Flying Trout and Gifford Hirlinger: Two Smaller Walla Walla Wineries Worth Noting

August 31st, 2008

Washington State is home to a growing number of winemaking facilities that define themselves as boutique wineries. These wineries are generally characterized by limited production, handcrafted attention to detail, and personalized service that you might not find at a large scale operation.

One of the best parts of my job is seeking out boutique wineries, and I came across a couple of them during a visit to Walla Walla earlier this year.

nullFlying Trout Wines has nothing to do with aerial fish, but rather a reference to winemaker Ashley Trout. I met with Trout at her startup tasting room in downtown Walla Walla and it was the type of informal visit that I really enjoy – conversation about her industry exploits, a stroll through the facility, and, of course, sampling good wine.

She currently offers a cabernet-based blend called Deep River Red (about $28). The 2004 vintage was outstanding and the 2005 promises to be a huge wine as well with excellent cellaring potential. Trout credits Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery with providing advice and insight and it’s clearly apparent in this promising young winemaker.

At Gifford Hirlinger Winery, winemaker Mike Berghan was also a congenial and knowledgeable host. His winemaking facility and 10 acres of family-owned vineyards, located just south of Walla Walla, are literally on the Washington/Oregon border.

The upscale tasting room and contemporary label design are indicators that Beghan has done his marketing homework. But this would all be for naught if he didn’t have some good wines to put in the bottle; a test he easily passes with some first-class juice.

Current releases include the 2005 vintages of his Cabernet (about $28), Merlot (about $26) and Stateline Red blend (about $22). They’re all excellent wines, but the cabernet is a personal favorite. It’s a beautiful, lush wine that’s nicely balanced with good structure, acidity and dark berry fruit flavors.

For distribution and ordering information about these two boutique wineries visit www.flyingtroutwines.com and www.giffordhirlinger.com.

Boutique Wineries Finding Their Niche in Washington State

August 24th, 2008

The term “boutique winery” gets tossed around a lot these days, and it’s nice, almost fashionable designation that smaller, startup wineries like to use. The irony behind this is that most state wine commissions have no hard and fast rules as to what defines a boutique winery, so no one can really say what should or shouldn’t fall into this category.

nullBased my experience, I’ve come up with my own guidelines for what I consider to be a boutique winery. They include the following:
 Total production is relatively small – usually fewer than 1,000 cases a year.
 Vineyard ownership, if any, is just a few acres. Grapes used in making the wines are nearly always purchased from outside vineyards.
 The winemaker and owner are one in the same, with lots of support from spouses, parents, and other family members.
 The wines are self-distributed, making them a bit difficult to find in smaller markets like the greater Bellingham area. (Note, however, that nearly all wineries have a web site where wines can be ordered online for home delivery.)
 In the friendly competition of winemaking, the boutique winery’s best promotional tool is frequently a recommendation from another winery.
 When you call the number listed for the winery, chances are it’s the cell phone of the winemaker, who will often enthusiastically meet with you on short notice.

Washington has scores of wineries that include themselves in the boutique category and many of them are turning out some really nice wines. They have to, because their numbers continue to explode, which makes finding a niche among the State’s 500+ wineries a bit of a daunting task.

Since many of these wineries have been around for five years or less, developing consistency from vintage to vintage can be an early challenge; even for the state’s talented pool of new winemakers. But as time passes, they gain experience, make adjustments and improve quality, assuring a home for boutique wineries – regardless of definition – in the future marketplace.

Next week I’ll feature a couple of boutique wineries from Walla Walla.

Horse Heaven Hills Appellation Features Big, Flavorful Wines

August 17th, 2008

Like all other wine producing states, Washington’s grape growing regions are categorized into federally designated areas called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) or appellations. What is an appellation? Quite simply, it’s an area with unique climatic, soil, and physical features that distinguish it from surrounding areas.

The Horse Heaven Hills AVA is one of Washington’s newer appellations, having been established in 2005. The 570,000 acre region is located in the south central part of the state along the Columbia River and is currently home to seven wineries.

If you like bold wines that generally display big, fruit flavors and a slightly higher than normal alcohol content, then Horse Heaven Hills has plenty to offer. Here are a few recommendations you might want to consider:

nullColumbia Crest 2006 Horse Heaven Hills H3 Chardonnay (about $14) – If you’re not a fan of unoaked, lighter style chardonnays then this wine is a must-try. It has a beautiful aroma of tropical fruits, some nice toasted coconut and vanilla flavors and a finish that suggests butterscotch.

Zefina 2005 Zinfandel (about $20) – Who says you need to go to California for a decent zin? This is another huge wine, with loads of spice, berries and black pepper, followed by a touch of crème brûlée. Note the hefty 15.2 percent alcohol content before you pour yourself a glass of this sinfully tasty red wine.

Alexandria Nicole 2005 Estate Quarry Butte (about $20) – With a base consisting primarily of cabernet and merlot, this red wine blend features dark cherry and berry flavors and a bit of oak on the finish. It’s big, yet plush, and well priced for a wine of this caliber.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (about $30 for 375 milliliters) – I usually steer clear of the Ste. Michelle bandwagon, but this one is difficult to ignore. It’s cram-packed with spiced pear aromas, lechee nut, rhubarb, and melon flavors and an over-the-top 19 percent residual sugar content.

Summer is the Perfect Time to Reacquaint Yourself With a Versatile Rose

August 10th, 2008

Rosé has to be near the top of the list of ideal summertime wines. Unfortunately, many of us (me included) don’t drink a lot of rosé outside the summer season, while some wine drinkers won’t even touch it at all. Perhaps it’s because of the bad connotation some feel that rosé still carries from the 60’s and 70’s, courtesy of a few mainstream “gems” such as Matteus and Lancers.

But rosé has come a long, long way over the past few decades and its incredible range of styles makes it a versatile wine that can’t be ignored. And don’t assume that rosé’s pink color equates with sweet wine. You may be surprised to find that there are plenty of rosés made in a drier style, giving them broader appeal and making them much easier to pair with food.

nullA few recommendations to consider include the Chateau Bellevue La Foret 2007 Rosé (pictured at left, about $11), a delightful wine from Southwestern France made mostly from the negrette grape. It’s full of strawberry, melon and cherry Jolly Rancher flavors, good acidity and a faintly off-dry finish. This is a nice rosé to pair with mild, creamy cheeses.

From Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills Appellation, try the Canyon’s Edge Winery 2005 Rosé of Syrah (about $11). This wine has a beautiful, dark garnet color that nearly disqualifies it from rosé status. Unique and refreshing, it almost drinks like a crisp, light port without the sweetness.

My new favorite rosé-style wine is the Thurston Wolfe 2006 Rosato (about $10). This blend of lemberger and zinfandel grapes from the Prosser, Washington winery is absolutely outstanding. Lovely aromas of berry, honeysuckle, and rose petals lead to lush, strawberry flavors, nice acidity, and a touch of burnt cream on the off-dry finish.

Mount Baker Vineyards Has a Plethora of New Releases

August 3rd, 2008

I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news: Mount Baker Vineyards has a ton of new releases, and I’m pleased to say that they’re all really nice wines that deserve a try.

nullThe bad news is that there are so many new wines, I don’t have enough space to cover all of them here, but let me give you some of the highlights:

2007 Rosetta Blanc (about $13) – This fantastic blend of pinot gris, viognier, chasselas dore and gewürztraminer absolutely blew me away. Light in body, with luscious Bartlett pear flavors and a trace of residual sugar make it a great summer wine. Less than 200 cases were produced, so buy now.

2007 Roussanne (about $20) – Another knockout of a white wine, highlighted by a touch of herbaceousness that complements the understated flavors of baked apple and oak. A small amount of chardonnay was blended in, adding length and depth to the finish.

2005 Tempranillo (about $16) – I thought this was a fun little red wine; slightly grenache-like with plenty of bang for the buck. Earthy and slightly smoky for starters followed by bright, pie cherry flavors on the finish. Bring on the cheese ravioli!

2005 Malbec (about $20) – Made in a much different style than the winery’s prior vintages, this malbec has less emphasis on the fruit. Even so, it’s a beautiful wine, with a huge nose of fresh berries and subtle hints of blackberry and cedar on the palate.

null2004 Barrel Select Syrah (about $16) and 2004 Reserve Syrah (about $24) – The well-priced barrel select has plenty of dark fruit flavors and a touch of spice, while the nicely balanced reserve has nice acidity, plump red cherry flavors and a soft finish.

Mount Baker Vineyards wines are extremely well distributed in grocery stores and wine shops throughout the greater Bellingham area.

Winery information is also available on the much anticipated, now up-and-running web site at www.mountbakervineyards.com.

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