Saturday, July 28, 2012

Brilliant Mercenary Winemaker Claude Gros

Do you ever wonder how a new winery can suddenly open their doors and have all of their wines be absolutely fantastic right off the starting line? Even more, you look at the winemaker’s name and know that you’ve never heard that name used before. Doesn’t it make you wonder just a bit?

Also, have you ever wondered how some wineries just seem to get it right every time? Year after year, that brand wins awards and sells out just in time. They are the ones who get 95 + scores consecutively even though the year may not have been that great in every other tasting room in the region.

As Clint Eastwood said, “A man has got to know his limitations.” In every business there are owners and managers savvy enough to own up to their weaknesses. They may have a passion and a certain level of expertise to do their craft reasonably well, but without someone behind them to provide guidance that takes them to greatness. Think of any great athelete. I don’t know of a single one who didn’t get coached to the top.

That is where a man like Claude Gros comes in. Considered to be one of the great Oneologists of this generation, Gros not only makes his own wine, but hires himself out all over the world as a consultant winemaker for those who want to win at the wine business.

Gros hails from Languedoc-Roussillon, the southern most tip of France that adjoins to Spain. His winery, Chateau Negly, is famous for its 96-100 scores. Little did I know about this area other than they grow a huge amount of France’s volume of wine grapes. I learned that the area has been one of the most politically embattled parts of Western Europe for centuries.

I consider myself to be lucky to have gotten the chance to meet Claude at a recent tasting at Sun River Winery in Kennewick last week. He consults for the owners and Greg, the full-time winemaker to ensure that their wines are the best they can be.

As we tasted through a Semillon-Sauv Blanc blend, Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, and the winery’s fantastic Port style wines one thing that held true, as they had in past tastings, was that the wines were consistently elegant and beautiful.

I spent a lot of time listening to the conversations in the room. Most importantly I wanted to hear what this brilliant but quiet man had to say about wines in this region as well as wines throughout the world.

A few things fell out of the conversation that I think you, my dear readers, might find interesting. First, and foremost, “great wines come from the vineyard”. It happens so often that poor growing conditions, poor soil, and poor watering practices make juice that has to be fixed. Gros, and other top winemakers want it right in the vineyard so they don’t have to use oak and sulfites to fix the wines.
Also, one of Gros’ biggest criticisms is the making of Rose’, my favorite summertime beverage. Claude says, which I know to be true, that most regions make Rose’ as a fallout from extra red grapes in the press. They treat it as a red until it is on the crush pad. “Really great Rose”, says Gros, “comes from growing the grapes specifically for that purpose.” Hmmm...something to contemplate.

To taste local wines by Claude Gros, you won’t have to go far. His local wineries are Bookwalter and Sun River. You should check them out!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Justin Wine Knows Its Place

Justin Winery Tasting Room
There are many times, being a boy from Southern Idaho, you know where your place is in this world. For me, I wasn’t raised to be some skinny jeans wearing guy with a Rolex. I was raised to be good, old fashioned working stock. Certainly, I clean up pretty well from time to time, but I know where I sit in the world.

The same goes true for some in the wine business. I was sitting in a discussion the other night with a very famous winemaker from France (subject of another article). He brought this up about wines from our region, and many other regions around the world. Simply, some varietals are just meant to be grown in certain conditions and climates. You can grow them in other areas, but it isn’t the same.

What I like about Justin Winery and Vineyards is that they do know their place in the world. Located in beautiful Paso Robles on the Central Coast of California, they aren’t as high faluten as you’d find up north in Sonoma or Napa. But, they like me aren’t ashamed of it. They’re damned proud.

Started in 1981 by Justin and Deborah Baldwin, Justin winery is located in the Adelaide Valley just to the west of Paso Robles. Known for its remoteness, this is one part of California that is known more for its wildlife than it is for its people.

The Baldwin’s story isn’t much unlike a lot of other successful winery owners out there. Both were very successful in the investment banking industry and chose to come to the simpler life. The Baldwins had a real love for Bordeaux wines, and really bought into the dream of making their own California wine paradise.

With the help of master winemaker Fred Holloway over the past 20 years, the winery continues to grow and flourish. Holloway has been very active in California wines from small wineries to some corporate wineries such as LaCrema. He has several 95 to 100 rated wines in his career.

The biggest thing to know about Paso Robles, and Justin for that matter, is that they are close to, but not included in the psychosis that is Napa. They have the tools and staff available, without the high costs.

This week I enjoyed a beautiful bottle of the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine initially opens up in the bottle like a pair of tight pants, but after getting a few minutes of air it is like getting your stretchy pants on and sitting down on the couch. This is a sign of a superior wine that will age very well over the next 10 + years.

The aroma of the wine is full of currants, with notes of cherry and blackberry. Spices such as vanilla and anise are richly interlaced with the fruit. The flavors are as rich as the nose suggests with plenty of currant, cherry, anise, and cedar. There is a nice acidity to the pH which balances the soft tannins and fruit.

There are a lot of ways to get ahold of this wine. You can get it through many higher end wine shops in the Northwest, as well as through the Justin Wine website at . I would also suggest if you are going through Central Valley staying at the bed and breakfast on location. You can check it out on the website as well.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Williamson Vineyards A Great Southern Idaho Oasis

The front door of the Williamson Winery. 
Left takes you to the fruit.  Right takes you to the Juice!

No matter where I travel I make it a real point to visit the local wineries. It has been something that my wife and I have done for many years. Just our way of being touristy I suppose.
This last week when we were in the Boise Valley I wanted to make at least one stop in Idaho wine country. It being a Monday, I knew that most of the self respecting places would be closed, recovering from the busy Independence day weekend.

However, we did luck out as we drove toward Lizard Butte outside of Marsing, Idaho. Litterally a driveway away from the Ste Chappelle Winery that I wrote about a few weeks ago, was a winery owned by the Williamson family.

For those of us from the Boise Valley, we grew up knowing that there were basically three major families in the fruit business from that region. The Symms, the Saxtons, and the Williamsons. Little did I know that over all these years, the Williamsons, like the Symms, have gotten very busy in the wine industry.

The Williamson's Many Wine Awards
Williamson Fruit celebrated 100 years in 2009. Originally a homestead of Lillian Williamson and her husband George Gammon. The farm has grown from having to deliver water by horse and trailer to water the trees, to being a major producer of tree fruit in the region.

The Williamson Family got into the wine business about 20 years ago. They saw the success of their neighbors and decided that putting in some vines wouldn’t be a bad idea. A few years ago they entered into an agreement with Rob Koenig from Koenig Winery, which is just down the street about 200 yards.

With Koenig at the winemaking helm, the Williamsons have done very well for themselves. They have acquired many trophies, ribbons, and accolades over the past decade.

We pulled into the fruit stand/winery at the end of the day. The very friendly winery staff actually came out to greet us, and tasted us through their portfolio. Once they found out who I was they even opened a couple of “special” bottles for us to try.

I can’t share with you the notes from the entire portfolio, but these are the notes on my favorites.

The 2011 Dry Riesling is done in an Alsace style, using german yeasts. It is an off-dry with a 1.86 residual sugar, which allows the fruit, spices, and creaminess come through from the malolactic fermentation. This would have been great with a nice buttery scallop.

Williamson’s Rose’ is called Blossom. Made from the 2011 vintage of Sangiovese grapes, this wine is subtley sweet and spicy. The wine shows flavors of wild strawberry, white pepper, and melon.

The 2006 Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon were both very drinkable. I particularly liked the characteristics of the syrah, with dark berries, black cherry, and pepper. The finish was very nice on this wine.

As a special treat I got to taste the 2006 Reserve Petite Syrah. This wine shows great potential for ageing, The nose is rich with dark berries, and the flavors of blackberry, blueberry, pepper, and tobacco make this wine fantastic!
Last, the winery offers several late harvest wines and a nice port. I suggest trying them, as they are all very nice.

You can find Williamson Orchards, and a map to their tasting room at I suggest making a stop in the next time you travel through Southern Idaho.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Finding the Mother Lode In Baker Oregon

Bella's in downtown Baker City
Last week, while traveling to Boise to hang out with family I stopped in a little place that I’ve promised to stop at for many years. I’ve promised Beverly at Bella’s in Baker a visit many times since first meeting her at Graybeal back in 2007. It was definitely time to make a stop.

Bella’s market in downtown Baker, just a few short paces down Main Street from the famous Geyser Grand Hotel, and nestled among several little boutique stores, is a regular oasis in Eastern Oregon for wine.

My memory of Baker was back in the 1970s when my dad helped to pave all the highways around that area. Our family spent several summers in Baker, Sumpter, and Austin Junction during my formative years. The memory that serves me, was that Baker wasn’t what you’d call “wine friendly”. It was more of a whiskey and beer kind of town.

What I found to be most interesting was that Bella’s is very wine friendly, and the town of Baker, which encircles it seems to be much more wine friendly as well. Bicyclists in their tight little spandex shorts sped down mainstreet, and there were several great pieces of art hanging in stores around. Bellas clearly reminded me of a cute little european market with wines, meats, cheeses, and espresso.

As I sipped on my San Pellegrino Aranciata, I wandered through Bella’s, including the substantial wine shop. I was amazed at the depth of selection in the shop. Far better than I have here in many of the shops in the Tri Cities, and many more labels and varietals than I’ve found anywhere else in Eastern Oregon.
One bottle that I happened on was a 2011 Rose’ by Mother Lode Cellars. It was placed among some pretty upscale Bandols that I was also eyeing. The bottle tells the story about the Mother Lode Mine, located just outside of Baker near the Cook Family Homestead. The mine, which produced 8,000 oz. of gold, and 4 million pounds of copper is now long closed.
Travis Cook, graduated with a degree in Horticulture from Oregon State University and returned to Baker with the intent of starting a winery at the Homestead. It only made sense that the wine be named after the mine. (Afterall, the name Cook’s had already been taken.)
I was talking about the wines with one of the staff, Cody, at Bella’s. She suggested that I try the Mother Lode Wine. Little did I know until later in the conversation that her name is Cook, and the wine-maker is her brother. Tricky having an inside salesperson hiding in the ultimate wine shop for the area!

Mother Lode makes a Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley grapes, a Vineyard Reserve Red that uses grapes from the family’s nearby Keating Vineyard, and a Rose’ which I mentioned, that is a blend of Riesling grapes and Counoise which are also grown at the Keating Vineyard.
I purchased the Rose’ because I knew it was going to be a hot one and I wanted a good porch wine. The 2011 is very low in residual sugar, with most of the flavor being from the fruit itself. A nice Malolactic creaminess leads back to the blueberry and black licorice flavors and nose. A very nice bottle. I’m looking forward to going back through Baker to pick up a bottle of the red blend next time through!


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Washington Wines Perform With Balance

Steve Warner, Ex. Director of the Washington Wine Commission
Speaks to the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce
Living here in Eastern Washington and Oregon has its perks. We’re small enough that we don’t have a lot of the big city issues, but large enough that if we want to make a trip to Jack in the Box at 2 a.m. we can get a Sourdough Jack. We are even lucky enough to be right near vineyards, and even have the chance to know and hang with world class winemakers every day. Because of that, we tend to drink a lot of our local wines. Which is a good thing.

This week I had the chance to meet with and hear a presentation by Steve Warner, the Executive Director of the Washington Wine Commission. He brought up some interesting points that I thought were worth telling you about.

The Washington Wine Commission is built out of all of the Washington State Wineries, both large and small. It is funded through an excise on each gallon of wine produced in the state, or juice produced by vineyards here. The fee is extremely small, but the benefits are great. The commission works very hard to promote Washington Wines as a whole, and create good will between different winemakers in today’s highly competitive market.

A few take-aways that I had from Mr. Warner’s presentation left me pondering the growing future of wine in this region. I wanted to share with you my thoughts and opinions on these take outs.

Part of the commission’s work is looking at the buying atmosphere for the wine industry in this region. As part of focus research they developed a word cloud of various inputs from people concerning Washington Wine. The two most used words were Balance and Value.

I understood the term value, although they apparently haven’t had a bottle of Col Solare lately. The term that puzzled me though was Balance. Is it the balance between fruit, acid, and tannin that I talk about frequently in this article? Is it the balance between cost and value? Is it the way that the cellar rats have to balance the barrels when racking? What does that term mean?

I caught Mr. Warner after the presentation and asked him about this term. He said that the term was pretty unqualified in the studies, and it could mean all these things and more. This made me think this is a question that I need to ask you. I would appreciate it if people would respond on my email or blog as to what you think this term means.

Another huge takeaway from the presentation was something that I’ve heard before. That is that the U.S. is now by far the largest consumer of wine in the world. The downside is that the residents of this region only drink about 3 liters of wine each year per capita, versus the 10 liters of wine per year consumed by the residents of Europe.

My thought is that I’m doing my part to bring the per capita up. I think most of my faithful readers are doing the same. So, the question is, who are the deadbeats out there not doing their part? Come on residents of Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon! Drink more wine. And, while you’re drinking more wine make sure it’s local to this region. I’m expecting you all to go out to your nearest winery today, buy a case of wine and drink it as soon as possible!


Landmark Provides A Grand Detour

If you’ve ever been along lucky enough to visit Sonoma you will find the most beautiful vineyards in the world. Many of them nestled among the majestic California Redwoods, the vineyards seem to grow right out of the trees.

The thing I find most fascinating with the area is how the mists from the Pacific Ocean waft through the trees and vines in the early mornings. By midday the sun has come into full exposure and the days are dry and warm.

This combination of warm, dry days and cool, moist nights is the perfect home for what many consider the greatest Pinot Noir grapes in the world. If you ever get a chance to visit the area I highly recommend spending a few days just taking this region’s beauty in.

Kenwood, California is a small unincorporated hamlet nestled in the far north of the Sonoma region. It is here that Damaris Deere Ford, the great great granddaughter of John Deere, founded Landmark winery in 1974. The winery has focused on medium sized production, unlike many of the mega producers in the area. The center of their attention is on the vineyards themselves, and the great wines that can come from great land.

Winemaker, Greg Statch, and his team produce several different levels of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I was lucky enough to try his signature label Pinot called “Grand Detour”.

This wine features a blend of fantastic grapes from throughout the region including Flocchini, Kanzier, Spring Hill Ranch, Armagh, and Juul Vineyards. The grapes are hand harvested and cold soaked before fermentation. Stach then ferments and ages the various barrels, blending the various juices to come up with just the right flavors for the final blend.

The 2010 “Grand Detour” features a spectacular nose of wild strawberries. There is a faint background of grilled mushrooms. The color of the wine is a beautiful ruby to purple in the bowl of the glass.

In the mouth this wine has flavors of strawberry, ginseng and corriander, mixed with plum and blood orange. It has beautiful, soft and silky tannins, and a soft acidity.

Initially I popped the cork on this bottle just to write this column. However, after my first sniff and taste I felt like I had just opened the door to royalty in my house and I was underdressed for the occasion. When I handed my wife my glass her eyes glazed over and I could tell this wine was something special.

Having a special bottle in my possession, I changed dinner plans to something that would compliment such a great wine. Some soft cheeses and aged meats went very well with this fantastic juice.
I realize that this bottle isn’t in the under $10 range, or even the under $15 range that I normally report on. This baby has a MSRP of $40. Just know that every drop is worth it.

As for where you can find this wine, I suggest asking for it at your favorite local wine shop. If they are a shop that supports California wines they should have access to this great juice.