Take a Day Trip Drive and Visit Challenger Ridge Winery

September 16th, 2014

Looking for an afternoon getaway that includes good wines in a quiet, rural setting? A trip to Challenger Ridge Winery could be just what you need to fit the bill.

Located just west of the town of Concrete, the winery is a leisurely one-hour drive from Bellingham and a visit makes for a terrific day trip to neighboring Skagit County.

The tasting room is situated in an over 100-year-old farmhouse on 68 acres of land near the Skagit River. The facility includes seven acres of pinot noir grapes and plenty of area for picnicking. Overnight camping is also available at the creative, and very reasonable, cost of one bottle of the winery’s wine per adult per night.

The winery has had its share of ups and downs in the past, but it certainly seems to be on the right track with the recent addition of Robert Smasne as winemaker. Smasne has earned critical acclaim for wines produced under his own label as well as a number of other Washington wineries.

nullHere are my tasting notes on the wines I sampled during a visit to the winery last month:

Kiss Me Kate 2011 Rosé ($16) – A combination of estate pinot noir and a splash of Eastern Washington viognier, this rosé is practically guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The color, aroma and flavors are spot on with Jolly Rancher watermelon candy along with a smack of sweet strawberry on the finish.

2009 Savant ($18) – This completely underpriced, overachieving pinot noir-based blend includes grenache, merlot and tempranillo. Beautiful cherry and berry aromas lead off, carry over to the palate, and conclude with a soft, velvety finishing note.

2009 Diablo Red ($20) – Using the same varietal composition as the Savant, this red blend differs in its Columbia Valley vineyard sources. It features the same cherry and berry fruits, with more of an acidic edge and spicy accents.

2009 Estate Pinot Noir Block Three ($26) – Light and delicate with dried cherry flavors, this estate-grown pinot displays good minerality, a bit of earthiness and gentle smoky undertones. It’s a prime candidate to serve with an entrée of salmon or duck confit.

There are a number of other wines currently available for tasting including a white wine blend, two additional pinot noirs, a syrah and a cabernet sauvignon.

To get to the winery, follow Interstate 5 southbound to the Cook Road exit. Travel east until you connect with the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) in Sedro-Woolley and follow the highway to Concrete.

The tasting room is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 pm and weekdays by appointment. Contact tasting room manager Sandra Hambleton at (425) 422-6988 or sandra@challengerridge.com and she’ll be happy to make the necessary arrangements.

Barnard Griffin: Consistently Good Washington Wines

September 9th, 2014

In 15 years of writing about wines I don’t believe I’ve dedicated an entire column to Barnard Griffin Winery, one of Washington State’s oldest wineries.

nullI not quite sure what I’ve been thinking, because it’s fair to say that if there was such a thing as royalty among Washington winemakers, Rob Griffin would be on the short list for coronation. Together with his wife, Deborah Barnard, he’s been producing consistently good wine since the winery was established in Richland in 1983.

To get an idea of how consistently good Barnard Griffin wines have been, consider their Rosé of Sangiovese. This wine has earned gold medal honors or better from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for an amazing eight consecutive years.

Griffin also produces a number of solid red wines, with current releases including merlot, pinot noir, syrah, and a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend. Bottled under the “signature series” designation, these wines are incredibly well priced at under $20 each.

But today’s focus is on two white wines from the 2013 vintage that I recently tried and felt deserved special notice. As an added bonus, they’re currently available at prices that almost seem too good to be true.

First up is the 2013 Fumé Blanc (about $12). This blend of 76-percent sauvignon blanc and 24-percent semillon drinks like a world-class white Bordeaux with an unmistakable Washington pedigree.

There’s a lovely layered flavor profile to this wine, with an herbal note to lead off and then a suggestion of luscious tropical fruits with melon-like flavors on the second tier. The finish hints at ripe peach, with plenty of steely acidity to complete the package. This is a completely over-the-top white wine that practically demands a case purchase.

nullAlso worth considering is the 2013 Chardonnay (about $14), sourced from six different Washington vineyards including Crawford, Gunkel and Conner Lee.

Despite the warm vintage, this chardonnay leans a bit towards the lighter side with pleasant citrus and green pear flavors. Surprisingly bright and vibrant, a gentle touch of French oak beautifully softens the edges near the finish.

One final note: the Fumé Blanc was bottled with the iconic red and yellow tulip label with which well-seasoned Washington wine drinkers have long been familiar. But the Chardonnay comes with a brand new label that only features an enlarged griffin with dark copper and gold accents. It’s regal, tastefully done and exactly what you’d expect from Barnard Griffin.

Barnard Griffin wines are well distributed throughout Washington in wine shops and grocers and can also be enjoyed at the Richland facility that now includes a tasting room, wine bar, restaurant and studio/gallery. For more information: barnardgriffin.com

Swiftwater’s Three Labels Display Impeccably Balanced Wines

September 2nd, 2014

Swiftwater Cellars, located off Interstate 90 near the towns of Roslyn and Cle Elum may well be the state’s quintessential destination winery.

With first-class accommodations, recreational activities, restaurants, and, oh yes, an excellent winery, this is a location worth searching out for a relaxing getaway.

The winery features three labels: the entry level No. 9 (in reference to the nearby long abandoned Roslyn No. 9 mine), Zephyr Ridge, and the top-of-the-line Swiftwater Cellars.

Today I’ll conclude my two-part series by focusing on some of the “best of the best” wines I sampled with winemaker Linda Trotta during a recent visit.

Trotta’s philosophy about winemaking: “I like acidity and like tannins, but I don’t want them to insult you. I think of (my wines) as an ‘Evita’ style: powerful but with finesse.”

nullWith a relatively small production of about 4,500 cases annually, her deft touch and focus on producing flawlessly balanced wines is evident in everything I tasted.

If you press me to choose an all-around favorite I’d have to lean towards the No. 9 2013 Riesling (about $18). This wine rocked my world with explosive, mouth-watering cantaloupe and green melon flavors up front and a sassy splash of orange zest. The .9-percent residual sugar content is nicely steadied by bracing, steely acidity. This riesling-lover’s dream is perfect for sipping or pairing with spicy Asian cuisine.

Three distinctly different chardonnays are also currently available, which gives them broad-ranging wineophile appeal.

An unoaked No. 9 2012 Chardonnay (about $20) opens with gorgeous stone fruit aromas, gentle citrus flavors and a kiss of ruby red grapefruit; the Zephyr Ridge 2012 Chardonnay (about $22) offers sublime baked apple flavors with a round, slightly creamy finish and a perfectly measured touch of toasted oak; and the Swiftwater 2011 Chardonnay (about $28) drinks like a fine French Chablis, with a fragrant hint of ash on the nose, bright apple and green pear on the mid-palate and a slightly buttery trailing note.

In addition to two pinot noirs there are a bevy of reds to choose from. I enjoyed the No. 9 2010 Red (about $28), a blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and malbec with spicy black plum flavors and great acidity. It begs for a pairing with medium-rare steak or roast duck.

The Zephyr Ridge 2011 Merlot (about $35) is another winner and its dusty, earthy cherry flavor profile reminded me of something from Zillah’s Two Mountain Winery.

There are also two Swiftwater Proprietary Reds (a 2009 and 2010 vintage, at $50 each and both superb); and the crown jewel, the Swiftwater 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (about $85). The red cherry fruit, acidity, tannins and oak are impeccably balanced, easily meeting the high expectations for a wine at this price point.

Can’t visit Swiftwater Cellars firsthand? You’ll find their wines locally at Seifert and Jones Wine Merchants in Bellingham.

Swiftwater Cellars is Truly a Destination Winery Worth Visiting

August 26th, 2014

Swiftwater Cellars bills itself as “Washington’s ultimate destination winery” and after spending a day there earlier this month, it would be difficult for me to argue otherwise.

The facility is located about 80 miles east of Seattle, just a few minutes north of Interstate 90 near the towns of Roslyn and Cle Elum. Because of its relative proximity to the freeway, I’d hardly call this a remote area. And yet, upon arriving, one can’t help but feel you’re in an entirely different world surrounded by pine forests, rivers and streams, hiking trails, and expansive views of the nearby Cascades.

Swiftwater Cellars is privately owned by Don Watts, a successful Tri-Cities farmer who built the facility in the heart of the pre-existing Suncadia Resort. Suncadia is a 6,400-acre project that includes a 254-room lodge, spa, and two golf courses.

nullAlso within the Resort is a separate, private community with its own golf course and clubhouse, which might seem like Sudden Valley with an Eastern Washington flavor to Whatcom County residents.

A visit to Swiftwater Cellars is unique, to say the least. Rather than featuring a dedicated space, the “tasting room” is part of a larger complex that includes the Hoist House restaurant, a gift shop, and public golf course club house. There’s also an adjacent amphitheater with seating for over 2,000 outdoor concertgoers.

With all of these destination goodies to keep you occupied, it would be easy to overlook the winery itself. I’d recommend making arrangements for a tour of the two beautiful barrel rooms and pristine stainless-steel holding tank area located on the facility’s lower level to remind you that this is indeed a winery.

On the building’s main level, half of Swiftwater’s circular tasting bar is shared by the restaurant, and I’d care to wager this is one of the few Washington wineries where you can sample wines, order lunch or dinner, and then enjoy a cocktail all in one sitting.

The 1980’s classic rock piped over the facility’s omnipresent speaker system can be maddeningly distracting, as can the mealtime crowds. But the wines, which are first-class in every respect, more than make up for this, and visitors can order them by the glass, flight, carafe, bottle or case.

Watts did his homework by hiring winemaker Linda Trotta (pictured above), who spent 20 years at Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, California prior to coming to Swiftwater Cellars. Trotta produces the winery’s Washington wines, and she’s clearly at the top of her game. Tony Rynders is responsible for the winery’s pinot noir, which is sourced from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Next week, I’ll give you my top recommendations from the wines I sampled during my visit. In the meantime, check out the winery at swiftwatercellars.com.

Wine Flavor Profile Affected by a Number of Factors

August 19th, 2014

One of the fun things about wine tasting is comparing and contrasting the flavor profile and characteristics of the same type of wine made by a different winery.

If you’re relatively new to wines and haven’t tried this, your first reaction might be, doesn’t one merlot pretty much taste like any other merlot?

To that I would say, you are mistaken, grasshopper.

There are a multitude of factors that can affect how a wine tastes, and today, I’ll give you what many consider to be among three of the most important.

First, vintage. Like any other agricultural crop, wine grapes can fall victim to poor weather conditions. As you might suspect, wetter and cooler than normal growing seasons don’t allow the grapes to fully ripen and develop their signature flavors. The resulting wines can be higher in acidity, lower in alcohol and lacking in character.

nullSecond, geographic region. The climate, soil conditions, and even the specific vineyard in which the grapes are grown can have a profound impact on the wines they produce. For starters, know that grapes grown in cooler climates generally result in wines with brighter, leaner flavors while those in warmer climates yield more full-bodied wines.

Third, winemaker style. A winemaker has a host of options to exercise that can help him or her arrive at the wine they’re trying to achieve. For example, the use or non-use of oak during the aging process, as well as the length of aging time, can affect the wine’s flavor, color, and aroma.

nullSide-by-side tastings can help you discern the differences that these and other factors have on a wine. Have fun with this by organizing a group tasting or simply make notes on your own for comparison purposes.

Here are my tasting notes on a chardonnay and a pinot noir produced by two different wineries. The first, Stoller Family Estate in Dayton, Oregon, was Wine Press Northwest Magazine’s 2014 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year. The second, J Vineyards & Winery, is located in Sonoma County, California.

The Stoller 2012 Reserve Chardonnay (about $35) is the leaner of the two, with aromas and flavors of green pear, Fuji apple and citrus throughout and a finish suggesting lemon chiffon. The J Vineyards 2012 Russian River Valley Chardonnay (about $28) is bigger and rounder, with baked apple flavors accentuated by a touch of orange zest and toasted vanilla.

The Stoller 2012 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (about $25) is a sensual delight, with floral aromatics, red berry and cherry flavors, and an almost sultry, inky finish with hints of baking spice. The J Vineyards 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (about $37) displays gentle raspberry and strawberry fruits with an underlying note of lavender. It’s delicate, beautifully balanced, and a pleasure to taste.

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