Washington Rhônes; a Session with Greg Harrington, MS

Seattle 034Have you ever noticed the different aromas of grape stems? According to Greg Harrington, Master Sommelier and owner of Gramercy Cellars, it isn’t the color of the stems, green versus brown, that is the determining factor when deciding whether or not to use them in his whole cluster wines. It is the aroma. The stems that smell like sweet peas add not just tannin but also aroma to his wine.

Gramercy Cellars is located in Walla Walla Washington and was founded in 2005 by Greg Harrington and his wife, Pam. They came to Washington because they were excited about the Rhône varietal wines that were coming out of the state. Walla Walla is proving to be a great match for Syrah and other Rhône varieties. One thing that makes it a good area for grapes is what the wine makers refer to as ‘the rocks bump.’ Just as the vineyards of Châteuneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône of France are covered with ‘galets’ or large rocks, so too are the vineyards of the Walla Walla region of Washington covered with large rocks. These vineyard rocks add an earthy, meaty quality to the wine that has been dubbed the ‘rocks bump.’

Grenache was the first Rhône variety planted in Washington state in the 1960’s. Through the 1980’s Syrah, Mouvedre and Viognier were planted. The 1990’s saw a good deal of clonal diversity. Today there are several Rhône varieties doing quite well in Washington. The number one white variety is Viognier followed by Marsanne, Roussane, Picpoul and Grenache Blanc. The biggest red planting for Rhone varieties is Syrah followed by Grenache, Mouvedre, Cinsault, Carignon, and Counoise.

The Gramercy Syrah 2011 is a whole cluster wine made with 100% Syrah. It has aromas of blackberry, purple flowers, a hint of the green stem tannins and tangy cherry on the finish . Crisp and full bodied, it is an elegant Syrah. The Gramercy Mouvedre 2011 is 90% Mouvedre with 5% Syrah and 5% Cinsault. They call the blend L’Idiot du Village. The Mouvedre in this wine has the ‘rocks bump.’ L’Idiot du Village has dark fruit and smoky meat aromas with a smooth texture and a silky finish.

Proper Winery, also in Walla Walla makes a Syrah with the ‘bump.’ With aromas of bacon, pepper and black cherry, it is a substantial Syrah.

Kerloo Cellars’ Syrah out of Walla Walla has a distinct kalamata olive aroma with a good crisp finish.

The Ross Andrew winery makes a red blend called Force Majeure from Red Mountain vineyards. There are aromas of iron, smoke, dark fruit, tar, chocolate, cranberry and deep forest with a tangy coffee finish.

Kevin White’s blend is the classic GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre) blend. It has aromas of tangy red fruit with a hint of rose and spice. It is a very fresh tasting wine.

Walla Walla has a lot of new wineries that are finding the terroir to be a great home for the Rhône varieties. It is in area that is growing in more ways than one. Wine makers aren’t just experimenting with clones, they are exploring different ways of making wine, such as, moving to concrete fermentation and employing sustainable practices. But mostly, they are making great wine.

The Great Pacific Northwest; Washington State

Seattle 053Every student of wine knows that next to California, Washington state produces the most vitis vinifera wine in the country. In 1987 there were fewer than 100 wineries in Washington. Today there are over 800.

The success of the European vine in Washington state is in part due to something that happened 10,000 years ago, and that is the Missoula floods, a series of floods, 30 of them, that brought many types of soils to Washington, including basalt, silt, sand and calcium. There is a great deal of variety in the terroir of Washington. Because of this great variety, new AVA’a (American Viticultural Areas) are still emerging.

According to Sean Sullivan, author of award winning blog, The Washington Wine Report, there are five emerging AVAs to watch in the coming years. It’s important to note that Columbia Valley AVA which was established in 1984 is the largest AVA in the nation. Many of the new and emerging AVAs are sub regions within Columbia Valley. As vintners continue to discover variation in the soils, sub-regions become more important.

Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley became its own AVA in 2012. It has calcium and fine sand soils, and cooler temperatures due to its position further north. Eighty percent of the wine coming out of Ancient Lakes is Riesling, such as Charles Smiths’ Kung Fu Girl and Chateau St. Michelle’s Eroica. The cooler temperatures and calcium deposits come through in both of these crisp, vibrant Rieslings.

Columbia Gorge became an AVA in 2004 and straddles both Washington and Oregon. Taking advantage of the mineral deposits in the soils, the vineyards are planted with 64% white grapes. But further south with slightly warmer temperatures, those white varieties are more likely to be Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer.

In 2005 Waluke Slope became an AVA. It is one of the warmest AVAs in the state, second to Red Mountain. Known for its sandy soils, Waluke is two thirds red in its vineyard plantings.

Also, formed in 2005, Horse Heaven Hills has a similar make-up of plantings with two thirds red and one third white. The wines from this region are known for their ripe fruit and good structure.

Some other Washington state regions to watch are The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater (not, yet, an AVA,)which is known for its Syrahs, Lake Chelan (AVA 2009,) Rattlesnake Hills (2006) and Naches Heights (2012) which is mostly biodynamic and 100% sustainable.

Washington state has seen tremendous growth in its wine industry in the past 20 years. It has come a long way, but in many ways, it is just getting started. With so many soil types, and many more grape to terroir matches yet to be made, expect a lot of continued growth and discovery in Washington wines.

For more information about Washington state wines, visit Sean Sullivan’s website, The Washington Wine Report. For information on Washington State wineries, visit Washington State Wine.

The Great Pacific Northwest and Tempranillo

Tahoe, 2009“Nueve Messes de Invierno, Tres Messes de Inferno,” is how Javier Alfonso describes the climate of both his home of origin, Ribera del Duero, Spain and his adopted home, Woodinville, Washington. Javier is the owner of Pomum Winery in Woodinville. He serves on TAPAS, which stands for Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society. Their mission is to cultivate Spain’s famous grape, Tempranillo in the Great Pacific Northwest of the United States, and to educate as they go.

What do the Great Pacific Northwest of the United States and North Central Spain have in common? A lot, according to the members of TAPAS. As Javier Alfonso points out in the above Spanish saying that he brought with him from home, both regions have a climate that can be described as ‘Nine Months of Winter, Three Months of Hell.’ That is the climate that Tempanillo needs; a continental climate with hot summers, big diurnal swings and a short growing season.

Tim Harless of Hat Ranch Winery agrees and has found that same climate in Idaho, yes, ‘Let’s dispense with the potato wine jokes right up front’ Idaho. Along the Snake River, the climate is hot in the summer and the elevation is high, in some places as high as 2500 feet, much as it is in central Spain.

Dwight Sick, the winemaker at Stag’s Hollow Winery has found the Tempranillo grape to be right at home in OKanagan Valley, British Columbia. He has found the soils of this region, a combination of sandy, gravel, glacial and clay to be a good match to the grape.

One of the pioneers of bringing Tempranillo to the Great Pacific Northwest is Earl Jones of Abacela Winery in Oregon. He realized back in 1992 that the Iberian grapes would be a natural to the region, not just because of the similar climate, soils, and altitudes, but also, because of the same latitude as some of Spain’s great Tempranillo growing regions.

The word ‘Tempranillo’ sounds similar to the English word ‘temperamental,’ but all representatives from TAPAS agreed that it is not a difficult grape to grow. As they have all shown in their wines, Tempranillo can do quite well outside of its place of origin. The Tempranillos that we tasted from Stag’s Hollow, Pomum, HAT Ranch, and Abacela all had aromas of mineral and dark fruit. The Okanagan wine from Stag’s Hollow had undertones of leather and spice. Washington’s Pomum Cellars presented coffee and raspberry. HAT Ranch of Idaho offered cranberry and rose, and the Abacela of Oregon Tempranillo gave off smoked meat and chocolate aromas. But they all had a similar flavor profile and structure to the Tempranillos of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

In Spanish ‘temprano’ means ‘early.’ That is what this grape needs. It is early ripening and thrives in a short growing season. In the Great Pacific Northwest, Tempranillo has founds its second home.

Chateau Coutet, a Premier Grand Cru of Sauternes

SWEChateauCoutetShe was introduced to us as ‘vivacious,’ and that she was even under the duress of jetlag, having just flown to Seattle from France.  Aline Baly spoke with just a whisper of her Boston accent, the city in which she had spent twenty years.  Her presentation was conversational and jovial.  She drew us all in with her funny stories and humble manner.  More than approachable, she was absolutely delightful.  Yet, when she spoke of the wine, it wasn’t just her native tongue pronunciations of the grapes and the regions in her ‘absolutment parfait!’ French (because she is after all,) that introduced a refinement to her talk.  There was an elegance, a sweet, delicate, lushness in her descriptions of the wines from her family Chateau in Sauternes that was both crisp and poetic.

Sauternes in general is a tough sell in the US.  For one thing, they are fairly expensive because of the production of the wines themselves. The grapes must be botrytised, a natural process that cannot be hurried or even counted on completely.  The grapes, because of the botrytis (aka noble rot, a mold that grows on the grapes, dehydrating them and producing a very concentrated flavor in the wine) have to be hand picked.  Where one vine will produce several bottles of a still wine, one vine will produce one bottle of a botrytised Sauternes.  The cost of the wine is not unjustified.  But the second reason that Sauternes are not as commonly enjoyed in the US as they are in France, is that we don’t know quite when to serve them.  In Barsac, where Chateau Coutet is located, Sauternes are served as an apparitif.  The acidity of the base grapes, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, allow for that.  They are, also served with roasted herbed chicken, wonderful with lobster, and delightful with all kinds of cheese from a strong blue cheese to a salty hard cheese to a creamy soft cheese.  Aline Baly doesn’t like the term ‘dessert’ for her wine.  She feels that pigeon holes the product.  In her village in France, Sauternes are referred to as ‘gold’ wines, another color in the wine rainbow, white, gold, rosé, and red. 

As we tasted through the Chateau Coutet Sauternes from vintages ranging from 1976 to 2011, we experienced aromas of citrus, ginger, honey, dried fruit, orange marmalade, gingerbread and raisins.  Each year had a little different story to tell. 

We were also, treated to Opalie, a non-botrytised wine from Barsac.  The 2011 is made from 50% Semillon and 50% Sauvignon Blanc.  It had aromas of lemon, ginger and bay leaf with a lushness to it that was held up beautifully by the vibrant acidity of the wine. 

Drinking the wines of Chateau Coutet is not unlike listening to the bi-lingual speech patterns of Aline Baly.  They move from crisp, upfront and vivacious to lush, elegant and poetic, and they do so seamlessly.  They are at the same time fresh and approachable, yet,  complex and interesting.  What Ms. Baly would like Americans to know is that Sauternes are not just elegant and lovely, they are, also, quite versatile. 

Visualizing Scent



When you roll the wine around then put your nose in the glass, the first question you ask yourself is, ‘What do I smell?’ But before you ask yourself that question, ask yourself this question, ‘Where are my eyes?’ Where do your eyes go when you are smelling wine? According to Tim Gaiser, if you are like 90% of wine tasters, your eyes go down and to the left with a soft focus. You are not looking at anything in your environment. You are looking at the images in your head. For most of us, our scent memories are very visual. As we smell the wine, our minds are conjuring up images of black cherries, oak barrels, and vanilla beans.

Tim Hallbom, a behavioral scientist who studied Tim Gaiser and other Master Sommeliers and wine professionals has found that our sense of scent can be manipulated by manipulating our visual scent memories. If the first image that comes to mind is a blackberry bush, mentally move that image further away. What happens to the scent you are experiencing? Now, move the image closer to you and notice how the scent changes.

So, how does this help us become better tasters? Now, that we know that scent memory is visual, we can improve our scent memories by really paying attention to what the scent objects look like. The next time you come across a scent that could be found in wine, for example, a rose, study it as you smell it. Firmly etch it, both the aroma and object itself in your mind. Another good exercise for improving scent memory is to review scents even when you’re not tasting wine. Mentally call up objects along with their aromas. This type of visualization has been shown to be very beneficial in strengthening and increasing our scent memories.

Now, swirl the wine in your glass once again. Put your nose in the glass and inhale. What objects come into your mind’s eye? What aromas do you smell? Without lifting your head, move your eyes from the downward position that they are in to as high up as you can look without taking your nose out of the glass. What do you smell? If you’re like most people the answer will be somewhat incredible.

For more on the visual memory of scent, go to Tim Gaiser’s website, or, if you ever have the chance, take a class from him. He will probably be speaking again at the 2015 Society of Wine Educators Conference.

My New Friend, Brett

SWEStEmilionAt the Society of Wine Educators Conference last week, I took a class called, An In-Depth Look at St. Émilion taught by Paul Wagner.  We tasted through eight Grand Cru wines from two different vintages, four from 2009 and four from 2010.  In St. Émilion, the chateaux are re-ranked every ten years.  The most recent ranking was done in 2012.  The chateaux are ranked as Premier Grand Cru; there are currently only four in this category.  In Grand Cru there are 64 and Growers which number 700.  The difference in the vintages that we were tasting was that 2009 was a very warm year that produced riper wines.  One would expect more fruit aromas and bigger body in these wines.  2010 was drier weather with greater diurnal swings.  This vintage produced a more classic right bank Bordeaux.   

The Chateau Grand Pantet 2009 is 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It had aromas of dark cherry, violets, soft, satin tannins with a good acidity on the finish. 

The Chateau Fonplégade, 2009   is 92% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was bright and crisp with a high alcohol content, though not out of balance.  The aromas were sweet black cherries, purple flowers and oak with silky tannins.

The Chateau Fonroque, 2009 is 85% Merlot and 15%Cabernet Franc.  It was earthy with dark, brambly fruits and tea.  It had a rich texture and smooth tannins.

From the 2010 vintage we had a Chateau Grand Corbin that is 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It had a floral, mineral aroma with notes of licorice and a lush creamy finish.

The Clos des Jacobins, 2010 is 80% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It presented blackberry, plum and wood aromas with intense tannins.

The Chateau Laroze, 2010 is 68% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was tangy cranberries, coffee and vanilla with a soft, long finish. 

Chateau Faugeres is 85% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It had floral and dark cherry aromas with a chocolate finish. 

But the big surprise came with the first wine we tasted.  It was a Chateau Villemaurine, 2009, 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc.  Upfront the aromas that hit my nose were wet coffee grounds and tobacco, a nice, earthy wine with bright acidity, dark fruit, drying tannins, deep, rich aromas and a chocolate finish.  I really liked it, especially the bold earthiness of it.  After we finished tasting and talking about it, Paul Wagner asked how many of us liked it.  My hand shot right up, along with many others, seasoned professionals and certified all.  This wine, to me, had a very satisfying flavor profile.  Then he dropped the bomb; this wine has Brett.

Brettomyces is a natural yeast that grows on grape skins.  Like the natural bacteria that show up in wine, Brettomyces can spoil the wine.  In enough quantity, it gives the wine aromas of a stinky Band-Aid or a horse’s rear end.  Along with adding an unpleasant smell to the wine, it will also, mask the fruit aromas.  It cannot be reversed.  In enough quantity, it will ruin the wine.  However, in small quantity, it adds a dimension of earthiness to the wine in the form of coffee, leather or smoke that works in concert with the fruit and oak aromas.  It takes a skilled wine maker to use this wine ‘fault’ to its advantage.  Up until last week I didn’t know it, but I like a little Brett with my wine. 

Society of Wine Educators Conference; Why You Should Go Next Year


Chateau Coutet Sauternes

Chateau Coutet Sauternes

Last night I returned home after spending the better part of the week in Seattle at the Society of Wine Educators’ Conference. I went with two friends, one of them a manager for Total Wine who has been to the conferences before. Because she is in the business, she took many opportunities to network. That is part of her job, after all. She very generously introduced me to quite a few of her friends and acquaintances who are, also, in the business. When the unavoidable question eventually came up, ‘What do you do,’ I squirmed a bit. I tried my pat answer, ‘I’m a stay at home mom.’ That was met, as it often is, with a mildly sympathetic smile, and averted eyes, trying desperately to find an interesting follow-up question, but usually settling into an uncomfortable silence. After a few of those encounters I switched to ‘I’m a wine blogger.’ The number of people who seemed to be fascinated with that answer was exactly zero. By the second day I was beginning to feel a bit out of sorts and perhaps out of place. Mind you, the classes were fantastic. The quantity and quality of information that I gained from the conference was massive and well worth the time and money. It was just in the social situations, the meals and mingles where I was scratching around for some more solid footing. Undaunted, I tried yet a third answer to the inevitable question, ‘ I am a wine enthusiast.’ That struck a chord with everyone I met. In fact, it was after I owned my position as an avid hobbyist that I found many others like myself. There were many professionals there, wine producers, wine educators, wine retailers, wine distributors, but many were from different industries that had nothing to do with wine. The one thing that we all had in common was our wine enthusiasm.

I like wine people. If I were to describe a typical wine person, I would describe him or her as curious of mind and generous of spirit. With very few exceptions, the wine people that I have met (and that includes you, my fellow-bloggers) have been more interested and dedicated to the subject than to the ego. Collectively, they are a force, a very ebullient force. And that’s not just the wine talking.

My wine people.

My wine people.

Everyone that I met was incredibly friendly, gracious and enthusiastic. There was a great deal of camaraderie and generosity. It was a community that was sharing information, ideas, and enthusiasm as freely as we were sharing the wine. That is not to say that the camaraderie was a product of the effects of the wine. Most everyone conducted him or herself with an air of professionalism. We were all there to learn. It was the sharing that really impressed me. People were not in a lone, competitive state of mind, but rather they were in a community state of mind. And that sense of community created an environment that was conducive not just for shared information, but also, for new ideas. As Jonah Lehrer so eloquently put it in his book , Imagine: How Creativity Works, ‘…a group is not just a collection of individual talents. Instead, it is a chance for those talents to exceed themselves, to produce something greater…’

Meeting Miss Jane!

Meeting Miss Jane!

My three and a half days in Seattle at the Society of Wine Educators conference were full of fantastic speakers, even some rock stars in the wine industry, such as Jane Nickles, Tim Gaiser, Greg Harrington and Sean Sullivan. And don’t even get me started about catching a glimpse of Ann Noble at lunch. For those of you who don’t know, she invented the wheel, the aroma wheel. When I met Karen MacNeil’s assistant, the conversation went something like this, ‘I work for a wine writer, Karen MacNeil, Maybe you’ve heard of her book, the Wine Bible?’ After I put my lower jaw back in place, I was able to respond with something quite intelligent like, ‘Holy crap! How’d you get that gig?!’ My point is, in spite of stereotypes to the contrary, the wine people I met this week were humble and generous.

The food was good. The wine tastings were plentiful. Each day we tasted through close to 30 wines which was a great opportunity to not only taste new wines, but to hone my spitting skills, as well. By the end of the week, I barely dribbled at all. The planned outing to Chihuly Gardens was breath-taking. The information gained from the presentations was stimulating. The ideas shared with fellow enthusiasts were inspiring.

Chihuly Gardens

Chihuly Gardens

When I signed up for the conference, I had thought of it as special indulgence, one that I probably wouldn’t repeat. But I got so much out of it, that I’m already thinking about next year’s conference. It will be in New Orleans. If you are a wine enthusiast of any stripe, you may want to consider going as well for the wine and the learning experience, but mostly for the shared community.