Sunday, April 8, 2012

Blackwood Canyon Winery

This is a controversial winery in the Red Mountain AVA (Benton City WA). Having heard so much about it, I have long wanted to stop by, and finally did, yesterday. Cameron the former intern and new winemaker (that's him with the barrels in the vineyard) met us on the way in (he was pruning the vineyard) and he very graciously gave us over an hour of his time with the wines. (He is a great guy and I predict he will go far.)

Sadly, Mike Moore (the owner, the winemaker, the thrust behind the controversy of this place) died last Fall, at the age of only 55 (!). His legacy is composed of many tanks and barrels full of the oldest wine you will ever see that isn't bottled yet.

So what's unique about Blackwood? Let's see:
1. The grapes are starved for water, and the juice is thus more acidic with lower pH than normal (perhaps 3.1 or so).
2. The wine is made in barrels or tanks, and sits on its gross lees (the yeast, and grape seeds and skins) for years, sometimes decades. This is taking the concept of "sur lie" aging to heights most of us cannot imagine. Either the heat or the lees robs the red wines of their normal color.
4. The barrels sit in the vineyard (check out that photo), through 100 degree summers and frigid winters (cold enough to freeze wine).
5. This is almost exactly how sherry and Madeira are made (the wines are baked in the sun, in barrels), and yet Blackwood maintains that instead of oxidizing the wines, the oxygen interacts with the gross lees and creates unique secondary flavor characteristics. Blackwood says that the wines are fresh and fantastic, after 10 years, 20 years, and longer, in barrel or tank.
6. Their wines no doubt are among the oldest to be bottled, anywhere. They have a 1990 Chardonnay still in tank! This causes the whites to look dark yellow or gold. I have had some surprisingly excellent aged whites--including an Owen Roe Pinot Gris 7 years old--and I am a believer that such aging can help white wines achieve greatness. (But that PG was not baked-it was made in the modern way and aged in a cool cellar.)
7. One thing's for sure: An oxidized wine (or a fortified one-think Port) will last just about forever. I'm not sure how that is an advantage to us wine drinkers, but it is one by-product of the Blackwood process. Maybe future archeologists would like the Blackwood process ;)

This "ancient method" (my term, based on my understanding of winemaking) is practiced by only ten or so wineries in the whole world now. I found one of them last year in the Similkameen Valley, B.C, where a very old Hungarian immigrant winemaker makes wines this way. In that case, I went in expecting "modern method" wines, and as a result I absolutely hated the Hungarian's wines, as I found them heavily oxidized and spoiled.

According to the conventional wisdom, this ancient method is lunacy--the heat and long exposure to air will oxidize the wine. Bad things (sulfides, Brettamyces and other infections) will happen when a wine sits on its lees for too long, when it has too much air space (ullage) over the wine, or when it is too warm. A wine simply cannot remain fresh after so long in tank or barrel, on the lees.

Blackwood states that its method was used by most European wineries before WWII; after that, the "modern" method of winemaking was developed. Almost every winemaker in the world uses the modern method now, and customers by and large are familiar with the result, and they expect that style of wine.

What do others think about Blackwood Canyon?
I. Here are some wine pros' comments: Dan Berger of the LA Times wrote:
i. "Mike Moore is the dynamo behind Blackwood Canyon, an artist constantly trying to extract all the grape can yield. Some call the wines eccentric. But they are exciting and show Moore's sense of commitment to the soil and his intense methodology."

ii. No less a luminary than Robert Parker himself wrote:
"Blackwood Canyon is a must stop in the Yakima Valley. The wines are the product of a true eccentric, Mike Moore, who makes artisanal, individualistic wines which can strike amazing highs..."

iii. Ted Meredith, of Northwest Wine, noted: "Blackwood Canyon is a radical, take-no-prisoners, anti-commercialistic, extremism in the pursuit of excellence is no vice kind of a winery. ....Mike Moore's methods do not fit the Washington norm, but the complex flavors of his wines validate his approach."

Here are some amateur posts:
a. Alan H. posts that Mr. Moore "is self-delusional from too many years of indulging in his own product . . . Everyone I ever met who was world-class in anything never told me what an expert he was."
b. Jeremy S. said, "I would agree his wines are unique. They're also awful--unless you like overaged Chardonnay and over-oxidized off-balanced reds. The facility is filthy and Moore was smashed drunk and obnoxious. There are a lot of unneutered dogs with sores, eye infections, and ticks running around."
c. John M. says, "Although there is a certain amusement value to visiting Blackwood Canyon, I would otherwise not recommend this place. The wines here are uniformly awful; most are over acidified, maderized, etc. The winemaker, while quite passionate about the wines he makes, apparently has no clue when it comes to making good wine. He likes to tell unsuspecting visitors that his wine is made in the "old world" method, which in this case means he ages them for years (whites and reds) in old, basically neutral oak barrels, to the point where the wines are dead as a doornob. He will then tell you that this is how wine is supposed to taste, that everyone else is doing it wrong, and that wine publications like the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker are complete idiots (or worse)."

But, read this, by Nick B.:
d. "It is true that Mike specializes in a style of wine-making that is rarely practiced today, typically resulting in potently flavorful varieties that taste nothing like what's available in stores or at other wineries . . . Drinking wine this good anywhere else would feel pretentious. And it would be unfair to accuse those who don't appreciate Blackwood of being uncultured swine who probably cried at the end of Avatar and think Tom Clancy is a literary genius."
e. And the Winery Journal said this, "The best winery in the state. This is a real winery, not a gift shop. The winemaker is a genius. The wines are amazing, not like the typically overprocessed standard wine. Not for all. If you like the Olive Garden don't come here."

What do I think of the wines? It's complicated: On the one hand, I am certain these wines are oxidized, way past the point of being flawed. I have also read about, and have been lucky enough to drink, some wines up to and more than a hundred years old, and I know that, say, a century-old Lafite was not made as a sherry--it was not baked in the sun for years or left with huge air pockets over it. However, the Blackwood wines do carry varied and subtle flavor profiles--I think if you disassociate yourself from what is "normal," if you can suspend your beliefs, you might conclude that Mr. Moore was onto something special here, even if he may have failed to maximize the idea eneologically*. Would many of us be willing to let go of our "wine security blanket," and venture into Mike Moore's idea of Vino Heaven? I doubt it-I would guess that the percentage of wine drinkers who, if given the "story" and a full exposure to these wines, would appreciate these wines and prefer them to Modern Wines, is far less than 1%. And that's not much of a market to shoot for.

All this inventory carriage results in very, very delayed winery sales, and delayed profits. Perhaps as a result of this, a portion of the Blackwood vineyards is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy now. But as soon as that is resolved, Cameron and Mike's family hope to continue operations. Cameron plans to sell some fruit from the vineyard, for cash flow, and to make most of the grapes into traditional wines, keeping the "ancient" method only for perhaps 10% of the grapes. I think that is a very rational and promising plan. I would also suggest some "tweaks" to the Blackwood method (see below).

I plan to host a food-wine pairing to go with the six bottles I bought from Cameron yesterday. I hope I can find a dozen or so wine lovers who are willing to check their security blankets at the door, at least for one night, and join me on what will be the wildest wine ride they have ever had.

If I was going to utilize Mike Moore's philosophy, here are the changes I would make:
1. Get the barrel-aging wines the $#&!!* out of the vineyard! heat is the enemy of fine wine. Those wines belong in a cool environment. Don't let them freeze and while they're aging, don't let them get above 60F.
2 Age them as long as you like on the lees--its a great (and risky) way to develop complex secondary wine characteristics-- but keep the tanks and barrels topped up, to reduce the exposure to oxygen.
3. Consider limiting the time that the reds have on the lees, to perhaps no more than 5 years, and monitor the color--I prefer reds to maintain a dark rich color and I theorize that too much time on lees (and/or possibly too much heat) causes loss of color.
4. Sanitize! The insides of the tanks may be clean (I don't know) but the winery itself needs major cleaning.
This should reduce the maderization of the wines but will allow long aging to develop unique complexities. That is the kind of compromise that I think would help the new Blackwood succeed, while remaining faithful to the very interesting core concepts going on there.


  1. Just came across your Blackwood Canyon post. I know it's been a few years since you published it but I thought you might like a little clarification. The quotes by Berger, Parker and Meredith are all pre-1990 back when Mike was making some great wines. Mike's wines deteriorated with the growth of his alcoholism. If you'd like a little more background on the history of Blackwood Canyon I can help. I worked with Mike in the late 80' through early 90's.

  2. Thank you very much for those comments. That makes a lot of sense to me, given the high praise of Mike's wines by the pro critics. Thank you very much for clarifying!


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