Part 5: Picking the Best Northwest Wine Discoveries
By Cole Danehower
Cole’s Question: What were your overall impressions of Oregon and Washington wine before taking on the assignment of reviewing them for The Wine Advocate? How has that impression changed now that you’ve been tasting the wines more formally?
David’s Answer: How about it I offer you a before-and-after scenario by wine category, to keep things straight?
I knew ever since tasting David Lett’s 1975 South Block – which was when it had been in bottle for around a decade and I had recently started selling David’s wines in DC, where he visited me on a couple of memorable occasions – that Willamette Pinot could be sensational. (Mind you, as I do like to point out – not meaning to take anything away from four decades of Oregon accomplishments – nobody has made a Willamette Pinot any more profoundly, hauntingly, complexly delicious since.) And in the course of many hundreds of Willamette Pinots I tasted in the decade prior to taking on this reporting gig, I came to consider a number of estates capable of world class performance. Naturally, I also experienced many unexciting or problematic essays in this finicky grape, such as I’m used to from any other place where it is seriously grown, most definitely including Burgundy.
After tasting extensively with 85 growers or winemakers this summer and tasting samples from more than 60 others, I was most struck by two aspects of Willamette Pinot Noir. First, I was thrilled to learn how many among estates producing fantastic Pinot were ones with which I had been completely unfamiliar. I mean the likes of Ayoub, Brittan, Le Cadeau, Colene Clemens … even Arterberry Maresh because I knew about the family’s significance and dimly recalled some of Fred Arterberry’s wines but had no inkling about the amazing accomplishments of young Jim Maresh.
Naturally you can see if you read my report how many estates tremendously impressed me with their quality; I mentioned these five just now simply as ones for whose stellar performances I was completely unprepared. The second thing that struck me was the frequency and degree to which – at least as much as in any other Pinot region I have studied – quality and price diverge.
There’s a down side and then a welcome aspect to this. On the down side, there is quite a bit of merely good but not especially distinctive, let alone exciting Pinot Noir – which includes the generic, largest bottlings from many prestigious wineries, cuvées too-often arrived at by blending all of the barrels that didn’t make the cut for single-vineyard bottlings and tasting correspondingly a bit jumbled and second-best. On the up side, there are quite a few folks offering terrific value.
I had known Tad Seestedt and his Ransom wines for half a dozen years, but the outstanding values from Aberrant Cellars, J. Daan, and Illahe, for instance, were new to me. I was familiar with the excellent value offered by basic bottlings from Evesham Wood having known Russ Raney for a decade but even though I knew Doug Tunnell and knew of J. Christopher and Patricia Green’s wines, I was unprepared for the outstanding value of their entry-level cuvées. I mean, if you crave fine Pinot, getting something excellent for $30 or less is a real exception to the worldwide rule. In my experience it’s no more likely to happen in California, New Zealand, or Germany than it is in Burgundy.
When it comes to Willamette whites, my impression that they were a very mixed bag and works in progress was confirmed. But I’m happy to emphasize the “progress” part of that, even when, for instance, I don’t find most of the Pinot Gris to be very distinctive – and certainly don’t see any virtuous common thread. There are enough exciting whites to make one realize that the potential is there, and what especially shocked me was that the best Chardonnays were far and away the most delicious Willamette whites I tasted, some profoundly so. I knew how good Eyrie’s were but I thought they were the exception. Ayoub, Bergström, Brittan, Brick House, Cameron, Evening Land, Ponzi … that’s a lot of Chardonnay to be blown away by! (And others are impressive, too.)
Many of the folks behind these wines – starting with Dominique Lafon some years ago – told me they believe in a great future for Willamette Chardonnay and now, so do I. I suppose it’s because this grape isn’t one from which I expect much other than in a few select places on earth that I failed in the past to be sufficiently curious or attentive. And even if only a few wineries showed me exceptional sparkling wines – Analemma (not yet released), Argyle, Soter, Syncline – I am quite convinced that the potential for this genre is huge and I’ll be doing my best to get more wine lovers to take it seriously.
Another way of positively approaching Willamette whites is simply to conclude that more growers need to conscientiously and creatively pursue more and varied options so as to more fully explore what’s possible. Which brings me to another of the biggest and most exciting surprises of my Northwestern experiences this year: namely the quality exhibited by a handful of Willamette Syrahs. Nobody would dream of another cépage usurping Pinot’s place in this valley … or at least not – I would predict – until we get so far down the path of global warming that what grapes grow best where will seem trivial in comparison with the existential questions we’ll be asking ourselves! But if you can grow wines like those I tasted from Amalie Robert, Brittan, and Matello it would be a crying shame not to encourage them to persevere and others to experiment more with Syrah. Speaking of which, while from my limited experience they seem to be singular in the South, Cowhorn’s Syrahs – and indeed their full range – were tremendously impressive: what a diversity to issue from a single winery and vineyards within a relatively small radius!
And before I get off the subject of pleasant Oregon surprises, I had some experience with excellent wines from the Columbia Gorge but I wasn’t prepared for the diversity or for the quality of the best of these. I spent only half a day on a whirlwind tour of the area and tasted most of the wines in one-hour sit-downs with the proprietors but I’m psyched for further exploration. And Teutonic Wine Company deserves special mention for crafting wines whose low-alcohol ilk very few Germans (notwithstanding this winery’s name) would attempt, and which would surely surprise any taster (very pleasantly in my case) who wasn’t already familiar with them.
Whew – that was a long litany and I’m only now coming to Washington! As I mentioned, most of my experience of Washington State wine was very dated. But like Oregon, I can certainly claim to have staunchly defended this State’s potential for vinous greatness back during a time when most consumers (to paraphrase Bob Betz’s true anecdote) wondered which side of the Potomac they grew on. I was inspired as a retailer by meeting and selling the wines of David Lake and Rick Small back in the early years of their pioneering work. Limited experience with some relatively recent wines from Cayuse and Leonetti had demonstrated to me at an outstanding level of quality the stylistic diversity present in Washington.
After having this year tasted with 78 producers and sampled wines from more than 90 others, I found that both their quality and stylistic diversity exceeded my already optimistic expectations. Here you have growing cheek-by-jowl Bordelais blends comparable in quality to those in Napa with Rhône varietal blends as successful as any from California’s Central Coast.
And when it comes to Washington whites, the picture is downright improbably positive. I’ll be the first to admit a difficulty in wrapping my mind around the notion of deliciously-balanced and refreshing Riesling growing under irrigated desert conditions and often practically around the corner from Bordeaux and Rhône cépages. But there’s no denying if you taste with an open mind that it happens! And with Riesling, too, I was impressed by increasingly diverse styles, as witness for example recent bone dry “experiments” from Buty and Figgins. True, there seems to have been a dropping-off in serious attention paid to white grapes by those who make and discuss Washington wines, but if one looks at the successes of the folks who have persevered, I certainly hope white’s are going to bounce back. Consider the Sem-Sauvs of Buty or Fidélitas, DeLille’s Roussannes, Marsanne from Maison Bleue; the Reynvaan, Syncline, and Waters blends; Viogniers from Cayuse, K Vintners or Mark Ryan or Stevens. That’s an awful lot of excellence and stylistic diversity on display. (Though, considering the stunning quality of the top Willamette Valley Chardonnays, it’s interesting that I couldn’t get excited about any of those from Washington. If memory serves me, I tasted only one I thought merited more than an 89 point shorthand rating.)