Mercer Wine Estates to Unveil Eagle & Plow Label

August 30th, 2014

The Mercer family, the first to plant vinifera in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills in 1972, announced the September 5 launch of the inaugural Eagle & Plow BLOCK 93 Cabernet Sauvignon, a new label created to support and benefit the servicemen and women and their families who have been impacted by the war on terrorism and those who continue to serve and protect.

Eagle & Plow is the Mercer family’s most recent charitable initiative inspired by the family’s close connections with the September 11, 2001 tragedies and history of service in the United States military. Mercer Vineyard Manager, John Derrick, lost his best friend, Richard Guadagno on United Airlines Flight 93. The 2012 Eagle & Plow BLOCK 93 Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from a one-acre block, on the family’s Cavalie vineyard.

BLOCK 93 contains 911 vines, 40 of which were hand-planted by Derrick’s vineyard team to represent the 40 innocent victims of Flight 93. The wine has a suggested retail price of $100 and $350 for 750 ml and 3L bottlings, respectively, and will be available in select markets including California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington State. All sales proceeds will be donated to commemorating organizations such as the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation and Friends of Flight 93.

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

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.

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

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.

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