Seattle Wine Blog

This blog is dedicated to commentary on all aspects of wine, especially short entries to help you find the best wines without the usual hype and spin. These are my frank, independent opinions, usually based on tasting wine at a public event, off the shelf or at the winery. "All creative acts must arise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place" -D.H. Lawrence

Friday, September 28, 2007

Old Wines

Think of the Simon and Garfunkel song, Old Friends, and sing Old Wines. I was recently asked to inspect my friend Peggy's collection of old bottles mostly from her father's cellar. Highlights included 1970 Chateau Latour, 1970 Cos d'Estournel, and various vintages from the 1970s of the fine Sauternes, Chateau Coutet. Along with these were "A &P" wines, "supermarket" wines, such as 1970 Inglenook Cabernet and Paul Masson Cabernet. Peggy told me that her father had stored these in a temperature controlled cellar in Virginia. Peggy had stored them in a cabinet on the floor in a basement apartment here in Seattle for approximately eight years. At least she didn't save them in the cabinet over the fridge. The bottles, labels, and corks were mostly in good shape. Examination of the edge of the wine (just under the cork) with a bright light in the background showed varying shades of red sometimes with hints of orange, but no brown. We opened the 1970 half bottle of Inglenook Cab, but it had a bad crumbly cork and had come apart in it's old age. A leaky bottle of 1971 Chateau Coutet, was dark bronze in color and tasted like an old Sauterne should, like mead or Madeira. It was good with blue cheese. A half bottle of 1998 Chateaunuef du Papes was fine, but then it was only nine years old. What should Peggy do?

  1. Never open the bottles, just keep them as "Old Friends"
  2. Sell them
  3. Donate them to a favorite charity
  4. Use them for cooking or salad dressing
  5. Make vinegar
  6. Drink them
  7. Pour them down the drain

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On The Importance Of Wine Labels

Back in August, the UPI published a piece called " Wine Lovers Suckered By Fake Labels." Are they competing with the National Inquirer or what? The subject of this sensationalism was research by Brian Wansink, professor of marketing at Cornell University showing that people respond to labels. Duh, give them the Golden Fleece Award! No, seriously, this was good research showing what we've know all along - the importance of labels.

Wansink labeled half the "$2 " bottles as being from California and the other half as being from North Dakota. In a restaurant setting, the "California" drinkers stayed at the table longer, ate more food, and ranked the food and wine highest, even though they were drinking the same wine (Two Buck Chuck?) as the "North Dakota" drinkers. Come on, admit it, you probably would have done the same thing. Wouldn't you prefer a California wine to a North Dakota wine? It would have been interesting to have a direct comparison tasting of "California" and "North Dakota " wines, side by side, for each taster.

I once bought a twenty dollar bottle of Santa Clara Chardonnay for five bucks because the winemaker hadn't gotten the labels. That means the label was worth fifteen dollars. Kind of like shopping for designer cloths at Loehmann's. Perhaps the label is worth three quarters of the price. Why is this? At the simplest level, consumers are forced to depend on labels, unless they've tasted the wine or gotten a tip from a friend or yours truly or some other wine writer. The array of wines on the supermarket shelf is overwhelming, so we choose a label that stands out. It has been said, that women, who buy most of the wine for dinner, are particularly influenced by labels. These days a cute animal on the label seems to do the trick, whereas years ago a picture of a chateau might have served as well. Even people who fancy themselves knowledgeable about wine are buying a label, too - perhaps a Chablis Montmains from William Fevre or a Bordeaux from the 2000 vintage.

The label is a sign in the language of a rhetorician. What is in the bottle is the referent, the real stuff. But these days, everything is about signification. The label signifies a concept. The concept may or may not have anything to do with the wine in the bottle. Until recently a screwcap signified a cheap poorly made wine lacking in prestige. These days the label is more closely connected to a demographic - "cool," hip, housewife, busy professional, collector, connoisseur, player, rich, powerful, etc.,. Sometimes the wine is related to the demographic, sometimes not. What do Marilyn Monroe, a little red truck, a wallaby or a black sheep have to do with wine? Tributary, Trilogy, Onyx, Matrix, Maya, Insignia, Screaming Eagle - full of sound and fury signifying something!

An animal on the label signifies something warm cuddly and friendly. Honestly, what is warm, friendly or cuddly about Yellowtail. The concept is warm and cuddly, but the wine isn't. In Japan, Opus signifies power and prestige. I suspect very little of it is drunk, as it is saved as a gift for the boss when it comes time to discuss the promotion. Cult wines signify prestige, status, power and exclusivity. For many, French wine signifies snootiness. American wine signifies easiness. The signification of "pink" wine is in the eyes of the beholder.

So what's in a label? Everything! But, can you tell a book by it's cover? Nah!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Wine Blogger Mentioned In The International Herald Tribune

Vinography blogger, Alder Yarrow, just got a mention in the International Herald Tribune for his comprehensive knowledge of San Francisco wine bars, but, unfortunately, there was no mention of his preeminent blog. This seems to be a consistent trend in the mainstream media. Are they afraid of blogs? Not exactly! Some mainstream writers such as Eric Asimov of the New york Times have their own blogs and many of them are quite good. Maybe it's a case of covering all their bases or, perhaps, mainstream bloggers are saying, "Anything you can do, I can do better." To some extent that may be true. Many mainstream writers have honed their craft, but the problem is they and their editors are always looking over their shoulders at actual and potential advertisers. How many negative reviews have you read in your local or national newspaper. On the other hand, how many negative reviews have you read in blogs. Just like this post, many wine blogs are limited to commentary and seem to be written primarily for other wine bloggers rather than for the general blog reader or even for people with a significant interest in wine rather than blogs. I generally try to write for you - someone interested in wine. Most of my hits come from people all over the world with specific questions about specific wines. If the wine blogging community were not so inbred and solipsistic, they would reach more people like the mainstream media, yet the mainstream media do seem to be threatened by bloggers. After all blogs are free and a labor of love and bloggers are free to express their ideas and opinions in a less guarded way.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Palouse Dragon

Winemaking is a glamorous occupation and, like chefs, some winemakers become superstars. But behind the sizzle, there is a lot of hard work and a lot of expense. On our way back to the ferry from Andrew Will we stopped at Palouse Winery and had a nice chat with Linda Kirkish and tasted some of their wines, but dominating the space and the conversation was a monster with a big head and a long tail from Italy - a bottling machine! Not as big as a Palouse combine, but bisecting their garage winery nevertheless. It takes some small wineries years to make the investment in a bottling machine - in fact, some use mobile bottling units - but for George and Linda it all added up, especially since they are going to increase production to 1200 cases over the next few years. That's good news for all of us, since they will start distributing their wine off island in the Puget Sound area soon.

We tasted a 2006 Semillon made from Klipsun grapes, called Blondie, but I think the bottle had been open too long. The 2005 Eclipse, a blend of 36% Cab Sauv, 36% Merlot, 19% Cab Franc, and 7% Petit Sirah, was deep purple with a nose of violets and lots of big fruit. It could have been named The Big Purple! The 2005 Cab Franc, made from Porteus grapes, had a nose of bread and yeast, medium body, refreshing fruit and a round, but lighter style. As a professional wine taster I almost always spit, but every once in a while, I involuntarily swallow, a tip off to me that I really like the wine. The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cab from the Dineen Vineyard near Scott Greer's Sheridan Vineyard - round soft velvety with delicious juicy fruit.

Garagistes, Linda and Georges, went to marketing school last year and I think they've got the 'hang' of it as they create "buzz" for their wines. They are certainly not flying by the seat of their pants and they are definitely no fly-by-night outfit! Pretty soon they will be "buzzing" the greater Seattle area with Big Purples, Black Pearls, and they may even Eclipse the moon, but will they be able to maintain those prices? George loved his Black Pearl Petit Sirah so much that he priced it at an outrageous $65 a bottle, figuring that if no one bought it (heh, heh), he would have it all to himself. Unfortunately, it all sold out very quickly:) Seriously, maybe like Andrew Will, they will be able to maintain these prices when they increase production, but I'm not sure I would want to pay $130 for any bottle of wine in a restaurant, even if it is as good as these Palouse wines.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering "9/11"

Six years ago, a great wine cellar was destroyed along with the World Trade Center. You can argue about American capitalism, American hegemony, the World Trade Organization, whatever, but nothing justifies killing innocent people including undocumented workers whose families didn't benefit from the gush of emotion and moneythat followed the hideous bombing of the World Trade Center. Terrorism is among the most cynical behaviors on the world stage based on the premise that the end justifies the means, that it's okay to kill innocent people in order to terrify other innocent people. Terrorism represents the opposite of what wine represents. Terrorism is about hate, destruction, violence and fragmentation. Wine is about pleasure, beauty, connectedness and community.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Buy On Wine, Sell On Cheese

The French have a saying, "Buy on wine, sell on cheese." What does this mean? It means, if you want get a clear, undistorted, taste of the wine, clear your palate with bread. If you want the enhance the taste of the wine serve it with cheese, meat, or olives. It is ironic that wine judges are routinely served olives and meat to clear thier palates. Perhaps that is why they give medals to 60% of the entries. This past weekend we went to the fall release of Andrew Will wines on Vashon Island. It was a beautiful day, and the winery is in a lovely setting, an opening in the woods of the island. A flower and vegetable patch in the middle is surrounded by a residence and various outbuildings for winemaking, barrel storage and bottle storage. Lovely people showing the way, pouring the wine, serving hors d'oeuvres made from winery grown or island grown veggies, home made pizza and music. What more could a person ask?

We tasted four of Chris Carmada's 2005 vineyard designated blends. All four seemed too acidic to us. The Two Blondes is from Chris's own new vineyard. To us, it was the least appealing, somewhat thin and tart, perhaps because the vines are still too young. The Sheridan was somewhat better. The Ciel du Cheval had more substance with good black fruit flavors, the Champoux was even fuller bodied and the most balanced with delicious fruit, again followed by a tangy, slightly tannic finish. Interestingly, the pricing follows this order, too.

If you remember, we included three 2004 Andrew Will wines in our Wine Blogging Wednesday tasting of Washington State Cabs orchestrated by Catie, the Walla Walla Wonder Woman . The 2004 Sheridan , also,made a poor showing, but the 2004 Ciel and the 2004 Champoux were impressively balanced vines with velvet texture and complex black fruit flavors. It is possible that a year of ageing will help the 2005s to develop, but it seems doubtful to me.

On the other hand, the food really enhanced the Champoux and Ciel du Cheval. With a little cheese or a couple of olives, all of a sudden they tasted like the big complex wines from previous years. Even the pizza helped. So will the real Andrew Will please stand up? Which is the true flavor, or is there more than one true flavor?Wine certainly is a living thing that evolves, but we felt that the balance of these wines was off. The tannins were fine and soft for young wines which is a good thing, but the acid seemed too high to us. At $45 to $50 a throw these are definitely in the big splurge or special occasion category for most of us, unless you are a Microsoft multimillionaire. Personally I would rather have a little more certainty, if I were going to shell out fifty buck a bottle.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hype, Spin, and Lies?

When I have a chance, I like to check out the wine news. This time I came upon a press release from WineApe, Inc., claiming they have a free "Wiki" style site that "collects wine ratings from around the world." They purport to be anti-"snooty" wine expert, and pro-consumer. "We want to inform consumers about as many wines as possible [the Amazon of Wines?] - by statistically combining the input of the world's largest group of tasters - consumers. This way wine lovers have the information necessary to help them choose between [ among?] the thousands of wonderful wines. Who is this wine "critic" to tell me what I should or shouldn't like?"

I was pretty excited to read this, as I had proposed a Zagat's of wine quite some time ago, although they seem to be confusing consumer with wine lover. Clicking on the link to their website was an eye-opener. How many of you remember the movie/video "Sex, Lies and Videotape," precursor to You Tube and Flickr. First, the appearance of democratic wine revolution! "Rate the wine!" Then, "Search Wine Ratings" - a totally incomprehensible web page purporting to offer wine ratings, but actually set up to sell wine. How about an "1899 J & K Muscat for 13USD" or a 2003 Chardonnay from "Three Blind Moose Cellars" for $6.99? A Three Blind Moose sweatshirt? Is this a spoof? A trailer for the sequel to Sideways? Having been put through the statistics wringer in grad school, I don't see much evidence of statistics here.

What's with WineApe? Is that like Does it mean that instead of aping Robert Parker we should ape each other?From wine by the numbers to wine by the numbers? Lemmings? Those of you who read this blog, know my position on Parkerization and the globalization of wine. But is data from every Dick, Jane and Harry, going to be any better? Will it be a case of garbage in , garbage out? At least with Parker you know his taste and can calibrate your own to his. What would Socrates say? Would Harry Potter drink any of this stuff when he's old enough? It remains to be seen. This is a serious and difficult question about wine ratings. I mean , I'm not saying anybody is lying, I'm just wondering if I'm seeing hype and spin.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Clinical Psychologist Visits Washington Wineries

Many of you know that I am a clinical psychologist, but if you read Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, you would also know that my doppelganger, Dr. Jay Miller was in Washington recently representing Parker. In the most recent Advocate, just out, Miller says the Washington State is "taking off!" Got that right! Of the 500 some odd wineries, so many are making awesome wines that strike the right balance between American fruitiness and European "backbone." As the Washington Wine Commission says Washington has the "perfect climate" (no, they don't pay me to say these things). On the whole, Jay did a hell of a better job than Pierre Rovani did last year. Jay got to some of the more interesting, but less well known, wineries such as Bergevin, Boudreaux, Buty, Brian Carter, Cadence, Chatter Creek, Cuillin (misspelled Cullin), Damas (misspelled Dumas), Ensemble, Fall Line, Forgeron, Januik, Latitude 46N, Novelty Hill, O-S, Mark Ryan, and Syzygy wineries. He picked up on some of the new wineries such as Gifford Hirlinger, Hence, Sparkman, Tertulia and Walter Dacon. And he captured some of the best winemakers such as Chris Carmada, Brian Carter, Chris Upchurh, Bob Betz, Ben Smith, Christophe Baron, Chris Gorman, Brett Isenhauer, Mike Januik, Mark Ryan McNeilly, Jean Francois Pellet, and Alex Golitzin, but, alas, Jay missed Trey Busch at Sleight of Hand, Tim Narby at Note Bene, and John Bell at Willis Hall. He also missed some other really great wineries such as Amaurice, Cougar Crest, Ross Andrew, and Saviah. On the whole Jay's writing is softer and rounder than Pierre's. Is this a cultural difference or an individual difference? a personality difference? He is more generous than the incisive Rovani, but he only gave 2004 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon a "99". I guess three "100"s in a row would be over the top! Nobody's that perfect even in the perfect climate of Washington state, eh? For my own list of Washington's best wineries, look for the "2007 Unofficial Classification of Washington State Wines" in an upcoming posting this month.
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