Washington

Terroir, Schmerroir: Dave Phinney’s “Locations” Wines

21 March 2017

Blends across appellations are nothing to fear…

I can think of no buzzier buzz word in the wine world than “terroir.” How often do we read something about how a wine reflects its terroir or expresses its terroir? The phrases describe a wine that represents where it was made, with clear influences from the local climate and soil in its aroma and flavor. Americans are relative newcomers to the concept — we tend to think in terms of grape varieties. It’s the French who have developed the potential of terroir to its fullest extent, as evidenced by regions like Burgundy, where vineyard site is everything.

Nowadays, everyone is jumping on the terroir bandwagon. You can find single-vineyard wines everywhere from the Okanagan Valley to Central Otago. And the fashion for “terroir-driven wines” only continues to grow.

It takes some guts, therefore, to say screw it, I’m going to make a really delicious wine from Portugal or Argentina or wherever, but about 35,000 thousand square miles is as far as I’m going to narrow it down in terms of terroir. Even in California, most respectable winemakers restrict their bottlings to at least a single region, like Napa or Sonoma. A label that simply says “California” doesn’t ordinarily inspire confidence. Unless, that is, that label is on a wine made by master blender Dave Phinney.

California-based Phinney founded a wildly popular and critically acclaimed red blend called The Prisoner (a brand he sold in 2010), as well as the highly regarded Orin Swift Cellars. Blends from both companies have appeared in Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 lists (and even Top 10 lists), indicating that Phinney “has a knack for mixing and matching vineyards and grapes,” as Wine Spectator puts it.

His new venture, Locations, would seem to be all about terroir, given the name, as well as the first sentence of the winery’s Philosophy statement: “In the world of wine there are compelling Locations that exist where soil, climate and vines interact to produce grapes that uniquely express their Location through wine.” But Phinney goes on to lament that “laws and restrictions [discouraging cross-appellation blending] make it near impossible to express true winemaking freedom.” The goal of Locations is to combine grapes from top vineyards across several different regions in, say, Italy, to create a new and entirely unique blend that represents the country as a whole. So in a sense, these wines simultaneously celebrate and obliterate the concept of terroir.

With a collection of nine bottles of Locations, sent to me by the winery’s PR company, I decided it was time to host a blind tasting. I lined the bottles up, turned them around, mixed them up and bagged them, so that not even I knew which bottle was which. My group, a mix of wine professionals and amateurs, had a spirited debate about which wine came from where. We only occasionally all agreed, but there was general consensus that this was one of the most consistently enjoyable tastings I’ve ever held.

All the wines were red except one, a French rosé, which I left unbagged and served as an aperitif. This 100% Grenache from the South of France tasted full and fruity, with plenty of watermelon and strawberry notes, ample acids, a pleasingly bitter note and some minerality on the finish. My friends called it “delightful,” “surprising” and “f*cking good.” Its weight, one taster noted, makes it an ideal rosé for winter. In America, we think of rosé exclusively as a summer wine, but why shouldn’t we drink it when it’s cold outside? Rosé is delicious any time of year, and if I were in the mood to splurge just a bit, I would certainly pay the $19 price for this example.

Of the bagged wines, there was only one that everyone in the group guessed correctly: Oregon, the very last bottle we tried. Oregon made it easy because it was a varietal wine, a Pinot Noir, and because it came from just one region, the Willamette Valley. I got taut cherry fruit, baking spice and a tart, rather austerely elegant finish, but others noted some cough syrup in the aroma and even a touch of Kraft caramels. “It wants fat,” one taster said, and indeed, it worked quite well with some pizza topped with bacon, onion and mushroom.

All the other wines provoked disagreement, and sometimes disbelief when the country was revealed. In the order we tasted them:

Wine #1: Big and dark, with rich black-cherry fruit, soft tannins, a meaty note and some mocha on the finish. Again, there was a touch of pleasing bitterness. “It tastes way better than it smells,” one friend remarked, though I rather liked its plummy aroma with vanilla overtones. I guessed Italy, thinking of grapes like Negroamaro. Others guessed Argentina and France, but it was, in fact, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Petite Sirah from various vineyards in Washington. Oops!

Wine #2: “Leather!” and “Cigar box!” were shouts I heard about the aroma, which also had lots of jammy red fruit.  The wine moved from ripe, ripe dark-red fruit to a big pop of spice and some rather chewy tannins. “They’re flirting with my cheeks, in a good way,” one taster said of the tannins. And what a fantastic pairing with that bacon/onion/mushroom pizza — big, bold and beautiful. With that kind of flavor, I guessed California, as did everyone else, except for one Argentina holdout. And California it was! A blend of Petite Sirah, Barbera, Tempranillo, Syrah and Grenache from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills.

Wine #3: “Oh, that’s a big boy,” a taster exclaimed. I got a lot of purple from this wine — dark fruit and a tone of violets in the aroma, and on the palate, some more dark fruit (people called it everything from fresh plums to grape candy), leavened with white pepper spice and a dry, rather tannic finish. We all convinced each other that this wine was from Spain, but it was actually a blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Touriga Franca, sourced mostly from the Douro (with a little Alentejo thrown in). So we were close: It was from Portugal.

Wine #4: A transparent garnet color, this wine had a taut red-fruit aroma marked with something savory, something meaty. “Pinot can taste like blood,” one guest suggested. But the flavor made me not so sure: red fruit followed by black olive and black pepper spice, with very few tannins. Olive plus black pepper made me think of the South of France, but everyone else guessed Italy. Sometimes it pays to go against the consensus — it was indeed France! A blend of Grenache, Syrah and “assorted Bordeaux varieties” from the Rhône Valley, Roussillon (near Languedoc) and Bordeaux.

Wine #5: “Son of a bitch!” We all had trouble figuring out this one, with its hooded dark-fruit aroma, ripe dark-red cherry fruit, ample acids, pop of spice and clear, supple tannins. “Zinfandel?” one person guessed. “There’s a squeaky finish on this one. On my teeth!” said another, providing one of the evening’s more enigmatic tasting notes. Somewhat at a loss, we all went for Washington. The wine was from the New World, but in fact it was a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina.

Wine #6: We felt some relief when we got to this wine, with its raisiny aroma, raisiny fruit, ample spice and serious tannins on the finish. Everyone loved it, and everyone thought it was from Portugal (except for one obstinate guest who insisted on California). The raisins and tannins reminded us of Port, but unfortunately, no one was reminded of passito. Passito wines, such as Amarone, make use of partially raisinated grapes. And indeed, #6 was not from Portugal but from Italy. Argh! It was a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia as well as Barbera from Piedmont. (I can find no evidence of passito-style drying of the grapes.)

Wine #7: “This has biting tannins, but it like it — rrrrr — it hurts so good,” said one taster. “It’s hot hot hot!” another exclaimed, referring to what felt like a rather high alcohol content. I got lots of dark-red fruit, black pepper, an olive note and a bit of mocha at the back of the throat. I guessed that this delicious wine came from Argentina, and others went with Portugal or France. But of course, you know that it was none of these. Instead, it was a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariñena (Carignan) from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain.

All these wines retail for about $17 to $19, making them an affordable indulgence and an excellent value for the money. Different as they were, the Locations wines each had finely tuned balance and a sense of depth, enhanced by fruit that tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, sometimes leavened with something savory or briny. That’s a profile I can get behind.

Dave Phinney asks, “The question is – do you break the rules, and thousands of years of history and tradition, in pursuit of expressing freedom?” There’s a lot to be said for rules when it comes to wine — they’re doing something right in Burgundy, after all — but Locations makes a compelling case that sometimes you should just toss the rule book into the destemming machine and go for it.

Note: These wines were provided for review free of charge.

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Favorite Moments Of The Wine Blogger Conference (Part 1)

15 June 2013

Lake Okanagan

1. Waking up each morning to this view of Lake Okanagan.

 

The view from Tsillan

2. Dinner with Tsillan Cellars‘ owners Mr. & Mrs. Bob Jankelson. The hillside setting of Tsillan presents panoramic views of Lake Chelan, and the well-crafted wines — available only in the tasting room or through the wine club — provide yet more incentive to visit. The Chardonnay tasted rich but balanced and focused; I enjoyed the tight and earthy Sinistra (a Sangiovese-based blend); and about the fruity and full-bodied Bellissima Rossa, I wrote “Yes.” The company was just as good as the wines. My favorite part of the evening came when Mrs. Jankelson asked, with disarming frankness, “So, can you tell me, what is wine blogging? And why is it important?”

 

Karma owner Julie Pittsinger and winemaker Craig Mitrakul

3. Sparkling Wine Brunch at Karma Vineyards. This winery convinced me, along with quite a few of my fellow bloggers, that Lake Chelan’s specialty might well be sparkling wines. Each of the wines we tasted had impressively small, pointy bubbles and bright acids, ensuring that they pair well with a range of foods. My favorites were the 2010 Karma Brut, which had rich apple fruit and balanced lemony acids, and (despite the unfortunate name) the 2011 Hard Row to Hoe “Good in Bed” Blanc de Noir, with its beautiful texture, pronounced berry flavor and juicy, orangey acids.

 

Sarah pouring Moon Curser

4. Bus Tastings. We spent a lot of time on buses at the Wine Blogger Conference this year, for better or worse, and the conference organizers had no intention of wasting that time. Why just sit there when you can be drinking wine? The best bus tasting culminated with a 2011 Moon Curser Petit Verdot, a variety which appears in Bordeaux-style blends far more often than in a varietal wine. It had a gorgeous mocha aroma, dark fruit, rustic tannins, a zing of acids and an aromatic finish. Delicious. The winery takes its name from local gold smugglers, who would curse the full moon as they tried to sneak their booty across the border at night.

 

Hainle Gewürztraminer Ice Wine

5. 2010 Hainle Vineyards Estate Winery Gewürztraminer Ice Wine. Kristof Gillese led a fascinating session about judging wine, selecting several delicious British Columbian wines for us to sample. I very much enjoyed the rich and lively 1996 Summerhill Pyramid Winery sparkling wine, the cheery and earthy 2008 Tinhorn Creek Old Field Series Pinot Noir, and the velvety and peppery 2009 Painted Rock Merlot.

But the Hainle Gewürztraminer Ice Wine was staggeringly delicious. It’s rare to see a Gewürztraminer ice wine, I learned, because the fruit usually falls off the vine before the first frost, or at the very least loses its acidity. Conditions have to be just right, and with this wine, Hainle hit a home run. It had a rich but fresh honeysuckle aroma, and such verve on the palate! It started lush and sweet, as you might expect, but then startlingly zesty acids kicked in, followed by a pop of white-pepper spice. On the finish, I got a touch of orange along with an aromatic tobacco note. It was sublime. If you can find a way to get to Hainle to taste this wine, for God’s sake, do it.

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An Unforgettable Visit To Rio Vista

12 June 2013

The first winery we visited as part of the Wine Blogger’s Conference pre-conference excursion to Lake Chelan was not, in fact, on the lake. Since Rio Vista stands on a hillside overlooking the Columbia River about 10 miles to the north, it technically belongs to the huge Columbia River AVA, not the four-year-old Lake Chelan AVA (American Viticultural Area). Even so, travelers to Lake Chelan should consider a short detour to Rio Vista, accessible by road, boat or float plane.

Because of Seattle’s reputation, one might imagine that a vineyard in Washington State receives vast quantities of rain, but eastern Washington lies in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, making it a veritable desert. Most wineries here need to irrigate their sun-soaked vineyards.

As tempted as I was to take advantage of that sun and bask on Rio Vista’s river-view terrace, I was here on business, and I headed straight to the bar to get tasting. Here are some of my favorite wines, most of which turned out to be blends:

P11002672012 Wild Rose Rosé: A blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Syrah, this pink charmer had a tight, spicy aroma, creamy fruit and a zippy prickle on the finish. $19.

2012 Sunset on the River: This very unusual combination of Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay had a beautifully floral, aromatic nose. It starts sweet but tart acids take over, keeping things balanced. $20

2009 Loony Red: Another rather unorthodox blend, this wine mixes two Bordeaux varieties (Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) with a Rhône grape (Syrah). It works. I got sucked in right away by the enticing, darkly jammy aroma. The flavor didn’t disappoint, with a richly fruity start, some oak, some dusty tannins and a zing of spice. $28

2011 Malbec: This wine really divided the crowd. Some people loved the pronounced coffee aroma and the flavors of mocha and cherries, but others remarked that if they wanted a cup of coffee, they would go to Starbucks. $32

2011 Cabernet Sauvignon: We tasted this wine straight from the barrel, which always feels like a special experience, even if the wine is only half-baked. In this case, I wouldn’t have hesitated to drink a whole glass (or more). This creamy, fruity Cabernet had a carefully controlled spiciness and a delicious mocha finish. (Yet to be released — the 2009 costs $32.)

Lake ChelanAs tasty as these wines were, what really made the visit to Rio Vista unforgettable was the float plane ride. Groups of six of us headed down to the dock on the river and clambered aboard for 30-minute panoramic tours of the region. Quarters were close, but I happily snapped photos of the rugged hills and the lakeside vineyards (see my previous post about the landscape here).

I noticed that the fellow next to me wasn’t taking photos, and oddly enough, his eyes were closed. I didn’t think all that much of it until I saw beads of sweat forming on his brow, incongruous in the relatively cool airplane. It wasn’t until we were about 10 minutes from landing that the poor gentleman requested an air sickness bag.

Alas, this modestly sized receptacle proved inadequate for the task. My greenish-looking neighbor rapidly filled the sack with the colorful remains of the beautiful hors d’oeuvres he had been nibbling just minutes earlier. Thereafter, though he politely kept the bag close to his mouth as he wretched, with each heave, a fine (and occasionally not-so-fine) spray of vomit would burst into the air. Fireworks of bile glimmered for a split second in the sunlight before they landed on my window, my leg, my arm, my shirt, my camera, my glasses, and yes, my mouth.

Thankfully, just as we were reaching these new heights of ghastliness, the plane began its descent. “Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no,” my neighbor said, as we made a final turn before landing. We all exited the plane with no small amount of relief, but none so much as my motion-sick friend, overfull air sickness bag in hand. It was, without question, an unforgettable introduction to Lake Chelan.

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The Scenic Splendor Of Lake Chelan

6 June 2013

P1100283Already the Wine Bloggers Conference has been unforgettable, and I’m not even at the conference yet. I joined the pre-conference excursion from Seattle to Lake Chelan, a wine region granted its AVA status only in 2009. The first vineyards appeared only in 1998 or so — until then, it was just apples and tourists coming for the lake and the long, reliably sunny summer days. Seattle has a justified reputation for damp, but to the east it’s a veritable desert.

Float PlaneAnd what a desert. Our introduction to this brand-new wine country was by float plane. It pulled up to the dock of the Rio Vista Winery, perched above us on the bank of the Columbia River. Refreshingly, we were allowed to board the six-person plane without a security pat-down.

As we rose above the river, the grandeur of the landscape spread out before us, the rugged hills green with scrubby grass, conifers and orchards. We swung up the lake itself, a fjord-like spear surrounded by bluffs, vacation homes and hillside vineyards. The development on its shores indicated that Lake Chelan was not exactly a secret, but the appeal of the landscape was confirmed once we checked into our lakeside hotel and reconfirmed as we watched a spectacular sunset over dinner from Tsillan Cellars.

And what about the wines in this newborn AVA? Could they possibly live up to the setting? It seemed, frankly, unlikely. Stay tuned…

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The Desert Vineyards Of Washington State

27 August 2011

A hurricane may be raging along the East Coast, but in Chicago we’re having some of the loveliest weather we’ve had all year. It was a perfect chance to relax outside with a glass of rosé, my favorite fun summer wine.

Although my wine rack currently overflows with bottles, only one rosé was left — a 2010 Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese. I couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sangiovese rosé, much less one from Washington State. It was an ideal choice (of course, the total lack of other options also contributed to the selection process).

Before settling down with a glass, I researched Sangiovese a bit, wondering what this common Italian varietal might be doing up in Washington State. It came as a surprise to read in The Oxford Companion to Wine that “Sangiovese’s principal characteristic in the vineyard is its slow and late ripening…” Washington isn’t known as the sunniest of states, leading me to wonder how this grape might get enough sun to fully develop.

I really became curious how on earth anyone could grow this varietal in Washington when I went on to read that “The grape’s rather thin skin creates a certain susceptibility to rot in cool and damp years…” Washington State would seem to be the epitome of cool and damp — who would be crazy enough to grow Sangiovese there, and how did they possibly make it work?

And here my lack of knowledge about the Columbia River Valley’s terroir became all too apparent. (more…)

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Picnic In Pink

14 July 2011

Hours-long picnics are one of the great joys of summer. When gathering up bottles of wine to accompany the pasta salads, cheeses and fruits, I invariably reach for a bottle of dry rosé. There’s something inherently fun and casual about pink wines; they’re difficult to take too seriously. And yet, the best of them are a far cry from insipid White Zinfandels, with luscious fruit and a reassuringly adult finish of stone.

Many of the most renowned rosés come from Provence, but wine regions all over the world now produce excellent examples. While browsing the unfortunately brief selection of rosé at Whole Foods recently, I discovered one called Murphy’s Law which comes 56% from Washington and 44% from Oregon.

Intrigued, I examined the back label and found a plea from the winemaker: “Please don’t jinx this fragrant and intense blend of ‘All-Star’ grapes from primo vineyards in the Pacific Northwest.” Although Pinot Noir (44.2%) is an A-List celeb, Counoise (45.8%), Grenache (5%) and Blaufränkisch (5%) are unquestionably David Hasselhoff varietals: Big in Europe.

(more…)

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