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Feels Like Family

Jasper Sisco Wines

New School Cool Climate in Oregon's Newest AVA

Elkton, Oregon

One of Washington's Unheralded Talents

Wine Grower; Mimi Nye

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5 Years of Full Pull

Oregon's Rising Star

A Signature Style of Chardonnay

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The staff of the Northwest Wine Anthem, we're good

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Feels Like Family: Jasper Sisco Wines

In May of 2012 one of our writers Megan visited with a guy named Justin Paul Russell who had come to the Willamette Valley from the Alabama with a dream of making Oregon Pinot Noir. Two years have past and Justin has successfully launched Jasper Sisco with his first wines, including a 2012 Pinot Noir and a 2013 Riesling.


Jasper's story, sorry, Justin's story is illustrative of the kind of community that the Willamette Valley has always been and frankly remains, in spite of it's growing stature in the wine world. The California wine giants' land grab hasn't done any damage the family fabric of Oregon's Pinot Paradise. Quite the contrary; what Justin has found is an extended family in his home away from home.

Justin has landed at Portland's SE Wine Collective, a sort of "maker space" of the city's young wine talents. The Collective allows those interested in making wines, who also aren't land barons, to take a stab at making Pinot in Portland's city limits. In my opinion some of the wineries working out of there, are making some of the most imaginative wines in the Northwest right now. The collective gives them a sense of community, a little help with labor and equipment borrowing and a library of shared experiences to draw from to tackle any challenges they might see in wine production.

Justin has also benefited from a fantastic extended family relationship with the Momtazis of the Willamette's Maysara winery. It's there that he really got his foot in the door, working harvest and crush for two years as well as developing relationships with the broader Willamette wine community.

Now that his vision for Jasper Sisco has become a reality, that family feel remains important. Whether that's choosing his fruit sources or where he makes his wine. "Biodynamics are important to me, but at the core sustainable farming and the growers are what drive the vineyard choices. I want to be able to connect with the people I purchase fruit from, I want them to be people I'd have dinner with or better yet a beer... Momtazi is a site that I feel connected to in a lot of ways, I love the entire family and owe a deep amount of gratitude to them for all the help along the way."

"Cherry Grove was about being in the right place at the right time, in 2013 Tom of Division Wines and of SE wine Collective was sourcing Pinot Noir from there and he knew I was on the hunt for Riesling. He knew that Bob had just opened up a parcel that used to be contracted by Matt of Love and Squalor."

2012 Jasper Sisco Pinot Noir, Momtazi Vineyard  A warm vintage that has been the recipient of many accolades given its fruit forward results. I find the Jasper Sisco Pinot to be overtly aromatic with aromatics of dried violets, dirt and white pepper. A bit more complex than many of the "fruity" 2012 Pinots I've come across this wine's got a high sense of minerality, the acid is soaring and the wine is leaner than it is robust. Which I dig personally. Dried figs, cocoa powder and earth driven minerals. Justin on where the fruit comes from: "I source from two blocks on the site BD (clone 114) and JJ  (Pommard) both planted in 2001 both mostly Jory Soil based." $32



The label is an interesting story that ties back to that family theme. "That's Jasper in the middle of the photo. The photo was taken in West Virginia when he worked in a coal mine. The two people with him are relatives but nailing down who they are with the family I have left that knew Jasper has been dicey. The consensus is that they were cousins. The use of his name as the parent label is a tie not only to family, but work ethic, wit, and a persnickety nature that were central to his personality."

2013 Jasper Sisco Clara Estelle Riesling, Cherry Grove Vineyard A wine as pretty and distinguished as the woman who graces its label. Beautiful aromatics of wet stone, coriander and lime zest. The wine's palate is zippy and alive, flavors of wet stone and grape fruit, and thirst slaking acidity. One of my favorite Northwest wines I've had all year. In Cherry Grove Justin is rubbing elbows with some of the Valley's heavy hitters in terms of sourcing fruit from there. "Cherry Grove Vineyard is in Gaston, Oregon. The others who source from it are Antica Terra, Boedecker, Andrew Rich, as well as Love and Squalor. The riesling portion of this vineyard is just .8ths of an acre. It's a twenty three year old planting at the base of the site. An amalgam of soil types, the site is Live certified." $18

The woman on the label? "Clara Estelle is the great grandmother of my dear friend Wesley Sloman who helped with harvest in 2012 and has remained closely connected with the vintages since then. Clara was the first lady of Tarrant, Alabama in the sixties. She was the lady you went to if you needed to get something done, or needed to know something about someone in Tarrant. I've spent time connecting with Wesley's mother for stories." 

In his first go-round Justin has produced a pair of impressive wines. He thinks though the best is yet to come. "The largest feedback loop I find myself in is the one at the Collective.  We share info on production and the business aspect of things almost daily.  As far as the wines go, I think my stylistic choices in the cellar draw the most feedback, People tend to think my style is risky. But as I was once told that what you risk reveals what you value."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

New School Cool (Climate): Brandborg Vineyard & Winery

photo from the Brandborg Vineyards & Winery
The newest AVA in Oregon, having been granted in early 2013 is found in the Umpqua Valley's town of Elkton and its surrounding hillsides. The Elkton AVA designation was sought to make sense of the larger Umpqua Valley's diversity. It was simple according to Terry Brandborg whose Brandborg Vineyard and Winery opened as the area's first winery in 2002. "As people learn more about Oregon wines, that AVA (the Umpqua Valley) promotes itself most commonly as warmer and drier than the Willamette Valley.  Most people therefore are not aware of our area or the Illinois Valley which lie within this very large AVA, that are both cool climate regions.  So, when we are in market, it is always a bit confusing to people that we make cool climate whites and pinot noir.  The Elkton AVA gives us something to talk about that helps us differentiate our wines, adding that validity that comes with AVA approval."

The town of Elkton is a tiny one (only a 195 residents as of the 2010 census), but beautiful. It sits in Oregon's coastal range and gives off a sort of classic Northwestern vibe, reminiscent of the town of Hope, Washington. Hope, Washington is of course the fictional town in First Blood, the classic Rambo film. I really wanted this Brandborg story to follow the same arc. Long haired California winemaker shows up in town, small town sheriff gives him a hard time, he flees into the woods and makes terroir reflective cool climate Pinot Noir. First Crush would have been a great title. Alas, once Terry Brandborg had relayed the story of his arrival in Elkton I had to change gears completely, bummer for all of us.


Terry and his wife Sue came to Elkton in 2002, founding Elkton's first and only winery at the time, though vineyards had been planted in the area nearly thirty years prior. They were motivated by Ken Thomason's pioneering planting of Pinot Noir, Gewurtztraminer and Riesling dating back to 1972. (Thomason planted the area's original vineyards which have since been acquired by the River's Edge winery.) These were varieties that Terry had been working with since his days in the Anderson Valley in the 1970s and were a big part of his early success as a garagiste winemaker.

These days there are twelve vineyards in Elkton but Brandborg is working with three of them most notably; making wine from Bradley Vineyards, Anindor Vineyards and his own estate fruit. He finds that Elkton wines are definitely showing a sense of terroir. "I certainly do believe we have identified terroir, with distinctive differences in the wines we make with Bradley fruit, Anindor fruit and our own site.  At our Ferris Wheel Estate (which is at 1,000 feet elevation) we get less ripe flavors of blueberry and pomegranate with a softer tannin structure, whereas Bradley and Anindor show more dark cherry with more tannin structure.  Our soils are very similar to Willakenzie and Bradley and Anindor are similar to Nekia."

Elkton is certainly a cooler climate, and in fact, based on growing-degree-days is as cool or cooler than most of the Willamette Valley. Terry Brandborg as an established and talented winemaker who has been focused on cooler climate varieties throughout his career found it a perfect fit.  Though his arrival did turn a few heads. The opening of the Brandborg winery and tasting room right in "downtown" Elkton was another pioneering moment in the still growing Umpqua Valley. They got some strange looks on the crush pad, which is just across from the Post Office. The front and center placement  certainly made people curious about their new neighbors, but there were no Sheriff Will Teasle moments. In fact, Brandborg's selection of Elkton not just for his vineyards but his winery, (as opposed to choosing nearby and much larger Roseburg) drove a bit of renaissance in downtown, with several businesses updating or renovating their store fronts.

Since that time Terry and Sue have been out to make cool climate whites like the Riesling and Gewurztraminer which has a strong following. As well as Pinot Noir. They've added Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard east of Oakand, Oregon. Brandborg would also love to explore a few other aromatic whites like Chenin Blanc and potentially see how Elkton grown Chardonnay fits within the exploding tide of high quality Willamette Valley Chardonnay.  

2012 Brandborg Oregon Riesling, Elkton Oregon This Riesling is more than meets the eye. A historic bottle in many ways as the first wine released with the Elkton AVA designation. Aromatics of honey, chamomile and a touch of diesel ( usually a signature of older Riesling). Flavors include loads of minerality, cut pears and coriander. The acidity zips rather than soars and the wine has a very nice mouthfeel. $16

2012 Brandborg, Ferris Wheel Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir, Elkton Oregon From 13 year old vines at 1,000 feet elevation this warmer vintage Pinot from Elkton is giving up ample aromatics of dusty red berries, and a touch of clove. The palate is distinguished as opposed to rustic, balanced with fruit and earth flavors as well as a dab of barrel spice. $38



Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Keeper of Canoe Ridge: Mimi Nye

The Horse Heaven Hills has become one of the largest wine growing areas in Washington state. Rising up above the Columbia River and extending north toward the Yakima River Valley the Horse Heaven Hills is windswept, dry, strangely beautiful, and very, very, very remote.


It is as unlikely a place, to the untrained eye for planting vineyards, as you might find but in 1972 Walter Clore approached Don and Linda Mercer and convinced them that it would a perfect place to grow wine. The Mercer family had farmed land in the area since the 1930s, mostly dry land wheat, onions and carrots. In 1972 they planted Cabernet Sauvignon in what was then known as Block One and today is rather famously called Champoux Vineyard and pioneered the AVA.

The acreage in the Horse Heaven Hills has grown substantially, and while Cabernet is what it has become most known for, the variety of plantings is notable. Chateau Ste. Michelle has invested heavily in the region in both its Columbia Crest label as well as it's own CSM brand, and its reserve wine-making facilities at Canoe Ridge.

In 1991 Chateau Ste. Michelle planted their Canoe Ridge Vineyard. Spanning 559 acres the vineyard is planted with a large variety of wine grapes including Riesling, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet. Since it's inception, the Canoe Ridge vineyard has been overseen by one woman, Mimi Nye.

There are many talented farmers making their marks on the Washington wine industry, in some cases, wine growers like Dick Boushey,  Horse Heaven's own Paul Champoux or Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval are as well known as some of the state's most prominent wine makers. In many instances though, some of the very hardest work being done in the industry goes unnoticed. Mimi is one of those talents, and while you may never see her name on a bottle (you can actually) her talent and enthusiasm is a vital part of the equation for Chateau Ste Michelle.

"We broke this vineyard out of sagebrush in 91, so these are my babies." Says Mimi, who appears every bit as warm and welcoming as a familiar family member the minute you meet her. She walks me through the Canoe Ridge Vineyard rows of Chardonnay. Canoe Ridge sits along the Columbia River, really, with a strong arm you could get a rock to the water, and it's thanks to that river's climate modulating influence that world class wine grapes can be grown here, in what is frankly the desert. Canoe Ridge is alarmingly sandy in places, like dunes almost, not the kind of place you'd expect anything to be growing.

Mimi started with Chateau Ste Michelle thirty three years ago. She started with no vineyard experience whatsoever, but rather studied horticulture at WSU and was growing potatoes mostly, when CSM bought her farm. Then in 1991 she was told by someone at Chateau Ste Michelle that the Canoe Ridge project, the one she was charged with cultivating was "going to be a world class vineyard." And as dubious as she was then, she's convinced today. She's also a big part of the site's success.

Mimi's familiarity with each block and her depth of knowledge come from her experience to be sure but that experience is also balanced with a real curiosity about the work that's being done nearby by CSM's red wine maker Raymon Mckee. As we walk though the Chardonnay blocks Mimi teaches me what she's learned from the winemakers, and her experience. We practice tasting the fruit for ripeness. We pluck off a few grapes and squish them in our mouths. "We're looking for a balance between acid and sugar, chew the skins, are they crunchy, or squishy? Are you tasting green apple, or peach?" We spit out the seeds looking for brown seeds, a sign of ripeness, over green. Mimi's interest in what winemakers are looking for hasn't seen her make any of her own yet. (Though she does have her own Mimi bottling of Chardonnay.) She has made jam from some of the wine grapes but has yet to see any scores from Wine Spectator for those.

For Raymon Mckee a colleague like Mimi is a valuable asset to his work and reputation of Canoe Ridge. "It's very special to work with Mimi, because she knows intricate and minute details about the Vineyard, through decades of different seasons and growing conditions.  Mimi has dedicated herself to Canoe Ridge Estate for more than 24 years, and the vines (and resulting wines) have gotten better each year because of her attention and passion."

"We continually find the small ways to make the wines better.  For example, one of our top blocks of Merlot has an area with gravel and an area with deeper sand, running perpendicular to the rows.  This results in some variability in ripening.  Mimi lets me pick out the block at two different times, to get the riper gravel bar section a week or so before the deeper sandy section of the row.  This has made the wine just a smidge better than if we picked out the row altogether.  I could not make the wine as good as it wants to be (as great as it can be), without her input, experience and help.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Full Pull: 5 Years of Giving You the Goods

From Marty Sparks



Editors Note: Full Pull Wines is a small, local operation that offers list subscribers a well-curated catalog of wines with a nearly daily offering(s). Marty Sparks checks in with Paul on the heels of celebrating his 5th anniversary.

Full Pull Wines is like having your own personal wine concierge.  Paul Zitarelli is your host and he sends you several offers per week that provide access to excellent wines at very good prices.  The primary focus is on Washington wines with offers from around the world making appearances on a regular basis as well.  

Paul just celebrated his first five years of business by hosting a "small" get together with his list members and some of his most popular Washington wineries and wine makers.  The guest list featured many of the Full Pull list members’ favorite wineries, which also happen to represent some of the top tier winemakers in Washington.


The anniversary party offered Paul a chance to reflect on his first five years, the success he has enjoyed and an opportunity to share that with friends and family.  It also gave me a chance to catch up with Paul and learn some more about the great adventure he has been on since founding Full Pull in 2009.  

The idea for Full Pull was born out of Paul's love for wine and writing.  As he was completing his MBA at the UW's Foster School of Business, Paul developed the concept for Full Pull recognizing that wine lends itself very well to a curated business model.  That is where your personal wine concierge comes in.  Paul does the research to find excellent bottles of wine and then sends you an offer via email that provides thoughtful background on the winery, winemaker and, of course, the wine being offered.

I was curious, how did Full Pull get started and what has transpired over the past five years?  What about the first offer, a favorite offer or a most unusual offer.

Paul knew that he would focus Full Pull on Washington wines and wanted his first offer to be a sparkling wine.  That required quite a bit of research and ultimately lead Paul to Mountain Dome in Spokane.  His first offer would be their 2004 Brut.  What better way to start a new journey than with a bottle of bubbly.  As Paul recounted "The captain of the Titanic might have thought the same thing!"  

As Full Pull continued to grow Paul added Oregon wines to his offers in the middle of 2011 and then expanded to International wines in 2012.  Full Pull’s first International wine offering was one of Paul's favorites so far, the 2011 Ameztoi Txakolina “Rubentis.” a rosada from the Basque Country of Spain.  I remember Paul dropping geo-exploration inspired hints on the email list members leading up to the big offer.  It was like “Where in the world is Full Pull?!” The International offers also brought one of the weirdest wine offers to Full Pull, a French wine that actually might be a spirit.  Paul doesn't think he should have been able to sell it, but he did!  And, he still receives reorder requests today for the NV Cocchi Vermouth di Torino.

Paul is continuing to grow Full Pull through new opportunities that appeal to him and to his list members.  The latest addition to Full Pull’s offering is Full Pull and Friends Wine.  Paul is partnering with select local wineries and winemakers to offer unique wines to Full Pull list members.  Since beginning Full Pull & Friends, Paul has offered 8 wines.  These wines are exclusive and not available anywhere else.  The most recent Full Pull and Friends release is a great example, 2012 Bacchus Cabernet Sauvignon made from some of the oldest cab vines in Washington state.   Most of the FP&F wines would not have been bottled without Paul’s attention.  Typically, these wines were originally intended for blending.  Paul has brought them to market as single variety bottlings.  The response has been very positive and Paul is excited to do more with this program in the future.  He has plans to be more proactive in seeking out sources for FP&F wines.  Beginning with 2014 he is contracting with some Washington vineyards to select grapes for the program.  By contracting for grapes Paul is able to get closer to winemaking without taking on all the associated risks.   Back to the 5th year anniversary celebration.  The party took place at Full Pull's new space located in the SoDo area combining fabulous small bites and wine from 13 popular Full Pull list wineries.  Each winery poured two wines, a current release and something special - a library wine or an exclusive wine typically not available to the public.

Here are a few of my personal highlight wines available at the celebration.  Sleight of Hand Flip Side Syrah in Magnum - I’m a music and wine geek so how could I resist this music themed Syrah from Trey Busch?  The Gramercy Cellars Rock Steady Syrah inspired by Greg Harrington’s break dancing days in NYC (seriously, break dancing!).  An Abeja 2009 Merlot that was lush, plush and tasting fab. A smashing Forgeron 2003 Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon tasting like it is just coming into its prime.  And the mack daddy from Seven Hills: a 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon that still had plenty of life left in it - answering the question “Do Washington wines age well?”  This Seven Hills Cab says “Well, Duh!”

The first five years have been a pretty dynamic ride at Full Pull.  Paul,is looking forward to continuing to grow organically and to keep the list manageable.  Based on his first five years and what he has accomplished, I’m confident that Paul, and Full Pull, will continue to offer access to excellent wines from around the globe.  Along with the wine you will also receive a well-written backstory on each one of the offers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Building Something Beautiful; The Rise of a Signature Chardonnay Style in Oregon

That Oregon Chardonnay is gaining in prominence and prestige is no longer news. If you've been drinking these wines for the last 7 or so years you've already known irrespective of national newspapers taking note very recently, that this variety from Oregon has the potential to be a fine wine, a damn fine wine.
photo from the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance
Chardonnay has been so maligned, so abused and mistreated that it has sadly become a bit of a scapegoat among the discerning wine drinking public. It's funny though because despite all of this maltreatment Chardonnay is the most popular wine in America. Chardonnay remains the most widely variety planted in California, and up until just last  year it was the case in Washington, it has since been surpassed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Here's the thing, grandmas love Chardonnay, my mother for example, she loves the stuff. But for serious wine drinkers, or actually more to the point those developing into serious wine drinkers Chardonnay, particularly domestically made Chardonnay had become verboten.  No one was going to take you seriously if they caught you drinking Chardonnay, right?(Serious-serious wine drinkers have learned how profound Chardonnay can be when it comes from Burgundy and developing-serious wine drinkers will soon find that out as well.)

Enter Oregon and David Adelsheim.

Oregon's Willamette Valley; known the world over, and I mean that sincerely, for it's Pinot Noir is also producing Chardonnay that might rival or in some cases pass it's Pinot in prominence. Given America's propensity to see red wine as more "serious" though I don't know if Oregon's Chardonnay will ever get it's full due, however it's reputation is on the rise and a style is emerging as one that might just change the way American Chardonnay is understood.

David Adelsheim is certainly among the shortlist of names as one of the Willamette Valley's pioneers. Though he came a few years behind the first wave of David Lett, Charles Coury and a couple others, his role in the development of Oregon's Chardonnay is perhaps more unparalleled. The valley's original Chardonnay plantings were selected from vines intended originally for planting in California. In the cool Willamette Valley they flopped, In many cases they wouldn't ripen properly and were often a few weeks behind Pinot Noir. These two UC Davis clones, known as "selection 108" weren't cutting it.

While working a harvest in Burgundy in 1974, two years after planting his own vineyard which included Chardonnay, Adelsheim noted that the Chardonnay in Burgundy was ripening right alongside the Pinot Noir. The process was complicated but eventually some appropriate, and healthy clones were released via Oregon State University for planting in 1989. Adelsheim, along with Rollin Soles of Argyle and Chehalem's Harry Pederson-Nedry championed the planting of these Dijon clones in an effort to replace the ill selected "selection 108." Pun intended.

What we're seeing today in Oregon Chardonnay, is a result of that hard work and vision.

"Chardonnay isn't a wine-making technique, it's a grape." David Adelsheim points out. "In order to make it well you need wine-making that actually respects the identity of the grape, and the variety that you can achieve vintage to vintage." So why are we seeing this resurgence in the Chardonnay coming out of Oregon today? "What we're seeing is a collision of two things; the level of quality possible with careful site and clone selection. A clearer vision of what we can do here. It's been a gradual recognition over the last ten years or so."

It really has and over that time, you find a style of Chardonnay that emphasizes the "fresh fruit," bright acids and amazing texture for which Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has come to be known. terroir is a real thing it turns out. For Oregon Chardonnay, style is about climate, soils and the right decisions about vineyard site and Chardonnay clones. It's not about heavy oak, or maloactic fermentation. 


Thankfully for us others have followed and the number of beautiful Chardonnays coming from the Willamette Valley are at an all time high. Anam Cara Cellars is only in their second vintage with the 2012 release but they are among a group of "new" Chardonnay producers adding to the critical mass of outstanding Oregon Chardonnay coming to market. For Sheila Nicholas Chardonnay seemed like a natural decision. "When we decided to plant two additional acres, we wanted a white variety that would complement the existing plantings of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurztraminer; each in itself a wine that evolves beautifully in a cool climate. Chardonnay - specifically Dijon clone Chardonnay - fit the bill for quality and age-ability. Our decision was confirmed after following several vintages of a personal favorite: Eric Hamacher's Cuvée Forêts Diverses and Harry Peterson Nedry's Chehalem Ian's Reserve and INOX Chardonnays which demonstrate the incredible versatility of Chardonnay at the hands of a great winemaker."

2012 Anam Cara Cellars Reserve Chardonnay In their second vintage of Chardonnay bottling, Anam Cara Cellars has made both a steel fermented wine and this reserve wine fermented in French oak, about 20% of which is new. Aromatics of white flowers, sweet hay and toasted hazelnuts. The wine is textured and rounded with accents of ripe peach flesh, honey and grapefruit zest. The zip of acid is subdued and the palate balances out nicely. $32 

2012 Stoller Family Estate Reserve Chardonnay Melissa Burr reliably creates some of the most compelling Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley each vintage. Aromatics of coriander, honeysuckle, lemon zest and pineapple. Mostly neutral French oak gives this wine depth, texture and complexity and ample lemon creme, wet stone and peach skin. Mouth watering acidity and overall elegance. $35


2012 Bergstrom Sigrid Chardonnay Goddamn. That is a wine. This is probably the most complete wine from Oregon I've ever tasted. Damn. Forgive me, I need a minute. Aromatics are lemon custard, orange zest, fresh baked bread, chalk, and almond. Flavors of beeswax, lemon creme, crushed limestone and toasted hazelnut. A full bodied richness braced with a streak of energetic acidity. The impressiveness of this wine lies in it's structure and depth. Evolving in your mouth, revealing more and more facets of itself. You think you have it pinned down and it changes, shifts, gives you a bit more. I don't like to wax too poetic about wine, but this one leaves me with no other choice. It really is that incredible. I believe Burgundy would be proud. $85

2012 Adelsheim Caitlin's Reserve Chardonnay Refined and elegantly aromatic the wine gives off a warmth and roundness with aromatics of ripe stone fruit and honeysuckle. The acidity pulses  to brighten up a palate of texture and depth. The wine was fermented in nearly 40% new French oak The rounded palate shows a bit more ripe peach along with flavors of nutmeg, baked apple and honey. $45

These wines were provided as samples as part of a program called "Best Case Scenario" in an effort to highlight Oregon Chardonnay.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Gorgeous in the Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge is perhaps one of the most dynamic wine growing areas in all the world. Certainly hard to beat in terms of dramatic landscape. The Columbia River Gorge AVA was established in 2004, it's slogan "a world of wines in 40 miles" hints at the kind of variety that this sort of dynamism allows for. From Albarino, to Pinot Noir, to Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, the Gorge has a little bit of everything.


The Gorge, is a study in contrasts, sort of. It's in Washington and Oregon. It's in the temperate rain forest on it's western edge, and the dry grasslands that transition to desert at it's eastern edge. While many wine growing regions might point to topographical anomalies that might make for unique elements within the AVA, that might often contribute to a specific character or terroir showing up in a particular vineyard, the Gorge is made up of these kinds of anomalies. What's consistent about the Gorge is really it's diversity. Moving from west to east within the Gorge you lose an inch of rain each mile you travel along the Gorge, 40 inches on one end to 10 on the other. And as you travel east the growing degree days shoot up with all that increased sunshine.

What this means for a fan of Washington, and Oregon wine is that you can drink a variety of varieties, styles and site expressions without ever leaving the Gorge AVA. The Gorge is quickly developing a reputation for it's unique climate and some particular vineyards that deliver complex wines with great acid and elegance are becoming some of the most sought after in the state. In short, the Gorge makes for some really pretty wines. We'll take a look at a few of those well established sites as well as some new ones.

Celilo Vineyards 
Celilo might be the most revered vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA. It's reputation is for fruit that does well in wines of restraint, minerality, elegance and wonderfully high acids. Pinot Noirs from Syncline have raised the vineyard's profile as a worthy vineyard designate site, but some Washington wineries like Woodward Canyon for example have been using the higher acid fruit from Celilo to blend into their Chardonnay for nearly 20 years.

Celilo Vineyard was planted in 1972 making it an old site by Washington standards.  Celilo sits on Underwood Mountain an extinct volcano with deep, loamy soils that show up in the outstanding minerality the site is known for. Celilo is not only in a cool zone, it's elevation adds to it's higher acid fruits as the 75 acre vineyard ranges between 800 and 1200 feet of elevation. Celilo has had the same vineyard manager since 1976, so there's a consistency of quality that comes with that long earned experience and know how.

2011 Tranche Cellars Chardonnay, Celilo Vineyard As the evolution of Washington Chardonnay has progressed, towards more elegance and minerality, less butter, Tranche Cellars has been making one of the finest bottlings I've had year to year. The use of concrete egg fermenters, neutral French oak and battonage gives us a Washington Chardonnay that nods to the Old World. Aromatics of peach skin, wet stone, and a flavor profile of ripe peach and honey really turn on the texture and structure of this Chardonnay. The mouthfeel is balanced with great acid but ample depth and texture from the lees and time in neutral oak and concrete. $45

White Salmon Vineyard
Also on Underwood Mountain White Salmon Vineyard is at a lower elevation(550 feet) planted on a rocky bench of Underwood this vineyards sees perhaps a greater variety in soil types than it's nearby and more famous neighbor. Formed by volcanic slides so the vineyard see pronounced soil diversity. The Chardonnay is planted among the vineyards higher clay content soils.

2012 Foundry Vineyards Chardonnay, Columbia Gorge This wine is super. Super. From Walla Walla's Foundry Vineyards comes a Chardonnay that you absolutely have to try. Production is small, in the neighborhood of 100 cases but well worth seeking out. Another unique element, the Chardonnay is co-fermented with Maria Gomes. That's not a person, that's an obscure, by my take anyways, Portuguese grape. And while perhaps nobody solves a problem like Maria, nobody co-ferments with Chardonnay as well either. Aromatics of honeysuckle, apricot and stone, the wine is a study in balance. There's a brightness to the fruit profile with flavors of just ripe apricot and peach, complimented by a roundness, lemon creme and notes of hazelnut. $27

Hi-Valley Vineyard
I know that the Hi-Valley Vineyard is at about 1,000 feet of elevation in the Dalles, Oregon, and that it was planted to about 15 acres of Syrah and Merlot. The vineyard is managed by Lonnie Wright, long-time Gorge guru and the vines are about 15 or so years old. Beyond that, I dunno, I can't find much information on the place, but if the wines are reliably like this one; I'm interesting in learning more.

2010 Jacob Williams Syrah, Hi-Valley Vineyard I'm a huge fan of the potential for cool climate Syrah and I think the Gorge sets up very well, as does the Willamette Valley frankly. In this Jacob Williams Syrah you have a perfect marriage of a cool vintage with a cool site. This isn't your mother's NW Syrah, in the style that perhaps you're used to seeing out of Washington. This wine is austere, angular Old World and has rip roaring acidity. I really dig it. The wine is aromatically effusive, currants, early season brambleberries and earth. The wine opens up over two days with red berries, stone, earth and lots and lots of fresh mint and eucalyptus. Should only be better over the next two years. I've gotta be honest I hadn't heard of Jacob Williams prior to having tried this Syrah but I will be looking out for their wines in the future. $28

Phelps Creek Vineyard
Outside of the Willamette Valley, Phelps Creek Vineyards is producing incredible Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in their vineyard perched above Hood River Oregon. Alexandrine Roy of Burgundy has taken over the reigns of wine direction at Phelps Creek and finds the specifics of the Gorge providing an element that you don't find in the Willamette Valley when it comes to these Burgundian varieties. Alexandrine decidedly notes a different kind of “perfect” acidity in the Gorge, which has higher altitudes and longer maturation periods than the Willamette Valley experiences. The climate in the Gorge, specifically the wind off of the Columbia River, cools and controls the sugar levels in the grapes grown there.

2011 Phelps Creek Vineyards, Estate Reserve Chardonnay While Alexandrine's finger prints aren't on this Chardonnay (her first vintage directing all of the wine production is 2012) the wine has a sort of Burgundian sense to it. Ample aromatics, with beeswax, coriander and honey. A nicely textured wine owed to the neutral French oak the fruit retains a great acidity though to set a good balance. The palate shows lemon creme, almond and chamomile. $30



Three Sleeps Vineyard

In Mosier, Oregon between The Dalles and Hood River on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge. The Three Sleeps Vineyard is a 15 acre parcel, only 8 of which are planted and it's the estate vineyard for McMinnville winery, Dominio IV. The vineyard was planted in 2001 and is both organic and biodynamically farmed on sandy loam soils. Patrick Reuter is  co-owner (along with his wife Leigh, the vineyard manager) and winemaker at Dominio IV. They've planted four different clones of Tempranillo in the site and sees a real future for this varietal in the Northwest. Tempranillo is certainly worthy of the “signature wine” banner for the northwest, yet still needs to be articulated to a further degree. We need to understand the how to express the grape with distinction given the macro and meso climate or terroir it is grown in." 

Three Sleeps Tempranillo Vertical, 2008, 2009, 2010
The Dominio IV label is fairly esoteric and a bit hard to wrap your brain around in terms of the various names, and many multiple bottlings of single varietal wines. However, doing a little sleuthing is worth the effort. They're serious about their varietal bottlings, and may be the biggest "Tempranillo Geeks" in the Northwest. Dominio IV also has some fantastically well priced blends. Tempranillo has shown itself to be at home in Southern Oregon in a number of really nice wines, and we've even seen a few stand outs from Washington. The Dominio IV Tempranillos from Three Sleeps Vineyard however may make a case for the Gorge as ground zero for this Spanish grape here in the Northwest. (These wines were sent as samples and I believe they retail in $35 neighborhood, in which case, BUY THEM!)

2008 Dominio IV Tempranillo, Three Sleeps Vineyard, The Arrow & The Berry
Aromatics of licorice, black tea and turned earth. The wine is aromatically showy but demonstrates refinement on the palate. Ripe flavors of raisin, black plum and pomegranate, This wine balances ripe ample fruit with great tannin and acidity. Finish lingers a long while. (This wine was released in 2011 by the way, showing a real faith in the importance age-ability of Tempranillo from the Gorge.) 

2009 Dominio IV Tempranillo, Three Sleeps Vineyard, Midnight Skies
Dusty cherry aromatics, along with clove and cocoa powder. The palate emphasizes dark fruit, black plums, blackberry and anise. Tannins are grippy, dusty and integrate wonderfully with a fresh acidity.

2010 Dominio IV Tempranillo, Three Sleeps Vineyard, Of The Earth
Aptly named, this Tempranillo shows a cooler climate and a real sense of minerality. The most effusively fragant of the three wines, with dried violet, lots of crushed rock and freshly turned earth. Lots of earth. More cloves and plums on the palate but a sort of meatiness and a real savory character to this Tempranillo. It's wonderfully elegant and way age-worthy. My favorite of the trio.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Washington's New Balance: Woodinville Shows the Way

It would be technically correct to say that the Washington wine industry's roots were set down in Woodinville all those years ago when Chateau Ste Michelle established their Woodinville location as a kind of wine destination. It has become the state's ground zero for consumer wine education with over half of the state's population within an hour drive. Washington wine drinkers, largely are being exposed to Washington's bounty via Woodinville and their demand for Washington wines has driven an industry. And the industry has boomed from 19 wineries in 1981 to over 800 today. The wine industry has grown, and Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla, Red Mountain and the Columbia River Gorge among many other AVAs have come to shape the state and it's wines.


Woodinville however remains at the forefront. Today there's a new crop of Washington winemakers; making their wine in the warehouses of Woodinville and it's some of the most exciting stuff going on in the state. (This man's opinion anyways.) I liken what's going on with these new producers in Woodinville to the vibe in Walla Walla a couple-three years ago when Kerloo Cellars, Rotie Cellars and Reynvaan were really making folks sit up and take notice.

Over the last many years there has been a trend in Woodinville wine production, in my opinion, that has led to an almost "house style" of Woodinville wine. That formula has been a sort of emulation of the style of wine-making that has been successful at Delille Cellars. Extracted wines, ripe, with big tannin and plenty of new oak. We do however appear to be seeing a shift in that formula that has been so present in Woodinville for so long.  The wines, from producers like Avennia, Savage Grace, WT Vintners, Kevin White Winery and Lauren Ashton Cellars offer a variety of wine-making styles and personalities but there tends to be an underlying philosophy of seeking to create wines of balance.

Jeff Lindsay Thorsen of WT Vintners is excited to be a part of this sort of Woodinville sea change. "The 'new' wineries and winemaking styles in Woodinville that are making an impact seem to be a reflection first of their palates, then as a response to a new generation of wine drinker. You don’t have to slather all of your wines with oak and pick your grapes at high brix to produce world class wine. Bordeaux varietals especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab heavy blends can handle a wallop of new french oak, but Rhone varietals like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre often lose their identity and what makes them special when you put them in a new oak barrel. Many of these new wineries seem to be more focused on channeling the flavors of Washington’s amazing vineyards, rather emulating a successful formula from down south (California)."


Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton sees that big extracted formula as one that was arrived at by a fairly simple conclusion. "If something is good, like oak. More of it must be better, right?" Kit though is seeking to communicate an underlying sense of restraint in his wines. For him, the formula for creating a more balanced wine is equally simple. "A delicious meal, a good recipe is balanced. Here there's a bit of salt, maybe a bit of spice here, taken together they're delicious because one isn't overwhelming everything else. A delicious meal should be balanced, and that's the kind of wine I want to make as well."

For Kit there is a sort of energy and synergy happening in Woodinville particularly in the warehouses. "It feels extremely supportive, it's a real collaborative and cooperative environment." Kit sees these "new guys" as the next wave in Woodinville's development as a wine community. "In the first wave you had many of the founders, Chateau Ste Michelle of course gave us a lot of these talented folks. Mike Januik, Bob Betz, Charlie Hoppes and Delille Cellars was developing right along with them." The next wave to come was inspired by those guys and it was among others Chris Sparkman, Chris Gorman, Darby, and Efeste. As this new wave comes along with guys like Jeff, Kit, Michael Savage and Kevin White among others they've all been a product of those who came before them. They're also creating an environment that supports each other's growth. "Michael and I are friends and we collaborate a lot, he has inspired me, pushed me to try and be a better winemaker and I hope that I've done that for him as well." 

Woodinville's warehouses are uniquely positioned of course in their proximity to Seattle, where perhaps they might attract folks from outside the industry like Kit, or Kevin White as well as someone like Jeff who works as the wine director at Seattle's RN 74.  Jeff sees that location and the unique layout of the warehouse district as a sort of serendipity for this new movement in Woodinville. "The warehouse district's concentration of wineries creates a natural incubator for the wine-curious, many of the up-and-comers started as fans, worked a harvest and caught the bug. The community of Woodinville wineries is incredible, everyone pays it forward. We have had so much help along the way. Our  successes have come to us through the camaraderie that the neighborhood fosters. I am not sure when we will hit a saturation point, but for now their is very little feeling of competition. Other winemaking regions are very spaced out, our concentration has proven to be a huge part of all of our success."



2012 W.T. Vintners Dalliance Red Blend A blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache in that order but the Grenache really comes to the fore on the palate for me. With fruit from Walla Walla's Rocks, but WT isn't saying which vineyard, this wine is super aromatic. Dried violets, ripe berry fruit and a little bit of that signature Rocks funk hums through. The palate is beautifully balanced and is so lively that it almost feels medium bodied. Flavors show fruit, herbs and a stony minerality with an ever-present elegance from the rocks. $32

2011 Lauren Ashton Syrah Columbia Valley Is a blend of a couple different vineyards, one on Red Mountain and one in the Yakima valley and no new oak offer a Syrah that speaks to the balance and restraint the Kit strives for in his wines. An exemplary savory Syrah that Washington's well matched vineyards are capable of producing. Dried figs, earth, smoke and herbal aromatics. A savory but lithe palate that exhibits dark plum, forest floor and more of those "garrigue" herbal elements. $35

2011 Avennia Arnaut Syrah, Boushey Vineyard The Avennia wines are fast becoming a perennial favorite for me and for elegance and sophistication, no one in Washington is doing it better right now. Winemaker Chris Peterson is far more established than many of his "new wave" neighbors with his long tenure at Delille Cellars as assistant winemaker. He and partner Marty Taucher now in Avennia's second or third vintage, represent a very successful foray into making both intellectual wines and  "wines of place" in Washington.

The Arnaut continues to show why Washington does Syrah so wonderfully and why Dick Boushey has something special growing out there near Grandview. Maybe though this wine does a better job of showing it than a lot of others? A little bit of whole cluster and just a little bit of new oak really allow the terroir to do the talking. Aromatics are meaty, stony, floral and dark fruit laden, there's a ton going on here. Layered black fruits, more of that meaty and earthen funk that Boushey Syrah has come to develop a reputation for and some dried herbal elements. The wine is simply wonderful and it finishes with just a tiny lift that shows it's acidity. $48