The Guild of Sommeliers have another great video. This time it's all about iconic producers and vineyards in the world's best Syrah growing region:
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.
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!
2010 was a classic vintage in Oregon and Washington. As the wines from the vintage start to enter the market, wine lovers might feel like a kid in a candy store with all the choices of what to buy. Here's a few brands you may or may not have heard of, but are worth discovering.
"2010 was the best vintage I've ever seen at Leonetti." ~ Chris Figgins, Winemaker
Just in case you aren't able to get your mitts on 2010 wines, stay tuned because 2011 is right behind it and is shaping up to be similar in terms of vintage characteristics and quality. Back to back growing seasons with cooler temperature and extended days of ripening into October set the stage for ideal levels of sugar and acidity in the grapes at harvest.
Troon—Applegate Valley, Oregon
In recent years Southern Oregon has been enjoying a growth spurt as more wine lovers discover the grape varietals that benefit from warmer temperatures as well as micro climates in the Umpqua, Rogue, Illinois and Applegate Valleys near Roseburg. While the Willamette Valley terroir is well-suited to thin skin varietals like Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, Southern Oregon features 'signature grapes' Syrah, Zinfandel and Tempranillo. Other grapes being planted include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Vermentino, Albariño and Viognier depending on elevation of the vineyards.
Mother nature created this little corner of the world situated between the Willamette Valley 5 hours drive to the north, and Napa/Sonoma 8 hours to the south. Marine climate and varying elevations offer a range of soil types from volcanic to sandy loam and hard clay.
Dick Troon realized the potential forty years ago (just a few years after David Lett planted the first vines at Eyrie) when he planted his Zinfandel vineyard.
- 2008 Troon Zinfandel Reserve - Applegate Valley Really a bit of surprise to see how good this wine was. The Troon Reserve Zin has the best of both worlds—spice laden ripe red fruits with moderate alcohol at about 14.1%. Who knew Zinfandel could grow well in Southern Oregon?
- 2008 Syrah Reserve - Applegate Valley If tasted blind, this might be mistaken for a Washington state Syrah. Opaque purple-black color with sweet ripe Oregon blackberry, plum and prune with medium French oak influence (thankfully). Drink now after decanting or wait 3-5 years.
- 2009 Old Vine Meritage - Applegate Valley Decent blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from 35-year old vines. Wasn't blown away by it, structure was lacking acidity for me but a riper style with moderate oak influence will appeal to wine drinkers.
Seven of Hearts—Willamette Valley, Oregon
Oregon has plenty of good producers crafting great wines—do they need another? In this case, yes. A pleasant surprise in 2012 has been the discovery of this winery founded by ex-Silicon Valley resident Byron Dooley and his wife Dana. It's unfortunate their production is small because the wines are delicious and really well made.
The Dooley's left Silicon Valley after the 2000 bubble burst and made as stop in Napa where Byron earned a viticulture and winemaking degree from Napa college. In 2004 they moved north to the Willamette Valley where they established a 12-acre vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Seven of Hearts was born in the interest of creating limited production wines that represent the place they're grown.
2010 Chatte D'Avignon Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre - Columbia Valley Wow. In a word, WOW. If tasted blind this wine might be mistaken for Saint-Joseph or Crozes Hermitage in northern Rhone. Although those are Syrah only wines, the distinct black pepper and smoked meat notes are similar. Very good wine for $25.
2010 Chateau Figareaux Cabernet Franc - Columbia Valley Sourced from grapes on the Oregon side of the Columbia Valley, this is part of the Bordeaux varietal program featuring wines that are precise, structured and impeccably balanced. I've often wondered about Cab Franc's potential in Columbia Valley. Like many of the wines from this producer, the Cab Franc is an ideal representation of the grape and the place it was grown. Distinct characteristics of black fruits, spice, more black fruits woven together with moderate French oak and structured acidity.
2009 Pinot Noir - Willamette Valley At $20 a bottle this is a steal. It's not very often you can find a wine with complexity, balance and finish at this price point. I had to do a double take at the price. My guess was $35 a bottle. Like the Luminous Hills Pinot Noir, it's a "hippy" style that's lighter in color and style.
2010 Luminous Hills Pinot Noir - Yamhill-Carlton Out of a field of stellar 2010 Pinot Noir's from the Willamette Valley comes an instant classic. More of a hippy style Pinot with light feminine characteristics from the light brick red color to the floral aromas coming out of the glass. If you were teaching a class about what a text book Pinot Noir might look like, you'd use this wine. Precise, balanced, low alcohol with firm acidity and moderate oak all play supporting roles for the lead character, which is beautiful red fruits that deliver a 5-star performance.
Gramercy Cellars—Walla Walla, Washington
Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington has been responsible for some of the most prestigious wine lists in the U.S. (and he was the youngest person to pass the Master Sommelier exam at age 26). So in the spring of 2004 at a backyard picnic in Brooklyn, Greg and his wife, Pam tasted wines from Washington state that displayed something special. The Harrington's went to Walla Walla where they went on a marathon tasting trip that convinced Greg this was the place he could realize his dream to make wine. Gramercy Cellars was born.
You'd expect someone with a trained palate to craft great balanced food-friendly wines with limited oak influence in a way that represents the grape and the place the grape is grown. In its short history, Gramercy Cellars has partnered with some of the best vineyards and accomplished just that.
2010 Gramercy Cellars Walla Walla Valley Syrah - Walla Walla This was my birthday wine this year. Actually, that should read, "wines". Multiple bottles were ordered and they all went bye-bye during a party with fellow wine professionals. A wine like this one are a strong argument for Syrah being Washington's best grape. Although it's opaque in color, minimal winemaking, restrained extraction and moderate oak offer an impeccably balanced wine weighing in a 13.9% alcohol.
2010 Gramercy Cellars The Third Man GSM - Columbia Valley The website description says it best: "The wine is fresh, red berry dominant with smoke and mineral. We managed to capture the liquor-esque fruit that grace the best Southern Rhone wines, without having the wine turn out over extracted or heavy. Think the greatest Luden's red cherry cough drop you have ever had. And its herbal as Grenache should be."
2009 Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon - Walla Walla Limited production 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from two estate vineyards. I had a chance to taste this wine at TEXSOM along with all the Gramercy wines. In a blind tasting this wine will have enough personality or terroir to stand out. As I was thinking about how to describe the wine to you, again Master Harrington does it better on the site: "The 2009 is massive with red and black fruits, herbs and earth. This is definitely not the first wine to open in the box. Give it some time or at least throw it in a decanter overnight. Patience is definitely rewarded."