Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holy Cow!

It's not good when your wine storage facility in Quebec allows the air inside to get too wet and cold, resulting in mold and the spoilage of a magnificant collection of First Growth wines.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bethany Vineyard in Clark County WA

Bethany Vineyard and Winery is one of the best wineries in Clark County WA (and before you say, "well, that's not saying much," please read on). Four of us visited Bethany this past Sunday, after our fence contractor and some other folks told us we had to go there. To describe it, I'll resort to letter grading:

1. Physical plant: Grade "A": The tasting room is large enough to handle a dozen or more tasters comfortably, while still feeling cozy. It's well-appointed and a nice place to hang out. You can sit around high tables, or you can belly up to a pretty stone bar and stand. There are several buildings there, including an old large barn that may be the winery, and the owner's pretty house. The parking is paved. The location is just a few miles ESE of exit 14, up I-5 in Washington.

2.  Grounds: Grade "A+": I was amazed at what Walt Houser, the owner/winemaker, has done there. He has a pretty large vineyard planted on slight slopes that meet downhill at a little swale into which he has constructed a gorgeous lake. The hillsides are smooth with well-mown grass, like a giant lawn. It is a true estate. The lake is pretty. It has a rock wall around part of it. There is a huge rocked, covered patio that would be a great place to sit and enjoy a bottle in the warm months. Wow, is all I can say. This was hiding here in Clark County? And the oldest grapes are 18 years old. I know how much work it was to create the lake and the wall and the patio and the vineyards; just amazing. And expensive. It shattered me in a way, as I am thinking of a pretty country place with a vineyard, but I doubt it will ever look like this place. If you know someone who wants to marry at a local winery, consider this spot.

3. Tasting Setup/Efficiency/Friendliness: Grade "A": Walt is enthusiastic and fun to speak with. He obviously draws a lot of energy through having people in his tasting room. He moves through the crowd, talking and working and laughing; this is Heaven for him. His wife is there and another young lady who took very good care of us.  Tasting fee is $5 but comped if you buy something. Besides wines, they sell these really neat candles made from real and used Bethany wine bottles with the labels still on; $15 and worth it, and a nice way to recycle. They had a large hunk of a Swiss-type cheese out with crackers. About 8 wines were pouring, plus Walt brought out an '02 Cab as a special pour (free). They could not, however, accommodate an Oregon buyer who asked to avoid the WA sales tax.

4. Vineyards: Walt owns two vineyards: one at the winery, and one in Dallesport WA (that's across from The Dalles, and is hot desert vineland, perfect for warm weather grapes and I think he has Italian varietals there. He also buys other warm-weather grapes from vineyards in Prosser WA (also a great area for warm weather varietals).

5. Grape variety choice, at the Clark County vineyard: Grade "C-": He planted Cabernet Sauvignon and other warm weather grapes there, and I'm afraid those grapes need more heat units than our climate can give. Hell, we can't even ripen Pinot here in some years, and the hot sites of Lyle and Hood River can't even ripen Cab. Walt tries to accommodate for the weather by dropping most of the fruit, and that is an intriguing approach, but it's like trying to grow pigs and hoping to produce beef from them, when you plant warm weather grapes in Clark County. It's a great approach for cool-weather grapes (especially Pinot, which needs uncropping anyway), though. 

6. Wines: This is a matter of personal taste, so you should discount my thoughts somewhat. Overall, the wines have less color than you would expect for their variety, and the bouquets are light or absent; this is partly due to growing the wrong varieties for the climate in a particular spot. The winemaker's general style (which actually is in vogue now but it's not what I would do) is to put a large streak of acidity in the wine, with a wave of acidic finish--and this will make the wine good with food but it is more difficult to enjoy it alone. The best wine he poured was his '11 Chard--it has wonderful body (it was alone in having good body) and crispness and nice fruit; its undertones are unusual but the overtones are classic (butterscotch, citrus, apple); light or no oak; and it has layers of complexity. A really nice wine and the only one I would buy (though I think it's overpriced at $22 and as you all know I'm not a Chardonnay fan, having been burned so badly by the tidal wave of bad Chard (overoaked; over-MLF'd) that flowed from CA starting 20 or 30 years ago. "Sweet Riesling" has only 0.5% RS so it's dry or off-dry and thus misnamed; its nose is unusual and unique, off-type, but the wine (as all his wines) is clean and well-made. His '09 Pinot would be at home at some places in the Willamette Valley, but for me it was too light and thin. His '09 Sureoh (Pinot, Syrah and Merlot) is better than the Pinot due to the addition of some Merlot. The pure Merlot ($22) was light, had no nose but was nice in the mouth, though not big enough to be a typical Merlot. The '09 Sangio was thin but nice and had that acid streak. The '02 Cab (grown in Clark County) was a no. The '09 Tempranillo (from Prosser)  was OK. All these red wines were like Burgundian Pinot Noir in their light bodies and faint colors, though not as subtle or complex as the French wines. The '07 Syrah (alone among the reds) was dark-ish. It was grown on the Clark County vineyard, and since the Rhone lies 2 regions South of Burgundy, it's not completely crazy to plant it here in Pinot country (Amalie Robert succeeds with it in Salem, but Salem is hotter than here and A.R.'s Syrah has the northern Rhone style that I don't prefer as much as the fruitier, richer Southern Rhone style. This Syrah had a light nose and the same large acid streak as the other reds. Last was a $25 blackberry dessert wine; 12% alcohol and sweet enough to match the berry's intense acid; unfortified. For me, give me my blackberry pourt; that richness really helps the blackberry experience. Overall, an impressive slate of wines, but the wines will be best appreciated by those who like the Burgundian style of Pinot Noir.

7. QPR (Quality for the Price): Grade "B-": You can't fault a winery for pricing its wines as high as it can, but these wines seem high-priced to me, especially for a winery located in an area that is pretty new to winemaking. I also saw overly high prices at Heisen House, where I honestly suspect they are about making money from the tasting fees and they don't care as much about selling the wines--when I bought a bottle from them, they didn't even have a bottle ready and labeled for sale! Now that I think of it, that might be in play at Bethany, too. It's a smart strategy where you don't produce much wine, and Walt drops a lot of fruit at Bethany, to try to drive up fruit quality; this of course reduces production. There are discounts if you join their club and buy in bulk, but here are some sample full retail prices: Chard $22, Merlot $22, Sangio $28, Syrah $24.

I can't offer you his wines, as he sells 99% of them at the winery (so, why would he sell at wholesale when he doesn't have to?). You will need to pay retail prices plus sales tax at the winery. However, the tasting experience is quite good and I do recommend it. If you're up there, also try Olequa and Confluence; skip North Fork until they figure it all out a little better, although the second-best fish shop in Portland is next door to them, and you should definitely go there.  

And I ran into my customer Denise F at Bethany, who was tasting with friends; great to see you!

It is very impressive what Walt and family are doing at Bethany; they deserve your support. I think he is quite happy and successful with what he's doing there now, but if I were in charge I would make some stylistic changes to the wines and would stop trying to force warm weather grapes to grow here. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Robert Parker steps down!

Not a great surprise that Robert Parker, perhaps the foremost wine critic in the world (and an ex-lawyer), is stepping down as Editor in Chief of The Wine Advocate. He has been at this for a long time, and rumors of his coming retirement have been commonplace.

It is more surprising that the publication is moving to Singapore, will take on three Asian wine investors, and will for the first time accept advertising (non-wine related ads only).

Parker's a part owner of our own Beaux Freres in Ribbon Ridge. I have followed his opinions for decades now, and have binders full of his pieces on Bordeaux wines. End of an era.  His arc proves the value of following one's passion.

On the negative side, if asked to drum up a few critiques of his operation, I would say:
a. His wine descriptors were too outlandish at times, as if the wine critics were trying to outdo each other in convincing consumers of the extent to which each wine was individualistic. I have posted about these humorous, over-the-top descriptors before.
b. The whole debate about 100-point scoring (really, it's 50-point scoring, as the 0-50 range was rarely or never used), which works for me but many complained that wine cannot be objectified in that way.
c. The most serious comment in this little list: Parker maintained the image (or at least I incorrectly held the image) that he paid for all the bottles he tasted, and he always tasted blind. Neither of those are true. I have long known that if he had always tasted blind, then we would have seen more examples of lower Growths outscoring higher ones, which rarely happened with Parker.

He will be greatly missed as a wine critic.

Read Decanter's article here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pity the Poor Riesling

I wrote this to my customers, who as a group ordered NONE of the two Rieslings I offered (both, high scorers from the Mosel region of Germany):

It is OK. You are not hurting my feelings ;)  It's a free country. I learn a lot by your collective preferences. Guess how many people ordered either the Rieslings or that mostly-Sangio Italian red wine that I threw into the mix so that you would not be completely overcome with "Riesling Revulsion?" That's right--none. It amazes me that out of all my customers I think there are just two of us who "get" good Riesling. There is an ocean of bad Chardonnay out there, and yet many of you love good Chardonnay, so I wonder why your early negative experiences with cheap sweet Rieslings prevent you from returning to that grape's higher expressions in your later life? Riesling is one of the (slightly arbitrary) seven greatest winegrapes of the world (Cab, Pinot, Merlot, Chard, Riesling, Syrah, Sangio--with those grapes one can make perhaps 95% of the world's most-acclaimed wines--Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone, Tuscany, and most of the best California, Oregon, Washington, Australian wines). I admit that I care not at all for the petrol nose in some high-end Rieslings (I worked at natural gas processing plants long ago, and the concept of petroleum distillates in my wine is offputting), but it's pretty easy to find great Rieslings that aren't full of gasoline aromas. Anyway, no worries, and if some of you have fallen in love with, or rediscovered Malbec, or Petit Sirah, or Viognier, as a result of my offerings, than how could I be happier? Happy Holidays! 

- P.S. - From "I think that Riesling is indisputably the greatest white wine grape in the world but many people think I am mad."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Historic French wine chateau demolished "by mistake"

Right. A priceless 18th-Century chateau, the landmark for its little town, was demolished (compeltely; to the ground) "by mistake." Sure, I can see that. It almost happened to the Washington Monument once ;)

There's an investigation; I predict it will find that the new owner of the property, a Russian businessman, ordered its demolition after getting city approval for a renovation (which would have preserved the building).

Pretty fishy! The businessman assures us that he will rebuild the home exactly as it was. That's a new twist on the Las Vegas approach.

Interesting: I've sold this place's wine to you: Chateau Bellevue. The vineyards are not affected. But here is what was lost:

Ken Wright setting up grape program at Yamhill-Carlton High School

What a great idea! The kids in this program will tend a vineyard to be planted next to the high school. Real wineries will make the wine, because for political reasons the kids couldn't do that. I hope this program spreads.

Read the article here.

How Climate Change's Extreme Weather Events Affect Grapes and Wine:

  We (Epona) joined the Porto Protocol a year or two ago; it's a collaboration of grapegrowers and winemakers, worldwide, who are focusi...