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Walla way the hours

Tasting Washington State

by Thor Iverson

[vineyard]In September, I was approached by the Washington Wine Commission. Boston, it had been decided, was a target expansion market, and they were taking the opportunity to assess the landscape and show a few of their wines to the locals.

My thoughts on the landscape assessment are here, and now – after a bit of a travel delay – I present the notes from a lunchtime tasting a few days later. The question, as asked then and repeated now, is: how will these wines distinguish themselves from everything else on the market? Will they show definition and difference? Or will they be, for the most part, the standard Bordeaux-influenced blends, with heavily-managed tannin and the lush smoothness of new oak…a style that is already done very well in countless other locations?

Woodward Canyon 2006 “Dry” Riesling (Columbia Valley) – Ripe honeydew melon and honeysuckle with fig and Golden Delicious apple. Despite the label, it doesn’t taste entirely dry, but that could be a mere inference from the extremely ripe, almost boisterous palate. There’s a touch of heat on the nose, but otherwise this manages to pair intensity and balance fairly well. It is big, however. (9/07)

O S Winery 2006 Riesling Champoux (Horse Heaven Hills) – Extremely dry, showing Makrut lime, candied ginger and an aluminum core. Long, with dominant structure, but there’s a worrisome Styrofoam element to the finish. (9/07)

San Juan 2006 Siegerrebe (San Juan Island) – Even though the winery is perfectly entitled to use the name of its geographical location, there’s just something…I don’t know, jarring…about seeing “San Juan” on a wine from the Pacific Northwest. Well, whatever, let’s get back to the important stuff. Green elements (gooseberry, asparagus) vie with spice here, and there’s no lack of acidity. Beautifully weird. Or weirdly beautiful. Certainly not a crowd-pleaser, though I’m not sure why that’s important. (9/07)

DeLille 2006 “Chaleur Estate” Blanc (Columbia Valley) – A sauvignon blanc/sémillon blend. Fig, peach rind and dried yeast, with pit bitterness and lurid nut oils drizzled over the top. Far too thick, and (blessedly?) short. (9/07)

Abeja 2005 Chardonnay (Washington) – Smoky and very ripe, with cantaloupe and Calimyrna fig. Quite woody, though there seem to be pleasant enough materials underneath. The finish is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, which is unfortunately par for the course with such wines. (9/07)

[vineyard]Columbia Winery 2006 Viognier (Yakima Valley) – Light aromatics at first, followed by a thoroughly hollow midpalate. The finish is classic and varietally true to its peach flower/honeysuckle destiny, but there’s just not much else to enjoy here. (9/07)

Di Stefano 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – Fig, cucumber and white rose. Round and ripe, with good acidity, yet it also seems softened…normally, I’d guess with a tiny bit of aging in wood, but that doesn’t seem otherwise indicated here. Pretty nice. (9/07)

As noted, I’m a little more enthusiastic about the prospects for the whites than the reds. Not just because I think the whites are better – the reds are probably “better” from a modernist standpoint, which means they’re less to my taste – but because they have a better chance at standing out in the Boston market, which is Europhilic and unkind to a surplus of big, fruity, oaky reds made over and over again from the same few grapes. And then again, maybe not: my fellow diners were, for the most part, only willing to taste whites if forced to do so, preferring to spend the majority of their time with the more famous reds.

l’Ecole No. 41 2005 Merlot Seven Hills (Walla Walla Valley) – Buttered toast with dark blueberry jelly, ripe and leathery tannin, plus a finish that disappears from the inside out. Rather soupy. Not very good, but not horrible. (9/07)

Pedestal 2004 Merlot (Columbia Valley) – All toasty wood and brioche, no fruit or character. I’m told that über-consultant Michel Rolland had a hand in this. Certainly I’m no great fan of his ever-expanding portfolio, but his wines are almost never this horrid. (9/07)

Leonetti 2005 Merlot (Columbia Valley) – Big, spicy wood with a chewy yet lush texture. The quality is obvious, as is the seductive nature of the wine, but despite the overtly apparently quality, the wine is thoroughly anonymous. It could be from anywhere, made from anything. So what’s the point, exactly? (9/07)

Cadence 2003 Klipsun (Red Mountain) – 82% merlot, 18% cabernet sauvignon. Balanced fruit, big but ripe and pretty, that softens to a somewhat silky cotton candy texture on the finish. So close, but yet so far… (9/07)

buty 2006 Merlot/Cabernet Franc (Columbia Valley) – Technically, that’s 61% merlot, 39% cabernet franc. Espresso and chocolate with dark blueberries and a very concentrated, liqueur-like, but (weirdly, given those descriptors) not entirely overblown aspect. However, there is one significant flaw, and that’s the heat. It’s there on the nose, it’s there on the palate, and it positively burns on the finish. If you like a little brandy in your Fronsac, this is the wine for you. (9/07)

[vineyard]Nicholas Cole 2003 “Camille” (Columbia Valley) – 47% cabernet sauvignon, 38% merlot, 15% cabernet franc. Dark and structured, with blackberry and blueberry ruined by green, tarry notes. There’s a medicinal quality as well. This is a strange mix of New World fruit bomb and Old World greenness, with none of the positive qualities of either. (9/07)

Col Solare 2004 (Columbia Valley) – 80% cabernet sauvignon, 17% merlot, 2% cabernet franc, 1% petit verdot. Cedar and smoke, with simple fruit. Long and relatively balanced, supported by good structure, but it dries out on the finish. It’s as if the wine just gives up. (9/07)

Hedges 2005 “Three Vineyards” (Red Mountain) – A cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend. Tobacco and dark fruit dusted with black pepper. Tannin wavers between leather and more strident bitterness. There are some balance issues here, that age will help but probably not ever truly resolve. (9/07)

Fielding Hills 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Wahluke Slope (Washington) – Eucalyptus, blueberry and blackberry with a chocolate/coffee underbelly and myrtille liqueur on the finish. But that’s not all…there’s an herbal Chartreuse element to it as well. Perhaps blessedly, the finish is rather abrupt. A weird, weird wine. (9/07)

Pepper Bridge 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) – Reasonably balanced (or so it seems at first), showing coffee and toasted spice amidst the over fruit. Very, very thick. This might otherwise be considered promising, but there’s an unmistakable burn that eventually overwhelms everything. (9/07)

Woodward Canyon 2003 “Estate” Red (Walla Walla Valley) – 44% cabernet franc, 41% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon, 1% petit verdot. A classic blackberry and tobacco nose bodes well. But then: flowers and nutmeg. OK, if it must, but then: extreme wood and nasty weeds on the finish. And hot. Scaldingly hot. Yeesh. (9/07)

[barrels]McCrea 2004 “Sirocco” (Washington) – 40% grenache, 30% mourvèdre, 25% syrah and 5% counoise. Bubblegum and strawberry over gravel. The fruit is sweet, light and fun. Don’t ask any more of it and you’ll be reasonably pleased with this wine. (9/07)

Gordon Brothers 2003 Syrah (Columbia Valley) – Mint and blueberry, tight and twisted and hollow. Or perhaps fallow. Either way, there’s almost nothing here. Bad bottle? (9/07)

Gramercy Cellars 2005 Syrah “Lagniappe” (Columbia Valley) – Lush and ripe, but overly toasted and too buttery, with a texture like well-worn velvet throws on a long-used sofa. Turns sickly in the finish. A shame, too, as there are a few promising aromatics hanging about. (9/07)

Amavi 2005 Syrah (Walla Walla Valley) – Strongly fruity, showing blueberry, black cherry and blackberry with a dense overlay of spice and chocolate. There’s a hint of thyme on the finish. Good weight and decent (but only just) structure make this a reasonably solid wine. (9/07)

And so, as I feared, the reds are decidedly not my sort of thing. Do they say anything unique about Washington? The best of them say “we can be just like everyone else” and preach the gospel vinous conformity that’s currently sweeping the wine world, and the worst of them…well, they say something unique about Washington, but unfortunately they rather strongly suggest that the wineries aren’t yet ready for prime time.

I’ve had better wines from Washington, so obviously selection is, at least in part, an issue. And certainly, my preferences play into it as well. But this…was an unconvincing tasting. Others, with different palates, will be more enthusiastic. I wish all those involved luck. They’ll need it.


Copyright © Thor Iverson.