2004 Chelan Estate Pinot Noir

July 30, 2010

Hello friends. Delight without surprise can be awfully good (all of us have our favorite go-to wines that satisfy again and again); surprise without delight rarely so (as in, “I’m surprised the winemaker chose to slather this in 100% new Hungarian barrels). But surprise *and* delight: that’s the goal; the rare, wonderful combination that drives our best vinous moments. And that’s what I got when I tasted this wine.

First, surprise. Surprise because it’s not every day you hear of a parcel of six-year-old Washington Pinot Noir. Let alone from Lake Chelan. And then delight. Delight because this is a low-alc (just 12%!), elegant, site-expressive bottle of Pinot, characteristics that are usually the sole domain of Oregon here in the Pac-NW.

Let’s not mince words: Washington, which has shown so much success and promise with so many grapes, has shown very little with Pinot Noir. I suspect the grape will always be relegated to niche status in the state, destined to be grown in our few small pockets of land that make sense for it. The Columbia Gorge is one such pocket. That’s the source of Syncline’s Pinot Noir, which we offered in April. The south shore of Lake Chelan might be another.

Lake Chelan AVA is Washington’s newest, approved in 2009. The AVA remains an enigma, blessed and cursed by a massive summer tourist base that turns out for swimming, boating, and all other means of waterborne conviviality. Those well-heeled, well-tanned tourists flock to area tasting rooms, allowing many wineries to sell out their entire stock through their tasting room. While this is excellent news for the wineries, it creates a marketplace that is not truly competitive, and it has led to real unevenness in the quality of wines coming out of this area.

For me, the most compelling wines coming out of the region are those from vineyards located within the AVA. In this case, winemaker Bob Broderick is working with an 8-acre lot of estate vineyards planted on the south shore of the lake (here is its location on the Google Map). After planting several small trial plots in the early ’90s, he decided that the cooler south shore was the appropriate site for Pinot Noir, and the commercial vineyard went into the ground in 2000.

This is a great result for such young vines. Reticent on initial pour, this shows best with aeration, which leads to a head-turning nose of beef jerky, pie cherry, and woodsmoke. At just 12% alcohol, there is plenty of acid here, and the mouthfeel is silky and elegant, bringing flavors of pie cherry, underbrush, pepperoni, and integrated oak spice (this saw 14 months in French oak, mostly 500-liter puncheons). There is plenty of complexity here, especially for the price point.

After tasting this, I learned that the 2004 vintage is nearing its end. Little more than a dozen cases remain, and we can grab as much as we like. First come first served up to 12 bottles. We should have this wine in the warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.

2006 Fall Line Artz Vineyard (Bordeaux Blend)

July 29, 2010

Hello friends. Today’s offering presents an opportunity to sample single-vineyard Red Mountain fruit at a price well below release-price.

The 2002 vintage was an inflection point for Tim Sorenson, when he went from a solid theorist to a proponent of the value of practical experience. With an Economics Ph.D. and more than 10 years experience as a professor at Seattle U, he was well-versed in theory: theoretical economics, theoretical winemaking. But in 2002, he worked as Ben Smith’s cellarhand at Cadence and came to realize during that harvest that “one doesn’t learn something until one does.” That was also the year Tim began to really believe that he could make wine for a living.

After being “bitten really deeply” by the wine bug and completing distance work at UC Davis, Tim was working at Seattle Cellars (a Belltown wine shop that has since fallen on harder times and recently announced its closing) when he met Ben Smith. The shop owner at the time predicted that the two would get along, and he proved to be prescient. The partnership lasted for three harvests, with Tim working as a crush volunteer in 2001 and then a full-fledged cellar-hand in 2002 and 2003.

He licensed and bonded Fall Line in 2004 and has since been focused on Bordeaux blends, mostly from single vineyards. One of those vineyards is Artz Vineyard on Red Mountain. Fred Artz helped plant Klipsun Vineyard in the mid-80s and then served as Klipsun vineyard manager for 20 years. In the mid-90s, he planted his eponymous 23-acre vineyard just north of Klipsun. With a slight northerly slope, the site gets less direct light and less intense wind than Klipsun. Tim Sorenson believes the site retains the power and the dark, brooding aromas and flavors of Klipsun while incorporating much of the textural elegance usually associated with Ciel du Cheval.

2006 marked Tim’s third vintage working with Artz Vineyard fruit, and the blend here is basically one-third each of Cab, Cab Franc, and Merlot. It was aged for 18 months in French Oak, of which a very restrained 28% was new. There is no doubt from the nose that these are Bordelaise varietals: dust, cedar, mint, black cherry, and toast. This is soft, silky, and open, with basement dust and cocoa dust scattered over elegant red and citrus fruit. There is a nice minty tinge overlaying the fruit, and the whole package reeks of class.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (Jay Miller): “($30); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 90+ pts.”

First come first served up to 18 bottles. We should have this wine in the warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.

2006 Tulpen Cellars Syrah

July 27, 2010

Hello friends. Long-term list members will know that it’s rare for me to land in your inboxes twice in one day, but I want to get this out there as soon as possible to help ease the sting of Abeja under-allocations. Once I realized that demand for Abeja’s Syrah would dwarf my supply, my first action was an attempt to secure a larger parcel. No luck there. My next move was to determine whether any other producer was working with Abeja’s estate Mill Creek Syrah fruit, and that path led me to a familiar man: Kenny Hart.

Kenny is the vineyard manager at Abeja (and Dunham, among others), but he also makes wine under the Tulpen Cellars label (we offered his Bordeaux blend back in May), and he is the only other producer (besides Abeja) that has released a Syrah from Mill Creek fruit. His Syrah, at just under 200 cases produced, is even smaller-production than Abeja’s, and Kenny has agreed to a tariff well below his release price.

While this won’t ease the pain for those of you specifically chasing the potential of a future Wine Spectator Top 100, it should be a salve for those of you looking to taste fruit from this exciting vineyard, and it has the advantage of two additional years of age. This is 76% Syrah (of which half is Mill Creek and half is Dunham’s estate Lewis Vineyard) cofermented with 4% Mill Creek Viognier and then blended with 10% each of Grenache and Mourvedre. Certainly this is not an exact replica of the Abeja Syrah; instead, imagine standing in a canyon and shouting “Abeja Syrah!” This is the echo that returns. The palate depth, complexity, and savory character are all there.

Wine Enthusiast (Paul Gregutt): “($30); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 91pts.”

I’m going to ask you to again limit order requests to 4 bottles, but this time, I’m confident that if you want 4, you will get 4, not 1 or 0. We should have this wine in the warehouse in a few weeks, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.

2009 Ross Andrew Pinot Gris Celilo Vineyard

July 27, 2010

Now onto today’s offering, where we continue our exploration of the outstanding Celilo Vineyard with a Pinot Gris from Ross Mickel that has traditionally been much easier to find on restaurant lists than on retail shelves.

Celilo is a holy site in Washington winemaking. Located on the southern flanks of the dormant volcano Underwood Mountain, the high-altitude vineyard consistently produces wines (especially cool-climate whites) of admirable character. We have previously offered Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay from this site, and now we present a wonderfully site-expressive Pinot Gris.

This wine has its roots in matrimony. In 2006, Ross Mickel approached the folks at Celilo. He and his (at that time) fiancée had been drinking and loving wines from Celilo Vineyard for years, and he asked if they would sell him some Pinot Gris for his wedding, which was scheduled in 2007. The result was 130 cases from the 2006 vintage. That’s a lot of wine for one wedding (even if it was a winemaker wedding). But Ross had no trouble moving the excess, because local restaurants quickly spread the gospel of this wine: low-alc, high-acid, food-friendly; a sommelier’s dream!

The release of the 2007 vintage (up to 280 cases) was eagerly anticipated in the somm/wine-geek community, and that vintage moved briskly as well. So it was with loads of momentum and a phalanx of swollen-hearted somms that Ross moved into the 2008 vintage, only to be treated to one of the cruel twists of fate that extreme vineyards like Celilo dish out to optimistic winemakers. The 2008 vintage was cooler across Washington, and many winemakers just let their fruit hang longer and harvested later than normal. While that’s a viable strategy in the intensely-arid majority of eastern Washington, it doesn’t work in the Columbia Gorge, which starts to see heavy rains in November. So Ross was forced into a heartbreaking decision: drop 70% of the clusters in order to coax the remaining grapes to physiological ripeness before the start of the rainy season. The strategy worked, but it left Ross with a mere 80 cases of 2008 Pinot Gris, which of course disappeared in a matter of weeks.

For many of us, then, it has been a full two years since we have seen a Celilo Pinot Gris from Ross, and I’m happy to report that 2009 produced a bumper crop: a little over 500 cases. That said, the pent-up demand from the restaurants that supported this wine in the past is keeping this wine moving swiftly. And it’s a brilliant wine, precise and pure, driven by aromas and flavors of nectarines, minerals, quinine, and rainwater; a real laser-beam of fruit and rock. There is depth and intensity here that belie the 12.5% alcohol, and there are faint leesy nuances that add complexity and intrigue. At just 0.2% RS, this drinks refreshingly dry.

Stephen Tanzer just visited Washington within the past few weeks, and it will be awhile before we see any of his reviews in International Wine Cellar. But he has posted one review (no score) on his blog, and it happens to be for this wine:

Stephen Tanzer’s Winophilia (Stephen Tanzer): “[REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD].”

First come first served up to 9 bottles. We should have this wine in the warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.

2008 Abeja Syrah

July 26, 2010

Hello friends. This one was originally on the docket for an autumn offering, but then I saw the following review, which to date has only appeared in the Insider section of Wine Spectator:

Wine Spectator (Harvey Steiman): “($32); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 95 pts.”

The last time I can recall seeing the “tasted twice, with consistent notes” language was the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. That one also received 95pts, was $27, and went on to become Spectator’s #1 wine of 2009. If I were a betting man, I would wager on this wine being included in Spectator’s Top 100 of 2010. But of course, by then, it will be long gone.

In fact, it’s already sold out at the winery, and there’s none of it remaining to be had in Western Washington. Fortunately, John Abbott and Molly Galt at Abeja were kind enough to dole out a small parcel for our list.

All of the grapes for this wine (97% Syrah cofermented with 3% Viognier) come from Abeja’s estate Mill Creek Vineyard, which sits right on the beautiful winery property. This eastern edge of the Walla Walla Valley, in the foothills of the Blue Mountains (you can see the vineyard location here) is an underexplored part of the valley. As you edge east along Mill Creek Road, you slowly gain elevation, and by the time you reach Abeja, you’re all the way up to 1310 feet, making Mill Creek Vineyard one of the highest (and coolest) Syrah sites in the area. Typically, the Syrah is not harvested until mid-October. Ripening can be a challenge, and subsequently there is more vintage variation here than in much of Washington. The highs at sites like this can reach the realm of the sublime, and given the youth of this vineyard (it was planted in 2000), calling the site “promising” is an understatement.

I tasted this wine in April and was floored by the nose, which was clearly lifted by the Viognier coferment. Floral and leesy in equal measures, with sensual notes of grilled bread, ripe black fruits, and dark chocolate. This displays a fine sense of elegance and balance; there are no jagged edges here. It’s a seamless wine, filled with berry, citrus, savories, and spice.

Our parcel of this is quite limited (again, I was really pleased to get any) and will not be available for reorder. Please limit order requests to no more than 4 bottles, and we will do our best to fulfill all requests. Our little parcel is tucked safely away in a corner of the warehouse and will be available for immediate pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.

2008 Renegade Red Wine Horse Heaven Hills

July 23, 2010

Hello friends. Another week brings us another “Red Wine” that is more than meets the eye. While the bottle simply says “2008 Red Wine – Horse Heaven Hills,” in reality this is a single-vineyard wine. For $9. Trey Busch (from Sleight of Hand Cellars) began his Renegade Wine project as a response to our recessionary climate. Renegade is a negociant model, so Trey is buying juice (not grapes), and then doing the blending and bottling himself.

In this case, we’re looking at 100% Canoe Ridge Vineyard fruit. This is a site in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (see location here) that was planted in 1989 and has previously been used by some of Washington’s top wineries (Woodward Canyon, for one). The blend is a little unusual (39% Cab, 39% Cab Franc, 13% Grenache, 9% Syrah), but the result is thoroughly compelling for the price point.

Unlike many $9 wines, this avoids delving into fruit bomb territory and is actually quite representative of the Horse Heaven Hills. The profile is dark (blackberries, black cherries), and earthy. Chalky and mineral-driven in the middle, this finishes with drying, black-tea flavored tannins.

To date, the Renegade project has been wildly successful, with each bottling selling out within a month or two of release. This was released on June 1, so rather than go on at any greater length, I’m going to hit the send button and hope that we’re still early enough to secure a large parcel (I would not expect this to be available for long-term reorder).

Please note that this is the 2008 Horse Heaven Hills Red Wine and NOT the more ubiquitous 2008 Columbia Valley Red Wine. First come first served up to 36 bottles. We should have the wine in the warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.

2009 Tempus Cellars Riesling Evergreen Vineyard

July 21, 2010

Hello friends. Evergreen Vineyard continues to dazzle. At this point, single-vineyard offerings from this site are almost a “yes” from me before even tasting; the quality of the fruit is that consistently good. And considering it has been a full month since we last offered a Riesling (the horror!), this bottle was a no-brainer. The most prominent versions of Evergreen Riesling are Charles Smith’s Kung Fu Girl and Chateau Ste Michelle’s Eroica (Evergreen fruit comprises a large portion of the Eroica blend each year). But those are commercial-scale wines, with production levels at 20,000 and 24,000 cases; whereas case production of Tempus’ Evergreen Riesling is exactly 131 cases.

Joe Forest poured this wine at the release event that Full Pull hosted back in April, and it was fascinating to watch the wine-drinking patterns at play. Visitors would frequently begin with this wine (it makes a fine aperitif at 11.7% alcohol), taste through the red portfolio, and then end with one more glass of Riesling: a cleansing elixir for exhausted palates.

This is the driest Riesling (just 1.1% RS) we have offered to date, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s the driest Riesling produced from Evergreen fruit (Kung Fu Girl typically comes in at about 1.5%, Eroica closer to 2.0%). There is no perception of sweetness here; only richness. With so little sugar, it’s the rocky, mineral-laden, acid-driven character of Evergreen that shines through. This is a glass of wine chiseled from the Evergreen plateau.

The location of this vineyard is wild and well worth a visit. Walk a few steps past the end of the vineyard rows and you’ll wind up dropping off a cliff and swimming in one of the Ancient Lakes. It is an extreme spot to grow wine grapes, with its cliffside location and its soil dotted with massive chunks of caliche (calcium carbonate deposits; we have one of those chunks behind the bar at the warehouse). As long as this bizarrely-situated vineyard keeps pumping out wines of this quality and intellectual rigor, we’ll keep offering them.

I just learned that this wine is set to receive 91pts from Paul Gregutt in the October issue of Wine Enthusiast. No review text is yet available, and it’s hard to say whether the wine will still be around then, but we have plenty right now. First come first served up to 12 bottles, and we should have the wine in the warehouse in a week or so, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.