Ask your local sommelier for a wine recommendation and you’re likely to get a suggestion for some obscure, enamel stripping high acid low alcohol wine from France or a place you haven’t heard of, right? At least, that’s what wine critics at big name wine publications would have you believe.
It’s not like there isn’t truth to that stereotype. A good sommelier won’t do those things. However, an average or below average sommelier will perpetuate the stereotype and get you to drink something they like to drink along those lines—not that you’d like it. The good somms, especially Master Sommeliers have evolved and will steer you to a wine you will like without making you feel silly. If you want Silver Oak with your halibut and that makes you happy, so be it.
There’s friction between the sommelier community and major wine publications (and their reviewers). On one side, the sommelier is perceived as a snooty know-it-all who turns their nose up at any wine over 14% alcohol made with new oak. On the other side, the wine critic representing a pay-to-play business who’s lifeblood is advertising dollars from major wine conglomerates who just happen to end up gracing a majority of the Top 100 list each year. Coincidence?
Knowing who to trust for wine recommendations isn’t hard. Not one other person can possibly know what you as an individual likes to drink. The best wine for you is the wine you like.
Let’s look at the motivation behind wine publication recommendations. First, it’s important to note wine publications are a business motivated by the almighty dollar. Wine critics cover a region regurgitating the same content (worded differently) over and over in an effort to fill pages of a magazine that’s 50% advertising. “Chewy dense tannins and refined oak”… Sound familiar? The wine critic is not trained to follow any industry standard nor do they have any accreditation—it’s just their opinion. Anyone can give an expensive wine a high rating, especially if the producer is an advertiser. Expensive wines aren’t hard to figure out—someone at your table is bound to like it.
The sommelier is motivated by….well, now let’s look at that. It’s not money. Sommeliers are motivated by something entirely different. The sommelier fights for artists. Small, independent producers with no advertising dollars who happen to make great wines need a champion, and that champion works the floor at finer restaurants.
The sommelier is more of a filter of typicity. Each grape is supposed to taste like something specific. Merlot has a benchmark. Chardonnay has a benchmark. Riesling has a benchmark. When a winemaker hits the bullseye of what the grape is supposed to be, from the place its grown it gets closer to the center of that grape’s typicity. Often times those producers are relatively unknown from places you wouldn’t think to look. And yes, sometimes the best examples of typicity are lower alcohol wines with less oak. Not always, but often.
Anyone can oak the crap out of a wine and get points. Too much oak usually means higher prices and higher scores. But not necessarily recommendations from sommeliers as the wine loses its typicity. Take the 2009 Chateau Monbousquet from the right bank in Bordeaux for example. Robert Parker gave the wine 95 points. But smell the wine and it neither smells like Merlot, nor does it smell like the place its grown . It smells like a lot of crazy wine making techniques. Some wine lovers and collectors like that, which is fine. But the typicity of the grape is way off.
At the end of the day, sommeliers are value shoppers. They’re constantly trying to find the best examples of typicity for each grape at the best possible price, no matter the region. You might get some unexpected recommendations from regions you didn’t expect, such as Domaine Skouras Megas Oenos from Greece ($25 retail) or Graci Etna Rosso ($26 retail). If you like Cabernet based wines from Bordeaux, you might like the Skouras. If you like Pinot Noir, you might like the Etna Rosso.
Aside from typicity, the sommelier is also looking for structure. If you were to make a movie, you’d have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. The tension between good and bad creates drama. All the supporting cast adds to the story and makes the drama more intriguing. A wine has tension between sugar and acid. They are the main building blocks to the story. Drama between the two makes the wine interesting. All all the additional flavors serve as a supporting cast.
Wines with impeccable balance between sugar and acid are wines you’d probably hear as a suggestion from your sommelier. It’s like a friend recommending a good movie. A sommelier is likely to recommend “Forrest Gump” to you while a wine publication is motivated to recommend “Transformers” to you.
If you cross paths with a sommelier who isn’t listening to you and just wants to recommend a wine they like, they’re doing it wrong. Call them out on it. If they listen to you and your likes, then steer you to something they think you’ll like based on what you described, you probably have a good sherpa of value.
The Importance of Family
As a doe-eyed newbie I felt like the new kid on the first day of kindergarten when I got into the wine business. In October, 2003 the country was entering into a recession, there was a heat wave killing people in Europe, Chicken n’ Beer by Ludacris was the #1 album in the country, and I had just left my job at NIKE after eight years of branding and marketing.
When you reboot your life and career, there’s usually a catalyst for the change. In this case, it was my family. My Mom's body was breaking down and her Multiple Sclerosis was starting to take its toll. It was a proverbial fork in the road decision—stay at my dream job working for the company I always wanted to work for, or go take care of family. After about two seconds, the road leading to family was an obvious choice. But what to do about a job? At that moment in time with nothing to lose I decided to follow the advice of ‘do what you love’. I collected wine so why not try a career in the wine business? After moving to Denver, I took the first step hand selling wine in a local wine shop. The very first bottle I sold was a bottle of 2002 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay.
Let’s look at that word, ‘family’. We’re all were born with one. Even if we haven’t met everyone in our family or don’t particularly want to be around our family, we are genetically linked to other human beings. In the world of wine, ‘family’ is used far less domestically than in other parts of the world where multi-generational families have made wine for centuries. In the U.S. we have winemaking families like the Wagners (Caymus, Mer Soleil, Belle Glos), the Trefethens, the Hirsch’s, Sokol Blossers, Figgins (Leonetti) among others.
But no winemaking family has the historical depth and breadth quite like the Wente family of Livermore, California. They mention being the longest continuously running family winery in the U.S. (135 years) almost matter-of-factly when talking about the history of their little corner of the world. At one point in the 1800’s, Livermore was one of America’s premiere wine producing regions.
Ask any vineyard manager growing Bordeaux grapes (especially Sauvignon Blanc) in California if they have a “Wente clone” in the vineyard and chances are they do or did. In 1882 Charles Wetmore famously brought Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vine cuttings from Chateau Yquem as well as cuttings from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux to Livermore. Wetmore travelled back to France in 1889 with his wine and won Grand Prize at the Paris Expo giving America its first win internationally. His Cresta Blanca wines along with Chateau Wente were some of the first wines made with the clones.
Wetmore’s early success and Livermore’s location thirty miles south of the bay area could’ve led to the region becoming “the Napa Valley” of California, yet over a century later and Livermore valley is yet to realize its potential. Carolyn Wente and the family’s tireless work in the valley suggests the best days are still ahead. To this day, Wente honors Charles Wetmore with their Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon.
Home is where the History Is
Upon arrival at one of Wente’s two Livermore locations, there’s a sense of visiting the family in their living room. On two separate visits, a Wente family member stopped by to greet my wife and I. Chief winemaker, Karl Wente recently joined us on the tasting room patio mere days before harvest to discuss vintage 2014 and the responsibility of upholding the Wente name.
“Do you feel a lot of pressure keeping the family name in good standing?” I ask sniffing and sipping a surprisingly accurate Cabernet Franc. “I grew up around these vines and got to know the fruit as a kid,” he tells us. “We have consistent vineyards that produce consistently quality grapes year in and year out. I just try to get out of the way of that”.
Charles Wetmore may have been onto something. Livermore’s unique combination of sandy gravel soils peppered with random Limestone deposits along with its warm days and cool foggy nights near the ocean put the region more on par with Bordeaux’s Maritime right bank climate. Conversely, Napa and Sonoma feature a Mediterranean climate with more volcanic mother soils and alluvial deposits.
Out of the entire lineup of wines, the Sandstone Merlot was a hair-blow-back ringer. Wente may be known for its Chardonnays, however, this $20 bottle is on the money for what Merlot can or should be. No wonder, as it’s grown in shallow well-drained gravelly soils not much different than its right bank brethren.
As sommelier’s, we look for typicte, or the accuracy of what the grape should taste like from the place it’s grown. Wente Sandstone Merlot is the benchmark of not only what Merlot should be from Livermore, but from the entire state of California.
Other standouts from the Wente lineup include the Cabernet Franc and winery-only GSM blend. Although higher in alcohol and oak than I’d like, it did represent what we love about Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Roasted meats, smoke, iodine, black and dark red fruits all working in concert with one another.
For visitors and wine lovers alike, it’s not hard to find a Wente made wine to put on the dinner table. But just in case, Wente’s new Winemaker Studio offers visitors the opportunity to make their own wine. Part rustic cafe, part laboratory, Wente’s Winemaker studio lets you play mad scientist with your favorite blends.
On this day we did the sniffer seminar. 20 glasses of clear liquid were all lined up in a row with each one smelling like one specific wine smell ranging from “cat pee” to “cassis” and “tobacco”. Half the fun is trying to guess what each smell is, the other half is the social element challenging fellow sniffers sitting around the table.
I smell wine for a living, so I thought I’d crush everyone, yet I did the worst only getting 3 smells right.
Visitors have a myriad of ways to enjoy their time when visiting Wente in Livermore. Once the itch to taste wines at the tasting room gets scratched, and class is dismissed in the Winemaker Studio, one might play a round of golf at the golf course, or better yet, roll into town for a little BBQ then take in a concert at the winery (which is what we did). Tony Bennett was playing on my birthday, so we spent the summer night under the August sky taking in the sounds of a living legend while sipping on Wente Pinot Noir.
In a strange twist of fate, Colorado's legendary wine guy, John Verdeal (the guy who first hired me into the wine industry in 2003) was sitting at the next table over. It was a reminder of the importance of family, friends and why we enjoy wine in the first place. As for Wente, the family winery is in good hands for the near future and years to come.
When I told some friends I was going to visit Opus One on my birthday they scoffed. “Ooooh, GOD! They are sooo pretentious there!” they said. “Don’t forget to kiss the ring on the way in”.
I brought my Mom and Mrs. B along for the ride because, hey, it was my birthday. Not sure what experience others had at Opus One but what we found on our visit was one of the warmest, most down to earth winery visits I’ve ever experienced…anywhere. And that’s saying something as I’ve probably been to over 500 wineries around the world.
Robert Mondavi is easily the person I admire the most in the wine industry, so to see Opus One three decades after he cofounded it was personally rewarding. His vision, his passion, his standard of excellence and his soul are still part of the DNA that is at the heart Opus One. What I saw on this day wasn't the Opus One brand but rather Mondavi's fingerprints that were still all over this place.
Chief Winemaker Michael Silacci and PR Director, Roger Asleson met us in the front lobby for a short introduction and conversation about Opus One’s history. In my head I’m thinking, “okay, when’s it going to feel stuffy?” Silacci’s easy going demeanor and laid back style was warm and engaging. His black horn rimmed 1960’s hipster glasses with salt and pepper speckled hair began to remind me of a cross between Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State and Mr. Natale, the coolest teacher at my high school.
Silacci’s seasoned veteran worldliness gave a glimpse into a yoda-like genius intellect matched only by an unabashed humility and a patience to teach. It was obvious this dude was cool as hell and knew his stuff. But he never made any of us feel stupid about asking anything. Moreover, he took time out of doing something probably more important to spend time with our little group. Our day was just beginning.
Over the course of our time together, we’d come to learn Silacci’s role as Chief Winemaker wasn’t only about upholding the Opus One standard of quality set by the founders (discussed in part 1) but he nurtured people at the winery much like the vines—with patience to help everyone grow and flourish over time.
Precision in the Vineyard
Any winemaker will tell you work in the vineyard is where good wine is made. If you don’t have good fruit coming into the winery, you aren’t going to make good wine.
Michael Silacci and his team use cutting edge technology to manage every single grape cluster in every row. When interns from the Baron Philippe de Rothschild side of the partnership came over from Bordeaux they weren’t simply put into the winery to clean tanks. Instead, Silacci challenged them to truly get to know each vine by mapping out and digitally track every single vine in the vineyard. A daunting task in any vineyard, but at Opus One it was a major undertaking.
The result allows Silacci’s winemaking team to manage every vine as an individual living thing with its own personality. The visual grape analyzer pictured above gives the winemakers an accurate portrait of the sugar content leading up to harvest. They constantly monitor grapes from around the vineyard throughout each day.
Winemaking is a bit like being a painter. A good painter has a palette of colors to dip their brush into when creating a work of art. The better the control over the colors, the better the artist is. Instead of colors in a palette, a winemaker has individual lots or tanks. By keeping grapes, rows or blocks separate during production allows the winemaker freedom to pull from different parts of the “terroir” to paint a masterpiece. At Opus One, the winemaking and viticulture team painstakingly manage every vine so it produces the best possible fruit that goes into the final work of art. When it comes to blending the final wine, Silacci and his team taste through every single individual lot as if picking colors from their palette.
It’s important to remember Opus One was created to be a American “first growth” modeled after the great houses of Bordeaux where red wines are blends made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. When those grapes come together with the right amount of each, it can be magic in a bottle (see reviews below). Great care is taken throughout every step of the winemaking process, including hand soaking corks in a solution that removes any corked bottle causing bacteria.
Tradition and Innovation in the Winery
To this day Opus One still embraces the soul of the two founders. Balance and tension between French and American, Old and New, Tradition and Innovation is what gives the wines their identity. The word that kept popping up was, 'DNA'.
As harvest gets under way each year, shallow bins of pristine fruit come into the winery with the utmost care to insure the weight of grape bunches don’t squeeze juice out of the grapes prematurely. From there they go through an initial hand sorting picking out only the best fruit. It's at this point where many luxury wineries would be satisfied with the quality of grapes going into their wine.
In the relentless drive to create the wine Robert Mondavi and Philippe Baron de Rothschild envisioned they take it a step further. If you've never seen a laser fruit sorter it is one of the coolest inventions in the wine industry. Seriously, it's cool as hell.
Pre sorted grapes come cruising down the conveyor belt into the sorter. A laser "eye" rapidly looks at every grape and quickly identifying the "good" grapes and the "bad" grapes. As the grapes fall into the press little air blowers kick out the bad grapes. Watch as Michael throws in a random leaf to demonstrate how the eye sees it, then kicks it out. Only the absolute best grapes make it into the tank:
Two hours have passed and we don't want it to end. Our hosts have filled our heads with enough winemaking geekery to fill a semester at UC Davis. It wouldn't have been as interesting if Michael and Roger's experience wasn't matched by their wit like when I wasn't looking and Roger busted my Mom for illegal parking in the winery:
So then we moved down into the barrel room where future vintages of Opus One were nestled into their slumber in prime French oak casks in a temperature controlled room under ground.
Oak is an ingredient that doesn't get talked about enough in winemaking and tasting. What was the percentage of new oak? What's the toast level? How much of it was new and how much was neutral? These different facets all add up to the oak influence on a wine. Add too much oak and it becomes an oak bomb covering up fruit and terroir. Add too little and the wine can be wimpy.
Here they seem to find the right balance of oak satisfaction providing enough but not so much it overpowers the main attraction—the fruit. These wines are meant to age and they are modeled after the great Bordeaux houses. To that end, oak isn't just a flavor, it's an ideal meant to compliment texturally and well as sensuously.
When a red wine is sitting in the tanks after pressing it’s like a child waiting to discover the world outside. The core personality is there and the fruit is primary, but the wine isn’t mature enough to be on its own. In the barrel wine becomes more of an adolescent looking forward to leaving the close protection of the winemaking team. The fruit is still primary but now there’s other things rounding out its personality, like oak nuances. Continuing in its evolution, red wine grows up and becomes an adult in the bottle leaving the nest (or winery) out into the world. Whether it’s a twenty five year-old adult just starting out on its own or a senior citizen, an adult doesn’t want to lose the child within (the fruit at the core).
All the painstaking work in the vineyard, and all the technology in the winery would be nothing if the wine didn’t become the thing Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild envisioned in 1979. We found on our visit that Opus One’s legacy is cemented in place.
Our small group moved into the tasting room adjacent to the barrel room where a little birthday surprise was waiting. The folks at Opus One heard it was my birthday (probably from Facebook) and started the tasting off with a little Champagne...which was nice.
Krug Champagne - What can you say? It’s Krug Champagne! The best thing about enjoying that bottle of Krug wasn’t how good the wine was, it was the fact the people at Opus One understood the concept of ‘surprise and delight’. They didn’t need to acknowledge it but they did. And what better way to freshen up your palate before tasting through the library wines of Opus One.
1982 Opus One - Still so youthful with evolved baked red, black and blue fruits wrapped around a sturdy structured core. This wine was old school Napa and only the third vintage in Opus One's history. I imagine the winemaking team was starting to really fire on all cylinders by the time they were bringing in fruit from the 1982 vintage.
Before the valley took off and winemakers started equating oak usage to quality and price in the mid-1990s, wines were made for longevity rather than immediate drinking. This one was no different. If tasted side by side with first or second growths from 1982, Opus One would definitely stand up and have a loud voice in "who's the best wine on the table?" conversation. Still has life ahead of it.
2004 Opus One - Michael Silacci’s second vintage and it’s apparent he’s got a handle on the fruit in the vineyards. Just over ripe red rhubarb, choke cherries, black cherries show off less tart fruit notes and developing black and blue fruits in equal harmony as if to suggest the perfect blend of grapes showed what the future would hold. Damp earth is starting to emerge with silky cocoa slippers hidden underneath the luxuriously textured moderate tannins. Still plenty of time ahead, but developing nicely.
2005 Opus One - The vintage was a pretty stellar vintage in many parts of the world, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Bordeaux, Tuscany, Piedmont and most red wine producing regions of the U.S. enjoyed warm temperatures with enough cool nights to give wines ageability. Not as open as the 2004 on this day, but precocious enough to draw you in for a later date with greatness.
2009 Opus One - Using the child, adolescent, adult analogy above the 2009 would be the college student about ready to graduate and set out on its own. Under ripe primary dark red fruits with slight herbal rose stems, ripe black plums and already seamless oak integration. Colors in the glass went the darker side of Ruby town with a thin watery meniscus around the rim. A big vintage to be sure as temperatures were hot, most likely leading to primary fruit that may not age as gracefully as the 1982 or 2004 but will still be great to drink in 7-12 years.
After tasting through the wines one word kept popping into my mind—consistency. Thirty-plus years of an icon isn't very long in wine terms but it was apparent Opus One the brand was in good hands and kept its direction close to the trajectory set out when hair styles were big and disco was king.
We had spent the better part of an afternoon with Michael and Roger but didn't want it to end. It was almost 3pm and we hadn't eaten lunch. Luckily, Rutherford Grill was close by and the wait was short. We enjoyed our hosts so much we invited them to lunch. And to our great surpass, they joined us!
We continued a great conversation, the kind Ernest Hemingway must've had sitting at a table side bistro in Paris on a buzzing Friday night. We ordered more Champagne and opened more Opus One while savoring grilled artichokes and French Dips.
It's safe to say this winery's legacy is in good hands and the evolution of an icon is on schedule.
Twenty years ago if you were in a restaurant and ordered a bottle of Opus One you were important. You were a fine wine connoisseur and you liked the best. Opus One raised the bar for Napa Valley and for domestic wine. If you were drinking Opus One you were drinking a regal wine that presidents and diplomats held in high regard.
If you were drinking Opus One you had arrived.
Perhaps that luxurious brand positioning started to work against the winery in the 1990’s as production increased and Opus One was everywhere. It was no longer scarce and no longer carried the prestige it once had, especially as new cult producers with small productions and high ratings like Harlan Estate, Bryant Family, Araujo, Maya and Shafer Hillside emerged from Napa. Robert Parker wasn’t giving Opus One 100-point scores. Sommeliers and serious collectors shied away from increasing prices and increasing production in favor of new producers.
After Opus One and Robert Mondavi Winery were acquired by Constellation Brands in 2004, this once family owned winery was now in the hands of a large cooperation. While the business and revenue generating conversation may have changed people's like or dislike of Opus One, the purpose of this post is to honor the founders and acknowledge that much of the original soul of Opus One is still there. It never went away.
America’s original ‘First Growth’
America’s wine making history is a blip on the radar compared to the wine making histories in countries like Greece, Italy, France or Germany where there’s well over one thousand years of production. History has a way of upholding the best producers over time. In Bordeaux for example, the 1855 Classification determined first, second, third, fourth and fifth growths aka left bank producers deemed the “best” by ranking. At that time in 1855 the right bank was considered inferior for wine production whereas today in 2013 right bank producers like Le Pin or Petrus might be held with higher esteem than the left bank first growths (or on the same level).
The point being is that was over one hundred and fifty years ago — “recent” in old world wine terms. Conversely, Napa Valley only gained popularity on the world stage as a quality wine region about thirty years ago (in our life time) — a mere drop in the bucket on the wine timeline. Compared to those old world wine regions, we’re infants over here in the new world just learning to walk.
If we were to do a classification rating and put a stake in the sand proclaiming our “first growth” wineries, Opus One would likely be on that list (founded in part by an actual first growth winery owner, Baron Philippe Rothchild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild fame). Before there were domestic “first growths” there was Opus One. One of, if not THE original Cult wine. Grace Family and Caymus Special Selection are certainly on that short list as well.
Old world wine families might flick their cigarette butts in disgust and let out a “pffffft” when I ask you to go back in history with me to the birth of this icon. It was waaaay back in the late 1970’s. Robert Mondavi’s namesake winery was hitting on all cylinders and his first-in-the-valley tasting room was attracting more people to Napa.
The remarkable vision of the two cofounders might seem obvious today, but back in the mid 1970’s nothing was guaranteed. It took the fortitude and belief from two men who saw what was possible, even though there was little proof their idea could work.
To list all the innovative contributions Robert Mondavi made to the wine industry could fill a book, but his coup de gras may have getting Baron Philippe de Rothschild to go in on an ambitious project in Napa Valley.
Mondavi and Baron Philippe's collaboration would bring a balance and tension between old and new, French and American, Tradition and Innovation.
Mondavi and de Rothschild were at the top of their game. It was the mid-1970’s and Napa had just shocked the world by winning the Judgement of Paris. Robert Mondavi was quickly becoming an international icon. Napa didn’t have the booming tourism industry it has now. There was no social media or internet to discover a largely unknown wine region.
Baron Philippe had acquired other Bordeaux houses during his lifetime including Chateau d’ Armailhac and Chateau Clerc Milon as well as expanded into Chile through a partnership with Concha y Toro. He and Mondavi found a mutual connection of passion and excellence in their winemaking approach. Mondavi was leading a renaissance in California and the time was right for a joint venture.
In 1979, set out to establish an American “first growth” that would set the bar high enough to put Napa on the world stage. Mondavi not only understood the American palate, but he was responsible for broadening wine drinkers’ tastes by marrying wine to other luxury lifestyle enjoyments like music, the arts and of course good food.
The name, Opus One was chosen to be timeless yet exude a sense of time and place. They also wanted a latin name that would be recognizable in both French as English. Baron Philippe came up with the name which is inspired by the word, “Opus” which is a musical expression denoting the first masterpiece of a composer.
Part 2 of the story will feature behind the scenes winemaking technology and reviews of some Opus One library wines from 1982, 1991, 2004, 2005 and 2009.
When thinking about the wines of Washington state many wine drinkers may lump Walla Walla together with wines from the Columbia Valley. The former is a wine region at the southeast corner of the state with a total of 1800 acres planted (which is small). The latter is basically the entire middle 1/3 of the state. Columbia Valley is where large producers like Chateau St. Michelle produce hundreds of thousands of cases of value-driven wines. Conversely, Walla Walla is a region full of small producers crafting smaller amounts of higher quality well-priced wines.
The two regions are cut from a similar cloth, but they’re personalities are as different as two siblings can be.
On #CabernetDay 2011 there was a massive tasting in Napa valley with close to 200 winemakers, sommeliers and other professional wine palates. Close to 100 world class Cabernet-based wines were tasted over four hours from regions like Bordeaux, Napa, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Loire Valley and Washington state.
Wines on display that day were wines like Penfold’s Bin 707, Chateau Montelena, second growth Bordeaux’s, Vilafonté from South Africa, Cullen from Margaret River, Frog’s Leap, Couly-Dutheil Clos de L’Echo Chinon from Loire valley and Jordan to name a few.
At the end of the event attendees were asked to pick their favorite favorite wine, and wouldn’t you know it the most popular wine was 2001 L’Ecole No. 41 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon, which sold for about $30 retail upon release.
The following year on #CabernetDay 2012 again there was a large tasting, and again there were high caliber wines from different regions. And again L’Ecole No. 41 was a favorite—this time it finished in the top 3 with the 2005 vintage (1995 Ridge Monte Bello came out on top).
It was a glimpse into the untapped potential of Walla Walla’s true ranking on the world stage of wine regions. Perhaps none of us realize how good Walla Walla wines can be because it’s such a young region. The oldest wineries have only been around since the mid 1980’s and the region wasn’t officially established as an AVA until 1984.
“I love cellared wines! One of the great things about making wine in Walla Walla is occasionally going back in time with an older vintage. This ’97 surprised me with its color, aroma, texture and fruit. Both vineyards were actually rather young in 1997, yet still they offered a glimpse into what they could or would produce several decades later, absolutely amazing! This is agriculture in its purest form, plain and simple and I love it.” - Rick Small, Woodward Canyon
There are no vast libraries of older vintages for us to look at. Only a few coveted library wines from Chris Figgins at Leonetti, Marty Clubb at L’Ecole No. 41 or Rick Small at Woodward Canyon offer any glimpse into Walla Walla’s ageability. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of the older vintages in existence.
To put it in context, there were less than 5 wineries in Walla Walla in 1984, 11 wineries in 1995 but now there are well over 100 and that number is growing. You’d be hard pressed to find red wines from before the mid-1990’s. In wine years that was like, yesterday.
Walla Walla’ Rich History
After WWII a U.S. census showed Walla Walla had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country. Back then, rolling hills of wheat were a consistent crop for large breweries, Budweiser being the biggest customer. Anyone with land and wheat could sell their product hand over fist, especially land in the rain shadow of the nearby Blue Mountains where wheat was harvested three times more than other places.
The early influx of wealth helped establish the region and city of Walla Walla. But the history of winemaking goes back even further than that. According to Norm McKibben, one of Walla Walla’s forefathers, French traders came to the region in the early 1800’s by river to trade wares at the Fort Vancouver and Hudson Bay outpost. Apparently the French brought grape vines with them wherever they went. They would plant and cultivate vines in their explorations. To this day, there are still french streets names and family names rooted in Walla Walla’s long history.
Italian immigrants also played a large role in the region by bringing vines with a tradition of growing, making and drinking wine. They planted vines with the intent of making homemade wines. The Pesciallo family is credited with starting the first bonded winery, Blue Mountain Vineyards in the 1950’s.
Walla Walla World Class Wines are Underpriced
In youth, most Walla Walla wines exhibit dark, purple-hued fruity wines with a vein of black cherries, ripe plums and an iron component that can best be described as lemon butter cookies. Grapes are picked with brix in the mid-20’s when skin to juice contact will be concentrated. The resulting wines offer a seamless evenly textured wine with equal balance between fruit and acid.
A shorter growing season with longer days of sunlight where the sun sits lower on the horizon due to Walla Walla’s distance from the equator, combined with schist covered Basalt gives the wines power and finesse without angular edges. By nature, the wines will be opulent with an inherent silky texture upon release. Maybe that’s why we don’t see older Walla Walla wines—they’re so good upon release who wants to wait?
Over time, the ripe fruits start to show more dried fruit characteristics, and that initial seamless texture only gets softer and silkier. While that might sound good, the best part is the price. Walla Walla’s wines are very well priced at around $35-$50 a bottle on average compared with $50-$200 in Napa or Bordeaux. They may be some of the highest quality, lowest priced wines from anywhere in the world.
For me personally, I like Walla Walla red wines around 8-12 years old. That’s when the power and finesse really converge to a sweet spot unlocking an “X -factor” in the wine. Where many regions hang their hat on one grape, Walla Walla seems to have a hard time picking one because so many do so well. And that’s a good thing.
Strong contenders for Walla Walla’s flagship grape could be Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or maybe even Cabernet Franc.
Hillside plantings with wind blown silt known as loess provides ample drainage for red grape varietals. In a small strip of land on the Oregon side of the state line there’s a dried out river bed where large round rocks resembling golf balls make up “the rocks”. That’s where Christophe Baron of famed Cayuse Vineyards planted Syrah vines in ankle bending rocky soils resembling Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Newcomer Dusted Valley planted right next door several years ago, and their wines are just about to hit the market.
the "rocks" where Dusted Valley is growing and producing Syrah
I’ve had a chance to taste a few older Walla Walla wines in 2012 and can say I might end up on the show, Hoarders. Here’s a few library tastings that show the beauty of Walla Walla’s graceful ageability:
1997 Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon ($40 release price) - Rick Small was in the right place at the right time when he started Woodward Canyon. He’s the Berry Gordy of Motown, the Dave Brubeck of jazz, the Henry Ford of cars...Rick was one of the first to do it right and set the standard.
He planted vineyards on family land in the 1980’s and really helped attract future winemakers to the area through mentorship and leading by example. This is one of the few wineries that has older library wines to show off, and the good thing is they’re located right next door to one of the other early pioneers at L’Ecole No. 41. Nowhere else in the valley are you going to find the older vintages that these two possess.
Woodward Canyon's Rick Small did it right from the start
I’ve visited Rick a few times over the years, and each time we go out to the vineyard, not only to look at vines, but to pick fresh herbs from his sustainably farmed garden. Rick’s latest love is wood fired pizzas in his own pizza oven out in back of the winery.
The 1997 is from a bottling that would later become his Old Vines line of Cabs. Made from 60% Woodward Canyon vineyard and 40% Pepper Bridge vineyard this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is only 13.3% alcohol and might fool a blinder taster into thinking this was a first or second growth Bordeaux.
95% opaque garnet colors in the glass gave way to signs of age around the rim where the color lightens to a 50% opaque garnet/ruby color with a weeee bit of tear staining.
A clean, elegant moderate nose of baked choke cherries, baked black cherries, stewed plums and baked rhubarb pie at the core were wrapped together with a ribbon of lemon butter cookie, raisins and a slight sign of oxidation—the kind you like to smell in fine Bordeaux.
Many of those enticing aromas were confirmed on the palate—again with the baked cherries, cooked plums, baked rhubarb along with some damp tobacco leaf, jellied Thanksgiving cranberry and a slight showing of black olives. There was a little mocha thing happening on the finish that I thought might be from Merlot, but since none was added it's most likely from oak.
I like Rick's wines and have been drinking them over the years since living in Oregon. You don't just put the empty bottle in recycling and forget about it—he gives you something to talk about and makes you think about the wines even hours after you've enjoyed them.
2002 Pepper Bridge & 2006 Amavi ($50 & $25 respectively) - There's a few important things to know here. The first is both wineries are sister wineries to one another. The second is they were both created with the help of Walla Walla founding father, Norm McKibben. Norm had the vision to do a lot of things in Walla Walla, one of which was the buy a stellar plot of land known as Les Collines Vineyard. If you see that on the label—buy it, whatever it is!
Les Collines fruit is like the hot girl at the party—it's pretty and everybody wants to get their hands on it. Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington sources Les Collines fruit for his highly acclaimed Gramercy Cellars wines.
In addition to bringing Les Collines online, Norm and the Pepper Bridge team also helped develop another important vineyard called Seven Hills. Located on the Oregon side of the border not far from the "rocks", Seven Hills is where much of the growth is happening in Walla Walla. They have their own commercial on-site composting operation that, for anyone who grows plants, would blow you away.
If you look at the Woodward Canyon wine above, 40% of the fruit came from Pepper Bridge vineyard. So what I'm saying is these two wineries are making wines from some of the best fruit sources in Walla Walla, sources that they helped develop.
Winemaker, Jean-François Pellet opened the 2002 Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon when I visited in September. Much like in Napa and Sonoma, Mother Nature also smiled upon Walla Walla with a near ideal growing season. Jean-François notes, "this rich, polished and multifaceted Cabernet Sauvignon entices you with layers of sweet black cherry, ripe plum, licorice, cedar, and spice flavors with a subtle touch of mineral. This highly concentrated wine offers an incredible blend of power and finesse with a long and persistent finish."
#CabernetDay crowd favorite two years running
2001 L'Ecole No. 41 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35 release price) - This is it. This was the wine that stands head and shoulders above all the other world class wines presented during #CabernetDay. Marty Clubb of L'Ecole and Rick Small are next door neighbors. They've both been around and have seen the valley grow from a tiny industry with less than five wineries to a burgeoning region making world class juice.
The 2001 was right in the drinking window when we had it last year. Instead of giving all the wonderful tasting notes, I can just say this was a reminder of why we drink wine. Every now and then a bottle comes along and provides that "OMIGOD" experience. From novice wine lover to experienced taster, there's something about this wine that pretty much anybody would love.
It was cashmere in a glass with plenty of X-Factor and personality. We had a few bottles but already drank them all like a bunch of piglets...we couldn't wait!