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.

The Thief: Bringing a World of Wine (& Beer!) to Downtown Walla Walla

Oftentimes when you visit a smaller wine region, you’re hard pressed to find wine from anywhere outside of said region.  And that’s totally understandable — they want to highlight the wines of their area.  However, after a day of sipping delicate Pinots in the Willamette Valley – you may want a big, bolder Cabernet with your steak dinner.  After hours of tasting 14+% abv wines from Santa Barbera, a lighter & crisper Riesling from the Mosel might sound good.  Or, if you’re in the Champagne region, you . . . well, never mind.  If you’re in Champagne, you likely don’t want anything else!

So when Hubs and I were in my beloved Washington state last week, as much as I love Walla Walla wines, we were thrilled to see a recently opened bottle shop that sold wine and beer from outside the Walla Walla region.  I’m talking waaaay outside the region . . .

Thief - Store signage

Taking over a large 4,000 square foot space on Main Street, The Thief Fine Wine and Beer officially opened on May 4, 2018. (“May the 4th be with you”?  I don’t know if there was any Star Wars connection to their opening date, but I do know one of the owners is a serious Harry Potter fan as he was sporting the trademark mustard and burgundy striped scarf when I met him.)

Thief - Vallee d'AosteLining the store’s back wall is an impressive selection of local Walla Walla wines (priced the same as what you’ll find in the wineries themselves) as well as beer and cider from around the globe.   And in the center of the room . . . truly, a wine geek’s paradise.  Pinot Noir from Valleé d’Aoste, Zweigelt Rosé from Niederösterreich, and a Sassicaia from Bolgheri (I spied this bottle one day, the next – it was gone).  Having worked in a wine retail store, I can attest to the fact that The Thief’s prices are incredibly reasonable and there is a bottle for every budget.

Besides a fabulous selection of wine, The Thief also carries – and I’m quoting Hubs here directly – “an absolutely kick ass beer selection.” It was clear to him that the beer was on par with the wine and was similarly from all over the globe.  Of the new owners, clearly one of them has a penchant for top shelf beer.

Thief - Beer and Cider

In addition to taking a bottle home with you (or popping it open on premise for a nominal corkage fee), The Thief also has several glass pours available.  On our visits (true confessions: we went there 3 times – but we can explain!), these offerings included an Alsatian Sylvaner and a Canaiolo Rosé from Tuscany.  Now, I’ve been in my fair share of wine bars and stores (another true confession), but I have never seen these wines offered by the glass.  I love an adventurous by the glass program – it’s a perfect way to introduce people to some lesser known grapes and regions!

Thief - Bar and non-curly Matt
Lots of seating at the bar

Their handwritten tasting notes are some of the best I’ve seen. And nary a critic’s score in sight – which also gets a huge thumbs up from me.  But if you need a recommendation – look no further than The Thief’s knowledgeable and friendly staff.

On our first visit, we met “Curly Matt”.  Not to be confused with “Non-curly Matt” (or another employee named Matt whom we didn’t meet).  We also chatted with two of the owners, Emily Riley and Kyle Pottroff when they hosted a lunch for some of the Wine Bloggers Conference attendees.  And they did not scrimp on the wines they served that afternoon – starting us off with a Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc!

Thief - Curly Matt
Curly Matt

Since opening, The Thief has had several wine tasting events ranging from Bubbles Galore (aka Everything BUT Champagne!), to Rosés to Tour of Tuscany.  Future plans include a wine club, temperature controlled storage lockers for members and a myriad of wine related events – including wine classes.  In fact, my favorite wine instructor – the fabulous Reggie Daigneault – will be doing a seminar on Bordeaux at the Thief later this month!

We don’t get to Walla Walla as frequently as we used to, but Hubs and I will definitely be visiting The Thief next time we’re in town.  Oh yeah, and as a follow up to my previous post with Hubs – WE FINALLY FOUND THE ROSÉS!!

Thief - Roses
HUGE Rose selection at The Thief!

She Said/Hubs Said: “Live” White & Rosé Wine Blogging

As mentioned in a previous post about the Wine Bloggers Conference, one of the highlights for me was the “Live” Blogging sessions.  Lately when I drink wine, I’m usually in full exam mode, so I sit down with my trusty notebook and – slowly and methodically – take notes via the WSET “systematic approach to tasting” method.  In other words, I take time to analyze every element of the wine – structure, aromas, flavors, finish, quality, etc.  WSET Grid 1

In contrast, the “Live” Blogging sessions pushed me outside of my wine tasting comfort zone since we had, at most, five minutes to hear about the wine directly from the winemaker, taste it, and make notes of our impressions.  I keep putting “Live” in quotes because, while I tweeted the Red Wine session in real time, for the Whites & Rosés Hubs and I waited and compared our notes afterwards.  We read them aloud to each other over a beer(s) and, after I heard some of his comments, decided we had to put together a post.  I love his notes because they are so damn entertaining, honest and unpretentious.  Just like him. 🙂

So without further ado, here are the unedited She said / Hubs said tasting notes from the White & Rosé speed dating event” (his phrasing, not mine)….

1. Otis Kenyon 2017 Roussanne, Columbia Valley, WashingtonOtis Kenyon Roussanne

  • She Said: Med+ bodied, ripe yellow fruits – apple, pear, longer spicy finish (with a bit of heat). A perfect, richer fall/winter white wine. This might even sway some “I only drink red wine” people. I am such a fan of Rhône whites and wish more of these varieties were planted in WA!
  • Hubs Said: White.   Not very complex.  Citrusy lemon/zest.  It’s hard to give my opinion when the wine pouring people are talking about it – I just want to write what they are saying and pass it off as my own.   Amazing story behind this wine.   I like it but wouldn’t seek it out.   Again, really cool story (look it up).  I would drink on a hot summer day but that’s about it.  Nothing really unique – other than an awesome story. If stories sell wine, this one has an amazing story.   Love the matchsticks.  I would drink this wine just to tell the story.  Have I mentioned the story?

2. L’Ecole 2016 Semillon, Columbia Valley, Washington

  • She Said: 86% Semillon/14% Sauvignon Blanc. Lots of honeysuckle on the nose with some white flowers. Viscous, oily texture – reminds me a bit of Viognier. Glad they put some SB in here for some acidity – might be rather flabby without it. Another richer/fuller bodied white perfect for fall/winter drinking. And at $15 this is incredibly priced.
  • Hubs Said: White / Golden.   I’ve heard this story about the L’Ecole schoolhouse at least a hundred times.  I don’t know shit about Semillon.   I like it.  Why?   Some heat/spice on the mouth afterwards.   Again, not super excited about this one.   OK – not bad.

3. Peter Yealands 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand

  • She Said: I’m not usually a New Zealand Sauv Blanc fan, and this one is no different. Very herbal and grassy. Loads of tropical fruit on the palate. Med+ acidity, v. grassy palate. Intense aromas and flavor – it’s really just too much in your face/over the top. Some people love this stuff though. Maybe pairing with a salad or veggies would calm it down a bit for me, although – I don’t eat a lot of veggies.
  • Hubs Said: This is SUPER fragrant.  Gas?   Reminds me of the stuff my parents drank when I was a kid.  WOW!   Crazy fragrant.  Non-normal fruit.  Not sure what I mean.   Melon?   Super unique.   Higher acidity.   I would have to get used to this type of wine – not an everyday drinker but I could see pairing it with something fun.  It sticks with you forever.   Crazy flavors.

4. Desert Wind 2017 Chardonnay, Wahluke Slope, Washington

  • She Said: Definitely smells like Chardonnay – vanilla, oak, baking spices. Fuller bodied, creamy texture (full Mal-O).  Smells like a Madeline sugar cookie. Medium length finish and then . . . I’m left with the oak. I know I’m a boob when it comes to oaked Chardonnay. But to me, this is a little unbalanced because the oak dominates and overpowers the other flavors.
  • Hubs Said: Pretty color.   Tough to follow the Sauv Blanc – that aroma is still there.   Nothing wrong with it.   Maybe some vanilla and citrus?   Medium acidity.   Nothing particular exciting – it’s Chardonnay – not bad, just kind of there.

    Live Blogging
    Noelle writing her “she said” tasting notes.

5. Bouza 2017 Albariño, Uruguay

  • She Said: Citrus and salty sea spray aromas. Seems a little fuller bodied for an Albariño – maybe the 6 month lees aging is a factor? Riper apple and pear, and more salinity on the palate, crisp acidity. Would be perfect with seafood. Not bad for my first foray into Uruguayan wine.
  • Hubs Said: Uruguan wine.   Effervescent.  Zippy.   Lemon zest.   Low/Med. acidity.  Poolside wine.  Summer wine.   Well balanced (I’m not sure what the hell that means, I think equally acid and tannins).  Happy mouth.   Would be awesome w/ shellfish.   Could I find Uruguay on a map?  No.   Stays on the mouth/palate for a really long time.

6. Hard Row to Hoe 2017 Riesling, Lake Chelan, Washington

  • She Said: OMG – beautiful aromatics! Floral and stone fruit (peach, apricot). If I had this blind, I don’t think I would’ve guessed it was a Riesling. Smells more like a Viognier. I really like it, but it lacks the zip I expect from this variety.
  • Hubs Said: Eggs.  Weird.   Rocks.   Not traditional Riesling.   Great / fun story (note the flags on the label) – naughty.   But what do I think?  I would go with other Rieslings.

7. Rodney Strong 2016 ‘Chalk Hill’ Chardonnay, Sonoma County, California

  • She Said: Like wine #4, there is no mistaking this for Chardonnay.  This one seems more fruit driven though – baked apple, pear. Seriously – I am totally getting spiced apple pie on the palate. And this is on the back label – YAY ME! I think Hubs just rolled his eyes at me. Not my particular style, but I prefer it to the WA Chardonnay. This one is more balanced between fruit and oak aromas, plus it has more acidity and a longer finish.
  • Hubs Said: A little bit of fuel smell on it (or am I still smelling that crazy Sauv Blanc?).  On first taste I thought it was boring, but it really gets more interesting.  A little heat on it for a Chardonnay.  Not a huge fan but that’s because I think it has more to do with the varietal.   Noelle just said it tastes like “apple pie”.   Fuck that.  She’s going to kill me at this exercise.   Upshot:  It’s fine.  I just don’t like Chardonnay unless it’s a butter bomb.   Sidenote:  Where the hell are the Rosés???  We haven’t had a single Rosé yet.
Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay
“Apple and pie spice aromas”! 🙂

8. Cadaretta ‘SBS’ 2016, Columbia Valley, Washington

  • She Said: 67% Sauvignon Blanc, 33% Semillon. Stainless steel fermentation. Herbal nose, citrus (lime skin) jalapeños, tropical fruit. Med bodied, med+ acidity, med+ finish. Grassy notes on the finish. I MUCH prefer w/the Semillon then the stand alone New Zealand Sauv Blanc. This is so much better balanced, easier to drink and refreshing.
  • Hubs Said: Melon + Petrol.   What the hell is the fruit I smell on these Sauv Blancs???    Blog idea:  Wine words I misspell the most (bordo, Semillon, sauvignon).   I imagine that the Semillon calms down the Sauv Blanc.   It has such a unique smell.   We need to go to the glass house.

9. Frank Family Vineyards 2016 Chardonnay, Carneros, California

  • She Said: Much more subtle on the nose than the other Chardonnays.  Getting evidence of lees here too – yeasty, rounder mouthfeel.  MalO textures. Hint of oak – vanilla, spice along with some apple and pineapple.  Overall, aromas are pretty medium – I’m not getting a ton.  On the palate to me its more about the texture then the flavors. Vanilla crème.
  • Hubs Said: WHERE THE FUCK ARE THE ROSÉS?????  THE AGENDA SAID WHITE AND ROSÉS!!!!  Gotta say it’s really a beautiful color.  Unique smell for a chardonnay.   Way more butter on this one.  Maybe some vanilla and spices.  That’s a general statement.  This is what I want my chardonnay to taste like.  I want to eat a bowl of popcorn with this and not share it with Noelle.   The tasting may be getting to me at this point.  I really like this one and it would be interesting to compare it to other Chards.

10. J. Bookwalter Winery 2016 ‘Double Plot’ Chardonnay, Columbia Valley

JBookwalter Double Plot Chardonnay
Winner of the White Wine Blogging!
  • She Said: Medium aromas of white flowers, apple, and ripe lemon.  Hint of vanilla.  This smells (& tastes!) like an Oregon Chardonnay.  The oak is so restrained.  This might be my favorite of the lineup. Best balanced of the Chards – oak and fruit compliment each other and there’s a nice dose of acidity that was lacking in the others. Yay – ending on a high note from a hometown winery!
  • Hubs Said: Light color.  A little more acidity on this chard.   Butter w/ some stone(?).  Apple.  I seem to describe every chardonnay on the “butter scale”.  The more butter, the more I like it.   Otherwise, Chardonnay is a total commodity to me – it’s all the same.   I need to work on this.    Or maybe I don’t.  I just don’t like Chard, it’s so boring.

So there you have it.   In the light of day, what I really liked about having done this with Hubs is that it shows how wine means different things to different people.  While his “tasting notes” (and I use that term incredibly loosely) made me laugh out loud, they also reminded me that there are no absolutes –  no “right answers”.   Wine means to you what YOU taste and feel.  I think that’s what makes wine such an amazing pursuit.

Now….where the fuck are those Rosés?!  

 

 

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

 

 

12 Bottles & 1,000 Miles

In a few days I’ll be moving from my beloved Pacific Northwest to Southern California.  One of my biggest concerns of the move – besides how my 13 year old Lab will handle it – is how to get my wine down there safely.  I have about 15 or so cases, which in my mind isn’t a huge wine collection, although Hubs might disagree with me on this particular point.  (Sidenote: One somewhat uncomfortable part to the move thus far was having to disclose all of my wine hiding spots to Hubs – the two boxes behind my sweaters in the master closet, the one stashed under the extra dining room chairs, others that I won’t mention here so I can reuse these spots in our new digs.)

Thankfully, our moving company is going to handle transporting the majority of the bottles.  However, just in case (pun truly not intended), I’m setting aside a carefully curated case that will travel with us in the car.  We’ll take these 12 bottles of wine along with other precious and irreplaceable items (our Yellow Lab’s ashes, wedding photos, Hubs’s very first home run ball) and head south – funny that the things that mean the most to you in life have almost zero monetary value.

It was at this point in the move that I realized that I had some very difficult decisions to make:  What 12 wines would make the cut?  Which wines would I be the most distraught over losing?  The most expensive ones?  The oldest?  The wines purchased on our trip to France?  Those from my favorite wineries?  Those that elicit amazing memories?

After an extraordinary amount of consideration (and consternation) – I present to you in no particular order the dozen that made the I-can’t-live-without-them list and will be joining us on I-5 in a climate controlled environment…

Bottle #1:  L’Ecole No. 41 2012 Ferguson Vineyard Estate Red, Walla Walla Valley, Washington.  L’Ecole will always have a special place in my heart because it’s the first “real” wine that I ordered when we were out to dinner with friends who handed me the wine list.  This was at least a decade ago and it was a bottle of their Recess Red – back when they had the fun crayon drawing of a schoolhouse. L'ecole L’Ecole’s Ferguson wines have received some serious accolades the past few years (like best Bordeaux blend in the WORLD from Decanter Magazine).

Bottle #2:  Jean Foillard 2015 ‘Cote du Py’ Morgon, Beaujolais, France.  I had the 2012 vintage of this wine in my French Wine Scholar class back in 2014 and it totally turned me onto cru Beaujolais.  This Morgon tasted like a dirty Pinot – and I absolutely loved it.  Since then, I’ve been obsessed with the 10 crus and what differentiates them from one another.  Plus, I’ve ordered some 2016’s of this wine and want to geek out on vintage comparisons.

Bottle #3:  Betz Family Winery 2014 ‘Heart of the Hill’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Washington.  This is me when I think of Bob Betz:  Betz heartsHe is truly one of the most genuine, likable and admired people in the Washington wine industry.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know his wines over the past few years – as well as stalking him at various wine events.  And even though I’m not usually a Cabernet Sauvignon lover – particularly one from Red Mountain – this wine was my favorite at the Betz Spring Release last year.

Bottle #4:  Pago de los Capellanes 2016 ‘O Luar do Sil’ Godello, Valdeorras, Spain. It may seem odd to bring an under $20 bottle of fairly easily replaceable Spanish white as one of my “delectable dozen” but I have a good reason for doing so (besides this being an incredibly tasty wine and Godello a likely upcoming outline).  We’re stopping for two nights en route to SoCal, and I’m fully expecting the hotels’ minibars to only offer an overpriced, mass produced California blend.  So as to avoid that Conundrum (pun totally intended), I’ve included this wine as one that I won’t feel guilty opening.  Which brings me to . . .

Bottle #5:  Savage Grace 2016 Underwood Mountain Vineyards Riesling, Columbia Gorge, Washington.  As mentioned above, we’re stopping for two nights.  So one “ok to open now” bottle isn’t going to be enough.  Hubs loves Rieslings and I love Savage Grace – so this bottle will be a win-win.  Savage GraceBesides, I firmly believe that the primary reason the 2017 Auction of Washington Wines Picnic sold out was because their advertisement featured me and my galfriends with awesome winemaker, Michael Savage. 🙂

Bottle #6:  Zenato 2011 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, Veneto, Italy. I’ve been studying for the Italian Wine Scholar certification for several weeks now and making slow progress.  (Note to self: next time you’re planning a move after 18 years in one house, don’t sign up for a challenging wine certification). This is probably the wine I’m most looking forward to tasting out of the several Italians that I purchased earlier this year.  And I’m saving it until I’m almost finished with my certification . . . which at this rate, will be around Thanksgiving.

Bottle #7:   Quilceda Creek 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington. This wine got 95+ points from all the major wine critics and is worth the most $$ of any bottle in my collection.  That’s a strange sentence to write as I’m not at all a points pusher nor do the most expensive wines typically grab my attention.  However, this is from an iconic Washington winery and my departure from the Pacific Northwest deserves at least one status bottle.  All that being said – I have no idea how I will personally feel about this wine as my palate tends to differ from some of the critics and, unlike shoes, I don’t always end up preferring the most expensive wine.

Bottle #8:  Guy Bernard 2013 ‘Cote Rozier’ Cote Rotie, Rhone Valley, France. Hubs and I purchased this bottle from the amazing Vincent on one of the most memorable days of my life. We hired him as our personal tour guide in the Northern Rhone and Guy Bernard was our last stop of the day.  Their facility/tasting room was a very unassuming place, charmingly cluttered and their wines were some of the best I’ve ever tasted.  And when Vincent took us in the back for some barrel thieving, I was hooked.

Bottle #9: Remi Niero 2014 ‘Chery’ Condrieu, Rhone Valley, France. This was another winery we visited with Vincent. He grew up in Condrieu and drove Hubs and me through its streets like a Formula 1 driver pushing his Peugeot to the limit. Vincent was also on a first name basis with the local winemakers including Remi Niero, who produces some damn delicious Viognier. If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in this beautiful wine region, I cannot recommend Vincent highly enough. He made our day so memorable and I’d go back just so he could take us out for another spin around his hometown. You can read more info about Vincent here.

 

Condrieu

 

Bottle #10:   Kevin White Winery 2013 ‘DuBrul Vineyard’ Red Wine, Yakima Valley, Washington. I have such fond memories of this wine!  I purchased a case at the Auction of Washington Wines barrel auction a couple years ago.   And, of course, after a few hours of tasting my competitive streak came out so I had to be the top bid and “win” the autographed barrel top.  Kevin WhiteKevin White remains one of my favorite Washington wineries for producing wines that taste like they should cost at least twice as much.

Bottle #11: Archery Summit 2013 ‘Looney Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge, Oregon. I first visited this winery with my mom-in-law in 2010, thus beginning my love for Oregon Pinot Noir.  Besides being an absolutely gorgeous tasting room, Archery Summit produces unique, terroir driven wines from their six distinct vineyards.  Looney Vineyard is consistently my favorite, and I’ll be writing more about it in my upcoming Ribbon Ridge AVA post.

Bottle #12:  Gramercy Cellars 2015 ‘L’Idiot du Village’ Mourvèdre, Columbia Valley, Washington.  I could have filled my entire case with Gramercy wines.  So selecting just one was like picking a favorite dog – which Hubs might be able to do, but I cannot.  Greg Harrington is just the bees knees.  He’s an incredible winemaker and is always coming out with something different – Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Picpoul(!). And while his Syrahs are among the best I’ve had, his Mourvèdre is one of my favorite wines.  Ever.  I credit him for turning me onto this varietal, and giving me a borderline obsession with it.  I also credit him with teaching me the proper method for opening a bottle of wine so as to pass the certified sommelier exam (minus the screwy face). 😉  Gramercy

Greg – if you happen to read this,  and plan on opening a tasting room in Southern California, please let me know and I’ll get you my resume ASAP to apply to be your tasting room manager.  And if you’re planning on opening a spot in Woodinville . . .  well, I just might hightail it back to the Pacific Northwest.

So there you have it, the delectable dozen that made the cut!   Although my next blog post will be from my newly adopted home in California – I will always remain a PNW wine girl at heart!!

 

 

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.