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

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Volcanic Wine - Brassfield Estates

If you want to make hot wine you need a volcano, so Jerry Brassfield, owner of Brassfield Estate, bought one right smack in the middle, well not maybe not exactly in the middle, of his 2500 acre estate in the newest California AVA - High Valley. High Valley is north of and above Clear Lake in Lake County not exactly known for great wines , but a significant source of good grapes for some of California's largest producers. In contrast to most California valleys High Valley runs east/west and thus catches lots of cool marine air and fog from the Pacific making much of it Region I or II in terms of heat units. Micro-climates on the estate vary considerably, thus, Jerry and winemaker, Kevin Robinson, have planted 19 varietals on the site in the experimental spirit of the new world. Who would have thunk it? A new frontier! Right in the middle of California.

Jerry and his cattle ranching family bought most of the original acreage in 1973 at amazingly low prices. The volcano and other parcels were added later. The winery is growing so fast it is hard to keep track of the exact stats. Vines were first planted in 2001, today there are approximately 270 acres planted with a build out to an eventual 500 acres planned for 2010. Production now is close to 50,000 cases and it looks like they are headed toward 100,000 cases. Since Brassfield is one of only a few "estate only" wineries, production will be limited by the number of acres planted. We asked Jerry, why another California winery? Especially now with so much competition from other California wineries to say nothing of Australia, Chile ,etc. Jerry's just got the bug. Typical of so many "older" entrepreneurs, 67 year old Jerry had an eye for the possibilities of High Valley. According to the AARP, people 55 to 64 years old are more likely than anyone else to start a business. In fact, it appears that Jerry has all the traits of "older" entrepreneurs - a take charge attitude, comfort with chaos, tenacity of a pit bull, creative instincts, enormous self-confidence, a practical bent, and super resiliency. If Jerry were to take the Biz Whiz Quiz, he would probably go right off the scale. Many entrepreneurs come from business families and they are good judges of character - their own and others. Jerry and Kevin brought five of their fun and interesting associates to town with them on this marketing expedition which leads me to full disclosure. These wines were not purchased off the shelf, they weren't even samples mailed to me. They were part of a tasting paired with dinner at Ruth Chris steakhouse, so take this post with "a grain of salt." The wines were good, the company was good, the steak was great.

So I really don't have any specific tasting notes on these wines, but here are myimpressions.The whites should be available as very reasonable "glass pours" in local restaurants. Despite the volcano, the white wines weren't "hot", they were cool, way cool! The whites were all unoaked and cool fermented. The Pinot Grigio was perfectly chilled and balanced between the fresh crisp, dryness you would expect and an almost mineral, medium bodied mouthfeel - sort of a cross between American and European style. This is a great wine to look for on a restaurant wine list. The Sauvigon Blanc had the typical varietal aroma and taste of grassiness and grapefruit. A great example of this varietal, although I must confess, I am just not that fond the grapefruit taste of Sauvignon Blanc. The Serenity White Blend is unusual- Sauvigno Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, and Semillon. - kind of a kitchen sink blend. This wine is very easy on the palate. All the white are priced at about $15 retail. The reds all seem to have a distinctive signature of earthiness. Is this the terroir of High Valley or the signature of winemaker Kevin Robinson? Probably both, but in any event the wines have character. We tasted a Zin, two Syrahs and two Cabs. The reds are generally priced at $25, except the Monte Sereno Cab which is priced at $40. I liked the Monte Sereno Cab the best - the usual problem - champagne taste on a beer budget. On the whole I preferred the whites. They were whistle clean, true to type and totally refreshing. The reds were good but not real standouts, with the excepton of the Monte Sereno Cab.

Even though Brassfield is not certified organic, Jerry says they are beyond sustainable agriculture, biodynamique practices and into Astral spiritual agriculture. In the California market this may be necessary, especially for a new winery, but as Vladimer Putin said at Crawford, you do what you have to do. And Jerry is good at that. My prediction: Audacious as it is to start a new California winery at this stage of the game, Brassfield will succeed because of Jerry's drive, his marketing inclinations, wines from a new AVA, and, for the most part, the right pricepoints. This winery has exploded onto the scene in true volcanic fashion and will undoubtedly make a place for itself between the world of corporate wines and petite boutiques of 2000 cases.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Best Of Taste Washington

This was the tenth Taste Washington but was it the best Taste Washington? Only the shadow knows. Here are some "bests" from Taste Washington in no particular order;

Best Winery Name - Nefarious

Best Beast - Caleb of "Buty and the Beast"

Best Name Change - "Glacial" Lake Missoula

Best New Puget Sound Winery - Walter Dacon

Best New Woodinville Winery - Brian Carter

Best New Yakima Winery - Waving Tree

Best New Columbia Cascades Winery - Fielding Hills

Best New Lake Chelan Winery - Balsomroot

Best New Columbia Gorge Winery - Benke

Best New Walla Walla Winery - Amaurice

Best Overall Quality -Note Bene, Willis Hall, Fall Line

Best Riesling - Samson Estates, Saint Laurent

Best Sangiovese - Yakima Cellars, Wilridge, Walter Dacon, Waving Tree

Best Chardonnay - Amaurice, Apex

Best Red Blend - Andrew Will, Brian Carter, Fall Line, Cadence

Best Merlot - Apex

Best Cabernet Sauvignon -Five Star, Bloom

Best Syrah - Walter Dacon

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Taste Washington III - New Wineries

As I said, I tried to get to as many new wineries as possible. Still, I missed Stemilt Creek and Stinas Cellars and for some nefarious reason, I never got to Nefarious Winery. From the Puget Sound area, I got to Blooms Winery which has been around for a while and tasted their 2005 Blooms Semillon which was dry, crisp, fresh and citrusy. Eagle Haven from the Sedro Woolley area made a good Madeline Angevine. Samson Estates from the Bellingham area, made a classic bony dry Riesling reminiscent of the Washington State Rieslings of the 1970s when the wine industry here was just in it's infancy. Walter Dacon Wines were all excellent. I finally got to Cedargreen Winery which has been around for a while. Their wines were delightful in a light easy style. From the Lake Chelan area, I tasted 2006 Balsomroot Unoaked Chardonnay which tasted like a delicate green apple and 2006 Riesling which was dry, fresh and refreshing. Tildio wines were mostly light in style with an interesting Syrah co-fermented with Viognier skins. Cayalla from Walla Walla made a blend called RTW. Amaurice produced an elegant 2005 Chardonnay with a fresh fruity nose and a somewhat French style. Benke Cellars in the Columbia Gorge region made a Pinot Noir and Sangiovese. Sangiovese seemed to be the grape of the day. I tasted examples from Benke, Wilridge, Walter Dacon, Waving Tree, Yellow Hawk, Yakima Cellars, Willow Crest, and several others. They were all good. Every year produces a new crop of wineries in Washington and you never know what you will find. Exciting stuff!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Taste Washington - II

Almost equal to the pleasure of tasting great wine is the pleasure of talking with great winemakers. These people are artists! They may take a very scientific approach or a very intuitive approach, but what they create is amazing. In many ways winemaking is similar to photography. Winemakers like say that that if they have good grapes the trick is not to mess it up. Let the grapes express themselves. And indeed, varietals have their own personalities and vineyards have their own personalities, but winemakers also have their own personalities and inevitably leave their signature on the wine they make. It is fun to compare wines by different winemakers made from grapes grown in the same vineyard or made from the same varietal.

I had a chance to speak with so many great winemakers at Taste Washington, it is impossible to list them all. Nina Buty Foster explained to me that Buty and the Beast is an inside family joke. Caleb's Beast, by the way, is quite wonderful. John Bell, showed off his skill with a whole variety of Willis Hall wines all of which were good. Tim Narby made an amazing batch of Note Bene wines this time around. His colleagues in the South Seattle Artisan Wine group, also produced outstanding wines. Tim Sorensen at Fall Line is on a roll, as are Gay McNutt and Ben Smith at Cadence who produce wines of great distinction. Brian Carter's wines have a smooth seamlessness. Apex wines which he has made for years are a well kept secret lurking quietly on supermarket shelves where many do not suspect what awaits them in the bottle. This year the Apex Chardonnay and Merlot are particularly good and the Chardonnay is on sale at Safeway at about $18 per bottle. Chris Carmarda at Andrew Will made a gorgeous 2004 Sorella, which is big soft and complex. I had a nice chat with Ron Irvine about marketing wine. Talking with winemakers is definitely part of the pleasure of wine.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Taste Washington

Frustrated - that's what I am! Lost all my posts written yesterday and today the !@#$% Internet connection pooped out for half a day. So here I am rewriting yesterday's posts about Taste Washington. If I seem disgruntled, I am. First complaint, turned back from attempts to enter the Qwest Field Event Center at the first three entrances. Finally got my generic media pass and entered a cavernous hall flanked by Maseratis and Viking stoves to say nothing of many pepper accessories. Lots of sponsors here, and great food all over the place, but where's the wine?

Actually, 200 of the almost 500 Washington wineries were pouring 800 wines at the largest regional wine tasting in the country. With over 120,000 tons of grapes harvested in 2006 by 350 vineyardists from 31,000 acres, Washington state is by far the largest grape grower in the country after California. With nine AVAs ( almost ten) the variety of grapes grown supports the experimental attitude of Washington winemakers. Washington State offers the perfect balance between New World fruit and Old World structure coming from the "perfect climate."

Eight hundred wines in two hours, that's nine seconds per wine and that includes travel time. Even a speed taster like me can't handle that! The strategy - taste wine from new wineries or wineries that I haven't tried before. I will report on that adventure in a later post. But for now I want to remind you of all the fabulous wines and wineries I had to skip this time around. Of course, I have tasted many of these wines on other occasions.

Of the top wineries Quilceda Creek, DeLille, Betz, Terra Blanca (Onyx), Northstar, Long Shadows, Pepper Bridge and Sheridan Vineyard were all there. Cayuse and Leonetti were their usual no shows. If you can afford them, virtually any wine from these wineries will be good. Wines from Januik or Brian Carter, McCrea or K-Vintner are bound to be good, too. Cougar Crest, Hightower, Dunham, Five Star, Dusted Valley, Isenhauer, Kestrel, Patit Creek, Novelty Hill, Red Sky, Reininger, Saviah, Walla Walla Vintners, Willow Crest, Syzygy, Three Rivers, L'Ecole, Syncline, Spring Valley Vineyard and Yellow Hawk all produce excellent wines, too. Great values can be had from Barnard Griffin, Chinook, Gordon Bros. Columbia Crest, Red Diamond. Sagelands, Ryan Patrick, or Hogue. To be continued...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Ten Wine Notes From The Supermarket

All these wines were purchased from supermarkets or the equivalent. They should be available all over the U.S. While many of these wines lack the unique and sometimes complex character of wines from small wineries, some of them are quite good values, and they are widely available. Also, many of these wines are frequently on sale with as much as 30% off. Perhaps the best buys of all are the Columbia Crest Two Vines series which in Washington state are even available in gas stations. The Chardonnay and the Merlot from Columbia Crest are perhaps the all time Best Buys of this group, usually available at about $7. I didn't taste these this time around, so here are my notes on the others which are all in the $7 - $12 price range:

2005 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Chardonnay - This is your classic California Chard with good body, and traditional hints of vanilla and tropical fruit ( About $9).

2005 Round Hill California Chardonnay - A different style, drier, crisper, moving more toward a European style, more of a food wine, but it still works well on it's on (about $7).

2005 Rodney Strong California Chardonnay - Very nice, a great food wine, crisp and stony. Is this a new trend in California Chardonnays? Reminiscent of a French white Burgundy (about $10).

2005 Kendall Jackson Chardonnay - Perhaps the King of the supermarket Chardonnays. Bigger and more balanced than the Rodney Strong, less fruity than the Ch. St Jean (about $ 9).

2005 Beringer Founder's Estate California Riesling - What a pleasant surprise! Alleged to be sweet, but it seemed to me to be about one and a half per cent sugar. Tasted on a hot afternoon, it was really chilled and tasted crisp and refreshing. Not a lot of traditional Riesling flavors, but totally refreshing in the context of an outdoor festival ( about $5 -$10).

2005 Beringer Founder's Estate Cabernet Sauvignon California- Quite good. Good fruit, medium body, balanced, not too sweet or jammy (about $9).

2005 Beringer Founder's Estate Merlot California - Excellent for the price! Well balanced with interesting nuanced black fruit flavors. Reminds me of the very good Sterling Merlot ( about $9).

2005 Coppola Rosso Classic - This Zin/Syrah/Cab blend yields a wine that is easy, light to medium bodied, with lots of fresh strawberry fruit flavors. Not what you might expect from all the Zin and Syrah, kind of like Beaujolais Nouveau. Tastes good chilled by itself and a good BBQ wine (about $9).

2004 Bogle Petite Sirah - Okay, Bogle redeems itself! Even though there is no nose to speak of, this wine has lots of delicious plum flavors and is nicely balanced. It is nothing like the nondescript Zin we tasted recently from Bogle (about $9).

2005 Casa Lapostolle Merlot, Rapel Valley, Chile - This is the clear standout in the group. Deep red in color, it is big almost briary with great fruit and a hint of tannin in the finish, but not bitter. A real treat - this wine has some character. Definitely a best buy at $12.
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