Tag Archives: Cabernet Sauvignon

Hidden in Plain Sight

My wife and I spent years visiting Napa Valley thinking that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was THE Napa Stags Leap… Not that I put research, or thought into it, but I had no idea there were TWO. Many years ago, my wife and I arranged a tasting appointment at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and were hit over the head with their rustic approach to red wine. It is always a difficult decision to buy wines that require 10 years in the cellar to enjoy. We made that calculation in those early years and never visited that Stag’s Leap again. Surprise, discovering there is another similarly named winery with a completely different approach to making wine!

Trade Tasting at Stags’ Leap Winery

This was a beautiful property. Everything you could want in a destination winery property: picturesque, historical buildings with architectural interest and a colorful history all tucked back in a forested valley, off the Silverado Trail on the East Side of Napa Valley. Although, what was truly special was the wine.

Christophe Paubert – Winemaker

This was an opportunity to tour the facility, taste the product, hear the winemaker discuss his wines, ask questions and immerse yourself in this winery’s experience. The best kind of wine country adventure! Christophe is a passionate, down-to-earth guy with a vision for his wine. An Old World artist with a New World sensibility. Here is one of those special winemakers who succeeds in leaving his signature behind with every wine produced. Each red wine had a special character to the tannins… all very structured, with age-ability. Even young, the tannins were so fine, as to make the wine approachable on release. After 20+ years of collecting and tasting premium wine, you learn to recognize a deft hand. Grainy, rustic tannins in red wine become a bludgeon, beating you over the head. This heavy-handed, unpleasant approach to red wine magnifies a seeming lack of experience (interest?) in a refined approach to collectible wine production. On the other hand, this winemaker understands the importance of nuance in his approach. Think muscular, with a gentle side and a focus on aromas that draw you in. I have always had a soft spot for winemakers that pay attention to the nose when building their wine profile.

The Wines

2016 Viognier – Alsatian white wine feel with citrus and tropical fruits, minerality and a touch of spice. Huge acid backbone for a Viognier. Interesting and complex with a profile that could pair well with foods, or be drunk on its own.

2016 Napa Valley Chardonnay – Mix of new/neutral oak and stainless. No malolactic ferment. Tropical fruit and citrus on the nose. This is an Old World style Chardonnay that does not use a malo ferment to tame the acidity and add butter flavors (yay!) Contact with the lees has been used to add texture. This is a crisp, aromatic, high acid Chardonnay. Perfect pairing for seafood and white cream sauces, but fruity and interesting enough to drink on its own.

2014 Block 20 Estate Merlot – A lighter, more structured style than your typical Napa Merlot. A Right Bank Bordeaux feel, but with such fine, approachable tannins, it takes you down the path to Margaux. Plummy fruit forward nose and palate, with a rich brown butter flavor adding interest. The brown butter often comes from a combination of aging on the lees and just the right toast on the barrels. Christophe asserted this was just the character of this vintage’s fruit. Either way, a special Merlot that highlights the best of both Old and New World wines.

2014 Twelve Falls Estate Red – I just wanted to bathe in this stuff! Unusual blend of Cab Sauv, Petite Sirah and Merlot. The PS was handled in such a way that it complimented the other varietals, instead of overwhelming them. Plum, blackberry, blueberry, spice and everything nice! High acidity and high tannins. Superb red blend!

2014 The Leap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon –  Needed time to open and unwind. Steadily blooming flavors and complexity over time. This is a highly structured Cab Sauv with very high acidity and high tannins. Fruit forward blackberry and currant out front, with earth and leather to the mid-palate. I found myself wishing for a bit longer finish, but the silky mouth-feel filled the gap. Beautiful approachable young Napa Cab Sauv.

2014 Ne Cede Malis Estate Field Blend Red – Odd field blend of Bordeaux and Rhone varietals both red and white. Areas of this block in the estate vineyards were planted back to 1920. High acidity and high tannins, busy flavors and silky mouthfeel. Quite nice on the nose and on the palate. I think I am a touch too traditional… the wine had me thinking too much about identifying varietals and associated flavors. I know complex red blends are becoming more popular, taking us back to a hundred years ago when field blends were much more common, but recognizing wine styles brings a certain amount of comfort. This wine could easily grow on me, but would take time.

Stags’ Leap Wine Style

Consistently fine tannins and an aromatic nose were indicative of these wines. All highly structured, age-able and food friendly, these wines were also soft, pretty and approachable when young. Characteristic of a talented winemaker working with high quality fruit. Tasting appointments are required. Call ahead and take the time to find this hidden gem. It will be well worth your while.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes, Wine Travel, Winemaker Interview

2012 Saviah Cellars Girl & the Goat

2012 Saviah Cellars Girl & the Goat

Walla Walla AVA, WA

Wine Tasting Note:

Rich, fruity blackberry, plum and spice on the nose. Fruit forward blackberry, plum and black currant on the palate, moving to a mid-palate and finish of copious amounts of dark chocolate. Spicy white pepper and cinnamon undertones. Medium-high acidity and medium tannin structure. Nice silky mouth-feel with an extra long finish. Super well-balanced wine. Drinking great right now… best window: 2016-2019. I wish this was more widely available than just in the restaurant in Chicago. I was gifted this bottle by Richard Funk the winemaker/owner at Saviah Cellars who took on the challenge of making this wine for Stephanie Izard – owner of Girl & the Goat. This wine is produced from his near perfect estate Petit Verdot vintage in Walla Walla during 2012. This is a superlative wine for drinking by itself and with food. I drank this with a coffee rubbed NY strip and it was a great match. 50% Petit Verdot, 25% Cab Sauv, 25% Cab Franc.

I don’t know whether the vision for this wine was the chef’s, or the winemaker’s, but this turned out to be a wonderful wine. Richard Funk is a great guy. I really enjoyed spending time with him during our last trip to  Walla Walla. He really hit a home run with this wine and I hope that Petit Verdot vineyard of his produces more great vintages in the future!

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Another Pretty Margaux: 2000 Chateau Rauzan-Segla

2000 Chateau Rauzan-Segla

Margaux AOC, France

Tasting Note:

Soft decant and drank over three hours with a friend after dinner. The typical pretty, elegant Margaux character is very evident. What started out with a beautiful silky texture, thinned a bit after two hours. The very funky strong forest floor aroma lasted about the same time frame, before it blew off to reveal an interesting highly complex nose that was definitely not fruit forward. The nose was full of earth, leather, tobacco and graphite with a little blackberry. The palate is simpler leading with earth and graphite, followed by blackberry and plum, mid-palate of dark chocolate following through with a short finish. Still a highly structured wine, even after its age, having medium-high acidity and tannins and noticeable alcohol (not overwhelming). All in all a very nice, somewhat typical Margaux with most of what you would expect. Drinking window: 2012-2020.

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Filed under Bordeaux, French Wine, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Wine Buying Strategies for the Average Consumer

So, let’s say it is Friday and you are Mr./Ms. average wine consumer on your way home from work. You drop in to the grocery store for a few things and a bottle, or two, of wine for the weekend. Your tendency is probably to go to a brand label you know that has proven reasonable value in the $10-15/btl. range, like Yellow Tail, Cupcake, or Woodbridge. Now, let’s say this day you just got a raise, or your just feeling a little adventurous and decide your willing to up your budget to $20/btl. and you look at the 100′ long wall of wine in front of you… and you are totally lost! What do you do? Make a selection at random? by varietal? because you like the pretty label? If you are like me (before the wine training), I eventually gave up and rolled the dice, picking a bottle at random of a varietal I thought I enjoyed. Half the time, I struck-out and had to pour the bottle down the drain. It happened too often to stick to my pride and drink the awful bottle.

If this sounds familiar, just what can you do to be a little more realistic and have a better chance of selecting a bottle you will enjoy? This will require a little advance thought and a little time to walk through the process, but in the end, you will feel like your money is being better spent!

How do You Drink Wine?

Most importantly, think about how you drink wine: with food, or without. Food requires wines with more acidity to cut through and compliment fats, proteins and carbs. Acidity is the component that makes you salivate and a “bite” is usually felt near the back sides of the mouth and tongue. Easy drinking (less acidic) wines may be what you enjoy, but are best drunk on their own. For example, it is difficult to find a Malbec, or Red Zinfandel with good acidity. I am convinced this is the result of producers assuming people have discovered Malbec and Zin as simple, fruity wines that drink well without food. These varietals can present much more character, but aren’t often produced this way. In the end, wine is a business and if a producer doesn’t think they can sell a type of wine, they will simply choose not to produce it.

If you enjoy wine primarily accompanied with food, then one approach can be looking for regions that are known for producing primarily acidic wines, i.e. Chianti (Italy), White Burgundy (France), or White/Red Bordeaux (France).

Special Case: if you are a red meat eater, wines with high tannins should be your choice, as the tannins break-down the fats in the meat and clean your palate between bites. When your palate is cleared, it prepares your taste buds to appreciate the full flavor of the food with each bite. Tannins are the component that makes your mouth feel like Marlon Brando chewing on cotton balls for his next big scene in The Godfather. The cottony dryness is usually felt between the teeth and gums. These wines are fantastic paired with red meat. Examples would be: all Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian Sangiovese, French Red Bordeaux. Italian pasta dishes with red meat sauces are also good pairings for these types of wines.

Why Do You Drink Wine?

Do you drink wine for the appreciation of the flavor, or do you just enjoy relaxing with a bottle of wine after work? If you are the latter, just make an effort to learn the better quality growing regions and select something in your price range from one of these areas. In general, wine regions that are known for their quality, or have been growing wine for generations, tend to offer generally better wines. An example would be Napa Valley in the U.S., or Bolgheri in Italy. If you can find a $20 bottle of Cab Sauv from these areas, give it a shot…  it is more likely to be enjoyed, than a random Cab from Lodi, or Mendocino. If flavor is your thing, you are going to be one of those needing to put some effort into learning about wine regions, because that is the only real method for selecting wines by flavor profile.

If you are selecting wine to enjoy with friends, or at a restaurant… some of these same strategies can work. If you are lucky at the restaurant, you might get a server that actually knows something about wine, but in general think of these situations as opportunities to learn more about wine. I have written several more advanced posts on this site to help with a detailed approach to fine wine selection, if you are ready to dive in.

Cheers!

 

 

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Filed under Food Pairing, Wine Education, Wine Tasting

2009 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Clos

2009 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Napa Valley AVA, CA

Tasting Note:

Still fresh on the nose with plum, blackberry, graphite and a touch of alcohol. First pour, closed with a minimum of fruit. You can tell this wine needs time to open. After 30 mins, fruit-forward with subdued plum, black currant and blackberry and a mid-palate of subtle dark chocolate with a very short finish. The acidity is medium-high, but it is the tannin that is interesting. Softer than when young, although chewy and strangely mouth-filling without being very drying. Not unpleasant, but past its prime drinking window. Great value Napa Cab Blend when young. Losing a couple of rating points with age. Drink-up!

As I continue to drink more aged Napa Cab/Cab Blends at all price points, I am able to fine-tune a feel for drinkability and age-worthiness. Hind-sight is always 20/20, but this was a wine meant to drink in a 2012 – 2015 window (3-6 years of age). Looking back, there was not enough balance in the structure to go 10… I am finding the lower cost Napa Cab blends tapping out at around 5 years. The more recent higher quality releases have been hitting a wall at around 10-12 years of age. I have only tasted early 90’s wines that have lasted well, in a 15-20 year window.

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The Legacy of Fine Wine Culture

Is there a “Right” Atmosphere to Enjoy Wine?

I received my Somm training from a mentor that still firmly believed a profession in wine was a “calling”. I have worked hard to train my palate and learn the wine regions of the world to pass that crazy test. After all the work though, I still can’t agree with the formal atmosphere surrounding much of the fine dining wine service industry. Is the defining U.S. wine experience a stuffy, formal affair? Why is there social stigma, or a nervousness regarding wine selection in restaurants? Wine knowledge in the trade should be a tool that facilitates the comfort and enjoyment of clients… instead of a blunt instrument that adds to the discomfort.

julia-louis-dreyfus-wine

Seen the Mollydooker Shake?

I was having dinner with business associates at an Italian restaurant last month and I was asked to order a bottle for the table with a budget of around $60. Unfortunately, the restaurant had a poor Italian wine selection, so I chose the 2014 Beringer Knight’s Valley Cabernet, usually a pretty solid selection (quality vineyard and a track record for value). This vintage was not as easy drinking as past releases, so I asked everyone to bear with me and I put my thumb over the top of the bottle and proceeded to give it a vigorous shake! Everyone got a kick out of it and we proceeded to drink a moderately softer wine. WARNING I am about to suggest a completely inappropriate wine faux pas… (if this will torture your sensibilities, please skip to the next paragraph) …say you run up against a tightly wound Chianti, or young red Bordeaux, or maybe a 100% Petit Verdot… picture pouring the bottle into a blender. I suggested this approach at the restaurant and everyone immediately started laughing and vowed to do this the next time they had guests over. (Disclaimer here: this is NOT meant for fine wine. It would be better to age these wines for another few years, rather than throw them in the blender). Check out this link: Mollydooker Shake. Young Mollydooker wines can be very high in tannin. A nice stiff shake can do wonders to soften any highly structured wine.

Is Wine Fun?

Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to a wine enthusiast’s home for a wine dinner with four other couples. Very expensive, quality aged wines were being served. Out of the blue, one guest suggests we go around the table and have each person share an impromptu personal tasting note for each wine being served. Really? Afterwards, I overhear comments about a previous wine party my wife and I hosted and the numerous wine-ignorant guests in attendance. That day I made myself a promise, I would always try to help others relax around wine and make the experience comfortable and unpretentious. I have become a reverse wine snob.

I am thoroughly embarrassed by trained professionals in the industry who feel it is necessary to overwhelm a client with their wine knowledge and lecture on the importance of selecting… just the right wine. When an attendant at a winery tasting room, or a Somm at a fine dining restaurant approaches me, I am usually faced with one of two types:

  • An under-trained wine steward who has not tasted their own wine inventory
  • A pretentious jerk, who wants to tell me which wines I should prefer

I am not sure which is worse? I hate to tell people I am formally trained… then, they either get defensive, or are intimidated and clam-up. When I am dining out at an establishment with a large cellar, I always search the lesser known “nooks-and-crannies” for the best value. Most of the time, I get annoyed looks, but all with me have a great time. I was at Cowboy Ciao (Scottsdale, AZ) dining with an associate last year (GREAT wine cellar, by the way). From previous discussions, I knew he preferred big, highly structured Napa Cabs. I asked him if he had ever tried Aglianico? I suggested to him, I could find a really enjoyable bottle of Aglianico there for under $40/btl. I got a serious look of disbelief. We proceeded to run the waitress ragged… I selected three different bottles that had spent time in their cellar – one was a 2006, I believe. It took our server 20 minutes working with the wine steward to track down one of these bottles (she was a good sport)! I had them decant the wine… AND he thoroughly enjoyed it! Fine wine doesn’t have to cost $125/btl and be called Caymus, or Silver Oak. Servers should encourage more discovery. Their clients would enjoy the broader wine experience.

Who decided that wine was not supposed to be fun?

Next Wine Vacation

I hope at least some of you have tried a wine vacation. If you haven’t, you should. Very few experiences provide better food and drink, more inviting scenery, or more romantic atmosphere… but they can be fun too! Napa is always the ultimate U.S. wine experience, but it is expensive and can be a bit stuffy. For something on the more fun side, try the Central California Coast, Oregon, or East Washington state. Ask around once you arrive and seek out the less pretentious, relaxed tasting venues. If you want an interesting experience, try Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles, CA. Hit them during one of their events in particular and be prepared to have a rockin’ good time!

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Filed under Restaurant, Sommelier, Wine Cellar, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Getting into a Winemaker’s Head, After One Tasting?

In YOur HEAD cartoon

I am about to embark on a dangerous journey… trying to understand a winemaker’s thinking after one tasting session. Probably presumptuous, but I think a fun exercise for the imagination.

California, Livermore Valley AVA

This last week I stopped into a highly regarded producer from this wine growing area. My first time visiting the Livermore area. The only wine I had previously tasted from this AVA was a sub $20 Cab Sauv from Concannon and it was not pleasant. Well, adventure feeds the soul, right?

Steven Kent Winery

An ineresting stop, because it was clear that the winemaker had a vision for the wine he was producing. So here are my impressions of the winemaking strategy and why:

Work with What You Got

Guess #1 – This area seems to have a cooler climate than Napa Valley and the soil is more fertile. You can taste it in the wine: less alcohol, less phenolic development, a little vegetal in flavor, more red (than black) fruit and thinner viscosity. So, the first decision: what style of wine do you make from this fruit? These wines were all trying to be “Old World” with a new world twist: very fruit forward, attempting balance (albeit without much structure), little to no new oak, no American Oak, and keep the alcohol low (no chaptalizing). This winemaker fully embraced this approach and it appeared to be a clear decision in all the wines I tasted.

Consumers Want Less Expensive Wine to be Easy Drinking

Guess #2: This isn’t my opinion, but it is clearly this winemaker’s view. Every general release wine I tasted was very fruit forward, had little to no tannins and medium (or less) acidity. This winemaker clearly believes this is what sells at this price.  Personally, while I understand many consumers enjoy this style… I am sorry, I just can’t drink it. I would rather have a wine cooler. You just can not drink this stuff with food…

Silky Soft Textures Sell Wine

Guess #3: This winemaker experiments heavily with aging red wines on the lees. It is the only possible answer for how smooth these reds are… and by the way, my favorite style component from this winemaker (another common Old World technique). It really makes an impression. It actually makes the the general release wines even easier to drink (if that is possible). Every wine I tasted was trying to be soft…

Only Collectors and Educated Wine Consumers Enjoy Wine with Structure

Guess #4: So, when the tasting room manager discovered I am a trained Somm, they broke out the wine club selections: reserves and single vineyard wines. These wines had structure: with high acidity and medium (or higher) tannins. Honestly, I was a little offended when I realized what was going on. I guess educated wine buyers are all rich… just because you are allowing more contact with the skins and including some stems in the maceration and ferment, doesn’t mean the process is more expensive. These red wines spent 18-24 months aging in the barrel, just like most good reds.

Conclusions

As it turned out, I enjoyed the tasting! It is fun imagining you can get into the winemakers head. You don’t normally find such clearly defined characteristics in a winery’s breadth of a single vintage. The club wines were good, but they weren’t big on value… These wines were fruit forward, complex, structured and very silky. One word of caution, before deciding to seek out this producer, you must settle on a preference for red fruit flavors in your wine. There wasn’t much in the way of blackberry, plum, or black currant flavors to be found.

Wine Tasting Notes

NV La Ventana Barbera, Livermore Valley – Retail $36

Nice nose of red cherry and cinammon. All bright, fresh red cherry on the palate. The mouthfeel was a touch creamy. The tannins were low and the acidity was medium. A nice fruity table wine that is meant to drink before dinner. It had no over-whelming characteristics, therefore a balanced feel, but virtually no structure. There was a touch of dark chocolate on a short finish.

2010 Pinot Noir, El Coro Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – Retail $48

The nose was of red hard candy. The palate was cough syrup and spice. This wine did not taste like a cool climate Pinot (Sonoma Coast). It is so fruity, I would have guessed Carneros, if tasting blind. Low tannins and medium acidity. ** UPDATE** 3/6/16 – Upon researching this vineyard, I found it is actually in Carneros! BAM! Fun to nail it! C’mon they need to train their people…

2012 Lot 29 Red Blend, Livermore Valley (Bordeaux Blend) – Retail $36

Fresh cherry on the nose. Palate is of brown butter, then red cherry following. There are medium tannins and high acidity. Too much oak… and it is strange to taste such strong cherry flavors in a Bordeaux blend.

2013 Cabernet Franc, Livermore Valley – Retail $48

Nose of red cherry, herbal mint and cinnamon. The palate has red and black cherry and allspice flavors. Medium-high elegant tannins and high acidity. The wine has a silky mouth-feel and a long spicy finish. My favorite wine of the tasting. Based on the other wines tasted in Livermore Valley, this might be a good location for cool-climate Cab Franc…

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Lencioni Vineyard, Livermore Valley – Retail $65

The winemaker had some guts here… this wine had a slightly vegetal nose. I can appreciate the courage there. I have tasted many Cabs that were a touch vegetal and amazing! The palate was of black cherry and blackberry with cinammon and a touch of butter on the finish. The wine had high tannins and high acidity. The mouth-feel was nice and silky.

2014 Cabernet Port (fortified with brandy)

I was told this was a tawny style port… ooops! Not even close. A heavy medicinal nose. Tasted exactly like red cherry cough syrup with herbs and mint added. the fruit was too fresh to be a traditional tawny port. Definitely complex, but not really enjoyable.

 

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Baldacci Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap

Baldacci

Baldacci Family Vineyards

Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon

Stags Leap District, Napa Valley

Tasting Note:

Beautiful Napa Cab in the middle of its drinking window! Drinking Baldacci Stags Leap Cabs over the last 20 years, I am struck by how they always over-deliver at their price. This bottle cost $46 in 2010 and is drinking like a $70+ Napa Cab! Blackberry and black currant on the nose with tar and leather. Still fruit-forward after 8 years of aging, with blackberry and black currant in front, transitioning to a mid-palate of dark chocolate, leather, underbrush and tar. The wine has a lengthy, slightly hot finish. Gorgeous rich mouth-feel, full and sensuous. The tannins have resolved well and are just under the surface. The acidity is high, but this paired perfectly with a rib-eye steak. Without food, the acidity would have been a bit much. The signature Cab character of graphite and tobacco are missing, but regardless, my wife and I really enjoyed this bottle with steaks for dinner!

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

A Tale of Two Red Cities

In the USA, Walla Walla Valley AVA is fast approaching premier status as a red wine producing region. The highest accolades are coming from Merlots and Syrahs, but the area produces well-made Bordeaux Blends too. From a critic’s perspective, this area is a serious alternative to the Napa Valley region… especially, if you prefer the Napa wines produced before the mid 90’s. Now, there is a choice between two premium “red” producing cities in the U.S.

The over-arching theme in Walla Walla is the pursuit of Old World styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. If you enjoy the popular New World style of heavily-oaked, fruity Cabs coming from Napa (like Caymus and Silver Oak) very few of these Walla Walla wines will find their way into your cellar. Syrah aside, I have chosen three of the oldest producers in Walla Walla as effective examples of the diverse styles of Bordeaux Blends that represent this growing region: Walla Walla Vintners, Seven Hills Winery and L’Ecole #41. I visited all three last month and was fortunate enough to do a deep-dive with each.

WWV Pic

Walla Walla Vintners

The flavor profile across all releases at Walla Walla Vintners (WWV) had the most dissimilar flavor profile in the area. I met with Bill Von Metzger the winemaker and we discussed the winery founded in 1995 in depth.  Their vineyards (and immediate neighboring sites) located at the Eastern edge of the valley contain the only dry-farmed vineyards I was able to find in this AVA. They originally prepared these estate vineyards for irrigation, but have yet to experience a growing season requiring the additional water. Although, if the Washington drought continues, they expect this may change next year. The WWV 2015 vintage validated once again the impact of dry-farming on my palate. All wines tasted tended to be more concentrated and textured, perhaps squeezing more out of the terroir.

Bill is a locally educated and trained winemaker. In my experience, this can be an impediment to good winemaking. Exposure to a broad sampling of world winemaking styles tends to develop better winemakers. Although in this case, Bill transcends his background… I think, primarily due to his keen curiosity and desire to experiment. I thought Bill showed a deft hand at pursuing the Napa Valley style… at half the price. Of my twenty (or so) tasting appointments in the area, this was the only winery embracing the challenge and successfully producing this style in a cooler Walla Walla climate.

If you enjoy Napa Cabs, try these wines. They may not quite reach the level of the premium Napa producers, but my goodness, not at $75+/btl either. The quality is good and the value is undeniable.

SHW pic

Seven Hills Winery

Seven Hills is the preeminent Old World French Bordeaux style producer in Walla Walla and one of the first wineries founded in the area in 1988. I met with Erik McLaughlin, an executive and manager at the winery. Erik and I discussed the history of wine growing in the region, their philosophy and the resulting growth. Seven Hills produces wines that compare very favorably to Bordeaux labels. All their wines have a lighter, sometimes silky texture with a good acidic and tannic backbone. Refined, balanced and built for aging, but approachable enough when young to be an excellent companion to a steak dinner. The tasting room is in a very urban setting at the winery, with the atmosphere from the 100+ year old building enhancing the tasting experience.

I talked briefly to Casey McLellan the winemaker and founder and I heard from both of them their total commitment to this wine style, regardless of the popularity of New World style California wines over the last decade. A great story and I believe a good business decision. These wines are some of the best of what I call “restaurant style” wines, made to accompany food and at the right price to be fairly affordable after the three tier distribution system delivers it.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, try these wines. Again, these do not quite reach the level of premium Bordeaux producers, but comparable quality is sold at half the price (or less) of their Old World competitors.

Schoolhouse photo

L’Ecole #41

L’Ecole is the most notable example of a winery in the region that best walks the fence between New & Old World styles. Founded in 1983 in an abandoned school house, they have grown substantially into a large commercial winery. I have been drinking their wines since the early 2000’s and do miss the hometown, small business atmosphere from those early days. Is it OK to be nostalgic for the old building facade, before the face lift? Then again, I also preferred the previous cute label too. Yes, (begrudgingly) I understand the idea – “Time and Tide stops for no man”. I met with Ben Dimitri the tasting room manager and we talked about L’Ecole history and past vintages.

It was interesting to discuss the story of the 2004 vintage in Walla Walla. It was the coldest growing season in memory for the area and few local vineyards were able to produce ripe fruit at harvest. 10+ years ago, Washington State was still a fledgling wine region and the largest producer in the state (Chateau St. Michelle) offered the early Walla Walla producers the opportunity to source fruit from their warmer Columbia Valley vineyard locations. What a generous and smart move…  missing a vintage in those early years would have seriously hurt the local industry and slowed their momentum in the market. The topic arose, because I mentioned enjoying a bottle of 2004 Ferguson (lost in my cellar somehow) last year. The bottle handled the 10 years of age well, but was at the outside edge of its drinking window.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, but would prefer an easier drinking more approachable style… L’Ecole is your ticket. Once again, think half the price.

Diversity and Value

If you notice, there are two common themes here: diversity and value. Try these Walla Walla wines. If you are more than an occasional, casual wine drinker in particular, seek them out. These can easily become your choice for the value section of your cellar.

Wine Tourism

This area has a long way to go as a wine destination, but it was significantly more welcoming than my last visit seven years ago. Premier sous chefs around the country looking to venture out and start a premium cuisine restaurant, please consider Walla Walla. A well-run, properly promoted gourmet restaurant will succeed here, without the competition you would find in other top wine regions. Currently, the food is only slightly better than average, even at expensive establishments. With all the fresh fruit and veggies grown locally, this would be a perfect location for a farm-to-table concept. Producing world-class wines right in their backyard, Walla Walla has to be the next wine destination to hit the foodie scene. I look forward to my next visit and enjoying a much more vibrant restaurant scene.

Walla Walla Premium Bordeaux Style Producers

Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon Winery are the two oldest wineries in the Walla Walla AVA. I have tasted their wines and they are excellent, but priced to match, or exceed their Bordeaux and Napa competitors. These wines are every bit as good, but I find it hard to see the value. Frankly, I would rather drink the established producers I know from Bordeaux and Napa, with much larger production and greater availability. This post was meant to highlight the value in Walla Walla. These producers do not fit into that category.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Cool Climate Wine, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Stephan Vineyards L’Aventure and Friend

I decided to stand-up a couple of my favorites for my birthday and decided it would be a L’Aventure night!

I am a huge fan of red blends, especially Southern Rhone style. In my opinion, L’Aventure is the quintessential producer in this category in the USA. The winemaker and owner Stephan Asseo is a French ex-pat that moved to the U.S. to make red-blends from the fabulous Terroir on the West Side of Paso Robles. He was looking to escape the French limitations of the AOC laws and he has done it in a big way. L’Aventure wines capture the perfect balance of the big red Paso profile, while still maintaining elegance and balance. The Estate Cuvee in some vintage years, has easily made it into my top 50 list of best bottles of all time. If you like Robert Parker Jr. picks, you will adore these wines. If you enjoy Stephen Tanzer’s picks you will enjoy these wines and marvel at the finesse of wines with such power.

Mr. Asseo often uses Cab Sauv in his red wines and I appreciate this working outside of traditional boundaries. You don’t often see Syrah and Mourvedre blended with Cab Sauv and Petit Verdot in a wine, but in the hands of a master winemaker, the winery is able to encourage just the right contribution from each to make a harmonious whole. Mr. Asseo is also a block blender extraordinaire… with 58 acres separated into 40 blocks, each vinified separately, then blended… he has developed a system to coax the just the right character from each Micro-Terroir and has the palate to blend them properly. Virtually all L’Aventure wines are comparatively high in alcohol, but are well balanced and do not seem hot. L’Aventure wines are definitely priced within the premium space in the marketplace, but they are also one of the very few producers in this category that continually delivers on value.

I enjoyed these wines with friends and was unable to take detailed notes, so I will only be able to provide general impressions. The group had a wonderful time and enjoyed the wine immensely. In my mind, it is always preferable to share a special bottle at a romantic dinner, or with friends!

Plus 16

2009 L’Aventure Plus 16

California, Paso Robles

This wine was more “true” Southern Rhone in profile with 42% Mourvedre in the mix. A touch earthy in character (from the Mourvedre), with all of the beautiful blue and black fruit that they usually coax from their grapes. A slightly heavier mouth-feel, with great balance. A little lighter on the structure, even with 42% Cab Sauv. It is possible, the six years in a bottle have softened the tannins and acidity a bit. This wine is definitely in its prime drinking window, perhaps 2015-2017. If you have this in your cellar, don’t let this sit too much longer!

Estate Cuvee

2010 L’Aventure Estate Cuvee

California, Paso Robles

Another “Wow” moment with an Estate Cuvee. A big, powerful red, with more structure than the Plus 16. Less earthy with no Mourvedre here, instead – a liberal dose of 16% Petit Verdot. An unbelievable 15.7% alcohol and you can barely tell it is an adult beverage. Soft, plush texture and a nice backbone. Just a gorgeous wine, drinking beautifully at five years in the bottle. Drinking window of 2015-2020, depending on your feeling about tannic structure.

Viader

2007 Viader Syrah

California, Napa Valley

The Viader is a 100% Syrah blended from two different clones – Rhone and Barossa. I really enjoyed this wine, the others in the group, not so much. The drawback, the 14.9% alcohol was very evident. This Viader wine had a refined, silky texture that I thoroughly appreciated after the mouth-coating L’Aventure wines. This was right on its drinking window with wonderful black fruit, nice acidity and a good tannic backbone. Drinking window of 2013-2016. If not for the hot profile, this wine would have held its own against the two previously enjoyed. I will make an observation here that I have noticed many times previously. Napa premium wine producers better develop an understanding of the changing palate of the American wine drinker, or they will be left behind by other wine regions in the U.S. Hot tasting wines are losing their appeal. Realistically, the alcohol over-shadows any subtle flavors that might be experienced with the hors d’oeuvres, or an accompanying meal.

Conclusion

Balance in a well-made wine still wins the day. If the winemaker goes big… he/she better have a deft hand at counter-balancing the hedonistic character of the wine. The Estate Cuvee was a gem!

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Filed under Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Rhone Blend, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes