2007 Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

Another terrible iPhone photo, this time of Bacchus Vineyard

I recently had the chance to try the 2007 Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.

This is a wine that is not produced in every vintage; winemaker John Abbott reserves the label for special bottlings in what he considers to be extraordinary vintages. It is therefore of no surprise that this, the third Abeja Reserve, came from the phenomenal 2007 vintage (previous vintages of this wine were from the hallmark 2002 and 2005 vintages). I’ll quote Paul Gregutt about the fruit sourcing: “…sourced principally from the same old vine Bacchus and Weinbau blocks, this also includes a significant portion of grapes (20%) from the estate’s Heather Hill vineyard.”

Bacchus and Weinbau vineyards are part of the Sagemoor Farms family of vineyards, comprised of Bacchus, Weinbau, Sagemoor, and Dionysus vineyards. This group of vineyards is one of the most critical building blocks for many premium Washington wineries, including Delille, Januik, and Corliss, just to name a few. Some of the vines (including much of the Cabernet in the Abeja Reserve) date back to 1972, which is just about as old-vine as you can get in Washington. I had the privilege of visiting the vineyard earlier this year, and it was beautiful, immaculately tended, and right next to the Columbia River- a key element, since it leads to cooling breezes coming off of the water and mitigating some of the Eastern Washington heat.

So how was the wine? Certainly concentrated; it was dense and chewy, with obvious oak influences- coffee, mocha, and toasty wood were evident throughout. The fruit was dark and intense, filled with classic Cabernet black currant and very ripe plum.

I think that this is a wine that will satisfy many, many consumers. It is the epitome of what one might expect out of a New-World Reserve Cabernet. Did I like it? Sort of. I certainly enjoyed having the opportunity to try it. However, I wished at the time that it had been showing more acidity. It felt in the mouth much like an Oakville Cabernet might; very big and mouth-filling, but without the high acidity that I have come to expect in the best Washington State wines. Perhaps I was just not in the mood for a wine of this style; that has certainly been true for me on many occasions, and I have come back to the same wines and found them to be much more enjoyable than I thought on first taste.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that Abeja’s Reserve Cabernet is a well-made wine. I think that in the style it is made in you can spend three or four times the amount of money for a similar experience. But lately I’ve been looking for wines that offer a little bit more than rich, plump fruit and big flavor. Maybe it’ll change in the bottle; I don’t claim to know. If you’re looking for Napa in Washington, drink this wine; you’ll love it. But it wasn’t for me right then.

But then, that’s what makes wine so special, isn’t it? Different times, different people, different bottles, different experiences. I hope I try this wine again three years from now and it blows my mind.


The State of the Industry

That seems counterintuitive: Red wine good for your teeth? Then how do you explain Jay Miller’s brown little nubs?

Saving the world, one glass at a time: An interesting article on wine and carbon emissions, specifically Chilean wineries’ attempts to reduce theirs. I noticed just the other day a carbon-neutral label on a bottle of Cono Sur Pinot Noir, so it’s funny to see an article about exactly this today. Kudos to them.

A Cautionary Tale: Seriously. Don’t drink and drive.

Constellation Drops Hardys: “The business is no longer consistent with Constellation’s strategy.” Apparently that strategy involves making money.

We all saw it coming: Washington yields will likely be down in 2011 due to the early freeze.

Why do I never find things like this?: $30,000 Latour found in restaurant’s cellar unexpectedly. Honestly, if I found that, I would just drink it.

I’ll believe it when I see it: Wine prices to fall in 2011. Also, “Riesling will rise?” What?

Seems like a lot of work just for a vending machine: “Oenophiles must pass breathalyzers, swipe their IDs, then show their pictures to a state official observing via closed circuit TV before buying their wine.”

The 100 Point System

This post is taken directly from a comment I left on a thread at Paul Gregutt’s blog. I loathe to waste words, so I’m reposting it here for anyone who’s interested. Feel free to read the entire conversation; it’s quite interesting.

Hey Paul,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m not looking for a flame war, but do like to be cited when I’m quoted.

While I can commiserate with you about being under-appreciated for the good work that you do (which I personally do appreciate; hell, I have a signed copy of your book) I think that in large part the reliance of wine buyers on the 100 point system leads to that very under-appreciation. Frankly, for many people a numeric grade speaks louder than a thousand words of effusive praise.

When you say that “wine drinkers who care enough about the subject to actually purchase and read the trade mags probably don’t need scores to decide what they actually want to drink,” I must beg to differ. There are gross numbers of consumers who rely almost solely on those numbers, or “won’t buy anything less than a 90 point wine.” I think that for these people the number itself is an assurance of quality; in their mind it ensures that they are getting the best possible bang for their ever-stretched buck. Not all wine drinkers are this way, but in a world where everyone wants to be savvy but doesn’t necessarily have the time to do the research necessary to make an informed decision, the 100-point system offers them a quick and easy way to purchase something that they feel they can have confidence in.

I ramble, but am narrowing in on my point. The 100-point grading system is an exercise in reductionism; it takes all the words of praise, criticism, and thoughtful reflection that a wine writer can put into a review and reduces it to a quantitative analysis of something (wine) that is in essence not quantifiable. When there is careful and considerate reasoning behind the score that might not be so bad, but when a reviewer flies into a region, spends two weeks there, and spits out (no pun intended) 810 reviews as a result, one has to wonder about the quality of the journalism involved.

I am, of course, talking about The Wine Advocate’s Jay Miller (whom I was talking about in that original Cayuse review as well). This sort of thing is in my mind not only sloppy journalism, but detrimental to the wine industry in general; many an undeserving 89 point score has led to poor sales for a winery. However, these scores are given undue gravitas by wine collectors globally- Quilceda Creek will forever be known as the 100 point Washington wine.

I don’t mean to hijack your blog, but it’s a subject to which I’ve given a lot of thought. I don’t necessarily have any answers; the public demands scores, wineries with high scores tout them, retailers and distributors use them to move product, and wine publications get publicity from them. As they say, it is what it is.

There is a (I think natural) backlash to this trend from those who see it as damaging to the industry. Let me point out, however, that not all of us are militant about it, and certainly not all of us are crying “death to critics!”

Or at least, not death to ALL of them.

Wineries to Watch: JB Neufeld

Hopefully I can tell you about a winery you’ve never heard of.

The name Justin Neufeld might ring a bell to some of you; he’s been the winemaker at Gilbert Cellars since 2007. Justin (great name!) and his wife Brooke now have a new project: JB Neufeld, a winery so young that it doesn’t even have a functional website yet.

Taking his experience from his time at an array of Washington wineries- including Chateau Ste Michelle, Glen Fiona, Silver Lake, and of course Gilbert Cellars- he has produced wines of distinction and quality, remaining true to the Cabernet grape but still providing the extravagance we’ve come to expect from premium Washington wine.

Their winemaking style seems simple, but in fact requires more dedication than many winemakers are willing to provide: Source your grapes from the absolute finest vineyards, and treat them gently and with respect (something of a trend in my favorite wineries, it seems). In this regard, JB Neufeld has done superbly. The two offerings are single-vineyard wines, one from the esteemed DuBrul vineyard (think Owen Roe’s stunning DuBrul Cabernet as well as the highly-rated Cote Bonneville estate wines) and one from Artz Vineyard (owned by one-time vineyard manager at Klipsun, Fred Artz). Both are left in French barriques, 60% new, for 18 months, and are completely unfined. This noninterventionist method of winemaking has produced two wines in two very distinct styles.

2008 Dubrul Vineyard Cabernet
This is a wine with terrific tannin and grip, certainly one for the cellar. Those of you familiar with the top-end Cabernets (and this is 100% varietal Cabernet) of Washington will find familiar notes here. Black currant, black tea, vanilla and hints of anise spice are held up by a wonderful acid structure. I can tell you that this is one that I will be putting away and forgetting about for some time; it is a true example of what Washington can do in a New-Meets-Old-World style. In true garagiste, micro-production style, only three barrels were produced.

2008 Artz Vineyard Cabernet
Out of the two wines, this is the one that is most accessible at this juncture. It is richer, juicier, and more in line with what we have come to expect from Washington wine. While also 100% Cabernet, this Red Mountain vineyard gets so much more ripeness that the grape gets the chance to show its fleshier side, with blue fruits and chewier tannins. While I firmly believe that this wine will evolve over the next five to seven years as well, this is so pleasurable now that you have to ask the question: why wait?

At $30 retail, these wines are no-brainers. Go, find them, enjoy them!

Wineries to Watch: Stevens Winery

If you’ve never heard of Stevens Winery then I feel sorry for you. That’s why I’m rectifying that situation right now. You’re welcome.

Tim Stevens is the winemaker at eponymous Stevens winery. His experience comes from working with Matt Loso at Matthews, where he started as Assistant Winemaker in 1998. I’m not the biggest fan of Loso’s style; his wines are always super-rich, super-oaky, monolithic bombs (see: Barons V, Walla Faces). That’s why I’m happy to report that Tim seems to have been able to take the best aspects of these wines and combine them with a gentle touch. More and more I find that this typifies my favorite Washington wines: tame the vibrant desert fruit with earlier harvesting, careful site selection, gentle processing and an eye towards the table.

Tim isn’t afraid of oak, using a lot of new and once-used French barrels, but his fruit sourcing is so impeccable that the wines hold up well to this type of regimen. I’ve become convinced that there is a big difference between a top-notch vineyard such as Dubrul or Klipsun and sources that, without naming names, don’t necessarily have the siting or vineyard management (which is probably more important) to produce fruit with the concentration to absorb an aggressive oak program.

Stevens focuses on the Yakima Valley; some of his best sources are Dubrul and Dineen vineyard, as well as Meek and Sheridan and others. Since 2002, he has been producing wines of great depth and character. They are unapologetically bold, but with a level of finesse that few seem able to achieve in Western Washington. His Merlot is by far my favorite wine that he makes; it has an incredible red and blue fruit character, a perfect level of spicy oak influence, and an exciting underlying mineral element. His Dineen Vineyard Viognier (called Divio) is no slouch either; it shines for its vibrant tropical fruit elements: green melon, papaya, and ripe peaches. At the same time, it’s quite dry on the palate.

I urge you to seek out these wines. They’re quite reasonable in price for their quality; the Viognier is retailing for as low as $17.99! Feel free to thank me later.

2006 Cayuse Bionic Frog

I had the chance to try the 2006 Cayuse Vineyards Bionic Frog today.

As has been noted earlier on this blog, Christophe Baron’s Cayuse Vineyards create wines of some great controversy. People love them or people hate them, but there is always an opinion to be had. I’m personally a fan of the wines, but even I admit that they’re not something that you want to have on a regular basis. They’re very rich and very lively; the way that they come across is vivid and inescapably showy. However, it has to be admitted that the pH of every bottle of Cayuse I’ve had has seemed remarkably high. The softness of these wines can be pleasant and appealing sometimes, but isn’t the style that I like on a regular basis.

The Bionic Frog showed a meatiness that I’ve come to associate with Cayuse; it was very gamy and even had an element of cured meats, like salami. It also had notes of green olive, though not as much as in the bottles of En Chamberlain that I’ve had. The oak treatment was noticeable but not prominent; it stayed in the background and was quite enjoyable. The fruit of the wine also played a supporting role; there was a figgy note that was very nice, but it was nowhere near the focus of the wine. Think of a small fig wrapped in a big piece of panchetta and drizzled in balsamic vinegar. Sound good? You’ll probably like Cayuse wines.

The pH on this wine seemed very high; it was lush and extremely soft in the mouth. There was also no perceivable tannin structure. These two elements made for a velvety concoction with no rough edges. It must be noted as well that I (and most of the palates at the table) detected a noticeable level of volatile acidity in the wine. Normally this is a big turn-off for me, but there was so much going on in the glass that it actually supported it well.

Why are these wines so intriguing? I think it has something to do with the fact that they undeniably push the envelope. The levels of grape ripeness evident in these wines has created a phenolic content that is in itself rather volatile. Hence, there is a lot of perceivable sensory elements in the glass, and they are more exotic than the standard monolithic big fruit and oak that is the profile of many Washington wines. Is this a good thing? It’s certainly an interesting one.

Do these wines justify a) their price points and b) their hype? I always hate when someone asks me whether a wine is ‘worth the money.’ The answer is such a subjective one; if you make $20 million a year, then sure, shelling out $70 or $100 for a bottle of Cayuse is probably an easy thing to do, and so for you it would be worth the money. If, on the other hand, you make $25,000 a year at McDonalds then you might want to look more closely at the really value-driven products. Personally, I understand why these wines are as expensive as they are. Firstly, their production is expensive. The yields on Christophe’s vineyards are famously low, he does all biodynamic production (which is expensive), and those vineyards are young; there’s no way they’ve paid for themselves yet. Also, the production out of that winery is tiny, somewhere around 3000 cases I’m told. At that level of production it’s impossible to turn a profit and remain liquid (no pun intended) without charging high prices. Is the wine worth the money? It’s the price of admission to try something from a producer that is uncompromising in his principles and dedicated to small production wines.

Whether or not the wines justify their hype is a completely different question, and I think a difficult one. A lot of what makes Cayuse so appealing to many of its consumers is the press. This is for me a bit of an irritation and also a paradox. I despise the fact that a handful of palates so control the Washington wine industry, especially when those palates are so skewed in favor of ultra-rich wines- as is the case with The Wine Advocate’s Jay Miller, for instance. I also think that these scores being the be-all-end-all for so many consumers pushes other producers to produce wines in this style, thusly reducing the diversity of the Washington wine scene and forcing producers to make wines that they perhaps might not even like themselves. At the same time, high Washington scores bring the state further into the consciousness of drinkers around the country and around the world, and that is a stated goal of mine.

The other thing that creates the hype around Cayuse is the limited availability. The unparalleled demand for these bottles of Cayuse is a natural consequence of combining high scores with extremely limited availability, and it is part of what makes them a viable enterprise. If these wines were familiar sights on wine shop shelves, customers would be far less inclined to put up with allocation from the winery. Supply and demand is a simple concept, and the invisible hand is doing its work here for Christophe.

I’m rambling now, so I’ll stop. Was this wine a great experience? Yes, but it was in spite of some flaws. Do I think that it’s for everyone? No, not at all; in fact, half of the people at the table tonight hated it. One of my cohorts poured it out. But am I sad that I have a bottle in my cellar? Far from it.