Taste Washington 2009 – Hits & Misses
The last large tasting event I attended was the San Diego Food and Wine Festival back in November, so I was looking forward to the Taste. What really made it tough was the weather this past Sunday. It was so nice outside for the first time this Spring that all I really wanted to do was be outside in the sunshine instead of inside the Qwest Event Center here in Seattle. To make up for it, I was able to taste a lot of wines in a fairly short period of time and eat some great food from the local restaurants. Instead of arriving with the masses at 4PM, I bought the more expensive VIP ticket to give me a 2 hour head-start over the crowds. I think it would be impossible to visit a majority of the booths without that extra time. For me, the extra $40 was worth it.
Elliott’s Oyster House was serving 5 different varieties of raw oysters on the half-shell and I was able to eat about a dozen myself. I think some people made a point of eating $40 worth of oysters just so they could justify the cost of the VIP pass. Pike Brewing Company and Pub was extremely busy, but especially amongst the winemakers who were probably tired of drinking wine by that point. Some other notable restaurants and food were:
- Hector’s Bar and Grill: Ahi poke with a togarashi won ton chip
- Wild Ginger: Fragrant duck bao sandwiches with plum sauce and peppercorn salt
- Barrio: Tostaditas of beef tartare with radish and sea salt
- The Capital Grille: Signature dry-aged New York striploin with Courvoisier cream and lobster mac n’ cheese. Yum!
I mostly ate those things that were quick bites and easy to consume. So many of the restaurants made food that required both hands or a sit-down table. With few tables around and one hand holding a tray and wine glass, many foods were just not convenient. Note to restaurants next year: simple finger foods are better for these events and generate less trash. Other food just seemed to be missing something. The soft-cooked egg with salmon roe at Spring Hill Restaurant & Bar just begged for a piece of toast to be served with it. Some restaurants such as Island Soul with their spicy Jerk Chicken made a dish that was overpowering for those of us trying to taste wine. That spicy flavor made the next few wines seem too hot on my palette until I had a dry Riesling to cool things off. And speaking of Rieslings.
So many of the wineries in Washington are producing so-called “dry” Rieslings, few of which are truly dry and worth drinking. Most should be labeled off-dry or just plain sweet. However, there are a few who are producing Rieslings that’ll give Germany a little competition. Winemaker, Bill Owen (or simply Owen as he likes to be called), is a friend and member of my wine tasting club and O-S Winery produces an exceptional dry 2008 Riesling, Horse Heaven Hills for $20. It has only 9.5% alcohol and is even better than the 2007 vintage with great balance and nice minerality. The fact that his table was just across from the oyster bar made it even better. The wine paired incredibly well with the raw oysters I was feeding to Owen. Oh, and you’re welcome.
The are a few other Rieslings I want to mention. The fact that I liked the 2007 Gård Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley ($22) shouldn’t come as a surprise since winemaker, Josh Lawrence, had Bill Owen as a teacher. His Riesling had a very rich mouth feel and a particularly nice honey and fruit quality. The 2007 Poet’s Leap Riesling, Columbia Valley by Long Shadows Vintners had a nice Kabinett style with crisp acidity and nice aromas for $20. The other Riesling is the 2007 Riesling, Columbia Valley made by the Magnificent Wine Company, makers of the House Wine series. I really wasn’t expecting much for $10 and such an ugly label, but this value wine really delivers. It is perhap a little more crisp and less intense than a late harvest Riesling–more like a Kabinett than a Spätlese. If you like dry Rieslings and don’t want to spend fortune, you really should check this wine out.
Since I recently was in Napa and there are so many Washington Cabs, I concentrated on tasting Syrahs and Rhône blends at this event. This allowed me to skip notable Cab producers such as Betz and Delille who ran out of wine very early and were noticably absent. Instead, I concentrated on the smaller boutique wineries that are experimenting with different blends and lesser grown varietals. You may notice that I really liked the wines produced with Horse Heaven Hills fruit. Here were some of my favorites.
The 2006 Animale Petite Sirah, Yakima Valley was a nice example of what can be done with this varietal. Dark and inky with jammy fruit flavors and a firm long finish for only $24.
Winemaker, Trey Busch, of Sleight of Hand Cellars produces a very approachable 2007 Levitation Syrah, Columbia Valley for $40.
The 2006 SYZYGY Syrah, Walla Walla ($33) was nicely balanced with lots of fruit and firm tannins, but ideally should be laid down for a while.
The 2007 Syncline Mourvèdre, Horse Heaven Hills ($30) was different, in a good way, with concentrated plum, cassis, licorice and black pepper flavors, but it was the 2008 Syncline Grüner Veltliner that really stood out with it’s crisp grapefruit flavors and white pepper finish.
The 2006 Thurston Wolfe Petite Sirah, Horse Heaven Hills had concentrated cherry and blackberry flavors and a very smooth finish making it a good drink-now wine at $20.
Alexandria Nicole Cellars produces the 2006 Block 17 Estate Syrah, Horse Heaven Hills ($42) which blends 13% Grenache and 4% Viognier with Syrah. It has a nice smokey nose and loads of complex flavors, but I actually liked the lower-priced ($25) 2005 Estate Syrah, Horse Heaven Hills better.
The 2004 Zefina Serience Red, Horse Heaven Hills ($30) is a Rhône blend with 42% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 11% Mourvèdre. It had a fragrant nose of cocoa and tobacco and a wonderfully rich palette of mocha, spice and mineral. Surprising for only 10% new oak. Their 2005 Sangiovese, Horse Heaven Hills was also worth mentioning.
TL Cellars produced only 47 cases of the 2005 Syrah Release No. THREE, Columbia Valley. It is a worthy first Syrah with loads of ripe cherry and black fruits and smooth long finish.
Winemakers Steve Michener, Tim Boushey and Denise Slattery are Trio Vintners, who produce the 2005 Syrah, Columbia Valley which has 7% Merlot and 1% Sangiovese giving it complex layers of smokey meat and dark fruit flavors. They also make a wonderful old-world-like 2006 Mourvèdre, Yakima Valley.
I love the labels on Chatter Creek’s bottles. Their 2006 Chatterneuf du Pape, Columbia Valley was a great tongue-in-cheek Rhône blend that didn’t resemble the French version but was still a very nice wine. However, their 2007 Grenache, Columbia Valley had a more old-world style with bright fruit-forward flavors and lighter body. But it was the 2006 Cabernet Franc, Horse Heaven Hills that really stood out. Not the typical Cab Franc with an almost floral nose but still a hint of peppers and pencil shavings. Bright red fruit flavors are following by a lengthy finish with hints of toasted almonds. Mmmm.
After berating one of the volunteers at DiStefano Winery about Mark Newton’s older vintages not cellaring well, I felt a little sheepish trying some of their lastest releases. Their new winemaker, Hillary Sjolund, works with Mark to ensure quality at the vineyards and it shows in the 2004 Donna Maria, Columbia Valley Rhône blend ($28). I’m looking forward to revisiting this winery.
Also worth mentioning was the 2006 Allobroges, Columbia Valley Rhône blend ($24) by Gilbert Cellars, the 2006 John Lewis Syrah, Walla Walla ($65) from Gramercy Cellars, and the $18 value-priced 2007 Syrah, Columbia Valley from Griffins Crossing Winery.
The best deal of the day for me was from newcomer, Maison Bleue Winery. I liked their 2008 Roussanne, Horse Heaven Hills ($19) and their 2008 Viognier, Yakima Valley ($22), but it was their as yet to be released 2008 La Midi Grenache (75% Grenache/25% Syrah) and 2008 Liberté Syrah made with Dick Boushey’s fruit that really made an impression. So much so that I ordered a mixed case of futures from them on the spot. It was the only purchase I made all day. Jon and Amy Martinez made a great looking couple and were very personable. I look forward to visiting their winery in Prosser, WA when they celebrate their inaugural vintage release of these wines.
Concentrating on Rhône blends didn’t mean I didn’t try other wines. It was $17 Domaine Pouillon’s 2007 Black Dot, Columbia Valley mostly Syrah and Grenache Rhône melange of seven different varietals that interested me, but ultimately I really enjoyed the 2006 Cuvée en Amont, Horse Heaven Hills 50/50 Cab/Syrah blend ($24). It reminded me of some nicer Australian Cab/Shiraz blends with loads of fruitiness and a nose of berry and barnyard.
I enjoyed the 2006 Woodward Canyon Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) made with fruit from all over Washington State and chatted briefly with Rick Small, the winemaker.
I was surprised that Quilceda Creek was there serving their second-tier 2006 Columbia Valley Red Wine. Despite its lesser stature in their offerings, it was surprisingly big, ripe, full-bodied and quite deserving of their reputation.
I also stopped to talk with Gretchen Bookwalter from J. Bookwalter Winery and taste (again) the 2006 Protagonist, Red Mountain Bordeaux-style blend ($50). Here’s a wine with lots of ripe fruit, tannins and potential but deserves to be cellared for several more years. They are one of the few wine clubs I belong to because of their Cabs, but lately I’ve been really enjoying their Rhône-styled whites which they weren’t pouring that day.
I was a little disappointed with some of the wineries I have visited and from whom I have bought wine in the past. These included Claar Cellars, Baer Winery, Adams Bench, Three Rivers Winery and Page Cellars. Their wines just aren’t how I remember them from past vintages, but that could just be my tastes in wine changing over the past couple of years.
All in all, its was a great day inside and I actually traversed nearly the entire floor from one end of the event center to the other. By the end of the show, my wine glass was pretty grungy and my right index finger and thumb were purple like a badge of honor. I was glad to see more variety at this show in terms of large and small wineries and the number of differents varietals that are being made into wine from Washington State. From what I saw and the winemakers I spoke with, Washington is a driving force in American wine.