Washington

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.

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…

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…)

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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