(The Accidental Visit, and other Wineries)
This is a compilation of thoughts from a road trip taken across Washington State in September, 2015.
Chateau Ste. Michelle, Canoe Ridge Estate
Through the inadvertent mistake of a wrong address, we found ourselves outside of the Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard rather than the planned Cold Creek Vineyard. Although it was close to two hours in the opposite direction, everyone was having such a wonderful time, sharing open bottles of wine from previous appointments or staring out at the sun-tinged brush of the Horse Heaven Hills blowing in the wind, that no one even noticed the incorrect detour until we pulled up to a building that stated, in elegant, cursive script, "Canoe Ridge."
Mimi Nye, the estate's vineyard manager, sped over to meet us at the winemaking facility, ready to lead us on an impromptu tour of the vines. Minutes later, we were about one thousand feet up in the air, at the vineyard's highest point and the prime spot for their Merlot and Malbec vines, looking over the watery ribbon of the Columbia River and were able to peer into the Northern reaches of Oregon. It was a bright, sunny afternoon by then, but the wind was crisp and cutting, causing us to shiver underneath our coats.
Speaking from between the vine rows, her face partially obscured by a green, leafy vine, Mimi instructed us to pull a grape from the vine and pop it into our mouths.
"Bite into it," she said.
We did. It was sweet juice, dark fruits flowing onto our tongues until our teeth crunched into the large seeds, offsetting the sweet with a harsh bitterness that stung our cheeks, which was followed by a texture similar to sand paper--the tough grapes skins against our tongues. It wasn't my first time to pluck grapes off the vine, but Mimi talked us through the process of knowing when to harvest for the season by taste alone.
I thought the grape tasted wonderful, ready and ripe.
Mimi said, quite decisively, "Two more weeks," and I nodded in assent, deferring to her expertise.
In my first post, I spoke of the concept of a wine's story, of seeking out wines that are not available in every grocery store across the nation. So, what gives? Why speak about Chateau Ste. Michelle?
Two reasons...one, I absolutely believe that, similar to Robert Mondavi in Napa, Chateau Ste. Michelle's history is so intertwined with the history of Washington State, and their influence on the wine industry as a whole is so consequential that it would be a mistake to ignore their wines. It would be like a beer aficionado scoffing at the idea of Samuel Adams, totally ignoring their overwhelming influence on the popularity of craft beer.
And the second is their ability to bring lesser known varietals to the forefront. Many years ago, their goal was to bring prominence to Riesling, going so far as to jointly produce "Eroica" Riesling with Germany's Dr. Loosen and today, Riesling is the top-grown varietal in the entire state, outshining Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, they have set their eyes on Syrah, the grape widely believed to be Washington State's calling card varietal, the signature for the wine community. It will be exciting to see what they do with it.
-2013 CSM "The Pundit" Syrah, Columbia Valley...$25-
As they did with Riesling and enlisting the help of a famed producer from Germany, CSM has done a similar thing with their Syrah program, partnering with wine consultant, Philippe Cambie Michel Gassier of the Southern Rhone to help in this new venture.
With that said, "The Pundit" is a fantastic addition to Washington Syrah. At the 20ish price point, it's an attractive bottle for the average consumer and it certainly over delivers on the quality. It's a bright and attractive Syrah, co-fermented with a touch of Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre, and shows off rich raspberry, tea, and floral notes on a medium-bodied frame. This isn't one to cellar, in my opinion, drinking very well now.
*In addition to "The Pundit," CSM is also producing a Costieres de Nime Syrah called "Le Fervent" at $20 and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape-inspired GSM blend called "The Tenet" at $60.
-2012 CSM "Canoe Ridge Estate" Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills...$25-
This is a solid wine. CSM's Canoe Ridge Merlot spends 16 months in a blend of partially new American, French, and neutral oak barrels, so you get quite a bit of varying flavor on the palate. Just enough tannic structure to indicate that it can age a bit. Medium-bodied with ripe, dark fruits, a touch of pepper and a nice, smooth finish.
A couple of days afterward, I did see Cold Creek Vineyard off in the distance as we drove by on the highway. It was about ten or fifteen miles away, a wild flick of green nestled at the base of the Horse Heaven Hills. My drifted there, wondering what it might have said to me from between its vine rows, but then I thought, perhaps the mystery is better.
Mark Ryan Winery
Mark Ryan's winery is located in a nondescript office park that was once filled with regular businesses, I'm sure for shipping various office supplies and other endeavors, but is now flooded with garage wineries. Prior to this trip, I'd never been to a winery that wasn't the preconceived notion of what a winery "should be," all of my visits being to beautifully rendered buildings set in a vineyard, and the picturesque ideas that we all dream about with owning a winery.
Not so with Mark Ryan. It was barebones. Raw. A dream in the process of its ultimate fulfillment.
Metal vats were set in rows of four or five down the expanse of the warehouse. Mesh-like cloths covered them, except for one, which had a young man wearing a bright yellow trucker hat perched over the top thrusting a long metal rod down into it, performing the first of two daily punch downs. The punch-down serves as a way of keeping the grape skins by churning the fermenting juice over their tops, thus continuing fermentation and extracting deeper color.
There were actually three warehouses connected to one another through enormous roll-up doors with a small strip of a break room and offices running along the side of the building. Stainless steel tanks stood like shiny soldiers waiting for the call to battle. A forklift sat quietly in a corner.
It was a strange feeling being in a winery like this one. It wasn't impressive on its own. It was enology pared down to its necessities, the winery appearing that it was meant more for shelves stacked with reams of paper rather than metal vats filled with fermenting wine.
To some extent, that's what made it one of my favorite visits I've had to a winery. It caused me to realize that the rest was just pomp, the lovely wineries set in a meadow were built on extraneous details (not that there's anything inherently wrong with that) and that visiting the Mark Ryan winery showed me that wine doesn't need any of that to be great.
Strip away the pomp and circumstance and hopefully there is truly wonderful wine being produced.
-2013 Mark Ryan "Dissident" Red Blend, Columbia Valley...$35-
Much has been said about the high quality for the price point when it comes to Washington's wines and Mark Ryan's "Dissident" is a perfect example. This would put to shame many bottles coming from other notable wine regions at double the price.
It's a blend from several vineyards from around Washington from Ciel du Cheval to Red Willow and is a Bordeaux-style of 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, and a touch of Petit Verdot. It's just an immensely drinkable wine that is loaded with creamy dark fruits, a flutter of espresso, and smoky embers. It's built to age a bit, but I wouldn't wait.
-2013 "Crazy Mary" Mourvedre, Red Mountain...$48-
When I spoke of Washington being adventurous, this is a perfect example. Ryan's "Crazy Mary" Mourvedre has about 21% Syrah built in. A Mourvedre is hard enough to find in France let alone made in the States, but this winery is not only daring enough to attempt it, but also trust that there will be an audience for it. In my opinion, it paid off.
There only 220 cases produced of this deep--almost black--red wine. It's so dark, it almost seems that it will stain your glass. I loved this wine. It's deep and rich with layers upon layers of flavors revealing endless black fruit, smoke, pepper, and gamey meats. There's fine-grained tannins that support the immense body. I highly recommend this bottle for your next meal of braised short ribs or pot roast.
We meet Rick Small, proprietor of Woodward Canyon, at his tasting room on the road leading into downtown Walla Walla. Although the city is only a few miles away, there's a feeling of remoteness here. It's a small room, looking as if it was formerly a homestead in the wide open West a few decades back, with the prerequisite squeaky floorboards to match.
Rick is lean and wiry, with a muscular frame that seems built from working in the vineyards rather than pumping weights at a gym. He's a live wire, constantly excited by the subjects he covers whether it's his new wine or soil composition, and his subjects jump around a lot. His mind seems to move faster than his mouth can keep up.
He takes us to his Estate vineyard site, a short drive from his tasting room into the rolling hills to the East of downtown Walla Walla. If it felt remote before, the vineyard seems to be in the middle of nowhere with nary a car in sight.
It's mainly wheat out there, Rick being one of the first to plant with grapes three decades prior. The hills that make up the vineyards almost feel like ocean wave frozen in time, rising and falling in great curves and small valleys. One feels small in a place like this one as you can look out for miles in every direction, a chain of mountains rising to the South while the East and North reveal acres of unused land.
It's easy to imagine planting roots out there, a short distance from the Woodward Canyon Estate, and building a winery that produces bottles that folks across the world will taste. It's easy to imagine, but hard to actually do. Rick is a pioneer. He was the first of a kind to envision a place rooted to so many other crops and believe that Walla Walla could be a wine destination one day, a wine valley to rival Napa and Bordeaux.
His dreams are becoming truer every day and you only have to taste his wines to understand it.
-2007 Woodward Canyon "Artist Series" Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley...$90-
I find the Artist Series Cabernet to be consistently Small's most Washington wine in character, perhaps because he blends from several vineyards across Columbia Valley rather than just his estate in Walla Walla--a little of this, a little of that. It just has that perfect balance between California fruit and Bordeaux elegance, which to me, represents the state's wines most accurately.
I was able to purchase this through the tasting room at the winery, so there may be more available if you contact them directly. This was performing excellently. This full-bodied Cab contains just a touch of Petit Verdot and displays an array of fruit and savory spice. Currant, mineral, herbs. The fine-grained tannins suggested that this will continue to age very well.
-2006 Woodward Canyon "Old Vines" Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley...$90-
I find the Old Vines Cab to be delicious, but the alcohol--at a whopping 16.5%--seems to sap the wine of character. I don't get a sense of place off this wine. It's dark, and deeply brooding, loaded with very lush dark fruits, chocolate and espresso. It is sourced from--of course--older vines in Washington, specifically two vineyards planted in the 1970s: Sagemoor and Champoux. 3% of the blends is from Petite Verdot and then aged 22 months in French Oak.
Red Willow Vineyard
Mike Sauer believes in Syrah so much that he built a chapel at the peak of a hill within his vineyard to emulate Jaboulet's "La Chapelle," which overlooks the Rhone River in the appellation of Hermitage, a renowned site for some of the best Syrah in the world. Now, Red Willow's chapel has reached almost the same acclaim, at least in the state of Washington.
At the top of this peak, we tasted through some of the best Syrah harvested at the site: Betz, Owen Roe, and Eight Bells.
You see, Mike isn't running a winery, but a vineyard and Red Willow is a premium source for many of Washington's best wineries. On the back a trailer, pulled by an old tractor, we stared out the open sides as vineyard rows passed by, at the end of which were little dangling white tags written with black Marker, denoting the winery for which the fruit was headed--Efeste, Mark Ryan, Owen Roe--while ten-foot high pickets nailed with a sideways piece of wood announced the grapes planted to each block.
Next to the Chapel, looking out on the expansive Yakima Valley, Mike sampled us on three different pieces of his vineyard, bits of juice inside nondescript black bottles with hastily printed labels that stated "East Block," "South Block," and "West Block."
Essentially, these were separate, fully-produced wines supplied to us by the Owen Roe winery. Each one was different. One block had richer fruit whereas another had higher acidity and then third had bigger tannins. I couldn't pick one that I liked most, only able to enjoy each block for its own qualities.
And that's where the skillful job of a great winemaker comes into play.
It's perplexing enough to taste wine from one, tiny micro climate such as Red Willow Vineyard and compare it to another vineyard miles away, but instead, to compare two particular blocks of the same vineyard, only inches away, is much more vexing. If a bottle of wine is a book, then each row makes up a sentence, and stringing them together into one epic tale is the work of the winemaker.
Red Willow contains many good stories, enough to fill a library.
-2012 Betz "La Cote Patriarche" Syrah, Yakima Valley...$55-
Produced from some of the oldest vines in Red Willow Vineyard, Betz's "Patriarche" exudes an elegant personality with heft. Deep flavors of plums, minerals, and crushed flowers flow out with richness, but with amazing acidity for support. It's a perfect mix of Old World/New World sensibilities.
-2012 Owen Roe "Chapel Block" Syrah, Yakima Valley...$55-
There are only around 400 cases of this 100% Syrah from Red Willow Vineyard, comprised of three specific zones of the aforementioned Chapel Block. It's another great example of that Old/New style of wine. Big, plump fruits with the right amount of savory components to keep it interesting. Chocolate, prunes, violets, and black olive all flow forward on a sturdy frame of tannins. This drinks as if it will go through the next decade, maybe 2025.