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Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Find, July 29th


Each Friday we highlight a wine from the Northwest that we think is a real "find." By find we might mean that it's a steal, as all of these wines we'll feature weekly are under $20. We might also mean "Hey, you really need to go find this" and it might be a wine that we feel not enough people know about. In any case, with the weekend pending we're hoping to help you "find" a wine to kickoff the weekend right. We'll tell you a little bit about the wine and try to help you track it down here in the Northwest.

This weekend in McMinnville is one of the greatest weekends in a wine lover's life. The International Pinot Noir Celebration sets up shop at Linfield College and pretty much completes the circle of life as it's outlined in that Disney song by Elton John. The food, Pinot, people, Pinot and lively conversation that Gwynne and I experienced last year leaves it tops on my list for wine tasting experiences. In addition to all the happenings at Linfield nearby McMinnville, and by nearby we mean like 100 yards to the left is hopping. That's where we met and had a great time with Rob and Maria Stuart of R. Stuart & Co.

They make a bevy of beautiful single vineyard Pinot Noirs, what I think may be one of Oregon's most interesting wines in the Vin Tardive and today's Friday Find, their Big Fire Pinot. The 2009 version is the current release but there's still some 2008 floating around out there as well. This wine is comprised of a handful of vineyards that includes fruit from Temperance Hill and Erath among others. At the $16-18 price point (usually) it's a great affordable way to experience the potential of Oregon Pinot. Rob Stuart makes amazing wines in his upper tier and this wallet friendly Pinot gives you a snapshot of that. Cherries and violets and hints of nutmeg in the aromatics lead to some classically Oregon earthen characters, more fresh red fruit and a rounded, full Pinot experience (2008 vintage). This wine has very broad distribution and can be found at grocers and wine shops throughout the Northwest and select US markets.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fidelitas on Red Mountain


The Red Mountain winery, Fidelitas was born in 2000 when long time winemaker Charlie Hoppes decided to strike out on his own following many successful years and big responsibilities at Chateau Ste Michelle. Charlie gained substantial experience serving as Assistant Winemaker working with Mike Januik, and followed that as Head Winemaker at Canoe Ridge (recently acquired by Precept). Eventually Charlie came back around to the idea of opening his own winery and Fidelitas was born.

The modern and industrial Shack-teau has been open for the last 3 and a half years and serves as both a tasting room and a storage facility for the estate fruit. While Charlie is currently not making an estate wine, that will change. He's purchased 20 acres, and while there are only 3 currently planted with Cabernet there are plans for future vineyard plantings. Charlie has hope for Red Mountain as a destination with the growth of vineyards and the development of new wineries. "So many people talk to me about stopping at Red Mountain on their way to or from Walla Walla. We're a destination in our own right." With some closer lodging options, and a few more restaurants I do think we'll see this kind of vision that Charlie and many of the winemakers on Red Mountain are hoping for.

The Fidelitas wines certainly warrant a visit and your attention. All of Charlie's wine shows his talent and knowledge both of Washington fruit, but more specifically the variety that different AVAs and vineyards offer him. For brevity's sake I'll focus on a few favorites.

The 2008 Columbia Valley Malbec is a blend of several vineyards, Charlie is looking to make a Malbec that brings the best of Washington together. I loved this one, Charlie finds that the fruit from Conner Lee brings him a spicier profile while he's able to bring in black fruit characteristics from some of the warmer sites he's sourcing from. "People enjoy more than Cabernet and Merlot, so we'll continue doing Malbec, Cabernet Franc and we're looking to also do some Carmenere."

The 2007 Boushey bottling was a dynamite wine, Dick Boushey approached Charlie about making a wine specifically from his older vines. This one is 53% Merlot, 40% Cabernet and 7% Cab Franc. My favorite of the wines we tasted at Fidelitas. This is classical Boushey fruit, it shows restraint with present yet controlled tannins, and allows you to experience lots of fruit elements on the nose with a nice long finish. Charlie's take was simple, "with fruit like this, you just don't want to mess it up."

We transitioned from Boushey to Red Mountain, and the 2007 Red Mountain Red. Another Bourdeaux style blend. The Red Mountain tannins were apparent right out of the gates. Charlie talked about how his knowledge of vineyards really can make blending easier, and when he's sourcing fruit from vineyards he's unfamiliar with he has to take his time. When it comes to the tannins of Red Mountain Charlie tries his best to tame them, working with small lots and finishing fermentation in the barrel. Charlie finds himself tasting two or three times a day. "Red Mountain fruit gives you such a small window, and the tannins can really get you if you don't act." Fidelitas is source half of their total volume from Red Mountain.

Charlie also let us taste the pre-releases (at press time)of 08 Boushey, Red Mountain and the Champoux as well as Ciel du Cheval Cabernets. The wines Charlie makes are distinct vintage to vintage. So far he is really happy with how this most recent vintage, 2010 is panning out. He thinks it will be a great vintage for many of Washington's varietals and likens it to 1999.

Fans of Fidelitas, including their 1200 wine club members are getting a crack at some of Washington's great wines. Seattle wine drinkers can also check out Fidelitas at the Urban Enoteca in Sodo. While much of the wine from Fidelitas starts near the $30 price point, its an excellent opportunity to taste a combination of some of the state's best fruit crafted by one of it's more talented winemakers without stratospheric price tags.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Friday Find, July 22nd



Each Friday we highlight a wine from the Northwest that is a real find. It’s a steal because of its quality & price; all our Friday finds are $20 or under. It will be a wine that we think you need to go and find immediately because it’s simply perfect for the weekend, maybe it’s new on the wine scene and we are delighted to have found it. We’ll tell you the specs on the wine and how to track it down. Read on...
I find that the weather heavily influences what I want to be sipping on. In the previous weeks with the sun shining I’ve reached for Riesling and Rosé. The other day I tasted Cor Cellars 2008 Malbec and it couldn’t have gone better with this Seattle... um... summer?

This wine is deep in color, it smells big and intense yet is sophisticated and varietally expressive. It feels rich and round on the palate, the oak is very-well integrated and the Malbec punches through with flavors of blackberries, the ripest of plums, coffee and chocolate but maintains a bright flavor reminiscent of apple cider. This is an exciting wine that shows us what Malbec is about in Washington. Meaning, it doesn’t have to be masked by oak, it can actually marry it and be quite happy.

Cor Cellars was founded by Luke Bradford in 2005. He worked and learned in Tuscany and Sicily before returning to WA to further his hand at some NW Wineries including the much-loved Syncline Wine Cellars. He has planted some of his own vineyards both in Horse Heaven Hills and in the Columbia Gorge. He buys some fruit also. Cor is located in Lyle, WA down by the Gorge and currently has five wines available. They have a great and information-filled website so check it out.

This Malbec hails from Hogsback Ridge & Alder Ridge Vineyards. It spent 20 months in barrel and most importantly, it’s quite delicious. So stay warm and find this bottle o’ goodness. In Seattle it is available at Soul Wine, some PCCs, McCarthy & Shiering. In Oregon you can find it at Wine Sellers Hood River, Gorge White House, just to name a few.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Silver Lining : The Okanogan's Black Cloud Pinot Noir



Pinot Noir both buds and ripens early, making it perfectly at home in a cool climate where the temperatures allow it long hangtime, which develops complexity and depth. It's a varietal that has the potential to show up in the bottle with high acidity and so the prolonged hangtime and respiration work to bring that acid down to approachable levels. The cool climate, the underlying acidity, and that ability (when the weather gods cooperate) to let the fruit hang work together to makes Pinot Noir and British Columbia's Okanogan Valley such an excellent pairing. The Okanogan is a region apart in terms of heat units and growing season. The Pinot, like most of the red varietals coming from the Okanogan, will be brighter, with higher acidity than those that are grown further south in Oregon or California.

Black Cloud Pinot Noir is one such Okanogan Pinot Noir, and is a project of Okanogan-based winemaker Bradley Cooper. (Cooper is also the winemaker at Township 7, a Namarata Bench winery that makes around 11 or 12 different wines, though Pinot is not among them.) Bradley's winemaking experience is rather varied, beginning in 1997 at another Okanogan winery with stints that took him to Washington and New Zealand. His love for Pinot began with the Pinot Noir coming from California's Central Coast and was solidified by his experience in New Zealand.

"Any region making wine to the best of their collective ability deserves the attention of wine lovers."

You get the sense that Bradley's allegiance to the Okanogan is driven both by his belief that it is a region that can create excellent wine as well as respect for the challenges that it presents. "We never have to worry about 'cooked' flavours. They never have to contend with acids that just will. not. come. down!" "We sometimes don't get enough hangtime to develop secondary or multi-dimensional flavors with our short season. Proactive cultural practices like site selection and vineyard design is helpful. But aggressive sites can serve to drive sugars when what you really want is flavours." (Canadians sometimes use extra u's).

Bradley firmly believes that the Okanogan should be on equal footing with any Northwest wine region, as they have things to contribute on all fronts in a region that they strive to define by what they do with what they have. The colder clime and shorter season require innovation and exploration between the growers and vintners and the varietals that do best are defined by the site: Bradley notes that if the vineyard aspect is slightly north or northwest or sundown/sunrise is shadow-affected then perhaps a varietal that isn't a long season heat lover would be best. In some cases, the answer may be a slightly more exotic trellis system.

Despite all the challenges and talk of the cold climate, I found the Black Cloud to be denser and more concentrated than I expected from such a Northern latitude. This was no light bodied, flimsy Pinot Noir. The 2008 Altostratus was a fairly concentrated, darker-hued, medium bodied Pinot Noir. There is a fair bit of acidity and a lower ABV at 13.2% but this Pinot is bold enough to stand on its own and should not be characterized as a "food wine." The aromatics were all red and blue fruit notes for me, highlighting cherry and ripe raspberries. The wine continues to hit the high tone fruit notes on the palate, with more of those cherries, blackberries and an herbal zesty character that comes from the acidity. The finish... is a long one. Fruit for this wine came exclusively from Okanogan Falls for the 08 but fruit from a younger vineyard in the Namarata Bench will make an appearance in the 2009 vintage.

Black Cloud got its name from a stroke of what was thought to be bad luck at the time. The silver lining is clear: Bradley Cooper is making a BC Pinot Noir that not only exhibits what this region is capable of in terms of this varietal, but at $27, this is a true bargain in the states, let alone in alcohol-tax-happy Canada.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Find, July 15


Each Friday we highlight a wine from the Northwest that we think is a real "find." By find we might mean that it's a steal, as all of these wines we'll feature weekly are under $20. We might also mean "Hey, you really need to go find this" and it might be a wine that we feel not enough people know about. In any case, with the weekend pending we're hoping to help you "find" a wine to kickoff the weekend right. We'll tell you a little bit about the wine and try to help you track it down here in the Northwest.

Last week I attended a block party that a few neighbors had thrown together. As the party dwindled down and we closed in on the card table that contained the beer and wine; the bottle of Provencal Rose became the topic of discussion. Many of my neighbors refused to believe that pink wine could be any good and while the bottle that we were drinking, the very popular AIX was a fair effort, it had been subjected to the heat of the day a bit too long to hold it's character. What followed however was a conversation between myself and a number of my male neighbors that Rose, particularly the Rose coming from Washington was serious and of a high quality.

In 2011 no wine drives that point home like the Tranche Cellars 2010 Pink Pape Rose. A blend of Syrah and Cabernet Franc the resulting wine is beautiful to look at with its salmon hue, but instead, I recommend drinking it. Elegance is probably the best way to characterize this wine. Its aromatics are subdued strawberry, rhubarb and floral notes. The wine's palate continues that elegance with bright well balanced acidity, hints of grapefruit continue but are balanced by a minerality and stone character. The fruit was picked early (in September) to bring that clean fruit and acidity to the fore. Care was taken on this small production wine, whole bunch pressing and aged on lees for 5 months. This production by Tranche Cellars is an embodiment of what they've done across the board, produce wines with extreme attention to quality and the lowest quantities (168 cases for this one) that come in at incredibly approachable price points ($16).

This Friday Find is a bit of a challenge to you as the wine is sold out at the winery. It is still available in the retail market in both Washington and in the Portland area. (I found the bottle pictured at McCarthy & Scheiring in Queen Anne, you can also find it at Bin 41 in West Seattle, among others). Go find this wine, we may not ever get to experience summer here in the Northwest this year, but you should not be cheated out of a wine that was designed for warm weather and will certainly not be around long.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Howling at the Moon... A Biodynamic Primer from Oregon's Cooper Mountain Vineyards





If you, as a consumer and perhaps a burgeoning wine geek, have started to explore wine beyond the basics, the term biodynamic ('biodynamique' for our Francophiles) may have popped up on your radar. However, for as frequently as the term may pop up, an exact definition of biodynamics is slightly nebulous. The whispers are numerous: pagan worship, naked dancing by moonlight, bovine sacrifice. It's been called voodoo, hocus pocus and geomancy. A recent seminar at Esquin gave me the chance to go see what the fuss was about when the folks from Cooper Mountain Vineyards, one of Oregon's oldest vineyards and biodynamic pioneers, came to Seattle.

As it turns out, there's no nudity, not at Cooper Mountain anyway. Instead, biodynamics is about care and cultivation beyond just the vine. The Gross family of Cooper Mountain has practiced biodynamics since 1995; a practice that has since been furthered by their French-born winemaker Gilles De Domingo, who came on board in 2004.

Biodynamics grew out of a movement and philosophy founded by a German, Rudolph Steiner, (who looks vaguely like Jeremy Irons) in the 1920s. That larger movement, Anthroposophy, is a movement that posits (from Wikipedia) "the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible, spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development. More specifically, it aims to develop faculties of perceptive imagination, inspiration and intuition through cultivating a form of thinking independent of sensory experience." Sounds like something right up Tom Cruise's alley if you ask me.

What Steiner did that led to the development of biodynamics (a term he never used, incidentally) was to center man in the ecosystem. He advocated developing a deeper connection between land and the people that led to a development of practices that soon became biodynamics, a philosophy about farming generally and not viticulture specifically. A philosophy that aims to, as Gilles put it, "heal the people by healing the soil."


The baseline of biodynamics is to look at things organically. Non-organic practices cause greater long-term problems than they solve in the short term, according to Gilles. By using various pesticides we've ended up with newer, resistant strains of fungus and mildews. To combat this one-step-forward-two-step-back thinking, organic practices are really "common sense." But organic is not a cure-all, and frankly it's not enough for those who believe in biodynamics. One example Gilles cited was that you could be an "organic' farm or vineyard and still spray copper, which is toxic.

Organic viticulturalists are likely still focused on their vines, where biodynamic viticulturalists look lower, much lower: to the ground. The soil is seen as essential to the health of the vines, and so by looking there you get a sense of how your vineyard is doing. Looking for variety and biodiversity in the kinds of grasses and ground cover gives you a sense of the health of the grasses that grow within the vineyard, which speaks further to the health of the soil. Observing the levels of micro-organisms and nitrogen in the soil enables you to understand the overall vineyard health. "The soil is essential to biodynamics" said Gilles. The focus (I would imagine this to be the most challenging part) is to remain concerned with the soil as soil, without an end goal in mind. So in an almost Buddhist way you have to remove your desires to improve your vines and fruit growth, quality or vigor and simply look at how the soil is doing.

The biodynamic approach to disease is fascinating to me. "We don't try to fight or prevent disease, we simply enhance the good to balance the bad" said Gilles. "Balance is better, if the vine gets diseased the damage will be lessened in a balanced system."

Compost plays another huge role in biodynamics, and in order to be a certified biodynamic farm, your compost must come from within a 60 mile radius. Cooper Mountain gets theirs from a local horse farm. Gilles inspects the poop and the veterinary records of the horses and asks that horses who are ill or on antibiotics be taken out of the poop management system until they are recovered. As a further control, Cooper Mountain holds onto their compost for five months before applying it to the soil.

And my reference to the moon? There is a moon component of biodynamics. The thinking is that the phases of the moon dictate certainly earthly elements like tides, so there may very well be a moon phase that results in better response by the earth to planting, harvesting etc. All this lunar-acy is certainly a component of biodynamics, and it's not one I fully understand.

I have to say there wasn't anything that the folks from Cooper Mountain Vineyards said about biodynamics that struck me as kooky. Doing some very basic internet research, (i.e., wikipedia) there were some crazy things that I read. What constitues crazy? One of the things I'm referring to was using the ashes from the skin of dead field mice to keep mice away, the crazy part being that according to strict biodynamics you need to do this when "Venus is in the Scorpius constellation."

For more information on Biodynamic certification via Demeter, go here. I also recommend checking out the book Voodoo Vintners by Katherine Cole, a very recently released book (which I have yet to read) that highlights the biodynamic wine making taking place here in the Northwest in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Gorge-ous Simplicity; Syncline Wines




On a number of levels it’s clear that they’re doing things the right way at Syncline, from the marketing, packaging, and closures to the excellent presence throughout Northwest wine shops and restaurants. Before even trying the wines it's evident that this is an operation that has a firm understanding of how wine should be done. But what of the wines? Prior to my visit, I'd only had a few of the Syncline wines, and after tasting through their complete production, I was impressed across the board. The wines that James Mantone makes are not the “good” wines you might expect at the $18 - $25 neighborhood; they’re better than that and they’re better than very good in all cases.

A cursory inspection of the Syncline offerings demonstrates a focus on Rhone style wines, though there are two outliers, a Pinot Noir and a Gruner Veltliner, which speak to a willingness to explore what Washington can do varietally. James gets the preponderance of his fruit from Washington’s other AVAs, the Pinot and the Gruner serve as a declaration about the quality and range of wine the Gorge can produce.

While all of these elements make it easy to conclude that Syncline knows just what they’re doing, nothing drives that point home like a visit to their Columbia River Gorge production facility and home just outside of Lyle, Washington. Produced on the property James and Poppy established and in facilities that exude simplicity, the wines are anything but basic and tend toward the interesting and complex. Given the high gloss approach to wine marketing and sales, the return to roots approach is very refreshing.
James came out to Oregon in 1994 with a background in micro-biology and he and his wife Poppy landed in the Gorge in 1999, a short two weeks after Maryhill was established further up river. James had come from Lavelle Vineyards in Oregon (where he got his start making Pinot Noir) looking for a dynamic region and found just that in the Columbia River Gorge AVA. Today, James is on his 15th or 16th vintage, yet he’s still counted among the young talent of the Pacific Northwest.

James and Poppy are producing around 5,000 cases of wine and they like what they’ve established and aren’t looking to go much beyond that. James “loves the generosity and warmth of Rhone varietals” and finds that they lend themselves to simple winemaking. His winemaking philosophy is embracing a natural approach that allows the characteristics of the fruit to shine through. James feels that in Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre you have wines that “can be rustic and lovely at the same time.” He’s finding that in many of his sites he’s picking early even in cooler years, focusing on low brix but full maturity. As a case in point, James has Ciel du Cheval Syrah that’s at 13.5% alcohol.

The choice of varietals and his production methods also speak to the “going natural” vibe that Syncline gives off. James eschews new oak; his Cuvee Elena sees 6 to 8 year old barrels. He believes in the importance of the delicate nature of Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Mouvedre. With his 09 vintage James has turned to fermenting in a concrete manzer, a wine technology that dates to the 1400s and uses unlined concrete tanks that breathe at the same rate as oak. “We’re directing our oak budget to concrete,” James says about the process. Syncline also uses lots of native fermentations which allows for extended masceration and they cap off the “nature boy” approach with “lots of foot stomping.”

The two outliers, the Pinot Noir and the Gruner Veltliner, deserve special attention as they speak to the conditions and fruit of the AVA that James and Poppy are calling home. The Gruner Veltliner is from the Underwood Mountain Vineyard, and is the state’s first planting of the varietal (planted on a steep hillside by Washington Wine icon David Lake). “When David got sick he called me to go up and check on it. I wanted to do something distinctly not Columbia Valley.” James sees the Gruner as a wine that is teaching him a lot about Washington and the cool sites in the Gorge. The Pinot Noir that Syncline produces was the first Washington varietal that James made and it comes from Underwood Mountain and blocks in Celilo Vineyard that date back to 1972. These sites are cooler than those of Oregon’s famed Pinot producing Willamette Valley, but well protected from frost. He is using a touch of new oak on the Pinot at 20%.

The simplicity evident at Syncline can be misleading; it speaks not to a lack of sophistication, but quite the opposite. James Mantone is a talented young winemaker with a true respect for traditions and techniques. His respect for traditional wine making methods combined with his desire to explore what Washington can produce may just help the state’s wine community rethink the wines and style it’s capable of.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Friday Find July 1

From Susie Curnutte

Each Friday we highlight a wine from the Northwest that we think is a real "find." By find we might mean that it's a steal, as all of these wines we'll feature weekly are under $20. We might also mean "Hey, you really need to go find this" and it might be a wine that we feel not enough people know about. In any case, with the weekend pending we're hoping to help you "find" a wine to kickoff the weekend right. We'll tell you a little bit about the wine and try to help you track it down here in the Northwest.

This week's Friday Find is the Memaloose Barbera 2008, from Memaloose Wines in Washington's Columbia Gorge.

At $19.99, this wine is right at our Friday Find price point cusp, I know, but it's beautiful and a steal at $20. This is estate fruit and Memaloose used old oak which gives us in the glass a bright, fresh, and frisky Barbera with all sorts of food pairing flexibility. It is a full and unctuous wine with friendly tannin and punchy, changing flavors. The fruit is from two of their estate vineyards; Idiot's Grace and Parker's Vineyard. Drink this!

Memaloose winery is located near Lyle 1000ft above the river, overlooking the Columbia Gorge AVA in its entirety. I haven't seen it yet, but I'm dying to go and check it the scenery. The Memaloose estate vineyards produce fruit in each of the five key sub-regions of the Gorge, giving us fruit from both the Washington and the Oregon side of the AVA. Winemaker Brian McCormick shares their modus operandi on their website and says, "We are devoted to the expression of the site (above all) and the vintage and the specific nature of each grape variety." This intent is a success, I would say, based on the wines themselves. Memaloose also produce a white blend called Trevitt's White, a Cabernet Franc that's more than awesome, and a red blend called Mistral Ranch Red. Definitely make it a point to try the wines of Memaloose, they are solid, varietally expressive and delicious.