orange blossom in this wine.

(Tasted blind as part of a Somm Select flight)

High intensity nose. Lots of orange blossoms and white peach notes. A little lychee and rose petal has me thinking Gewurztraminer.

On the palate, the wine is still fruit forward. No signs of minerality. Medium acidity and medium body. Slight oiliness on the mouthfeel. Maybe Albarino? Seems more New World. Short finish.

The Verdict

I ultimately went with an Oregon Gewurztraminer and was, of course, wrong. While the lychee and rose petal was on the nose, it didn’t carry through to the palate. Nor did it have the “spice” note that hints at Gertie.

At $10-14, the Santa Julia Torrontes won’t wow you with complexity but it is a tasty and refreshing drinker.

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WBC18 Day 2 Quick Impressions

Tom Wark (right speaking) of Fermentation Wine Blog and James Forsyth of Vinous/Delectable

Update: Check out my post Exploring the Cascade Valley at WBC18 about the wines featured at the lunch this day as well as my Day 3 overview for more details about the conference.

I’m darting away from the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference activities to jot down a few quick thoughts from yesterday’s events. To see my thoughts from Day 1 check out my post here as well as my pre-conference worryfest here.

While a lot of those fears ended up unfounded, Day 2 introduced quite a few meaty questions for me to gnaw on.

It seems like an unofficial theme for Day 2 was “Why Are You Blogging?” with the morning panel and keynote speaker prompting a lot of inward reflection. I will admit that this is a question that has been wrangling around my head for a while now and will probably be the source of much rumination on the long drive home tomorrow.

Wine Bloggers vs Wine Influencers (vs The World)

This panel, moderated by Thaddeus Buggs of The Minority Wine Report, featured James Forsyth of Vinous/Delectable, Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communications and Tom Wark of the Fermentation Wine Blog.

The aim of the panel was to distinguish what may separate a blogger from an influencer as well as how the future of social media and niche apps like Delectable could impact both.

I may write up a fuller review of this panel but there were three big takeaways that I got that really caught my attention.

1.) From Michael Wangbickler

Social media isn’t an alternative to blogging but it is another channel. While its ideal to utilize multiple channels, some are more tailored to certain audiences than others. For instance, Instagram seems to appeal more to image driven and younger generations while Facebook tends to cater to more lifestyle driven and older audiences. Twitter appeals to a diverse demographic that prefers one on one interactions.

Thaddeus Buggs (far left) of the Minority Wine Report and Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communication (left seated).

Questions for me to explore:

Who is my audience? This is something I will definitely be pondering more. I think I can eliminate the image driven side. I personally don’t view wine as an “image accessory” nor do I write like it is. To me, wine is about enjoyment rather than enhancing status or image.

I feel like my style caters more towards the wine student and general enthusiasts but who knows? Maybe you guys can help me with some thoughts in the comments.

2.) From Tom Wark

If you are going to blog then you should focus on something that you can be the champion of and commit to posting at least once a week, if not more. Don’t be a generalist. Be the go-to person for something.

Questions for me to explore:

What do I want to champion? Or maybe to put it another way, what drives my passion that can fuel a commitment to write steadily about a topic? This is a dozy for me to chomp on because I can’t really say that I have had a focus with this blog at all. I’ve definitely followed more the generalist approach, writing about whatever has tickled my fancy at a particular moment–even dipping my toes into the world of spirits and beer occasionally.

Do I need to hunker down and focus on something? What can I possible be the “go-to person” for? My initial instinct is to focus more on the wine student aspect and write about the info that I have been seeking out for my studies. In some ways that has always been an impetus for me in writing. Wine info is scattered across the internet and books and I initially started writing wine articles for Wikipedia as a way to consolidate and digest that info into one source.

Do I continue that path with things like my Keeping Up With The Joneses of Burgundy series, Bordeaux Futures and expanded research articles on figures like Martin Ray, Bob Betz, W.B. Bridgman, etc?

3.) From James Forysth

Niche apps like Delectable are ways that writers can build credibility and authority with publishing their reviews as well as get useful backlinks.

Questions for me to explore:

Eh? Reviews are something that will probably always have me conflicted. To be 100% brutally honest, I really don’t think anyone should give a flying flip about what I think about a wine. This is also why the idea of being “an influencer” never appealed to me. If you read my review and go out and buy a bottle of wine, you are spending your money and you will be the one drinking the bottle–so really only your opinion should matter.

This is why I very deliberately organize my reviews to have my opinion shoved down to the bottom. For me, the story of the wine and whatever cool or unique details I discover are far more important.

I will share my opinion on the relative value of the wine versus its cost only because I’ve spent probably way too much money on wine and have learned a few lessons the hard way. I say “relative value” because ultimately we each have to decide on our own if a wine is worth paying what the asking price is–like $2600+ for a bottle of Petrus. That’s a decision that I can never make for you–nor should you ever want me to.

The Wines of Rías Baixas

Master Sommelier Chris Tanghe

I was looking forward to this event moderated by Master Sommelier Chris Tanghe. Since I’ve joined the Somm Select Blind 6 subscription, Albarino has been a royal pain in the rear for me to pick out blind. I confuse it so often with several different wines–Oregon Pinot gris, California Viognier, Argentine Torrontes–that I haven’t honed in yet on what’s my blind spot with this variety.

My Albarino issue is probably fodder for a future post but, after trying 8 vastly different examples of the variety from the Spanish wine region of Rías Baixas, I now have at least one razor sharp tell-tale of the variety to look for.

Salinity.

Every single one has this very precise and vivid streak of salinity–even the examples that had a lot of oak influence. While the highly floral and perfume examples will still probably steer me towards Torrontes while the weightier examples will trip up me thinking about Pinot gris or Viognier depending on the fruit profiles, it may ultimately be the salt that leads me home.

Keynote Speaker — Lewis Perdue

Lewis Perdue has a long history in journalism and the wine industry–working for the Washington Post and founding Wine Business Monthly. He currently manages the website Wine Industry Insights which is most prominently known for its daily email News Fetch that is curated by Perdue and Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino).

The bulk of Perdue’s very excellent keynote was about the importance of bloggers building and maintaining trust with their audience. He made the very salient point that admist all the noise of traditional and digital media, ultimately the readers are buying into you and you have to demonstrate that you are worth their time and attention. A big part of that worth is your credibility.

From here Perdue highlighted several pratfalls that befall bloggers who seek out paid promotion opportunities from wineries (are they being upfront with their readers and the Federal Trade Commission?) and noted that the more “the sell” increases in your writings, the less credible you are.

Ultimately each blogger has to answer the question “Why are you blogging?” Are you trying to make money? Trying to inform? Trying to build a reputation?

So….why am I blogging?

I know I’ve very fortunate in that I don’t have to try and scrape together a living from blogging. My wife is a manager in the tech field which safely covers all our bills (especially the wine bills). Listening to Perdue’s keynote as well as comments from the panel earlier and the seminars I took on Day 3 of the Wine Bloggers Conference has only solidified in my mind that I really don’t want to bother at all with influencing/paid promotion junk.

Which probably takes my blog off of a lot of PR and wineries’ radars but oh well. If your winery is really interesting and doing cool stuff like Tablas Creek or Domaine Henri Gouges, I’ll probably find you eventually and be glad to spend my own money on your product.

I know that if it lives up to the hype, I’m going to have a heck of a lot more fun writing about it and telling others than if a winery came knocking on my digital door wanting me to tout some mass-produced Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Frankly if you ever see me writing multiple posts about some bulk brand, dear readers, don’t go and buy the wine. That’s my distress signal. I’ve been kidnap. Send help.

But back to Perdue’s question.

Why am I blogging? I suppose it is to build a reputation and establish credibility. I’ve always been a big believer in the mantra “Show, don’t tell.”

Yes, I’m working on my various certifications and I would like to someday be a Master of Wine but I really don’t want my credibility to rest on some initials. I’d rather get out there into the world and prove my mettle by letting my work speak for itself.

Credibility is extremely important to me which is why I’m an obsessive fact checker and like to litter my posts with frequent links and attributions to other worthwhile sources (something that gets Perdue’s seal of approval). I want to get it right and if I have it wrong, I want to learn where I erred so I can be better the next time.

Live Red Wine Blogging

This was crazy chaotic and I need to hurry up and wrap up this post so I can get to the next round for Whites & Rosé. While I tweeted and Instagram about a few things, the wines that are really worth a more in-depth review I will seek out bottles to purchase for a later post.

Out of the 10 wines I tried, the ones that I will definitely be seeking out are:

In fact, I already bought a bottle! Kind of made it easy with the Mansion Creek tasting room in the Marcus Whitman hotel.

Mansion Creek Cellars 2015 Red Dog — 70% Tinta Cão (hence the name), 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Grenache-Syrah. Super cool blend and great back story with the Iberian grape varieties.

Stone Hill 2015 Chambourcin — This wine made this Missouri girl super nostalgic but also super impressed. It was fairly early in the tasting event and I was spitting so I can’t blame palate fatigue but I don’t remember Missouri Chambourcin being this tasty.

Tertulia Cellars 2014 The Great Schism — This winery thoroughly impressed me at this past February’s tasting of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in Seattle. They poured the 2013 release of the Great Schism which ended up being my wine of the event and this 2014 was just as good. If you are a fan of savory and complex Rhones then this winery needs to be on your radar.

Mystery Wine Country Excursion — L’Ecole 41 and Woodward Canyon

Rick Small (left) of Woodward Canyon and Marty Chubb (right) of L’Ecole

I pulled the red ticket and boy did I score with my mystery location being jointly hosted by the crème de la crème of Washington wine. I can’t do the evening justice in a short blurb so I will save my thoughts for a future post.

But I will say that this event was the perfect fulfillment of my original expectation from my pre-conference post of wanting to hear other opinions from non-Washington bloggers about our local wines.

I really enjoyed listening to the perspectives of Las Vegas-based blogger Louisa from The Grape Geeks and Dallas-based Diane and Nathan Roberts of Positive Vines as they enjoyed these benchmark Washington wines.

I eagerly look forward to reading their write-up of the event (as well as Earle Dutton of Equality 365 who was my dining companion) and comparing notes.

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Getting Geeky with Conundrum Rose

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2016 Conundrum Rosé.

The Background

Conundrum is made by the Wagner family who founded Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley in 1971.

Along with Caymus and Conundrum, the Wagners have developed a portfolio of wine brands made by Chuck Wagner and his kids, Charlie and Jenny, including Mer Soleil, Old Cannery Row, Red Schooner, 1858 Wines and Emmolo.

Chuck’s other son, Joe Wagner, also makes several wines with Copper Cane Wine & Provisions including Belle Glos, Elouan, Tuli, Beran, Torial, Carne Humana, The Willametter, Napa Quilt and BÖEN.

With the Caymus Special Selection, the Wagners hold the distinction of being the only winery to produce a wine that has twice been named the number one wine on Wine Spectator’s yearly Top 100 list for the 1984 and 1990 vintages.

The Conundrum series of wines were introduced in 1989. That first wine was a white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, Viognier and Muscat Canelli/Moscato. Over the years the brand has expanded to include a red blend (primarily Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon), a sparkling wine (Pinot gris, Viognier, Muscat Canelli and Chenin blanc) and, since 2016, a rosé.

Vineyards and Production

The fruit for Conundrum are sourced throughout California. Vineyard sources over the years have included the North Coast wine regions of Napa and Solano County, the central coast areas of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Barbara County as well as the inland vineyards of Tulare County south of Fresno.

My Conundrum hat autographed by Chuck Wagner.

The wines are made in Monterey County by Chuck’s son Charlie with Jon Bolta assisting and overseeing the white wine production.

The 2016 Conundrum rosé is made from the Valdiguié grape sourced from Paso Robles.

It is not widely published how many cases of the rosé are produced but previous vintages of the Conundrum Red have topped 120,000 cases and nearly 90,000 cases for the white.

The Grape

The Valdiguié grape originated in Southwest France, likely in either the Tarn-et-Garonne or Lot-et-Garonne departments. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first documented mention of the grape, under the name of Valdiguier, appeared only in 1884 which leads to a few theories about Valdiguié’s origins.

One theory involves a landowner from the late 18th century in the village of Puylaroque in the Tarn-et-Garonne named Valdéguier who propagated different grape varieties in his courtyard garden. Another theory centers around a grower named Jean-Baptiste Valdiguié. In 1845, he had a vineyard in the hamlet of Tressens near Puylaroque where he may have propagated the grape.

Around this same time, in the neighboring department of Lot-et-Garonne, there was a vineyard worker named Guillaume Valdiguier who may have propagated Valdiguié from an abandon vineyard once owned by the Templiers monastery in Aujols.

Map created by קרלוס הגדול . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Garonne river (highlighted in box) flows through Southwest France and eventually meets up with the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux. It is likely that the Valdiguié grape originated somewhere in this area.

A parent-offspring relationship between Valdiguié and the nearly extinct Fronton grape Mérille of the Lot-et-Garonne has been suggested by ampelographers but so far has not been confirmed by DNA analysis. Prevalent in Southwest France in the 19th century until phylloxera, Mérille was once one of the minor blending grapes of Bordeaux.

In the early 20th century, Valdiguié’s tolerance to powdery mildew and reliable yields saw its plantings greatly expand. It reached a peak of 4,908 ha (12,128 acres) in 1958. But the grape eventually lost ground to other more popular plantings. By 2008, there were only 145 ha (358 acres) planted in Southwest France, Provence and the Languedoc.

Valdiguié in California

In California, growers misidentified Valdiguié as the Gamay grape of Beaujolais (Gamay noir). It’s productivity help the grape became a popular planting in the decades following Prohibition. Over 6000 acres of “Napa Gamay”  was planted by 1977. The grape was often fermented using the carbonic maceration method commonly used for Beaujolais Nouveau to produce fruity, easy drinking wines with moderate alcohol.

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

While Valdiguié is grown in several places in California, the fruit for the 2016 vintage of the Conundrum rosé was sourced from Paso Robles. Pictured is a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard from the region.

In 1980, the French ampelographer Pierre Galet noted that Napa Gamay was actually Valdiguié.  Napa Gamay is still officially recognized as a synonym for the variety. However, most producers today label their wines as Valdiguié.

As in France, acreage of Valdiguié began steadily dropping as other varieties earned greater focus and market share. As of 2017 there was 251 acres of the grape. Significant plantings can be found in Napa Valley, Suisan Valley, Solano County, Lodi, Redwood Valley, Paso Robles, Mendocino County, Monterey and the Madera AVA.

In the Calistoga AVA of Napa, the Frediani vineyard has old vine Valdiguié that were planted as early as 1935.

Beyond Conundrum, other notable producers of Valdiguié include Forlorn Hope and Driscoll Wine Co.’s vineyard designated wines from Frediani Vineyard, J. Lohr and the pétillant naturel (Pet-Nat) Valdiguié made by Cruse Wine Co. and Broc Cellars.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of cantaloupe fruit and subtle rind-like earthiness. There is also red fruit that isn’t as defined or dominant as that melon and rind note.

On the palate, the cantaloupe comes through with medium-plus acidity adding freshness. It is actually quite vibrant for a 2 year old rosé. The rind notes also carry through with a pithy, phenolic texture. Those phenols adds medium-minus bodied weight to this dry rosé but doesn’t stray to bitterness. The red fruit becomes a little more pronounced as strawberries but fades quickly with the finish.

The Verdict

At $18-22, you are paying a tad bit of a premium for the geeky variety. But it is not that out of line for the uniqueness and quality of the wine. I was expecting this wine to follow suit with the Conundrum White and Red and have noticeable residual sugar. Instead this rosé was distinctly dry and well made.

While many mass-produced rosés decline in quality after a year in bottle, the Conundrum rosé still has freshness and vibrancy. However, the short finish and nondescript red fruit does give away its age. If you have a bottle, I would recommend drinking it soon or look for a newer vintage.

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Doubling Down On What’s Been Done Before

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

Andy Perdue of Wine Press Northwest says it time for Washington State wine producers to “double down” on Cabernet Sauvignon.

The state needs to focus, he says, much like how Oregon did several decades ago with Pinot noir.

Washington has proved it can grow several wine grape varieties very well, and in some ways this has hurt the industry, because the state hasn’t had a focus. Now, we can align ourselves with other Cab regions, including Bordeaux and Napa Valley. — Andy Perdue, 9/13/18

Now why in the hell would we want to do that?

Napa On My Mind — And The Minds Of Most Consumers

Yes, I know that Cab is still king and there is no doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon sales are still going strong. You can’t fault vineyards for planting Cabernet Sauvignon or wineries for producing it.

But what you can fault is the idea that we should start hoarding all our eggs into one Cab basket–especially a basket that is already dominated by one really large hen.

Look at any “Most Popular” list of American wines and you can easily see a stark theme.

Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant Wines of 2018.

I would definitely be impressed seeing a wine list with Woodward Canyon prominently featured.

Cakebread, Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Corison, Duckhorn, Faust, Frank Family, Heitz, Jordan, Justin, Louis M. Martini, Mount Veeder, Rodney Strong, Sequoia Grove, Silver Oak, St. Francis Winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Turnbull–all well known California Cabernet producers. Though, yes, Washington State does get a few nods with Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole 41 and Chateau Ste. Michelle (probably for their Riesling).

The Most Searched-For Cabernet Sauvignon on WineSearcher.com in 2017.

Screaming Eagle, Caymus, Scarecrow, Shafer, Dunn, Robert Mondavi and Silver Oak–all Napa Valley staples with only Penfolds 707 from Australia and Concha y Toro Don Melchor from Chile being outside Cabernets that cracked the list.

Vivino’s Top 20 Cabernet Sauvignon for Cab Day (which was apparently September 3rd)

Pretty much the same Napa-dominated list like the ones above with Quebrada De Macul’s Domus Aurea from Chile, Gramercy Cellars’ Lower East from Washington, Thelema Mountain Vineyards’s The Mint and Springfield Estate’s Whole Berry from South Africa sprinkled in for diversity.

This is not to say that Washington State can’t compete with California–in quality or in price. Lord knows we can and often exceedingly over deliver in both. Many years the state usually leads the pack in percentage of wines produced that receive 90+ scores from critics and often command a sizable chunk of year-end “Top 100” lists.

Photo a compilation of creative commons licensed images uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Perhaps the Washington State Wine Commission needs to get Steven Spurrier on the phone.

But to the vast majority of American wine buying consumers (particularly of Cabernet Sauvignon) that hardly makes a dent in their Napa-centric worldview. Pretty much since the 1976 Judgment of Paris, Cabernet Sauvignon in the United States has been synonymous with Napa Valley, California.

Of course, I’m not saying that Washington should stop producing its bounty of delicious and highly acclaimed Cabs but why should we double down on chasing a horse that has already left the stable?

The Lessons Of Oregon

To bolster his case, Perdue points to the example of Oregon which has built its brand (quite successfully) on the quality and notoriety of its Pinot noir. It’s no shock that on that same Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant List that Oregon has a healthy showing with Adelsheim Vineyard, Argyle Winery, Cristom Vineyards, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Elk Cove Vineyards and King Estate representing the state–doubling the amount of wineries that Washington has featured.

Perdue would, presumably, attribute that success to Oregon’s seemingly singular focus on Pinot noir instead of the jack-of-all-trades approach that Washington State has taken in a modern history that is pretty close to the same age.

But what I don’t think Perdue has really taken into consideration is that Oregon started doubling down on Pinot long before Pinot noir was cool.

Photo by Ethan Prater. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Pinot noir in early veraison at Cristom Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills

In his book Oregon Wine Country Stories Kenneth Friedenreich notes that many of Oregon’s early pioneers were thought to be crazy by their neighbors and bankers when they started planting Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1980s when French producers like the Drouhin family of Burgundy took notice that the state began getting some attention on the world’s stage.

Even then, Oregon Pinot noir was still a tough sell in the domestic US market.

 

It’s hard to discount the impact that the 2004 film Sideways had on the perception of Pinot noir. As David Adelsheim noted “There were two great grapes of America [Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay], and after ‘Sideways,’ there were three,” with the Oregon wine industry reaping the benefit of sustained sales ever since.

In the game of life, when Oregon wine producers were least expecting it, they rolled a ‘7’. But they could have just as easily crapped out.

Oregon was initially betting on a long shot–not a 2 to 1 favorite like Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s crazy to think that Washington could every get the same kind of payout.

How About Betting On What’s Exciting?

Seriously, if you are not on the Washington Cab Franc train than you are lagging behind my friend!

Earlier this week Sean Sullivan of Seattle Met and Wine Enthusiast published a fantastic list of “The 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington”.

Now while there are certainly Cabs included on this list–several of which, like Passing Time and Quilceda Creek, I wouldn’t dispute–there are several wines included that are truly, genuinely exciting.

2013 Leonetti Cellar Aglianico Serra Pedace Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yes, an Aglianico! From Leonetti!

2015 Spring Valley Vineyard Katherine Corkrum Estate Grown Cabernet Franc Walla Walla Valley

The 2012 vintage of this wine was one of the best wines being poured at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting in Seattle earlier this year.

2017 L’Ecole No. 41 Old Vines Chenin blanc Columbia Valley

I’m no stranger to hollering into the void about the charms and deliciousness of Washington Chenin blanc. I love that L’Ecole is highlighting “Old Vines” on this bottle. It shows that their faith in this wonderful variety isn’t a fly-by-night fancy.

2015 Two Vintners Cinsault Make Haste Yakima Valley

Cinsault has been on my radar since attending the Hospice du Rhone seminar highlighting South African Cinsault. Obviously Washington doesn’t have anywhere close the vine age or experience but Morgan Lee of Two Vintners is an incredibly talented winemaker so it will be fun to see what he could do with the grape.

2016 Savage Grace Côt Malbec Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

Michael Savage makes some of my favorite Cabernet Francs from the Two Blondes Vineyard and Copeland Vineyard. The Boushey Vineyard is one of the grand crus of Washington. All perfect ingredients for what is likely a very kick ass wine.

2017 Syncline Winery Picpoul Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

If you’re not drinking Picpoul, is it really worth drinking anything?

2012 MTR Productions Memory Found Syrah Walla Walla Valley

This Syrah, made by Matt Reynvaan (of Reynvaan Family Vineyards fame),  is practically treated like a Brunello di Montalcino. It sees two years of oak aging followed by 3 years of bottle aging before release. A fascinating project.

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yeah, yeah the Rocks District is technically Oregon. But since the wine consuming public is too myopically focused on Oregon Pinot noir,  Washingtonians can take credit for the insane depth and character that comes out of wines from this area. At the Taste Washington “Washington vs The World Seminar” this was the run away winner at an event that featured heavy hitters like Joseph Phelps Insignia, Lynch-Bages, Sadie Family, Amon-Ra and Duckhorn Merlot.

Lessons of Oregon part II

Another lesson from Oregon that’s often overlooked is the lack of attention given to other grapes grown in the state. This was a takeaway I had from Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories that I noted in my review with the fascinating possibilities of the Southern Oregon AVAs like the Umpqua, Rogue and Applegate Valleys or the shared Columbia Gorge AVA up north with Washington.

There are over 50 grape varieties grown in Oregon–yet we really only hear about 1 to 3 of them. Sure the producers in prime Pinot country with blessed vineyards on Jory and Willakenzie soils, have a good gig right now. But the countless small wineries in other areas of the state trying to promote and sell their non-Pinot wines are facing an uphill battle.

Now What?

Does Washington State really want to  be associated with just one grape variety? With more than 70 different grape varieties, why limit ourselves?

As a Washington wine lover that adores the bounty and bevy of fantastic wines like Viognier that can compete with great Condrieu, geeky Siegerrebe and Pinot noir from the Puget Sound, Counoise rosé that echoes the grape’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape heritage and robust Malbecs that gets your mouth watering with their savory, spicy complexity, I vote no.

If are going to double down on anything then we should double down on what makes Washington, Washington.

We’re the Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis of the American wine industry. We can do it all and we can do it very, very well.

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Getting Geeky with Otis Kenyon Roussanne

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2013 Otis Kenyon Roussanne from Lawrence Vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA.

The Background

Otis Kenyon was founded in 2004 by Steve Kenyon who still runs the winery today with his daughter, Muriel.

The winery’s name comes four generations of Otis Kenyons with the original John Otis Kenyon, a dentist by training, being a notorious figure in Walla Walla for burning down a competitor’s office when the later starting stealing half of Kenyon’s clients.

The labels of Otis Kenyon wines pay tribute to this family history in a playful manner with a silhouette of the original Otis Kenyon with singed edges as well as a red wine blend, Matchless, featuring an open matchbook on the label. The winery’s “business cards” are also matchbooks filled with actual matches.

Along with sourcing fruit from throughout the Columbia Valley, Otis Kenyon has an estate vineyard, Stellar Vineyard, located in the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater on the Oregon side of Walla Walla.

The wines are made by Dave Stephenson, who founded his eponymous Stephenson Cellars in 2001. Prior to working at Otis Kenyon, Stephenson started his career at Waterbrook and today consults for several boutique wineries.

Around 247 cases of the 2013 Otis Kenyon Roussanne were made.

The Vineyard

Sourced page https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/babe8d_812edf6fe37b403ebaa7687e2760dd66.pdf

Map showing the proposed Royal Slope AVA (in yellow) where Lawrence Vineyards are located. Prepared by Richard Rupp of Palouse Geospatial.

The Lawrence Vineyards are located on the Frenchman Hills of the Royal Slope of the Columbia Valley basin and includes six named sites–Corfu Crossing (first planted in 2003), Scarline (2003), La Reyna Blanca (2010), Laura Lee (2008), Solaksen (2013) and Thunderstone (2015). The Lawrence family also manages the nearby Boneyard Vineyard that includes five acres of Syrah. All the Lawrence Vineyards are sustainably farmed.

While managing 330+ acres of plantings the Lawrence family also own Gård Vintners which produces around 6000 cases a year sourced from their estate grown fruit and made by Aryn Morell. Together with Morell they also produce Morell-Lawrence Wines (M & L).

The Roussanne used by Otis Kenyon cames from 2007 plantings of the Tablas Creek clone in Corfu Crossing which sits on a south facing slope at an elevation that ranges from 1,365-1,675 ft. The soils here are a mixture of silt and sandy loam on a bedrock of fractured basalt.

Photo by  Peter Ellis. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.5

Riesling sourced from Lawrence Vineyards has been used in some of the state’s most highly acclaimed Riesling wines.

In addition to Otis Kenyon, M & L and Gård, other wineries that source fruit from Lawrence includes Latta Wines, Southard Winery, Cairdeas, Armstrong Family, Matthews Winery, Pend d’Oreille as well as Chateau Ste. Michelle for their top-end Riesling Eroica.

Other varieties that the Lawrence Vineyards farm include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Mouvedre, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Sauvignon blanc and Viognier.

The (future) AVA of the Royal Slope

The proposed Royal Slope AVA was formerly delineated and submitted for AVA approval in early 2017. It includes the south facing slopes around Royal City located between the established AVAS of the Ancient Lakes and Wahluke Slope. Within the AVA is a sub-region of the Frenchmen Hills. The lead petitioner for the AVA was geologist Alan Busacca, former professor at Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College who also wrote the successful petitions for the Wahluke Slope, Lake Chelan and Lewis-Clark Valley AVAs.

The topography can range from relatively gentle to fairly steeper slopes of up to 22 degrees in the Frenchmen Hills region. The soils are fairly uniformed in their mixture of sandy and silty loam river deposits covering layers of fractured basalt left over from a period of intense volcanic activity during the Miocene Epoch. These soils are very high in calcium carbonate which may contribute to the strong minerality that wines from the Royal Slope tend to exhibit.

Throughout the growing season the region sees heat units (growing degree days or GDD) ranging from 2700 GDD to over 3000 GDD making it one of the warmest wine regions in the state. However the areas bordering the Ancient Lakes AVA to the northeast can be considerably cooler.

Charles Smith’s highly acclaimed K Vintners Royal City Syrah is sourced from the Stoneridge Vineyard in the proposed Royal Slope AVA.

Elevations range from 900 feet to upwards of 1700 feet with the higher elevation sites seeing much more diurnal temperature variation from the daytime highs to very cool temperatures at night which maintains acidity and keeps the vine from shutting down due to heat stress.

The proposed AVA contains 156,389 acres of which around 1400 have already been planted. Other notable vineyards in this proposed AVA includes Novelty Hill Winery’s estate vineyard Stillwater Creek, Frenchmen Hills Vineyard and Stoneridge

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first recorded documentation of Roussanne occurred in 1781 describing its use in the white wines of Hermitage. The name Roussanne is believed to be derived from the French term roux and could refer to the russet golden-red color of the grapes’ skins after veraison.

DNA analysis shows that there is a likely parent-offspring relationship with Marsanne but it is not yet known which variety is the parent and which is the offspring.

Photo by קרלוס הגדול. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The reddish bronze hue that Roussanne grapes get after veraison likely contributes to the grape’s name.


In the northern Rhône regions of St. Joseph, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, Roussanne adds acidity, richness and minerality when paired with Marsanne. It can also be used in the sparkling Northern Rhone wines of St. Peray. As a varietal it can have a characteristic floral and herbal verbena tea note.

Unlike Marsanne and Viognier, Roussanne is a permitted white grape variety in the red and white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape where today it makes up around 6% of the commune’s plantings as the third most popular white grape behind Grenache blanc and Clairette.

From a low point of 54 ha (133 acres) in 1968 plantings of Roussanne steadily grew throughout the late 20th century to 1074 ha (2654 acres) by 2006. Outside of the Rhone, the grape can be found in the Savoie region where it is known as Bergeron and is the sole variety in the wines of Chignin-Bergeron. In the Languedoc-Roussillon it is often blended with Chardonnay, Bourboulenc and Vermentino as well as Grenache blanc and Marsanne.

Roussanne is a late-ripening variety that is very prone to powdery mildew, botrytis and shutting down from excessive heat stress towards the end of the growing season.

Even in ideal conditions, Roussanne can be a troublesome producer in the vineyard with uneven yields often caused by coulure (also known as “shattering”) when the embryonic grape clusters don’t properly pollinate during fruit set after flowering. A significant cause of this is poor management by the vine of its carbohydrate reserves which the vine begins storing for the next year after the harvest of the previous vintage. Other factors at play can include nutrient deficiencies in the soil–particularly of boron and zinc with the later often being exacerbated in high pH soils.

Photo by Mark Smith of  Stefano Lubiana Wines Granton Vineyard Tasmania. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

During fruit set (shown here with Merlot), flowers that weren’t pollinated will “shatter” and not develop into full berries. This creates uneven yields with clusters having a mix of fully formed and “shot” berries. Roussanne is particularly susceptible to this condition.

Other varieties that are similarly susceptible to coulure include Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Muscat Ottonel and Gewürztraminer.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Prior to phylloxera, Roussanne was relatively well-established in California in the 19th century with plantings in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Clara where it was often blended with Petite Sirah. However, following phylloxera and Prohibition in the 20th century, most all Roussanne vineyards were uprooted.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, producers in California began experimenting again with the variety. In 1994, Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards in Napa purchased 6400 Roussanne vines for his Mer Soleil project. The vines he purchased came from Sonoma Grapevines owned by the Kunde family who originally sourced their cuttings from a vineyard owned by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon (who did not know that Kunde was going to commercially propagate them). The Bonny Doon cuttings came from a visiting Châteauneuf-du-Pape winemaker.

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

Many plantings of Roussanne in California in the 1980s and 1990s turned out to be Viognier (pictured).

Four years later a visiting viticulturalist identified the plantings in the Mer Soleil vineyard not as Roussanne but rather as Viognier–an identification that was later confirmed by DNA testing at UC-Davis. The discovery unleashed a cascading effect of lawsuits and countersuits from various parties involved as well as a hunt for true Roussanne plantings in California.

Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles began importing their Roussanne cuttings directly from their sister-property, Château de Beaucastel, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 1989. Additionally, John Alban began sourcing authentic Roussanne cuttings in 1991 with nearly all of the 323 acres of Roussanne vines in California (as of 2017) now being descendant from the Tablas and Alban vines.

Roussanne in Washington

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that Roussanne in Washington “… can taste like a real fruit salad mix, everything from apples, citrus and lime to peaches, honey and cream.”

The grape was pioneered in Washington by Doug McCrea, the state’s original Rhone Ranger, of McCrea Cellars and Cameron Fries of White Heron Cellars in the 1990s. While varietal examples can be found, the grape is mostly used as a blending component in Rhone-style blends with Grenache blanc, Viognier and Marsanne.

Along with Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars, Cameron Fries of White Heron Cellars (pictured) helped pioneer Roussanne in Washington State.


By 2017, there were 71 acres of Roussanne planted in Washington.

In addition to the plantings of Lawrence Vineyard, there are notable acreages of Roussanne on Red Mountain at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Stillwater Creek, Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley and at Alder Ridge, Destiny Ridge and Wallula Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose–tree fruits like spiced pear and apricot with a citrus grassy component that could be verbena.

On the palate the wine is very full-bodied and weighty with almost an oily texture. The spiced pear notes definitely come through with that herbal citrus tinge. Medium-plus acidity is still giving the wine freshness and balancing the weight. The moderate length finish ends on the pear and herbal notes.

The Verdict

I’m usually skeptical about how well many domestic white wines age but this 2013 Otis Kenyon Roussanne is holding on quite well for a 4+ year old white. The acidity seems to be the key and is a helpful balance to the full-bodied fruit.

The big weight and texture of this wine is reminiscent of a lightly oak Chardonnay with no malolactic and would serve as a good change of a pace for not only a Chardonnay drinker but also a red wine fan who is craving something very food friendly to go with heavier cream sauces, pork and poultry dishes.

At $25-30, this wine offers a fair amount of complexity and is definitely worth trying.

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Book Review — Oregon Wine Country Stories

Even though it is still Washington Wine Month, I wanted to take a detour down south to review a book I first started reading back in May during Oregon Wine Month — Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich.

I first came across Oregon Wine Country Stories while scouting out new wine books to read for the March 15th edition of Geek Notes. At the time I was looking for the Oregon wine equivalent of Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines and Wineries and I was wondering if Friedenreich’s book would fill in that sorely needed gap on my book shelf.

It turned out to be quite different from what I expected.

While titled Oregon Wine Country Stories, in many ways this book actually is about one story–the story of our personal relationship with wine and the taste memories we create with each sip. To Friedenreich, wine is “a kind of communion for which no prayers are mandatory” and through a backdrop of anecdotes and observations about the growth of and future of the Oregon wine industry, he invites the reader to listen to the stories that can be found in their own glass.

Overview

A native New Yorker, Friedenreich’s peppers Oregon Wine Country Stories with details of his own journey with wine that included more than 30 years in California before finally settling at home in Oregon where he write frequent columns for California Homes Magazine in between frequenting local wineries with his good friend Doc Wilson–the longtime sommelier for Jake’s Famous Crawfish in Portland, Oregon and the “Kevin Bacon of Oregon Wine”.

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

And wine trains.

I got the first inkling that Oregon Wine Country Stories wasn’t going to be your typical wine reference book while reading the Prologue where Friedenreich shared some of his experiences with the booming California wine industry during the 1970s and 1980s that included time working as a writer for Orange County Magazine covering the Premier Napa Valley Wine Auction. That chapter takes on a mournful tone as Friedenreich describes a return visit in 2008 to find the Napa Valley he once knew was now a parade of weddings, hot air balloons, tour buses, sky high bottle prices and people with more money then what they know how to spend.

Circling back to Oregon, he notes that “If Napa has become Babylon, Willamette and beyond still have intimations of Eden and the pastoral. Get to it before it goes away.”

That call to enjoy and take in what the still young Oregon wine industry bequeaths is a frequent narrative throughout the book as Friedenreich intersperses stories about pioneering Oregon figures such as Richard Sommer of HillCrest Vineyards, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, Jim Maresh of Maresh Vineyard, Dick Erath of Erath Winery, Harry Peterson Nedry of Chehalem Winery, Dick & Nancy Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards and others in between commentary on some of the ills that he felt befell Napa and the wine industry in general–from the failed experiment of Prohibition to the modern ills of pandering to critic scores or not having a succession plan in place to guide succeeding generations as they take over from the founding families.

Photo by Ponzi Vineyards Collection. Jerald R. Nicholson Library. Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon. Donated by Dick and Nancy Ponzi, 2012.. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0 with OTRS permission

Dick and Nancy Ponzi barrel sampling wines in the 1970s.

But perhaps the biggest ill that threatens Oregon or really any wine region’s Eden is the apathy of wine drinkers towards the stories that are in their glass. To answer this affliction, Friedenreich dedicates several chapters towards coaxing the reader into thinking more deeply about the “historical memory” of wine, the stories behind each vintage year (Chapters 3 & 4) and the act of actively engaging with the wine (Chapters 10 through 13).

In Chapter 6, he turns the microscope on the words we use when speaking about wine, encouraging us to favor meaning over jargon. To Friedenreich, flowery prose in tasting notes are meaningless when the bigger lesson is about trusting your self–your own palate and your own response to the wine.

Some Things I Learned

Even though I would certainly characterize Oregon Wine Country Stories as more commentary verses a wine reference book, I nonetheless learned quite a bit–especially in Chapter 7 which is the most Oregon-centric chapter of the book and covers the 18 AVAs of Oregon.

I found myself particularly fascinated with the southern Oregon AVAs like the Umpqua Valley (approved in 1984), Applegate Valley (2000), Rogue Valley (2005), Red Hills Douglas County (2005) and Elkton (2013) because of the vast diversity of varieties they grow beyond just Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Chardonnay. While those grapes are undoubtedly stars in the state, my taste buds water with excitement for the potential of Oregon Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Viognier and more.

Photo take by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as user:agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A lot of wine drinkers want to dismiss the cool 2011 vintage but there were plenty of delicious wines produced that year by wineries that heeded the lessons learned from troublesome vintages in the past.
One of the stand out producers in that vintage, in my opinion, was Bethel Heights owned by the Casteel family in the Eola-Amity Hills.

While I was familiar with the story of Richard Sommer and his first Pinot noir vineyard at HillCrest, it was fun to learn that Honeywood Winery actually predated HillCrest by almost 30 years as a pioneer in Oregon wine. Originally founded as Columbia Distilleries in 1934, shortly after the end of Prohibition, they are the holders of bonded winery license no. 26–the lowest number currently in the state–and are a specialist in fruit wine production.

Doc Wilson contributes a chapter titled “The Conscience of the Calendar” (Chapter 5) where he highlights the role that vintages have played in Oregon’s wine history–from the pivotal early 1980s vintages of 1983 and 1985 to the difficult but quality producing years of 1998, 2002 and 2003 which taught Oregon winemakers several valuable lessons that paid off during the excessively hot vintages of 2006 & 2009 and the very cold and late ripening 2011 vintage.

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

I’ll admit that sometimes I get too “wine-centric” with my head buried deep into wine books and my ears filled with the siren songs of podcasts. But one of the things that charmed me the most about Friedenreich’s book is that it continually pointed me to a world outside of wine that was still tangentially connected.

A big takeaway that I got from this book is that if you wish to taste the world of wine in your glass then you should have more than just a passing familiarity with the world around you. It’s no surprise that instead of the usual roll call of wine books, the bibliography of Oregon Wine Country Stories is rich with literary and history narratives that are worth adding to my reading list.

C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words — For Friedenreich tasting wine is more than just about scribbling notes and evaluating bouquet or acidity. You can see a lot of Lewis’ influence in his argument that the meaning and the “taste memories” formed from that glass of wine merits being described with words that resonant with the drinker instead of just a pithy tasting note.

Kevin Starr’s California: A History — A strong thread throughout Oregon Wine Country Stories is Friedenreich’s cautionary tale of some of the pratfalls and bumps that the have befallen the California wine industry in its history and his earnest desire to see the winemaking families of Oregon avoid a similar fate. To understand those bumps one needs to understand the make up and mettle of the people of California itself with Friedenreich encouraging readers to check out the work of the late Californian state historian that includes Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era and Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California

Ellen Hawkes’ Blood and Wine — One of the few explicitly wine-related books that Friedenreich name drops (along with the Kladstrup’s Wine and War which I already own) is a history of the rise of Gallo’s empire.

Final Thoughts

An enduring lesson from Oregon Wine Country Stories is the need for balance–not just in the wine but also in our approach to it.

Kenneth Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories is not your typical wine book and I must confess that it took me a second reading before I really “got it”. That is partly because of the many different tangents and perspectives that Friedenreich weaves throughout but also because of my own inclination to sometimes miss the forest through the trees when it comes to wine.

My light bulb moments with this book came in Chapter 18 (A Postcard from Oenotria) and particularly Chapter 19 (Everything Wears Down) when I came across the line “Wine knowledge is a goal post or target constantly on the move.”

That got me wondering if all I’ve been doing lately is constantly chasing goal posts? Have I’ve gotten so wrapped up in “geeking” and eagerly trying to learn as much as I can about terroir and chemistry, vintages and viticulture that I’ve grown deaf to hearing the stories in my glass? How much worth is it if I fill my head with facts and figures but lose the heart that caused me to fall in love with wine in the first place?

It is ultimately that call to get back to the glass that is the thread which ties Friedenreich’s work together and it is a unique journey that different readers will react to differently. Like me, I’m sure there will be many readers who pick up Oregon Wine Country Stories with expectations of it being a reference or buying guide on the wines of Oregon only to end up discovering that is not quite the case.

My best advice for someone diving into Oregon Wine Country Stories is to heed the advice that Friedenreich gives in his Epilogue to “Allow the story in the wine a chance to unfold…”.

Likewise if you allow Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories a chance to unfold, you will find plenty in the glass.

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