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

Monday, June 29, 2009

The King Of The Stones

The king of pop may be dead, but the king of the stones lives. In fact, Christophe Baron rules both in his domain at Cayuse and in the surrounding cailloux ( French for stones). I must admit to a certain amount of skepticism about all the apparent hype and spin around Cayuse. Commenters on the Seattle Wine Blog argued that Les Cailloux and other Cayuse vineyards should be included in The Top Ten Washington State Vineyards at the same time complaining that Seven Hills is in Oregon. As Bob Tovey would say, common folks, which is it? All the Cayuse vineyards and the studio/atelier/winery are in Oregon even though Cayuse maintains a downtown Walla Walla presence and Christophe lives in Walla Walla, Washington.

Christophe very graciously received us at the studio, and finished regaling us with the official story already started by his able assistant, Trevor. Christophe comes from an old winemaking family in Champagne. Unfortunately, this Champagne is not available in the States. Christophe earned his stripes in Burgundy and came to the U.S. planning to make Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. He visited a friend in Walla Walla and "on his way" to the Willamette Valley, " just happened upon" the stony soil in the southwest quadrant of the Walla Walla AVA.

"Cailloux!", he exclaimed excitedly upon seeing the stony soil of the apple orchids along Sunneyside Road (Actually there were already plantings of grapes in the stones when Christophe arrived. The old Seven Hills vineyard, now called Wildrow was there along with some others). That was the beginning of the end for Christophe - no more Willamette Pinot for him. Roughly thirteen years ago he set down roots among the stones of Walla Walla AVA and has never looked back. I asked him if regretted not going on to the Willamette. His answer - not at all. I would have been just one of many Frenchmen making Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley and here I am unique." Kathy Tovey remembered Christophe as a somewhat scrawny young man peddling his wine at a country fair in Oregon in the mid-90s. Christophe has come a long way since then.

Now, Christophe has a domain consisting of many vineyards, and has recently discovered "biodynamique." This suits him perfectly, since in its purest form, biodynamique is about an ecological microcosm, a self-sufficient domain. Christophe took us on a tour of his home base,
Armida Vineyard. He told us that he has 25 full-time permanent employees to maintain the vineyards and in the winery. Most of them probably work in the vineyards and in keeping with the sustainability ethos of Oregon they have health insurance. My guess is that, as usual, they are Hispanic , and to produce my own stereotype, hard-working. conscientious and productive. Walking on "cobblestones" trodden by others, one still has a wondrous sense of something "sauvage" and yet "pastorale." As we walked among the stones, Christophe regaled us with tales of his conquests in Walla Walla. Christophe told us that others had said he would break his machinery on such rocks, but the "Bionic Frog" persevered. Finally, we arrived at a plot of Grenache planted 3ft.X3ft. Rows with spaces not wide enough for most overweight Americans, let alone a motorized cultivator. Horses! Christophe will cultivate this plot with the help of several Belgian horses. Beyond this plot, piles of manure, excuse me, organic fertilizer.
And then, the producers of this fertile pile - les vaches (the cows). To the south, an organic cherry orchid rejected by commercial buyers because the cherries didn't conform to grade. Perhaps this is the best description of Christophe. He doesn't conform to grade. This non-conformist thinks and lives outside the box.

Back to the studio/atelier/winery. As we entered the "studio" we had a lively discussion of order and disorder. This was triggered by the incredible flying pig hanging from the ceiling of the winery. Starting with a pinata purchased by Christophe, his artist friend painted it over, adding two jet engines and other paraphernalia. Christophe insists they are Boeing engines and not Airbus. My guess is that Airbus represents the uptight, buttoned up, stultifying cadre of France with their inhibiting rule-bound society as opposed to the fresh air of America for a French person. Disorder is "necessaire" for creativity, originality and limnality. On the other hand, order is a necessary foil for disorder and it is necessary to define "a thing." So we enter the inner sanctum - a frigid place of order! Rows of barrels, "eggs," cement fermenters, neatly laid out. But many of the barrels are turned with their provenance and stats unavailable to the naked eye. Christophe is both ebullient and charismatic, on the one hand, and private and secretive, on the other.

As he explained early on, "terroir" is everything. He described himself as primarily a "vigneron," a grapegrower, but the implication was of an artist united with the soil (see my D.H. Lawrence quote on the masthead). Christophe, the artist, reminded me of Picasso and Gauguin. I asked him if he was a guardian of the vineyards. "Not at all! Maybe in a hundred years, in a thousand years." Now he is a pioneer, a discoverer, an explorer, an experimenter, an adventurer. Christophe has the personality of Lewis Hyde's "Trickster." Hermes, he is! Egoist, narcissist, yes, but his charisma is real, not some put-on persona. I once heard a French teacher describe her job as "seduire." To seduce, is to teach. Christophe is very seductive, very charismatic. A seller of Gentiane at a market in southwest France, once told us that his product would make anyone "drop his pants" or was it "her pants." That's Christophe!

You were wondering about the wine? Exceptional! These wines are giants. Bigger than most California wines, yet not jammy. Bigger than most Australian wines, yet not linear. Bigger than most French wine, yet not classic. Bigger than most Washington wines, yet not soft. These are big wines in big bottles, but really they are amazingly over the top, really nothing like them in intensity. Huge expansive wines, just like Christophe! How does Christophe do it? Apparently he has many secrets, but the most obvious trick is in the vineyard - keeping the yields low, dropping clusters down to five or six per vine, or in the case of the 3x3 Grenache maybe three per vine resulting in yields of significantly less than two tons per acre, like 1.2 or 1.5 tons per acre. This is amazing when you consider that three tons per acre is considered low by the mere mortals growing grapes in other vineyards.

From the cask - '06 Grenache - Armida, '06 Syrah -Armida, '06 Syrah -Cailloux, '08 Bionic Frog. The 2006 Armida Grenache is big, dark and inky, smelling of spices and tar, tasting of rhubarb and strawberry. A huge, smooth, seamless wine -plus d' agreable. 2008 Armida Syrah - incredibly dark, perfection in a bottle, deepest, darkest Walla Walla. The flagship Cailloux vineyard was founded in 1997 - super-intense, liquid tar, somewhat like the tar and roses of a traditional Barolo, but so much more intense. This is not your average aperatif, maybe an acquired taste. For me, incredible! The 2008 Bionic Frog blend is from the Coccinelle vineyard and has a pretty nose - complex, spicy and herbal, in the mouth - round, soft, seductive and approachable - closest to the gout Americain, thus very popular. BTW, Coccinelle means ladybug in French, but also is the name of a pioneering transsexual and a line of handbags.

From the bottle - 2007 Widowmaker, 2007 Bionic Frog, 2007 Impulsivo. The 2007 Widowmaker is a killer Cabernet Sauvignon from the En Chambertin vineyard. Once your man drinks this liquid cassis and blueberry pie that tastes like a spice rack, it won't be long 'til you get to finih the bottle in peace and quiet by yourself. The 2007 Bionic Frog is big, spicy and complex. The 2007 Impulsivo is 100% Tempranillo from the En Chambertin vineyard. Deep, black, incredibly intense, without being jammy. The beautiful image on the label says it all - the last tango, to die for, or from! Truly a tour de force.

Are the wines representative of the terroir. Without a doubt! They are so different from each other.. This was especially illustrated by four different Syrahs from four different vineyards. Are they only terroir? I don't think so. As usual, the winemaker has left his stamp, his signature, on the wine. Christophe is both a terroiriste and an artiste - a "vigneron!" Christophe's wines are gigantic like Christophe who is un geant de la terre. I was forced to read Giants In The Earth in high school and hated it. Now the name has served me well in describing this amazing French winemaker who has spread his seed in the fertile soil of Walla Walla. The "Rock" Star exceeded my expectations and his reputation. Stones R Us, or rather, Stones R Him.

Christophe tells me he has 4500 people on the waiting list, but I have a feeling people are dropping off the mailing list like flies due to the horrendous economy. Sign up, you never know, you might get to the head of the list faster than you think, and by that time maybe your finances may have recovered enough to be able to pay the price for a bottle paradise (or is it hell?) in a bottle. Trust me, it's worth it. Spend your last red cent on an impulse and die happy. Despite my reticence I was totally seduced by Christophe and his incredible wines. Cayuse rocks!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Go West - II

Okay, so this isn't so real-time, but it's still the latest poop on Walla Walla West. Graduates from the Walla Walla Airport incubator, tend to end up on Highway 12. Reininger and Cougar Crest are classic examples. In fact, it has seemed to me that Reininger went downhill when they moved, but recent evidence suggests a recovery. Cougar Crest seems to have made the move without ill effects. Waterbrook was never in the incubator and came up with some wonderful surprises - great values.

In the recent past, Reininger seemed to me to have lost its way. Apparently, highway 12 is disorienting. You can get wound up and twisted into a double helix. The Helix wines used to be great values, but at $30 a throw, that is no longer an accurate description. Nevertheless, many of Chuck's regular bottlings are quite interesting and delicious. The 2003 Cima, tasting a little old (or had it been open too long), was quite beautiful. The 2005 Merlot, despite the grapes from Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills vineyards, was light - enough to confirm "Miles" opinion of Merlot. The 2005 Cab Sauv had great fruit and tasted a little like what a Merlot should taste like. The 2008 Ash Hollow Syrah had nice tobacco and pepper notes. The 2006 Carmenere was probably the most interesting wine. As I read over this paragraph, it appears that I had a negative impression of Reininger wines. This is not true. Most of these wines had character and interest. Reininger survived the jinx of route 12 and Codi ably poured all these wines with a great running commentary on each. It was obvious that she is really into wine. She is a student at the enology program at the community college and I predict she will become a great winemaker in her own right in just a few years.

Deborah and Dave Hansen survived for the longest time in a "Quonset Hut" at the airport. So far, their move to route 12 seems to be liberating. Sooo much more space! Both have deep roots in Walla Walla and, in fact own several vineyards. They tore up apple orchids and own vineyards in the stones just over the border in Oregon to the west of highway 125. They sold a vineyard to finance their beautiful new winery on highway 12. Dave is a farmer, a vineyardist who is happiest on a tractor or a forklift. Deborah is an outstanding winemaker. Cougar Crest is one of the most consistent labels around. This is a great help in a restaurant when you are unsure what to order from the wine list. The 2006 Walla Walla Viognier is an outrageously good wine. Viognier at its best - dry, stony, with good subdued fruit - to my gout. The Grenache Rose is pleasant, a cut above most American Roses. Dedication is a delicious wine dedicated to the hospital that saved the life of Dave and Deborah's daughter after near fatal injuries. The 2006 Walla Walla Valley Anniversary Cuvee is fairly light , but totally great for chocoloholics. The 2006 Walla Walla Valley Cab Sauv is a delicious blend and the 2005 Walla Walla Syrah is an outstanding wine. Virtually all Cougar Crest wines are made from estate grown grapes. Since moving into their new digs on highway 12, Dave and Deborah couldn't quite let go of their original hut at the airport, so they've started producing a new line to sell there - Walla Walla River Winery. This is their opportunity to explore various varietals from grapes sourced from all around the Columbia Valley. I didn't get to taste these wines, but I'll bet they are good.

Waterbrook just opened a new winery on highway 12. This high tech building is spectacular and is home to Precept Brands in all of its manifestations. I must admit to not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised by the Melange Noir and White, to say nothing of the Sangiovese Rose and a perfectly typical, classic Riesling all at very reasonable prices. I found the higher priced wines to be somewhat disappointing for the price, but Waterbrook is producing some fabulous value with great price points.

So the western entrance to Walla Walla is a good introduction to Walla Walla wines, but the best is yet to come south of town and at the airport.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Go West Young Man!

Amazing! This is almost real time blogging from Walla Walla. Today we checked out wineries West of Walla Walla on Highway 12 as you come into town from Seattle. One could imagine a game of hopscotch among wineries trying to be the first to greet wine tourists on the road into Walla Walla. Such a game of musical chairs would be so 1990s, so California, but I can hardly imagine the down-to-earth folks of Walla Walla playing such a game. As it turns out Woodward Canyon is first and they have been there for quite a while, founded in 1981 by Rick Small.

Next up is L'Ecole #41, founded in 1983 by Marty Clubb. I got to talk with Marty about his newest interest - Ferguson vineyard, 18 acres above Pepper Bridge or was it Seven Hills. Like so many other winemakers he has been bitten by the "sustainability" bug.
As I tasted through L'Ecole wines, they all seemed lighter and friendlier(too friendly?) than they used to be, but it seems to me they used to have more character. The Semillons are less intense, the reds less deep. The Fries Vineyard Semillon goes with tuna. The 2008 "Walla Voila" Chenin Blanc shows lots of interest with a floral spicy nose, round and fruity body, and a hint of spice and citrus in the finish. Much more enjoyable than 99% of Chenin Blanc based Vouvray from the Loire Valley. The 2006 Walla Walla Cab has great fruit in the nose an is an altogether satisfying wine. The 2006 "Apogee" is the apogee of the the L'Ecole line up. Fortunately, the Perigee is not the perigee but not as wonderful as the Apogee. The 2006 Columbia Valley Syrah was pretty good, too.

Moving right along, we come to the new kid on the block - Glencorrie, owned by Ronn Coldiron and ably managed by Heidi Harrison. Wow! Awesome! Ronn is a geologist who runs a consulting firn in California. With the help of Charlie Hoppes, Glencorrie has fashioned it's first wines from Stillwater and Gamache grapes. The 2006 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a medium bodied wine with very appealing fruit and lots of character. It gets your attention. It stands out from so many ever so pleasant wines. As usual the Walla Walla version of Cab ( Widrow & Dwelley) is more upright, more serious - a good food wine. The 2006 Cuvee Marquis is the gem in the show - round, soft, but exciting! Sourced from multiple vineyards around the Columbia Valley. This is an up-and-comer. A winery to watch! The next new thing! Get on their mailing list. BTW, they are having an Open house June 29th in the evening. Call 509-525-2585.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Retailers Wake Up!

Retailers of the world, more specifically, of Washington and Arizona, wake up, you have nothing to lose but your sales. We have heard many reports of wineries increasing sales out of their tasting rooms, consumers ordering direct from the winery, because you are not carrying Washington state "boutique" wines that consumers want. It is time to think outside the box instead of hunkering down and folding up the tent. Follow in the footsteps of Kent Jeppesen at "the wine station." You are the bottleneck between eager consumers and eager wineries. Where are those Washington wine end displays? Right out in front of Australia? If you don't lower your prices and offer the wines that consumers want, you may be cut out of the loop. Cheers!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Wine Station

Move over Trader Joe's, Costco, Total and Bevmo. Here comes the Wedgewood Shell Station! The what? Yeah, it's a gas station in northeast Seattle. What's a gas station got to do with wine? I told you you could find one of the best buys in the world, Columbia Crest "Two Vines" Chardonnay and Merlot, at gas stations all over Washington state, but Kent Jeppesen, owner of the Wedgewood Shell station (9501 NE 75th Street, phone 206-384-48440), has taken gas station wine sales to the next level. He had the business acumen to realize that wine has an excellent markup and that people want wine for under $10. When it comes to wine, you can get get anything you want, almost, at the Shell Station. Washington, Australia, France, Chile, you name it and chances are they have it. You may not be able to find the pepperoni or the chips, but you can find a decent quaff for the night at less than ten bucks. Kent keeps his prices right. He buys closeouts from distributors and sometime has a lower than normal markup to give you a good value. Soon, or maybe already, wine may contribute more to gross revenue and profit than that other necessity, gasoline, at the "Wine Station."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Best Strawberries

Living in Washington state, you can't help but become a strawberry lover. Of course, the best strawberries are local ones from places like Spooner Farm and Sakama farm. The season for these is a few scant weeks in June, but good strawberries can be had at other times of the year. When I am desperate for a strawberry, the overly firm, last forever, simulacrum from Watsonville will do, but if you want something with real flavor look to Mexico and other California venues. IMO, Santa Maria produces the most flavorful commercially grown fruit, followed by Santa Ynez, Oxnard and Salinas.

Strawberries are great by themselves and, of course, dipped in chocolate. Try strawberries with prosciutto or cold smoked salmon. Strawberries and semi-soft cheese are the perfect accompaniment to wine. Semisweet wines such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer work well, as do almost any dessert wines. I've never had a bad match with red or white wine, but a real Northwest eyeopener is Washington Strawberries and Oregon Pinot Noir, though I wouldn't object to a California Pinot or a Red Burgundy.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Best Airplane Wine?

Thunderbird or MD20/20? Well, not quite that bad. How many times have you ordered wine on a flight only to be disappointed? Even in First Class? The last wine I had in First Class was a not so first class Viognier from California. I vaguely recall having some good wine in Business Class many years ago. At least in steerage you can buy those little six ounce bottles. Water is probably a better choice and sometimes offered free on some airlines. Anyway, I decided to see which of those 187ml bottles offered the best chance of a decent quaff on a plane, not that you really have a choice on a given flight. We only tasted Chardonnay. Sutter Home was sweet and flabby. Gallo was acceptable. Delicato anything but delicate, but workable, Stone Cellar from Beringer was not bad at all, well balanced with a (oh, no!) slightly stony quality, and good fruit. BTW, This is available at Trader Joe's for only $3.99 ( four buck chuck ?) and it is a lot better than Charles Shaw Chardonnay. Too bad you can't BYOB. I am so far behind on my posts that I thought I would send this little post along just to remind you that I'm still in the game:)

Friday, June 05, 2009

FWC To Bailout Wine Industry

BULLETIN: FWC (Federal Wine Commission) to bailout wine industry. The FWC is a little known division of the Federal Reserve. Fiat will take control of Deageo and the Federal Government will own 60% of Constellation Brands. Deageo and Constellation will let go of over 50% of retailers and restaurants. Constellation will sell a significant portion of it's portfolio of wineries to buyers in China and Japan. Congressmen have complained of a lack of oversight, arbitrariness, unregulated rule by fiat, lack of clear and sound guidelines and criteria, and the impact on local communities. Some may have to drive more than 100 miles to get some wine. This will be beneficial to state budgets as the number of DWIs will increase. Goldman Sacks has indicated an interest in securitizing these debts (DWIs & DUIs), even under the regulation of the Federal Reserve (too bad Hank ain't around no more). A certain amount of wine in large formats with be held in Reserve for the Feds' own use. Already there has been a populist outcry over these outrageously oversized last minute bonuses.

On Wall Street there has been a huge rally in the stocks of American bucket manufacturers. In pre-market trading American Bucket(ABC), Kick The Bucket(KICK), and Bucket List(LIST), have risen 24%, 39%, and 103%, respectively. A little known earmark in fine print specifies that only American buckets from Arkansas and Kansas are to be used to drain the lake of wine in the U.S. resulting from excess inventories of cult wines and and wines priced at $14 and up. Like housing, there has recently been noted a slight increase in consumption by entry level buyers and those who have had to scale down during the "worst Recession since the Depression of the 1930s". Wines priced at the high end have suffered the greatest drop in sales and anyone who has a few bucks left can get on virtually any "list". "Allocated" wines can now be allocated to YOU, if you want them. Overseas, Asian and European bucket makers fell on the news. Several Asian CEOs and one French CEO kicked the bucket on the news. Interestingly, very few top level bucket makers had the decency to kick the bucket. Instead they seem to have taken out their bucket lists and are flying around the world checking off items at a rapid rate.

President Obama made it perfectly clear that he had no intention of nationalizing the wine industry or the bucket industry. He stated that it was necessary to bailout the wine industry because the country is drowning in a lake of high-priced wine. At his speech in Napa, he noted that roughly half of the countries in the world, including many Muslim countries, produce wine. He stated, unequivocally, that countries must abide by the Non-Proliferation Treaty and that, while no country could or should dictate the wine-growing behavior of another country, non-producing countries must sign the treaty and abide by its provisions. He also pointed out the absurd maze of state regulation and the intra-state attempts to coerce the behavior of individuals living in particular regions. He called for an end to the checkerboard of dry and wet counties found in some regions. Conservative Senators accused Obama of being unduly influenced by what they called a special interest group - Free The Grapes. Former Vice President Cheney virtually accused Free The Grapes of socialism and terrorism

Returning to the international arena, he said that the peaceful use of wine for domestic consumption enhances the GHP (Gross Happiness Product) of individuals and countries, but that threats of overproduction from rogue terroiristes are unacceptable and will be met with firm opposition by the international community. Terroiristes who turn in their plows will be welcomed into the community of nations. He expressed optimism that in the long run, the American wine industry could recapture it's lead by cutting prices and increasing innovation. He said that he understood the long suffering of the followers of Bacchus and Dionysus and history of hostility between them. He acknowledged how difficult it will be to overcome decades of cultism, but said that we must, and will, be guided by our moral obligations to do the right thing. While acknowledging the rights of teetotalers, he asked the world to unite in celebrating diversity, and asked us all, within the bounds of our various values and religious beliefs, to eat, drink, and be merry which is a universal human desire and a human right!
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