Shocking confession time: Sunday was my first everTaste Washington. And I hit it with a vengeance. When the trade/press gates opened at 12:30, I was there. And I didn't leave until they were shooing me out with push-brooms at 7. How did I manage to stay so long and be upright? The answer is below:
I did, however, drink the wine at the top of the post. Christophe Hedges poured some of the 1994 Three Vineyards into my glass from a nondescript plastic water pitcher. It was fantastic! Wine. Of. The. Day. I think you can get the current vintage (now called Red Mountain) for less than $25 a bottle; I'd buy a case of it and forget about it for a decade and see what happens. If you get a chance to meet Christophe, don't pass it up. He's hilarious, high-energy, and bit of a contrarian. I had loads of fun running around the event with him for a bit. Be sure and ask him about the 100 point wine-rating scale.
Naturally there were winemakers galore, like Brennon Leighton of Efeste:
And Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery, along with proof that he poured a bit of wine:
The Gorman Winery crew (Chris on the right) was sporting a look I think was some kind of Top Gun tribute. And drinking beer. Plus they brought a barrel sample of a new wine coming in September, Behind the Black Curtain:
Buty raided their cellar to bring out two whites from 2006. (The Chardonnay was poured from magnum.) The reds were special exclusive restaurant wines. I am still waiting for them to offer to make an Esquin wine. Ahem.
I ran into some of my favorite winos, Doug and Josh from WINO Magazine, at the Whidbey Island Winery table:
And what's wine without some cheese? I had probably the strangest cheddar ever, hand-rubbed with coffee and lavender. Yes, lavender. And coffee. Together. You know what? I thought it was great. Behold the Barely Buzzed cheddar:
And after all that wine, enjoyed the palate-saving refreshment of beer from Pike Brewing and a crazy good hard apple cider from Finnriver with a touch of blueberry juice added:
And when it was all over, my chauffeur drove me home in the Official Esquin Taxi, conveniently parked inside:
So what were your highlights of Taste Washington?
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:
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 2x4.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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!)
Full disclosure: Mark picked up the tab for lunch.