Saturday, October 29, 2011

Washington State Initiative 1183 Will Impact Wine In Oregon

I’m not one to get into political debates. I don’t even like talking to people about my voting preferences. However, there is a bill coming up for election in Washington that may greatly affect your wine buying and I think you should simply be aware of its impacts.

This bill is a hotly debated bill in the state of Washington. Initially I thought this wouldn’t effect anyone living outside of our state, however the more I ponder this bill I think that the wine industry and our region will be very greatly affected.

The reason for the affect is that wine country is located very much on the borders of Oregon and Idaho. Many people who work in Washington wine live in Hermiston, Pendleton, and Milton Freewater.

Conversely, I also know that many people from those towns come to Costco in Washington to shop and take advantage of not paying sales tax in Washington while receiving the great prices on items that would simply cost more in those towns.

In the last election, and in the current upcoming state election Costco has mounted a full force effort at passing what is now Initiative 1183. As it stands now any store that is more than 10,000 square feet in size and wishes to participate will be allowed to sell hard liquor. It will abolish state liquor stores, and allow for individual companies to purchase the ability to operate a liquor store in the existing spaces.

The bill will also abolish the standing laws concerning wine distribution in the state, and allow retailers to purchase wines at any agreed price directly from the manufacturer. There will be no longer a need for wine distributors in the State of Washington.

“So”, you say, “How does this affect me?”

First, understand that all wine in this region is picked up from the manufacturer, delivered to a warehouse, and then distributed out to individual retailers and establishments by a bonded distributor who pays the taxes. If the bill passes these distributors will no longer be needed, especially in situations such as WalMart and other large chain stores.

Seems like a pretty good deal huh? Well, actually maybe not. The problem is that distributors make all their money on delivering their goods to the large entities. They actually lose money or barely break even on distributing to restaurants and smaller stores such as convenience stores.

When distributors are short cut by these large retailers they will no longer have any reason to carry those wines for the small people. The only answer is that wineries will have to start selling their wines door to door in order to keep smaller businesses selling their product. This will actually cost more, and hurt supply.

Second, it seems like a good deal that we’ll be able to buy booze and wine at really cheap prices from Costco. Doesn’t it? Ask the small retailer who has his kids in your classes, has you do her hair, or buys a burger every day at your drive-in. They are already hurt by Costco and WalMart’s burn and pillage methods. It’s no wonder that Costco has paid $11 million to win this campaign. They stand to earn a lot of money very quickly when they get this bill to go through.

Oh, and by the way, buying wine and booze in one state and transporting it across state lines back to Oregon is against the law in both states. I recommend buying local.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chateau Montelena Is A Favorite Ghost Winery

In the spirit of Halloween, the other day I received a bottle of wine from what I consider to be one of the country’s most famous Ghost wineries.

Chateau Montelena Winery, established in 1882 and located in the heart of Napa Valley was once again made famous by a fairly recent movie called Bottle Shock. If you haven’t seen the movie I’m hoping that you’ll go on Netflix and rent it while you still can.

While I won’t destroy the story line for those of you who haven’t watched the movie, it is about the story of how the Californians beat the French in the Judgement of Paris of 1976. Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay beat the top French Chardonnays at the tasting, leading Napa Valley to the top rankings for fine wines.

But, prior to that there is a long history at the Chateau, making it one of my favorite Ghost wineries of all time.

Chateau Montelena really began on a chilly morning in 1882 when Alfred L. Tubbs used a spade to turn over some rocky soil outside of Calistoga, a small town at the base of Mt. Saint Helena. Tubbs planted his vineyards and built a beautiful Chateau. By 1896 Chateau Montelena was the Seventh largest winery in the Napa Valley.

Things went well until the passage of Prohibition, at which time the wine industry in America was devastated. Many of the winemakers in America closed their doors forever. Some found ways to still grow grapes, sell the grape concentrate, and supply people who wanted to make their own wines in the privacy of their bathtub at home.

Once Prohibition was repealed the Tubbs family went back to making some wine and selling grapes for home winemakers. However, the Chateau never regained its strength or ability to make wines in the volume it had before Prohibition.

In 1958 the winery was sold in its depressed state to York and Jeannie Frank, who chose the site for their retirement. They excavated a lake on the site, and made a wildlife sanctuary.

It wasn’t until Jim Barrett bought the place, replanted the vineyards, and installed new winemaking equipment that the winery went back into production. In 1972 the first wines were produced in many years, and soon to become famous in the Judgement Of Paris just a few years later. Truly an amazing story of a winery completely dying and being brought back from the dead.

I received a bottle of the winery’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is picked in small sections allowing the grapes to be perfectly ripened. This creates a better fermentation process as well.

The wine was a deep red in color with hints of tobacco and cocoa on the nose, blending with red currant. The flavors were rich and dark, with black cherry and tobacco. A nice body to the tannins in the wine is balanced nicely with the rich acidity. I definitely noticed this wine open up as the night wore on.

Thanks to the Barrett family for making wines so good that the French remain envious. I highly recommend you reach the winery at


Saturday, October 22, 2011

This Year Vineyards Need Divine Intervention

One of the great and complicated things about wine is that it is two complete fields of business all wrapped into one product. On one hand you have the winemaking, which is so incredibly artisan in its approach. The winemaker and their assistants spend weeks, months, and years perfecting the fermentation, aging and blending.

On the other you have a very agriculturally based product that, like all agricultural products is subject to Mother Nature. Some years the climate cooperates and creates amazing wines. Other years become nightmares, destroying entire crop yields in a single day.

This year is one of those years that makes the vineyard operators consider going into saner professions such as deep sea scuba welding or racing airplanes in Nevada. I joke, but seriously this year has been a weather nightmare for vineyard owners.

As you remember, the Pacific Northwest had a very cool spring and early summer. Record levels of rainfall, combined with cool temperatures made for very small and heavy grape clusters. It wasn’t until August that heat units started to build in Eastern Washington and Oregon that the grapes desperately needed to mature. A few hundred degree days came finally in September before the fall rains hit again.

All of this rain and lack of warm weather has made grapes not ready for picking throughout the Northwest. In many areas the race is on to get the grapes up to the required “brix” or sugar level in order to harvest before the first freeze sets in.

It all seems so simple, but the science of grape growing for wine is actually kind of complicated. During a normal growing season the spring and winter moisture gets pulled from the ground and in healthy soil and climate just the right size of grape clusters grow from the vines. Not to big and not to small, with just the right number of berries per cluster.

Sometime in early summer the Northwest suddenly dries out. As the summer warms, the grapes grow and mature. By the time September hits the grapes build in sugar levels and are ready for picking.

Depending on the grape variety the “brix” level needs to be somewhere between 24 and 28 before fall freezes set in. This year the grapes just aren’t getting there.

So, what’s a grape grower to do? Turn to the heavens of course!

My friends at Gordon Brothers Winery just outside of Pasco, Washington each year host a small celebration and have the local Catholic Priest come out to the Vineyards for a blessing of the vines. The blessing, combined with a great taco lunch makes for a great afternoon. This year we walked the vineyards, talked, and laughed. If nothing else it eased the mood of those present.

The Gordons aren’t the only ones asking for a little help from above. This month I’ve talked with many vineyard owners about the need for divine intervention. One vineyard owner walks his vineyard, reads his bible and prays each morning. Another sheepishly admits that he’s said a few prayers this season. Some just laugh and say it’s all up to Mother Nature.

Regardless of the outcome, this year’s crop of grapes has definitely got a lot of people in a scare. Hopefully somebody up there is listening and we’ll end the year with some good juice in the barrels. If you are into wine and don’t mind having a conversation with God, would you mind asking him for a few more sunny days?


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vino Casa Silva Offers Exceptional Chilean Wines

In 1892 French wine pioneer Emile Bouchon planted a bunch of vine starts in the colluvial soils of Chile in the Colchagua Valley area. Luckily the vines that were planted were removed from Europe before the Phylloxera issues that hit Bordeaux just a few years later. This allowed the vines to grow strong throughout the last century, aided by cool Pacific breezes at night and warm, dry conditions during the days.

Fast forward now to five generations later. The Silva family has been producing wines from those vines, many of which were planted over 90 years ago, and have been providing bulk juice for Chile’s inexpensive but high quality wines.

In 1997 the Silvas decided to break away from allowing all of their grapes to go to the bulk wine business and started pulling their finest grapes for their own wine production. This is where the Casa Silva brand was born.

Under the careful eye of Mario Silva, winemaker Mario Geisse produces some of the greatest large production wines in Chile. Geisse’s specialty is Carmenere. So much so, that he is considered in Chile as the “King of Carmenere”. This is quite the feat considering how much of that acidic yet herbaceous wine is produced in that country.

Carmenere is a complicated wine to produce, in which the wine is pretty much determined at the time of harvest. There are some things you can do in the barrel room, however it is pretty well known that if you don’t pick the grapes at just the right time they will either become too fruity or too herbaceous in flavor depending on the sugar levels.

I received a bottle of Los Lingues Gran Reserva Carmenere from the winery’s 2008 vintage year this week. The juice runs exceptionally dark purple out of the bottle. Hints of dark stone fruit mixed with mint, lavender, mocha, and cloves fill the nose. On the palate this wine shows itself as being soft and juicy, with a light butterscotch and very balanced finish.

At $22 per bottle as the recommended price, I see this bottle as being one to definitely share with friends either with lamb or any kind of barbecued meats and veggies as a spicier alternative to Pinot Noir.

Also, with the bottle of Carmenere, I had been holding onto a bottle of Casa Silva’s Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2009. This varietal is something that I’ve been more familiar with for availability in this region. I thought it would be fun to open this bottle at the same time.

This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is hand picked and cooled immediately upon arrival to the winery. The grapes are then macerated prior to fermentation which produces a very fruit driven wine with good tannic structure. Dark ruby in appearance, the wine is rich with dark fruits and cherry. Flavors of blackberry, black cherry, and a slight hint of fresh tobacco on the palate. The wine finishes long and gentle with a very nice astringency level.

The Cabernet is offered at retail at about $12 per bottle, which is almost half the price of the Carmenere. The reason is that the Cabernet is meant to be more of a production wine, and the Carmenere is more of a stand alone specialty wine. Both are very much worth their price though.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Infamous Red Mountain Winemaker Passes Away

Truly, one of my favorite winemakers in this region passed away this week at the age of 55. Michael Moore, owner of Blackwood Canyon winery on Red Mountain passed away sometime Monday evening from natural causes according to the Benton County Coroner.

Moore, who graduated from University of California at Davis in the 1970s with a degree in fermentation science, moved to Washington soon after graduation to start working for Claar Cellars, Kiona Winery, and a few others.

Mike built the first production winery on Red Mountain back in 1982. It burned down in 1985 forcing Moore to start over again from scratch. In the past few years, Moore’s pristine property on Red Mountain became more valuable than winemaking itself. As of last year he had sold off a few hundred acres of his vineyards.

Last year I was hired by my friend Duane Smith, a commercial realtor in the Tri Cities to photograph Moore’s vineyards so they could be marketed. I spent several hours up on the vineyard site looking out toward Rattlesnake and the upper Yakima Valley. Truly, Michael owned a small piece of heaven out there. Unfortunately, the sale of property didn’t pay down enough debt, and Moore was forced into Chapter 11 protection in May of this year.

Over the years I had several opportunities to get to know Michael. Certainly, among those in the winemaking profession there were a lot of critics as well as those who had a deep respect for Moore. Just last weekend, while I was enjoying the “Crush” up in the Yakima Valley, there were several conversations about Moore’s winemaking and marketing practices. Even more, upon the report of his death there were several conversations and articles that I found interesting.

One thing that I can tell you about my own relationship with Mike was that he didn’t ever really know me. We had a relationship where, honestly, I didn’t want him knowing that I was in the industry. He didn’t have a love for those who worked in the business, and wasn’t afraid to let anyone know that. My anonymousness gave me the ability to just sit and listen and watch.

I truly loved visiting Mike with friends whenever I gave a tour of Red Mountain. It was always my last stop of a touring day. I did this for several reasons. Primarily, I loved the experience of taking people there to see their reactions, and visiting there took a very long time.

Some people would refuse to get out of the car. Others would walk away from the tasting thinking that they had just encountered Bacchus himself. I had people screaming mad for taking them there, and people thanking me profusely for allowing them to see how wine really should be made.

Usually you would find Mike in his winery barefoot or in sandals year round. He was almost always smoking something in the barbecue outside. You didn’t taste wines at his winery without tasting it with some sort of cheese, sausage samples, or other food. Last, but not least, if you were willing to listen, he would spend hours regaling you with stories of wine, winemaking, and his old-world techniques.

Mike, honestly I will dearly miss you. I hope that you are making great wines in heaven and walking barefoot amongst the vineyards!