Archive for the ‘Review Washington State wine’ Category

The Best of the Pacific Northwest: Sineann Abondante 2009


Peter Rosback of Sineann Winery

How does this guy do it?

How does he produce so many great wines in such a  dizzying variety of styles. How can one guy be responsible for all these:

A) Incredibly rich Old Vine Zinfandel;

B) Crisp and snappy New Zealand Sauv Blanc;

C) Bold but elegant single vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs; and

D) Intense but polished Washington State red blends.

And did I mention this guy has earned several boatloads of 90+ scores for all these disparate styles??

His name is Peter Rosback, master of Sineann Winery. He’s physically located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA near Newberg, Oregon, but his grapes come from all over the place. He’s one of the new breed of winemakers who doesn’t rely on owning acres of vineyards to produce estate-grown wines, but sources grapes from the best vineyards he can lay his hands on. Peter uses fruit from vineyards in Oregon, the Columbia Valley, and even Marlborough, New Zealand. (Yes, he flies halfway around the world to make his Sauv Blanc!)

It’s a smart approach these days, when you have to be a retired football star or race car driver to be able to pony up the multi-$100,000 per acre it takes to plant your own vineyards, and then pay vineyard workers and winemaking staff for seven or so years before you can actually sell any wine. Instead of owning land, Peter locates pedigreed vineyards and then “works closely with” (read, “drives crazy”) his growers to produce the best fruit possible. It’s a way of doing business that allows Peter tremendous flexibility as a winemaker, while still maintaining control over his product.

But if you could say there’s a signature style to all of Peter’s wines, it would probably be intensity of fruit and concentration of flavors. Aha! That’s one of the things Peter creates in the vineyards. He works with his growers to reduce crop yields way below most premium or super-premium wines: he goes as low as one ton per acre. Trust me, that’s LOW! (A premium Napa Valley grape grower might harvest two and a half to three tons per acre).

abondanteSo why does he do it? The short answer is that reducing the number of grapes each vine produces greatly increases the concentration and intensity of flavor in every single grape. And believe me, it shows in Peter’s wine.

So let’s get to the wine. I recently went nuts over the Sineann Abondante 2009, a red blend made with fruit from vineyards in the lower Columbia Valley. Now I have to admit that I ordered this wine without ever tasting or even reading about it: I just figured that I’d love anything from the winemaker who’d made the amazing Sineann Resonance Vineyard Pinot Noir (with scores in every vintage hovering near the mid-90′s).

So I poured Abondante at a wine and food pairing dinner, where I’d made an admittedly wild-ass guess about how the wine would taste and pair with my food. Truthfully, I just wanted to drink it. The wine is an intriguing blend of grapes grown in the Columbia Valley. There is Merlot from the Hillside Vineyard, Cabernet Franc from the famed Champoux Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon from the Hillside Vineyard and Zinfandel (yes, Washington State Zinfandel) from vineyards that are reputed to be the oldest in the Pacific Northwest.

Wild, huh?

And it does honor to its name. “Abondante” means “generous,” and those abundant flavors jump right out of the glass. There’s rich berry fruit, which may be contributed by the old vine Zinfandel. There are floral and herbal notes (maybe from the Cab Franc?) as well as some plum and pomegranate. All of this is wrapped up in soft tannins and a round ripeness, but not jamminess, that smooths out the finish.

That’s what I liked best: intensity without weight. The fruitiness and structure all danced happily together, creating a very lithe and refined wine that just happened to be rich in fruit flavors.

This wine was kick-ass. And the good news is that it worked perfectly with Beef Filet Medallions topped with Gorgonzola and a Red Wine Reduction. Who would have thought? Like I said, I just wanted to taste the wine…

Try hard to find a bottle of 2009 Abondante, although it’ll be tough given Sineann’s small production and the ridiculously low price for this wine ($30 in my state). But do your best, because you’ll go nuts like I did… Cheers!



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Kickin’ Washington State Merlot from Waterbrook


Walla Walla wine country

I haven’t reviewed a lot of Merlots, because I haven’t run across a whole lot of them that I really like. Of course, that’s just my opinion: market research shows that Merlot sales in the U.S. are strong and growing stronger. Mind you, I’m not one of those Merlot-bashers: I think Merlot is potentially as good as any other varietal. But it seems the potential, at least in California, is rarely reached.

But I’ve enjoyed the heck out of a few Merlots lately, like Barnett Spring Mountain Merlot (click for my review). Mountain-grown fruit shows wonderful structure, and so does Washington State fruit. I also wrote about how much I liked Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Merlot — it really flipped my switch.

And now I can add Waterbrook Columbia Valley Merlot 2008 to my list. I hoisted a glass recently, expecting the usual Merlot experience, and instead said, “Holy Shit!” (that’s a technical term).


John Freeman, winemaker

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. I’ve become a veritable WA Wine Groupie since I discovered what The Wine Advocate described as “one of the world’s most exciting viticultural regions.” In a happy accident of nature, the Cascade Mountains rose up and separated the cool, rainy Pacific coast of Washington state from the warm, dry eastern side. Wine grapes are very happy here: the long, sunny days ripen the fruit; low rainfall concentrates the fruit and allows the ripening process to be carefully controlled; and cool nights, especially in Autumn, maintain great natural acidity.

Of course, it’s not just about the region. Waterbrook also has a talented winemaker, John Freeman, who’s also a Washington convert. Freeman grew up in northern California and worked at established Napa Valley wineries (you can’t get much more established than Franciscan). I don’t know what brought him to Walla Walla, but word is he didn’t want to leave. Now his goal is to make “premium, value wines” with “the overall complexity, balance and consistent quality that Waterbrook wines are known for.”

So does he succeed?

First, let me say that he’s got the value thing nailed. The “Value Tier” Waterbrook Merlot I tasted beats the heck out of California Merlots for twice the price or more. It’s a steal at around$15.

The deep, dark color suggests an extracted, intense wine and the nose offers lots of rich dark berry fruit and a hint of mocha. The palate starts out bold and juicy, with dark cherry and plum, more chocolate, and a deep, luscious mid-palate. The finish sets it apart from the pack, with firm tannins and acid that says, “this ain’t your average Merlot.”

You could say Freeman is cheating, because the tasting notes reveal that this isn’t your average Merlot — there’s 25% Cabenet Sauvignon in the blend. Maybe that’s where all that structure and depth comes from… But in the end I guess I have to say, Who cares?

The wine works, it’s pleasure to drink and a bargain to buy. That’s all I need to know. Cheers!


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Will Powers Cabernet Make Me a WA Wine Groupie?


Greg Powers, winemaker at Washington State's Powers Winery

It’s gonna look like I’m stuck in a rut, or worse yet, acting as a paid lackey for the Washington State Wine Marketing Board (if there is such a thing).

But the truth is, I just keep stumbling over Washington State reds that knock my socks off. The latest is about as unlikely as they come, at least judging by its packaging. Powers Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 sports a label that I can only call…dumb. With all due apologies to the label designer, it’s just wildly inappropriate for a bottle of big, bold, brawny Cab to sport a label that’s…lavender. Yes, lavender, like you’d expect to see on fabric softener or women’s bath products. Sorry guys, it just bugs me.powers

But let’s forget that, because what’s inside the bottle really rocks.

Powers Winery is relatively young, but is part of a long legacy begun by Bill Powers of Badger Mountain Winery. Bill has been a huge force in Washington State winemaking, as witnessed by the lifetime achievement award he won from from the Washington Association of grape growers.

His son, Greg, is the driving force behind Powers Winery, and he hasn’t done a shabby job, either: under his leadership Powers Winery has been recognized as a “rising star” by Wine Spectator, and as one of the “50 Great U.S. Cabernet Producers” by Wine Enthusiast. Those are impressive accolades for a young winemaker.

Here’s what Greg does at Powers Winery. He sources all the grapes for his wines from vineyard partners, working closely with them to achieve maximal flavors and complexity. And the vineyards he uses produce some of the best fruit in the state, from appellations such as Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope and the Yakima Valley.

Now let me pause here to talk about Washington state fruit. If you’ve read any of my other posts about WA wines, you’ll have learned that eastern Washington State is damn near heaven for wine grapes. The Cascade Mountains that keep the Pacific coast region cool and wet act as a rain shadow for the eastern half of the state. Over there, in the Columbia River Valley, the climate is warm and arid.

But wait…there’s more! The more northerly latitude gives the grapes more hours of daylight to ripen the grapes, and cool night-time temperatures produce good acid and structure. The result is intense, bright, juicy fruit balanced by bracing acidity. I just love this style…

I strive to create  that realize the fruits’ full potential.

So here’s what Greg Powers does. He focuses on “art of blending,” using the fruit of three different vineyards to create his 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. He says he wants “structured and compelling varietals” with “lush, full flavors that continue to develop and evolve after bottling.” I think he hit it right on the hose.

Right off the cork (or screw cap in this case) the aromas gushed out of my glass. I got sweet berries, vanilla, and that “something”, that quasi-aroma that signals depth and intensity.

The palate served it up big time. Ripe berry/cherry leads the way, with chocolate and a hint of spice following close behind. But the kicker was the deep, dark, concentrated undercurrent created by all that acid and well-integrated tannin. For me, the result was a great marriage of sweet fruit and brawny structure.

And did I mention that this wine goes for less than $15?? That’s truly amazing value, and I can’t see anything from California coming close. Once again, I sound like a WA wine groupie, but is that such a bad thing? Cheers!

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Luscious: Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet

h3I like horses. I like wine. And I like the romance that I hear in this name: “Horse Heaven Hills.”

Horse Heaven Hills is the name of a wine-growing region in eastern Washington State, and is also the home of a winery called Columbia Crest. There really were wild horses way back when, but for the two decades or so that Columbia Crest has been there, “H3″ has been producing some killer grapes — among the best in Washington State.

And that’s saying something. If you haven’t read many of my posts, you’ve probably missed the occasional rants about my love affair with Washington State wines. So here goes again…cab

Washington State has two totally different weather zones: the wet, cool west side that borders the Pacific Ocean and the dry, warm side east of the Cascade Mountains. This region, the Columbia River Valley area, is heaven for wine grapes. Its northerly latitude means that there’s more daylight hours during the growing season, with cool nights that allow the grapes to develop good acid and structure. The typical result is wine with intense fruit flavors balanced by good acid and soft tannins (my favorite kind of wine).

So getting back to Horse Heaven Hills, this area is blessed with a unique feature: unusually active winds that produce grapes with extra flavor and structure. While several wineries use grapes from these vineyards, Columbia Crest’s H3 wines represent unusual value. In fact, the one is drank last night got a Top 100 Value Wines rating.

I smelled and tasted the ripeness of the fruit in Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. The richness started with the deep berry and sweet vanilla aromas. The palate was bursting with fruit — sweet blackberries and cassis — that quickly turned to mocha. For a minute there I thought I was drinking a chocolate/coffee/berry milkshake: Not that that’s a bad thing… The finish was so soft and supple that it got me searching for the tasting notes. Sure enough, this wine is not all Cab: there’s also 8% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc.

The blend may account for the extra softness and richness. It might also be Washington’s exceptional 2008 growing season, which produced fully ripe grapes and good yields.

Either way, it made for a really seductive, luscious wine. That’s not surprising, since I’ve really liked the other wines in the H3 line, a Merlot and a Chardonnay. Grab any of them if you catch them at your local wine shop, and enjoy. Cheers!



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Indian Wells Merlot

michelleYou know I love Washington State reds. I stumbled across one, or maybe two, a few years ago. I thought, “Damn, this is good.”

But that could have been a random occurrence of goodness. What convinced me was when I kept coming across reds from Washington State, and every one of them made me say, “Damn, this is good.”

So it’s no surprise that my latest Washington State tasting made me go…you guessed it…”Damn…”

I just tasted Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Merlot 2009. I had ordered several cases of this wine for customers, so I knew it had something going for it, but until I saw it on the glass-pour list at Ken Stewart’s Grille (perhaps Northeast Ohio’s best restaurant), I’d never tasted it.

But before the “big reveal,” let’s do some background research.

Eastern Washington State, where this wine is made, is blessed with some of the best wine-grape-growing conditions in the world. Here’s how Bob Bertheau, Head Winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, explains it:

“Low rainfall, extra sunshine during the growing season, (and) cooler days at the end of harvest for longer hang time” produce grapes with “great structure and intense fruit.” That’s short-hand for deep, rich, complex, kick-ass reds (that’s a technical term…). Read the rest of this entry »

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A Great Washington State Winery Gets a New Look: L’Ecole No. 41

ecoleWe’ve always loved the wines made by L’Ecole No. 41, a premium winery in Walla Walla, Washington. I’ve reviewed their wines before: check out this post about a  really wonderful Bordeaux-style blend called L’Ecole No. 41 Perigee 2007.

But I could never figure out the winery name.

So here’s the story: the area was settled back in the early 18oo’s by French-Canadians, who grew grapes and made wine. The winery’s original owners, Jean and Baker Ferguson, gave their winery a French name in homage to the area’s earliest settlers, and while we don’t know if the French Canadians’ wine was any good, it still makes a good story.

For those who don’t know their French, “L’Ecole” means “the school,” and sure enough, the winery is located in an old schoolhouse. So the original label design for L’Ecole No. 41 was a schoolhouse drawn in a colorful, very child-like hand.ecole

Some said it was charming, while others said it was hokey. And as L’Ecole’s wines gained high ratings and international acclaim, I think the label began to seem just a little bit too simple.

So someone at this family-owned winery finally decided it was time for a change. They’ve announced that they’ll debut a brand new label on April 1 of 2001.

But we have a sneak preview.

We think their new label is a winner. It still acknowledges the roots and heritage of the winery, while using graphics that are classic and elegant. As a retailer, I know that labels can influence people to buy — or not buy — any bottle. In this case,  I think L’Ecole’s new label will influence more people to buy a wine that seriously deserves to be bought.

You’ll probably continue to see the old label for a while, an I’d encourage you to buy a bottle and give it a try.  I know I wasn’t disappointed. Cheers!

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More Great Washington Red: Waterbrook Melange Noir

vinesThey just keep on coming.

I’m talking about great value, great tasting reds from Washington State wine country. I just tasted Waterbrook Melange Noir 2008, which I’d grabbed just because I figured it would be as good as all the other red blends I’ve tasted from the Columbia Valley.

And I wasn’t disappointed. It showed the guts and elegance I’ve come to expect from the reds of the U.S. Northwest.

Let me give you a little background on the region. Washington’s wine country is in the eastern half of the state, far away from the  rainy Pacific coast. In fact, it’s separated from the ocean by two mountain ranges, the Cascades and the Olympics, which create a rain shadow in the Columbia Valley. This produces a micro-climate that wine grapes love, where the days are warm and dry to ripen the grapes, and the nights are cool enough to develop acid and structure. On top of that, the area’s northerly latitude gives it more daylight hours, and therefore more ripening time for the vineyards.

Here’s what all this means: Washington State wines have intense flavors, with bright acid that keeps them exceptionally well-balanced. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reusable Wine Bottles: An Idea whose Time has Come

barrelHere’s an excerpt from a very interesting article by Sean Sullivan, printed recently in the Washington Wine Report. “The Great Recession has left many in the wine business looking for new ways to provide high quality wine at more affordable prices. One approach, which I wrote about recently, is keg wine.” (I also wrote an article about keg wine article for “Another, which has recently started in Seattle, is the use of refillable wine bottles.”

“Paul Beveridge of Seattle’s Wilridge Winery started offering reusable bottles several months ago. Beveridge says that the inspiration was both to be as green as possible and to provide high quality wine at “recession buster” pricing.”

“The reusable bottles reduce environmental impact by eliminating cork (the bottles have reusable stoppers), capsules, paper labels, and the waste associated with recycling glass. “It takes five percent of the energy to clean and refill a bottle as it does to recycle a bottle,” Beveridge explains. Additionally, unlike boxed wine, it comes in a package consumers are already familiar with and that is fully reusable.

I’d say this is an idea whose time has come, if only it hadn’t been around for eons already. We may not have seen it in the U.S of A., but in Europe, reusable bottles have been a way of life as long as they’ve been making wine (and that’s a long time). Read the rest of this entry »

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Bordeaux Meets Walla Walla: L’Ecole No. 41 Perigee 2007

ecoleThere were a lot of pedigreed  and pricey wines at a trade event we attended recently. They were all from Washington State, which my readers will know is one of my favorite wine regions. The wineries were showcasing lots of Cab, Merlots, and Syrahs, bottled separately and blended, but my favorite of the evening was L’Ecole No. 41 Seven Hills Vineyard Perigee 2007. And this sure wasn’t the priciest bottle there…

Now I gotta admit that I (and my customers) have had trouble with this winery’s name. But it turns out that it pays homage to the building they occupy, which was originally a school (“ecole”) in District 41, built in 1915 in a community founded by French-Canadian immigrants. So that explains it. The winery is family-owned, now run by the second generation. They’ve won a boatload of awards and high ratings from all the big critics.

The Seven Hills Vineyard that produced the grapes for Perigee is co-owned by L’Ecole, Pepper Bridge and Leonetti, all big names in Washington wine. It was even named one of the “Ten Great Vineyards of the World” by Wine and Spirits magazine. I can certainly speak to the quality of the wine this vineyard produces. Perigee 2007 is a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The fruit is intense on the nose and palate, suggesting dark cherry and blackberry with mocha and spice. The mid-palate is deep, and the intensity seems to build right through the long finish. At $50, this is a real bargain compared to the all the $75-ish Washington blends we tasted. I’d like to run right out and find a case to lay down, so I can enjoy this one for a long time to come.


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Mercer Estates: One Of The Great Things About Washington State

mercer vines

Mercer vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills appellation

In my opinion, nearly everything about Washington State is great, with the possible exception of freezing temperatures in the winter and that white stuff called “snow.” I don’t think they get a lot of white stuff in Eastern Washington State, where the wine industry is growing and thriving, but for a Northeasterner, any is too much.

I’ve talked in other reviews about why Eastern Washington is an ideal place to grow wine grapes. The Reader’s Digest version is that this area to the east of the Cascade mountains is arid (which wine grapes like), with warm daytime temperatures and very cool nighttime temps (which wine grapes love). On top of that, the very northerly latitude of the Columbia Valley results in more hours of daylight in the summer, helping to ripen the grapes and making them very happy.

So let’s talk wineries. Mercer Estates is a small, family-owned winery located in and around Prosser. It’s a partnership between the Hogue family, who built Hogue  Cellars from nothing, to the second largest winery in the state, and the Mercer family, who’ve been farming in Washington since before it was a state. Their winemaker, David Forsyth, is also a Washingtonian, except for sojourns to Sun Valley and Europe where he competed as a Para-Ski racer. (This is not a sport for the faint of heart. David parachuted out of an airplane to land on a target literally the size of a quarter, and then slalom-skied down a mountain. Really).

We tasted many of Mercer’s wines recently when David came out to do a Winemaker Dinner for us. In fact, he’s the one who gave me the definitive low-down on corks and screw caps, which you can read about in More on the Cork Wars. But getting back to what’s in the bottle, I’d like to talk about their stunning Columbia Valley Merlot, since I think it hits all the high notes of Washington state wines.

Mercer Columbia Valley Merlot 2007 surprised the heck out of me. It isn’t like any Merlot I’d ever tasted (except perhaps a mountain-grown one). The dark cherry fruit is incredibly intense, with hints of cocoa and vanilla sliding in at the finish. The acid and tannins created by the cool temperatures create a Cab-like  structure that leaves you thinking, “This ain’t your typical Merlot.” It’s really a Cab-drinkers Merlot, with the age-ability of a big red. For me, it’s what a red wine should be: fun to drink, great with food, and a joy to open for friends and family. Enjoy!

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