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Mark Ryan Winery: Black and White Photo Love

1928 Indian Scout

While Mark and I sure had fun eating pizza, drinking beer, and talking wine at Big Mario’s, there was a lack of tasting wine. So on a recent trip out to Woodinville I was determined to rectify that situation.

First, a little bad news:

Last Vintage

Noooooooooo! I knew this was coming, but seeing that 2009 will be the last vintage of Chardonnay was a serious bummer; it was probably my favorite from Washington. I loved how the oak provided richness and structure, without turning the wine into a liquid 2×4.

Tasting at Mark Ryan

Rolled through an impressive lineup post-Chardonnay trauma. I have a similar, though not as fan-boy, fondness for the Viognier for the relatively light-handed style of production. (Brief rant: too much domestic Viognier just tastes like oaked-up, super-heavy, oily Chardonnay. And nothing stateside comes close to Condrieu, the supreme ruler of aromatically sumptuous Viognier.) My favorite reds were the accesible-now 2008 Dissident (a Columbia Valley Cab/Syrah/Merlot blend) and the 2007 Water Witch (a Klipsun Vineyard Cab/Merlot blend).

Dead Horse Club

I was then unfairly teased by these wooden six-packs containing wines only for the lucky few members of the Dead Horse Club. (Sounds like a biker gang name or something.) Contact the winery if you want to get on the waiting list.

1928 Indian Scout

And here’s a ubiquitous shot of me posing in front of this ultra-cool 1928 Indian Scout. Don’t worry Mark, I didn’t touch it. Nor did I spill any wine on it. (None that didn’t wipe up pretty easily.)

Special thanks to Joan for being a lovely and gracious host at the tasting room.

Woodinville Wine Tasting: Pictures of Ross Andrew (and Bud Light)

Ross Andrew Lineup

What a pleasure to taste through a lineup of very understated* wines from Ross Andrew Mickel. Though only slightly visible on the left in the above photo, I have designated porch-pounding status upon the 2009 Pinot Gris. More Pinot Grigio (light, fresh, gulpable) than Pinot Gris (oily, heavy), it’s a Washington wine that should be on hand, and well-chilled, in your residence at all times.

Other charming touches at Ross Andrew? I enjoy the unwavering enthusiasm for the consumption of large bottles, especially when full of the excellent 2008 Boushey Syrah. There is a great program in place to encourage drinking those big bottles rather than tucking them away in some deep, dark cellar never to see the light of day or to fill a glass:

Ross Andrew Growler

Oh, and maybe you would be concerned how to safely pour such a giant bottle? On display is a custom-made (though not for sale) apparatus of a certain genius. Not only an engineering feat, and an example of DIY ingenuity, this invention uses leftover wine barrel parts for its construction. You can see how the wine seeps into the staves: functional and educational!

Ross Andrew Wooden Pourer

Wait, I haven’t explained the Bud Light! If you recall a scorcher of a summer a few years back, a birthday party for one of Ross’s friends not only demanded well-chilled Meadow, but light beer as well. And, naturally, like all winemakers, Ross realizes that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine. Therefore, a photograph to immortalize that event and a reminder to all who pass through the door that the people who make and drink wine don’t have to be so serious.

How To Stay Cool In Woodinville

So now that I’ve crossed Ross Andrew off my list, where next in Woodinville?

*I must give credit to Kirsten at the tasting room for providing me with the one word that I though perfectly and thoughtfully summed up the wines.

Curious About Portuguese Wine

Encosta dos Curiosos Portugal WineI’ll admit for quite a while I was only familiar with two wines coming out of Portugal: Port (duh) and Vinho Verde. But there is a whole host of new and exciting Portuguese wines that need to get their due. Like the Encosta dos Curiosos, which I am now decreeing as My Official House Wine.

What do I love about the Encosta dos Curiosos (EC)? Well, it satisfies my penchant for the obscure and unusual. I can’t say that I’ve had a wine that was a blend of these four grapes:

  • Castelao
  • Tinta Miuda
  • Alicante Bouschet
  • Aragones

The EC also defied my shopworn stereotype of Portuguese reds. I always found them to be rustic, and I’m using rustic as a euphemism for hard-as-nails, tannic, and barnyard-y. (Clearly I was a Portuguese wine dilettante.) But the Encosta was light, refreshing, and gulpable. At only 12.5% alcohol, the EC’s easy-going personality can play nice with a variety of everyday foods from burgers to pasta. And possibly a steak, especially if it was in taco form. Wash down some carne asada with a slightly chilled bottle of EC!

And with so much to love about the EC, what was the clincher to making it my house red? The astoundingly low price: 6 bucks. Take a flier on a bottle and come back for a case. (Before I buy it all myself.)

So what is your house wine?

2008 Bordeaux: We Do The Hard Work

bordeaux wine 2008Not to be outdone by my tasting in an ornate hotel ballroom, our Arnie Millan recently attended a whirlwind tasting of the 2008 Bordeaux vintage. Here is his report:

I flew into San Francisco last for an intensive tasting of top Bordeaux from the 2008 vintage. The Union of Grand Cru de Bordeaux put on this tasting of 100 top estates. It’s almost easier to list who wasn’t there: all the five First Growths (Mouton, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion), Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Petrus and other high priced exotica of that ilk.

Alas, we were to taste only the other remaining top classified, or otherwise renowned, estates and have the rare opportunity to meet the Chateaux’s owners; people whom we only heretofore knew by name, mentioned in print in somewhat hushed tones. How cool is that? And they were all pleasant and unpretentious.

Overall, this is an excellent vintage which favored the Right Bank (Pomerol, then Saint-Emilion) and the estates of the Médoc, particularly Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux. These wines are drinking well now and I think they’ll show even better with age.

The biggest disappointment was the wines of Graves and Pessac-Léognan. They did not show well at this tasting. I hope age will be kind to them. This was the only region from which we tasted dry whites. The superior white was from Château Pape-Clément followed by Domaine Chevalier. One of my favorite estates there is Smith Haut Lafitte but the wines were disappointing, especially after tasting Pape-Clément immediately beforehand. On the plus side, I was able to meet and chat with the charming proprietress Florence Cathiard and her husband.

My list of the top wines of the tasting must start with Pomerol’s Château La Conseillante and Pauillac’s 2nd Growth Pichon Baron (de Longueville). They were extraordinary and smoked the rest of the pack. They were both distinguished by a vibrancy, a depth and complexity of flavor which was transparent and fresh. Amazing.

Other top wines were Les Ormes de Pez, a Saint-Estephe I tasted with Sylvie Cazes whose family owns this estate along with Lynch-Bages (tasted but not as good) and whose brother is the famed Jean-Michel Cazes. What a lovely, unassuming person!

bordeaux wine 2008Also, I enjoyed Saint-Émilion’s Pavie Maquin with owner Nicolas Thienpont (right), whose family also owns Pomerol’s elite Le Pin. Canon La Gaffelière was delicious, represented by the irrepressible and perpetually grinning Count Stephan von Niepperg (see below, dressed in amazing style).

bordeaux wine 2008A surprise was the Médoc’s Chateau La Tour de By. This is an obscure small estate whose inexpensive wine was first-rate. Here are the others I enjoyed, not already mentioned:

Saint-Julien

Léoville-Poyferré, Léoville-Barton, Talbot, Branaire-Ducru, Lagrange, Beychevelle, Gruaud-Larose and Saint-Pierre

Pauillac

D’Armailhac, Clerc-Milon, Grand Puy-Ducasse, Haut-Bages Libéral, Pichon-Lalande

Margaux
Rauzan-Segla, Brane-Catenac, Giscours, Kirwan, Lascombes

Pomerol

Clinet, Gazin

Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
Angelus, Canon, Clos Fourtet, Figeac, Larcis Ducasse, Troplong Mondot

So those are Arnie’s thoughts on the 08 vintage. Do you have any questions for Arnie about Bordeaux?

VINO 2011: The Grand Tasting

VINO 2011 Grand Tasting

It’s here: the big finish to the three-day Italian wine extravaganza that is VINO 2011. A tasting of wines so deep, so enormous, and so loaded with every type of wine imaginable (reds, whites, rosés, sparklers, dessert) that I desperately needed this map:

VINO 2011 Grand Tasting Map

Once again, navigating your way through an event like this requires strategic planning. My first order of business was to hustle to the Allegrini table to see my friend Robin.

Robin Shay of Allegrini

Not only is he a dapper and charming fellow, he happens to represent two of my favorite Italian wines. Pictured is the Amarone, which for a wine of such concentration, richness, and strength somehow finishes with an elegance belying its brawny profile. And I wouldn’t dare step away from the table without trying what I consider to be an iconic wine of the Veneto: La Poja. It’s a single-vineyard, 100% Corvina that you need to get into your glass ASAP. (I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention that Robin knows where the best pizza in New York is: Kesté. Check out this review with great photos from one of my absolute favorite food blogs, John and Elana Talk About Food. But I digress….)

So where did I go from here? I decided that I just was going to try totally unfamiliar wines. Like this late-harvest Primitivo from Cignomoro. It was a sweet, but not cloying, red wine that I would love with some fromage blanc cheesecake or blue cheese. (I dig the labels, too.)

Primitivo Dolce

Or how about a Passerina from the Marche? Made by Domodimonti, it’s a crisp and dry white. And I really liked their Pecorino (not the cheese, the grape) which had a nice richness from oak aging and would be great with heartier seafood dishes.

The Wines of Domodimonti

Needing a break from wine, I wandered over to the area of the tasting I call “Aperitif Alley.” (Or possibly more accurate, the “Digestive Detour.”) Loveliest was a beautiful anise liqueur from Varnelli, pictured on the left. I adore the flavor of black licorice, especially in clear alcoholic form.

Digestives

This post was composed in the VINO 2011 Press Room, and greatly aided by the genius-in-a-pouch combo of espresso, sugar, and Varnelli over ice.

Genius in a Pouch

Full disclosure: The Italian Trade Commission has provided my transportation and accommodations.

VINO 2011: Italian Wine Discoveries

vino 2011 day 1 002
Greetings from VINO 2011 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, a wine conference sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission. How do you navigate a wine tasting with over 80 producers, each pouring multiple wines? Do you try them all? Although tempting (purely in the interest of seeking more wine knowledge, ahem), the answer is no. I did a quick survey of the room and honed in on one target: bubbles. I’ve always loved the wines of Northern Italy for their freshness and purity so it was no surprise that I flipped for the sparkling wines of Maso Martis from the Trento region. Pure, elegant, and crisp, I found a lot to love from the Brut, Brut Rosé, and the Brut Riserva.

Maso Martis
The sparkling wines of Maso Martis and Alessandra Caroni, Export Manager.

Another highlight was a red wine from Talis in Friuli, the Purpureo. It’s a Bordeaux-style bend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve been recently exposed to a ton of red wine that has been lavishly slathered with oak, so it was a great change of pace to drink a red that tasted of fruit and varietal character(s) rather than oak. I guessed that the Purpureo was unoaked, but it turns out it gets a brief stay in the barrel. But don’t confuse unoaked with wimpy; it had plenty of tannin to balance the fruit. I wish I just could have walked off with the bottle, headed to the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, and curled up in a big chair with only a good book to accompany my wine. (I guess it wouldn’t of hurt to ask if I could have done so, no?)

Mauro Cencig of Talis Wine
Mauro Cencig of Talis Wine shows off the delicious Purpureo.

So what are some of your recent wine discoveries?

Full disclosure: The Italian Trade Commission has provided my transportation and accommodations.

Hunting for Hunter Semillon: Tyrrell’s Vat 1

Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon
A legendary white wine from Australia.

For better or worse, in the mind of many wine-drinkers, Australia=Shiraz. Couldn’t blame you for thinking that way; a decade-plus ago, when I was first introduced to Aussie wine, I was guzzling oceans of Shiraz and little else from Down Under. Hell, I didn’t even know there was any wine besides Shiraz. My willful ignorance was cured when I discovered a world of wonderful dry Rieslings (criminally underrated) and great Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends reminiscent of good white Bordeaux. But the real gem, and one of the more collectible and age-worthy whites in the world, is Hunter Valley Semillon, particularly Tyrrell’s Vat 1.

Through a bit of providence I was able to get my hands on some of the 1999 vintage. And then, even better, got to drink some. I knew I was in for something good when I first poured the Vat 1, as aged Semillon takes on a hue that seemingly comes from the touch of King Midas. But what really blew me away was the freshness of this wine. An 12 year-old dry white wine has no business being so lively and exciting, but this Semillon was a smooth, delicious white reminiscent of a top quality dry Riesling. I had expected it to have developed some secondary characteristics, like a bit of nuttiness, but it was still quite primary. So it’s no shrinking violet; you could tuck it away in your cellar for years to come. (Though I’m not sure I could keep my hands off it, it’s so tasty right now.)

But don’t just take my word for it. One of my favorite wine writers (and customers), WINEcouver, had quite the experience with a bottle of the 1998. (Way to make me blush.)

http://twitter.com/#!/WINEcouver/status/21689785399648256

What regions or countries do you think have wines that aren’t getting their due or are a bit lost in the shuffle?

1999 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Semillon $40 (limited)

Pizza, Beer, and Mark Ryan Winery

Mark McNeilly at Big Mario's
Mark McNeilly at Big Mario's. He's smiling because the pizza was so good.

I sat down with Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery at Big Mario’s Pizza to ask him how he went from making wine in a garage in Greenwood to half of his parent’s two-car garage to having his own winery in Woodinville. (And frankly, we’re always–always–looking for an excuse to go to Big Mario’s. And Mark’s conference room in the winery was already booked.)

Rather than going the UC-Davis enology route to winemaking (though he did eventually take a class at the famed school), Mark’s wine education began in restaurants. “Waiting tables led me to be exposed to wine. I got into selling wine because I wanted to make it.” With no experience at all, Mark picked up a kit and took a stab at making a white wine. The next thing he knew, through connections, chance, and fate, he had two tons of Ciel du Cheval fruit to work with. Able to rely on relationships with winemakers cultivated through working for a local distributor, and with Jim Holmes (vineyard owner) on speed dial, Mark made his first vintage. There is a lot of self-deprecation going on as Mark describes the entire process, but, on the serious side, what I gleaned from his story is that sometimes you have to learn by doing and not be afraid to make mistakes (on the small scale). It helped that Mark “read a lot and asked questions.”

Like many Washington winemakers, he started out making exclusively reds and later added whites to his roster. I asked him what the challenges of making whites versus reds were, and he told me that “making wines at other people’s places make me realize I needed my own equipment.” Whites require “more control” as people expect them to be “aesthetically perfect” in appearance, aroma, and flavor. In other words, people are less forgiving of whites. He also gave credit to the work of Enologist Erica Orr in making his whites especially successful. (The 2009 Chardonnay is an Esquin staff favorite and, trust me, we don’t often agree on wines.)

I wanted to know more about the idea behind the Board Track Racer The Vincent, a 2008 Columbia Valley Cab/Syrah blend. Mark told me that wines like his have become “special occasion wines” and he wanted to be able to offer something in a price range that could be enjoyed on a more regular basis. (It’s around twenty bucks. And look for a Board Track Racer white, a Chardonnay/Viognier blend, coming in the future.)

Probably my favorite of his reds, the Crazy Mary, is made from Mourvedre so I thought I would ask if he’s playing around with any other grapes that aren’t among the heavy-hitters in Washington. While no new single-varietal wines are on the current docket of releases, Mark added some Malbec to the new vintage of Dead Horse. It “enhanced the non-fruit side” of the wine, which he thinks is a great attribute. The structure it adds prevents his reds from becoming what he calls “fruit cocktail wines.” (I am going to adopt this phrase to describe all syrupy reds that are overly sweet with oak; I love it.)

Big Mario's Pizza
Sausage, Pepperoni, and Mushrooms please.

Oh, and one last important question. Which of his wines would go best with our pepperoni, sausage, and mushroom pizza? The 2008 Lost Soul Syrah, because, like our pizza, it’s “meaty.”

It’s hard not to root for a guy like Mark who not only makes great wines but also is genuine, funny, and enjoys reminiscing about the late 80’s and early 90’s (my salad days as well) while the music of the era streams over Big Mario’s sound system.  (So it’s not surprising he named a wine after the Afghan Whigs album, Black Love. Dude, you’ve got to send Greg Dulli a bottle!)

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Full disclosure: Mark picked up the tab for lunch.

Entering the Cayuse Conundrum

Bionic FrogEasily the most contentious and controversial blog posting of the year in Washington wine, Wine Peeps take on Cayuse generated a volume of comments not normally seen unless Justin Bieber is involved. The burning question: Are the wines of Cayuse a unique expression of Washington terroir (a word so beaten to death and co-opted by marketers I would like to see it retired) or are they flawed? Wine Peeps side with the latter. I have zero intention of rehashing the debate (feel free to block off an afternoon to read all the comments) but I advise you to consider the spirited counterpoint to the arguments put forth by Wine Peeps in Sean Sullivan’s Washington Wine Report.

So what was my take on all this after plowing through the science, the tasting notes, the passion, the vitriol, the laughter, the tears? I really, really wanted to try Cayuse and decide for myself. It took about a month and a half post-Cayusegate, but I got the chance recently. Thanks to providence and generosity of our owner, the staff at Esquin got to sample the 2006 Cayuse Bionic Frog Syrah. Though I did not have a lab at my disposal to evaluate the soundness of the wine, I was in full possession of my taste buds and my highly subjective opinion.

First, what did the heavy-hitters of the professional wine world, The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate, think of the 06 Frog? Suitably impressed: 96 and 99 points, respectively. While I’m not one to rate wines on the 100 point scale, or any scale, I trust these stalwarts to ably tally up their score cards. I do, however, have to vehemently disagree with possibly the most jaw-dropping sentence I have ever read in a wine review, courtesy of Jay Miller: “Imagine having to choose between your ideal fantasy sexual partner and this wine–and you choose The Frog!” Jay, you can have the bottle and I’ll take Scarlett Johansson.

My take on the Bionic Frog? Three word review: I liked it. But allow me to elaborate. It’s probably the meatiest wine I have ever tasted. If you like your Syrah on the earthy/gamy side, this is for you. My critique of the wine is that it’s missing something from the other end of the spectrum: fruit. I’m not sure how many people in the general wine-drinking public would like a wine that leans so heavily towards one end of the spectrum of flavors. Regardless, the Bionic Frog is one of the most interesting and unique Washington wines I’ve ever tasted. And I’m not being pejorative (or cowardly) here; “interesting” and “unique” are not euphemisms for negative remarks.

What would be really cool (and this is something that Sean covers) is to taste all the wines made from fruit in The Rocks area of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. I know each vineyard site is specific and has different soils, slopes, and blah blah blah. But I’d like to get a general handle on how much site influences the wines and how much winemaking has an impact on flavor.

I’m not going to paint Cayuse with a wide brushstroke after sampling one bottle, but (you knew this was coming) I didn’t think it was flawed. The Bionic Frog is not made to be crowd-pleasing and this style of wine is polarizing–even amongst experienced wine-tasters. But with critical accolades and a wait list longer than the one for Green Bay Packers season tickets, Winemaker Christophe Baron isn’t losing any sleep over his critics.

So what’s your take on Cayuse? You can also read the thoughts of my coworker Justin on this same bottle at Bottle Variations.

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What Wine Goes With Deep-Fried Turkey?

Deep Fried TurkeyWhile spending Christmas with my family in Tacoma, we managed to successfully deep-fry a turkey without injuring ourselves or setting the place on fire. As far as wine choices with this turkey, and especially with a holiday meal where everything under the sun is on the table, I say just drink what you like. A handful of ideas, however, did come to mind during and after I pounded down a few beers in front of the boiling cauldron of oil and turkey:

  • Bubbles. Anything crunchy and salty (like chips) seems to have an affinity with sparkling wine. The deep-fried turkey had a remarkably crisp skin that I could have eaten by the handful if only I didn’t have to share it with a dozen other people. (Not that I was complaining….OK, maybe a little.)
  • A light, refreshing red and/or white. A lively Northern Italian white or something in the Gamay/Pinot Noir family is a classic with turkey. But then again…
  • Why not a hearty, burly red like a Zinfandel? Or a bruiser of a Spanish Garnacha? You’ve got that spicy skin, and you can’t discount the dark meat. Put some brawn into your glass! Which reminds me…
  • A big, rich white would work as well; why not a plush White Burgundy or California Chardonnay? Nothing that’s an oak monster, but a little bit of heft wouldn’t hurt.

So you can have bubbles, a lighter white and/or red, or a heavier white and/or red. They all have their pluses (and minuses). It’s best just to have a lot of variety and experiment with whatever happens to be within arm’s reach. I ended up drinking the same red I had for Thanksgiving: The 2009 Brundlmayer Zweigelt. An easy-drinking red in a shareable one-liter bottle, it was great with a slight chill on it.
Deep-Fried Turkey and Zweigelt

So what did you end up eating and drinking over the holidays?

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2009 Brundlmayer Zweigelt (1L) $15

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