Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Well Traveled Wines - Walla Walla Under the Big Sky

And indeed it was - the sky was big in Montana! It had been a few years since I had stepped foot in the great state of Montana. US - 93 from Spokane via Coeur d'Alene to Montana was a breathtaking ride through the majestic mountains. The picturesque drive around Flathead Lake brought us to our final destination of Big Fork.

Big Fork is located in the mountains of northwestern Montana with an altitude of 2,900 feet. The town wraps around the crystal blue bay of Flathead Lake. With more than 180 miles of shoreline, Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. The charming town of Big Fork has a western setting with art galleries, fine restaurants, live theatre and of course, shopping. My cousin and her husband live two miles from the quaint little town and of course we couldn’t resist a stop in the "city" for the men in my life to pick up their quota of interesting brews. When in Montana you drink Montana brew. However, that was not the case when it came to wines. No offense to Mission Mountain Winery at Flathead, but you see – when you drink mostly Walla Walla or any Washington wine, you become rather spoiled.

At the market, we loaded up on the local Moose Drool Brown Ale and Scape Goat Pale Ale from the Big Sky Brewing Company and we also spent some time in their very large and impressive wine section. We were pleased to see that some Walla Walla wines were represented in the tourist town of Big Fork. We noted Dunham, L'Ecole, Tamarack, and Woodward Canyon (to name a few) were on the market shelves along with other Washington wines. When we spotted the Waterbrook Melange, two bottles of this affordable and always reliable red blend immediately went into our grocery cart along with the Montana brews, locally made Montana buffalo salami, freshly picked cherries from the many orchards around Flathead Lake and Hermiston melons from our Walla Walla neighbor in Oregon. Who would have thought the best melons from the west would find their way to Montana? We spotted Walla Walla Sweet Onions, but of course we packed our own to share with the relatives.

One afternoon I was able to find a few moments to read, relax and nap in my tent. My family took off to a smaller lake down the road from my cousin’s property. It’s a lake that the locals go to when they want to avoid the tourists at Flathead (not telling the name). Having that quiet time, I started thinking about the Flathead tourists and just tourists in general. Smart move on the wine distributors and the local market to flourish their shelves with wines made from their western neighbor - the state of Washington.

When it comes to wine distribution, wineries should be featured on the shelves where their own tourists reside. In Walla Walla, the majority of our wine tourists are coming from the Western part of the state of Washington - the Seattle area. The second largest group of tourists to hit Walla Walla reside in the neighbor-bordering state of Oregon, and in the last couple of years I have seen a growing number of wine tourists visiting Walla Walla whose homes are in Idaho and Montana. Earlier in the day, as we took count of the Walla Walla and overall Washington wines, it made sense when you consider the miles (Depending on location from MT to WA: two to seven hours in the car with a time change. It's five hours from Seattle to Walla2), that Washington wines would be and should be well represented in this popular town of Montana. It seems like a great marketing strategy to me to saturate a neighboring state, like Montana where your visiting customers are hailing from, before you even market your wine in a mid-west state say like Oklahoma, a northern state like Rhode Island or even the large state of Texas. In Walla Walla we are seeing more visiting wine tourists from Idaho and Montana and following right behind Oregon and certainly not a growing number from Oklahoma, Rhode Island and even a large state like Texas. Besides, all the wine-loving Texans I know do not believe that Washington State is the second largest wine producing state in the nation, let alone that other states in the nation exists. My Texas friends tell me that they are the only ones that produce wine, as far as they are concerned. Afterall, they are known as the "Lone State." Heh. The point is that your largest population of well-cultivated customers cannot always visit your winery, so you go to them by being convenient at their local market or wine store.

I must also mention that while in Montana I discovered that the College Cellars of Walla Walla has new labels! Even the back label has a new feature with handy symbols guiding the customer on how to pair the College Cellars wines with specific foods (beef, cheese, chicken, fish, etc). Great idea! At our reunion auction fund raiser, a bottle of College Cellars Governors Blend - 2005 (rumor is that the Governor herself recently obtained a case for a dinner) and a bottle of College Cellars Lemberger - 2005 found its way to Montana. And might I say that both bottles returned back to Walla Walla and then later one left for the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire. A well traveled wine. Cheers!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

On Vacation - Big Blue Sky!

Every three years we have a family reunion camp-out. Usually we camp at family property outside of Dayton, WA near Ski Bluewood. This year, we will be at family property near Big Fork, MT at Flathead Lake. Our reunions are always camp-outs with a variety of tents, travel trailers and luxury motor homes. Me? I like my tent. I have a designer mauve-colored tent that sleeps four, but fits my queen size air mattress just perfect. You see - while I love to camp, I can still be a bit of a diva.

One of the reunion events that we look forward to is the family fund raiser auction on Saturday night. People bring items to donate for the auction and the proceeds go to our family fund. The fund pays for things like port-o-potties, paper plates, cups, and other things that we collectively need. The auction items are so great and always so creative, that it is difficult to chose what and how many to bid on. From handmade quilts, crafted decorative wood items, gourmet packaged foods from touristy areas (they love the Walla Walla Sweet Onions), not-so-flattering framed photos of relatives that come in handy for jovial "blackmailing", and sometimes a family heirloom passed down from a great-aunt. The most popular items have been wine and micro-brews. Always lots of bottles of wine to win! It brings me comfort to know that I am not the only "wine-o" in the family and - - I have won my share and not just from Washington, but Montana, Nebraska and Colorado.

So needless to say, I won’t be blogging for a few days. Instead I will be sitting around a campsite with family telling old jokes and stories, eating and of course, drinking wine. I am especially looking forward to this reunion as my two adorable little granddaughters will be joining me. I can see them now wearing Barbie crowns on top of their unruly thick red curls, princess wings off their shoulders and holding a fishing pole.

I think I'll leave my crown and wings at home.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Grapes Do The Talking At Mannina Cellars

Every so often I will make a prediction, and when I do my prediction comes true. My predictions are always positive. My motto is, you don't need to make a negative prediction about anybody or anything -- the Law of Karma takes care of it all. My paternal great-grandmother was a midwife with lots of tales and remedies from the back woods. About three years ago, one of my maternal aunts said to me, "You have the gift, don’t you?" She was referring to a trait she felt in our family – being psychic (or maybe just looney). But as I have discovered in life, it’s a tough position to tell someone, "I told you so." Heh.

My latest prediction? Don Redman of Mannina Cellars is going to join the ranks of one of the top winemakers in Walla Walla.

With a background in chemistry, Don’s approach to his craft of winemaking is to create the perfect environment where grapes can make their journey to wine with as little human intervention as possible. This approach results in vineyard-driven wines with lots of varietal character. If you want to know what Merlot, for example, tastes like in its purest wine expression, Mannina's Merlot is the wine I'd point you toward.

A year ago I tasted Don’s first releases, a Merlot and a Sangiovese, both 2004. These classic and clean wines really showed the true qualities of the varietal. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to taste Mannina Cellar’s current releases and if I had to use only one word to describe my reaction to the new wines, it is S_W_O_O_N!

We tasted the Mannina Cellars Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and "Cali", a red table blend. They were all very distinguished wines, but the two that really shined for me were the Sangiovese and the Cali. It’s no surprise that Don's Sangiovese won a Gold from the Northwest Wine Summit. It's a classic Chianti, yet the nose told me it was born and raised in Walla Walla -- our signature local flavor of rich chocolate-covered cherry was everywhere in this beautiful wine.

The Cali takes its name from Don’s grandmother -- Cali was her maiden name, in fact. This red blend is both delicious and affordable, showing the best of Walla Walla grapes in the nose and flavors. It's well-structured, supported by tannins and acidity with additional earth and cherry qualities in the nose and flavors. There's just a hint, too, of vanilla in the finish. This bronze-medal winner at the Northwest Wine Summit retails for an attractive $17.

Don says he wants Mannina Cellar wines to show a true sense of place, and he believes the best way to achieve it is to let the grapes, not the winemaking, do the talking. From my tasting of Mannina Cellar's new releases, I can say that Don approaches terroir in just the right way.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The 500th Washington Winery - Sweet Valley Wines

There has been a lot of press recently about the new 500th licensed winery in the state of Washington and especially the news that it will be located in Walla Walla! But out of all of those press releases, how many of them have actually tasted the 500th winery’s first release? Well, we did!

Double Barrel Red Blend - 2005 is the first release for Sweet Valley Wines, the 500th winery to be licensed in the State of Washington. We visited with owner/partner of Sweet Valley Wines, David McDaniels, as we enjoyed this distinguished table blend. Keeping true to the sweetest valley around, only Walla Walla Valley grapes from Forgotten Hills, Les Collines, and Va Piano were used.

55% Merlot, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon with a skoosh of Syrah (2%) was blended to make this everyday, but bold sipping wine. Lots of fruit, like a mouthful of dark cherries, but still enough tannins that you could cellar this wine for a couple of years. Fruit and tannins are balanced with a nutmeg and peppery finish. Double Barrel will be able to join other local wineries with a quality Walla Walla wine for under $20.00. Huzzah!

David also shared with us his future winery plans for a great old structure on Rose Street. Best wishes to Sweet Valley Wines. They have the start of some good things going for them.

Friday, July 13, 2007

They're here! Go to the light, Catie Ann!

What happens when an Eastern Washington Wine blogger meets up with a Western Washington Wine blogger? Lots of opinions get tossed back and forth, lots of chatter fills the air, and a whole lot of tasting of some of the best wines in the world gets done, that's what happens! Best of all for this Eastern Washington wine blogger, I learned to love Walla Walla all over again, as I was able to see Walla Walla through the eyes of the Western Washington Wine blogger, Gene Stein, known as the Seattle Wine Blogger, his wife Diane, and their friends Bob and Kathy Tovey from Bend, Oregon. The crew was in town a little while ago to taste the local product, and I was invited to join them. Dr. Stein is a wine writer, wine educator, wine judge and former publisher of Northwest Consumer's Wine Guide, and his friend Bob Tovey was the Oregon correspondent for a consumer wine guide.

I was born and raised in Walla Walla, and I have many fond memories dating back to the late fifties and early sixties when my parents dressed up and took me and my siblings to downtown Walla Walla for a Friday night dinner. Before we left the house, we were all lined up and seated on the white Naugahyde couch (very Nauga-Boomer style) and got coached on how we should behave in public -- it was either behave or get "the look!" No child ever wanted to get the "look" from my father, let me tell you. Spank us, ground us, take away privileges -- but never -- ever -- give -- us -- "the look!" Sometimes we went for spaghetti either at the Pastime (now empty) or DeLucas (now the Red Eye, and before that Pacific Express) or even the Newberry's (now Heritage Park) fountain counter for a hot roast beef sandwich.

When us kids weren't along to crowd the table, our parents dined at the Corner Restaurant (now the Paul Richardson Agency) the former Elks Club located downtown on Fourth & Alder, The Grand at the former Grand Hotel (now Banner Bank building on First Street), or at the Heidelberg Villa, a swanky German restaurant (now the Golden Horse Restaurant). Or they took in a movie at the old Liberty Theater, spending an extra dollar to sit in the plush balcony loges. In fact, my parents first met at Clemies Diner on Main Street, now the tasting room of Waterbrook Winery. My siblings and I were very content staying with Grandma (who lived and owned acreage on School & Bryant Avenues, a few lots up from Leonetti Cellars) when our parents were out for a special evening. We could overlook Lawrence Welk on their TV if it meant sharing a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of Pepsi-Cola with Grandpa.

Sometimes I take Walla Walla for granted, I admit, yet at the same time I can be very protective of it. I have seen our downtown go from the very best to the very worst -- and bounce back again. It's a shining star now.

About a year ago I was sitting at a dinner meeting, and some of the others at the dining table said about Walla Walla, "They need to quit opening up wineries." "They need to open some chain stores like the Tri-Cities have," someone said. "They need to open up some chain restaurants, like the Red Olive Lobster Garden. They don't need more wineries. They don't need more art galleries." I finally had to ask: "Who is this "They" that you speak of?" If some of these "theys" are who I think "they" are, "they" are corporations from out of town with no local connection -- faceless companies, in other words, the same corporations that gave the Eastgate and Blue Mountain malls, which are now ghosts of their previous selves. "They" are the various corporations that plundered and pillaged (yeah I have seen too many pirate movies lately) the jewel of our city, the elegant Marcus Whitman, so that it was barely saved from the wrecking ball.

Visiting with Gene, Diane, Kathy and Tom that afternoon, I started looking at Walla Walla with a fresh eye. I became excited for all of the things that they were excited about. Tom and Kathy commented about the bumper stickers, "Don't Bend Walla Walla", that some Walla Walla locals created. The Toveys said from their experience of living in Bend, Walla Walla will never become a Bend, Oregon, and explained that Bend is tearing down their historic structures while Walla Walla has worked so hard as a community to preserve them. As I sat at lunch enjoying tapas outdoors at Saffron, a new Mediterranean restaurant (formerly the old Schwartz Beer Parlor and a garden-feed store), I was reminded by my new friends how fortunate I was to live in Walla Walla.

Later that afternoon we were at aMaurice Cellars visiting with, Ned Morris, the winemaker there, when Kathy directed me to the lovely view we had from the winery's tasting area. Kathy commented on the beauty of the multi-colored foothills of the Blue Mountains. I guess that before Kathy spoke of the view we shared, I had taken those blue and green colored foothills for granted.

Once again I thought about the "Theys." Recently, the county of Walla Walla had struggled over potential restrictions on located winery structures in the agriculture zones quilting those foothills. Those opposed to more wineries argued that if the wineries were built, "the next thing "they" will want is rock concerts." "They" will want weddings and "they" will demand the farmers quit operating while "they" have their ceremonies and concerts. "They" will litter - "they" will litter their wine bottles around our foothill roads. I remember thinking, "They" will do all of this? I never knew what to say to those comments about those damn "theys" and the problems "they" bring with them. I never knew any "theys" who littered their $30-50 wine bottles on the roads. Usually "they" pack their bottles home to age them in their cellars. I never knew that "they", the majority of winemakers and winery owners, wanted to fuss with the mess, details and liabilities of rock concerts and the wear and tear rock concerts can put on a winery and especially a vineyard. I thought the majority of winemakers just wanted to make good wine. Who knew "they" also wanted to take the time away from their winemaking and patrol concert crowds and fuss with little bridezillas and their soon to be monster-inlaws?

I always thought winery structures would be more appealing and complementary to the foothills than the rock quarries, pig farms, and small aircraft landing strips, all of which are already zoned in the foothills. The winery opponents keep trying to tell us that "they", wine and grapes, are not agriculture.

That late afternoon I left my new wine friends and kept thinking about all of the wonderful things "they" had to say about our Valley. "They" commented on the beauty of the old trees, the majestic old buildings and homes. "They" commented on the beautiful view surrounding the Valley on all sides, the great dining, the mesh of eclectic characters and how we have made each other into neighbors. Most of all, my new friends commented on our world-class wines. My new friends made me see my town as if I was falling in love with it all over again, just as they were for the first time. "They" told me again and again how fortunate I was to have been born and raised here. "They" told me how fortunate I was to have the old cherished memories and to be able to witness the positive growth. "They" reminded me just how fortunate I was to have all of these wonderful things about Walla Walla around me and at my fingertips.

I decided that "they" were the ones that I would finally listen to. "They" had the comments and opinions that I would value. Thanks Gene, Diane, Kathy and Tom!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Drenched in Greatness - aˋMaurice

First of all, it is worth the drive. Of course, what am I talking about? Everything in Walla Walla, is no further than a 15 minute drive from the heart of downtown.

The winery and 13-acre vineyard of aˋMaurice is located in the Upland area of Mill Creek. Besides the appropriate growing conditions, you can almost reach out and touch the panoramic view of the multi-colored foothills of the Blue Mountains. One is surrounded in tranquility.

If there is a distinguished nose coming from a wine, it is exciting to me. It makes me want to learn everything about that wine. And no – not every wine will have a dominant aromatic nose that reaches beyond the glass.

The first release of aˋMaurice Premier Red Blend - 2004 is such a wine. 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Malbec were hand-picked, carefully sorted, then crushed and fermented in small lots and later aged in mostly French oak. The result is an aromatic wine with the Malbec reaching out beyond the glass, in spite of the small percentage. The rich taste reminded me of the holidays. I often tell people that when you are learning to taste wines, rely on your fondest memories in the kitchen and you can often pick out those same smells and flavors that were brought together during that special time. The richness of dark fruit like plums from a cobbler and pumpkin pie with all the right spices, with a touch of vanilla, were there for me. This blend would suit me for every day sipping, but foods from the grill like salmon, sausages and aromatic vegetables with herbs will really be at the advantage.

Visiting with Ned Morris, winemaker for aˋMaurice, we discovered that he has apprenticed under some of the best. Ned also received sommelier training in Australia and has a Masters of Science in Food Chemistry and Fermentation.

They are charter members of Vinea, a voluntary trust of Walla Walla wineries and vineyards that follow strict guidelines for sustainable viticulture. Future plans for aˋMaurice is a larger structure to be built for their winery along with gardens.

We tasted through the aˋMaurice wines and I can honestly say that the owners, the Schafer Family, have everything in place to continue making distinguishable wines. Location, soil, talent and most of all pride for their craft. When you put all of those components together, and as their motto says, aˋMaurice is truly "Drenched in Greatness."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Black Wine

When winemaker, Troy Ledwick of Hence Cellars told me that their "Hence Cellars Walla Walla Estate Malbec - 2005 is just the s---!" I wondered - - is this word short for "shiznit?"

Troy says that when he was asked to make wine for Hence Cellars, his only instructions were to make GREAT wine! With two vintages behind him, Troy believes that the wines are on their way to becoming what he was instructed to make
Three separate Estate vineyard blocks of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec, make up the Estate Wines for Hence Cellars. There is approximately one vineyard acre of Malbec that was planted in 2001 on a slope facing south with high drainage and alkilide soil. There wasn't much attention given to this vineyard, since it was on the far side of the property. With the 2004 frost it suffered some damage. In 2005, 1,100 lbs of Malbec was harvested with a brix of 24 and pH at 3.67. Troy said he could tell right from the beginning that the dark color and peppery aroma was a clue to him that this wine was going to be special.

The Hence Cellars Malbec - 2005 will be released November of 2007. The nose is aromatic with ripe plum and spices like nutmeg. Tastes of bloody red meat followed by flavors of juicy black fruits, Baker's Chocolate and heavy dashes of white pepper. And the color? Let's put it this way -- Hence Cellars is referring to this varietal as their "Black Wine."

And adding to Troy's enthusiasm, it sounds like pretty good shiznit to me! Cheers!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Wine Tastings Gone Wild!

This morning the New York Times reported in their dining and wine section, New York Wineries Face Tastings Gone Wild.

NY Times writer, Corey Kilgannon reports that the North Fork of Long Island, New York has been fighting for 35 years to be recognized as a bona fide wine region. Washington State has been in the same fighting ring for almost the same length of time, as both states have been working hard to be recognized as quality wine producers. But for this tourist season in New York, visitors are being greeted with signs in front of wineries bearing messages such as “No Buses,” “No Limos.”

For New York wineries, groups in limosines represents intoxicated visitors who have little or no regard for the wines they are tasting, let alone other tasting room guests and property. At this time the state of New York is the nation’s third-largest producer of wine grapes, after California and Washington State. With Washington state being the second-largest, are we not too far behind the plight of limos filled with people who do not understand or respect the concept of wine tasting or have we already reached that point?

In the tasting room environment I have certainly seen my share of limo tourists that have left with me the impression that their outing is not about learning about the valley and her wines, but extreme drinking --- and free drinking at that! And why is it that several seem to show up five-minutes before closing and hang around like a free happy hour before their dinner reservations with little or no intention of purchasing?

So, what do we do about this problem? Should wineries not be pro-active in elimating this problem from their tasting rooms? Should wineries treat people in limos and buses with "love... and the customer is always right", as Michael Davidson President/CEO of Tourism Walla Walla suggested in the July issue of Walla Walla Valley Business Monthly, in spite of the fact that they (limo groups) are often distruptive to the serious wine tasting guest who truly wants to learn about the wines? Interesting comment from Mr. Davidson as his first tourism job was in a tourist-region of New York. Should the wineries of New York treat the abusive and drunken tourist with love and that the drunken and disrespectful tourist is always right? Davidson also comments that we should extend "sweet service" and reminds us about "biting the hand that feeds you." But - but - what do you do with a drunken hand? Didn't I read somewhere that "...if a drunken hand offends thee, cut it off..." - heh.

Should wineries start charging tasting fees? I know one winery that does not charge, but as soon as he sees a limo or bus pull up, he pulls out his tasting fee sign. Why does inappropriate behavior from wine tourists make the wineries look like the bad guys? Should wineries keep reminding and educating our guests proper protocol when wine tasting? Or ---

How about if tasting room guests take responsibility and remember that they are visitors on someone else's property and not ruin the party for future guests? How about if the guests understand the concept of wine tasting in public places and not act like sophomores at a frat party? Understanding the concept of wine tasting would certainly eliminate tasting fees and terse and unwelcoming signage. Or is the concept of behaving like a responsible adult too difficult to grasp?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A New and Award-Winning Look for Basel Cellars

Basel Cellars Estate Winery, which was named by Sunset Magazine as "The 2005 Wine Destination of the Year", still has their ultra-premium wines, fine accoutrements and still located in the ever-spectacular 9600 sq. ft. subterranean structure that was modeled after the famous Chateau Mouton Rothschild in the Pauillac appellation of Bordeaux, but it's their website that has the new look.

Bob Silver, Senior Vice President and General Manager, from the PR agency of MWW Group, recently shared with me that their creative services team, led by director Rich Patterson, won a Platinum Hermes Award for its innovation redesign of the Basel Cellars web site. The Hermes Creative Awards are an international competition for creative professionals. Entries come from corporate marketing and communication departments, advertising agencies, PR firms, design shops, production companies, web based innovators and freelancers.

Basel Cellars
enlisted the MWW Group - Seattle, last year to help them revise their web site. The winery wanted to reflect their position as a superior destination in Walla Walla. Working closely with Basel Cellars to understand their brand and objectives, Patterson and his team developed a streamlined and sophisticated site inspired by Basel Cellars labels and vineyard and upgraded the shopping capabilities. The new site now offers visitors from around the world to experience Basel Cellars from the convenience of their personal computers.

The MWW Group is one of the nation's top 10 public relations agencies. In addition to Basel Cellars, the MWW Group has worked with a number of wineries in Washington State and was recently retained by the Washington Wine Commission to promote the region’s wines throughout the United States.