Wednesday, April 04, 2012

State of the Union; Taste Washington 2012

Well, Washington Wine Month has come and gone and with it another iteration of Taste Washington. The 2012 edition of Taste was "double your pleasure," extending from one day into two. It is the Washington wine industry's opportunity to showcase itself to media, trade (restaurants, retailers, etc.) and, most importantly, to Washington wine consumers. How did Washington do?

The Future is Now:
While Taste Washington 2012 was certainly about this year's releases, one of the main themes I took away was that Washington is in very good hands. You could see the future of Washington wine, and it's a bright one. I'm referring to the number of young winemakers who are setting a new standard for Washington wines: Va Piano's Justin Wylie, àMaurice Cellars' Anna Schafer, Jon Martinez of Maison Bleue, James Mantone of Syncline, Justin Neufeld of JB Neufeld, Efeste's Brennan Leighton among others and the list goes on. (There are also several who weren't even attending Taste Washington, like Ryan Crane of Kerloo Cellars.) Washington's youth movement is exciting on a number of levels, some of these winemakers have been at it for a long time and others are relatively new to winemaking but they're already making some of the best wine in the state. They're willing to experiment, think outside the box and they're learning from and acknowledging the good work that was done by their predecessors. If they're doing this now, what kinds of wines will they be producing in 20 years? We can only speculate but it doesn't take a divining rod to tell you that the future is exciting.

The Real Rhone Rangers:
The other clear point is that the real American home of the Rhone varietal is right here in Washington. There were Washington Syrahs on display at Taste Washington that were just absolutely stunning, the Liberte from Maison Bleue, the Boushey Syrah from Robert Ramsay Cellars, the Amavi Estate, Hedges Estate and Va Piano's Columbia Valley. Syrah is Washington's wheelhouse. In fact, the Rhone varietals in general are doing very well, Viogniers from El Corazon, Maison Bleue (I know I said that already, get used to it) and white Rhone Blends from Tranche, Rotie Cellars and a new winery Cairdeas solidify that case. Don't get me started on the red Rhone blends. The same is true for single varietal Grenache, Mouvedre, Roussanne, the Cooper Wine Company Marsanne, etc., etc. you get the point. Washington is a Rhone away from home for these varietals and the wines are singing, hear them?

Room for Improvement:
I left Taste Washington thinking there was still work to be done in two areas: marketing and Riesling.

To the first point, marketing; I went to Taste Washington knowing that I would be selective in the wines that I tasted. I had a list of wineries that I wanted to get around to, and after that I hoped to discover a few new or newer wineries. I struggled to find any that jumped out at me. Taste Washington can be an opportunity for a new winery to get their name out there, as with JB Neufeld last year. If there is a downside to the two day format, it may be the shorter trade and media time, which makes it less likely that folks will have time to explore the unknown before the crowds get too thick. To stand out, wineries need to do something to distinguish themselves, whether that means out of the box varietals, great packaging, a clever name - anything. One of the wineries I did discover at Taste Washington was Cairdeas Winery. I was drawn to their table for two reasons: the packaging is nice and eye catching and they were pouring a non-vintage Dolcetto and Syrah blend. They were nicely done wines and it's a winery I'll look for in the future.

To the second point, Riesling; I was really looking forward to tasting a few Rieslings and at the end of the day I was left wanting. There were some quite good Rieslings but nothing wowed me. All in all there was a lack of the necessary acidity to bring a brightness and balance to the wine. I know that Washington can make very nice Riesling, but if the standard is Germany (and it is), then the acidity needs to be there and in the most recent iterations of Washington Riesling it has not been. For the time being, I believe that it's the Willamette Valley of Oregon that has become the standard bearer of Northwest Riesling.

Top 5 from Taste Washington:
5: Rose shows the way. In case this is the only Northwest wine blog you're reading, and you haven't caught these stories,(Foodista runs down the Rose and the Washington Wine Report recap) Rose was knocking it out at Taste Washington. My favorite was probably the Rose of Mouvedre from Maison Bleue. Robert Ramsay Cellars also brought out a Rose of Mouvedre that has yet to be released, and it is dynamite. Last year's standout, Tranche Cellars, has once again made one of the best Roses in Washington, though this iteration is completely different varietally.

4: Vashon Island Pinot Noir? Really? I have to admit I was surprised myself. I wandered by the Puget Sound regional table and was looking for a little something to give my palate a break and when I saw the Pinot Noir from Vashon Winery, I had to give it a whirl. It was a very, very nice wine, well made, great flavors and acidity in a lighter bodied red wine. I know the Puget Sound and particularly the islands are making great aromatic whites, it turns out there is also good potential for Pinot Noir.

3: Hedges your bets. I have had some of the Hedges Family Estate wine at least each year for several years now and I can't recall being this excited about their wines in a while. While they've always done a brilliant job marketing their product and their Red Mountain cache, these wines will speak for themselves. My favorite was their Syrah, dark and meaty yet with some dried floral aromatics but the Rose and Chardonnay were also top notch.

2: Drawing a Blanc for Grenache. The Grenache Blanc from Two Vintners was an awfully fun wine to try and the first Grenache Blanc from Washington I'd had. Dick Boushey grows the fruit and he actually poured the wine for me. It was at the Boushey Vineyard table, Dick had asked that he be able to pour this wine because he thought it shows that the varietal can stand on its own (Well, mostly. It's 10% Roussanne.) and be very enjoyable. The Grenache Blanc was incredibly aromatic with fruits and blooming floral notes and a fantastic acidity that made this a great summer wine. It sounds like it's only available to wine club members at Two Vintners, but was certainly fun to try.

1: Wine of the Night (Day) I went into Taste Washington knowing I was going to be selective, and looking back there were a few tables that I still can't believe I missed, Waters foremost among them. The most distinctive and stand-out wine that I tried at Taste was the 2010 Northern Blend from Rotie Cellars. It's Syrah with just 5% co-fermented Viognier, resulting in a wine with an Old World charm, while also being earthen, funky and deep and savory. The earthen and dark fruit flavors and finish lasted well into my trek to the next table. As soon as I tasted the wine I knew it was the one, it had me at hello, if you will. As acclaim for this winery continues to mount, I urge you to try to get your hands on some of the wines now, before they're harder and harder to find. This one will tell you everything you need to know about what Washington Syrah can be.


Reporting from Two Vintners; the Grenache Blanc will be available to the masses (160 cases worth), after initial release to club members. Look for it late May early June. Thanks for the shout out, we are very thrilled about this second vintage.

Nice report Clive, and nice to see you there.

The comments on Riesling are interesting. My favorite tasted was actually a 2010 from Trust which I had had before. I asked Steve Brooks about his 2011 Reisling and he said HIGH ACID, which I had seen for myself in my own attempt. Maybe there will be some more acid coming for WA rieslings, hopefully some good winemakers can deal with it.

McCrea also makes a varietal Grenache Blanc from Boushey. Dick must like that varietal because he was peddling a bottle of the McCrea at the bloggers conference a couple of years ago.

Fully agree with your list of young gun winemakers and the fact Syrah is at home here. Now if folks would just buy it...

To you point on marketing. I had good success finding many wineries new to me (and I think to the industry) Auclair, Eightbells, Stottle, Whitestone, but there was nothing specific other than hunt and peck and reading the guide to find them.

Funny you should mention JB Neufeld, we spent most of Sunday looking for them and didn't find them until past the end at about 5:30. We have their wine, but good to say hi. We're alphabetically challenged I think. :)

Thanks Chris, I think you're right about the Trust Riesling, it's quite nice. I just found them to be a bit soft across the board. On the marketing piece I think had I gone to both days it wouldn't have been as bad, but I was just scanning the aisles, in between revelers and nothing really caught my eye, like I said aside from the Cairdeas. Find anything really promising?

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