The Journey of 30 Years of Wine Festivals Begins With a Single Sip

August 12th, 2014

Anyone with an interest in wines can probably recall the occasion or a particular wine that led to their wine tasting epiphany.

For me, it was sometime in the early 1980’s. Then Bellingham resident Marsha Kremen (cousin of current Whatcom County Councilmember Pete Kremen) introduced me to a beautiful white wine called Macon Fuissé.

At that time, my definition of a “good” wine was one that was sweet, made me feel happy, and fit nicely into my $2-a-bottle budget. I didn’t know exactly what Marsha had poured me, but I knew that it tasted much better than the Blue Nun I was introduced to during my college days.

About that same time I struck up a friendship with Kim and Jim Dooley, a couple of other locals who were just getting into something called “premium Washington wines.”

nullJim’s brother-in-law, Maury Balcom, owned a new winery in Pasco, the now defunct Quarry Lake Winery (and if you remember that one, give yourself a gold star and don’t forget to renew your AARP membership). The Dooleys invited me along for a trip east of the Cascades for some wine tasting. I had no idea what I was in for.

Walking into the barrel room, I inhaled the intoxicating, baked-bread aroma of yeasts working their magic of turning sugars into alcohol. I also recall that Maury produced some pretty awesome wines, including chenin blanc, chardonnay and merlot.

That trip to Quarry Lake was essentially a life-changing experience, and it showed me that handcrafted wines, made right here in Washington, were a cut above anything that was mass-produced on a national level.

In 1985, the Dooleys and I travelled to Kennewick to attend something called the Tri-Cities Wine Festival, which was then in its seventh year. Sixty wineries were at the festival, which represented virtually everyone producing in the state at that time.

Like kids in a candy store, we eagerly attacked everything we could get our hands on. I don’t even remember sampling that year’s Best of Show winner, a 1983 Merlot from a little up-and-coming winery called Leonetti Cellar.

Fast forward to 2014, which is quite a landmark year for me. I’ll be attending that same Tri-Cities Wine Festival, this time for the 30th consecutive year. The Festival has had its ups and downs during its history (who hasn’t?), but recent improvements have gotten it back on track. And even after all this time, anticipating the wines and wineries in attendance still creates an air of excitement.

2014 also marks the 15th anniversary of my wine column for the Herald, which has been running nearly every week since August, 1999. During this retrospective, I’d like to thank the Herald for giving me the opportunity to use the column as a podium to promote wines, especially those from Washington, which is now home to an amazing 800+ wineries.

I’ll continue to do this as long as you’ll have me, because writing a weekly column has become so routine that it hardly seems like work. Visiting wineries, meeting with winemakers and tasting new wines is still as fresh as it was during that first trip to Eastern Washington over 30 years ago.

With a Bit of Chilling Down, These Make Great Summertime Wines

August 5th, 2014

We’ve certainly had some awesome weather this summer, haven’t we? Remember all the pouting and complaining about those wetter-than-normal months during the spring? That seems like a distant memory as we head into the thick of a beautiful summer season.

Warm, sunny weather means that chilled wines are the order of the day. I’ve got plenty of new domestic and international recommendations for you today in a variety of price points for every budget.

At the $10-and-under price range are two choices from Portugal. The Aveleda 2013 Vinho Verde (about $7) is a lighter-bodied white wine with gentle flavors of green melon and a crisp, citrusy finish.

The coral-hued Casal Garcia 2013 Vinho Verde Rosé (about $8) also makes an excellent summertime wine when slightly chilled. Its opening raspberry aromas and flavors transition into more of a savory, leaner style with tangy watermelon and cherry tomato on the finish. Enjoy either vinho verde with a pairing of sole, crab or chicken.

nullMouton Cadet really impressed me with a couple of their current releases from France’s Bordeaux region.

The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc (about $11) is vibrant, flavorful and extremely well-priced. There’s a bit of herbaceousness to lead off with an air of fresh field grasses and clover. Brighter citrus flavors of grapefruit and Meyer lemon come through on the mid-palate, while touches of honeydew melon and peach appear on the extreme finish.

Also notable is the 2013 Rosé (about $11), which combines the traditional Bordeaux varietals of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon in a heady, rosé interpretation. The nose is both floral and fruity, while a flavor profile of bright red currants and berries really shines through from start to finish.

For a nice change from ordinary sparkling wines, try the Marenco Non-Vintage Pineto Brachetto d’Acqui (about $19). The brachetto grape is essentially the red version of the Moscato d’Asti white grape; so as you might expect, this is a fragrant, fruit-forward wine.

It’s made in a slightly effervescent, frizzante style that gives the wine a lovely, creamy texture. Wild strawberries instantly come to mind while tasting, and at only 5.5-percent alcohol, it’s easy to enjoy while pairing with a light dessert. Unique and delicious.

Kramer Vineyards in Gaston, Oregon also has a trio of newly released sparkling wines under the Celebrate! label designation that can be ordered online at kramervineyards.com.

The 2013 Müller-Thurgau (about $22) has Fuji apple and kiwi flavors and a touch of marshmallow crème; while a virtually colorless 2013 Pinot Gris (about $22) features gentle pear and apple flavors and an off-dry finish.
My favorite is the brilliant pink 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir (about $24), with candy apple and marzipan aromas, bright pie cherry flavors to start, and a finish that suggests strawberry cream.

Lost River Winery Continues to Improve With These Excellent Current Releases

July 29th, 2014

The old adage, “a good bottle of wine gets better with age,” can also apply to a number of time-honored Washington wineries.

If you’ve followed my column on a regular basis you already know that Lost River Winery, established in 2002, easily falls into this category.

Husband-and-wife John Morgan and Barbara House, along with Barb’s son Liam Doyle comprise a team that produces, promotes, and distributes a number of wines that just seem to get better every year.

nullThe winery’s initial tasting room and production facility located in Winthrop makes a welcome stopping point for those heading east on the North Cascades Highway. For a closer-to-home option for Whatcom County residents, a second tasting room in Seattle also makes a great diversion if you’re in the downtown area near the Pike Place Market.

And for those who just don’t have the time to make a firsthand visit, Lost River Winery wines are well distributed in local grocers and wine shops…and at very reasonable prices, I might add.

Here are some current releases I’ve tried as of late that were an absolute pleasure to taste.

2013 Pinot Gris (about $15) – This particular vintage seemed a bit more herbaceous than those of the past, with pleasant notes of lemongrass to accompany the bright, green apple and citrus flavors. The brisk, clean finish allows it to pair perfectly with oysters on the half-shell.

2013 Rosé (about $15) – This blend of cabernet franc, merlot and syrah is pretty heady stuff and serving it too cold would be like putting it under the cloak of invisibility. Pop this in the refrigerator for no more than an hour and you’ll find the flavor complexities of pie cherry, red currant, Red Delicious apple and crabapple really shine through.

Non-Vintage Nooksack Redd (about $20) – Instantly enjoyable dark berry and cherry flavors come to the forefront, while raspberry fruit, a dusting of chalky tannins and some nice earthy finishing notes wrap up the package. This is a very nice red wine blend that over-delivers at this price.

2011 Merlot (about $24) – Dark plum and black currant flavors lead off, with a good splash of acidity and touches of bittersweet chocolate and espresso on the extreme finish. I’ve tasted my share of merlots from this vintage and this is one of the finest to date. Excellent!

2010 Syrah (about $25) – Gentle aromatics of rose petals fill the glass, while leaner red fruits of pomegranate and red plum initially hit the palate. The finish is underscored with a darker layer of black currant, Ligurian cherry and smoky blackberry. It’s bright to start, sultry to finish and overall, a gorgeous syrah.

Whether Judging or Casual Tasting, Don’t Be Afraid to Share Your Opinions

July 22nd, 2014

I had the privilege of serving as one of 28 judges in the 19th Annual Northwest Wine Summit earlier this year. The first half of the event was held in Naramata, British Columbia and I participated in the second half in Hood River, Oregon.

Sometimes it seems as if nearly every wine entered in a competition wins a medal. That was hardly the case at this year’s Summit, where only 89 of the 942 wines entered received a gold medal. In addition, 254 wines earned a silver medal and 258 a bronze.

nullBrian Carter Cellars’ 2009 Solesce, a proprietary Meritage-style blend was selected Best of Competition and Best Red Wine, while Kiona Vineyards and Winery 2013 Chenin Blanc was named Best White Wine.

Two British Columbia wineries, Gheringer Brothers Estate Winery and La Frenz Winery, along with Washington’s Maryhill Winery garnered Wineries of Distinction honors based on the number of gold medals received. La Frenz took home eight golds, Maryhill earned five, and Gheringer received four.

Another Washington winery, Thurston Wolfe, earned both the Best of Washington award and Best Fortified Wine for its Non-Vintage Tawny Port.

If you think judging wines is a “fun” and glamorous task, think again. There’s an element of fatigue to deal with, and after tasting dozens of wines in a day, the last thing you want to look at is another five-glass flight of merlot.

nullIn addition, the process of swirling, tasting, spitting and evaluating is serious business. Comments are exchanged, a final score is arrived at, and, thanks to a great group of fellow judges, nothing close to fisticuffs broke out at any time.

Judges consisted primarily of winemakers, distributors, and writers and critics, like me. I considered myself to be a representative for the average wine consumer. This sometimes left me feeling a little intimidated, especially if two winemakers were at the table pontificating in technical jargon.

I mentioned this to a winemaker after the competition and much to my surprise, he said that he felt intimidated by me. His reasoning was that his laser-sharp focus is primarily on the wines he produces, while I have a broader range of wine tasting experiences to draw upon.

Volume of wines aside, his comments called to mind some of my own wine tasting philosophies that I lost track of during the competition. First, there are no right or wrong “answers” when tasting wine, only consensus; and second, never be afraid to share with others what you taste.

That’s sound advice for so-called experts, casual wine drinkers and novices alike and it’s something to keep in mind whether you’re involved in a serious tasting or simply enjoying wines in an informal setting at home.

Washington Winemakers “Rediscovering” Chenin Blanc

July 15th, 2014

This week I’ll wrap up my two-part series on chenin blanc, a white wine varietal that’s a personal favorite and one that’s seen a bit of a resurgence as of late among Washington winemakers.

Originating in the Loire Valley of France, chenin blanc was quite popular several decades ago, but later it suffered a perception problem as a cheaper, sweeter alternative to chardonnay.

My slant on this: First, a wine that costs less doesn’t always mean it’s inferior. In fact, “affordable” might be a better descriptor. Second, if a wine can be enjoyed in a sweeter style then it can be made in a drier style as well, and that indicates versatility.

nullThe bottom line is that chenin blanc got a bad rap. It deserved better and it’s nice to see that winemakers and wine consumers are rediscovering it today.

Chenin blanc is oftentimes aromatic, flavorful, and brimming with acidity, which makes it a good match for pairing with green and pasta salads, poultry, and seafood such as crab, halibut or scallops. In addition, it’s a terrific sipping wine; especially during the warm summer months when served well-chilled.

A few chenin blancs from Washington for you to consider:

Pontin del Roza 2012 Chenin Blanc (about $14) – When you talk about Washington chenin blanc you’ve got to include Scott Pontin in the conversation. His winery recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and he’s been producing the varietal since day-one as a solid, reasonably priced choice. This vintage leans towards the tropical side and also displays juicy peach and pear flavors and a slightly sweet finish.

Waitsburg Cellars 2012 Cheninières and 2012 Chevray (about $17 each) – If you’ve yet to hear about Waitsburg Cellars, trust me, you soon will. This partnership between wine critic Paul Gregutt (pictured above – from The Waitsburg Times) and Precept Wines is stirring things up in the town of Waitsburg, located about 20 miles northeast of Walla Walla.

These wines impressed me with their understated fruit flavors, clean finish and overall European-style profile, which is exactly what Gregutt set out to do. A major difference between the two: the Chevray is made in an off-dry style, reminiscent of a Loire Valley Vouvray, and higher in alcohol.

Both wines were sourced from the Snipes Mountain Appellation, and although I’m not totally enamored with the wine’s names, everything else about them is a grand slam.

Dakota Creek Winery 2013 Chenin Blanc (about $20) – On the opposite side of the spectrum, local winemakers Ken and Jill Peck pull out all the stops with this full-bodied chenin. Packed with Golden Delicious apple and stone fruit aromas and flavors, the residual sugar content is nicely balanced with brisk acidity. Big, round, and fruit-forward, it’s a pleasure to taste.

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