Where to Taste Washington Wines

At the grandest Washington wine tasting, there will be over 236 wineries, pouring several wines each. It’s always good to make a list – and try to follow it without getting too distracted. I like to start out with the most expensive ones since they’re the first to go.

The first one I’ll be tasting is from a winemaker who has made some amazing wines at very affordable prices. Barnard Griffin’s 2016 Centurion Cabernet Sauvignon Sagemoor and Caroway Estate Vineyard. No one should bypass one of the greatest and oldest vineyards in the state and one of Washington’s best winemakers. Only $150

Cascade Cliffs 2017 Columbia Valley Blood Red Barbera is a must, too.  Owner/winemaker Bob Lorkowski has a way with Italian grapes. The Barbera is much sought after. It even has its own wine club. Excellent job, Bob.  $75

Canvasback 2015 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, $40.  Imagine a California winery moving into Washington state because they knew great wine country when they tasted it. Canvasback is part of that venerable Napa winery, Duckhorn.

From another great wine country, Red Mountain has an Italian transplant, Col Solare, a partnership between Marchesi Antinori and Chateau Ste. Michelle. They’ve been working together since 1995. The 2015 Red Mountain Cab is $75 and the 2015 Red Mountain Component Collection Cabernet Franc is $85.

Red Mountain fruit also went into Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor Wine 2015 Old Vine Cab from Kiona Vineyard. $60

Gramercy Cellars is an 8,000-case winery founded in 2005 by Master Sommelier Greg Harrington and his wife, Pam. They are Rhône and Bordeaux style fans. Will be tasting the 2016 Walla Walla John Lewis Syrah, $85 and their Columbia Valley 2015 Reserve Cab. $95

In 1978, the first Red Mountain Cab grapes were sold to Preston Winery’s winemaker, Rob Griffin. (See Barnard Griffin Winery above). Kiona Vineyards, a longtime favorite, has their Red Mountain 2016 Estate Reserve Red Bordeaux Blend, for $55 and 2016 Cab from Heart of the Hill Vineyard on Red Mountain. $75

Another distinguished winery, Long Shadows Vintners, is actually a collection of renowned winemakers from revered wineries in Napa, Bordeaux, Germany and Australia. They’re pouring the 2015 Pirouette Red Bordeaux, 2015 Pedestal Merlot, $65 and Chester-Kidder 2015 Red Blend. $60

A transplant from one of Napa’s most famous vineyards, Pritchard Hill, Obelisco Estate is the work of Betsy and the late Doug Long. Can’t wait to try their 2014 Red Mountain Estate Cab 2014 for $50 and their 2015 Red Mountain Electrum Estate Cab. $75

Owen Roe’s David O’Reilly began in Oregon, making incredible single vineyard Pinot Noirs. In 2013, the O’Reillys and Wolffs broke ground in Union Gap for their Washington winery. The 2015 Pearl Block Cab Franc, $72 and 2016 Red Willow Chapel Block Syrah will be staining my glass. $55

A well-regarded Washington winery with ties to Napa’s André Tchelistcheff, the “Dean of American Winemaking,” is Quilceda Creek. Tchelistcheff advised his nephew when Quilceda Creek was on the drawing board. I’ll be tasting the 2016 Columbia Valley Red Blend. $70

Planting began in 1968 for the Sagemoor Vineyards in Columbia Valley. Today, Sagemoor farms five iconic vineyards with 20 varietals planted for “about 100 of the brightest winemakers in the state.” This 2014 Columbia Valley Cab is made by John Abbot from Bacchus, Dionysus, Sagemoor, and Weinbau Vineyards.  $70

One of the newest wineries on this list is The Walls Vineyards, located in Oregon but a sub-AVA of Walla Walla. Wonderful Nightmare 2016 Walla Walla Tempranillo, $38 and the 2016 Red Mountain Curiositas Cab.  $56

And the curious side of me, wants to investigate wineries that I’m not familiar with. There are over 500+ wines to taste, so next on the To Do list would be the ones that I’ve never heard of.

That would include Adrice Wines with California transplants settled in Woodinville. A Rosé of Grenache, Albariño, and Malbec. AniChe Cellars is a small family winery located in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge with a Horse Heaven Hills Dolcetto.

Array Cellars has bottlings of Chardonnay from Celilo Vineyard, Columbia Gorge and Otis Harlan Vineyard in Yakima. Avennia in Woodinville is serving up a Sauvignon Blanc, Red Rhône Blend and Columbia Valley Cab made by Chris Petersen who spent some time at DeLille Cellars learning the craft.

Bayernmoor Cellars in Stanwood, like many western Washington wineries trucks their grapes over from eastern Washington while waiting for their estate vineyards to mature.

Planted in 2008, Vino Bellissimo is a 5-acre vineyard on the Wahluke Slope AVA. Bellissimo Cellars is pouring the 2015 estate Cab and Merlot.

From Walla Walla, Bontzu Cellars has a Cab from Les Collines Vineyard, Rhône Blend, and a white from the Roussanne grape.

With estate vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, Caprio Cellars produces three estate red Bordeaux.

Cascadian Outfitters offers estate wines in a can! For the adventurous who like to imbibe during hikes, picnics, and bike rides, the Goose Ridge Vineyards offers a Red Blend, Chardonnay and Rosé in a can.

Renton’s Cedar River Cellars has a Chardonnay Cab and Malbec from grapes harvested from three established vineyards in Yakima Valley,

Winemaker and owner Jean Claude Beck grew up in the Alsace region of France. ‘nough said. Located in Zillah, his Chateau Beck naturally includes a Vin Blanc, Vin Rosé and Cab.

Spokane’s Craftsman Cellars is crafting a Wahluke slope Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and red Bordeaux.

Not all damsels are in distress! In fact, Damsel Cellars winemaker Mari Womack is in heaven making a Boushey vineyard Red Rhône Blend, Stillwater Creek Syrah, and a Columbia Valley Cab. I would be too.

Darby Winery at the Hollywood Tasting Room produces a White Rhône, Horse Heaven Hills Cab and Stillwater Creek Vineyard Syrah.

This is only a taste of what’s being poured Saturday and Sunday, Saturday & Sunday, March 30 and 31 at the CenturyLink Field Event Center in Seattle. Tickets are still available but not for long! Cheers!

 

Taste Washington Vineyards

For a truly grand wine experience, Taste Washington is the place to be. It’s four days of events that overflow with Washington’s culinary riches. There are delicious wines from over 235 Washington wineries to sample and bites from over 65 local restaurants at the Grand Tasting on Saturday and Sunday, March 30 and 31, at CenturyLink Field Event Center in Seattle.

At the Grand Tasting you can also watch today’s hottest chefs demonstrate their culinary skills on stage, get the wine story from hundreds of winemakers, and indulge in the splendor of it all.

One of my favorite tastings at the Grand Tasting is the “Taste the Vineyards” because vineyards are where it all begins. And you should know that many different wineries are often sourced from the same Washington vineyards. Think what fun and educational tasting this could be!

When you sample wines from the same vineyard, you may learn to identify vineyard profiles. You also learn how the tools and techniques different winemakers use for the same grapes from the same vineyards may be the reason the wines are so different from each other.

Unlike most vines growing in the world today, all vines in Washington are planted on their own rootstocks, since phylloxera, a root-eating aphid, is not an issue here. The combination of the Columbia Valley’s desert dryness in the summer and deep winter chill makes it more resistant to pests and molds. Having vines on their own roots helps us maintain the health and longevity of our vineyards and preserves the grape variety in its natural state with no influence from the grafted roots.

This year, some old and some new vineyards are featured: Alder Ridge Vineyards; Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Cold Creek Vineyard and Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyards; Red Mountain’s oldest, Kiona Vineyards; Coyote Canyon’s Vineyards high atop Horse Heaven Hills; Lake Chelan’s Double D; Clos Che Valle Vineyards; and two other Red Mountain vineyards, Shaw and Quintessence. Intriguing, right?

Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate is 559 windswept acres in the Horse Heaven Hill’s AVA overlooking the mighty Columbia River. Planted in 1991, it is on the south facing ridge 950 feet above sea level.

Coyote Canyon Vineyard started out as a World War II bomb test site. In 1994, after years of wheat and vegetable farming, the first 20-acre plot of Cabernet vines were planted along a southern slope. It’s now over 1,125 acres of quality wine grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, which is over 570,000 acres overlooking Canoe Ridge and the mighty Columbia River.

Those 1,125 acres grow 25 varieties of grapes that produce fruit for many award-winning wines for almost 30 wineries, including Northstar and Columbia Crest, part of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Rocky Pond Winery’s Double D and Clos Che Valle Vineyards are also on a gentle slope overlooking the Columbia River but further north in the Chelan AVA. First planted in 2013, Double D Vineyard is between 700 and 940 feet in elevation and the perfect place for 165 acres of Syrah, Cabernet, Malbec, Merlot, Grenache and Mourvedre.

The 50-acre Clos CheValle Vineyard is at 1,250 to 1,600-foot elevations along the south shore of Lake Chelan. This big body of water moderates weather extremes in summer and winter, giving the grapes a chance to develop evenly – both sugars and acids.

With the perfect combination of the lake controlling temperature extremes and the glacial till soils, the 10-year-old vines of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (a relatively unknown grape in the Pinot family usually used in blending a Champagne) are producing some fine wines. Other grapes grown are Riesling, Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Syrah.

In the wine industry, a winery name usually comes first and then “vineyards” is tacked on the end if they own them. Not so with Kiona Vineyards. On its website, it states emphatically, “We’re not Kiona Cellars. We’re not Kiona Selections. We are Kiona Vineyards. That’s an important distinction for us to make, because we grow grapes. For our own winery and for more than 60 others. Kiona Vineyards … is … the essence of our family’s forty-year tradition.”

Kiona Estate is Red Mountain’s pioneer vineyard, planted in 1975 by John Williams and Jim Holmes. Predominately Cabernet and Merlot, it also is home to Washington’s oldest and best Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Lemberger vines.

According to its website and I wholeheartedly agree, “…this vineyard and the attention it has received over the last 40 years has made Red Mountain what it is today.”

Today, the Williams family owns Kiona Vineyards. Jim Holmes went on to his own 120 acres of neighboring vineyards and is a highly sought-after vineyard consultant. Some 30 wineries get their grapes from Holmes’ Red Mountain vineyards and many more are waiting in line to buy his grapes.

Also on Red Mountain are the older Shaw Vineyard and the newer Quintessence Vineyard, where, for almost three decades, Dick Shaw’s extensive experience has produced grapes for many award-winning wines.

As a result of all that, Dick and Wendy Shaw were inducted into the 2018 Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame. The two were honored at last year’s Legends Gala at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center for their 38 years of producing spectacular and much-sought-after fruit on Red Mountain.

The Quintessence Vineyard, along the eastern ridge of Red Mountain, is a partnership between Dick Shaw and Paul Kaltinick. The vineyard is now almost 300 acres, but the pair started in 2010 with 68 acres planted to Cabernet.

You can taste these vineyards, the hundreds of other wines, the delectable bites and learn more about Washington’s fabulous wines at Taste Washington on March 29 and 30. Purchase your tickets at https://tastewashington.org/event/grand-tasting-2-day/.

But wait! There’s more! The Red & White Party that takes you “into the cellars” of Washington’s premier winemakers, Taste Washington On the Farms, the swanky Canlis Wine Dinner with rare Washington wines, The New Vintage, a backstage pass to meet and mingle with the chefs and winemakers, seminars and Sunday Brunch with Pacific Northwest flair.

It’s a lot like Christmas, indulge! Cheers!

What’s up in Walla Walla during Washington Wine Month

Welcome to March, Taste Washington Wine month. Wineries, restaurants and retailers promote the many wines Washington has to offer. It culminates at the end of the month with Taste Washington, a four-day event celebrating Washington wine and food.

The wine industry in Washington is new compared with Bordeaux, where there are thousands of chateaux producing wine from Cabernet, Merlot and the other permitted grape varieties.

In comparison, Washington has 900-plus wineries and a little more than 60,000 acres  planted to vineyards, making it No. 2 in wine production behind California with its approximately 4,500 wineries and 880,000 acres under vine.

Kicking off the Taste Washington Wine month, the Walla Walla Wine Alliance came rolling into town to promote that corner of the Washington wine industry. It was a wonderful opportunity to catch up and get acquainted with some of the newer wineries from that American Viticultural Area (AVA).

Walla Walla Valley is one of four Washington AVAs that include portions of neighboring states, most into Oregon and one into Idaho. Walla Walla has one recently recognized a sub-AVA, the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. This AVA lies entirely within the Oregon portion of Walla Walla Valley.

Most of the vineyards are in the hills that flank the Walla Walla River, a tributary of the mighty Columbia River. The climate is perfect for traditional Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec.

This is also Rhone varietal country with plantings aplenty of Syrah and Grenache with a sprinkling of Mourvedre, and whites Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Rousanne and Marsanne.

There are also vineyards planted to the Spanish grape Tempranillo and the long-lost Bordeaux variety, Carménère, which is making a meteoric comeback in Chile and Walla Walla.

One of the oldest settlements in Washington, Walla Walla was a trading post for the Idaho gold rush and French fur trappers. The French being French planted vines in the area around the 1850s.

But a freeze took out the vineyards and the railroad skirted through Spokane instead, nipping this agricultural center in the bud.

Fast forward almost 100 years and Walla Walla is now renowned for its wheat fields, onions and, yep, wines.

The second and more sustainable wine wave began with four wine pioneers, Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole and Waterbrook. The wine revival came in the late 1970s, when these pioneering vignerons embarked on planting vineyards in the valley.

From those early days, some 100-plus wineries are now producing great wines from about 3,000 acres of vineyards. The top five varieties are Cabernet at 36 percent, Syrah at 18 percent, Merlot at 16 percent, Cab Franc at 7 percent and Malbec at 4 percent.

While standing in line waiting for a pour at one of the newest wineries, The Walls, I slid left to Tertulia Cellars for a sip. And oh my!

Time is the best way to describe Tertulia’s winemaking philosophy. Winemaker Ryan Raber poured the 2015 Carménère; 2015 GSM, dubbed Great SchisM; Ryans’ Reserve; and 2013 Phinny Hill Vineyard Horse Heaven Hills Cab.

I learned some interesting things from Raber. For instance, the GSM stands for “Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre” and is called Great SchisM. This wine comes from The Rocks AVA. The estate vineyard is called Riviere Galets, which is French for river of rocks. And quite literally, the ground is covered with rocks, much like southern Rhone.

Another unusual process was aging in large neutral French oak barrels called fudre for 16 months. These larger barrels were used to lessen the impact of the slow oxidation in the traditional barrels. Since the wines spend less time in oak, more of the fruit character is preserved.

The Ryans’ Reserve, a blend of the traditional Bordeaux grapes, is named for Winemaker Ryan Raber and Vineyard Manager Ryan Driver. The grapes are from their Elevation Vineyard, terraced at 1,500 to 1,700 feet.

The Elevation Vineyard is quite unique. With soils composed of silt and basalt, this vineyard was not planted but rather drilled. Yep, they used jackhammers to drill the holes to plant the grape vines. The resulting harvests are small but the fruit is concentrated.

A blend of 83 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with a little Merlot and Petit Verdot, Ryans’ Reserve is also unique in the way it is racked. After 22 months in oak, this wine was racked using the old-world technique of “soutirage,” a process of racking the wine without a pump from barrel to barrel before bottling.

These old-world traditional techniques are pretty rare anymore, with only a few wineries or even Chateaux using this technique, which softens the tannins.

One great Bordeaux chateau that continues with this process is Cheval Blanc. And Rader and I had a chuckle remembering good old Miles from the movie “Sideways.” You remember the guy that drank the spit bucket? Very gauche.

But that was not half as wicked as his next conflagration – drinking his most prized bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc from a styrofoam cup, alone.

We all know the best way to enjoy Cheval Blanc, Tertulia or any wine is together with family and friends and in a wine glass. Cheers!

Swoon-worthy Sweetness in your Glass

While watching all that snow piling up, I was reminded of a year when something like this happened and resulted in a wine made from frozen grapes — an ice wine. Perfect timing is needed to produce this rare and exquisite wine.

Centuries ago, before refrigeration, the first frozen liquid beverage may well have been eisbock. It was not so much invented as one of those mistakes that resulted in happily ever after in your stein.

It happened sometime in the 18th century in a brewery in Kulmbach, Germany. Workers accidentally left a few kegs of bock bier out on a cold winter’s night. In the morning, some brave soul (but not as brave as the guy who tasted the first oyster) decided to taste it before feeding it to the livestock. The unfrozen portion of the beer was pretty potent, profoundly delicious and decidedly sweet in its maltiness. Eisbock was born.

Eisbock is a really strong dark beer, strong in both malt and alcohol. Today making an Eisbock is basically the same but using modern equipment such as freezers to freeze the water and separate a portion of it, thus concentrating the alcohol and malt sugars.

Because water has a higher freezing point than alcohol, when the water freezes, it’s easy to remove. When the ice is removed, the remaining beer is stronger in flavor and alcohol.

One of my favorites is the elegant Aventinus Eisbock, which is dark-colored with aromas of baking spices, plums and almonds. They use open fermentation and a fractional freezing process to produce this concentrated beer with 12 percent alcohol. For you home-brewing types, the original gravity was 25.5 percent.

As you may suspect, making a tasty beverage even more rich and concentrated can be done by freezing the juice, wort or fruit. But back then, a hard freeze could only happen in a northern hemisphere country. Definitely Germany, Austria and northern Italy. In the new world, Ontario and the Okanagan in Canada excel with Washington, New York and Idaho producing when Mother Nature cooperates.

In Germany, Eiswein is an elixir that happens in this most northerly wine-producing country with some frequency. When this wine region suffered a particularly harsh winter, somebody tasted the frozen grapes and decided it was too good for the livestock. Records in the late 1700s and early 1800s talk about leaving grapes on the vine and discovering how sweet they were when frozen.

Still, it was rare for conditions to be just right to make an Eiswein until 1961 when weather conditions were ripe and a number of Eisweins were produced. That was the watershed vintage and being Germany, production became more systematic and rules were applied. Conditions had to be 19 degrees Fahrenheit or colder — no chaptalizing (adding sugar) or cryogenics.

Production was also assisted by technology. Portable generators lit up the vineyards in the early-morning hours so pickers could harvest the grapes before the sun rose and thawed the grapes. When the grapes did thaw, rot would set in.

Pressing was done with a bladder press, which is a gentler way of pressing grapes than the screw press. This allowed the concentrated juice to flow, leaving the ice crystals behind. The higher sugar levels in the frozen grapes also make the fermentation process slower than usual.

During the time spent waiting for the ripe grapes to freeze, your winemaker’s fingers are crossed, hoping you don’t lose the harvest to hungry wildlife. The solution to that problem was nets covering the vineyards to keep hungry birds from flying away with the harvest.

From 1961 through the 1990s, production ramped up. But in the early 2000s, Eiswein vintages became more infrequent. Many think climate change may have something to do with it.

An early and unexpected frost produced Canada’s first known icewine in the Okanagan Valley. It was made by a German immigrant, Walter Hainle in 1972. On the other side of the country, Inniskillin Winery produced its first icewine in 1984 under the direction of Austrian-born Karl Kaiser. Inniskillin’s first ice wine was made from Vidal grapes, a white hybrid grape that is very winter-hardy and produces high sugar levels in cold climates with balancing acidity.

After Inniskillin won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo (held in Bordeaux for over a thousand wine professionals around the world) for its 1989 Vidal Icewine, Canada was well on its way to become the largest producer of Icewine in the world. Other traditional vinifera grapes being used today are Riesling, Gewurztraminer and even Cab Franc.

There are a few producers that freeze their grapes cryogenically, but laws prevent them from using the term “ice wine.” Years ago, Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyards, having too many grapes to deal with during harvest, stashed his Riesling in the freezer to be dealt with later. The result was the same as if Mother Nature had been involved but ice wine was not allowed on the label. He got around that by labeling it “Vin de Glaciere.”

This past fall, with three apple trees laden with fruit, my friend, Josh, talked me into making cider. With advice from my wine and beer guru from Vermont, I learned that freezing the apples before putting them in the turn press broke down the molecules in the fruit and produced the sweetest, purest and very cold juice.

Ice cider was originally created in Quebec in 1989, made possible by the frigid cold temperatures and inspired by German Eisweins. Friends from Vermont introduced me to the Quebecois Ice Ciders made in a similar fashion as their Icewines. And like their Icewines, they’re concentrated goodness of fruit sugars, however, ice cider requires almost five times as many apples as regular cider.

Today, there are over 75 producers of ice ciders. A few producers to try would be Neige, Union Libre and Domaine des Salamandres. Serve these Eisweins and Ice Ciders with apple cake, pour concentrated sweetness into small dessert wine glasses for an out-of-this-world pairing.

What goes into a Judges’ Rating?

How do you rate?

Recently, a reader wrote to me about judges and wine ratings and who to trust when looking up new wines. And also what websites, books and magazines could give the most accurate information? One friend “whips out his iPhone and uses an app that gives him “instant” ratings as he scans wine labels in the store. I couldn’t agree with most of those ratings that I saw.”

Experienced wine and beer writers, sommeliers, cicerones and judges have elaborate descriptions and usually use the 100-point system. As a former wine shop owner, I can tell you that higher ratings do sell better than one that is not rated.

Higher ratings also naturally make a difference in the awareness of the product and probably the enjoyment. It really shouldn’t, but it does. Can you trust that a 90-plus point wine is as good when you taste it blind not knowing its score? It all comes back to tasting experience, reading and knowing what you like.

As a lauded wine expert, I have blind-tasted a bunch over the years. It’s a wonderful opportunity to taste something and decide whether I like it or not. When that decision is finally made, the pedigree of the bottle is revealed along with the price. Sometimes I agree with the rating, sometimes I’m certain we’re not talking about the same wine.

Recently, I was asked to play the guess-what-this-grape-is game. I’m good deciding if I like a beer or wine, but not so good at this. Recalling the last 10 minutes of dinner conversation regarding Rhone-style wines recently purchased, I guessed a Rhone-style blend. Nope, it was a Sangiovese from a Washington winery that I greatly admire and has garnered many 90-plus point wines.

The moral of this story — will you still trust me in the morning, or will you search for beverages highly rated by other experts? And if so, how do you know the other expert is any better at this guessing game than I am? Does a rating or description factor into your bottle-buying habits or does some other influence work for you? All puzzling questions for an industry that gives objective ratings on a subjective subject.

With the internet, there has been a rise in amateur critics to choose from — Yelp, Ratebeer or Vavino to name a few. These and other sites allow those with the time and elucidation to opine (witticism intended) about their favorite — or not so favorite — products. Many of these ratings are from people that have a modicum of tastings under their belt.

Professionals have a broad experience, tasting hundreds, even thousands of product in a day or a month. With that broad experience, you have a better understanding of what to expect from a producer, style or region. They can deduce a lot about a product just from reading the label.

I remember the day I blind tasted over 80 red wines in one day. I was judging for the Puyallup Fair’s amateur wine competition. My job was to taste, score and award the best wines. Seventeen other judges and I sat at tables of three and scored each wine brought to us on the traditional 20-point system, which quantifies aroma, color, palate and overall impression. I was assigned the red wine table. Even after spitting out every wine I tasted, by lunch my tongue was black, my teeth purple and I wanted a cold beer with my sandwich.

After lunch, it was back to the judging. I was not looking forward to this, but low and behold, the best wine of the day was presented to our table that afternoon. It was a beautifully balanced blend of blackberry and merlot. I can still remember the taste.

That experience and many others like it have shaped how I choose a bottle of wine or beer. I do utilize some of the ratings and I confess that a 90-plus wine or beer does have a certain appeal. But who does the actual description or rating is of great importance. Because of years of experience, I’ve come to know some of the critics’ palates and how they align with my likes and dislikes.

That’s one of the keys to choosing a bottle of beer or wine. A trusted producer or critic or favorite grape or region influences my decision in addition to the many tastings over the many years. So trust me when I say that a 90-plus rating, pretty label or flowery description should not be the singular reason to buy that bottle.

The 100-point rating system began in the early 1980s, when Robert Parker, a lawyer turned wine critic, developed a scale that has dominated the rating system. His 100-point scale is 96–100 – Extraordinary; 90–95 – Outstanding; 80–89 – Above average to very good; 70–79 – Average; 60–69 – Below average; 50–59 – Unacceptable.

Ratings are a subjective score given to a particular batch of wine or beer or cider. Ratings could be assigned by a critic or team of critics and would be based on quality as determined by each individual critic.

During the scoring process, wines, beers and other libations are tasted blind; tasters have no knowledge of label, price or lack of pedigree other than it may be a Cabernet, an IPA or a cider. Their tastings are performed blind, although reviewers may know style, variety or region but never the producer or price.

Imagine a group of tasters reviewing more than 15,000 wines each year in blind tastings before publishing anywhere between 700 to 1,800 reviews a year. Using the 100-point rating system, this international magazine has built a following over the years. There is a big difference in this rating system: it’s a group of tasters that changes every so often. A collective palate rather than one individual palate is harder to gauge.

So the key to deciphering a wine rating is finding a critic you can trust. Keep in mind, the best way to find a wine critic you trust, is to try a few different wines and see which critic you agree with the most. Until you find a critic that you trust, take all wine ratings with a grain of salt, continue to read and choose bottles you think are good. Blind taste them and take notes!

Blind tastings are educational, for novice and critic alike. Never stop reading — books, magazines and newspapers, and websites contribute to the knowledge about the who, what, why and where of that tasty beverage in your glass. Cheers!

Aged Beers and Craft Breweries

With all the holiday and birthday celebrations, a veritable cascade of craft beers flowed into my glass: Some aged, some hopped, many rich, many malty and all made by craft brewers.

Craft brewers are small, innovative brewers. Small is defined as an annual production of 6 million barrels or less. Craft beer is usually made with the traditional ingredients of malted barley, yeast and hops for a variety of different styles, but employing interesting techniques and innovative ingredients creates even more styles to choose from. Think bourbon barrel aging or adding maple syrup or raisins.

In 2017, there were a record number of craft breweries in the United States – over 6,000. As of July of this year, there were 6,655 United States breweries, the most in history. This surpasses 1873 — yes, 1873 — when there were 4,176 breweries in the 37 United States.

European craft breweries are still ahead with over 8,500. Statistics show 6,071 craft breweries in seven leading countries in Europe in 2017. The United Kingdom has the largest number with over 2,000, followed by Germany with 1,295.

As a result, most of us live within 10 miles of a craft brewer or two or six. And if each craft brewer made six beers, well, you get the picture. There are many beers in this world. Each made with a different combination of malted grains, hops and yeast.

There are hundreds of yeast varieties. In 1841, yeast was identified as the prime engineer of fermentation. Since then, yeast strains have been cultivated and redesigned for their unique aromas and flavors.

In the beginning, styles of beer were driven by climate. For instance, colder regions used yeast that could ferment at colder temperatures. Today, craft breweries use clean cultures of yeast for better control of fermentation. Wild yeast is everywhere and can cause off-aromas and flavors. However, there are some breweries that use wild yeasts with great success, predominantly in the Lambic beers of Belgium.

In the beginning, there were the noble hop varieties of East Kent Goldings, Fuggle, Hallertauer, Saaz and Tettnang. Now, some of the trendiest hop varieties are, like cultured yeasts, cultivated for unique aromas and flavors.

Hops are used in four ways: bittering, aroma, fresh and dual. Bittering hops, most likely in IPAs, tend to have a high amount of acid and the accompanying bitter flavor. Aroma hops have less acid and more complex aromas. Most brewers use both at different stages of the fermentation process.

Fresh hop means the beer was made from hops that were harvested less than 24 hours before the beer was brewed. Naturally, these beers are brewed during harvest season. Dual hops have high levels of alpha acids (bitterness) and ample aromas.

Hops are the spice of craft beers. Some are tropical, others piney, some earthy, some floral and some hops have more alpha acids, which contributes to bitterness.

Traditional hops originated in Germany and England. Others were bred in the last century, such as Centennial bred for its aroma, Nugget, a resiny bittering hop, and the popular American-bred Willamette.

These days, designer hops have become fashionable — like Mosaic, Citra and Simcoe. And new hop varieties are continuing to be bred resulting in brews that may taste and smell of tropical, lemon, blueberry, tangerine and grapefruit. Others have pronounced piney, spicy, rosy, herbal or even a bubble gum character.

At a recent beer geek birthday party, eight of us tasted a bunch of beers. Most of those beers came from cellars and the resultant tasting was mind-boggling. Many of these beers come in small bottles of 8 or 10 ounces. Here’s what we tasted:

Although not aged in a cellar, Rogue’s 8 hop (8.88%) and 10 hop (10.10%) IPAs are richly brewed from hops grown on Rogue Farm. In the 10 Hop, Liberty, Independence, Revolution, Keven, Adair, Rebel, Newport, Yaquina, Freedom and Alluvial hops were used.

Belgian beers are favored by this group of craft beer fans. Sound Brewery Tripel Entendre (9.9%) and Entendez Noel, a Belgian Style Pale Quadrupel (11.8%), were pulled from the cellar.

Brouwerij Lindemans Cuvee Renee was a beautiful Oude Kriek Lambic ale made with cherries and wild yeast that was lost in someone’s cellar for a few years. Another masterpiece was Liefmans Cuvee Brut, an aged ale made with cherries and cherry juice, barley malt, sugar and wild yeast.

Dogfish Head Raison D’Extra, pushing the Belgian yeast to 15%, is brewed with “an obscene” amount of malt and raisins. 

And the hilariously-labeled-but-totally-delicious He’Brew the Chosen Beer Jewbelation, a Sazerac Rye Whiskey barrel-aged ale, is a Hanukah brew similar to a Christmas or Winter beer style.

Another wonderful winter beer was a 2015 Silver City Bourbon Barrel Old Scrooge (9.6%), and the Austrian Samichlaus Helles, a malt liquor of 14%.

Sam Adams 1995 Triple Bock — brewed with malted barley, noble hops and maple syrup — was aged in whiskey barrels. A first, back in 1995.

The Orkney Brewery’s Skull Splitter, named after Thorfinn Einarsson the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney, comes in a 330 ml bottle, which is a good thing for this rich, sweet dessert beer with an ABV 8.5%.

Not only was this a wonderful celebration of a couple of holiday birthdays, but watching the Seahawks clinch a berth in the playoffs made for hearty cheers!

Another Gift Idea for the Wine Lover

Taste Washington
March 28-31, 2019 

Taste Washington is a Washington wine celebration! It’s a food and wine lovers’ wonderland! And tickets are on sale making this a fabulous stocking stuffer.

With more than 235 wineries, 65 restaurants and some of the nation’s most-talented chefs, this is the ultimate tasting. Get ready to drink and eat to your heart’s content.

Thursday, March 28
For one night only, this exclusive experience takes you ‘into the cellars’ of Washington’s premier winemakers to taste the best of the best. This is the only event at Taste Washington where you will you find Washington winemakers’ most-coveted bottles.

Friday, March 29
Home to everything from shellfish farms to fruit orchards, it’s no surprise Seattle has one of the most unique and exceptional farm-to-table dining scenes in the country. Taste Washington On the Farm invites you to come around the table with farmers, winemakers and chefs to celebrate the hands and land behind Washington’s food and wine. You’ll have the chance to get outside and tour a local farm, then enjoy a sensational lunch paired with some of the best Washington wines alongside the chefs and winemakers who craft them.

Saturday & Sunday, March 30-31
CenturyLink Field Event Center
A truly ‘grand’ experience, this two-day event is overflowing with Washington’s culinary riches. With delicious samples from over 235 Washington wineries and bites from over 65 local restaurants, there a lot of good things to taste here.
Whether you’re a seasoned wine and food connoisseur or simply a fan of eating and drinking great things, there’s something to satisfy every taste bud at this event. Thank goodness there’s two days to discover many good wines and foods.
Wishing you a very Happy Holiday!

Wine Gift Ideas – What I Want for Christmas

A long time ago, I complimented a friend on how good she was at her career. And she said something that has stuck with me ever since. “Everyone is good at what they love to do. You’re good with wine, I’m good with kids.” 

It’s true I don’t find wine daunting and absolutely enjoy helping friends, family and readers choose the best wine for the occasion.

Sometimes vintage matters, sometimes price. Thinking about the sheer volume of wine produced worldwide, there are still many, many wines to try that could be a contender for your favorite wine.

For the many holiday occasions in the weeks to come, here are few of my favorite go-to wines, good for gracing a dinner table or gift giving.

Many great wines come from venerable vineyards such as To Kolan or Clos Mouches. With the great pedigree comes a three figure price tag. While looking for affordable wines, look for blends, sometimes of grapes, sometimes of vineyards, and sometimes both.

Many of my choices are venerated producers, ones that have been producing for decades, ones that I trust year in and year out because they have had their vineyards forever, most are very affordable but upper end wines are also available from these producers. You’ll be pleased with the quality/price ratio.

Beringer Vineyards has been producing wine since 1876. With 1,600 acres of vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles, you can be assured this award winning winery has what you’re looking for.

Known for the many firsts in California winemaking such as gravity fed facilities, hand dug cellars and the first to give public winery tours. They have several tiers at several price points, red, rosé or white. This is a two thumbs up for gift giving or the holiday dinner.

Bogle Vineyards is another California winery in the Clarksburg region. They began farming in the mid-1800’s and ventured into grapes in 1968. With more than 1,200 acres of grapes, the Bogle family can offer you rich, luscious reds for any occasion.

Look for the Phantom Red, a blend of mostly Petite Sirah and Zinfandel with a dollop of Merlot and Cab. Their perennial award winning Petite Sirah is so intense and concentrated. And it’s no wonder, as this was the first red grape founder Warren Bogle planted in 1968.

The Old Vine Zinfandel is from 75-year-old, gnarly head-trained, dry farmed vines that produce small, concentrated clusters of fruit, resulting in deep, glass-staining, concentrated wines.

J. Lohr Estates is another California winery that I can highly recommend both their reds and whites. A huge grape growing operation in the Central Coast, they have more than 3,600 acres in Monterey and Paso Robles. The Seven Oaks Cab is sourced from Paso Robles and is a crowd pleasing, attractively priced wine.

The 2017 Riverstone Chardonnay is a fabulously balanced Chardonnay for professed oak lovers and understate-the-oak lovers like me. It was the favorite Chardonnay in our blind wine tasting and around $15.

The J Lohr Wildflower is an unusual but delightful wine to give to any wine lover. It’s made from a red grape called Valdiguié from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. Whatever choice you make, know that J Lohr wines deliver much quality no matter the price.

The Hess Collection is another well-established California winery that over delivers quality for the price. High on top of Mount Veeder, Donald Hess first acquired 900 acres in 1982. What is incredibly impressive, he set aside over 600 acres as undeveloped land to support wildlife corridors, fish friendly farming practices and biodiversity. Wow. The Hess Collection and Select Reds are blends that are rich, balanced and awesome.

Rodney Strong Vineyards was my first Chardonnay love. A former Broadway dancer, Strong moved to California and took up winemaking. His Sonoma County winery was founded in 1959 and transitioned from a jug wine source to vineyard designated wines. I’ll always remember the Chalk Hill Chardonnay 1979 while camping at Scenic Beach State Park. It was perfect with a grilled steak and corn on the cob.

Casa Santos Lima is a family owned company dedicated to the production, bottling and selling of Portuguese wines. Almost 1,000 acres of vineyards, produce award winning Portuguese wines. A wine to buy by the case, would be their recent release of Colossal, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Syrah, Tinta Roriz and Alicante Bouschet. It’s big, rich and could age beautifully for a few years. Best part – it’s around $10.

Other wines to consider: For Malbec lovers, Alamos from Mendoza is so good with black raspberry, toasty oak and a smooth finish. All for under $10. For pasta night, Badia y Coltibuono Cetamura Chianti. This bright wild cherry and herb flavors is the perfect match for lasagna or spaghetti with meatballs.

Spanish wines should also be on your list. Along with South American wines, they’re very affordable, best buys even. I’m always on the lookout for Jorge Ordonez or Eric Solomon imports. Both have outstanding reputations for sniffing out small, many times decades old vineyards that produced intense, affordable wines.

Evodia Garnacha is one such wine, a custom cuvee made for importer Eric Solomon of European Cellars. This immensely juicy, dark-fruited red comes from ancient vines on a high plateau in Spain’s Calatayud region. Under $15.

Bodegas Borsao Tres Picos has long been a favorite of mine. Imported by Jorge Ordonez, ($16) it’s filled to the brim with black cherries and spice from old vines in Spain’s Campo de Borja region. Bodegas Borsao is from a cooperative formed in the mid-1900’s with 375 different wine growers!

All wine is at its best when shared. Share what you love with those you love. Always remember, it’s the thought that really counts. Happy Holidays!

Holiday Tours and Tastings

Just in time for the holiday season, here’s a guide to few nearby travel adventures. Trekking to special places is a marvelous way to celebrate the holiday season with family and friends and accomplish a little holiday shopping, too.

One particularly distinctive place to visit is the newest Puget Sound AVA winery, Sailor Vineyards, just outside of Port Townsend. The winery is distinctive for three reasons: the owners’ nautical background, 3 acres of vineyards in the scenic hills above Port Townsend and the grape variety planted — Marechal Foch.

After years of sailing the seven seas, Kit and Claire Africa cruised into Port Townsend and traded in their sails for shovels and hammers. Their background as researchers came in handy for this new tack in life.

in 2009, they began the arduous task of planting their vineyard. And because of their scientific data-gathering background, each row is numbered and each vine in the rows is also numbered.

And what they found was Row 18, vine 2, “nicknamed Bellwether,” is uncanny in its ability to predict days to harvest. When 18-2 grapes hit veraison, it’s exactly 55 days to harvest. And then there is Row 13, vine 13. Out of 2 acres planted in 2009, here is a vine that has yet to ripen. Coincidence?

Marechal Foch (Mar-a-shal Fosh) is a French hybrid that’s an early ripener, resistent of disease and cold hardy. Foch is an unusual red grape because even the pulp is red. It’s versatile, produced in styles from a fruit-forward, similar to Beaujolais, to a more extracted wine with glass-staining properties.

The hardworking owners are minimalists when it comes to enology, the science of winemaking. No fining, filtering or added sulfites. The newest vintage named Dogwatch Red, is a nautical term used for the short watch period, generally used to rotate the system of six-hour watches.

The small production makes this wine a very special, very local gift to give for the holidays. Sailor Vineyards doesn’t have official open hours so catch up with it either their website or on Facebook.  

The next stop is Finn River Farm and Cidery in nearby Chimacum — an award-winning sustainable business that farms and ferments from its orchards and other orchards in Washington.

Finnriver is on a former dairy farm just south of the Chimacum crossroads. This working farm is a great place for all ages to connect with nature strolling the orchards, observing the working geese and lambs who assist in managing grass and weeds and, of course, tasting some really delicious ciders.

Finnriver offers “unique interpretations” of traditional and innovative ciders. There are more than 50 varieties of apples used that range from desserts and russets to the more traditional bittersharps. Old European and early America varieties with names like Wolf River, Tom Putt and Cox Orange Pippin are fermented together.

Here you can enjoy at least over 25 bottlings in traditional, craft, botanical and the orchard series. Some ciders are blended with other fruits, some use wine yeast and some use beer yeast. And for designated drivers and those underage, try the root beer and non-alcoholic cider.

Finnriver is open daily from noon ‘til nine. Wander the orchard, learn about the apples and enjoy a taste in the Garden Pavilion. Finnriver hosts food vendors mainly on weekends, with wood-fired pizzas, Hamma Hamma oysters and bratwurst. So, bundle up, pack up the kids and go!

Bainbridge Island’s Good Egg Bakery & Cafe expertly organizes unique events, pop-up dinners and private parties. Good Egg was opened by Alice Hunting and Lena Davidson a year ago, and they cook up both simple and fancy affairs for breakfast, lunch and special occasions.

One recent special occasion was a pop-up event for the worldwide Beaujolais Nouveau release. Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine of the vintage and is always released the third Thursday of November. It’s a festive start to the holiday season.

I love tasting this wine to get a glimpse of what France’s newest vintage has produced before it’s released two or three years from now. 2018 harvest looks to be very good.

Good Egg tapped a cask of this and served up some delectable dishes. On the menu: Salmon Mousse Tartine, Roasted Half Chicken with Carrots and Lentils, Polenta in Delicata Rings with Beet Relish and crispy Kale, and Cabbage Rolls with Merguez and Rice. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, a nice place to be.

If you’re interested in these wine related pop-up events, join the restaurant’s mailing list or check out the events calendar at www.goodeggbi.com.

Hunting’s enthusiasm for wine began while working for a full service wine cellar in Seattle. After she and Davis opened Good Egg on Bainbridge Island, they collaborated with Harbor Square Wine Shop and Tasting Room for these wine related pop-up events.

Soon celebrating 12 years, Harbor Square Wine Shop and Tasting Room is a great place to pick up a few bottles for gifts and for those special dinners. They have one of the biggest collections of large format wines in Washington State including magnums, Jeroboams, Methuselahs and other larger formats named for Persian kings.

Located on Winslow Way East, there are over 1,000 wines from all around the world with particular emphasis on wines from the Northwest, France, and Italy.  Wines include selections for everyday, special occasions and your cellar.

The Wine Bar is also a wonderful place to hang out. Wines by the glass are poured from a twelve tap system that keeps the wine under a nitrogen blanket to prevent oxidation or vinegar bugs taking over. This system allows the Wine Bar to feature boutique wineries with higher quality than is usual for selections of wine by the glass.

Did you know Seabeck has a winery? Yes, in scenic Seabeck a family-run winery is making wine from grapes harvested from the Red Mountain AVA. While Seabeck Cellars is not yet open to the public, you can find their wines at Seabeck Landing General Store and Lone Rock Mercantile both on the Seabeck Highway.

Holiday in the ‘Hood 2018 takes place on Dec. 16. Party with Grape Killers Guardian Cellars, Baer Winery, Stevens Winery, Mark Ryan’s Board Track Racer and Sparkman Cellars in the Woodinville Warehouse District wineries and tasting rooms. They’ll be serving up killer wines, tasty snacks and “the crazy antics you could only expect at a Grape Killers event.” Tickets can be had from https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3907731.

Cheers and happy holidays!

Thanksgiving Dinner Wines

The key ingredient of any feast is the wine. When it comes to Thanksgiving’s contrasting fare, I prefer the shotgun approach. With so many different flavors on one plate, selecting wines to partner up with all those flavors is made stress-free by following this methodology.

With various enjoyable wines and several glasses lined up, allows you to try the wines side by side with each mouthful of the roasted turkey with sausage and onion dressing, tart cranberries, earthy Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes and even green beans drowning in cream of mushroom soup topped with crunchy onions.

Sparkling wine is the classic for all holiday celebrations. They’re impressive because they’re celebratory and, as an added bonus, they pair well to most any dish. The crisp effervescence is perfect with fried, hearty or rich dishes and the usual assorted appetizers from cheese and crackers to crab claws with lemon and butter or seafood sauce.

For the budget minded, a Spanish Cava such as Cristalino Ro or Domaine Ste Michelle brut or Ro would be perfect. Washington’s Treveri Cellars produces some of the state’s best sparklers. I highly recommend their Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir and sells for around $20. It’s the perfect hostess gift, too.

Some say stuffing, others do dressing. Call it what you will, it isn’t Thanksgiving without it. It can be cornbread or dry bread, stuffed with sage and sausage or dressed with oysters or mushrooms. Whatever recipe you favor, match the strongest flavor to your favorite wine.

For instance, the weight and flavors of a new world Chardonnay would be perfect with a cornbread dressing. From Monterey, J. Lohr Riverstone Arroyo Seco Chardonnay has exquisite balance and lush tropical and stone fruits. Out of Walla Walla, Gard Vintners Freyja, a blend of two thirds Viognier and a third Roussanne, would also pair beautifully.

For oyster stuffing, go with a Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc is bright with acidity and citrus flavors. It also has an herbaceous quality making it a perfect partner with vegetables like Brussel sprouts or green beans.

The Columbia Winery Stratos White is an unusual but beautiful blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Crisp, citrusy with a floral nose, this is a foodie wine. Another perfect partner is the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Greg Norman. Bright with acidity and liberal with citrus and tropical fruit flavors. Chateau Pajzos hails from Hungary and is a delicious dry white made from the Tokaji’s Furmint grape similar to Sauvignon Blanc but milder in flavor.

Sage and sausage work well with most any smooth medium bodied red. From Boushey Vineyards, Syncline’s Carignane Grenache is medium bodied, earthy red with hints of mushrooms. Two Vintners Columbia Valley Syrah is a winner, too. Jammy with raspberries and a little bit of dirt to balance all that fruit.

From Tuscany, Neil Empson’s Monte Antico is sure to please many. This IGT is predominantly Sangiovese with a bit of Cabernet and a dollop of Merlot.

Whether it’s deep fried, roasted, grilled or smoked, turkey with wine is a no-brainer. Most every wine will shine with turkey. The elegant Pinot Noir works well with turkey, especially if there is a mushroom gravy and stuffing involved.

My absolute favorite Pinot Noirs – this year – are Rain Dance Vineyards, Stoller Family Estates and Knudsen Vineyards, all from Oregon’s Dundee Hills and Chehalem Mountains AVAs. The 2015 Rain Dance Vineyards Pinot Noir is heavenly with its rich aromatics and well balanced red fruit and mineral flavors.

Stoller Family Estates Pinot Noir went through whole berry fermentation which brings out the bright red fruits of the grape and produces silky tannins. Knudsen Vineyards has a long and storied history in Oregon. The vineyards are planted to several clones of Pinot Noir that mature into elegant, rich wines.

An unoaked Chardonnay, a dry Alsatian Pinot Blanc or Gewürztraminer would be in the lineup too. One of my most memorable finds this year was the Chehalem Three Vineyard Pinot Gris. The amazing Pinot Gris Reserve is a rich, round Alsatian style that is barrel fermented in neutral oak. It is luscious.

Cranberry is probably the tangiest flavor and toughest to match. But with a Beaujolais Nouveau, the tart sweet flavors of cranberries works with this wine that is so full of fruit itself. Beaujolais Nouveau also plays well with turkey and stuffing. Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine of the vintage and is always released the third Thursday of November – just in time for Thanksgiving.

Another wine that is similar to a Beaujolais, comes from Sailor Cellars in Port Townsend. Their estate vineyards are planted to Marechal Foch, a hybrid grape that is a cross of a cross. Unusual for its red flesh, this wine has the stuffing to grace your Thanksgiving table.

Sweet potatoes have another flavor realm altogether. They require a little more thought depending on if it’s the sweet or savory version. If you’re still doing the broiled marshmallow topping, go with an Oloroso sherry; it’s sweetness will match the sweetness of the dish.

Otherwise, Viognier or a dry Gewürztraminer will make your mouth smile with the savory styles of the sweet potatoes. One memorable sweet potato dish was baked with dried apricots. It was great with a Monchof Riesling Kabinet.

When it’s time for dessert, remember wines need to be sweeter than the pie. In my family, there were two kinds of pie my father would bake. ‘Tis Mince (mincemeat) and tainince (everything else). “TM” would be pricked into the top of every pie crust to avoid confusion.

Late harvest Riesling or an ice cider shines with apple pie with good reason. Tawny port with its nutty, caramel flavors would be my choice with pumpkin or pecan pie. Mincemeat pies are intensely flavored with candied orange and lemon peels, raisins, apples and a myriad of spices. With ‘tis mince, an Oloroso or even a Pedro Ximénez would be the perfect match.

Hoping your holidays are the best ever. Cheers!