Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cougar Crest Winery - Dedication One

I'm always telling wine lovers (or those who will listen to me) -- Walla Walla wineries produce some of the best red table blends around and for the excellent quality and affordability, you can't beat 'em.

Dedication One from Cougar Crest Winery is another fine example of what I preach. Cougar Crest Winery is an estate winery. The Hansen family wines are made from grapes grown in their vineyards and fermented, aged and bottled at their winery.

A non-vintage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, and Petit Verdot showing flavors of ripe black cherries and creamy milk chocolate. This red table blend is not only a perfect wine for every night family dining, but an award winner, too! In April, Dedication One was given a double gold at the 25th West Coast Wine Competition held in Santa Rosa, CA. But this wine is more than a medal winner, as Cougar Crest has dedicated their Dedication One and a portion of the wine's proceeds to the Doernbecher Children's Hospital at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.

A great wine - a great value - a great cause.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mmm -- Bacon!

Have you ever dined on a particular appetizer, entree or dessert and you later dreamed about it? A few months ago I kept having recurring dreams of a Thai entree with curried butternut squash and coconut milk. This week my foodie dreams have been of bacon wrapped dates stuffed with chevre cheese. Mmm...what is it about bacon? I could wrap bacon around an unopened Hershey Bar, paper and all, and it would still taste delicious to me.

Saturday we dined at the only Four-Star French restaurant east of the Washington State, Patit Creek in Dayton, Wa. Of course, if you have ever dined there it is a must to order a plate or two of Bruce and Heather’s wonderful appetizers. We couldn’t seem to locate our favorite smoked salmon cheese cake with Heather’s handmade crackers on the menu and we all agreed that escargot didn’t sound too appetizing especially after annihilating those slimy little gastropods in our gardens. All of a sudden the skies parted, angels sang and a fanfare of trumpets blared - - and there it was --- BACON! Crispy little pieces of smoky, salty goodness wrapped around sweet dates stuffed with chevre cheese.

Now that our appetizer was decided, we needed to have just the right wine to pair with it. Two of the dining partners do not drink a lot of white wine and agreed that a white might not hold up to all of the dominant flavors of this appetizer. Merlot might not enhance the smoky sweet appetizer, while Cabernet Sauvignon could over-power it, but we all agreed that Sangiovese, a Tuscan red legacy, would be the perfect match. We chose Walla Walla’s Morrison Lane Estate Sangiovese - 2003. A nose of floral with flavors of strawberry, dried cherries and leather. There was just enough crispiness and acidity, with a faintness of oak, that it was an excellent pairing for our noshes of bacon, dates and cheese.

From crispy to salty to smoky to fleshy and sweet to tart and creamy. Do I dare say there were six degrees of flavor and textures to this bacon appetizer (if only a waiter by the name of Kevin had worked there - groan)?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #34 Hosted by Yours Truly

In short - - WBW hosted by the WWWWW.

Get those wine glasses ready and your typing fingers nimble, for the month of June I will be hosting Wine Blogging Wednesday # 34 on the second Wednesday, June 13th !

Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours first proposed this monthly blogging event back in July of 2004 - a wine theme is chosen by the host and wine bloggers (and often foodie bloggers) from all over the world blog that theme at the same time.

Since I am the "Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman" (and with hyphened last names M-W) hosting "Wine Blogging Wednesday", it is a must that we stick with a "W" in our theme. Cabernet Sauvignon from the State of Washington will be our theme for June. Naturally, I wanted a Walla Walla theme, but Washington wines collectively are easier for everyone to locate. However, if you want to concentrate on Walla Walla...

One last thing - I challenge my fellow oenophile bloggers to get creative and expand their taste buds from the ever so popular Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest from Washington State. Can you do it? Washington State is the 2nd largest premium wine producer in the United States with nine major American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and in fact, two weeks ago it was announced that Washington just bonded their 500th winery. So start drinking those Washington Cabernet Sauvignons and blog on!

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Sense of Place

What is terroir? Terroir is a French term used in wine to identify the unique characteristics mother nature bestowed upon a specific area. Loosely translated, terroir means “a sense of place.” Like a microclimate, terroir embodies the geographic factors, such as altitude, soil, position to the sun, weather conditions and water drainage, that influenced the quality of the finished wine.

American Viticultural Areas (AVA or appellations) are recognized by the US federal government for their terroir - distinctive combinations of soil, climate and identifiable regional wine character.

As appellations are growing in the USA, terroir has come under controversy. Critics of the term, terroir, say it is strictly a marketing term - a spin. There are opinions it is area-politically driven and others feel that appellations need to be redesigned and better defined. As an example, there are appellations that do not possess a single terroir and not all of those particular grapes deliver a similar character to the wines.

In America, we are often guilty of taking something that has been nurtured for over thousands of years and butchering and commercializing the hell out of it until it fits our lifestyles. Is terroir a romantic French fiction, a commercial tool or a true sense of place? While mining for gold, prospectors knew certain elements of land were common to specific regions (terroir) increasing their chance of striking it rich. As the New World wine industry grows, have we lost the true meaning of this sense of place?

This week I spent two days touring some of the appellations in Washington State. Our host, French-born Gilles Nicault, winemaker and manager of Long Shadows Winery in Walla Walla, guided us to lands of vinifera that defined our appellations and most of all, he introduced us to the caretakers of the most unique soils of Washington State. To sum it up in one word - overwhelming!

Next week I hope to share the unique palette of soil we touched and people we met while we discovered their sense of place.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Away - Away Drinking Washington Wines

I like to keep my readers in touch when I am away. If there is a lengthy absence at "The Walla Walla Grape Vine", I don’t want anyone to think that I have given up blogging and never coming back.

For the next five days I will be away from my blog. I hope to be in front of the computer just long enough to check email and nothing else. Two of these days we will be going on another road trip to visit more of Washington wine country. But this time we will be guided by professionals who know Washington wines (I will drop names later - heh). We are trying to get a sense of the appellations and how their different terroirs contributes to the wines of Washington State. Tours to specific vineyards and wineries are on the itinerary. I hope to come back with worthy blogging material to share.

What else am I doing on those days that I am not touring wine country? Goofing off. I’ll probably do some yard work and one afternoon I'll be at a local winery screwing corks and cleaning spit buckets (it keeps me humble, ya know). Maybe one evening at home I will toss some kosher hot dogs on the grill and pair them with a good Merlot ---- ahhh ---- life is good!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Cooking Through The Walla Walla Grape Vine

If you know anything about Walla Walla wines, then you probably know that Walla Walla is also filled with talented foodies and gourmets. For the month of May, my guest gourmet and talented foodie is Anne Hull, Tasting Room and Anvil Wine Club Manager of Forgeron Cellars.

Anne often suggests special food pairings on Forgeron's wine tasting notes and is constantly discovering recipes to pair with the chosen wines for her wine club members. Annie says of the following recipe, "It is my favorite comfort food and the dish is yummo!" (And no...that isn't blue wine. It appears that she also favors Blue Hawaiians with pink umbrellas.)

Polenta with Wild Mushrooms

7 cups chicken stock
2 cups polenta
4 TBSP unsalted butter, cut into cubes, plus 2 TBSP unsalted butter
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3/4 lb assorted wild mushrooms, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (Annie prefers cremini, portobello, & morels)
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup Madeira (a fortified wine from Portugal)
2 cups unsalted chicken broth
Fresh ground pepper to taste

In a large pot over high heat, bring the stock to a boil. Stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, add the polenta in a thin stream until blended. Continue stirring to prevent lumps from forming. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring constantly until the polenta is thick and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 30 - 40 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the 4 TBSP butter, a few cubes at a time, then stir in 1/2 cup of the cheese. Keep warm over low heat.

In a large saute pan over medium-high heat, melt 2 TBSP butter. Add the mushrooms and thyme and cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms are browned. Add the Madeira and cook, stirring, until the liquid has almost evaporated. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Divide the polenta among 4-6 warmed bowls. Spoon the mushrooms and broth over the polenta and serve immediately, top with the remaining cheese.

Anne suggests that this earthy and comforting dish would make an excellent pairing with Forgeron Cellars 2003 Syrah - a Rhone-style with big ripe fruit that really reflects the vintage.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Roussanne in the Walla Walla Valley

It's getting hot in the Valley and already I am thinking about summer wines. Last year I got hooked on some of the fabulous dry roses' from the Walla Walla Valley and this year - - I decided that Roussanne will be my new summer white wine of choice.

What is Roussanne? It's a white grape whose name comes from its russet-colored skin. Some viticulturists will tell you that for all practical purposes, Roussanne should be extinct. It gives irregular yields and tends to have uneven and late ripening. Roussanne is prone to rot and powdery mildew and can be easily damaged by wind and drought. But with proper selection and propogating only the least problematic clones, this white Rhone grape has been preserved for two primary reasons: unique aroma and very forward acidity. In France's Rhone region it is often blended with Marsanne and a premium component of other Rhone white blends. California probably has around 200 acres of Roussane planted and it is considered a newcomer to the state of Washington.

The aroma of Roussanne is not as fruity as other white grapes, but usually very aromatic like wildflowers. A thin skin grape, it gives the impression of an oily quality in the mouthfeel. It seems to benefit from blending and a bit of oak, as well. It has been known to cellar for a decade.

Last week in the Walla Walla Valley Forgeron Cellars released their first-ever Roussanne. Extremely aromatic of orange blossoms and the taste is crisp with citrus and a spicy finish of cinnamon. It sparkles in the mouth and the light kiss of oak and 13% Orange Muscat grape softens the Roussanne's sharp acidity. In fact the Orange Muscat seems to enhance all of the good qualities of the Roussanne grape. A refreshing summer sipping wine and very limited in quanity.

The ever-popular "Snapdragon" blend from Isenhower Cellars is another fine example of the Roussanne grape. I am thinking that Isenhower may have been the first in the valley to introduce Roussanne (or at least the first time I tasted it in the Walla Walla Valley). Isenhower's 2006 vintage contains 75% Roussanne and 25% Viognier. A unique white with a nose of orange peels and mineral qualities. It is a fruit driven wine hinting of flavors of mango, pineapple and pears with a finish of orange spice tea.

Bergevin Lane Vineyards and Tertulia Cellars adds a bit of Roussanne to their 2006 Viogniers to add depth and complexity.

Roussanne pairs well with Caesar salad, roasted garlic chicken, Cajun-style seafood, and Asian inspired foods like the sweet and spicy flavors of Thai. Cheers to my new summer wine - Roussanne!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Walla Walla The New Napa Valley?

The Napa Valley has St. Helena -- a charming and lovely town, yes, yet overrun with expensive designer shops, ultra-high-end restaurants, and chi-chi boutiques. It stopped being a functional town for local residents many years ago. The Walla Walla Valley has Walla Walla -- charming indeed, yet still down-home. Tourists still have to hunt a bit if they want to find the fancy and the frou-frou in Walla Walla. Yet both communities are capitals of their own wine regions. How, then, can we prevent Walla Walla from becoming a St. Helena -- or even a Napa? (Well, Napa Auto Parts stores in Walla Walla -- that's okay.)

Some local car bumpers have lately been pasted with a new sticker, "Don’t Bend Walla Walla." The reference is to a Bend, Oregon, company that has plans to build a destination-resort near Walla Walla city limits. But the resort is inevitable, considering the explosion Walla Walla has felt from wine tourism. Yet during a county planning meeting where a local wheat farmer opposed a vineyard owner building a new winery in an agriculture zone where his vineyard was located, the opposition commented, "I don’t want to see Walla Walla grow like Napa and become a wine Disneyland for adults." While I favored the proposed new winery, I thought to myself when I heard the comment, "Me neither. I don’t want to see the town that I was born and raised in, the town I want to retire in, turn into another Napa Valley."

But is Walla Walla, with its rural charm and blend of eccentric personalities, destined to become the new Napa or St. Helena? Is it inevitable?

My Uncle Larry dropped by last week. He had a wine magazine guide from Napa Valley and Sonoma -- he and my Aunt Barb just came back from touring these most famous of California's wine regions. They began their trip thinking they were going to have the ultimate new world wine experience. But they came back disappointed -- indeed, Barb and Larry hated their visit down south. Larry had imagined that he would be returning to the rustic charm of old wineries in Napa and Sonoma that he had seen decades ago when he was a young man, but, he said, now all those wineries he remembered are hidden behind fancy tourist-oriented facades. And the wine, he said, is mediocre wine. Barb and Larry drove on roads congested with tour buses filled with non-wine-buying-looky-lous and stretch-limos full of obnoxious tasting-room drunks. I had to admit that I've seen those kinds of limos here in Walla Walla. Are limos filled with happy-hour drunks endemic to all wine country?

A while ago someone asked a group of us who know wine fairly well what wineries to visit in Napa. Someone in the group mentioned all of the wineries in California housed in beautiful structures, built to create a kind of Disneyish wine-country ambiance. I wondered, But how are their wines? I finally asked the person who wanted the Napa recommendations, "Are you looking for beautiful architecture or are you looking for good wine?" The two can go together, of course -- several fine Walla Walla-area wineries are beautiful and they make superlative wine -- but that's not always the case. I suggested that when visiting any wine region, don't ignore the mom and pop garagistas. Maybe their wines haven't yet received the attention of Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator, but who cares? If the wine tastes wonderful, isn’t that enough? In my experience, the small, local unpretentious wineries are the places where the people are making wine for love, not image. And it's love -- plus good vineyards -- that produces the best wine, I think.

Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, I love living in Washington wine country and I am thankful for the wineries and the associated economic growth they have brought to Walla Walla. Our town has a new vigor and excitement. But we have to learn from Napa, and by that I mean we can learn from Napa what to do and, especially, what NOT to do.

One thing I think we've already learned from Napa's and St. Helena's experience is that buses filled with tourists are not always a good thing. There's no guarantee these folks will spend the night in any of our local hostelries, and there's no guarantee, either, that a bus-load of people will result in any great additions to the local economy. In my experience, people who come to Walla Walla for the wine as couples or small families or even as singles tend to drop much more cash into our local wineries and businesses than tour groups do. In fact, in my seven years working in tasting rooms, I have yet to have a truly good experience with a tour group that arrived at the winery on a bus. Seriously, I mean that. I've sold groups a few bottles of wine, but not enough to make up for the time that tour groups require of tasting-room staff. Sometimes it feels like the winery is little more than a bathroom stop for such groups. Then there's the issue of tour groups that schedule a visit to a winery at a certain time, so the winery brings on extra tasting-room staff to handle the crowd -- and the group doesn't show. Yeppers, it's happened. I've heard some wineries in the Napa Valley are charging tour groups non-refundable reservation fees, and I think that's something that the more tourist-oriented Walla Walla wineries should consider.

But for me, working in a tasting room, nothing's more frustrating than when I'm serving a visitor who is serious about learning about the wines, and then a limo group of eight or 10 or 12 people bursts through the door. The intimate environment of the tasting room, which is properly a place of education, is immediately overwhelmed with noise and bother -- you'd be surprised how many people, when they arrive at a tasting room in a group, seem to require a loud conversation on their cellphone as they walk through the winery door.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of days when I envy those who visit wineries in a limo. I wish I could have my ass hauled around from winery to winery without a care in the world. But when I am working I am conscientious about the serious wine tourist who is here to experience the Walla Walla Valley and what it has to offer. The serious wine tourist wants to taste, savor and experience the wines. Getting hammered isn't on their agenda.

What I am hoping for Walla Walla is that we continue to grow and keep the state of Washington happy with our revenue taxes on wine, food and accommodations. But we need to be cautious about our growth. I think there are ways to encourage more wine tourism -- and there are ways not to. The experiences of California's famous wine regions, which have been in this game for a long time, provide us an opportunity to learn both.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Ballad of North and South - Walla Walla Syrahs

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling - -

"Oh, North is North, and South is South, and the twain shall often meet...
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at Bacchus's great Judgment Seat

Two wines from Walla Walla recently got my interest, one from north of town and the other from south. Both are estate wines; the northerner comes from 100-year old wheat land and the southerner comes from old rocky river beds. What do they have in common? The comprise examples of the finest estate Syrah grown and made in the Walla Walla Valley, and as it happened both wines stood side by side in my house the other evening.

I knew the northern wine had come from Spring Valley Vineyards as soon as my nose hit the bowl of the glass. These old northern slopes of wheatland resembles those vertigo-inducing slopes of Northern Rhone and the earthiness of the estate's old wheat fields came through just as it does with their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It's a smell that I happen to love, as it reminds me of my grandfather and the smell of his OshKosh B'Gosh overalls from his days out in the wheat fields. Violets from my grandmother's garden came through as well.

This 2004 vintage, named "Nina Lee" by Spring Valley, is very large, with fruits of blackberry and plums and a hint of chocolate. There seem to be enough tannins going on that you'll be able to put some significant age on the bottle, though it is delicious now. There's an interesting contrast, in fact, between the wine in the bottle and the wine's label: the wine is big and dense, yet the woman -- Nina Lee herself, in a fetching photo from the 1920s -- is petite and delicate looking woman. But don't be fooled by her size. From what I've heard about her, the wine named for Nina Lee beautifully and accurately represents her big and bold spirit.

From vineyards south of town came the Cayuse Cailloux Syrah 2001 from Cayuse Vineyards. The stones held the secrets of the grapes and the name, Cayuse, which was given to a local Native American tribe by French trappers, is an evolved spelling of the French word "cailloux," which means rocks.

When I first smelled this wine it reminded me of an old French wine -- a mixture of perfume and soil, of a woman's subtle fragrance and a barnyard's odor. Well, that's French and French-style wine for you! But later the nose opened up and developed smoky notes with hints of coffee and florals - again, violets. The mouth was full and intense. Blueberries came though with a finish of Chinese Five-Spice. To me, this Syrah resembled the noble red grape from the rocky slopes of France's Rhone Valley. I thought it had just the right amount of tannins, but in my heart I knew we had opened it too soon. This Cayuse Syrah had more stories to tell if left in the bottle a few more years.

The ballad ends with two empty bottles that once held two different styles of Syrah from two different areas of the Walla Walla Valley. One defining thing they have in common: they are both beautiful wines that this woman from the West of Walla Walla would never turn down.

But there is neither North nor South, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong Syrahs stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the Walla Walla!"

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

May Day - Walla Walla Spring Release Around The Corner

Ahhh...the first of May! There is something about May Day that makes me nostalgic. It makes me think of:

When I was a little girl we would make May baskets out of construction paper. Often in the shape of cones with a ribbon hanging from the top. We would fill our "pocket full of posies" and hang them on the door knob, ring the bell and run before our mother answered the door. Then we would walk in the back door nonchalantly as if we knew nothing. Mom of course, never let on.

On the playground we had a Maypole draped with flowers and ribbons of pastel colors. Holding the ribbons, we had rehearsed a dance so that the ribbons wound round the pole in a weave. The legend was that the better the pattern, the better the harvest would be that coming fall. I now raise an eyebrow with a snicker at this memory and wonder if those prim and proper hair-bun-sensible-shoe-wearing teachers really knew the meaning behind this Beltane frivolity. The Maypole is probably the most well known, even to non-Pagans, as simply a phallic symbol to reflect the fertility of the season.

Every year I tell myself that this will be the year I will make my own May wine and wine from rose petals.

May wine, also known as Maiwein, is the name of a German aromatized wine and served in the spring, traditionally on the May Day holiday. The base of this wine is made with sweet woodruff, a fragrant creeping herb, that is steeped in white German-style wines such as Riesling. Often served in the Maibowle (May-bowl) and strawberries are floated in the bowl.

Many May moons ago I would make a yearly trek to the now defunct Zillah Oakes Winery and buy a case of their May wine that was released just once a year and of course always at the end of April. The off-dry wine was perfect for a May picnic with the aroma of the woodruff and a hint of strawberries. I would serve the May wine with chilled pinwheel shapes of boneless stuffed chicken breasts filled with spinach and pesto, croissants and chocolate covered strawberries.

Last night as I was admiring the new buds from my 10 rose bushes and I thought to myself, "Will this be the year I will finally make rose petal wine?" Then all of a sudden reality knocks on my ethereal memories - - Spring Release is this weekend! It will mean to me the wine loving masses all descending on Walla Walla. My ears will be left ringing from hundreds of voices kicked-up a few volumes, my cheeks will hurt from smiling with the happy customer and trying to make the unhappy customer smile. When I reach my quiet sanctuary Sunday evening it will mean that my legs and feet will be sore. By the time my head hits the pillow there will come a wave of satisfaction that my tired old body once again accomplished another Spring Release weekend in Walla Walla, while my mind will wonder, "Will this be the year I will finally make rose petal wine?"