Through the Grapevine
The state of Washington is the second largest producer of wine in the United States, running a distant second behind California. Washington has roughly 40,000 acres under vine whereas California has roughly 550,000 acres, according to Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy in their new book “American Wine: The Ultimate Companion To The Wines And Wineries of the United States.”
Since its neighbor a couple states to the south has such a large and disproportionate size advantage, it’s easy to see why some respect and recognition for Washington wine is lacking. Not many on the East Coast, where 70 percent of American wine consumers live, really know about Washington wine. The fact of the matter is, Washington has been successful in producing high quality wines that compare favorably against any other reputable wine region for a decade or so.
Washington’s high quality vineyards (the genesis of all great wines) are found primarily in the Yakima Valley and Walla Walla. Many of Yakima Valley’s tasting rooms and wineries are in Woodinville, a Seattle suburb on the western side of the Cascade Mountain range that is home to Washington heavy weights Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest. However, as I found on a recent visit, driving through the pass to the eastern side of Washington where the prized vineyards are located is quite a worthy experience. Within an hour’s drive, the landscape transforms from a high rocky Cascade range with plenty of dramatic mountain peaks still snowcapped in late May, to an arid, higher desert landscape full of sage brush and tumble weed. It’s one of the most fascinating environment transitions you will ever see, from stately Douglas fir trees to Ponderosa pines, then to high desert tumble weed and sage with tons of hops for beer and vines for wine. The climatic and geological assets of terroir in Eastern Washington are a field of dreams for wine lovers!
One of economic drivers for the Washington state wine industry is the consumer market that likes to tap into their own backyard. In the Seattle area, the workers of Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing and a few others provide well-paid, middle- and upper-class wine consumers who can and do buy locally made wines. In fact, it’s odd to join someone in the area and drink wines from anywhere else, and all for good reason: the limited, higher-end wines produced here generally are lower priced but equal quality to wines produced in Napa or Sonoma.
Those of us on the East Coast will find that these wines are hard to find in the marketplace. The few larger producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and The Hogue Cellars offer plenty of good wine, yet more mass-produced wines and are well enough distributed locally. Finding wines from the highest-quality vineyards on Snipes Mountain, Red Mountain, or Red Willow in the middle of the Yakama Indian Reservation may just as well be from Mars as far as East Coast access is concerned.
For the collector, a few wines from vineyards like the highly acclaimed Ciel du Cheval, one of Washington's most well-known vineyards, may be familiar. Winemakers like Bob Betz (also a Master of Wine) among only a few others make Bordeaux and Rhone blends and have a decade or better of experience getting consistently high scores for their wines made from this famous vineyard on Red Mountain. These regions and names are just as important as the Russian River Valley and the Napa Valley to the American wine scene and should be pursued by wine lovers here in the District of Columbia.
A unique situation that exists in the state of Washington is both its blessing and its curse. Winegrowers have been so successful in growing so many different high quality varietals that it’s hard to associate the state with any one or two to help the area form a wine identity. Compare that to Oregon for Pinot Noir or Napa for Cabernet Sauvignon and you get the picture. Washington state produces world-class, place-of-origin specific varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre. As you move south from Yakima Valley to Walla Walla you can go ahead and include Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, too. If this were France, we would be covering all of the regions of Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley north and south, and Burgundy, all under one umbrella and all in one U.S. state!
Geology professor Kevin Pogue from Whitman College in Walla Walla, gets many people excited about the world class grape-growing possibilities and fine terroir in Washington state. Recently featured in the New York Times article “In search for terroir with an ear to the ground” Kevin is creating a new state of the art for vineyard geological data for wine grape growing. During a recent luncheon with him he shared that a major book is in the works regarding next generation vineyard geological research and his data which is being published by University of California Press. A work I predict will have impact far beyond the vineyards of Washington state.
A noticeable “can do” American spirit is obvious when you talk to people in the Washington grape-growing and wine making communities. Throughout the state, I found people obsessed with vineyards, where great wines are made first and foremost. So, can Washington state wines catch up to California for quality? You bet, they already have!
The secret to accessing Washington state’s high-quality wines here in Washington, D.C., is to ask a wine store to track them down or get wines shipped directly from the producers. Here are just a few people making incredible wines and some best in class future Washington Grand Cru vineyards to seek out wines from.
· Bob Betz
· David O’Reilly (Owen Roe)
· Red Willow vineyard
· Ciel du Cheval vineyard
It’s that time of year and my spring fever is kicking into high gear. For me, this involves tasting and experiencing as many of the new releases as possible. I’m traveling to eastern Washington State, Oregon, northern California and Bordeaux to do so. But I’m also exploring in my own backyard. I’ve had two enjoyable experiences recently exploring Virginia wines.
I made a visit to one of my all-time favorite vineyards in the world: Linden Vineyards, right off I-66 in Northern Virginia. Now, a visit to Linden is not the same as visiting many other vineyard estates. You drive on a gravel road, limousines and buses are prohibited, and they do not accept groups larger than four people. If you have trouble functioning without cellular tower access, this may not be for you. But if you are a serious wine consumer and you’re interested to see the wines that Virginia can produce, a visit to Linden Vineyards will be as good an experience as any you can find on the US coasts.
Linden Vineyards’ wines are 100 percent authentic, meaning that everything in the bottle comes from the specific vineyard sites. Owner/winemaker Jim Law has worked these impressive vineyard sites meticulously for decades and has mastered them to a science not achieved by many in his profession. His wines feature world-class Chardonnays and red Bordeaux blends from three specific vineyards: Hardscrabble, Boisseau, and Avenius. All of these vineyards I have it from a reliable source are going to represent Virginia in the first round of American Grand Cru vineyard nominations.
I tasted all the new releases and each was as amazing and as distinctive as the individual vineyard sites they come from. The experience offered at Linden is one of the few where a consumer can see, feel and taste the vineyard differentiation between high quality wines made by the same winemaker. It’s an easy drive from DC, so I heartily recommend that serious wine consumers go for a visit and buy some of these amazing wines.
Now, a spring fever focused on tasting all the best-in-class wines produced in Virginia is no simple task. The various Virginia wine appellations are scattered across lots of geography and sampling them is nothing like driving down the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley where wineries seem neatly stacked back to back. Therefore, I was fortunate to attend a side-by-side tasting of the 12 gold medal winners of the Virginia Wineries Association’s Governor’s Cup Competition at the Capital Wine School in D.C. I recommend this establishment as a venue to get high-quality, non-biased wine education.
The annual Governor’s Cup Wine Competition serves to showcase many best-in-class wines being produced in the Commonwealth. (It’s an opt-in endeavor and not all the wine producers in the state chose to submit their best wines every year.) The event held earlier this year was the 31st annual for the Commonwealth.
The side-by-side tasting event at the Capital Wine School was hosted by two local notables: Master of Wine and school owner Jay Youmans, and Charlottesville resident Richard G. Leahy, one of the foremost authorities on vineyards and wines of Virginia and the author of the book Beyond Jefferson’s Vines. Tasting Virginia’s gold-medal winners was a decent guide to discovering the current best-in-class wines produced there. Interestingly, this year’s gold medal winners involved a pretty rare display as there were 11 reds and one sparkling rose. This reflects the stupendous high quality vintages for red wine grapes in Virginia in 2009 and 2010.
The majority of the winners this year came from areas between the Northern Virginia Region and the Monticello AVA near Charlottesville, which are, coincidently, the most convenient to access for DC-area residents. If you have not experienced a Virginia red wine or it’s been a while since you made the effort, you really owe it to yourself to check these out:
The 2013 Virginia’s Governor’s Cup Gold Medal winners:
· 2008 Trump Winery Sparkling Rose
· 2009 Pollak Vineyards Cabernet Franc Reserve
· 2009 Lovingston Winery – Josie’s Knoll Estate Reserve
· 2010 King Family Vineyards Meritage
· 2010 RdV Vineyards – Rendevous
· 2010 Philip Carter Winery – Cleve
· 2010 Rappahannock Cellars Meritage
· 2010 Sunset Hills Vineyard – Mosiac
· 2010 Potomac Point – Richland Reserve Heritage
· 2010 Cooper Vineyards – Petit Verdot Reserve
· 2010 RdV Vineyards – Lost Mountain
· 2009 Barboursville Vineyards’ Octagon 12th Edition.
What is an authentic wine versus an overly manipulated one? I currently have three discussions on three separate LinkedIn wine groups asking that exact question. In just a week, we had over 105 comments. For the uninitiated, that is an extremely high rate of commentary. To me, this indicates plenty of passion as well as a few raw nerve endings.
Before we dive into this question, we need to get on the same page and accept that all wines require human intervention, and, therefore, a level of acceptable manipulation. The grape will not ferment itself and then pour itself into a bottle. But how far is too far? Should there be some level of transparency for consumers?
The reality is that there are fewer rules in the United States regulating the making or selling of wine than in many other wine-producing countries. A Bordeaux-labeled wine, for instance, contains only juices derived from fruit grown in the Bordeaux region and specifies certain grape varietals. In contrast, a Virginia wine is only required to have 75 percent of the juice come from Virginia-grown grapes. In the Napa Valley, the requirement is 85 percent. So in theory, 15 percent of your favorite big pricey Napa Cab could be from anywhere across the globe – India or Indiana – without informing the consumer. This may be bizarre to some, yet it is the state of producer-to-consumer transparency required in the wine industry for consumers in the USA.
When a vineyard fruit is full, healthy and ripens to perfection, a skilled winemaker’s job is to prevent accidents and ensure optimization of the high-quality potential of the wine. Our best-in-class American producers consistently perform this difficult task. For them, winemaking starts with bud break in the vineyard. But the vast majorities of vineyards are more average than exceptional, and vary year to year. In order to manage that reality, a toolbox of manipulation is available to meet producers’ needs and interests. After all, it’s the winemakers’ responsibility to make acceptable and “sellable” wines for which the American wine consumer has an insatiable and growing appetite.
So what kind of practices cross a line and take a wine from authentic to overly manipulated? Most winemakers do not have access to America’s best-in-class vineyards. The result is that the majority of wines require practices that are, in my view, overly processed. Using some additives can result in obviously imparted flavors that did not come from the fruit naturally. Many processes are necessary, while others are coming from big money and chemists rather than the vineyard. These processes serve to stabilize wines during the winemaking process; add or remove acid or tannins; and increase or lessen alcohol levels and residual sugars to achieve a balanced wine. Those who wish to impart an oaky influence without paying for the cost of a barrel can simply use oak chips. In fairness, using an oak barrel has a lasting effect on ageable wines and imparts flavor and texture characteristics, so it is also a form of manipulation. Not many seem to have any concern with this long-time tradition.
Perhaps the place to identify where the line crosses from authentic to overly manipulated is where the methods are used simply to address a business need. If the wine-altering practice is used to impart a favored characteristic not naturally present, or to help a wine achieve higher point scores from Wine Spectator or Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, that line then starts to come into focus. Let’s explore a bit deeper in the areas needing more consumer transparency.
Mega Purple (MP) is an additive rarely known to the wine consumer. Among other things, it’s a concentrated grape juice product added to wine primarily to help in wine uniformity. Produced by Canandaigua West of Merced, California, a division of the global wine conglomerate Constellation Brands, the product is sold to winemakers globally and is a generally accepted practice for all too many, in my view. It’s purported to be used more for mass-produced or less-expensive wines to add color and consistency of wine characteristics, although I hear it’s routinely used in some well-known and pricey Napa Valley wines, too. MP is thought to round out the wine feel on the palate, impart texture, and add significant sweetness on the finish. Those are considered desirable and point-scoring attributes, by the way. If you are consuming wines that sound like this, it’s a safe bet that you are already consuming wines using Mega Purple.
Is there something wrong with that? Is this wine something less than authentic? To many knowledgeable people in the trade, it both adulterates wine and is a marker for wines made with low-quality fruit. According to an unnamed Monterey County winery president quoted in a 2006 Wine and Vines article by Dan Berger, “Virtually everyone is using it. In just about every wine up to $20 a bottle anyway, but maybe not as much over that."
Other processes like reverse osmosis (RO) can strip unwanted authentic characteristics from inferior vineyards. They can also eliminate some positive vineyard-specific characteristics as well taking away special nuances and a sense of specific place orterroir. If you have ever heard about the careful handling of the grapes in the winemaking process, RO does not seem aligned with the message of taking care of the fruit during harvest.
Mega Purple and reverse osmosis are just some of the products and tools available to make poor wine fruit into acceptable sellable wines. For another great read about the topic, read the Robert Parker article, “Dark Side of Wine” and hear what he had to say about overly manipulated wines back in 1999. What he brought up 14 years ago still rings true today.
Some fast food burger chains are financially successful because their business model and business practices use fillers and additives to precisely replicate each product for consistency and to save money. While there’s nothing wrong with making money, for me, it’s a matter of enabling the consumer to make an educated choice. Heavily manipulating wines lowers cost and enables mass production of lower quality and less expensive fruit with a uniform outcome. Does this make the result a bad wine? That question can only be answered by each individual consumer’s spending habits. I believe a dependence on processes like reverse osmosis or adding Mega Purple take away the allure of being made by serious wine craftsmen and women. Thankfully wine consumers who become enthusiasts also become knowledgeable about the wonderful nuances available in truly authentic wines. To truly appreciate wine, becoming an educated wine consumer is critical.
Since the result in overly manipulating wine is often a lower cost with the same benefits (from the alcohol), for far too many consumers it simply doesn’t matter. Some think it’s not a big deal, and others find the situation, at best, disingenuous. Where do you stand personally? Do let us know.