Walla Walla, Part One: The Trip Is Half The Thing

This time last week, I was in Walla Walla.

I left Seattle bright and early, at about 6:30 or so in the morning. Having just gotten my first car in several years, I was excited (and perhaps slightly nervous) for the road trip. This was to be my first time traversing long distances behind the wheel on my own. I know, I’m insulated here in the city.

I decided to take the long way to Walla Walla – from Seattle down to Vancouver, WA, and east from there- for a multiplicity of reasons. Firstly, I had never been that way, whereas I had gone several times via the more standard route through The Pass down to Yakima, the Tri-Cities, et cetera. Secondly, the weather had been cold and wet lately, and the mountains would likely require chains – a safety measure that I neither possessed nor wanted to purchase. Finally, the lure of attractions in the Columbia Gorge region drew me towards it. My intention was to stop at several locales along the way: Syncline Wine Cellars, COR Cellars, and the Maryhill Museum of Art. I failed miserably on all accounts, twice due to my own foolish nature, and once due to the vagaries of timing.

Syncline Wine Cellars and COR Cellars are both located in scenic Lyle, Washington. I’m quite fond of the wines that they both produce – you should check them out if you see them on a list or shelf! I had checked into their tasting room hours just before my trip, and saw that neither of them had Monday posted as a regular tasting day – certainly not in tourist-sleepy February. However I, in my inestimable foolhardiness, decided that I would leave my fate in the hands of the Moirae and try my hand at a visit anyway.

What I didn’t realize was that I certainly should have gotten some sort of directions to their facilities before leaving.

As I drove down the winding, windy, scenic, and generally lovely Highway 14 (also known as the Lewis and Clark Highway), I came to a sign. ‘Tourist Attractions Ahead.’ I was moving at a relatively fast rate of speed (ah-hem), but I had time to note both COR Cellars and Syncline Wine Cellars on the list. ‘Oh, the town must be coming up soon,’ I thought with intense trepidation. This was the first time at which I realized that other than the name of the town, I had no idea whatsoever where these destinations I had in mind might be. The speed limit reduced, and I obediently reduced my speed. There were several houses, shops, et cetera. I continued driving. This is not the first time in my life that it has come to my attention that I have difficulty measuring distances and the amount of time that it might take to travel them. ‘One Mile Ahead’ and ‘Two Miles Ahead’ were clearly posted on the aforementioned sign. Only after traversing what must have been five miles down the road, I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if I might have missed them.’ However, in my obstinate stubbornness I refused to admit this as a possibility. Another five miles and I accepted it as unmitigated fact.

At the same time, I was filled with a velocilust that would not allow me to turn back. I was making great time, and nothing as silly as ‘goals’ or ‘plans’ would allow me to undo that. With nary more than a glance behind myself at missed opportunities (kind of; I’ve had the wines of both wineries before, and quite liked them, but had been-there-done-that) I forged on ahead.

The Maryhill Museum of Art was my next target, and was perhaps an hour down the road (less? more? It all blends together from this vantage) from Lyle. ‘Why,’ you might be asking, ‘would you ever choose the bustling metropolis of Maryhill, Washington (population 98 in the 2000 census) for a museum stop?’ Your incredulance (not a word) would be justified were it not for this exhibit of 87 (!!!!!) works by French master sculptor Auguste Rodin. Sleepy hamlet Maryhill has iconic Quaker and town founder Sam Hill to thank for this absurd bounty of art and culture in what would otherwise be technically known as ‘the ass-side of nowhere.’ I’d heard legends about the exhibit’s exquisite sculpture, and being an art enthusiast, this opportunity was in fact more than half of my reason for going the way-longer route to Walla Walla from Seattle. Alas, timing was again my bane: The gate was closed, with a sign up saying that the Museum would not reopen until March 15th.

So all of my hopes for tourist activities were dashed (I considered going to Maryhill Winery, but then just kept driving…), and I was left with the long drive to Walla Walla. This in itself was quite the experience: Long, straight desert roads allowed me to get the kinks out of my new car (aka the new love of my life, though it’s a conflicted love, as I’m hardly a gas guzzler by nature) and push the speedometer to the right. Google Maps claimed that the drive would be seven and a half hours; I accomplished it in six and change.

Next Time: Part The Second: I Make It To Walla Walla, Washington Wine Mecca

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I am a bad blogger, part two: Brickhouse

As previously noted, I am clearly terrible at the ‘go to a wine and food event and take tons of delectable-looking pictures of wines and food and happy people, so that everyone who reads it realizes that I lead an amazing lifestyle and they should be incredibly jealous that they’re not in the wine industry’ style of blogging. For a great example of that kind of blogging, please check out my coworker Jameson’s work at Esquin’s official blog. (P.S.: This blog is in no way associated with that store. In NO way. My boss doesn’t even know about it, I don’t think, and probably wouldn’t care about it if she did. Anyway, the opinions held are mine and mine alone and don’t reflect anything on anyone else.)

However, I promised that I would at least take a stab at it, and so here’s what I’ve got: No pictures, only my rather-fuzzy account of how things were. Please remember my official disclaimer: I am a human, and an extremely flawed one at that, and my mind could have easily fooled me into thinking that I tasted/smelled/saw something that I didn’t. Buyer beware.

Part The Second: Brickhouse

We started out with a sample of Brickhouse’s 2009 Chardonnay, fresh from tank and bottled only a few days previously. It was nice- a light peachy amber in color, with muted aromas of stone tree fruit and baking spice. I thought it was a little bit closed down, but having just recently been bottled, I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. Bottle-shock is a bitch, after all. However, there was a nice bit of a mineral element to it. I’d really like the opportunity to try it again in a few months when it’s calmed down.

Next up from the Brickhouse table was their Gamay (of which I have no idea what the vintage was; by the time I got to it I had had a few other wines, and things were starting to get a little bit warm and fuzzy). Wow! This was a great experience: The fruit was vibrant, the acidity was exciting, and the length was long. This is the sort of thing that a cru Beaujolais producer would (I imagine, not actually being a cru Beaujolais producer myself) love to produce! It had great concentration for a wine made of a lighter-skinned grape, lots of character, length, and depth of flavor. I was very impressed – especially since I’m not the biggest Gamay advocate. I used to hate the grape, and it’s grown on me in the past year or so – having had the opportunity to taste some of the better examples of Gamay wines undoubtedly aided in that – but I rarely think of it as one of the more noble varieties. This, however, pushed me further in the direction of ‘Gamay fan-boy.’ Out of everything that came out that evening, this was the most food-friendly wine. The acidity present in the glass afforded it the ability to stand up to rich, fatty dishes and lean seafood-driven dishes alike, while the flavors and tannin profile were lean enough as to take a back seat to the flavors of the food. Yum.

The last wine that Brickhouse offered was their 2008(?) Boulder Block Pinot Noir. I put the question mark there because it was another unlabeled bottle that the woman (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch) pouring for the winery said had been bottled only a few days previously. I have to wonder at the wisdom of presenting a wine in such a fashion. On the one hand, it offers a feeling of exclusivity to the person trying the wines; they’re in a position to try something not yet available to the average consumer, and this is a special thing. It’s particularly common at industry tastings such as this one for something like this to take place. However, as is evident from my confusion about the vintage, it can be difficult to recall the specific details of a bottle that is unlabeled and so therefore has no visual memory to present to the recipient. Also, the wines don’t always show well – as was the case here. This wine was tight as a drum, showing plenty of structure and tannin but little by way of fruit – some high-toned red elements were about all that I could get out of it. Again, bottle-shock can ruin a tasting; just because a wine seems amazing when it’s in barrel or tank doesn’t mean that is going to necessarily be true right after it is bottled. So I don’t want to pass judgement on this wine; if I have the opportunity to try it several months from now, I’ll go ahead and develop an opinion on it then.

It just goes to show you that sometimes more can be less.

All in all, the Brickhouse wines showed the least well at this tasting. That’s not to say that they were bad wines; the opposite is the case. However, the method that they were presented in hindered their ability to shine. Also, they are not necessarily made in a style that works particularly well for chaotic events such as this one; they are (or at least, I have noticed them to be in my limited contact with them) structured, tightly-wound, and need patience and age. The Beaux Freres wines (and the Soter wines, as I’ll write about later) on the other hand are lush and soft, fruit-driven and approachable, and captivating in this kind of environment – they draw the drinker’s attention in, while the drinker has to draw the Brickhouse wines out.

Up next: Soter

I am a bad blogger, part one: Beaux Freres

Well, I told you a couple of days ago that I’d be posting tons and tons of photos from the Mistral Kitchen event that I was going to on Thursday.

Unfortunately, I decided to drink a bunch of wine and enjoy myself immensely instead.

Fortunately, I have wonderful news to report about both the quality of the wines and the quality of the food at Mistral Kitchen. Let’s start with the wines. I’m not normally much for the ‘let’s give a list of the wines with tasting notes’ format- partly because I don’t organize my thoughts that way, partly because I think that it’s a lazy way to talk about wine, and partly because I think that it implies a permanence of experience that I don’t believe exists in wine. However, there were so many good wines that I want to talk about at this event, so I feel like I need to give them each their own space. Let me just start with this disclaimer: My imperfect memory tells me that these wines smelled and tasted like this to me on that evening. Your experience will likely vary, possibly greatly.

Also, I think I’m right about vintages, but might be off. Again: I am a bad blogger. Shame on me.

Also also, I’m going to break this up into several posts, firstly in order to focus on each winery featured individually, and secondly because it makes my life more manageable.

Part The First: Beaux Freres

This isn’t the first time that I’ve written about Beaux Freres, but this time I was able to try a larger line-up of their wines all at once. I am happy to tell you that the quality of these wines is phenomenal. They show very well in a chaotic environment; they are expressive and open, while still hinting at more right outside the bounds of sensory perception.

2008 Beaux Freres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir:

Aromas of blueberries, strawberries, toasted nuts and dried sage dominated the nose of this wine. The palate was tarter than expected – think cranberries – but with a red fruited sweetness as well – think ripe strawberries. The herbal element from the nose carried through to the palate in a ‘forest floor’/’Willamette Valley herbaceousness that I never know how to describe’ kind of way. The wine was appropriately concentrated; that is to say, not watery, but not to the extent that makes me call a wine ‘Syrah-ized.’ My basic conclusion about this wine is that it’s good because it tastes like Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. That may seem like an obvious statement, but in the world of international/industrialized wines, finding something that shows a sense of the character of its variety and place is an event to appreciate and savor.
Please note that this wine is $50(ish). That is not cheap. I can understand the price point – low yields, expensive fruit, uncompromising method of production, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Should you buy it at this price point? I won’t tell you that you absolutely must. However, if you want to experience a wine, sometimes you have to go ahead and forget about the price. This might be one of those times.

2007 Beaux Freres ‘Upper Terrace’ Pinot Noir:

The Upper Terrace is Beaux Freres’ second estate vineyard. From their website (I love websites with tech specs):

This adjacent parcel is located on the crest of the next hill north of The Beaux Frères Vineyard. The ‘Upper Terrace’ vineyard consists of ten plantable acres of southeast-facing hillsides. The soils are also Willakenzie at elevations similar to those of The Beaux Frères Vineyard. Eight of the ten acres are currently planted to five of the new Dijon Pinot Noir clones (777, 667, 115, 114, 113) and the remainder to Grenache. Our first bottling of the Beaux Frères – Upper Terrace Pinot Noir was the 2002 vintage.

This was nicely concentrated for the vintage. Rich, juicy dark fruit dominated, but the Willamette herbal element shined through as well. A long, lingering finish, but with a slight bitter edge that was only minorly off-putting. I know they’re gentle with their production methods at Beaux Freres, but they seem to have gotten a bit of green tannin in this one. Still, all in all a really nice glass of wine.

2008 Beaux Freres ‘Beaux Freres Vineyard’ Pinot Noir:

Again, from their website re: the Beaux Freres Vineyard:

The Beaux Frères Vineyard is located on an 86-acre farm atop Ribbon Ridge in the Chehalem Valley near Newberg (Yamhill County, Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA). Tall and stately Douglas fir trees cover nearly 50 acres of the farm, with homestead and winery buildings occupying another 6 acres. The vineyard is situated on 30 acres (24 of which are planted) of steep, contiguous southeast, south and southwest facing hillsides of Willakenzie soils at elevations of around 400 feet.

Planting began in 1988 with Pinot Noir vines planted tightly spaced at a density of about 2200 plants to the acre. Currently (2010) the vines range in age from 11 to 22 years and are predominately a mixture of own-rooted Pommard and Wädenswil clones inter-planted with several Dijon clones on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.

Now THIS was what I was waiting for. Fruit! Spice! Elegance and power all mixed together to form one great, big, powerful statement of grace in a glass. I, frankly, loved this wine. It had the muscular elements that I look for in a solid glass of Pinot Noir: Firm tannins, medium-high acidity, lean but pervasive fruit. Their oak treatment seemed to be just right; it was present in the form of pleasant spice box and cedar without being so potent as to overwhelm the (strong but still delicate) Pinot Noir fruit. And it lingered on and on and on. This is made in a slightly hedonistic style, but not so much as to be considered Syrah-ized at all. Delicious.
At $100 (or $90 or whatever, but why mince words? Once you go over $85, your wine might as well be $100) this bottle is fricking expensive, but I don’t care. If I were a millionaire I would have two cases of it. As it is, I’m not even vaguely a millionaire, and so therefore I will have zero bottles, but will gladly drink it when it is purchased by others.

They also poured the 2009 Les Cousins Pinot Noir, but I’ve written about it here before, so I won’t waste your time by going into it again. Let it be said that I found it to be consistent with my previous notes. I still think it is an excellent value, and is the Beaux Freres wine that I will actually consider buying, as it fits into my (extremely low) budget.

As I am a terrible blogger, I have absolutely no pictures of any of these wines. I am sorry. I won’t let it happen again.

Part the first: End.
Tune in next time for: Brickhouse.

Lifetime pricing?

I totally stole this fact from Wine Peeps, but this is fascinating. Rotie Cellars is offering “Lifetime Pricing” on his wines to his club members. As he explains on the site:

Revolutionary “Lifetime Pricing” perk given to all Rotiesians who sign-up during the first year of The Club. This means as the world changes and our prices grow, your price stays the same.

He goes on to say that it’s for a limited time, sign up while you can, yadda yadda (might be a good idea; the Rotie wines are pretty killer). But the sheer chutzpah of this incentive boggles this not-so-humble blogger’s mind. I can’t decide if it’s genius, madness, or mad evil genius. On the one hand, it’s a pretty strong incentive to buy. Short-term, I could see a lot of people signing up to be dedicated customers because of this offer. That’s a lot of guaranteed wine sales – something that an up-and-coming winery like Rotie definitely needs as they try to stay afloat and expand. So if it’s successful, this is the sort of thing that could keep him in the black right now.

However, one has to wonder whether it’s penny-smart and pound-foolish. As time goes on and economic growth drives the dollar towards inflation, will this prove to be a money loser? Ten years from now, $35 undeniably won’t get you what it used to – unless you’ve got Lifetime Pricing with Rotie Cellars, in which case it will buy you exactly what it used to. Does this affect the value of his wines by unnaturally undervaluing them, even if just for these few dedicated customers? Beyond that, should they want to expand their facilities, buy new equipment, and generally spend more money on the production of their wines, will Rotie Cellars be stymied in these efforts by an inability to raise their prices accordingly?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but contemplating them certainly is interesting.

Up And Coming

Just a quick note, since I’m sitting in the tea shop with a laptop and wifi, about what’s coming up in the near future for me and, therefore, for this blog.

First of all, tonight – in just a couple of hours – I’ll be attending an event at Mistral Kitchen that features the wines of Tony Soter, Beaux Freres, and Brickhouse – three powerhouses of Willamette Valley wine (plus a little bit of Napa Valley from Mr. Soter). I’ll make sure to take plenty of terrible iPhone 3G pictures, so get ready for a blurry-but-hopefully-fun vicarious wine-and-food experience (was that enough hyphens for you?).

Second of all, my newfound mobility has inspired a trip to wine country. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be making the trek out to Walla Walla and (one assumes) enjoying myself enormously out there. Expect even more blurry, terrible iPhone pictures, as well as a half-coherant ramble on the nature of the Walla Walla wine community.

That is all. Please continue with your lives.

Parker Speaks, and The World Trembles

Hey all,

Sorry for the hiatus in posting over the last couple of weeks. Personal tragedy has inflicted itself upon my life, and I’ve been picking up the pieces. However, it’s time to begin living life normally again, and that includes regular posting on this blog.

I would be absolutely remiss to not mention the changes occurring at The Wine Advocate. Vinography has the scoop:

In an e-mail to subscribers today, Robert M. Parker, Jr. announced that he was handing over primary responsibility for reviewing California wines to his associate Antonio Galloni. Parker will continue to conduct vertical and other special tastings of California wine, but the regular critical coverage has been ceded to Galloni.

Without going into parsing this to terribly much, let me just begin by saying: Holy crap! I’m led to immediately speculate upon the possible implications of this change on the reviewing standards for the WA in CA. Considering that Cali’s bread-and-butter is French grape varieties, turning the territory over to the Italian reviewer could get interesting.

Antonio will continue to focus on the wines of Italy as well as Champagne, but two new areas of responsibility for Antonio will include the red and white Burgundies of the Côte d’Or as well as the crisp white wines of Chablis, and the wines of California. These vast regions will benefit from the increased depth of coverage, as will all the major wine regions of the world.

Taking on both Cali and Burgundy means that Galloni’s going to be carrying a much heavier load over at the Wine Advocate. Here’s hoping his palate can take the strain…