Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In the Pines, In the Pines Where the Sun Actually Shines; Swiftwater Cellars

In his cover of the Vaselines' song, Kurt Cobain asks his girl, "Where did you sleep last night?" Her retort is something that all of us "Wetsiders" can identify with: "In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines, I shivered the whole night through."

This is the life of those of us living on the side of the Washington Cascades where it's wet somewhere between 9 to 10 months out of the year. There's a definite draw to this verdant oasis and after eight years of living here I can truly say I love it. That does not mean that from time to time there's not a longing to escape this second coming of Kevin Costner's Waterworld. I mean, is dry land a myth? Sometimes it feels that way. There are ample options for outdoor enjoyment once we crest over that pass; from skiing and snow sports in the winter to outdoor exploration and recreation in the spring.

It's time to add to that list of escape options. Swiftwater Cellars, which opened in September of 2010, is a destination winery at one of Washington's swankiest resorts: Suncadia, located just outside Cle Elum. Perched atop the one of Suncadia's golf courses, The Rope Rider, the views from Swiftwater are appealing even to someone like me who grew up caddying and hates golf. What's impressive about Swiftwater is not the location but rather then intent and serious approach they take in focusing on the wine. Too often, the downside to a destination winery is that the wine is not the focus. The emphasis is on the views, the B&B options, the restaurant menu or the souvenir stands, not the wine. Swiftwater Cellars goes off script here and for that Washington and Oregon wine fans should be thankful. (Though they do have nice souvenirs and the restaurant is incredible.)

Swiftwater Cellars is owned by Don Watts who is one of the most un-assuming rich people I've ever met. Don is like really rich, not fake rich. He made his money through hard work and potatoes; potatoes grew into more potatoes which grew into more agricultural land, some 30,000 acres which grew into food processing, which grew into one of the biggest agricultural businesses in the world buying it all from him. Along the way Don became friends with the Hogue family and he even dabbled in some vinifera vineyards predominantly used for large production wines like those made by Hogue Cellars and Chateau Ste. Michelle. That vineyard, Zephyr Ridge, will become the focal point for the Swiftwater Cellars Washington wines. (More on that later.)

Winemaking duties are handled by consultant winemaker Tony Rynders, formerly of Domaine Serene, and Linda Trotta, the in-house winemaker who came from California's Gundlach Bundschu. Both bring a wealth of experience in winemaking and Tony has a vast working knowledge of the Northwest, particularly regarding varietals and site. Tony's experience and reputation at Domaine Serene make him an enormous asset for Swiftwater Cellars as they establish themselves and Linda brings considerable experience from Gun Bun where they were known for producing a great variety of wines in the Sonoma Valley including California signatures Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. The team will work together, and has been since 2007, building a catalog of varietals, blends and sourcing the fruit they want to make the wines they're aspiring to make. Their current releases are numerous, tiered, and varied and they demonstrate a true comprehension of what Northwest fruit is really capable of.

The Vineyard
The Zephyr Ridge vineyard is a holdover from Don's days of working with Hogue and Chateau Ste. Michelle. The Zephyr Ridge site is becoming more established and that excites Tony and Linda. While never intended to be a boutique production site, the age of the vines and the potential coupled with the right vineyard management could blossom into the red fruit and good acidity that they're looking for. As it stands the Zephyr Ridge site produces big tannins, evident in a 2010 Merlot Barrel sample that came on with loads of blueberry and spice. They're excited about an estate plot that will really show itself over time and has such historical significance for the Watts family.

The Wines
The current releases from Swiftwater Cellars show a focus on two tiers: the No. 9 wine and the Swiftwater label. The No. 9 wines were named for the No. 9 mine that Swiftwater Cellars sits atop. These wines are more fruit forward and ready to drink now. The Swiftwater label is the winery's higher tiered wine, aimed at "complexity and ageability, a wine with some longevity." (There are no whites among the Swiftwater label.) For Don the wines are the centerpiece but they allow him to tie the entire operation together. "Wine was intended to be enjoyed with food and so we're making food friendly wines intentionally." This is evident in the Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette and some of the brightly acidic but well balanced whites. It's also apparent in the Hoist House restaurant, located in the winery, where they are producing serious cuisine to be paired with the Swiftwater wines. Tony believes that you'll continue to see Washington wineries producing more Oregon Pinot Noir given its natural food pairing superiority for a red wine. (Of the Swiftwater Pinots, I favored the No. 9 as the best and most true (characteristically) "Oregon Pinot" I've had that was made in Washington.)

2010 No. 9 Riesling ($18) is made from three rows of Olsen Estate fruit. It is made in an off-dry style and the touch of residual sugar adds a sweetness to the acidity for a very nice example of Washington Riesling. The wine has aromatics of apricot, melon rind and lemon peel. Across the palate there's a fair bit of minerality, and loads of Granny Smith apple.

The 2009 No. 9 Chardonnay ($20) is of the oaky variety, which is not a style that I prefer. Having said that, it's well done if you like that kind of Chardonnay and plenty of folks do. Super rounded and with loads of body this Chardonnay coats the mouth with toasted hazelnuts and vanilla yet not much in the way of fruit character.

The 2009 No. 9 Pinot Noir ($30) is sourced from 9 Willamette Valley vineyards and it's a classic example of the varietal from what I believe to be the world's greatest place to grow it. The hot vintage of 09 is evident in the 14.7% alcohol but the wine is so well balanced that all you get are the classically Oregon aromatics presented in an incredibly vibrant wine.

The Swiftwater Proprietary Red 2007 ($50), demonstrates impressiveCabernet aromatics, red fruits and spices. The blend of Cabernet, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah carries its 68% new oak really well. Touches of spice, cedar and vanilla mingle really well with the red currants, cherries and raspberry character.

The Swiftwater Pinot Noir 2008 ($55) is much denser and broad shouldered than its No. 9 cousin. The aromatics are certainly from the Willamette Valley with their fresh fruit and earthen characteristics but the palate is a bit more influenced by the new oak. Big thick and fleshy cherries and huckleberries along with a hint of tobacco and spice.


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