Arts and Crafts Were Never This Fun

Sparkle and Fade

A Cabernet Experience

Exploring Terroir with Forgeron Cellars

Oregon's French Connection

Maison Louis Jadot's Résonance

The French Connection

Rhone to Columbia Valley: The Syrah Doctrine

C'mon Get Happy

New Growth at Matthews Winery

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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Old School; Literally

There are few icons in the Washington wine industry as recognizable is that old schoolhouse that you pass on your way into Walla Walla. The list of easily recognizable visual icons of Washington wine is short and I count them at two. Perhaps only the stone chapel at Red Willow vineyard is as synonymous with Washington's wine as the schoolhouse that plays home to L'Ecole 41. This year, that icon turns 100, making it by far the oldest winery in the state, while it didn't start out that way, (technically if you built a schoolhouse to be a winery, it would be a winery that looks like a schoolhouse) it has become synonymous with Walla Walla, Washington wine and of course L'Ecole 41.

In recognition of that centennial L'Ecole is releasing a wine in commemoration. The first settlement in the Walla Walla Valley was a place called Frenchtown, established by French Canadian settlers was founded in the early 1800s. By the 1860s it was a vibrant community and one that even set down roots for what was to become the future of the area, viticulture and winemaking. The Frenchtown Schoolhouse itself was built in 1915 and was actually in use as a school until 1974. In 1977 the Ferguson family took ownership of the building with designs on opening a winery there, which they did in fact do in 1983.

These days a visit to the old schoolhouse gives you a sense of the original building's charm from a lot of the original finishes to re-purposed classrooms now used for tasting wine complete with chalkboards.

The wine the 2013 Frenchtown Red Wine is an evolution of what we're seeing more and more of Cabernet and Syrah blends. For winemaker and owner Marty Clubb it's about delivering a wine that's unique enough to stand on it's own. "There have been more and more wineries exploring blends of Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  We did some early trials ourselves in earlier vintages of what evolved from Schoolhouse Red.  Over time we felt that the mix of 70 to 80% Bordeaux with 20 to 30% Rhone added fruit complexity that made the wine richer, with vibrant fruit yet underlying earth and mineral tones.  This "style" then set this wine apart from the other Columbia Valley varietal focused wines, and also uniquely different from the more traditional Bordeaux blends of our single-vineyard Walla Walla Valley terroir driven wines.  Maybe another way of saying it is that Frenchtown is meant to display a broader array of fruit, whereas the other Columbia Valley wines are more laser focused on each variety."

                              2013 L'Ecole Frenchtown Red Wine
This wine is a blend of blends if you will, a complete Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, then blended with a traditional Rhone blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. It's Bordeaux heavy though at 75%. What strikes me about this wine is the emphasis on bright red fruits, and the surprising influence of the Grenache given that it only makes up 7% of the wine. Lots of great structure on the palate as you'd expect from a Bordeaux style blend, great tannin and weight to the wine but the Rhone varieites bring an earthiness as well as the prominent fruit character. A great value at $22. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Coloring Outside the Lines: Portland's Jackalope Cellars

As a civil engineer Corey Schuster designed roads; but it was a winding road, and certainly not one of his design that landed him at a Willamette Valley tasting room and ultimately opened his eyes to the possibility and joys of making wine.

Corey was in the midst a successful career in civil engineering, growing up outside of Chicago it seemed like the right direction, and frankly he really didn't have much else in mind. From there he landed in Colorado and eventually in a bit of a rut, to hear him tell it. Corey retired early, in some sense and from there he traveled throughout Southeast Asia and eventually he'd come to find himself at an engineering firm in Portland. 

When the economy went bad Corey along with a lot of folks with good jobs were out on the streets and he bounced around a bit before he landed in that aforementioned tasting room. From there his wine interest led to working harvest at Owen Roe, and it was soon after that he started making his first wine. In the 2012 vintage Corey launched his label Jackalope Wine Cellars. For Corey the draw has always been the community as much as the wine, and that hasn't changed in the five or so years that he's been involved. In fact, now producing his wines at Portland's SE Wine Collective, that community is a bit of an incubator and think-tank for Corey and its other burgeoning wine-making talents. (He worked there managing the bar for awhile too.)

"We're all relatively new, and we are going through a lot of the same things, it's great to feel like you've got that in common, and it's nice to be a part of something like that. We're all having the same issue, like How am I going to pay for bottling? I don't know."

The first wines in 2012 were Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, and his second vintage, and current releases are the same varietals from some different sources. "I got into Cabernet Franc while working at Owen Roe, I talked with David O'Reilly about what fruit he might have available and he sold me some Pinot Noir from Eola-Amity and Cab Franc from Six Prong Vineyard in Washington's Horse Heaven Hills." 

Corey's first three vintages (through 2012, 13 and14) have been "warm" years but he's learned a little bit from all of them. "That first year I decided to make the jump late in the year, so I really didn't even have time to think about the vintage. While 2012s are not my preferred style I couldn't have done any better, the fruit was perfect, the wines made themselves and the wines sold really easily. In my first vintage it was important that I sold everything." 

"As an engineer I never had something I could hold in my hand and say, I made this. I've definitely had the scientific background but I've never tapped into my artistic side. I mean, as a civil engineer you're making roads. I chose this though, versus engineering which was more or less chosen for me." Corey's been getting great reception from the wines, and has found it's a great feeling when for example friends asked to have his wines at their wedding. 

The 2013s were a bit more challenging for Corey and while it was a warmer vintage compared to recent years like 2010 and 2011 the wines are lean and elegant. Both wines are absolutely outstanding and unique, Corey has found that artistic side, and it suits him.

At the risk of using too much hyperbole his Cabernet Franc is the most interesting I've had from the Northwest. There are some stellar examples in both Washington, at Chinook and Oregon's Quady North. Corey walks between both styles with a definitive wildness but really, it's a sort of wild elegance. The parcels are tiny so normally I would recommend you go online and pick some up for yourself here but they're sold out. Call one of these places and tell them to hold it for you. Seriously.

2013 Jackalope Cellars Cabernet Franc, Quady North Vineyard Applegate Valley 
This is an out of sight wine. Aromatics are wild lavender, smoke, earth and savory herbs. This wine takes the peppery elements that can be so much of the signature of a great Cab Franc and balances them with bright red fruit and earth notes. This wine is alive, the alcohol is low, the acid is beautiful. This wine is pretty, intellectual and a little bit crazy. Do what you gotta do to find this wine it'll change your opinion of the variety. $27 (Sold Out)

2013 Jackalope Cellars Pinot Noir, Sojourner Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills
Pretty, pretty Pinot Noir. I've had very few examples of 2013 at this juncture and I'm aware of the mini-controversy but I think this vintage will pan out for folks like myself who like a cooler more elegant wine, despite the overall warm growing season that was 2013. Aromatics of dried violets, clove, and early season blackberry, with a lively palate that gives balance, fruit and minerality. For $25 this is ridiculously good. $25 (Sold Out)

These wines were provided as samples. 

Monday, April 06, 2015

The Search for Guido: From Craigslist to Red Mountain to Vashon Island

It is perhaps one of the most unusual wine purchases I'd ever made.

The guy's Craigslist post said that he had accumulated some interesting and older wines over the last few months and the prices were unbeatable, in my opinion. Late 90s Washington wines, some 05 Amavi in a magnum and a few other odds and ends. I arranged to meet him, like any smart Craigslist shopper in a public area, the Southcenter Mall parking lot. In hindsight not necessarily a safety move.

The prices on a lot of these wines were in the $5-10 neighborhood though and if this was someone trying to rob me, they were looking to get like $40, which didn't seem like such a risk. So I wasn't worried. I bought about 8-10 bottles of wine. Given the prices of the 98 Columbia Crest Two Vines, at $5, I had taken a wine glass and a cork screw with me, I bought one and opened it. It was pretty darn good for a value wine going on 15 years old. I bought more or less everything the guy had. (His brother was a contractor who would often buy homes from estates and he wasn't into wine at all. They ended up in this guy's hands and he'd sell them to make a few extra bucks on Craigslist.) No attempt was made on my life.

One of the wines I picked up was a 1998 Andrew Will Merlot, from Ciel du Cheval vineyard on Red Mountain. I think I paid like $20 or $25 for this wine from this Craigslist guy's trunk. I bought it because probably a year or so before this weird Craigslist ad came upon my radar I had a Andrew Will Sangiovese from 1992 and it was pretty fascinating so I thought why not give this one a try.

The bottle sat for a couple more years and it was only recently that I had the occasion to open it.

So, what can you expect from a 17 year old Red Mountain Merlot? I think it's important to first point out what happens to wine over time. First off, everything changes. Some wines age better than others. Perhaps the most often thought of wines when it comes to aging are Burgundy and Bordeaux, but German Rieslings, the really nice ones, age unbelievably, and maybe better than anything.

But none of those last two or three sentences answer the question. Over time wine is exposed to oxygen via the cork enclosure, it's permeable in a very tiny sense of the word. The wine and little bit of air inside the bottle exchanges oxygen with the air outside the bottle. Over time the wines can change substantially. If you like the wines you buy and open immediately, you may not necessarily like the same wine in 10 or so years. The fruit character often fades and gives way to earthen or herbal elements. The acids typically fade, and the wine tastes old, nuanced but certainly different. Old wine though can be pretty fascinating in their own right. Most Washington wines benefit from a few years of aging, say three, but typically top out in terms of an upwards pointing trajectory around eight years in my experience.

The two most salient factors in aging wine are supposedly tannin and acid. Both of these elements of a wine's chemistry protect the wine from oxygen. I've had a lot of Washington wines which typically have good tannin that tasted over the hill after about the 12 year mark. On the contrary, I've had lots of Oregon wines, think lower tannin, higher acid that have aged unbelievably. Given that this wine was from Red Mountain, which is known for it's tannin, not for it's acidity, I really had my doubts.

The 17 year old Merlot was a wildly pleasant surprise. I don't know that I would have picked it out as Merlot blind but for 17 years, the wine showed a lot of freshness. On the first pour, it was a wild color, almost like liquefied brick, and it was seemingly lacking any fruit character whatsoever. Instead the wine showed lots of earth, dust, mushroom and peat character.  But that changed over the next hour or so. The strictly earthy wine went to tart cranberry and Montmorency cherry. The acid on this wine was truly unbelievable given its origins.

Typically older wines tend to drop off after they're opened. The sudden exposure to oxygen doesn't do them any favors and so they go into a quick fade. Not so with this Andrew Will Merlot, it got more interesting. Was this wine better now than it was then? It's highly unlikely as Chris Camarda makes some really nice wines, but it was certainly interesting and worth what little I paid for it to take a look. Another point of note was the alcohol percentage of the wines. It's often the case that red wines from Red Mountain are fairly big, this wine in particular is from perhaps the states most well known vineyard for producing structured, ripe wines, but the abv was 12. something. The acid was present, lively and it really delivered a somehow fresh 17 year old wine.

Perhaps the strangest part of this story, even more than the Craigslist car trunk acquisition was the cork. After about an hour of drinking I picked it up, parts of it has broken off when it was opened. It said "Guido" and had a 206 phone number on it. I started punching the number into my phone and was about to hit send when my friend Sean Sullivan stopped me. "Wait, let me see if that's still his number." It turns out it was Chris's home number and I had nearly dialed him up at 11pm.

I ran into Chris a couple weeks later at an event on Vashon Island. He chuckled at the idea that he still nearly got a late night phone call from one of his older wines. "I used to get a lot of phone calls like that, and they typically started around 10pm." He was excited to hear that the wine was still holding up. I asked what he remembered of the 98s, and he called it a vintage that produced exotic wines, and he'd had one recently. "The vintage didn't get great press and so it was slow to sell at first but eventually people came around to it. I had one the other night and they're still very interesting wines." Guido is his nickname and he's (smartly)gotten away from putting his home number on his wines these days.