Brad and Ruth Riordan Make Robison Ranch Cellars a Pleasure to Visit

October 21st, 2014

Good wines certainly make visiting a winery worthwhile. And connecting with warm, friendly people along the way who welcome you in and treat you like family? For me, that’s the icing on the cake.

nullA recent visit to Robison Ranch Cellars in Walla Walla left me with just that impression. As a pair of retirees from the San Francisco Bay Area, Brad Riordan and his wife Ruth launched their winery in 2008 after Brad elevated his winemaking skills from hobby status by completing Walla Walla Community College’s Enology and Viticulture program.

The Riordans partnered with the wheat-farming Robison family to establish the winery at a ranch the Robison’s have been operating since 1918.

The tasting and barrel rooms are housed in an expansive metal building that Brad refers to as “the old shallot shed,” and wines are poured at a tasting bar that was once owned by the now defunct Yellow Hawk Winery. Outdoor patio seating amidst containers brimming with flowers is also available.

If this all sounds like a folksy, bucolic and serene setting in which to enjoy a glass of wine, it most definitely is.

The Riordan’s grapes are primarily sourced from Walla Walla Valley’s Dwelley Vineyard and Airport Ranch Vineyard near Yakima. Their annual production of about 800 cases appropriately places this gem of a winery squarely in the mom and pop/boutique category.

Here are my tasting notes on a few current releases:

null2013 Viognier (about $19) – Gentle aromas and flavors of Bosc pear, stone fruits and green apple dominate this stunning white wine. The off-dry finish gives it a slightly lingering finish. Easily one of the best Washington viogniers I’ve tasted from this vintage.

2012 Eye of the Pheasant Pinot Gris (about $19) – Fermentation on the skins for 24 hours gives this refreshingly different wine a pale salmon hue. It opens with a splash of ruby red grapefruit before developing more of an herbaceous quality with lemongrass accents and a pleasant, light touch of celery seed on the extreme finish.

Non-Vintage Dinner Bell Red (about $19) – Spanning three vintages, this tasty, four-varietal blend is a lighter body-style red that’s perfect for everyday enjoyment. Delicious red cherry and berry flavors fill the glass on the way to a soft, velvety finish.

2009 Cuvée (about $27) – This cabernet sauvignon-based red, along with equal parts merlot and syrah, can easily be paired with anything beef. Black cherry, currant, and blackberry flavors are backed up with sturdy tannins that suggest ample aeration or additional cellaring.

Robison Ranch Cellars is just a five minute drive north of downtown Walla Walla and currently open Saturdays from 11 am to 4 pm or by appointment. For more information and to order wines: (509) 301-3480 or robisonranchcellars.com.

Good Wine Tastes Even Better With the Proper Food Pairing

October 14th, 2014

As we move into the fall and winter months, wine-themed dinners become increasingly popular.

And why not? The weather has already begun to cool down, the rainy season (groan) is just around the corner, and indoor activities will soon be the norm.

I just wrapped up a wine dinner series at Bellingham Technical College that featured a number of top-notch Washington wines. These wines showcase the variety and depth of premium wines produced in the state and confirm what many of you already know: a good wine tastes even better when paired with the proper food.

Here is a summary of the highly recommended wines that were served:

nullTreveri Cellars Non-Vintage Sparkling Pinot Gris (about $15) – Winemaker Juergen Grieb does it again with this flavorful, extremely well-priced sparkler that makes an excellent aperitif. It explodes with Golden Delicious apple and Bartlett pear flavors that are perfectly balanced by a lemon-drop finish.

Rulo Winery Walla Walla Valley 2012 Chardonnay (about $25) – Kurt and Vicki Schlicker prove that good people make great wines with this stunning effort. Hazelnut, butterscotch, baked apple and toasted vanilla aromas and flavors melt into a mile-long finish with a hint of mandarin orange. Purchase their wines on line or take a U-Haul to the tasting room in Walla Walla and stock up.

Terra Blanca Winery Signature Series 2008 Merlot (about $40) – Keith Pilgrim provides another amazing interpretation of Red Mountain fruit with this estate-sourced merlot. Dried herbs, minerals and a whisper of smoke on the nose are followed by understated plum and black cherry flavors and a twist of black pepper. Try it with anything beef or a pork tenderloin.

Forgeron Cellars 2011 GSM (about $33) – This beautifully balanced blend from Walla Walla winemaker Marie-Eve Gilla hits all the right notes and pairs perfectly with leg of lamb. The flavor profile includes bright red plum from the grenache and intense dark fruits from the syrah. A splash of mourvèdre provides spicy accents on the finish along with perfectly integrated tannins.

Thurston Wolfe Non-Vintage Tawny Port (about $16 for 375 ml) – Dr. Wade Wolfe creates a masterpiece with this zinfandel port that spent eight years in the barrel. It’s brimming with complex layers of candied walnuts, toasted coconut, caramel, fig, and rum raisin that linger long after the first sip.

If you’re thinking about attending a wine dinner, consider reserving a space at North Bellingham Golf Course’s Nine Restaurant on October 18 at 6 pm. I’ll be moderating an exquisite five-course dinner that will feature Annette Bergevin from Walla Walla’s Bergevin Lane Vineyards.

Wines slated to be served include sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, two red wine blends and syrah. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (360) 398-8300, extension 2.

Obelisco Estate at the Pinnacle of Red Mountain’s Recognized Wineries

October 7th, 2014

When it comes to prestigious wine regions and wines, Washington has certainly done itself proud.

The state’s latest recognition: the nomination of the Red Mountain Appellation as Wine Enthusiast magazine’s wine region of the year. Other 2014 nominees include Champagne, Chianti, New York State and Sonoma, California…pretty impressive company by anyone’s standards. The winner will be announced in the magazine’s December 31 issue.

If you’re familiar with Washington wine then you’re familiar with Red Mountain, which is located about 15 miles west of the Tri-Cities. Its unique climate and soil conditions have made it ideal for growing wine grapes, especially red varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah.

Obelisco Estate is one of Red Mountain’s newer wineries that has quickly earned a reputation as one of the region’s finest. Owner/winemaker Doug Long planted his vineyards in 2004, added renowned winemakers Sarah Goedhart Hedges and Pete Hedges, and released his first vintage in 2007 with a focus on low yield fruit of the highest quality.

nullI recently had the pleasure of tasting some of Long’s price-worthy current releases and all of them are outstanding. Here are my tasting notes:

2010 Malbec (about $35) – This intensely dark-colored red displays a beautiful, brambly blackberry note throughout, and the fruit is prevalent without being overstated. The latter stages suggest brighter cherry and red currant with a lengthy finish accentuated with toasted vanilla.

2011 Syrah (about $40) – Gorgeous aromatics of crème brȗlée, brown sugar and dark berry fruits fill the glass. Black cherry, black olive and fig flavors subtly explode on the palate, with dreamy, smoky nuances on the finish. Exceptional!

2010 Merlot (about $45) – Intoxicating fragrances of rich plum, caramel and cola lead off, and the initial dark fruit flavors develop more of an herbaceous, mineral-like quality with a splash of espresso as the wine opens up. This is classic Red Mountain fruit at its finest.

2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (about $50) – Spicy plum on the nose carries over to the palate with big blackberry fruit and touches of cocoa powder, allspice and sweet cedar. The acidity shines through on this cooler-than-normal vintage, providing balance to the tannic structure. Enjoyable now but certain to improve with additional cellaring time.

Obelisco Estate wines have just become available in Whatcom County through local distribution. If you don’t see them in your favorite wine shop or major grocer, ask if they can be ordered for you.

In addition, the winery has a tasting room in Woodinville that is currently open from noon to 5 pm on Saturday, 1 pm to 4 pm on Sunday and Monday through Friday by appointment. For complete information as well as online purchases: obelisco.com.

Watermill Winery a Standout Among Walla Walla Valley Appellation Wineries

September 23rd, 2014

Mention the words “Walla Walla Valley” in a wine-related conversation and you’re likely to receive a smile and a nod of approval.

Wines produced from this Washington wine region have developed quite a reputation over the last several years. And with that recognition you can expect to pay higher prices – some of it warranted and some of it, perhaps, based on what I refer to as a “reputation surcharge.”

nullThat’s why it’s so refreshing to taste and recommend wines from Watermill Winery. Not only are they absolutely stunning on every level, they’re extremely well-priced, considering the source.

The Walla Walla Valley Appellation straddles the Washington/ Oregon border, and Watermill is located on the Oregon side in the town of Milton-Freewater, which is about 10 miles south of the city of Walla Walla.

While it’s not uncommon for wineries in this area to charge $40 to $50 a bottle for red wines, nearly all of Watermill’s current offerings are priced in the much more reasonable $20 to $35 price range.

Winemaker Andrew Brown has done a masterful job with these wines. They’re expressive, true to the varietal and an absolute pleasure to taste. Here are my tasting notes:

2009 Estate Midnight Red (about $35) – This cabernet sauvignon-based Bordeaux blend includes four other red varietals sourced from McClellan Estate Vineyards (which is adjacent to Casey McClellan’s Seven Hills Vineyard). Red and black currant aromas and flavors predominate, with a touch of black cherry and roasted coffee on the extreme finish. The first food pairing that came to mind: gamey meats such as elk or venison.

2010 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley (about $24) – Dark plum, blackberry and rum raisin flavors lead off, followed by a lighter contrasting note of woodsy, sweet cedar and nuances of cocoa and vanilla bean on the finish. This wine opens big, and then shows beautiful finesse as each wonderfully complex layer reveals itself.

null2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley (about $24) – This drop-dead gorgeous cabernet features inky, jet-black currant flavors that melt into a chocolaty mocha swirl with accents of baking spice. I challenge you to find a comparable cabernet from the Walla Walla Valley at this price point.

2012 Viognier, Columbia Valley (about $16) – In addition to Walla Walla fruit, Brown uses 60-percent of his grapes from the Rattlesnake Hill Appellation’s Elephant Mountain Vineyard for this elegant viognier. It carries the characteristics of its Northern Rhone cousins, roussanne and marsanne, with its nutty, almond-like flavor, clover aromatics, and pleasantly unctuous full-bodied texture.

You’ll find Watermill Winery wines locally at the Barkley Village Haggen and The Market at Birch Bay, and occasionally on the menu at Dirty Dan Harris and LaFiamma restaurants. They can also be purchased on line at watermillwinery.com.

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

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