Real wine is hard to find. The charade that populates most store shelves is a group of elixirs, created to poke and tickle the right taste buds. Made in the vein of Pepsi or Fritos, these commodity wines typically showcase excessive fruit, residual sugar, and serious chugability. These are circus wines with circus labels, and the industry has created a sometimes-impenetrable wall of them—one that obscures the wines made by real people, from real grapes, for our honest pleasure . . . .
This one has been in the works for months. Originally slated for Wine Tourist Magazine, WTM unfortunately closed their doors as a publication two months before going to print. After exploring a few homes for this piece, I landed on posting it on Medium. Enjoy here:
Beyond this Medium article, I have two more pieces in the works, one for Growler Magazine. Stay tuned.
The couple month hiatus has been the result of a cross-country, permanent move to Minnesota, my bride’s torn ACL amidst the move, the 2017 Willamette Valley crush (flew back), and a month on the road telling the story of the lovely little wine company that employs me. Life is full and wonderful. Expect this site to start firing on all cylinders again soon.
Deep ruby with spiced plum, fresh blackberry, graphite, and slate spilling compellingly from the glass. Ripe fruit joins the poised palate deftly balancing depth and buoyancy. The mid-palate gives way to clear, structured tannins and well-integrated acidity. Developing nicely with additional aging potential. Drink now through 2023+. (MW, May 2017)
Region: Walla Walla Valley AVA
Producer: Walla Walla Vintners
Juicy and plush with plum and spiced blueberry. Fine, ripe tannins contain a gentle string of acidity through the chewy core. A dusting of cocoa powder adds to the palate. A crowd pleaser, though falling short on dimensionality. Drink now—2020. (MW, January 2017)
Varietal: Red Blend (Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Blaufrankisch, and Malbec)
Region: Columbia Valley, WA
Producer: Owen Roe
I recently attended an Oregon Syrah tasting with a trio of Willamette Valley winemakers and a few other industry compatriots. We tasted through seven different Oregon Syrahs, including a vertical from Dion Vineyard in the Willamette Valley produced by Anne Hubatch of Helioterra. Violet-blue in color, the 2013 Dion grabbed me by the shoulders and force-focused my energy directly into the glass. Confident white pepper aromatics lead, followed by spice, blueberry, and boysenberry. Floral undertones add a lovely, gentle layer. This wine will excite those who respect and value Rhone Syrah—a mentally stimulating experience.
Other Syrahs from southern Oregon, especially the 2012 Cowhorn Syrah from the Applegate Valley, luxuriously warmed the heart with New World fruit. The Cowhorn Syrah danced a laser-line between density and buoyancy, fruit leather and black pepper. Wines this thick often fail to inspire, but Cowhorn manages to add layers of nuance into the folds of fruit.
Admittedly, Oregon winemakers and viticulturists have only now entered the dawn of this Syr-era. Few have plumbed current or potential vineyard sites with an eye for Syrah gold. The varietal has, however, found a home in Oregon, and the cool-climate Willamette Valley within. I expect to taste starlight from the misty cave depths once it settles into the embrace of well-selected Oregon vineyards.
A few days later, I dined with family at a casual mid-week gathering. My mother-in-law, a bargain wine shopper, opened a bottle of 2014 Blackstone Merlot from California. This sweet, grape slurpee of a wine lacked everything that makes wine sing. It declared itself robotically, centuries away from passing the Turing Test—Mass Market at its worst. It served as a reminder that $10 Washington flattens $10 California every time. Biased as I am, I challenge you: Apothic Red v. Two Vines, Menage a Trois v. Columbia Crest Grand Estates, Bogle Essential Red v. Lone Birch Red. Let me know your results.
Cheers to wines that stir the head and the heart.
July has produced a preponderance of news and excitement here at Wagon Wine. First, the wine industry has called my name. The family at Fullerton Wines has hired me to manage public relations and the wine club, maintain and acquire accounts in the Portland area, and help in the cellar. I begin in August.
Integrity matters. Consequently, after this post, I will not review or mention Fullerton Wines, or their second label Three Otters (formerly Bull’s Eye), on this blog. However, I will say this today: I would never work for a winery I did not respect both for the quality of the wine and the integrity of its mission. Find more information at Fullerton Wines. To my readers’ benefit, I will use the knowledge and insight I acquire with Fullerton Wines to inform my posts on Wagon Wine. I have thus far written as an industry outsider with a focus and passion for northwest wines. Although I will now work within the industry, I will continue writing at Wagon Wine for the consumer—you.
I also received news in late June that the Wine Bloggers Conference awarded me a scholarship to attend this year’s conferencein the celebrated wine region of Finger Lakes, New York. Held in Corning, the conference uniquely allows me to network with fellow citizen and industry bloggers, explore a wine region I have yet to visit, and learn from industry professionals, including Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible (I have previously recommended this essential book). Thank you to the generous sponsors who made this possible. I am thrilled and humbled.
I cannot depart without briefly sharing two wines I have recently tasted and devoured due to the stunning QPR*:
- 2013 Lone Birch Red Blend, Yakima Valley ($10): I love a good second label wine, and Airfield Estates’ Lone Birch fits the bill beautifully. Fresh, fruit forward aromas of plum and blackberry greet you along with a kiss (big smooch) of toast and dark chocolate. Smoothly textured with mild tannins, and gentle, balancing acidity. The wine struck me as surprisingly complete. While not huge on “blind tastings,” I would put money down on this wine against many other Washington red blends at higher price points. Delightful.
- Un Autre Monde Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($13): Thank you Bruce of Vino, Portland for turning me on to this wine (Bruce’s notes). Best value Pinot Noir I have tasted to date. A blend of 2011 and 2012 fruit from esteemed (unknown) vineyards–one within Dundee and the other Yamhill-Carlton. The cool and ideal weather conditions of these two vintages meld into a stunning Willamette Valley NV blend. Cranberry, cocoa, and spice align on this linear, piercing frame. Nuanced, surprising, the wine evolved provocatively over the course of the evening. Unfortunately, we can’t expect to see this wine again. Excellent.
Finally, I spent over two weeks of July back in Minnesota, the motherland for the Wieland family. While home, my mother married her partner, Kevin, in a lovely lakeside wedding. Cheers to the couple–may the wind be always at your back.
*QPR = Quality-Price Ratio
As well as recline at Syncline’s estate winery (see photo and caption below). A recent visit of Syncline Cellars, near Lyle, Washington, left me giddy to write this post, as well as buy Syncline wines again and again. James and Poppie Mantone have crafted distinctive, memorable wines, while also creating an idyllic destination winery.
|Inclined to recline while drinking Syncline wine|
Located along the eastern edge of the Columbia Gorge AVA, Syncline focuses on Rhone varietals. In the winery, James Mantone treats his wines with minimal to no oak, opting for concrete fermenters, and concrete or neutral oak for aging. Syncline uses native yeast fermentations whenever possible. When you combine the winemaking style, excellently sourced fruit, and Rhone varietals–both unique (Picpoul) and well-lauded (Syrah)–expect wine that will delight and intrigue, pure expressions of the land.
|Cement fermenter at Syncline Wine Cellars|
- 2014 Gruner Veltliner ($20): From Underwood Mountain and Celilo Vineyard, this 100% Gruner Veltliner balances focused acidity with complex aromas of citrus, savory nuts, and grass. 550 cases. Delightful.
- 2013 Subduction Red ($20): Syncline’s flagship wine, with 2,500 of the winery’s 6,000 cases set aside for this gateway bottling. A blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, Counoise, Grenache, and Cinsault. Opens with floral aromas alongside juicy, red fruits including cherry and watermelon. Medium body with mild tannins–a smooth drink. Enjoy young. Excellent.
- 2013 Cinsault McKinley Springs Vineyard ($35): Rarely found as a single varietal wine, this Cinsault has a captivating nose of sweet prunes and luscious red fruits. A silky, smooth entrance leads to distinctive savory, spicy notes alongside the ripe fruit characteristics. Well balanced. 200 cases. Delightful.
- 2012 Syrah McKinley Springs Vineyard ($30): Crimson in color, a swirl releases aromas of blueberry and blackberry, as well as cocoa and a hint of smoke. At 14.4%, the wine fills your mouth with a delightful density. Medium-plus tannins. Dark and brazenly seductive. 350 cases. Excellent.
Next time you swing through the Columbia Gorge, do not miss your opportunity to visit Syncline Wine Cellars. Syncline exemplifies the best of what the Columbia Gorge AVA can offer–wines unlike any other in the Pacific Northwest.
The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association (CGWA) recently hosted a Grand Tasting at Castaway in NW Portland. After a few days of pondering and reflecting on my notes, I feel more confident than ever that the Columbia Gorge AVA has a bigger and brighter future ahead (though perhaps we shouldn’t hope for “bigger”). This AVA garners relatively little press from regional and national press. As a consequence, it is a spring lilac, under-appreciated, that forces your attention when you get within proximity. Your senses awaken.
Why the Columbia Gorge? The breadth of styles and varieties, in conjunction with quality, provide consumers with a dreamy array of wines from a small geographic area–40 miles west to east. The Columbia Gorge quickly transitions from forested foothills with significant annual rainfall to elevated, sloping desert overlooking the Columbia River. You can taste sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo, chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet franc, syrah, grenache, and blends both traditional and path forging, all while only scratching the surface of this AVAs offerings. This blessing of diversity may also provide one of the confounding factors–what grapes thrive where? Experience, often through trial and error, has helped uncover the “spirit” grape(s) of many parcels of land. What works at a vineyard 2 or 3 miles west will likely pan out quite differently, or even fail, at your vineyard. All factors impacting terroir change drastically in short distances here.
Wines and Wineries of Note:
- 2012 Phelps Creek Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir: The Columbia Gorge need not play second fiddle to big sister Willamette Valley next door. Let the Gorge play a solo show! This age-worthy pinot opens with aromatic intrigue–strawberry, cherry, and aromas of a cool walk in a damp woodland. This wine is alive! Medium tannins and a wonderful balance of acidity keep us dancing instead of lounging. Pinot lovers, take note of this wine, and Phelps Creek. Stellar.
- Viento 2013 Savvy Sauvignon Blanc Allegre Vineyard: My mind immediately travelled to New Zealand. The zest, the brightness of this sauvignon blanc aligns wonderfully with my ideal for this varietal. A zip of lemon welcomes your senses, accompanied by melon and pineapple notes. This is summer in a bottle. Delightful. In the words of head winemaker Rich Cushman, expect “honest wines.” No enzymes, stabilizers, etc.
- The Pines 1852 2013 Estate Old Vine Zinfandel: Wow. A ripe, lush sensory experience with blackberry and resin. Avoids jaminess while plushly coating your mouth. Medium-plus tannins. Length abounds. Sourced from some of the oldest vines in the northwest, planted in the late 1800s. Stellar.
- Memaloose 2011 Mistral Ranch Estate: Southern Rhone blend of syrah (60%) and grenache (40%). Red fruit, caramel, earth, and fresh forest growth create a provocative wine. All wines produced now come from estate fruit. Excellent. Expect only neutral oak, and an Old World winemaking style when you drink Memaloose.
If you live in the Portland area, consider attending the Columbia Gorge Grand Tasting in the future. Head to tasting rooms on a typical weekend, and you often have 30 seconds to hear the shtick from tasting room staffers before they must move on to the throngs of other guests. Understandable, but also disappointing if you appreciate discussing the details of the wine in your glass. However, attend this tasting, hosted by the CGWA, and you will have a unique opportunity to talk directly with many winemakers, owners, and/or heads of sales and tasting rooms (especially if you arrive early). These pillars of the industry can provide the details and stories behind the wine you enjoy.
Time to celebrate a Washington winery that over-delivers at every price point. Owen Roe started releasing wines in 1999 with production based out of St. Paul, Oregon. Despite the Oregon location, Owen Roe has successfully embraced both Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Washington varietals simultaneously. Many wineries in the northwest truck some grapes from their neighboring state to diversify and spruce up the offerings, but very few have the expertise or access to quality fruit to pull off the crafting of excellent wines from these two distinct growing regions. David O’Reilly is among the few.
Take note. Owen Roe recently opened a new winery and tasting room near Union Gap, WA, and this is in addition to the St. Paul, Oregon winery and Newberg, Oregon tasting room. The Washington expansion allows for increased production and presence in Washington, while providing O’Reilly with more options with his Washington fruit come harvest season. Along with the new winery, Owen Roe has purchased multiple vineyards around Yakima Valley, planted a new estate vineyard on site near Union Gap, and has expanded its vineyard sources beyond these direct acquisitions. This expansion comes with years of earned success and acclaim, all with minimal to no advertising. The wines speak for themselves. All this new juice, under the care of O’Reilly and his small-batch, meticulously minded winemaking style, should have us all salivating.
To the wines. With 24,000 cases produced, Owen Roe provides attention inducing value at every price point. Beyond the Owen Roe top-tier label, David O’Reilly also produces wines under the Sharecroppers and Corvidae labels. These two second-tier labels provide wines of surprising quality and interest between $10-$21. O’Reilly is known for taking great care in every step of his winemaking process, and that begins with the vineyards he selects. Excellent vineyard sites, careful management, attention to detail in the winery, and a value product. I recommend you investigate this magical equation yourself.
Wines of note*:
- 2012 Sojourner Eola-Amity Pinot Noir ($42): Classic Eola-Amity, and well crafted. Volcanic soils show through in the minerality of the wine, but I love the darker blue-fruit characteristics (in comparison to Dundee). 2012 gave producers options–bombastic or balanced, chewy or graceful. This wine gives you the ripeness of 2012 while maintaining balanced alcohol and delicate pinot nuances. A memorable wine. Excellent.
- 2012 DuBrul Cabernet Sauvignon ($72): This wine wowed my tasting partner and me. The nose is striking and forces the glass to your mouth. Medium-plus bodied, plush purple and red fruit characteristics, while maintaining glorious depth and balance. Oak, acid, and alcohol all play their part without overplaying their hand. The finish lingers. Stellar.
- 2013 Sharecroppers Cabernet Sauvignon ($15): The nose immediately hits you with classic Cabernet blueberry and blackberry co-mingled with leather. Medium-bodied, the palate delivers a nice balance of fruit, tannins, and acidity. A great Washington Cabernet exemplar at a fair price. Delightful.
- 2013 Abbot’s Table ($24): Owen Roe’s flagship wine, a red blend of 41% zinfandel, 34% sangiovese, 11% malbec, 9% blaufränkisch, and 5% merlot. Flagship wines better earn their title, and this bottle does just so. Medium-plus bodied with supple blueberry, the rich aromas of tea and earth, and notable (medium) tannins. A sure crowd pleaser. Excellent.
Under the direction of David O’Reilly, expect greatness from Owen Roe. *Here is a link to my wine rating system, newly released on Wagon Wine.
Non-vintage (NV) wine does not resonate widely in our brave, New World wines. This old world technique allows winemakers to blend multiple vintages for added nuance and character, but usually remains a tool of the bubbly and fortified wine makers only–Port and Champagne particularly. Thankfully, J. Bookwalter Winery of Washington has deftly translated this technique to create a dry red blend, Notebook 4NV (their 4th non-vintage Notebook Red). Bookwalter Winery creates this blend to use up their excess juice after crafting their premier wines. However, Bookwalter’s excess is another vigneron’s treasure.
At $15 msrp, and frequently found at $9-$12, Bookwalter has set the bar high at this reasonable price point. Dusty raspberry and blueberry fills the mouth, and a fine layer of tannins rounds together the finish nicely. Upon drinking, you quickly realize something sets this wine apart. Fresh fruit aromatics and dusty gravel road, vibrant youth and raisined age. J. Bookwalter Winery makes the case emphatically for the accessibility and layered complexity of NV blends. This has instantly become a go to wine for me, and I look forward to tasting Notebook 5NV and beyond. Hopefully more wineries will explore NV winemaking, especially boutique wineries tempted to sell off excess juice to the mass-crush facilities for the sake of convenience. Perhaps they are intimidated by this deft execution. I would be.