Cheers To You An exploration of all things wine with local wine expert Mary Earl.

Category Archives: Wine lessons

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!

Wine, Winemaking and When to Age

Fermentation is the process of turning grape or other fruits into a very pleasant alcoholic beverage. During fermentation, the little yeastie beasties dine on the fruit sugars and belch out ethanol and carbon dioxide. Temperature, oxygen and length of fermentation are the important factors in finished wines as well as the type of fermentation vessels used.

Various fermentations contribute varied flavors and components to the finished wine. The type of vessel used also puts its own unique stamp on a wine. Stainless steel tanks, common for whites, emphasize fruitiness; wooden barrels are porous, concentrate a wine and pick up flavors from the wood; and secondary fermentation in the bottle is essential for those tiny bubbles.

And then there are vessels made of concrete. Unknown to me until the early ’80s, concrete fermentation tanks have been around for a couple of centuries. While touring the original historic Chateau Ste. Michelle facility at Grandview, I was awestruck by the large square concrete vats sunk into the ground that were used in the early days of Chateau Ste Michelle. The railings surrounding them provided winemakers some measure of safety while punching down the caps.

Another historic winery in the heart of the Napa Valley, Louis Martini, also fermented its award-winning red in concrete vats well into the 1990s. I always found the reds — especially the Cabernets from Monte Rosso — to be more old-world in style, more balanced, more rounded and with less alcohol than Martini’s Napa neighbors. Perhaps because of the concrete vats?

Concrete, in an improved shape, is making a comeback in the wine industry. Concrete in the shape of an egg has an inside surface with tiny pockets of air that refill each time the tank is emptied. These smidgens of oxygen enhance aromatics, tame tannins and increase mouthfeel. Unlike oak, it’s neutral, easy to maintain and more affordable.

While touring and tasting at Force Majuere in Woodinville, I first glimpsed the egg-shaped contraption, brought north by former California winemaker Todd Alexander. There is a considerable difference in the wines that spend time in concrete.

Some winemakers believe the thick concrete walls guard against abrupt temperature swings, keeping the fermenting wines naturally cool — a distinct advantage for some warmer climes of the world.

Cool and constant temperatures are always beneficial for wine. Take the 75 bottles of Veuve Cliquot Champagne, for example, still sparkling and youthful after spending 170 years in the cellar of the shipwrecked Titanic submerged in the Atlantic Ocean.

Balance is the brass ring that winemakers strive for when producing a wine for the cellar. Another factor that influences the taste of your wine and whether it will age gracefully would be the method of closure.

There is nothing like the transformation that occurs at the sound of a cork popping. There are few other sounds in the world quite the same.  Pop announces the party.

But cork has had its problems and because of those problems, alternatives to cork have emerged that don’t quite have the proper party announcement. Plastic corks, glass stoppers and screwcaps all influence your wine in their own inimitable way.

Still, cork is the most common seal for wine bottles, accounting for 70 percent of all wine stoppers in the world. It was used on 95 percent of wines produced at its peak in the 1990s. And 93 percent of consumers say natural cork signifies a quality wine. More than 12 billion cork stoppers are produced each year, mainly from cork forests in Portugal and Spain.

The downfall of the cork in the late 20th century was the excessive cork taint in 10-20 percent of wines produced. Caused by trichloroanisole (or TCA), cork taint will make your wine smell moldy or like wet cardboard, and the taste is just plain flat. Not something you want to happen to that special bottle you’ve been saving for that very special occasion.

To protect their wines from TCA, some winemakers started using plastic corks on their bottling lines. They’re resistant to TCA but their downfall is fit. Unlike cork they can’t adapt their size in the neck of the bottle and the result is an imperfect fit. A loose fit can let in too much air and then you have an oxidized special occasion wine, flat tasting but without the moldy aroma.

And then there is the ubiquitous screw cap. Their advantages are twofold. Screw caps maintain a tight seal, so oxidation is eliminated. And they’re mighty convenient. Just a simple twist, craaaccck and pour!

Whether your wine is sealed with cork, plastic or a screw cap will determine whether you want to cellar it or drink it near term. Cork is still the best and most favored closure for cellaring, and TCA, while not eliminated, has been significantly controlled. Plastic is wrong on many fronts, and screw caps are the best for wines consumed within a year of bottling.

And now, finally to Italy for a wine fiasco. Around the 1500s, bottles were slowly replacing wooden kegs. They were, of course, mouth-blown glass and were more balloon shape than Bordeaux shape. These balloon-shaped bottles were round, so rolling around is what they did naturally whether on the supper table or in an ox cart on the way to market.

This disaster waiting to happen was prevented by the swamp grass basket the village women wove around each bottle. A fiasco is now also known as a round bottle with straw woven around its bottom that you can put a candle in when you’ve finished the wine. Cin cin! (Italian for “Cheers!”)

Wines Under Pressure

Much like a bottle of bubbly, the holiday season contains a lot of pressure.bolly

However, sparkling wine has the kind of pressure I can live with! The result of a process that Dom Perignon spent years working on, bubbles are created by the yeast cozying up to the sugars in a closed environment. After this second fermentation, carbon dioxide is dissolved in the wine and held under pressure until the cork is popped. The wine is converted from still to sparkling and the occasion is transformed from ordinary to special.

Almost all sparkling wines have one thing in common. They go through two fermentations, one to make the alcohol and one to make the bubbles. The significant difference between the two fermentations is the first allows the gas to escape which produces the alcohol and the other traps the gases in the bottle and Voila! tiny bubbles!

Sparkling wines vary significantly. They can be white, pink or red. They can be bone dry (brut), sort of dry (extra brut), off dry (demi sec, semi secco) or sweet (doux or dolce). It can have varying degrees of alcohol (5.5% to 13%). The size and persistency of the bubbles and the foam differ significantly too.

The most famous sparkling wine comes from a region in northeast France called Champagne. Champagne produces about a tenth of the world’s sparkling wines. It’s the gold standard for sparkling wines.

According to the rules, Champagne must be made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. With the addition of a little yeast and a little sugar, the second fermentation occurs in the bottle with a crown cap to trap the gases. After remuage, where the dead yeast cells are shaken down into the neck of the bottle that are stored neck down in racks, the plugs of dead yeast cells are quickly expelled in a process called dégorgement. Disgorging involves little more than removing the crown cap and watching the plug fly, propelled by the pressure in the bottle.

The final steps are to top up with wine and a teaspoon to a quarter cup of simple syrup called dosage. The amount of sugar in the dosage determines whether the wine is brut, extra dry, demi sec or doux. The cork, bale and foil are put in place, the label pasted on and it is boxed for shipment.

Other regions in the world also make Champagne-like wines. California is an outpost for Champagne firms who have run out of space in Champagne. You may have seen or sipped Roederer Estate (Roederer), Chandon (Moet & Chandon), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Maison Duetz (Duetz), Piper Sonoma (Piper Heidsieck) and/or Mumm Napa (Mumm).

The presence of these French Champagne houses certainly sets a high standard, however, there are challenges. Champagne is a cooler region than many of the California AVAs.  Carneros and Anderson Valley tend to be cooler than say, Napa or the San Joaquin Valley. The French have adapted their methods to produce wonderful sparkling wines that are a quarter of the price of their French cousins.

The trick is to be cool like some parts of Oregon or harvest the grapes earlier than grapes used for a still wine. Oregon’s premier producer is Argyle winery in Dundee. And Soter Vineyards. Argyle has been growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir since 1987 and Soter started in California in the 1990s before moving to Carlton, Oregon. Both make wonderful Blanc de Blancs and Brut Rosé.

Washington has some great premium sparkling wines even without the presence of a “Champagne outpost”. One of my favorites is Treveri made by a couple who have been on the Washington wine scene since the early 80s.

Juergen Grieb was born and raised in Trier, Germany. He perfected his winemaking skills in the Ruwer Valley. After moving to the United States, he made wine for Langguth Winery in the early 80s.

The Juergen and Julie Grieb opened the doors to Treveri in 2010.  All their wines sparkle and are made from traditional French and German grape varietals. The grapes are picked early at around 19 brix, which is fairly typical when making a sparkling wine in a warmer region, any higher will result in too high an alcohol content with two fermentations.

They make a Blanc de Noir, Blanc de Blanc, a Rosé which is aged 24 months, and a Gewurztraminer which has extended tirage. It’s disgorged on demand to keep the product fresh. Like many of the Australian “Black Bubbles” Treveri Cellars’ Syrah is a deep red color from the Syrah.

They have a Bubble Club too. Members get 2 bubblies 3 times a year and complimentary glass of sparkling wine during release parties. This would be a perfect gift for that sparkling wine lover.

Other Washington sparklers include Domaine Michelle and Mountain Dome out of Spokane which produces sparkling wines in the “Méthode Champenoise” or the traditional method. Mountain Dome is a family operation in a geodesic dome in the shadow of Mount Spokane. They’ve been making bubbles since 1984.

Other regions to explore are Burgundy, Alsace, Spanish cavas, Prosecco from Italy, New York’s Finger Lakes and don’t forget those black bubbles from Australia.
cork wreath
Share a little sparkle with your family and friends this holiday season! Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The Savvy Taster’s Guide

You can have loads of fun and more importantly, learn a lotwalter clore tasting room at the many tasting events available year round. The more you know, the better choices you’ll make and more fun you’ll have!

Venues for tasting events vary from outdoor promenades to top of the town restaurants. They can be private tasting room intimate or ballroom standing room only.  The choice is yours.

The 6th annual Summer BrewFest on the Bremerton Boardwalk is a fabulous venue. It’s a two day festival this year, July 15 and 16. Tickets are available from the Washington Beer Commission. You will want to be there soaking up the sun, refreshing yourself with a craft brew or two.

The 8th annual Kitsap Wine Festival in August at the Harborside Fountain Park is another gorgeous venue with wonderful Washington wines, cool fountains, sunshine and boats sailing past. Tickets are now available for this event at Kitsap Wine Festival dot com.

One of the many places for a spectacular view while tasting is the top of the Columbia Tower where the women’s restroom was an experience that even the men were dragged in to see. That practice was halted but the view and artwork are still stunning.

My most stunning venue this year, was at the toph3 tres cruces of Horse Heaven Hills, tasting Coyote Canyon Vineyards’ wines with Mike Andrews. The red and white checkered tablecloth was anchored with horse shoes and the mighty Columbia River was in the distance. Wines from these vineyards have garnered many medals and are well worth the search.

Call me Ms. Manners but whether it’s a beer, wine, or even a spirits tasting event, here are a few tips that will ensure everyone’s tasting experience is enlightening and enjoyable.

  1. Let the Only Fragrance be from the Glass.

Aroma is half the pleasure of tasting. It’s the reason all those wine geeks have mastered the art of swirling in order to release the esters and smell the bouquet. If it smells delicious, it’s probably going to taste delicious.

It’s downright annoying when all you can smell is the person next to you. Instead of inhaling the wine’s beautiful fruits or the subtle hop nuances, all you can smell is Eau de Stinkum.

Leave the perfume, cologne, after shave, or scented body lotion in the bottle. Save it for another special occasion. Same for smoking or vaping – anything. Don’t do it before or during a tasting. It messes with everyone’s ability to smell the bouquet.

  1. It’s Perfectly Acceptable to Spit.spit buckets

After swirling, you taste. But if you swallow everything, by the eighth taste your palate is shot. So, if you really want to learn and take advantage of the opportunity, spit. Save the swallowing for the really good ones that have a long finish.

You can actually tell if the wine or beer is of excellent swallowing quality as you roll it around in your mouth, taking in a little air to appreciate all the complexities or lack thereof. You get the essence of it when you hold it in your mouth for ten to fifteen seconds. And then choose to spit or swallow.

All events have spit buckets or if it’s outside, plants that need watering. Spit buckets have evolved over the years. No more ugly splash back when a funnel like contraption tops off the spit bucket. Or you can use a plastic cup as a personal spit bucket. Either way, it’s perfectly acceptable practice.

You can and should dump any remainders in your glass into the spit bucket. It may be difficult after paying all that good money to taste, but remember, you’re on a reconnaissance mission. You’re looking for that perfect brew or wine to grace your table. Finding the region you prefer, or the perfect balance of the hops and malt, that’s your mission, should you accept it.

  1. Ask Questions.

You’re on a mission to learn, right? Reading is the best way but there isn’t enough time at an event and taste too. Asking questions of the people pouring gets you the facts faster. These folks could be the actual brewmaster or winemaker and they’re here to talk about what they love to do. So ask and they will expound away. Take advantage of all that knowledge and make it your goal to learn one fact about each wine or beer you really liked.

  1. You’re Not the Only One There.

For some unfathomable reason, some people park themselves in front of a table while tasting, ignoring the fact there are other tasters waiting behind them. Don’t do that. Ask your question while your beveridge is being poured. What’s in the blend? What are those very aromatic hops I smell? How many times is it distilled?

Then step back to swirl, sniff, sip and spit.

  1. Remember the Ones You Love.

Events usually have tasting sheets listing the brewery or the winery and what they are offering. Take notes of the ones you really liked and find out where you can get them. Ask who distributes them and where they are available in your area. Sometimes you can purchase that day but always find out where you can get your favorites after the event is history.

For imported products, there is always an importer listed on the back label. Make a note of that also. It’s easier to track it down afterwards.

If note taking is not your forte, take a picture of the label with that fancy phone of yours.

  1. Get a Ride.

Be responsible. Arrange for transportation before you start to sip. There’s a lot to take in at these big, sometimes overwhelming events and while you’ve been spitting and pouring out leftovers, be responsible and take a ferry, bus, cab or designated driver.

The beauty of these tasting events is meeting interesting people and learning about great wines or beers. Be safe because the next tasting is this weekend and you need to be there.

Horse Heaven Hills is Vineyard Heaven

Certain factors in viticulture produce intensely flavored grapes with balanced sugars and acids.  And that can only happen in the vineyard.

Washington’s average sixteen hours per day of summer sunlight, cool nights, hills and slopes, rainfall or lack  there of and alluvial soils produce some of the best growing conditions for vinifera grapes.

Each micro-climate, as if there could be micro in eastern Washington, has its own geology, soil, temperature fluctuations, water source and sunlight intensity. That’s what makes each American Viticultural Area (AVA) unique.

There are fourteen Washington State AVAs, defined by the United States Treasury Department’s Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau.

The first to be recognized was Yakima Valley in 1983. In 1984, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley joined the Club. Eleven years later, our very own unique Puget Sound joined the ranks.

The turn of the century brought Red Mountain into the fold, followed by Columbia Gorge (2004), Horse Heaven Hills (2005), Rattlesnake Hills and Wahluke Slope in 2006 and Snipes Mountain in 2009. Naches Heights and Ancient Lakes were added in 2011 and 2012 respectively. This year Lewis Clark Valley was added to the state’s AVAs – the first shared with Idaho.

Grapes were first planted in the Horse Heaven Hills by Don & Linda Mercer in 1972. Horse Heaven Hills or H3 as some refer to it, is around 570,000 acres of which about 10,130 acres are planted to grapes. Today, it represents 25% of Washington’s total grape production.

H3 rises up from 300 feet at the Columbia River to about 1,800 feet on the border of the Yakima Valley AVA. The AVA’s steep south facing slopes are perfect vineyard locations. vines along the columbia

The well-drained, sandy soils and dry, windy conditions of the Horse Heaven Hills have stressed the vineyards just enough to produce those sought after  intensely flavored grapes.

Older, established vineyards also have a reputation for  intensely flavored grapes. In the Horse Heaven Hills AVA look for Alder Ridge, Andrews Horse Heaven Vineyard, Canoe Ridge, Champoux, Columbia Crest, Destiny Ridge, McKinley Springs, Mercer Canyon and Wallula Gap Vineyards.

Destiny Ridge, just 800 feet up from the Columbia River, is a pretty breezy place for grape vines; the winds that blow are what makes this part of the Horse Heaven Hills appellation distinct.  The best part of the constant wind is the inhospitable habitat for vineyard disease and pests. And much like the mistral winds of southern France, the vines are stressed and would dry out were it not for drip irrigation.

Destiny Ridge Vineyard also benefits from its close proximity to the Columbia River.Mighty columbia  It’s rare to find temperature extremes close to a big body of water. Thanks to the modifying effects of the mighty Columbia rolling on (Woody Guthrie’s immortal words) and the land sloping toward the river which pushes cold air away from the vineyards. Further north away from the water, vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills have had killing frosts.

Overlooking the mighty Columbia River, is Alexandria Nicole Cellars.anc anova  Owners Jarrod and Ali Boyle planted the first vines at Destiny Ridge in 1998 while Jarrod was working with Dr. Wade Wolfe at Hogue Cellars. The plan was to use the fruit from their Destiny Ridge Vineyard to produce small case lots for other wineries. And that worked for about six years until the vines came into full production with such fruit intensity, the seeds of another new winery were planted.

Alexandria Nicole Cellars’ (ANC ) first vintage from the 367-acre estate was in 2004.  Ten years later, the 2014 Shepherds Mark, their signature white, is a blend of 60% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, and 20% Viognier. And it’s a medal winning wine with a Double Gold, three golds, Best of Class, 93 points and a Silver. This lovely wine is crisp with fresh floral notes and a rich mouthfeel of juicy  Asian pear, citrus and crisp apple.

Why Shepherds Mark? Well, in the early 1900’s, sheepherders left their mark on the Horse Heaven Hills in the form of rock monuments.  These monuments – some still stand along the ridge line of Destiny Ridge Estate Vineyard – were used for identification, way-finding, recreational pastime, artistic expression, or to simply leave one’s mark on the world.

Other ANC wines currently available are the medal winning 2012 Gravity Merlot which also received a Double Gold from the Seattle Wine Awards and 92 points from two industry magazines. The blend of  92% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, and 2% Carmenere was aged 22 months in new and 1 year-old French oak barrels.

The 2013 Jet Black Syrah is another medal winning wine with three golds, Best of Class, 92 points and a Best Buy. This 100% Syrah from blocks 1, 15, 17 and 43 was whole berry fermented and then aged in new and 1 year-old French oak barrels. Prepared to be awed!

If you would like to tour and taste the the wines and wineries of Horse Heaven Hills, mark your calendars for Saturday, July 16, 2016 to experience the Horse Heaven Hills Trail Drive. You’ll meet the growers and vintners behind some of Washington’s most highly rated wines.

During this is a self guided tour, you’ll visit with grape growers and winemakers, enjoy beautiful vistas and sample some excellent wines. There will be music and wine tasting at the BBQ at Crow Butte Park. This annual fundraiser raises money for scholarships in viticulture and oenology.

How Vintage Affects Your Wine

Will it be a fresh, easy-drinking vintage or one that needs a bit of cellaring? And just what the heck makes it easy drinking or a wait-a-while wine? Are the sugar, acidity and tannins balanced and therefore ready to pick? Or do the grapes need more sunshine to ripen?

In the vineyard, it’s Mother Nature who determines these things, from bud break in the spring through warm summers without rain or hail to harvest in a dry or wet fall.

Vintages from warm years, such as this latest one, tend to have more sugars, lush fruit and with careful tannin management are drinkable in the near term. Cooler years produce wines with thicker skins and higher acidity, more in need of cellar time.

Many are touting the 2014s will go down in the harvest history books as one of the earliest vintages, one of the biggest and one of the best, primarily for the West Coast. Everything was high: temperatures, crop size, sugars and potential alcohol. Other areas, particularly in Europe, were not so fortunate in Mother Nature’s grand harvest scheme.

For most of the northern hemisphere, harvest typically starts around the end of August and wraps up around the first of November, with a few exceptions for those gambling on a late harvest or ice wine. The southern hemisphere, however, is just the opposite: it’s experiencing bud break while the northern half is harvesting.

Washington’s wine grape harvest was off to an early August start this year. The hot summer of 2014, valuable to vineyard managers, produced grapes, free from mildew, ripe and at perfect picking peaks one after another. Wineries scrambled for fermentation tank space. A record harvest of around 230,000 tons is projected, which exceeds 2013’s record of 215,000 tons.

The 2014 Oregon wine grape harvest was pretty perfect, with a warm summer and no summer squalls to water down the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grapes. For the state’s 905 vineyards, this was the warmest growing season on record. The consistent warm temperatures allowed growers to harvest grapes at peak condition rather than rushing around to beat cold weather or rain. As a result, Oregon wineries are harvesting big yields and very good quality grapes.

And in California, a mild winter and spring caused early bud break, and for California, the earliest harvest in recent memory. Sparkling wine producers harvested in July! The sparkling wine producers typically harvest earlier for the higher acidity levels.

Despite drought conditions and an earthquake in August, California’s harvest was estimated at 3.9 million tons. Last year’s crop was 4.24 million tons and 2012 was 4.02 million tons, a bountiful, great drinking vintage right now. The smallest California harvest in the last decade was 2004, at 2.77 million tons.

In Europe, harvests varied significantly by country, with France doing better than last year and Italy facing difficult weather conditions during most of the growing season.

And speaking of drought, Bordeaux and Burgundy haven’t seen a 90-point vintage on the charts for three years. In Burgundy, a warm spring had the growing season off to a good start, but a ruthless hailstorm at the end of June brought the yields down significantly. For the most part, the 2014 vintage appears to have been saved by an Indian summer.

The Rhône region with a cool summer and heavy rainfall during harvest caused slow ripening and the need for meticulous sorting. It’ll be short and perhaps not so sweet.

Further south, Italy saw a lot of wet weather, which will translate to very small quantities on the shelves in two or four year’s time, except for an exceptional year for Sicily.

The Port region of Douro was also hit by rains, which caused soil erosion in many parts of this steep valley and producers facing a challenging harvest.

While Spain as a whole is expected to return to average after last year’s record high. Only Rioja is looking at a bumper harvest.

Germany also saw periods of heavy rain, however the harvest is expected to rise by 16 percent. Let’s hope for an early freeze and much botrytis.

So it looks like enjoying California and Washington wines from 2012 and 2013 vintages is the prudent course to take now while waiting for the West Coast 2014s.

The year of the snake means it’s sake time

Mary writes:

This Sunday celebrate the New Year again!  Most Asian cultures celebrate the lunar New Year, which begins Sunday, Feb. 10 with the new moon, in style.

So we’re going to start out this New Year right and focus your attention on a different kind of wine that is technically a beer.

Why? Because it’s actually brewed and no fruit is involved, just rice and millet.

In China, traditional celebrations of the New Year vary. Window and doors are festooned in red symbols of fortune, wealth and happiness. It’s sort of like our holidays where people buy presents and on the eve of the New Year supper is a family feast with lots of savory foods paired with rice wine. The evening is capped with fireworks. Sound familiar?

The Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan and Vietnamese all make rice wine and the varying wines are made with different types of rice. There are more than 20,000 different rice varieties of rice in the world. Red, black, white and brown.

For our foray into rice wine, we’ll explore sake. Many different styles of sake are brewed in Japan. They also brew mirin, which is sweeter and used in cooking.

At a sake tasting a few years back, I learned that the better sakes were served cool, like a white wine. Most sake that is heated, is not the top of the line wine. And like wine, rice wine adds flavor to sauces and acidity to marinades.

Sake is clear in color except for Nigori. This style is opaque, almost the color of milk. The bottle is meant to be shaken before serving — an unsettling act to a vintage red wine aficionado.

When tasting sake, use a wine glass that allows you to swirl the rice wine to release the aromas, just like you would do with wine made from grapes. The more complex sake will have floral or tropical aromas.

Ginjo styles are fruity and floral and the easiest to like. The earthiness and rich, fuller bodied Junmai is appealing to the more savory palates. The taste is subtle with star anise, fennel and white pepper.

A tasting is a great way to share your sake experience and expand your palette. Dress up in a fancy red shirt and ring in the Lunar New Year in style.

Happy Lunar New Year!

The perfect wine-related gift

Still searching for a Valentine’s gift for your sweetheart? We’ve got one idea, and it’s perfect for any wine lover out there.

It comes courtesy of Eleven Winery, owned by Bainbridge Island winemaker Matt Albee. Eleven is offering wine courses, at a reasonable price, for people looking to expand their wine knowledge.

Most of the classes are to be held at the Poulsbo tasting room along Front Street, although there’s a few scheduled for the winery on the island. Classes will be held the second Wednesday of the month from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. The first class is Feb. 8.

If you’re interested email this address to sign up: Here’s the email from Eleven describing what’s offered and the price:

Ever had a wine question you were embarrassed to ask? Felt intimidated by a wine list at a restaurant? Or just wish you knew more about wine? We at Eleven are here to help.  Starting in February, we are offering classes on the second Wednesday of each month.

In February we offer Wine 101, Basics and Beyond, and this class will alternate each month with another class on a specific topic. More information will be available soon on our website. We look forward to seeing you!

  • February 8: Wine 101; Location: Poulsbo Tasting Room. Cost: $15
  • March 14: WineMAKING 101; Location: Winery. Cost: $15
  • April 11: Wine 101; Location: Poulsbo Tasting Room. Cost: $15
  • May 9: Wine Blending; Location: Winery. Cost: $25
  • June 13: Wine 101; Location: Poulsbo Tasting Room. Cost: $15
  • July 11: Wine Component Tasting; Location: TBD. Cost: $25
  • August 8: Wine 101; Location: Poulsbo Tasting Room. Cost: $15
  • September 12: Food and Wine Pairing; Location: Poulsbo Tasting Room. Cost: $25
  • October 10: Wine 101; Location: Poulsbo Tasting Room. Cost: $15
  • November 14: Food and Wine Pairing; Location: Poulsbo Tasting Room. Cost: $25
  • December 12: Wine 101; Location: Poulsbo Tasting Room. Cost: $15


Aging wines: A snapshot of young vs. old

Brynn writes:

A few weekends ago Mary and I decided to get together outside of our regular blog meet up day. The purpose? To compare a 1996 St. Joseph with a 2006 Crozes-Hermitage.

Both of these wines are from the Northern Rhone region of France and made with Syrah grapes.

The idea to compare the wines came up after I started asking Mary for advice about how to decide which wines should be saved for a few years and which wines should be had now. (That will be a topic of a future post to come, so stay tuned).

We planned the menu for the evening: Roasted lamb marinated with olive oil, rosemary and thyme, and roasted red potatoes and onions seasoned with dill, parsley and basil.

We opened the 2006 Chave Crozes-Hermitage first, saving the 1996 to have with the dinner because once open it would fade.

We were surprised to find that even after four-and-a-half years, the 2006 was tight. The color was typical of a Syrah, deep purple, but the nose was limited to whiffs of plum. The lamb in the oven smelled better than this wine at this point.

Eventually it did open up to a nose of violets, licorice and plum.

Dinner was ready and we opened the 1996 Chave St. Joseph — but not before a little difficulty with the cork, which decided to crumble as we tried to extricate it from the bottle. Dang! No Ahso. (You know, the corkscrew with the two metal arms that go on each side of the cork).

A knife was inserted down the neck of the bottle to loosen the cork’s hold. We then drilled the corkscrew into the side to get a better hold on the cork. We met with success.

Comparing the two wines, there was a visible difference. The 1996 had a brick rim, a sign of maturity. The nose was fragrant with plum and cinnamon, and the flavor much more subdued for a Syrah, with a long, smooth finish.

The 1996 St. Joseph paired so nicely with the succulent lamb and herbed red potatoes. The plum and cinnamon flavors married perfectly with the lamb and the parsley and dill potatoes.

The 2006 Crozes-Hermitage, while tight when enjoyed by itself, became “hot”  with the lamb. This means the alcohol was much more prominent on the finish after sipping it with the flavor of the lamb in our mouths. We revisited the St. Joseph for the rest of the delightful meal.

Going with the theme of trying wines that have been aged for a few years, the next night Jeff and I dug out a bottle we had from 1999. The wine is also a Rhone style blend, but we bought it from a Virginia winery we visited when we lived on the East Coast.

I bought the wine (along with five other bottles) four years earlier as a gift for Jeff for Valentines Day.

We had one bottle at the time and it was as great as we remembered from our visit to the winery. But four years later when we opened this wine, a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan and Tinta Cao with a splash of Viognier, our reaction was much different.

Maybe our palates have since grown, or maybe the wine was past its prime. We tried to drink it, but after a glass we decided it was flat and the nose was unappealing.

I did the unthinkable, I poured out the bottle. It was painful, but the wine was past its prime.

With one bottle left I decided I needed to bring it to Mary, to get her expert opinion.

Her observations included:

“When we first opened it, I really enjoyed the nose. At first it smelled of spices and orange peel, it was very appealing, but…”

But 20 minutes later, the nose had completely faded and Mary’s reaction was that the smell reminded her of fruit flies in her wine, and as she said “I really hate fruit flies in my wine.”

Her next comment: “It’s a tired wine, so we’re going to have to pound this.” She was joking of course, but not about the wine being tired.

It would be interesting to try the most recent vintage of this wine from the winery — assuming they still make this blend — to see if we still like it.

This is a case where we shouldn’t have held on to the wine as long as we did. Lesson learned.

Wine tasting tips for any wine lover

We’re coming up on prime wine tasting season, but before you venture out to taste the latest releases at that upcoming trendy wine event, we want to equip you to not only look like a wine tasting pro, but be able to remember whether your last sip was of a Cab, Syrah or Merlot.

Our hats are off to Aaron, who recently replied to a different post that it would be good for us to give some wine tasting advice. Your timing couldn’t have been more perfect Aaron.

Tonight Monica’s Waterfront Bakery and Cafe is hosting a wine tasting from 4 to 6:30 p.m.; Sunday the Washington State Wine Commission is holding Taste Washington!, its largest wine tasting event of the year to celebrate March as Washington wine month; and next Thursday, March 31, five Bremerton restaurateurs are hosting the first-ever Manette Wine Walk from 6 to 9 p.m.

If you’re planning to attend any of those events, or others, read on for tips about how to keep your senses, how to look like a pro and how not to look like a drunk fool by the end of the night. And remember, everyone’s palates have their limit, so expect to hit the wall. (But, we hope our tips help you taste a few more wines before that wall comes slamming at you).

How to taste like a pro, and other tips:

Aarons’ tips:

  • Never take more than three tastes of a wine (consider this rule: sip-sip-taste[the food pairing]-sip).
  • A “taste” should be less than a milliliter. There should be leftovers from a 1oz. pour.
  • Dump it if you don’t like it, otherwise you’re just wasting your limited tastes.

Our tips:

  • Swirl, sniff, taste, spit: Don’t be afraid to spit, even if you like the wine. (And don’t be a slob when you spit).
  • Eat: Have a “stick to your ribs” type breakfast before the event, and take advantage of food samplings during the event.
  • Drink water: Start the day before the event and bring a bottle to drink as you move between wineries.
  • Know before you go: For large tasting events create a list of “must visit” wineries — keep in mind some will run out before others, so do your research and visit the most sought after wineries first.
  • Red before white?: Generally the rule is lighter to heavier, old to new, white to red.
  • Bring your own glass, if you wish.
  • Bring a pen (or two) to record names, notes and wines you like. Formal tastings supply a list with winery information.
  • Ask questions: Winemakers love to talk about their wines. Where did the grapes come from? Was oak used, and if so what type? How did they get into winemaking? What’s their favorite of the wines they’re pouring?
  • Record your impressions: This could be a star system, a numerical rating, or something as easy as “I like it” or “I love it!”
  • Avoid strong or spicy foods: They may endanger your palate.
  • Collect your thoughts: When you’re done, sit down with a Perrier (or your water of choice) and write your “after action report” while all the details are fresh in your mind.

And last but not least: Have Fun!