New York Times Wine School: The Homework Everyone is Talking About

For the past almost five years, Eric Asimov has taught New York Times readers about wine in his monthly “Wine School” column.  His virtual classroom works as follows: first, a monthly “theme” is announced  – which has ranged from Chablis to Cava to Rosso di Montalcino.  Asimov suggests a few bottles related to the theme for readers to try out on their own over the next few weeks and class participants are encouraged to leave a comment online about their thoughts on the selected wines. Then, in the following month’s column, Asimov provides a more detailed explanation of the varieties or regions selected, as well as summarizes readers’ impressions of the wines.

When we subscribed to the New York Times, I followed this column religiously.  However, I was always a lurker . . . until now.

nyt articlesLast month, when Asimov announced the lineup for January’s Wine School, a Twitter storm ensued. There was an initial shock surrounding Asimov’s wine selections – which I find understandable. Past Wine Schools have focused on more narrow, identifiable wine regions and wines made by smaller, quality conscious producers. These three wines are mass-produced, readily available almost anywhere and are the antithesis of artisan winemaking. Unfortunately, since I started writing this post, several of these tweets have been deleted – perhaps their authors had second thoughts.  While I won’t quote these deleted comments, I’ll give you the gist of the debate:

Immediately following was some debate as to whether Asimov, by suggesting these wines for an upcoming Wine School, was in essence promoting these wines. This led to a lot of discussion as to what constitutes “promotion”.  The headline reads: “Our Critic Wants You to Try These Supermarket Wines” which, ok, if we’re splitting hairs, does sound like a promotion to me, but not necessarily a recommendation. There’s a difference.

The larger Twitter threads debated why Asimov was even suggesting these wines in the first place.

Some people applauded his effort arguing that it’s useful to have an understanding of what makes these wines appealing to consumers. I fall into this camp. These are three of the most popular wines in the U.S. market! I’d like to have a better idea of where the average consumer is coming from.

However, others didn’t see the point of the exercise.  Just because these wines are being compared to the McDonald’s and Starbucks of the wine world, why is it important to taste them? (For the record, I occasionally eat McDonald’s and drink Starbucks religiously, yet don’t touch these wines with a ten foot pole).

Asimov defended his selections saying that:

If you only eat hamburgers made by dedicated artisans, you begin to believe they are the norm. But if you try what sells by the millions, perhaps you will better understand the hard work and dedication of the craftspeople.

I see his point. But to really appreciate the good stuff, do we have to try the bad stuff?  For example, I don’t need to be crammed into a middle seat in coach between two manspreaders with little junior kicking the back of my seat to know that first class is better – I can pretty much figure that one out on my own.

The comment that really hit home with me though, was former LA Times food editor Russ Parsons’:

I think some people are more comfortable critiquing them without having to actually taste them.

Ouch.  If we’re being honest here, I fall into this “some people” category that Parsons’ is referring to.  So in order to extricate myself from this minor quagmire, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and taste these three wines.

Grocery wines.JPG
Asimov’s supermarket triumvirate!  And yes, the irony of turning my nose up at mass produced wine but not thinking twice about bagged Caesar is not lost on me.

I headed out to purchase my school supplies – making sure they were buried deep in the bottom of my grocery cart.  Does the fact that I was a bit embarrassed to be buying these wines make me a wine snob?  (Hubs’ Note:  Yes.)

Once I was back at home, I had Hubs pour me four wines blind. Now, you may be asking: why four and not just the three required for school? No, it’s not because I’m an overachiever or trying to get some extra credit.  My reasoning was that I wanted to have a wine in the mix that was from a smaller, artisan producer. Not only was I curious if I’d be able to identify this wine out of the four (let’s fucking hope so!), but I also wanted to discern what made it distinctive from the rest. What makes mass produced wines taste, well . . . mass produced?

The fourth wine I selected was Kevin White Winery’s 2013 ‘Heritage’ Red Blend from the Yakima Valley in Washington state – a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Merlot.  Only 169 cases were produced and as you can see from the detailed tech sheet, lots of hands-on craftsmanship went into the production of this wine – from harvest timing decisions to manual punch downs to aging in 40% new French oak barrels.

The following is a summary of my tasting notes and the corresponding wines are revealed at the end of this post.  Without jumping ahead, I’m curious which of you readers can identify which wine goes with which note:

Wine #1:  Prevalent aromatics of dark floral, smoke, charred black cherries and raspberries. The fruit definitely has a burnt characteristic to it. On the palate – a touch of sweetness – like fruit leather and raspberry jam. The fruit is very ripe and plush, medium acidity and ripe, smooth tannins. The finish is fairly lengthy and sweet – reminds me of cherry cola.

Wine #2: Aromas here are very dried floral and very perfume-y. On the first sip, this is fucking nasty oh holy hell (yes – I did write exactly this). tasting noteI feel like I just swallowed Grandma’s perfume. There’s absolutely no structure to this liquid – there’s barely any body, acidity or tannin.  What there IS unfortunately, is a lingering disgusting finish.

Wine #3: This wine has the most pleasant aromatics of the group so far: dark red berries, bramble/earthiness, sandalwood and a hint of smoke. Nice structure on the palate – medium+ bodied, medium+ acidity, tannins are well-integrated and fine grained.  The fruit is ripe black plum and cherry with some baking spices/clove.

Wine #4: The aromas here are also very pleasant: black cherries, dark plum, oak spice/clove and smoke. On the palate, fuller bodied and definitely some heat. Acidity plays a supporting role (at best) as the higher tannins are distractedly coarse and drying. Intensely flavorful reminiscent of roasted coffee beans, black cherries and bittersweet chocolate. Finishes hot.

The Wines Revealed!

Wine #1: Meiomi 2016 Pinot Noir, Monterey County (60%), Santa Barbara County (23%) and Sonoma County (17%), 13.7% abv ($20).

My Thoughts: Although I thought this was the Meiomi, this wasn’t because it tasted anything like most Pinot Noir.  It’s too sweet and completely lacking any semblance of earth, spice or savoriness – characteristics that you’d normally expect from this variety.  If a Meiomi lover were to try a Pinot from somewhere like Burgundy or Oregon, I can understand why they may not like it because these taste nothing like Meoimi.  These wines actually embody the variety.

Wine #2: Apothic Red 2016 Winemaker’s Blend, California 13.5% abv ($11).

My Thoughts: I know I’m supposed to be diplomatic on these type of things, but diplomacy only goes so far.  The fact is this doesn’t even taste like wine.  What on earth are they putting in this wine to make it taste this way??  Never mind, I don’t want to know.  Undrinkable.

kevin whiteWine #3: Kevin White Winery 2013 ‘Heritage’ DuBrul Vineyard, Yakima Valley 14.4% ($35).

My Thoughts: With its complex, wide range of aromas and flavors and balanced structure – this wine completely stood out from the rest of the lineup.  And unlike the other wines, everything was in harmony.  There wasn’t any one element (sweet ripe fruit, grandma’s perfume or big bold tannins) that dominated and overwhelmed.  This wine is by far the most balanced of the group, has the longest finish and, for me, is the most enjoyable to drink.

Wine #4: The Prisoner 2017 Napa Valley 15.2% abv ($45).

My Thoughts: The tannins aren’t well integrated and the alcohol is out of balance as well.  This is a big wine and is certainly the most in-your-face of the group.  Not my personal favorite, but on this one – I can totally understand its mass appeal.  Especially by those whose preferences lean towards big, bold Napa Cabs.  However, at close to $50/bottle, I do think this wine is overpriced for what you get and you’re primarily paying for its brand-name popularity.

So to go back to what some of the Twitterati mentioned, what was the point of the exercise?  After all that, was I better able to understand why these wines are so popular?

As someone who started her wine journey with many (many) bottles of overly oaky/vanilla bean Sutter Home Chardonnay, the answer is yes.  (Hubs’ Note:  She forgot to mention that she actually started with Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill before “graduating” to Sutter Home).  All three of these “supermarket wines” had a large degree of sweetness, ripe fruit and flavors of mocha/coffee/chocolate (either from oak aging – or most likely, oak powder).  These flavors are, to a lot of consumers, yummy and comforting.  And years ago, these were the characteristics I was looking for in a wine.

But today, I’m interested in wines with more earthiness, acidity and often an overall delicacy.  Wines like Beaujolais, Northern Rhône Syrah, or an Oregon Pinot Noir.  Wines that, to the “average consumer”, might be considered too “weak” or “earthy” for their palates.

I attribute this change in my palate to  two things: curiosity and education.  First, I was willing to try wines outside of my sweet/ripe/juicy comfort zone.  Then, after trying these wines, I wanted to learn more about them.  And the more I learned about wine, the more curious I’ve become about new regions, new varieties, new production methods, etc.  It’s a vicious, never-ending cycle – and I am loving every minute of it.

Truth be told, I enjoyed this homework assignment – even if I didn’t enjoy the wines themselves.  Like Asimov said in his first Wine School column: One of the great pleasures of wine is that your education never ends.

What About Bob (Betz)?

When I first sat down to write about Bob Betz, one of the most revered winemakers in Washington state, I knew early on that I would end up writing a lengthy tome about this Pacific Northwest icon. So, in the interest of brevity (somewhat), I’ll narrow it down and give you what I believe to be the 10 Things You Should Know About Bob Betz.

1. He is officially – and unofficially – a Master of Wine. Bob Betz is one of 370 individuals in the world who holds a Master of Wine (MW) degree. Many in the wine industry (myself included) believe that the MW designation is the most respected title in the world of wine. Bob achieved this in 1998 and received two additional awards upon successfully completing the program: the Villa Maria Award for the highest scores on the viticultural exam, and the Robert Mondavi Award for the highest overall score in all theory exams.

2. He helped put Washington wine on the world wine map . . . In 1975 – when there were only eight wineries in Washington (there are now over 900!) – Bob was hired at Chateau Ste. Michelle. He was employed at the winery for 28 years, working in nearly every division of the company, before retiring in 2003 as Vice President of Winemaking Research.  Chateau Ste. Michelle is now the second-largest premium American wine brand sold in the United States, trailing only California’s Kendall Jackson.

3. and conversely helped bring the world of wine to Washington. One of Bob’s many roles while at Chateau Ste. Michelle was Managing Director of Col Solare. Established in 1995, Col Solare is a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori created to “produce a Washington wine with an Italian soul”. While Chateau Ste. Michelle recently turned 50 – a big achievement in the Washington wine world – the Antinori family has been making wine for over 625 years!

Col Solare
View from Col Solare on Red Mountain, Washington

One of the most coveted items at the Auction of Washington Wines – the annual charitable gala recognizing the best and brightest in the industry – is a trip to Italy with Bob and his wife Cathy.  If you guessed that experiencing the Antinori family’s iconic estates firsthand with a Master is on my bucket list, you would be right!

4. There were a few paths not chosen in his life . . . Bob has a degree in Zoology from the University of Washington. He was also accepted into medical school in 1980, but (thankfully!) had already been bitten by the wine bug by this time and opted to stay on that course. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he has said that he hopes he’s helped make people “healthy in a different way”. 😉

5. before he forged his own. Betz Family Winery – established in 1997 by Bob and Cathy – was the product of a worldwide expedition that began decades earlier.  In the early 1970’s the two spent a year in Europe visiting the wineries, estates and  vineyards of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria learning the European “culture of wine” . The Betz’s first production yielded 150 cases. Today, the winery produces around 5,250 cases per year.  Over the years with Bob at the helm, Betz Family Winery amassed several awards, to name just a few:

• Betz Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 was named Washington’s Number One Wine of the Year by the Seattle Times wine critic, Paul Gregutt
• Bob was named Sunset Magazine’s Winemaker of the Year in 2007
• 2010 Pere de Famille was ranked #6 in the World in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Cellar Selections

Additionally, Betz Family Wines have received consistent 90+ Points from Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast. Betz lineup

6. Bob is particular about where his fruit comes from . . .  Betz Family Winery gets its grapes from the same rows in the same vineyards every year from some of Washington’s top wine growers. Bob believes there’s a huge, fundamental difference between grape growers and wine growers. He says that a grape grower “looks at the grape as the end point in their work.” On the other hand, a wine grower “looks at the grape as a transitional point between the land and the table.”

Some of the wine growers/vineyards Bob works with include: Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow in the Yakima Valley; Ciel du Cheval, Kiona and Klipsun on Red Mountain; and Harrison Hill and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

7. which results in an understated style of winemaking. Bob is big on keeping tannins in check.  Instead of pumping the juice from the grapes like many other Washington wineries, he uses gravity.  He designed a small funnel on top of the fermenter and gravity drops the juice into it. His winery also uses the punch down method during fermentation rather than pump over – a key differentiator that comes across in the bottle.  Additionally, Bob uses mostly French oak barrels for aging (he found the American barrels “too coarse”) and less new oak than he used to in order to diminish the “woody impression” in his wines. His prefers to age his Rhône blends in entirely neutral barrels.

8. He’s leaving his legacy in good hands. When they decided it was time to find a new owner/caretaker for their winery – Bob & Cathy had suitors from around the world for Betz Family Winery. In the final bidding process, they had narrowed it down to two major Napa Valley wineries and one couple. They went with the couple. 🙂 In 2011, Bob & Cathy sold Betz Family Winery to Steve and Bridgit Griessel.  The Griessels are incredibly warm and friendly people – much like Bob & Cathy.  And while they are committed to keeping the Betz heritage alive, they are also taking the winery on some exciting new directions – like a Chenin Blanc from their native South Africa!

Bob remained on as head winemaker until 2016 when he passed that torch to Louis Skinner. He remains involved in his namesake winery as Consulting Winemaker and is still a familiar friendly face at the winery’s semi-annual wine club release events!

9. Bob remains a Washington wine icon and dynamo. Last year, Bob returned to Col Solare as Consulting Winemaker.  He’s also a frequent panelist at Washington wine seminars – most recently “Blind Tasting Bootcamp with the Masters” at this year’s Taste Washington. And he’s on the Board of the Auction of Washington Wines – the fifth largest charity wine auction in the United States.

10. If this wine thing doesn’t work out for him – he has a future in Hollywood. Bob makes an appearance in “Somm: Into the Bottle”, the follow-up documentary to the well known 2012 movie “Somm”. At about the 42 minute mark, he discusses the wide range of grapes grown in Washington – from Cabernet Sauvignon to Riesling.  He asserts that we (I might live in SoCal now, but I can still say “we”!) have challenged the notion that certain varieties have to be grown in only certain places.

I lied. There’s one more thing I think that everyone should know about Bob Betz. I believe it was wine writer Andy Perdue who referred to Bob as “a true gentleman of the wine industry” and I couldn’t agree more. I have never heard a negative or unkind word said about him.  He is incredibly well respected, likable and eager to help others as they forge their own path.  In what can be a competitive industry with bottom line results, he stands out as a winemaker – scratch that, as a person – to aspire to.


Bob pic
Photo credit: Great Northwest Wine



Paso Robles

Walking into a wine store and asking for a bottle of wine from Paso Robles is kinda like walking into Nordstrom and asking for a pair of shoes.  You need to give just a little bit more detail as to what you’re looking for, because chances are – they’ve got it.

Nordstrom shoes
Nordstrom shoe department: Not 612K acres, but still HUGE!!

At just over 612,000 acres, the Paso Robles AVA is California’s largest appellation geographically.  Over 40 different grape varieties are grown within the AVA.  However, Cabernet Sauvignon from the west side is going produce a very different wine than Cabernet Sauvignon from the east.  And these will both differ from a wine produced from somewhere in the middle.

These variations are practically unavoidable in an AVA of this size.  Smaller, better defined appellations produce wines of more consistency due to similarities in the area’s soil (Red Mountain), climate (Ancient Lakes), etc.  But Paso Robles has its Salon shoes mixed up with its BP shoes – so it’s challenging to know what you’re going to get just by choosing a wine with “Paso Robles AVA” on the label.

There are three primary reasons for the range of different wines produced in the Paso Robles AVA:

  • Climate: the western boundary of Paso Robles is only six miles from the Pacific Ocean which results in a cooling effect on these vineyards, as well as wetter weather (over 30 inches of rain annually!) Compare this to the eastern side of the AVA where the climate is much more arid and dry with rainfall at only about 10 inches per year.
  • Elevation: the west side of the AVA reaches up to 2,400 feet in elevation whereas the east side tops out at around 700 feet. Vineyards at higher altitudes have cooler temperatures than those on flatter areas so they are better able to preserve acidity in the grapes.
  • Soils: there are over 30 different soil series throughout the Paso Robles AVA.  Limestone and calcareous soils are more prevalent in the western portion, while sandier and more fertile soil is found to the east.
  • ⇒  Time for some dorking out on dirt: Calcareous soils are well draining and often contain lime –  which produces higher pH levels. The high pH reduces the vine’s vigor, allowing for flavor concentration and retention of acidity in wine.  Additionally, some of the most well-known wine regions in the world possess calcareous soils (Champagne, Burgundy, Southern Rhône).

Overall, Paso Robles AVA is a very warm growing region with daytime summer temperatures often reaching over 100°F!  If this heat isn’t managed in the vineyard, it can result in fat, overripe grapes and boring, flabby wine.  Climate, elevation and soil type all play important roles in preserving acidity in the grapes – particularly those on the west side of the AVA.  But this doesn’t mean that those grapes on the eastside are screwed!  Thanks to the region’s overall diurnal shift – where nighttime temperatures can drop by 40-50°F – even grapes on the warmer, drier eastern side of Paso Robles are able to maintain acidity and produce refreshing, delicious wines.

Paso Robles map

In an effort to assist consumers make a more informed choice as to wines from Paso Robles AVA, the area was recently divided into 11 sub-AVAs.  (And if you know my obsession with sub-AVAs, you know this has me positively giddy!)  The goal is to allow these smaller areas to develop their own identities and give consumers additional knowledge as to what’s in that bottle of wine they’re eyeing to purchase.  Time will tell if 11 sub-AVAs was overkill . . .

So back to my Nordstrom analogy – give the salesperson a better idea of what you’re looking for.  A timeless classic like Tory Burch ballerina shoes?  Try a Cabernet Sauvignon from Eberle Winery (founder Gary Eberle is known as the “Godfather of Paso”).  If you’re more of an ass-kicking Dr. Martens boot person – a big bold Zinfandel or Petite Sirah from Turley might fit you better.  Or if you like to be a little different and sport a pair of futuristic sneakers, then Rhône Ranger Tablas Creek is probably up your alley.

And if you’re looking for Christian Louboutins- try anything from Saxum.

Until I have time to delve into the 11 sub-AVAs – here’s the outline on Paso Robles.

Ribbon Ridge AVA (& My Weird Obsession with sub-AVAs)

We all have our own personal interests that may seem just a tad bit odd to the outside world.  Whether its Scandanavian house music from 1988, collecting vintage Scooby Doo posters, or memorizing every line of Bull Durham (Hubs!).  These interests are what make us unique and I admit to very much having one of my own:  sub-AVAs.  This shouldn’t come as a complete shocker as two of my very first blog posts/outlines were on the teeny tiny sub-AVAs of Ancient Lakes AVA and Stags Leap District, and my most recent outline details Oregon’s smallest AVA – Ribbon Ridge. I’m curious what exactly makes these sub-AVAs distinguishable from the larger (and more well-known) AVAs in which they’re contained: namely, Columbia Valley, Napa Valley and Willamette Valley.

AVA bottle
At least 95% of this delicious Pinot came from the Ribbon Ridge AVA

If you found your way to this blog, then you probably already know that “AVA” stands for American Viticultural Area.  These are geographic designations that establish boundaries of a specific grape growing region. Unlike a state or a county where boundaries are usually historically and/or politically based, an AVA’s boundaries are formed for the purpose of encompassing an area that shares a similar climate, soil type or geographical features.  In general, for a wine to be labeled with an AVA, at least 85% of the grapes must be from that area.  Oregon takes this a step further and requires that 95% of the grapes be from an AVA in order for the AVA’s name to appear on the label.

A sub-AVA (sometimes called a “nested AVA”, or as Hubs asked me “are these kinda like Russian nesting dolls?”) is a smaller AVA that is wholly contained within a larger one.  To form a sub-AVA, it must be shown that this smaller area is “sufficiently distinct” from its larger, encompassing AVA.

Sub AVA chart

Ribbon Ridge is a sub-AVA of both the Chehalem Mountains AVA and the Willamette Valley AVA.  It was granted its own AVA status because, among other reasons, it has a different soil type than these larger AVAs and it also possesses a different climate due to its higher elevation as an “island-like ridge” in the middle of the Willamette Valley.

Wineries in sub-AVAs like Ribbon Ridge have the option of “defaulting” to any larger AVAs that encompass them.  So if a Ribbon Ridge winery wished to label their wine Chehalem Mountains AVA or the more recognizable Willamette Valley AVA instead of Ribbon Ridge AVA, they could do so.

As of December 2017, there were 240 AVAs in the United States – 139 in California alone! An up-to-date list can be found here.

Rules confusing enough so far? We haven’t even started talking about the government’s involvement in all this . . .

To become recognized as an official AVA, a detailed application must be submitted for approval to the TTB (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau).  If you’re curious about what all this entails – here’s more informationWarning: this is some seriously boring shit.  Back in my lawyering days, I dealt with the CFRs (Code of Federal Regulations) a lot.  You’d think these would be right up my alley since they’re set up in outline format (!!) but somehow, the government has managed to butcher even outlines on wine-related subjects.

Actual footage of the AVA approval process

Moving on . . . once an AVA is established, grape growers within that AVA may cultivate whatever grape varieties they want, decide on farming methods, and produce wine with their choice minimum alcohol % and grape blend.  They also make their own decisions on how long to age their wines before release to the public and whether to age in oak or not.  This is very different from European appellation systems where all (or most of) these winemaking decisions are strictly regulated. Essentially, the AVA system regulates the “where” of wine and the European appellation regulates the “where” and the “how” (and sometimes the “when” too!)

Let’s compare Chablis AOC in France (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) with  Red Mountain AVA  in Washington:

France:  In order for a wine to be labeled “Chablis AOC” the grapes must come from the geographical region designated as Chablis. The wine must be made from 100% Chardonnay grapes and have a minimum 10% abv (alcohol by volume).  Additionally, yields are limited to under 60 hectoliters/hectare.

United States: In order for a wine to be labeled “Red Mountain AVA”, the grapes must come from the geographical region designated as Red Mountain AVA.  And . . . well, that’s it. No restrictions on varieties, yields or alcohol levels here. Winemakers have complete freedom on viticulture and winemaking decisions and can grow as diverse of varieties as they choose.

While freedom of choice and diversity of ideas are ideal foundations upon which to build a republic, perhaps not so much in wine production as it can lead to a hodgepodge of wines with no common characteristics. According to the TTB, the establishment of an AVA allows “vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.”  In other words, the basic premise behind an AVA is that wines from this specific area will share certain, hopefully discernable, characteristics. However, with such freedom given to winemakers, this is often difficult (if not impossible) to accomplish.

I thought I’d try this out for myself by tasting two 2015 Ribbon Ridge AVA Pinot Noirs to see if I could identify any common characteristics:

Archery Summit 2015 ‘Looney Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge. (14.5% abv)

  • Color: Medium- ruby, bright & clear
  • Aromas: Bright red fruits – cherries, raspberries & red plum.  Red licorice.  Spice and cedar.  Roses.
  • Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium tannins.  Ripe red fruits are present here too, along with some tea leaves.
  • My Thoughts: Very elegant, red fruit driven Pinot Noir.
  • Technical Bits: Looney Vineyard is Archery Summit’s only vineyard in Ribbon Ridge.  The winery’s website describes wines from Looney Vineyard having “an appealing precocious quality that can be seen in the distinctive sense of blue fruit they deliver to the palate. Fresh plums and red currant flavors combine with notes of citrus—particularly blood orange—and baking spices to deliver a juicy wine with great density and vigor.”


Gramercy Cellars 2015 ‘Le Pre du Col Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge. (12.9% abv)

  • Color: Medium ruby, slightly hazier
  • Aromas: Funky earth & farmyard.  Dirty cherries.  Fall leaves.  There’s a definite stemminess here (no surprise, as a Gramercy mantra is “stems rule”!).
  • Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium tannins.  Lots of earthy/stemmy fruits along with cranberries and herbal tea.
  • My Thoughts: This is a funky-ass Pinot and I love it.
  • Technical Bits: This wine was fermented on 75% stems – which explains the more earthy/funky characteristics when compared to the Archery Summit.  Aged in large neutral barrels – might be why there’s a lack of oak/baking spices on the nose or palate.

Although these two Pinots had similar structural profiles, their aromas and flavors were quite distinguishable.  This probably is due to different winemaking decisions – whole cluster fermentation by Gramercy, partial new oak aging by Archery Summit.  So as far as “common characteristics” go, besides these both falling into my “yummy!” category, they’re very different wines.  Would I have guessed they’re from the same teeny-tiny sub-AVA of Willamette Valley?  Probably not.

So . . . what’s the point of having these small AVAs?  Do they have any real meaning in the marketplace? Even though I couldn’t discern many commonalities between the two Ribbon Ridge Pinots (admittedly a tiny sample size), I did enjoy them – and several others from this sub-AVA that I’ve had in the past.  So would I be likely to purchase another Pinot from this area?   Definitely.  So maybe that’s enough to justify sub-AVAs.

Tom Warks of Fermentation Wine Blog fame has a great post about how Napa Valley sub-AVAs are basically meaningless.  He sums it up beautifully:

Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d be willing to bet that some of the most experienced Napa Valley palates couldn’t successfully and consistently identify the AVAs from which a selection of different Napa Valley Cabernets originate. And if they can’t do this, what are the odds that Jimmy Bigcellar from Dallas can identify the AVA of different Napa Valley Cabernets?

Full disclosure to Mr. Warks:  I’m totally stealing “Jimmy Bigcellar” in future posts!

I’d love to hear some readers thoughts on sub-AVAs.  Do you pay much attention to them when purchasing wine?  Do you have a favorite?  If so, why?  And is anyone else out there a Ribbon Ridge Pinot fan?  Perhaps you prefer Scandanavian house music? 🙂

Here’s the outline on Ribbon Ridge.

Lake Chelan AVA

I’ve lived in Washington my entire life and yet I can count on a whopping two fingers the number of times that I’ve visited Lake Chelan – one of the most popular vacation destinations in the state. Both of these visits have been during the “offseason” of late October / early November. Granted, some wineries weren’t open during this time of year and it’s not nearly as enjoyable to sit outside and admire the gorgeous lake views when it’s 40 degrees as opposed to 80. But on the flip side, visiting during the offseason means far fewer crowds and shorter tasting room lines as the population plummets to 1/10th of the peak summer months.

The draw of Lake Chelan by the summer tourists is easily understood, with lots to see and do – and drink! Only a three hour car ride from Seattle to the west or Spokane from the east, it is easily accessible and makes for a (relatively) affordable weekend getaway. However, unlike other Washington AVAs that have built their tourism around an already thriving wine industry, Lake Chelan has done the opposite. Here, tourism was the area’s initial draw and wine has only recently been added as part of the region’s “to do” list. Likely much to the relief of summering parents watching Little Johnny cannonball off the dock yet again.

Lake Chelan is very new AVA (established in 2009) and is wholly contained within the larger Columbia Valley AVA.  Although grapes have been grown in this area since the late 1800s, the first truly modern, production vineyard unbelievably wasn’t planted until 1998 (ironically making this particular AVA too young to enjoy its own wines).  So really, “serious” grape growing in this region is still in its infancy – although I imagine that some old-timers might strenuously disagree with me on this point.

The lake itself is the AVA’s most unique attribute and is a major factor as to why wines from this area are unlike any others from Washington. Lake Chelan is the 3rd deepest lake in the United States (after Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe) and is a whopping 52 miles long! Which helps explain why the driving time between winery visits can seem like an eternity.

The lake moderates temperatures year-round: helping the region stay much cooler in the summer months than the rest of the Columbia Valley AVA (preserving acidity in its zippy whites), yet also extending the growing season so as to encourage ripening of its red varieties. Speaking as someone who spent her entire childhood in the Columbia Valley AVA, the heat of the summer months can be unbearable.

My most recent visit to Lake Chelan was in early November 2016 and I was thoroughly impressed with the whites of the area (especially Viognier). They’re bright and fruity, but maintain a weight and complexity that make them more than mere porch pounders to enjoy by the lake.

Unfortunately, the reds of Chelan left me underwhelmed, which I fully admit is a gross generalization based on a small sample size. Many I found to be altered too much by oak – with loads of mocha and toasty vanilla flavors that overpowered any varietal characteristics. Other reds were too thin, watery and lacking flavor and interest. Yes, I realize I sound like Goldilocks with my “too much” or “too little” whining. However, I have found over the years that young wine regions come along slowly (see in particular the Okanagan Valley region in British Columbia) and improve in an almost Darwinian fashion of winemaker trial and error as to what works and what doesn’t.  Chelan Estate Winery

With all of that said, I have an immense amount of respect for those in the region who are willing to experiment with different varieties and clones in Lake Chelan AVA. For instance, Pinot Noir doesn’t grow particularly well in Eastern Washington, and I just don’t know if my beloved home state has it in us to produce a great Pinot. But some winemakers (I’m looking at you Bob Broderick from Chelan Estate Winery) aren’t willing to accept this as gospel and are out to prove me wrong. Bob and others continue to work toward a grape that rivals its much celebrated Oregon brethren. Of course, I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong and would happily eat crow in so doing….I’ve heard it pairs very well with Pinot!

But until that time, here’s the outline on Lake Chelan.

Red Mountain AVA

Back when I was growing up in Richland, Washington, Red Mountain was a place where we high school kids would occasionally drive out to for a kegger. It was also where I got my parents’ car stuck in the desert trying to find said kegger. Who knew that a 1983 Volvo sedan wasn’t an off-road vehicle?

Today, Red Mountain is home to some of the top vineyards and wineries in the state of Washington . . . and some might argue the country.

Kiona vineyard
View of Kiona Vineyards – some of the first planted in the AVA

Red Mountain produces powerful, structured, intensely flavorful and tannic wines. Often with a big price tag to match. This might have to do with the fact that the cost of doing business in the area has increased exponentially from its inception. Back when the “pioneers” of the area, Jim Holmes and John Williams, bought land to try their hands at viticulture, they were able to purchase at around $200/acre. Fast forward almost 40 years – at a land auction a few years ago, the price point was over $12K/acre. And some prized acres have sold at over $30K/acre.

Ah, if only I’d spent my allowance money during the 1980s and 90s on real estate instead of clothes at Jay Jacobs. 😉

Red Mountain AVA has an incredible following with loyal (sometimes bordering on rabid) fans. My customers tend to go gaga over Red Mountain wines – they like a bold, in-your-face, red wine. But even though it’s located around the corner from where I grew up, and I DO have an affinity for the area, it doesn’t produce my favorite Washington wines. Unlike my customers, I don’t like to be slapped upside the head by my wine. I prefer something more subtle, with less heat and ripeness (Walla Walla Valley and Horse Heaven Hills come to mind).

Nonetheless, I’m proud of this AVA and the fact that its recognized by wine lovers outside the borders of Washington. And I’m looking forward to drinking the Red Mountain wines that are tucked away in my cellar . . . in a couple decades when they’ve had a chance to mellow out and mature. They’ll be 25+ years old by then, and no longer the loud and aggressive teenagers driving around boldly looking for the kegger.

Here’s the outline on Red Mountain.