All posts by Mary Earl

Wine for me Argentina!

Argentinian wines haven’t graced my table recently. So, when invited to an Argentinian barbeque, it awakened the gaucho in me. I remember the first Argentine red wine that really impressed me – a 2004 Zolo Cabernet that sold for 8 bucks.  Another was the little known white grape named Torrontés, the perfect summer wine.

Did you know that Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world, well-known for its beef, soccer teams and wine?

This large country with mountains that provide water to lush valleys and a big city that’s the most visited city on the continent, easily supports almost 2,000 wineries. From the Salta region in the north to Patagonia in the south, Argentina produces enough wine to rank 5th worldwide in wine production.

In between Salta and Patagonia lies the heart of Argentina’s wine country – Mendoza. Lying at the foot of the Andes, Mendoza wineries are spread across more than 350,000 acres and produce 60 per cent of the country’s wines.

The high altitude, long hours of sunshine, and sandy soils comprise the ideal conditions for the production of wine both bulk and premium. Torrontés, Bonarda, Malbec, Cabernet and Merlot are grown on ungrafted original rootstock, unlike most northern hemisphere wine producing countries where phylloxera can devastate a vineyard planted on original rootstock.

My search for a white wine to pair with the oysters took a few days. I knew what I wanted – Torrontés, a white grape that is easy to come by in Argentina but not so much in Kitsap. But what I did find wowed the crowd.

Torrontés is totally Argentinean and the only country to produce it really. Mainly because, after DNA testing, it was found to be a cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica, a grape that was widely planted there and still used in bulk wine production.

It’s very aromatic, with notes of citrus, flowers, pear and peach, not unlike Viognier. The flavors are similar with structure and acidity that keep you coming back for another sip. It’s a summertime wine that’s best enjoyed while young unless you happen to run across a version that is late harvest.

Zolo Torrontés is very aromatic with aromas of citrus, white flowers and pear with a crispness that was perfect with the oysters. Zolo wines are sustainably farmed and very affordable. To further entice you to these wines, one of the winemakers, Jean Claude Berrouet, was the former winemaker at Petrus in Bordeaux.

The name of the winery comes from owner Patricia Ortiz’s lifestyle. She spends much of the week working in Mendoza, leaving her husband solo – Zolo – in Buenos Aries.

Another unusual grape, originally from Italy but now widely grown in Argentina, is Bonarda. It’s kind of like Beaujolais – not the Nouveau type – fruity with little tannins. It’s a wonderful wine to pair with the spicier dishes because the tannins are so minimal.

Altos Los Homigas produces the Colonis Las Liebres Mendoza Bonarda Classica, another bargain at $10 and great for an afternoon’s barbeque. It paired well with the empanadas another Argentinian staple. Empanadas are hand sized pockets stuffed with any combination of meat, cheese and/or vegetables.

We also enjoyed the Finca la Celia Tempranillo with the empanadas. A Chilean owned winery making one of Argentina’s top kosher wines in Mendoza. Tempranillo is a Spanish grape grown all over that country but Rioja is its best known version. Aged 3 months in oak, this wine had the typical cherry and herb flavors. Another bargain under $10.

The other grape that Argentina made famous is Malbec. In the late 20th century, the wine industry shifted its focus from jug wine made from Chica Criolla to premium wine production for the export market.

But it’s Argentina that most of us think of when we hear Malbec. Malbec is Argentina’s most widely planted red grape variety followed by Bonarda, Cabernet, Syrah and Tempranillo. It’s typically deeply colored with intense black fruits and a smooth mouthfeel.

Malbec is indigenous to Southwest France, where it is still widely grown in Cahors and in Bordeaux where it’s blended for its deep color.

With the three Malbecs presented, we devoured the classic dish, Matambre Arrollado which roughly translates to “rolled up hunger killer.” Created to feed guests while the rest of the food was grilled, it’s a flank steak slathered with chimichurri, stuffed with hardboiled eggs and vegetables, rolled up, skewered, grilled and sliced. The presentation is colorful and the dish is delicious.

Catena Zapata is 100% Malbec from a blend of three high mountain vineyards. Founded in 1902, Catena Zapata was instrumental in raising awareness of Malbec and other Argentinean wines worldwide. The pyramid shaped winery stands against a backdrop of striking mountains and vineyards. Their Malbec is no less impressive.

Another Mendoza Malbec we tasted was Espuela del Gaucho Reserve. This wine reflects the land of the Gaucho like this one with its full flavors of dark cherries and plum mingle with subtle notes of vanilla. I liked the balanced acidity and smooth tannins. Stylish and affordable for under $10.

Finally, the king of the flying winemakers, Amancaya Reserve red. A blend of Malbec and Cabernet and a collaboration between Lafite Rothschild and Nicolas Catena. This wine is earthy, plum and blackberry with a hint of pencil lead is a rich blend of 85% Malbec and 15% Cab that was aged for 12 months in oak.

Flying winemakers is a term used to describe those wine makers from one hemisphere flying to the opposite hemisphere to make wine in their off season. Harvest in the northern hemisphere occurs in the fall as it does in the southern hemisphere. The difference being September for the former and February for the latter.

The art of the flying winemaker helps winemakers share old techniques and modern techniques from the world’s wine regions. For example, Champagne producers making sparkling wines in California and Australia. French and Italian winemakers in Argentina and German winemakers in Washington state.

And we benefit from all this shared knowledge. Cheers!

Vintage Lake Chelan

Chelan is a Salish word meaning “deep water.” And it’s no wonder, Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the United States. It has long had an excellent reputation for fishing and other water related activities. Today, Lake Chelan also has an excellent reputation for wine.

The first grape vines were planted along the shores of Lake Chelan in 1891. But it wasn’t until almost 100 years later, that Bob Christopher and Steve Kludt planted a vineyard that was the beginning of something big.

In the years leading up to that momentous occasion, Lake Chelan had been a successful orchard region but when the apple market collapsed in the 1990s, orchards in eastern Washington were taken out and grape vines went in.

By 2001, Lake Chelan Winery had become the first bonded winery in the area. It would only be eight years later when Lake Chelan became Washington’s 11th American Viticultural Area (AVA).

Granted by the federal government, an AVA is an appellation of indicating an area with distinguishing climate, soil and physical features that makes it unique. The Lake Chelan AVA encompasses the southernmost and easternmost areas of the lake and the surrounding lands that are at or below 2,000 feet in elevation.

Lake Chelan’s soil is a coarse, sandy sediment with significant amounts of quartz and mica that lend a certain minerality to the wines. The AVA is also notable for the significant “lake effect” that fosters mild temperatures resulting in a longer growing season.

In the ensuing decade, more pioneers followed Christopher and Kludt’s lead and more vineyards were planted and wineries bonded.  Paul Benson of Benson Vineyards, Mary and Bob Broderick opened Chelan Estate, Denny Evans started Tunnel Hill Winery, Bob Jankelson introduced Tsillan (pronounced Chelan) Cellars, Larry Lehmbecker launched Vin du Lac, Lynn and Henry Munneke introduced Chelan Ridge Winery, Dean and Heather Neff instigated Nefarious Cellars, Katy and Milum Perry began Tildio Winery, Ray Sandidge unveiled C. R. Sandidge  and Don and Judy Phelps unveiled Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards.

In 2015, vineyards had grown to 140 acres with 15 bonded wineries and a Wine Grape Growers Association. In 2018, the Lake Chelan AVA had over 30 wineries with about 300 acres planted to Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Clairette Blanche, Counoise, Gewürztraminer, Malbec, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Syrah, and Viognier.

On June 7th and 8th, Lake Chelan celebrates 10 years as an official American Viticulture Area (AVA). The Lake Chelan Wine Valley and members of the Lake Chelan community invite you to join the festivities dubbed “Vintage Lake Chelan.”

At Vintage Lake Chelan, you’ll have the opportunity to taste delectable wines at the welcome reception, two seminars and a grand tasting at Larc Hill Vineyard Ranch on the South Shore.

The inaugural Vintage Lake Chelan will kick off with a welcome reception on Friday, June 7 from 6-8 p.m. at the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. This is a great  opportunity to earn about this exciting AVA while tasting a selection of wines and bubblies, and talking with the wine industry folks.

The next day, Vintage Lake Chelan features two tasting seminars, led by representatives of the Walter Clore Center, and a grand tasting event.

“The Pioneers of the Lake Chelan AVA” will delve into those visionaries of the Lake Chelan AVA. Panelists include Alan Busacca, the geologist that studied the region and filed the official petition for the Lake Chelan AVA, Steve Kludt of Lake Chelan Winery, Bob Broderick of Chelan Estate Winery, Judy Phelps of Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards, Heather Neff of Nefarious Cellars, and Larry Lehmbecker of Vin du Lac Winery.

“Lake Chelan AVA – A Balancing Act from North to South” is a deep dive into the most extensively planted varietals on both the north and south shores, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah.

Panelists and their wines include Rocky Pond Winery’s Shane Collins and his 2017 Riesling; Jason Morin with Ancestry Cellars 2016 Reunion Dry Lake Vineyard Chardonnay; a 2016 Estate Pinot Noir presented by Michelle Fanton of Tunnel Hill Winery; a 2016 Whole Cluster Pinot Noir offered by winemaker Oscar Castillo of Lake Chelan Winery; Dean Neff of Nefarious Cellars will pour his Defiance Vineyard Syrah, and founder/winemaker Angela Jacobs of WineGirl Wines will pour her Tildio Vineyards Syrah.

A grand tasting with 20+ wineries culminates that evening with delectable bites and delicious wines of the Lake Chelan Wine Valley. You can see the full lineup at http://lakechelanwinevalley.com/vintage-lake-chelan

A couple of highlights – CR Sandidge’s 2018 Sabrina is a white blend made by co-fermenting Gewurztraminer and Riesling.

Early on this Washington winemaker also worked at Weingut Georg Breuer in Germany. While there, Sandidge helped produce the highly acclaimed 1989 Georg Breuer Berg Rottland Trockenbeerenauslese. Winemaker Ray Sandidge has produced highly rated wines both red and white that have earned many awards in many competitions up and down the west coast.

Also high on my favorite Washington wineries is Cairdeas (say ‘Cardis’), an ancient Gaelic word meaning friendship, goodwill or alliance. West Seattle transplants Charlie and Lacey Lybecker believe good wine should be shared with friends, goodwill spread at every opportunity, and the alliances created have brought their flair for Rhone-styled wines to Lake Chelan.

The Lybecker’s dedication to Rhône Valley varietals is evident in their estate vineyard, planted to Syrah and two unusual white varietals: Clairette Blanche and Picardan. Both are widely planted in the renowned Châteauneuf-du- Pape appellation of France.

Tickets for single-day and weekend passes range from $45 to $275, and can be purchased online. For more information and details on Vintage Lake Chelan, check it out at www.vintagelakechelan.com

 

Chenin Blanc an underrated grape that offers so much

I tasted some amazing bottles of wine recently. The depth, complexity and sheer loveliness was so great that it needs to be shared with you.

It may come as a surprise that it was not a Chardonnay, Cabernet or Syrah. Indeed, it wasn’t even from Washington or California. It was from the icon of vinifera grapes, France.

The French make a white Burgundy that every Chardonnay producer wants to hold a candle to. Same with Cabernet. Who can beat a first growth Bordeaux or even a super-second?  Have you ever tried a red wine from northern Rhone? Where Syrah is co-fermented with Viognier? All perfection.

But here is another grape you must taste. It’s a grape that was once held in high esteem, but because Chardonnay, Cabernet and Syrah fetch more profit, this grape’s popularity has waned. This is my shot at convincing you to try a bottle of Chenin Blanc. Or Vouvray. Or Montlouis. Or Bonnezeaux. All from the delightful, versatile Chenin Blanc grape.

The Loire Valley, west of Paris, stretches 630 miles from the Atlantic through the center of France. Dubbed the “Garden of France,” its well-groomed gardens are bountiful, castles and chateaux magnificent, and its vineyards produce great whites.

Indigenous to this region, Chenin Blanc is produced in the center of the Loire Valley with Muscadet to the west and Sauvignon Blanc to the east. Chenin Blanc comes in a wide range of styles from a lush sweetie (Quarts de Chaume) to bone dry (Savennières). Its wonderful sparkling wines are labeled Mousseaux or Cremant.

The climate, soil and topography give the wines a minerality and acidity that balances the concentrated flavors pear, peach, lemongrass and honey flavors. Its greatest asset is its acidity, which is ever present even under warm growing conditions like that in eastern Washington. That balancing acidity also makes these wines age-worthy and food worthy.

Aged Chenin Blancs unveil complex aromatics, body and minerality that make these wines so distinguished. Have you ever had a 9-year old bone-dry Chenin Blanc that was the best white wine you’ve ever tasted?

If not, you may want to try a Domaine des Baumard 2010 Clos du Paillon Savennières. It was sublime. The best wine at the gathering. Everyone was blown away by this amazing, old Chenin Blanc. It paired particularly well with the Thai mussels in coconut milk.

The other outstanding Chenin Blanc we tasted was the Domaine des Baumard 2009 Quarts de Chaume. A luscious, honeyed wine with remarkable acidity for a 10-year old sweet white wine. The 375ml bottle yielded about an ounce and a half in each glass. Enough to enjoy the concentrated aromas for some time before indulging in the taste that lingered forever. A slab of pate is the quintessential accompaniment.

Many years ago, domestic Chenin Blanc was a well-received jug wine with few exceptions. One that stood out was Chappellet Vineyard’s old vine Chenin Blanc. High up on Pritchard Hill in Napa Valley, the original vines were producing when Donn and Molly Pritchard purchased the property back in the 1960s.

In the 1980s, Washington was white wine country. Specifically, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Chenin Blanc. Two wineries that excelled in Chenin Blanc were Kiona Vineyards and Bookwalter Winery.

If you wander to Red Mountain’s Kiona Vineyard, their old vine Chenin Blanc is a must. In this AVA, well-known for its powerful reds, this pioneering family planted Chenin Blanc in 1976 and then another block in 1983. If the conditions were right, the result was a heavenly ice wine.

But with warmer and warmer winters, ice wine conditions are becoming few and far between. Kiona rolled with the change in climate. Their newest edition is Fortunate Sun, a dessert wine much like a Vin Santo. By pruning the leaf canopy late in the season, the autumn sun works its magic to raisin the grapes. Thus concentrating flavors, aromas and sweetness.

Not too far away in Richland, Bookwalter Winery has a drier version of an old vine Chenin from Yakima Valley’s Willard Vineyard, planted in 1980. Bookwalter hand harvests and whole cluster presses then ferments at cold temps with 60% in concrete egg for 4 months and the remainder in stainless steel. Delightfully delicious.

Other dry and off dry, crisp, aromatic, full-flavored Washington versions that compare favorably to those produced in the Loire Valley:

Lobo Hills Roth Rock Chenin Blanc

McKinley Springs Horse Heaven Hills Chenin

L’Ecole No. 41 Yakima Valley Chenin Blanc

Cedergreen Willard Vineyards Chenin Blanc

This delightful yet highly underrated grape offers so much. So much complexity, flavors and aromas. And its wine pairs so well with a wide range of foods from appetizer to dessert throughout each season, won’t you try some today?

Cheers!

What to Pair with Spring Fare

With Mother’s Day, just around the corner, it’s a signal for party planning time. And not just for Mother’s Day Brunch. There are also Bridal Showers lunches, June graduation bbqs and wedding buffets to celebrate. And the best way to celebrate these special occasions is with food and sparkling wine with family and friends.

A sparkling wine is a great way to kick off a special celebration. Another great way to kick off a special day, like Mother’s Day, is with a Champagne brunch. A punch bowl of sparkling Mimosas or Champagne punch, garnished with fresh fruit is a great accompaniment to those Belgian Waffles or easy cheesy egg casserole.

Since kitchens are a natural gathering place, help making crepes filled with ricotta cheese and sweet sliced strawberries is a good group exercise with just rewards. Having a flute of bubbly sounds like the perfect morning, doesn’t it?

In our large family everyone pitched in to make the meals, especially my dad, who had worked in a bakery and was very good at making bread, coffee cakes and rolls. The first loaf with a stick of butter was always devoured before it even had a chance to cool.

Mom was never seen near the stove after all. She worked full time and she was an excellent list-maker and teacher. She did teach all her children how to make breakfast, lunch, dinner and fudge when we were just knee high to a grasshopper.

The only time she was seen near the stove was on Mother’s Day. This tradition probably stemmed from the massive effort and money to take the family out to brunch.

When they retired, my dad would still do most of the cooking. Mom just loved broccoli salad so she would make that for every special occasion. You could count on it for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and all nine of her children’s birthdays.

I would bring the sparklers for every special occasion, especially a Moscato d’Asti on Mother’s Day. This is one wine that everyone loved with its low alcohol, sweet perfumed fruitiness and balancing acidity. Traditionally produced in the northwest part of Italy, Moscato d’Asti is the Muscat grape from the Asti region. It’s not a full sparkling wine but half sparkling or what the Italians term frizzante.

This wine is now produced around the world and some are made with fruit juices such as pineapple. All are low alcohol, sweet and easy to guzzle.

Spumante is derived from the Italian word spumare which roughly translates to foam, thus a spumante is an Italian way of saying sparkling wine. A Spumante is made from Muscat, Glera, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grape.

The region that is best known for sparkling wine is in Northeast Italy around the city of Veneto. There they have perfected a Spumante and call it Prosecco. They can be dry or sweet or even semi-dry. Prosecco is an ideal brunch wine, especially when making Bellinis.

Other bubblies to consider for the punch bowl that are the very affordable are Spanish Cavas made from a blend of Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel·lo, the traditional grape varieties.

Cava is produced for the most part in the Penedès, a wine-producing region in northeast Spain with a Denominació d’Origen (DO) designation that signifies quality. The biggest producer is Freixenet, headquartered in Sant Sadurní, Catalonia. It’s the largest producer of sparkling wine in the world. Juame Serra Cristalino and Codorniu are the other two huge sparkling wine producers in the area and also make ideal punch bowl ingredients.

The unusual names for these bottles come from ancient history. They are the kings of Babylon, Israel and Arabia, who presumably had many reasons to celebrate.

For your celebrations big and small, here is a rough guide for how much, depending on how many.

Split (1/4 bottle): 187ml or 6.5 oz.; 1 person, 1 glass

Half (1/2 bottle): 375ml or 13 oz.; 2 people, 1 glass

Fifth: 750 ml or 26.25 oz.; 4 people, 1 glass

Magnum (2 bottles): 1500ml or 52.5 oz.; 8 people, 1 glass

Jeroboam (4 bottles): 3000ml or 105 oz.; 4 people, 1 bottle

Rehoboam (6 bottles): 4500ml or 157 oz., 12 people, 2 glasses

Methuselah (8 bottles): 6000ml or 210 oz.; 18 people, 2.5 glasses

Salmanazar (12 bottles): 9000ml or a case; 12 people, 1 bottle

Balthazar (16 bottles): 12 L or a case + 3.3; 20 people, 4 glasses

Nebuchadnezzar (20 bottles): 15 L or a case + 6.6; 20 people, 1 bottle

Solomon (24 bottles): 18 L or 2 cases; The party bottle

Cheers to Mothers, congratulations to graduates and happy nuptials. Best wishes to all!

The State of Washington Wines 2019

I had a marvelous time at the Taste Washington Grand Tastings. Imagine two days of 235+ possibilities.

And I was amused with this year’s theme, Must. Taste. Everything. Not possible in the 4 or 5 hours each of the two days. Just not possible but I gave it the old college try.

Saturday, was very crowded but I managed to taste almost 40 wines. Sunday, was more laid back and I was able to taste – and spit – almost 54 wines. The plan was to taste the top tier, I.e. expensive, wines and then go on to reds. Sunday was to be dedicated to whites. I was semi-successful with the plan but did get distracted by winemakers, wine and friends. Here are my impressions to help guide your future wine purchases.

Best wine overall: Barnard Griffin Centurion 2016 Sagemoor Vineyards. So well knit, as close to as perfect a wine as you can sip. One barrel made. Thanks for sharing. $150.

Second place: Cadence Spring Valley Vineyards 1998 Red, an amazing 21-year-old. Youthful in appearance, wonderful aromas and very delightful to experience. Thanks for sharing. n/a

Third place: Cascade Cliffs Blood Red Columbia Valley 2017 Barbera, Bob Lorkowski has been making this wine for 20 years and it shows. Layered, juicy, rich, you need to try this wine. It’s amazing. $85.

And in no particular order, I would highly recommend to you:

Laurelhurst 2014 Walla Walla Petite Verdot – WOW! a dense, rich wine with so many anthocyanins it strains your glass. Relocated in the Georgetown district of Seattle, many small lot fermentations of great wines are made by the dedicated winemaking team of Greg Smallwood and Dave Halbgewachs. $36.

On the Kitsap Peninsula, Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor 2015 Old Vine Cabernet from Kiona Vineyards on Red Mountain. This award winning winery produced this polished wine from Red Mountain’s first vineyard. $60.

Karma Vineyards, overlooking Lake Chelan, produced two fabulous méthode champenoise sparkling wines. The finely bubbled 2014 Estate Pink Pinot Noir and the 2013 Brut Chardonnay with hints of apple and bread dough. $50 and $70.

Avennia 2016 Justine Red Rhone is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre that will be a great addition to any cellar. The first graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s Enology and Viticulture program, Chris Peterson was awarded a Winemaker of the Year in 2017. Excellent choice. $40.

A custom crush, custom bottling and canning facility intrigued me. Finding myself in front of Cascadian Outfitters booth, I decided to find out what Goose Ridge was all about and have a sip of Cascadian Outfitters can o’ red while sorting out their relationship.

I have enjoyed many bottles of one of Goose Ridge’s five wine labels, Tall Sage. What drew me to that wine was the back label. “Arvid Monson developed his first vineyard on the advice of Dr. Walter Clore, known as the father of Washington’s wine industry: ‘Find a tall sage and you have a place that will sustain superior grape vines.’ A tall sage is one that develops deep tap roots … This release is our tribute to a man of great stature, the founder of Goose Ridge Estate Vineyards.”

Cascadian Outfitters #Adventureinacan comes in three flavors, Chardonnay, rose, and red blend. Estate wine in a can for kayaking, backpacking or biking to the next winery. A six pack is $30.

Their remarkable 2,200-acre estate vineyard is located on a gentle slope adjacent to the Red Mountain AVA. Their five labels are Goose Ridge Estate, g3, Stonecap, Tall Sage and Cascadian Outfitters.  All come from this vineyard and Goose Ridge also sells grapes to other wineries.

Goose Ridge Estate 2015 Syrah is beautiful, everything you expect in a Syrah. The long, smooth finish comes from 22 months in French and American barrels, some new but most neutral. $38.

Kerloo 2014 Upland Vineyards on Snipes Mountain Grenache is all Grenache whole-cluster fermented and concrete aged. This old Snipes Mountain AVA vineyard dates back to the early 1900’s and is extremely warm and rocky. Pump-overs and punch-downs during fermentation extract color and texture for a beautifully balanced wine with great aromatics. A stunning wine for $40.

In the spring of 1997, Chandler Reach owners Len and Lenita Parris, traveled to Tuscany and stayed in a beautiful villa. Inspired, they created a little slice of Tuscany in Yakima. Their signature red, Monte Regalo Estate 2015 Red Bordeaux is a brilliant blend from the winemaker’s block of Cab, Merlot and Cab Franc. $30.

The Parris Estate Reserve 2015 Yakima Cab Franc is fermented in small, open top fermenters and then cellared for 24 months in new and neutral French oak.  Usually a right-bank blending grape, this standalone version is outstanding. $46.

Many great wineries start in a garage. Associated Vintners, now known as Columbia Winery,  is one fine example of an early Seattle garage winery consisting of a group of University of Washington faculty members.

Ducleaux Cellars started out in their Kent garage. Today, this small family winery is making great wines from an estate vineyard and winery now located in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, a sub-AVA of Walla Walla.

Ducleaux Cellars’ Chief Tasting Officer, Toby Turlay, was pouring their 2016 Ducleaux Cellars Anarchy. Mostly Syrah with a splash of Mourvedre, this wonderfully balanced wine from the Ancient Lakes AVA is highly aromatic and tasty! $29.

Brook & Bull Cellars is Ashley Trout’s latest venture. A talented winemaker who has produced wine in both Walla Walla Valley and Argentina. The first time I had her wines, it was the Torrontes grape from Agentina where she would work the March harvest.

Brook and Bull Cellars 2016 Columbia Valley Petite Verdot is exquisite. Another Bordeaux grape that is usually blended, this big, rich wine is stuffed with layers of flavors that make you want another taste and then another. $38.

There’s more but not today. In the meantime, save the date for the next Taste Washington, March 2020. Cheers!

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!