Friday, May 27, 2011

Lake Chelan, again

(Photo of Benson Vineyards Estate Winery, Lake Chelan)

We first visited Lake Chelan and its wineries in 2007. Was good to go back.

Stayed at Campbell's Resort: Lovely room overlooking the lake.

This time, we visited:

1. Benson: All estate wines. One of the most gorgeous views that a mere mortal could ever hope to see: Lake and mountains and vineyards, and a wonderful winery campus, all rolled into a giant breathless piece of eye candy for the lucky visitor. They got 60" of snow at the winery. Summer highs range from 85F to 105F. Winters get down to near zero, but the lake keeps it warmer than in Similkameen, so Chelan gets less dieback.
'09 Viognier ($19): Nope. Too much sharp and too little fruit.
'09 Curiosity (Chard/Viog, $18.50): funky nose.

'09 Rose ($19.50): Syrah/Merlot, which you don't see every day: Nice, but a little too sweet.
'08 Pinot noir ($23): Light brownish-red color, which is odd. Bouquet too stinky; wine too sharp and thin.
'08 Sangio ($27): No nose. Thin.
'07 Rhythm ($26): Yes! Very good, though not the quality of the best from Walla Walla. Syrah, Merlot, Cab Franc.
'07 Syrah ($26.50): Super-light nose; smoky palate. Strange.
'08 Merlot ($26): Light nose (where can you find AROMATICS around here?); chocolate and red fruit; OK but just not the match of the Tri Cities/W.Walla wines
'08 Cab Franc ($33): Mint and earth. Just OK. Too thin. Note to winemaker: How about doing something to add some body? Bananas? Glycerine? Don't laugh.
'09 Meritage ($36.50; Cab S, Merlot, Cab F): Not really, sorry.

Wonderful place and great server; some of the wines have a ways to go.

2. Vin du Lac: We tasted on the outdoor patio and then lunched at their bistro, on the same patio overlooking the lake, sipping glasses of our fave wines from the tasting; wonderful! The wines are all well-made; the winemaker is fastidious about keeping O2 off the wines, so the whites can age longer if you like.
'09 Pinot gris: Minerally and sharp if you like that style.
'09 Les Amis: Sold out (Riesling and Viog, I think?)
'10 Viognier: Honey nose; fruity and crisp; nice.
'07 Sauv Blanc Estate (LEHM) 1.3%RS; Gold at NW Wine Summit; citrus nose; very yummy; I'll recommend this one for sure. $16 from me.
'07 Savvy Blanc (not pouring, but we found this on sale at the local Safeway, and bought it for our dinner): Very nice. Great companion to a fine light meal. But, to use an orchestra analogy, the wine won't be the violin--more like the viola (subtle; in the background). I can sell this one for less than $10.
'07 Riesling Estate: Nice
'09 Rose (Sangio and Cab Franc): 26 hrs on skin; nice, but not like Barnard Griffin's Rose of Sangio . . .
NV Pinot noir ('07/'08): OK, but a bit thin.
'06 Barrel Select Cab Sauv, Columbia Valley: Odd citrus nose.
'09 Cuvee Rouge: Merlot-Cab Franc-Syrah-Cab Sauv: Thin.
'06 Barrel Select Merlot ($35 wine club): Thinner than I like.
'07 Barrel Select Syrah: WS90 points: Nice bouquet. Good. Not as much body as in earlier years. A Syrah for lovers of the delicate style.
'07 Barrel Select Cab Franc: Nice on the palate, though the bouquet is limited for a Cab Franc.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Who knew that Leavenworth WA is now a wine town? You can taste at maybe 6-8 different tasting rooms, and many are of nearby wineries. Now there are MANY reasons to visit this town.

We stayed (again) at the Enzian Inn. What a deal! $120 gets you: comfie queen bed with down Euro-style coverlet instead of a sheet; darn good hot breakfast buffet with homemade pastries; a live alpenhorn serenade in the morning; free play at the championship putting course (the most fun I've ever had with golf--pretty landscaping with real creeks and waterfalls, and a family of goats, a $24 value free, for a pair of hotel guests); indoor and outdoor pool and hot tubs; fitness room; and yes even a high-quality piano concert. Wow!

The mountains are close and steep and gorgeous. Still snow-topped during our visit in late May, which is unusual. The town is Disneyfied but the atmosphere is still charming and the restaurants are good--mostly German food but also others (check your favorite review site first, as there are some real losers among them). No, it is not a real Bavarian town but it is the next-best thing unless you go over the Pond.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Similkameen Valley, B.C.

(the photo was taken from Herder's grape crushpad; what a view!)

We just winetasted the Similkameen Valley, in British Columbia. This valley is west of (and parallel to) the Okanagan Valley, though the latter extends further north. Both valleys are very close to the north-central Washington state border. To get there, visit Yakima, Lake Chelan, and Leavenworth in WA, all with good winetasting (I'll blog those separately).

The best trip (from Portland) would involve day-tasting in late morning in the gorge and Yakima, then get to Leavenworth by 2 p.m. or so (to give you time to window shop, winetaste, and play the Enzian Inn's 18-hole championship putting course, and to eat fine German food, and the next day drive to the Okanagan in B.C., winetasting all the way up to Kelowna. Two nights up there, with one half day driven over to the Similkameen, hitting just these wineries: Seven Stones, Eau Vivre, Orofino, Robin's Ridge, Herder. Then, on the way back south, stay in Lake Chelan and winetaste there (including lunch on the patio/bistro of Vin du Lac), and play on the wonderful lake. DO NOT take more than 2 bottles of wine into Canada, or it will cost you a fortune. Instead, ship your pre-Canada purchases back home before entering Maple-land. You can bring a ton of wine back from Canada, however; see below.

Overall, the Similkameen is a relatively poor agricultural region (apples, mostly), with just one small town, Keremeos, that seems to close up promptly at 5 p.m. (except for a few restaurants); it's dusty, a little quiet (we found a great hiking trail along the river there), and fairly poor. Tourism is not a focus there. It's a fruit-stand capital, but prices are surprisingly high for some things (a one-pint jar of homemade pickles at a large open-air fruit stand was $11!!!). There are only 12 or so wineries there. The wines' prices are reasonable (for craft wines), from about $15 to about $35, with many falling around $20 (Canadian, but the CD and USD are about equal now). Lodging is simple-to-worse and there are few good restaurants (try the good Thai place). Unless you can stay with one of the winery owners, don't spend the night. However, there are ample reasons to go. In fact, some of you must go: the Chardonnay lovers.

The Similkameen is a winegrape-growing site with good potential. It has alkali (limestone-based) rocky and clay soils (and in the south end it has lots of ash from earlier mega-eruptions of Mt. St. Helens). It's a dry desert valley with steep side cliffed mountains. Frosts can come as early as October 15, and the grapes need a long hang time, sometimes more than that. The valley's searching for its wine identity. My take is that most of the reds there are thin, lacking the body we see in so many Walla Walla, Tri-Cities, and Red Mountain wines. One could argue that it's elegance and delicacy instead, and some reds have that, for sure, but many are just thin. The Okanagan and Similameen push the northern extreme of marginality for grapes, and thus there are failures there. The temperatures (lacking the moderating influence of the Okanagan's mighty lakes) are extreme--from maybe -10F to 110F. In the colder winters, many of the vinifera grapevines freeze to death (not unlike Walla Walla, but it is more extreme in Similkameen). You would think the 110F days would easily ripen the grapes, but I heard that it is a race to get ripe before the frosts (not so different from the Willamette's race to get ripe before the rains).

However, the white wines (and some few reds) there can be very good--great, even. In fact, for my money the Similkameen is a Chardonnay lover's Mecca. If you love the minerally-driven, restrained-fruit and oak, "heavily-malo-lacticted" style style of Chard, this valley's for you! So many Chardonnays ring the bell with true excellence--I mean better than the vast majority of white Burgundies, and that is heresy to say, I know, but it's true. So get yourself to the Okanagan, and take that side-trip to the Similkameen, and taste everything there, but especially the Chards. Bring a bunch of them back to the US with you; the US border guards have always let my wines in for free although they certainly have the right to collect the tiny duty (I surmise they don't want to do the paperwork for a small amount). (DO disclose your wines; it's the law, and for the first time ever, our trunk was checked, though we used the backroads Similkameen Road border crossing, where the guards see few cars and were more suspicious. But it saved us about :30 minutes.)

The wineries:

1. Seven Stones: 2700 case production. Talented winemaker. Breath-takingly beautiful site. The southernmost winery of note. '09 Chard sur lie (on skins and lees and stirred twice a day) was excellent at C$25. '10 Pinot noir rose $19 was very nice. '08 Pinot noir was too light and $28. '07 Meritage (Merlot-driven, as all red blends in the valley) was forgettable. '09 Merlot ($25) had a too-light nose and tasted sharp. '09 Syrah was very different; hard to describe and maybe a flaw ($35). They wouldn't give me a trade discount. Gorgeous purses (Buddha Bag) and jewelry for sale there.

2. Eau Vivre (1500 cases): My favorite, probably, in terms of the most success across its entire product line. '08 Chard ($18) was really, really good; faint nose but creamy and good fruit. Crisp, almost sharp. '08 Gewurz ($17) had no lychee; the nose was faint, floral, and delicate with an earthy note. MLF creaminess. Delicate and mineral-driven describes many of the whites in the region. '08 Pinot noir: $19; grown south-facing with maximum sun (!) and it's unique: light, fruity, very nice. Not at all like we like our Willamette PN's, but this is special and you should try it. '09 Cab Franc ($22) was on skins 18 days; just-bottled so given some slack; tannic; will age well; also light but elegant, nice. They gave me a small trade discount.

3. Orofino: A smart-looking, and very green, winery made from straw bales and stucco/plaster. Fronted by almond trees. Great people; spent quality time with John; he really gets it; one to watch; is young and has lots of time to continue building his reputation. He opened in 2005. 2010 Pinot gris ($20): Crisp, minerals. '10 Riesling $20: 21-year-old vines; 0.5% RS; nice nose. '09 Red Bridge Merlot $25: great color, nice nose; a bit sharp. '08 Beleza ($34): Merlot heavy blend: Very interesting but maybe not for the price; lay it down for 3-6 years.

4. Herder: Fanciest winery in the valley; gorgeous estate and view. '09 Chard at $20 is a bargain--a monumental Chard; nose muted but mouth magnificent; butterscotch in spades with heavy MLF. '08 Cab Franc ($35) No nose but good mouth; pricey. '08 Merlot ($35) Unique smell; nice; good palate; bit thin and sharp. '07 Josephine $40: 66% Merlot: Good nose and good palate. Aside from the Chard, the prices are a little bit out of whack with the rest of the valley; I guess they need to pay for that wow-wow estate.

5. Robins' Ridge: This is the "guilty pleasure" winery there: a little more casual and you don't expect much when you go in. '08 Chard $16: nice; not the equal of the others. '10 Gewurz $19: Good! Floral, some RS, bit tart. '09 Pinot noir: $22: Nose is way off; palate's OK. '09 Gamay $22: Surprisingly nice; round fruit; pleasing (Gamay? Really? Cool!). '08 Robin's Return $20: Pinot noir and Rougeon (a French-American hybrid--hurray!): Fun fruity nose; very good; served with raspberry chocolate and wonderful. '07 Merlot $20: Off chemical nose-yuck.

6. St. Lazlo: If Robin's Ridge is the "guilty pleasure," then you need to disguise yourself and your car before turning in here. First planter in the valley, from Eastern Europe: Grows many wonderful grapes: Pinot blanc, Pearl of Csaba; Perle of Zela (Hungarian), Pinot Auxerrois; Tokay; Sovereign Royal. All the wines are oxidized, which may be because nobody ever goes to taste there, so the wines sit open. It's not in the same league as the other wineries. But our host (a wonderful older, gruffy woman from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, who at first seemed distrustful of us, as in "why are you here?" "Ummm--because you're a winery and the sign says you're open?") opened one bottle but even IT was oxidized, so maybe the wines are just left in the open air for a few years ;) . The keeper, however, was the Tokay, a great Hungarian grape-13% alcohol so not fortified, but sweetish and the most gorgeous caramel flavors and color. Don't know how they do it but don't care. Was a bit oxidized but the sherry notes make it perfect! Lucky find. At the upcoming winetasting I'll serve this with chocolate caramels and we'll all be in Heaven ;) .

7. Crow's Nest: German family. We stayed there. Nice folks, working hard (the daughter is innkeeper, winemaker, and breakfast-maker and server). The wines are pretty plain and mostly show the disattributes common to that region.. The rooms are exactly as advertised: Spartan, simple, plain, plastic. We were the only guests. No one ate at the restaurant. Tough times in the valley. I wish the whole valley well. It suffers from the successes of the much better-known Okanagan Valley next door (which sports numerous very wealthy wineries, headed by the prettiest winery in the New World: Mission Hill). It is light-years, not mere miles, between those two valleys, in terms of wealth and tourism, and yet as I say the Similkameen should not be missed. Give it another decade to figure things out, and I predict it will start showing up on the "must see" lists of many critics.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Revolving Door at Domaine Serene

Wow. Domaine Serene has had three winemakers in three years. That can't be good for the wines, or at least for the continuity of the Domaine's stylistic brand.

I have long been a fan of their wines. However, there are some who cringe at the "faux Euro" look of this massively-expensive winery built by outsiders who brought their fantastic wealth here to start a winery. I say there is room for all kinds of wineries, and that Oregon does not have (and should not have) just one winery style or winery owner style. We are free, if we wish, to grant greater respect for those owners who have clawed their way up by dint of hard work, starting with a middle-class backyard patch of vines. But the pursuit of excellence can take many forms.

PS-Trivia fact: I believe that winery building has the tallest self-supported triangular staircase in the world.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Every year

Every year, the grapes eventually* push out, from stark winter's wood. The buds swell and get woolly, and then the leaves push through and begin to unfurl, like sails, to harvest the photons from our star.

To us, budbreak is a long-awaited event, the "year hand" on the clock of our lives. Each year is pretty momentous and filled with events. But to the grapes it is just business as usual, reaching back hundreds of thousand of years.

The pic is of Jupiter (a seedless Muscat grape) emerging in my vineyard. Developed by University of Arkansas, it's a terrific grape.

*"Eventually," because emergence is about 3 weeks late this year (update: my hybrid grape mentor says we may be more like 6-7 weeks late, and he predicts a record grass allergy year starting in a couple of weeks). We will need a long, hot summer, to catch up. Will somebody please kick "La Nina" out of our neighborhood?

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