Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc..I'm impressed!

I recently received some samples of Cupcake Vineyards wines. You've probably seen Cupcake if you shop for wine online or at some brick and mortar stores. My first exposure to Cupcake was perhaps a year or so ago when I had a glass of their Red Velvet, a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. I recall the wine being good especially since I was having it with random hors d'oeurves at a party. Later that night I cracked a bottle of Brunello, which obviously dominates my wine-memory of the evening.

Anyways, the first of the two Cupcake wines I tasted was the Sauvignon Blanc. All the grapes come from Marlborough in New Zealand. The winemaker, Adam Richardson, used stainless steel tanks versus oak barrels to ferment the wine in. After that, it underwent extended aging sur lie, meaning the wine was sitting in the lees, which are dead yeast cell and bits of grape skin and pulp. This can help tame the acidity and add a fleshy richness to the wine.

2010 is considered (by people in the know) to be a good year in New Zealand. Given that, it only stands to reason that Cupcake made a delicious Sauvignon Blanc. I chilled this for about 15 minutes just to allow for the somewhat warm day. Right away I smelled notes of lemon custard, lime-washed rocks, hints of perfume, passion fruit and that "traditional" New Zealand grassy note. The way each scent fit into the overall picture put a smile on my face

I'd describe this wine as a clean, dry white wine that's lighter in body with great citrus flavors. I tasted lemon peel, hints of pineapple and passion fruit, and right through the mid-palate, what felt like Bartlett pears! Almost reminiscent of some of my favorite whites of all time..Sancerre's! Unfortunately, the finish left me wanting more, it felt too abrupt and under-developed. Still, Cupcake's Sauvignon Blanc delivered some very nice quality at a supremely reasonable price.

You can expect to find Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc for anywhere between $7-13, it's SRP (Suggested Retail Price) is $14. I rate this wine a B, with a solid BUY recommendation. For those of you who salivate over numerical scores, I would rate this an 84/85 points. If you happen to see a bottle of the 2010 at your favorite local wine retailer, give it a shot! I think you'll be happy you did. I should add, and though I rarely say this kind of endorsement, I fully intend to buy another bottle to pair with some tilapia fish tacos I'm going to try making soon. The mango-chipotle salsa I'm going to attempt would pair brilliantly with Cupcake's S.B. There may or may not be a blog about that experiment, depending on a singular thing: whether or not I remember to take pictures!

Disclosure: This wine was sent to me as a sample for review.

Beau Carufel

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Discounted, High End Wines..A Match Made In Heaven?

Last night, Paul Mabray of Vintank sent me a Direct Message on Twitter asking my thoughts on a service he and his team rolled out, called Deals From the Vines. Essentially it's a Facebook-contained flash-sale site. Since Facebook introduced the new "Groups" feature, you can make a group private and allow any member of that group to invite their friends. Only members can see what's posted on the group page which aids in keeping things (relatively) private.

What's that mean to you, the wine consumer? Flash-sale sites like CinderallaWine (and others) essentially offer big discounts on expensive wines, to help the wineries and distributors move inventory. Some charge fees to the wineries, Deals From the Vines does not. There are variations to the business model but they're all predicated on the notion that there is a glut of wine on the market and not enough consumers willing to pay for it...At normal retail prices.

Flash sites will either buy a specific quantity of wine from a winery, or become the middleman between winery and consumer. They then sell the wine at a much reduced price for 24 hours, or until it's gone, depending on which site you're on. Consumers can see prices reduced by as much as 60% per bottle. You can easily see the benefits to wine drinkers. Exposure to new wines, saving money, and buying more wine to name a few.

Wineries, however, don't necessarily benefit in proportion to the consumer. Here's where I get interested in the concept and why I think Deals From the Vines might be the wave of the future in flash-sale sites. If you're a winery trying to move some wine and are willing to do it at a cut rate, you've got some decisions to make. Now before we get too deep, remember that I'm a blogger and not a winery owner, winery accountant, winemaker, etc. Just a blogger. So far.

Back to the issue at hand, moving your wine to the consumer (theoretically moving it to as many consumers as possible) and ensuring they're happy with their purchase. Here are questions that I thought of as possible barriers to entry for any winery considering a flash-sale site.

1. How much do we (the winery) discount our per bottle or per case price?
2. Do we risk alienating existing customers who've already paid full retail price for our wine?
3. What happens next vintage, when we want to sell our current releases at the full price?
4. When the economy improves and consumers are ready to buy more (and more expensive) wine again, will we look a) cheap b) arrogant or c) disingenuous for selling our wine at 40% off previously?
5. Since we're not upsetting the established sales channels as much as we're creating new ones, will there be any backlash at all?
6. How, if at all, can brand dilution issues affect us?

I know there are more questions and all the above do have answers. I merely present the six above as points of discussion.

Business strategy at each winery would take care of question one. The winery would be under pressure to provide a significant discount or else the flash site wouldn't take their business. Precedent has already been set, the accepted norm is between 30% and 50% per bottle, off the suggested retail price. If you, the winery, want to move wine, this could be a way to do so provided you're willing to see your product at prices that you charged 15 years ago. Sites like CinderellaWine and Deals From the Vines will name whatever price you tell them to as well as their discounted pricing. This helps show the customers that they are in fact getting a good deal.

The risk of alienating existing customers and creating backlash, questions two and five, would seem to me to be dependent on the brand itself. What is your position in the marketplace? I suspect that some wineries will forgo using flash-sale sites because they see themselves as too prestigious as well as being afraid of antagonizing their existing bloc of customers. Then again, if your existing customers don't find out about your flash sale, your winery won't suffer much. Also, the sheer volume of prestigious wineries popping up on flash-sale sites means your winery won't be alone. I think the Vintank crew is going to succeed in their endeavor because they're keeping the sale prices unsearchable, via the privacy of the Facebook group. Therefore, only people who are on Facebook AND in the group AND want to check out the deals will engage. This would appear to minimize the winery's exposure, ensuring that mostly "deal-centric" consumers saw the reduced pricing versus a wider audience who just happened to google your winery.

To me, question three is where things can get dicey. Paul mentions in his blog post that there is a two year cycle whereby wineries reduce production during poor economic times to help dry up any excess inventory that might be on the market. He says we're at the end of a two year cycle, with indications of an economic upswing. If production has been cut and excess inventory has had two years to sell off, wineries might be looking forward to selling their wines at "regular" prices soon. What's the best way to keep current customers while attracting new customers, after you've been featured on a flash-sale site? I believe there will be backlash, there's no way around that. However, to me this is tempered by the fact that so many consumers still buy their wines at brick and mortar stores and of those that buy online, most of them do not pay attention to flash-sale sites. In essence, they're not going to know that the bottle of Far Niente

In question four, I think I may have used some hyperbole with my choice of words. While I doubt anyone will email, call, or write to a winery accusing them of being any of the words I used, those terms could get tossed around in casual conversation between wine drinkers. Still, as I alluded to in a previous paragraph, if the average buyer doesn't even know you dropped your prices for 24 hours, they won't react. The only risk is from the person who did buy your wine at 40% off but doesn't want to pay the regular price. Since they wouldn't have purchased your wine had you not discounted it in the first place, you're not losing a sale though. That is the safety net for wineries that choose to participate in Deals From the Vines. Since "deal-centric" consumers are more likely to buy your discounted-yet-still-prestigious wine, you've made a sale. Hopefully they like it enough to rave to their friends about the wine. Hopefully those friends are willing to spend the money you'd like to get for your wines.

Question six must be answered at the winery, by the winery. Lowering the price of your previously expensive wine can lower your brand image. Since so much of the wine consciousness is driven by bottle price, the effects of cheapening your wine can drop your brand perception a notch or two in the eyes of a casual wine buyer. While this might not be the precise definition of brand dilution, it can leave you in another price group, one of lower price (and perceived lower quality) wine. So your brand's niche is suddenly diluted, which will affect your future sales. I'm not quite sure if the question was phrased correctly though, and this answer has given me the most trouble in composing.

I think Deals From the Vines will work for a while, maybe six months to a year. I doubt that it will work beyond, in its current iteration, because the supply of prestigious wines sitting unsold will be gone. The wines that are discounted will become less well-known, without much history or pedigree. In essence, I think the consumers who use flash-sale sites will start to see vanity-project wines for sale, albeit at deeply discounted prices. Silver Oak, Far Niente, Sassachia and others won't need to cut prices to sell every bottle they make. This goes for every flash-sale site, no matter how old they are. This also goes for companies like Trader Joe's, that are buying millions of gallons of good wine sitting on the bulk market and putting their own name on the juice, then selling it at a big discount. Once the market goes up, I strongly believe things will go back to "normal".

Then again maybe the wine market has been reset. Maybe there will be a big backlash against high priced wine, against the perception that you should pay a premium because of the label and pedigree. I doubt it though, if 2007 California Cab and 2009 Bordeaux pricing is any indication, there are still multitudes of people willing to pay top dollar for high end wine, or should I say, top label wine.

I encourage you to check out the Facebook group as well as Paul's explanation. I feel this is an interesting topic, flash-sale sites will evolve over time or simply disappear. The next year or two will be telling.

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wine Club Wines..I Admit I Was Skeptical Too..

If you're like me, you look at those "_____ of the month" clubs and roll your eyes. Tucked away in the back of Time, Motor Trend, National Geographic and other fine publications are offers for some product that a company is kind enough to ship (and charge you for) once a month. In my experience, the goods featured have often been over-priced or of questionable quality.

So it has been with "Wine of the Month" clubs, I take one look at the wines offered and shake my head. Slightly off topic, a Bacon of the Month club would be great, since seemingly everyone is obsessed with bacon, you could make a quick bag of cash before that trend dies down. My prediction, another year or so before enough health warnings about bacon seep into the consumer consciousness and it becomes evil (again). Till then though, give me some damn bacon on my burger..or my donut!

Sorry about that. Back to the topic at hand, the purpose for your visit..Wine!

Recently, The International Wine of the Month Club, a wine club (duh), contacted me about evaluating a couple of wines in their September shipment to members. I agreed, mainly out of curiosity (why lie?). How good could the wines be, I reasoned?

This is the part where I admit to being surprised and even impressed. Check out the two wines I was sent.

2009 Domaine Talmard Macon-Chardonnay

Click here for a pretty neat description and some tasting notes, or just read my tasting notes in the upcoming paragraph.

Macon-Chardonnay is a real appellation and there actually is a village of Chardonnay. This is within the confines of the appellation of Burgundy. According to the link and some background research, the village of Chardonnay is thought to be around 1100 years old. Napa who? Since I'm already a huge fan of Burgundy wines, this was a welcome surprise.

The website of the IWotMC lists this Burgundy at about $20 to it's members. For 20 bucks, you get a light straw colored wine with soft florals, hints of green apple and Anjou pear. Serve nicely chilled and the acidity shines, keeping your palate refreshed. Good minerality and a clean if somewhat abrupt finish. I enjoyed the flavors but did wish for a bit more depth. Had I paid $20 in a wine shop, I would have gotten what I expected, nothing more and nothing less. Solid B-, I'd recommend this to people who want to get to know the white wines from Burgundy.

The fact that the IWotMC sends this to their members (at that membership level) was encouraging, I find myself forced to reconsidered my perceptions of mail order wine clubs. A few days later I opened the red wine I was sent, which proved to be a delicious bottle of wine, even if the accompanying tech notes were a bit overblown.

2007 Cannonball Cabernet Sauvignon California

The IWotMC put their write-up of this wine here. Rather effusive, I will say. Anytime I see claims of "Best _____ under $____" I get skeptical. I can't help it, I've seen a lot of those claims by people who want to sell you (or me) wine. Is this the best, or one of the best $20 Cabernet's in America? I don't think it is, but I haven't tasted nearly enough wines to make any kind of definitive statement.

This is very good wine though, make no mistake. 85% Cabernet, 12% Syrah and 3% Merlot, I suspect that the Merlot is there to provide some ripeness through the mid-palate. Fresh black cherries, oak, hints of earth and spice, and a touch of vanilla wafted up from the glass. One of the best parts of the Cannonball is the wall of flavor that washes over your senses with each sip. Great structure, you get a lineup of flavor that pleases the palate. I paired the wine with homemade meatballs and some linguine, for sauce I used olive oil and shaved some Parmesan cheese on top of it all. The pairing worked out well and I was happy that the wine and meat played off each other so well.

 For a wine that costs about $22 shipped from the IWotMC, the 2007 Cannonball is impressive and delivers at it's price point. I feel I should say though, when I was doing some research via Google, I found this wine at under $15, before taxes and shipping. That's a bargain, if you're like me and enjoy Cabernet that resists being overly oaked, and instead lets the ripe fruit flavors come through, you'd enjoy this wine. Solid B, and a BUY recommendation.

The way the International Wine of the Month Club works is that you can purchase different wines at different price points or membership levels. I was sent the lowest tier of wines, at the upper end were a Muscadet that costs about $42 shipped, and a McLaren Vale Shiraz at about $37 per bottle, both including shipping. Based on the two wines I was sent to review, I would assume the high-end offerings were superb, well chosen wines.

Should you join this club? I can't tell you yes or no, all I can tell you is that if more "wine of the month" clubs are like this, they're good ways to expand your palate. Check out the website, I think you'll be impressed.

Beau Carufel

Friday, October 15, 2010

Zvy-Gelt!..Bless You!..No, it's Red Wine From Austria

Zvy-Gelt is something you've probably never heard of. No, it isn't Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to pronounce the word "California". Rather, Zvy-Gelt is a near-phonetic pronunciation of the word "Zweigelt".
What then, is Zweigelt? Among the pantheon of red wine varietals, it's about as well known as Bonarda and is a cross of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. The Austrians sure did take a fancy to it though, planting all over the country. Here in the United States, we rarely see it in the local wine shops, which is unfortunate because once you get taste Zweigelt, you will want more.

Hopefully though, the scarcity of Zweigelt is about to change if Monika Caha has anything to say about it. This is another Monika Caha selection, she of the Grooner wine I wrote about a few weeks back. By the way, you can follow Grooner on Twitter here. In this instance too, Zvy-Gelt is made by Weingut Meinhard Forstreiter. Why such long names, sheesh!! I thought my full name was long but it pales in comparison to a wine label in German.

From the Niederoserreich area, Zvy-Gelt clocks in at a New World friendly 13% alcohol. I'm not complaining though, one look at some of the 15% and higher California wines in my collection dispels any negative thoughts.

What I learned about the 2008 vintage was that growers and winemakers considered it a labor-intensive year that rewarded them with excellent quality. Most vineyards in the Niederoserreich were picked in early to mid September because one somewhat unique problem popped up: fog. Lower temperatures and high humidity increased the probability that botrytis would break out, but from what I read, good vineyard management practices minimized any outbreaks that did occur. An excellent overview of the 2008 growing season in Austria can be found here.

I noticed a ruby, slightly hazy color as I poured the Zvy-Gelt into my glass. It got about 30 minutes of open time and as usual, was poured it through my Wine Soiree. The first sniff reminded me of a lighter style Pinot Noir. On the nose, soft red currant, red cherry, hints of oak, earth, and strawberries. I enjoyed the seamless integration of each flavor into the next.

The anticipation was building, my first taste of Zweigelt ever! What to expect? Prior to this, I had purposefully avoided reading any tasting notes or anything else regarding the varietal in the hope of going into the tasting with an unbiased palate.

As I tasted, I was careful to note my impressions and here's what I jotted down: "Lightly sweet with lively acidity that carries along cherry and strawberry notes, hints of spice and light but firm tannins. Very tasty, perhaps some oak there but was hard to find, however the earthy note put a smile on my face."

Upon further research (mainly me looking at the provided tech-sheet and using google) I learned that Zvy-Gelt sees 50% old oak and 50% stainless steel. I could really get down with that because so many wines these days see too much oak, as if the winemaker is trying to cover up some flaw or shortcoming. Not Zvy-Gelt, it's light, deliciously integrated and leaves you wanting that next sip.

The night I tasted the Zvy-Gelt, I had some pizza from Regents Pizzeria, close to my apartment. It's about as close as I can get to New York style pizzas without actually going back home (to New York, that is). The toppings were sausage, pepperoni, tomatoes, and artichoke hearts. Before you note that I might have odd tastes in pizza, I was VERY impressed with how the Zvy-Gelt paired with my pizza. This wine is food-friendly, in spades!

At a SRP (suggested retail price) of $12-15, Zvy-Gelt delivers. If you see it at a bit less, nearer to $8-10, treat yourself to a bottle or two. I recommend opening it when you've cooked something simple but tasty. Hell, open a bottle when you order a pizza or something! We've all had those nights when we're just too tired to cook anything too involving and Zvy-Gelt is a go-to wine for just those evenings. Easily a solid B and a BUY recommendation.

Take a chance, try a new varietal especially for such a low price. One of the most rewarding aspects of loving wine is the chance to broaden your palate.  Be adventurous I say!

This wine was received as a sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Joining the Willamette Century Club, Part Deux!

This blog entry picks up at about 1:25 pm on Saturday, October 2nd. My group of six wine geeks (plus one designated driver) was touring the Willamette Valley, aiming to taste 100 wines in a day. We'd accomplished 70 wines by about 1:30pm and only, (more like "only") 30 wines to go. Feeling confident but a bit hungry, I was enjoying the sights and sounds of Willamette Valley, along with the delicious wines. As I mentioned in my last entry, my strategy was to spit as much as possible, as well as to drink as much water as I could. This was helping, Dan and I were the most sober of the group, and our palates felt the freshest by my count.

Leaving the somewhat frosty tasting room lady behind at Scott Paul Wines, we went across the street to Solena to taste some wines. I was anxious to try their 2007 Domaine Danielle Laurent, which came highly recommended from some Twitter friends of mine. It didn't disappoint, bringing ripe cherry and berry flavors along with intense spice and cedar notes. Earning a B and at $45, a good bottle of wine.

My favorite was the 2006 Del Rio Syrah, with dark plum and blueberry, smooth tannins and earthy minerality. Wonderfully delicious wine. An A-, coming in at $30 retail.

From Solena Estates we walked down the street to Seven of Hearts to taste more wines. Here we met the founder/owner Byron Dooley. You could see the passion and enthusiasm he had for Oregon wines as he poured for our group and the various others in the tasting room with us. We ended up tasting 12 wines with Byron, all of them were good to very good with a few that were truly exceptional.

2008 Yahmhill-Carlton District Elvenglade Vineyard Chardonnay - Citrus, cream, pastry notes jump at your nose, hints of spicy oak follow them. A restraining acidity washes across your palate, bringing pear, green apple, citrus and a creamy smooth finish. Tropical notes give a vivacious feel to this delicious Chardonnay. A- and a real QPR winner at only $24 a bottle. 

2009 Chatte D'Avignon Viognier/Roussanne Columbia Valley Oregon Rattlesnake Road Vineyard - Try saying that entire phrase three times quickly! This was the first time I'd had a domestic example of a white Rhone-style wine. Combining stone fruit with vibrant acidity and tropical notes, I instantly felt like having some fish tacos to go with my taste of wine. Simply delicious. A- and a steal at $20 per bottle.

2009 Luminous Hills Pinot Noir LUX - Good heavens. Spicy, earthy, delicate, intense. I felt like I was drinking a riper version of a great Burgundy. Wonderfully silky tannins, subtle herbs, strawberries and raspberries. The only real flaw in my opinion was the high alcohol, clocking in at 15%! While it wasn't overly noticeable, I did detect heat on the finish and simply believe Pinot Noir shouldn't be that high, ever. Only 152 cases produced and it's on pre-sale right now. If you buy at the pre-release price of $29.75, it's a ridiculous deal. Even at it's release of $35, it's a great bottle of wine. Comparable to Pinots that cost double. A-.

These were three wines I wanted to highlight from Seven of Hearts, but they don't represent all the good wines I tasted that day. I highly recommend checking out the website and if you're in the area, stopping by to visit. Mr. Dooley may not make a lot of wine but he makes some truly wonderful wines and has a palpable passion that you can't help but admire.

 Here is where we stopped for lunch. Right next to Scott Paul Wines tasting room and across the street from Solena Estate's tasting room. Dan packed a cooler full of water, energy drinks, Starbucks double shots, olives, carrots, and sandwich supplies. Unfortunately, we didn't bring condiments of any kind, as well as not bringing lettuce or tomatoes for the sandwiches. Since this was the first time the Willamette Century Club has attempted such a feat, it was to be expected that we could find areas to improve.

I guess at this point I should note that there is a real "Willamette Valley Century Club" out there. They're a group that works on tasting 100 different grape varietals. No time frame that I can discern, just 100 different varietals of wine. I say this is no big challenge for any real wine geek. Try tasting 100 wines in a day, staying sober, taking accurate notes, and asking intelligent questions to the tasting room staff. Yea, that's what I thought. Our club is way cooler. Now with that proverbial shot across the bow, we return to discussing how things were going at this point.

So with the wonderful Byron Dooley at Seven of Hearts Wine helping us get up to 89 wines, we were well on our way to the goal of 100. Now it was time to make the 30-40 minute journey out to Argyle for some sparkling wine. I'd sold Argyle wines in retail shops for years and knew them fairly well. As one of the wineries to help put Oregon on the map, I still get asked about Argyle at my current job.

Argyle's tasting room was full, a testament to their popularity. We all opted for the sparkling flight and ended up tasting seven different wines, both sparkling and still.

2006 Knudsen Vineyard Brut - Deliciously dry and refreshing with notes of lemon, custard, yeast, perfume and acidity. A blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, this was  the best sparkler out of all we tasted. Unfortunately it was expensive, coming in at $50 a bottle. Still, I enjoyed the Knudsen and felt it was a good example of Oregon sparkling wine. B+

2008 Minus Five - Sweet, smooth, like honey mixed with nectar and ripe apricots. Absolutely wonderful and a perfect way to end a meal. I'd pair this with key lime pie, or any pie. I'm a pie junkie. You could also drizzle this beauty over some ice cream, delicious! A-. Expect to pay around $30 per bottle for a 375 ml.

Argyle makes very accessible, friendly wines that are a good way to get to know Oregon styles. The staff knew their stuff and were able to answer my questions about the sparkling and still wines our group tasted.

Wow, 97 wines had come and gone! Where did the day go? If you're still with me to this point, you know I've tasted some amazing wine. I can't tell you how tempting it was to just whip out my Visa and buy bottle after bottle of wine to take home with me. Dan had sure done his homework and gotten us into some great wineries and tasting rooms.

 So we're on the final few wines, 98-100. I should note at this point that Chas had apparently missed a wine..At Elk Cove. The FIRST winery we went to! He was one behind us and we collectively decided that everyone had to taste 100 wines or it was a waste of time. So, we departed Argyle and went up the hill to White Rose Winery. I'd never heard of White Rose before, but it was a beautiful facility up in the Dundee Hills.

So here we go, the home stretch of wines!
2007 Quiotee's Lair Pinot Noir Dundee Hills - Great color, earthy with herbs and dried cherries on the nose. Restrained across the palate, lively acidity, interesting orange pith notes on the smoothly tannic finish. B+. $45 retail per bottle.

2007 Mercotti's Milieu Pinot Noir Dundee Hills - Complex nose of baking spices, hints of bittersweet chocolate and oak, damp earth. Expressive flavors of dried fruit, anise, subtle vanilla and well integrated tannins. A-. $32 per bottle, a great deal.

Wow, wine #100, finally! At the beginning of Saturday, Dan and I expressed our hope that by the end of the day, we'd still have our wits about us. However, pretty much everyone was still doing well at this point. We'd tasted a lot of wine but the discussion was lively and opinions flew back and forth like grapes in a de-stemmer.

2007 Dragon's Bluff White Rose Vineyard Dundee Hills Pinot Noir - We tasted this one, out of a total of 144 cases produced, and everyone was very impressed. Light but intense, big flavors of earth, subtle vegetal and florals, background of dried cherry and strawberry. The acidity gave the wine life, the tannins were round and gave the mid palate a nice supple texture. As it finished, whiffs of oak and mocha were the wine's goodbye. Stellar stuff, highly recommended. A. Lists at $60 retail.

 And that, my readers, draws the journey to a close. I'm proud to say I tasted 100 wines in one day. I had a great time with the group and Dan deserves all the credit for putting together everything and inviting me along. In retrospect, there are some places I would love to visit next time I'm in the area, to take more time and talk wine with the tasting room people. Most of them were gracious and wonderful, some were frosty, harried, rude or pretentious, but isn't that part of the wine industry? We may work to remove those attitudes but they didn't affect the outcome of my glorious day in the Willamette Valley.

 I urge you to visit Portland and the Willamette Valley, please feel free to email or tweet at me if you have any questions and I'll do my best to get answers for you. The wines I tasted were all small production, artisan wines. Sure they were a bit pricey, in some cases they were very pricey, however that shouldn't diminish your enthusiasm for tasting new wines even if you don't buy a bottle. In the interests of full disclosure, our tasting room fees were waived at multiple wineries because we did have two industry people with us. Other wineries gave discounted tasting rates as well as industry discounts on our purchases.

So there you have it, 100 wines, one day, six guys in a minivan. What an adventure.

Beau Carufel

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Joining the Willamette Valley Century Club

Last week, on October 2nd, I along with some fellow wine geeks accomplished something remarkable. The six of us visited 12 tasting rooms and wineries, going through 101 wines in the span of about seven hours.

101 wines, all from Oregon or Washington. In one day..Make that, in less than one day. For the record, I did spit and kept hydrated with copious amounts of water. Was my palate a bit burned out by the end of the day? Yes, definitely, but not nearly as much as I thought it would be.

First though, a bit of back-story to set things in the proper context: I had never been up to Portland and I needed a mini-vacation from San Diego. My friends Dan and Chas of Wine is Serious Business gave me an open invite last time we hung out, at the Wine Bloggers Conference this past June. I sensed they were eager to show me both Portland and to visit some wineries in the Willamette Valley. Fast forward to early September, my schedule allowed a quick (four day) trip somewhere. Why not Portland? After some emailing back and forth, Dan, Chas and I worked out some possible dates to come hang out with them. One weekend worked out for all of us and that also happened to be the weekend Dan had organized the Century Club Tasting for. What great timing!

I arrived in Portland on October 30th, Chas picked me up and we spent the day tasting beer at Rogue and Hair of the Dog in downtown Portland. At Rogue, we were joined by an old friend of mine who'd herself just moved to Portland. Following those two superb tasting sessions, we hit up Voodoo Donuts for their famous Maple Bacon Bar (it's everything everyone told me it would be) and also the Portland City Grill for an attempt at some Happy Hour drinks. There, I tasted some organic gin and vodka from Organic Nation of Ashland, Oregon. Both were superb and I hope to see at least the gin down here in San Diego soon.

After first retiring to my friend's place to have a glass of wonderful Oregon Pinot Gris, Chas and I had to meet Dan at Willamette Wine Storage to shoot another episode of their great video blog. I'll post that link up, but be warned: Chas and I had been sampling beer and wine (and in my case, gin and vodka) all afternoon. Neither of us shined but Dan did a great job holding it all together, as usual. Later that night, a concert, sushi and other things ensued.

Fast forward through a painful recovery day on Friday, pizza, walking around Portland, Starbucks and many cobwebs..But highlighted by dinner at Gruner, one of the best meals I've had this year, and we get to Saturday morning. This is it! Dan rented a minivan for the group, a wise idea given that we were six guys and our associated cameras, bags, etc. We also had a driver who's name I forget but was a friend of some of the guys. Arriving at Chas' place, Dan and I were rested and ready to get to tasting, Chas had stayed up drinking and was in an advanced state of "being tired".

 Our first stop was at Elk Cove Vineyards. Chas called the day before and warned them about us, luckily they had a great lineup of wines to get our tasting off to a roaring start. This was perhaps 45 minutes outside of Portland, a nice drive.
This is a shot I took right as we stepped out of the van, I can't explain how beautiful the scenery is, especially for a wine geek. The morning fog was slowly burning off as the sun introduced itself to us for the day, lifting our spirits and getting us in the mood (even Chas).

The kind folks at Elk Cove poured some great wines including a stellar 2009 Riesling and an amazing 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir.
My favorite though was the 2008 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir, wow! Great balance of earth, cherries, spices and acid. I loved it and would give it an A-, it's $48.00 a bottle.
I should also note that they did pour a really interesting dessert wine called Ultima, and for some reason I thought this was just a great way to start off the morning tasting.

Our second stop took us to Bergstrom, where we'd sample more Pinot in addition to some Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay.
I have always liked their style which to me is accessible but still possess some texture and complexity. My top pick was the 2008 Bergstrom Vineyard Pinot Noir, an A- from me. Beautifully integrated sour cherry, minerality, spice and florals highlighted a wonderful wine. $78 per bottle. I felt the pricing was high but the quality was undeniable. This theme would recur throughout the day, unfortunately.

Up next, a visit to Adelsheim, we were already tasting wines 18-22! While the group agreed this pace wasn't likely to continue, we were happy to have made such progress so quickly.
Two of the wines I tasted ended up being some of the highest rated wines of the day, but of course, the highest priced of the day too. Too bad, because while the wines were wonderful, they were also overpriced.
Still, the 2008 Calkins Lane Vyd Pinot and the 2008 Bryan Creek Vyd Pinot each received an A from me.
The Calkins Lane was sublime; meaty, spicy and powerful with notes of earth and ripe cherry. Contrasting that was the Bryan Creek, beautifully elegant notes of raspberry, spice box, cedar and hints of minerality integrated throughout. $68 and $75 respectively.

Laurel Ridge was up next, pouring a whopping 18 wines! This was great, we made some huge gains in progress while also tasting some very interesting wines. I also made my first purchase of the day, a bottle of their 1998 Willamette Brut Sparkling Wine. It's a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc and in a word, it's funky! The group (six of us) bought four bottles, I can't wait to open it for my wine buddies here in San Diego. My top pic, with an A-/B++ was a 2005 Chehalem Mountain Pinot Noir. Good fruit, oak and fine tannins backed up by some earth, well balanced and drinking great right now. At $28 a bottle, I was impressed.
We also tasted a funky blend of Zinfandel (34%) and Pinot Noir (66%), called Zinotage which like the Brut, was something I'd serve to wine geek friends. B-.

Laurel Ridge finished us off with something I'd never tried before, a Cabernet Franc Port fortified with Cabernet Franc Brandy. They paired this with chocolate truffles. While I didn't really go for the pairing, I did think this dessert wine was very interesting, though I couldn't think of a food pairing to go with it. I gave it a B and it comes in at $45 a bottle.

So basically, that's 40 wines down, 60 more to go. In the interests of maintaining my reader's sanity, I'll only post a few more pictures and focus mainly on some of my favorite wines through the rest of the day. Our next stop was Willakenzie Estate, a very well known producer and one that has helped put Oregon on the map for Pinot, among other things. Here's a couple of my favorites, out of the seven wines the group tasted.

2007 Pinot Noir Kiana - Definitely my style with earth aromas complemented by spice and ripe raspberry. Wonderful acid, cranberry and bittersweet chocolate on the palate. Delicious! A-. $45. At the club price of $31.50, this wine definitely is worth it, at the retail price, it's a tougher call and I lean towards no.

2007 Pinot Noir Terres Basses - Superbly built with earth, hints of oak, chocolate and meaty notes. These evolve into some complex flavors of cherry, baking chocolate, spices and earth on the palate. I'd love to taste this again in ten years. A-. $60 retail, $42 for club members, again over priced at the retail level but a good price for you club members.

We had a bit of a drive after this, heading over to Carlton Winemakers Studio to samples some more wines. I love the concept of building a facility where smaller winemakers can come and pour their wines. It saves those smaller wineries the cost of building their own tasting rooms, resulting in more capital that can be spent on grapes, equipment or land. This facility houses eight vintners that produce some well known but small production wines from the Willamette Valley.

2007 Andrew Rich "Cuvee B" Pinot Noir - Wow, what a great bottle of wine! Beautiful floral, earth and cedar with spice woven all through the nose. On the palate, ripe raspberry and cherry flavors held together by some seriously silky tannins, framed by bakers chocolate and earthy spices. Another A rated wine. At $24 a bottle, ridiculous QPR.

2009 Lazy River Riesling - Gorgeous apricot and perfume on the nose. Summer-flower bouquet, I really got into this wine. Vibrant acidity, low residual sugar, hints of honeysuckle, pear, stone fruit. A- from me, rocks the QPR at $18 a bottle.

Overall I had mixed feelings about the Carlton Winemakers Studio. I love the concept and thought the architecture was modern and clean. The attitude of the guys pouring was a bit too pompous for me though, I felt we were expected to rave about every wine simply because it was being poured at that venue. Give me a break. Still, they knew their wines and were able to answer some questions I had regarding vineyards and producers. I respect knowledge.

We left Carlton Winemakers Studio and moved into the town of Carlton. Our first stop there was Terra Vina, a place I'd never heard of, then again that isn't saying much. They make most of their wines with fruit from Washington state. I looked at the tasting list and noticed a Syrah on there, so I was looking forward to tasting another Washington Syrah. Since the Wine Bloggers Conference, I've become a big fan of Syrah from that state.

2007 Erickson Vineyard Columbia Valley Syrah - Bold, expressive nose with blackberry, black cherry, earth and oak. Built for power, this was a burly, chewy wine with great textural qualities across the palate. I was impressed with the complexity. That balance of a powerful yet complex wine can be hard to find, not here though. An A- from me, $36 a bottle which fits with what I'd expect at this price level.

2008 Terra Vina Malbec Columbia Valley Wahluke Slope - Not too often do I get to taste a Malbec from Washington. Dark, brooding, ripe, juicy and spicy. Great balance, could have used just a bit more tannin and earth though. I could see this wine pairing beautifully with rich, spicy foods. B++/A-

Moving on, our group had accomplished 66 wines by this point. Quite impressive and it was around 1:00 pm if I recall correctly. My strategy of spitting nearly everything and staying hydrated was paying off beautifully. My palate felt good and I didn't feel a buzz or any other feeling of mild intoxication. This is where things got fun though, as we went to Scott Paul Wines. Basically, they make a bunch of Oregon Pinot's as well as importing some Burgundies and branding them Scott Paul too. While the lady at the tasting room was a bit frosty, the wines were delicious.

2006 Volnay Les Fremiets 1er-Cru Domaine Huber-Verdereau - If you've ever tasted a wine that screams "Age me!!", you'll know what I mean when I say I was absolutely impressed with this wine and wish I could lay a case down for ten years. Beautifully elegant spice, sour cherry, graphite and earth on the nose. The taste felt like a rush of interwoven flavors like cranberry, raspberry, dark damp earth, baking spices and cedar. Easy A and at $65, what I would expect from a good bottle of Burgundy.

2007 La Paulee Pinot Noir - A blend of four vineyards, they each contributed to a silky smooth, ripe, richly textured Pinot that I felt delivered far above it's price point. The complexity and ripeness were in harmony, the earth took a bit of a back seat to the spicy raspberry and strawberry notes but this worked out great because the oak helped push the flavors into a rounder, smoother mouthfeel. I gave this an A- and was surprised (and pleased) to see it coming in at $30 a bottle.

2008 Dom Denise Pinot Noir - An Oregon Pinot drawing from a bit of Burgundian history. All the fruit comes from the Momtazi Vineyard. Half the fruit (2 tons) is vinified in the methods of Dom Denise (the Burgundian monk) and half is vinified using new methods. The result, a seamless, elegant, juicy Pinot. Spicy black cherry, strawberry, and earth play off of each other, mainfesting as a wine with profound finesse. Perhaps one of the best wines of the afternoon. A from me, comes in at $40 a bottle and to me, a great deal.

So at this point let's adjourn. Call this Part 1 of a 2-part entry on the Willamette Valley wines I tasted. I'll post the second entry tomorrow, with more pictures, more ratings and more comments. Up next, Solena Estates, Seven of Hearts, Argyle, and White Rose, featuring the 100th and 101st wines we tasted!

I wrote a much better conclusion at the end of the second blog entry, detailing my feelings at the end of the day. Here, I'll just say that as we left Scott Paul Wines, I was fortunate to have a moment to think about what we were doing, how lucky we all are to be able to do this. Not everyone gets to taste wine like my friends and I do. In the grand scheme of things, hardly anyone gets to live like we all do here in the States. That isn't to try to put you on a guilt trip, just to try to remind you, readers, that savoring moments throughout the day will make your life more enjoyable. They needn't be anything particularly special, just times when you can step back, take a deep breath, and enjoy what you have here and now. This trip helped me do that and I am indebted to Dan and Chas for helping me get there.
Beau Carufel