Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fiftieth Post, a Recap of the Bus Tour From Walla Walla

Three wineries, five hours, one hangover, fifteen wine bloggers, some delicious wines, free lunch, and the U.S.A. losing to Ghana in the World Cup.

So describes Saturday, June 26 of this year. After an epic Friday, all most of us Wine Bloggers Conference attendees were up early to go on bus tours of local wineries. There were 15 buses and 15 bloggers per bus. Regrettably I do not recall my bus number. We started the morning attempting to go to Cougar Crest, then we got lost, then backtracked, and finally did find the winery.

Here you see winemaker Debbie Hansen unloading in the midst of Cougar Crest's vineyards
The wines poured were:

2007 Viognier - Light straw color, great florals and hints of apricot on the nose. Lively acidity, very palate friendly. It was a nice way to start the day's tasting. $20 per bottle. B

 2008 Grenache Rose - Lovely salmon color, smelled like flowers and strawberries. Dry, clean fruit and a nice finish. Very food-friendly.
$18 per bottle. B

2007 Cabernet Franc - My first experience with a Cab Franc from Washington. 76% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Malbec.
Garnet in color with cherry, earth and mocha on the nose. Smooth, chalky mild palate that reminded me of fresh berry pie. Hints of spice..cinnamon across the finish. I liked it!
$36 per bottle. B+

After an informative but relaxing time walking around Cougar Crest Winery and tasting their delicious wines, our next top was Skylite Cellars. Their Syrahs made such an impression that I actually did an entire blog entry devoted to their wines and those of Robert O. Smasne.

You can find that entry here, along with descriptions of the wines I tasted and why I loved them so much. While not as big as Pepper Bridge, Skylite Cellars was incredibly cool and really gave the feel of being a small production winery with a specific focus.

One wine I do want to mention is the 2007 Riverhaven Cellars Syrah. Another small production (150 cases) wine from a relatively new producer. Dana Dibble of River Rock Vineyards produced this wonderful Syrah and was kind enough to pour it for us bloggers.

Dark ruby in the glass, a great nose of dark cherry and vanilla. Blackberries and hints of fig go with smooth tannins and a smoky finish.
$28 per bottle. B+

Finally the last stop was out at Pepper Bridge where we had our lunch and I took some of my favorite pictures of the afternoon. This was the one winery I was somewhat familiar with, having looked into some of the history of Washington wineries before I left on my trip.

The winemaker, Jen-Francoise Pellet spent a great deal of time explaining the sustainable viticulture practices at Pepper Bridge. You can't help but admire a winery so dedicated to making great wine but also taking care of the environment.

The wines poured were:

2009 Amavi Semillon - I found this wonderfully light and refreshing. 86% Semillon, 14% Sauvignon Blanc. It was at once ripe with notes of lychee and pear, and balanced with a deft touch of acidity. $20 SRP. B
2007 Pepper Bridge Seven Hills Vineyard - 52% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc. Great coloration, very ripe notes of red and black fruit. Grippy tannins and a streak of earthy richness that carried through to the finish. $ N/A. B+

2007 Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon - 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot. I loved the nose, it was reminiscent of cocoa powder-wrapped blackberries. A slight touch of heat tickled my nostrils. On the palate the wine was very strong, brawny even. The tannins hit fast and hard but devolved quickly into a fleshy mid-palate. I suspect this wine would be better after 2011. $ N/A. B-

2007 Pepper Bridge Vineyard - 48% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot. Smelling of ripe, non-threatening fruit up front, I was reminded of a summer fruit bowl with a dollop of vanilla cream on top. On the palate unfortunately, I felt the tannins up front too much, at the expense of the other elements. My notes show a nice depth of flavor with riper fruit and spice through the mid-palate. The finish was somewhat disjointed, leaving me wishing for a more elegant effect. $ N/A. B

Wrapping this up, we all piled back into the bus, hangovers gone, needing more wine. Luckily there was a wine dinner coming up that night, along with lots of other ridiculously fun things. As I keep saying, the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference was epic. I want to thank all three wineries for taking the time to pour their wines and share their passions with us bloggers. I had a wonderful time at all three places and was happy to expand my knowledge of Washington wine.

Beau Carufel

Thursday, July 22, 2010

San Diego Twitter Taste Live!

What were you doing on July 10th? I was meeting up with a group of wine lovers here in San Diego for a tasting! As active as I am on Twitter and Facebook (follow me! @UCBeau), I'd yet to actually meet up with any San Diego wine lovers. While at the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference, I'd wanted to meet up with Bill (@Cuvee_Corner) but we just couldn't connect. Too much wine or something.

Anyways, before the Conference he and I had tweeted back and forth about holding a little tasting with a small group of wine fans here in town. We'd deliberately picked a weekend after the Walla Walla festivities, to better ensure everyone's availability. That day, I worked a 3:30am-11:30am shift at work, leaving me just a bit tired, but still happy to be meeting and tasting with some fine folks.

Keith (@Brainwines) was kind enough to host the event at his beautiful home in La Jolla. Granted, the day was crappy because of the persistent overcast, the view was still absolutely amazing. Scenery like that is conducive to tasting great wines.

In addition to Keith and Bill, Katie (@lajollamom), Megan (@wineforblondes), and Nanette (@wineharlots) were able to make it and contributed some vino to the festivities.

(img copyright Keith Hoffman 2010)

The theme was that we'd each bring two bottles of wine of the same varietal or region to share. For six or seven people, I thought this might end up being overkill. Looking back, it was fun to taste that many wines but a bit tiring on the palate since there were so many intense, full-bodied reds.

Highlights for me included the Malk Cabernet Sauvignon. Priced squarely in what I consider "Napa Cab Territory" at about $65 per bottle, I had high hopes for them. Keith (@Brainwines) poured the 2006 and 2007, one right after the other. The '06 was texturally very interesting but just felt a bit disjointed, like the wine needed to find itself and would do so in maybe three or four years.

(img copyright Keith Hoffman 2010)
On the other hand, the 2007 was splendid. Everything was so beautifully integrated, it was smooth and supple but had some wonderfully firm tannins across the palate. I loved how the finish just lingered on, notes of bakers chocolate gently dissipating from my palate. I'd highly recommend it, and gave it an A and a very enthusiastic BUY recommendation at the tasting.

(img copyright Keith Hoffman 2010)
Bill (@Cuvee_Corner) brought a couple of Spanish reds, so of course I was very happy to see them out there for us. My experiences with the Marques de Riscal have been mixed. Way back when one could find the 2001 vintage readily available, it was one of my favorite sub-15$ reds. The 2004 though was very thin and lacking of any kind of texture last time I tried it.

This time though, it was wonderful! Great balance of fruit and tannins, nicely tapered finish and all around smooth across the palate. I'm chalking my previous bad experience up to bottle variation or a flawed bottle itself. The Celeste he brought was also absolutely delicious with some darker, earthy flavors and good, grippy tannins.

Now I know that our group tasted a lot of wine but the ones I mentioned really stuck with me. My own contributions, a JC Cellars Zinfandel and a Fife Zin were polar opposites. the Fife was a 2004, from Redhead Vineyards in Mendocino. It was tired, old, worn out, like a bum's shoe. I hadn't opened one in a while and wanted to see how the wine had held up but it was universally agreed to be the worst bottle there. I suspect my reputation was saved by the JC Cellars, a superb 2006 from the Russian River Valley. Bright, ripe fruit, hints of spice and oak, a bit of crushed pepper and this joie de vivre element that I rarely find in a wine. Right now the JC Cellars is at it's peak and I wish I had another bottle to open up while BBQ'ing for my friends.

(img copyright Keith Hoffman 2010)

 All in all, I had a wonderful time. There's another tasting planned for August so if you Tweet, keep an eye out for the #SDTTL hashtag. We'll be changing the format a little bit this time, to actually do some tasting and evaluating. I'm looking forward to it, and to seeing my new San Diego wine friends again. Bill did a lot of the organizational work in this but I'd encourage any of you who have friends who may be intimidated about wines to organize something similar. A casual, fun atmosphere and some good wines can help de-mystify wine to the average consumer. Your enthusiasm will rub off on them and before anyone knows what's happening, you will be competing with them to get the best deals at your local wine store!

Beau Carufel

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tasting Wonderful Washington Syrahs

I was lucky enough to attend the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla this year and had an amazing time. The event, from Friday June 25 through Sunday, June 27 featured all manner of tastings, seminars, tours, excursions, more tastings, food, and probably everything else wine related that you can think of.

Going into the Conference I was (and still am) ignorant to a lot of the wines Washington produces. I knew of their famous brands like Columbia Crest, Northstar, Cayuse, and Pepper Bridge. I'd had the chance to try the aforementioned wines over the years and they each contributed to a general idea of what Washington wines were about for me.

Back to Syrah: my experiences with these hadn't been so great, at least where examples from Washington were concerned. Too often my palate seemed to hit on under-ripe, green notes or overly oaked versions. Sometimes I was even overwhelmed by excessive tannins, which would reduce the fruit to nothing. I don't care what anyone says, getting away from perception bias is not easy. Admittedly, I was a skeptic though I did want my mind changed.

Saturday, June 26th dawned as a gorgeous day. I was hungover as hell though, because of the festivities from Friday night. That's enough for another blog post in itself. Suffice it to say I had a blast and there was a great house party involved. The agenda for the day was taking a school bus to various wineries around the Walla Walla area. Each bus held 15 bloggers, not one more or less. The organizers were..organized.

The entire tour will be written about in another blog entry (gotta keep you coming back somehow!) so stay tuned. One of the stops, the last actually, was at the gorgeous Skylite Cellars (@Skylitecellars).

(image copyright Beau Carufel 2010)

There we met the owner Cheryl, winemaker Robert Smasne and assistant winemaker Greg Matiko. Also present was Dana Dibble, from Riverhaven Cellars and RiverRock Growers.

Little did I know that a stellar lineup of wines was poured for us to try. After Dana gave us a talk and taste about his vineyards and wines (their Syrah is delicious!), Robert Smasne stepped up to discuss Skylite and what he was going for with the Skylite and Smasne Cellars/Alma Terra wines.

Out of the lineup, I hit on two Syrahs. By that I mean I absolutely loved them, despite my hungover/dehyrdated/hungry state. Robert did a superb job crafting accessible, elegant, powerful wines. I was impressed as were my friends Dan, Chas, Scott and Preston.

(image copyright Beau Carufel 2010)

2005 Skylite Cellars Syrah
Very nice ruby-garnet color in the glass. The nose was wonderfully classy but powerful too. I smelled crushed cherry, raspberries, hints of mocha and damp, loamy soil. Gorgeous ripe fruit up front, carried through by notes of earth, mocha and graphite. Silky smooth tannins created a framework that kept the red cherries, raspberries and bramble contained. This was one of my favorite wines of the whole Conference. Cheryl was kind enough to sell me a bottle out of their library, which I truly appreciate. I can't wait to pair it with either venison or, if I can, some pheasant. There was no question this is an A- from me, at $32 it beats a lot of $50+ California Syrahs.

2006 Alma Terra Minick Vineyard Syrah
WOW. This wine reminded me of a bright, concentrated Rhone. Spicy cherries dovetailed into earth and black cherries with great acidity and tannins encompassing everything. Layer upon layer of fruit and minerality struck me as the soul of the wine. Even now, I could drink this stuff all day and be happy (and I would be!). The integration of flavors made a strong impression, it's even in my tasting notes, underlined three times. If you want a Syrah that's powerful, expressive, and will wow you, this is the one. I wouldn't call the Minick Vineyard Syrah cheap, more of a mid price at $54. Easy A for me, one of the real highlights of the Conference.

Robert was also generous enough to provide a sample of 2007 Smasne Cellars Block 3 Syrah which I'll be writing about in the future, if I can bring myself to open it. Maybe I'll save it for when I move up to Napa and cook my first meal in my kitchen up there. Hey that could turn out to be a fun blog!

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

2005 Hearthstone "Slipstone" Paso Robles

Check out that imposing bottle! So serious, like the wine inside is brooding, dark, moody, and soulful. I might have set the bar a bit high right off the bat though. Still, I can easily make a list of my friends who'd love to drink a wine described like what I expect the Hearthstone to be.

The 2005 Hearthstone is 72% Grenache, 12% Syrah and Mourvedre, 4% Zinfandel. Later vintages show more of a focus towards Grenache and Syrah.

In the glass, the wine is light like a California Pinot Noir, but I expected it to be darker because of the Syrah and Zinfandel. To see it looking the way it does disappointed me, my palate was hoping for something big and intense tonight.

On the nose, good dose of heat assaults your nostrils but quickly fades into the background. I smelled toffee (oak?), red cherries and dust. Continuing the theme of being surprised by Hearthstone's effort, the wine reminded me of a rustic French red you'd find for 6 Euros at the Supermarche.

What was the winemaker going for in this offering? It's very one-dimensional. Where's the concert of varietals, each adding a note to the chorus? Why do I get an overwhelming sense of singularity?

Delicate flavors of allspice, earth, and a lot of ripe red cherry. While definitely not heavy-handed, it lacks the finesse and elegance of a Cotes du Rhone too. At this point the wine's been open over an hour and I'm desperately fumbling for my Wine Soiree (@winesoiree) and hoping it'll help add something to the sensory experience. Unfortunately it didn't allow anything new to show, rather it enhanced the existing flavors.

By the way, you should buy a Soiree. Seriously. I became a convert after talking to Andrew Lazorchak at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla this past June. Wine Soiree website.

What I like about the Hearthstone: nice acidity, interesting notes of spice, an approachable (beyond the alcohol) nose and smooth finish, .

Still, I'm disappointed. I expected more but got a lot less. California Rhone-style blends almost always hit a sweet spot for my palate yet this falls short. There isn't much going on and for $10 there are better, more enjoyable options. I give it a C, an average wine with no flaws and no excitement. If I'd paid $25 like the winery website says, the grade would be lower.

Beau Carufel

Saturday, July 3, 2010

My Turn For a Wine Bloggers Conference Video

While I was up in Walla Walla at the Wine Bloggers Conference, I had the opportunity to shoot a video with Dan and Chas of Wine is Serious Business (@wineissrsbiz). Rewind to about eight or nine months ago, I saw a video of a guy opening a wine bottle with his shoe and a brick wall. At the time, little did I know that the guy trying to get the wine open was Chas. He did succeed, impressively, and I noticed he and his friend Dan had done a series of videos showcasing their love of wine. While their focus was Oregon, Riesling and Pinot Noir, their enthusiasm and passion for wine wasn't constrained at all.

Since I use Facebook to waste a lot of time, it's only natural that I "liked" their page and started watching more videos. We got to emailing back and forth, then Dan suggested I appear as a guest on their video blog. Both of the guys and I were going to be at the Wine Bloggers Conference and that seemed like the ideal place to meet up and talk wine.

We made it happen, and here is the result:

You'll laugh (we hope) and even more so, you'll be inspired to get out and try more wine. I can't say enough about how much fun I had tasting and talking about it. Please excuse the profanity, I get like that when I'm excited (and a bit buzzed) and wine is involved.

Here's a link to Dan and Chas' entire video suite on Viddler. Wine Is Serious Business..Indeed.

Beau Carufel