This Valentine’s, I’ll have what she’s having: Syrah

The breadth and depth of Washington Syrah is a delicious wonder.  At a recent Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting, this dark, handsome varietal stole my heart. I didn’t have time to taste them all, but if you’re heading to the event in Portland on February 26, may I suggest you…

..start with Five Stars Cellars 2013 Syrah – 53% Les Collines / 47% Blue Mountain vineyards to set your Syrah compass to true northwest…

…then head over to ‘Drink WA State’ for a beauty of an unfiltered beast, Eternal “Darkness”. Grab a palate refresher  before experiencing…

…the difference a vineyard makes. At Saviah Cellars – get an extra glass and taste the two Syrah offerings back to back. One is 100% from the Stones district, the other is half Stones/half Lewis Family Vineyard. The unique terroir of each linger on your palate.

Next hit The Walls to sample the funky “Cheys” named for the historic walls of Côte-Rôtie next to the smokey “Gaspard”.

Dusted Valley “Tooth Stainer” is a dark, earthy gem, while Amavi Cellars uses 4% Grenache for it’s floral aromatics in place of the usual kiss of Viognier. Trust Cellars seduces with blueberries and plums.

Before you circle back to Eternal Wines for a Syrah in a port style, sip a bit of Long Shadows Vintners “Sequel”. This vintage brought an enthusiastic “Wow!” from the woman next to me, followed by an embarrassed blush at the unexpected outburst.

Yes, Valentine, Syrah can do that.



Whoops… this is good.

The fledgling tendril poking out of the small root ball was supposed to be Merlot.

Planted in Nachez Heights, nurtured biodynamically and tended with great expectation, the vines proved three years later to be interlopers. Instead of the anticipated noble varietal, clusters of Zweigelt grapes appeared, eager as puppies to find their potential.

Zweigelt, which grows on the foothills of the Alps, apparently feels at home on the foothills of the Cascades, too. The resulting wine also seems comfortable nestled between organic offerings at local farmer’s markets.

Wilridge wine at Ballard Sunday Market

Wilridge wine at Ballard Farmer’s Market

2014 Wilridge Estate Zweigelt expresses a medium body, a dark amethyst color and lively red fruit. The winemaker says biodynamic techniques make the wine more connected to the Washington State terroir, which may explain why it pairs so tastily with local cheese and meats.



2014 WilRidge Estate Zweigert, Naches Heights

2014 WilRidge Estate Zweigert, Naches Heights

This Zweigelt is scrumptious with roasted pork shoulder. Perfectly balanced and only 13.5 % alcohol, it makes a great dinner party wine. Crowd pleasing, with a good story to match.

2014 Wilridge Estate Zweigelt, $38 available at the winery and farmer’s markets around the state.

How to love your wine even more

Think of one of your favorite wines. Ever. The way it sings with a steak off the grill. The deep color in your glass when you’re toasting friends. The wistful joy of the last sip.

Now imagine the unbelievable chance to actually pitch in and make that magic happen – in a very, very, very small way, but still…

Many thanks to Andy, Frank and Tim at Eight Bells Winery for letting me help de-stem the last of the 2015 harvest. Volunteering with small urban wineries gives you a unique perspective into winemaking and a new appreciation for the ruby happiness swirling in your stemware.  It also helps keep small volume winery costs managable. A win-win.

2010_Cabernet_Sauvignon_David's_Block_front_COLAI enjoyed  David’s Block with the first taste. I fell in love when I learned how it is made. The grapes come from an old world “field blend block” designed by Mike Sauer and David Lake in WA state’s Red Willow Vineyard.  The goal is to manage this vineyard block  so that all the fruit can be harvested at the same time, allowing the winery to co-ferment it for an integrated blend. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot grow side-by-side, destined for a pleasant harmony.

Elbow deep in grapes, you can ask all the questions that pop into your head;

a. what difference does a cool or warm year make?

b. Can you tell what a wine will be like just by tasting the grapes?

c. Um…what’s that moth doing in there?

a. A warm year usually produces a pronounced fruit, but a winemaker often has to rush. A cooler year gives the winemaker time to work with the specific character of that particular year’s yield.

b. Some folks claim they can taste the vintage in the grape. Eight Bells winemakers aren’t among those folks. They know when a grape tastes good and it informs the path they’ll take to make the wine they want.

c. According to Andy (deadpan): moths “go in the special reserve, over there”.

To love a bottle of wine even more, go to see how it’s made, meet the people who craft it and maybe even roll up your sleeves, grab a pitchfork and toss stems into the compost pile.

For the record, the moth was fished out and flew free.


Eight Bells Winery David’s Block  Alc: 14.2%. Retail price: $35/bottle. 

Read more about what makes Eight Bells Winery “David’s Block” on their website:…/winep…/_/19/2011/Davids-Block/

…and now for something (deliciously) different…

Beef, chicken, pork, pasta, *sigh*

“Hmmm” says T, “how about lamb chops?”

Cab, Merlot, Bordeaux blend…”Wait, where’s that bottle of Cabernet Franc?”

Medium rare, two-bite lamb chops are a decadent departure from everyday eating, and something this decidedly divergent deserves a deliciously different wine: Spring Valley Katherine Corkram Cabernet Franc.

KatherineWe discovered this pairing at last May’s Taste Washington event. Already fans of Spring Valley’s Bordeaux blend Frederick, we politely sampled the Cab Franc on offer. The heady violet scent was intriguing, but it was the sweet spice on the palette and long blueberry finish that had me racing back to the Hoist House table for another bite of shaved leg of lamb with huckleberry reduction. Cab Franc and lamb. Who knew?

And what a lovely Cab Franc Katherine Corkram is, showcasing deep layers of fruit and beautiful balance. The tannins are perfect for the silky, baby-fat lamb chops.

Washington state growers plant less than a thousand acres of Cabernet Franc compared to more than 10,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Spring Valley makes the most of the grape – usually a blending component – as a varietal.

Katherine is a Walla Walla beauty that graces meat dishes, but absolutely sings with lamb. A tasty departure from steak and Cab.

Katherine Corkram Cabernet Franc List $50.00

Dinner guests might enjoy a bit of Spring Valley history. There’s a nice one here:




Playing the percentages

“75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Malbec”

Wait. 2% Malbec? 2%?

It’s perplexing for a new vinophile (oenophile if you’re being fancy) to imagine that 2% Malbec or 1% Petit Verdot can possibly make enough of a difference to change the character of a wine. 1% …really?

Ah, but this is where you get to the heart of a winemaker’s goal.

First, let’s look at that 1-2%  Can you really taste a difference? Well, try squeezing a bit of lemon juice in water, probably less than 1%, but surely you pick up on a freshness that wasn’t there before. How about that pinch of salt in tomato juice? Brings out the flavor doesn’t it? My favorite recipe for Daube du Bouef calls for 1/8 teaspoon of capers. That’s right, 1/8 teaspoon in a big old dutch oven full of meat, vegetables and spices. When an ingredient has a certain quality, it can go a long way.

So what do stalwart mixing grapes bring to the party?

Petit Verdot adds a small amount of tannin, color and flavor to a blend. It can also boost the mid palate of a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Malbec brings a luxurious color and robust tannins. If you are playing by the old rules, Malbec is one of the six grapes allowed in a blend of red Bordeaux wine.

In whites, Semillon gifts a soft, smooth flavor and some herbal spiciness. You may see this blended with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay.

Blending is an art, the alchemy of certain varietals that reveals subtle nuance and grace. Winemakers seek to bring balance, express particular notes, or layer character in their philters. A few percent of just the right this or that can conjure up gold in a glass.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to explore new wines. Experiencing traditional blending grapes as varietals seems a good place to start.

Some favorite Malbecs. Sensuously dark with seductive tannins :

Domanico Cellars 2012 Alder Ridge Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills
Sparkman Cellars 2012 Preposterous Kipsun Vineyard, Red Mountain
Capataz (Darioush) 2011, Mendoza, Argentina

Some favorite Petit Verdots. An irresistable, shadowy Maltese Falcom in your glass:

Domanico Cellars 2012 Alder Ridge Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills
Northstar 2010 Stone Tree Vineyard, Wahluke Slope

2011 Big reds not ready…are they?

T is sorting hickory chunks to grill a couple of two inch, bone-in ribeyes. We’re talking two, forty-four once slabs of seriously marbled meat, calling for a seriously big wine.

Perusing the cellar, T’s eyes fall on a couple bottles of a certain Syrah. Okay, ‘cellar’ is a generous term for the small wine fridge where we stash special wines. We are not collectors and T is not one to postpone joy. But we’ve learned to snatch up vintages we like from small wineries before they sell out. Which brings us back to those special bottles.

Should we tap the 2010 Sparkman Darkness – so young – or choose juice with a little more bottle age?

As luck would have it, Sparkman Cellars was having a release party for select 2011 varietals this weekend. A sip of the new stuff should give us a clue as to what’s waiting under the corks back home.

Plus, who can resist a Sparkman release party? These folks welcome you like a favorite long-lost cousin at an extended family reunion. Today was no exception. Sitting in the shade outdoors, scarfing stuffed pulled pork and brisket sandwiches, (topped with perfect slaw) sipping a 2011 Darkness, we had our answer.

Back home, we popped open one of each. Both are 100% Syrah from Yakima Valley’s Boushey and Olsen vineyards. But, surprise, while both are deep, rich, spicy and aromatic, the 2011 opened up earlier than the 2010.

Fortunately we still have a few delicious bottles of each to sample next to the 2012.

A sip o’ the good stuff…with a dash of vintage motorcycle

It’s an Indian. A sweet bike worn-in just so. The aged, but beautifully maintained machine gives a quiet nod to adventures past, and yet to come.

The same can be said of the new release of Mark Ryan wines. The Indian is parked at the ready in the winery’s Woodinville, WA tasting room, where the 2008 vintages are being poured. Ten bucks gets you a generous taste of Mark Ryan favorites including Wild Eyed Syrah, and The Dissident, Long Haul, Water Witch and Dead Horse blends.

It’s worth it though, to spring for the $20 tasting, and bliss out to the 2004 Crazy Mary Mourvedre. Just try and sip this magical elixir without closing your eyes and sighing. Not sure it can be done.

The distinctive tasting room reflects the character of the wine and the winemaker – a space for relaxed exploration and taking your time to tease out nuance. Framed concert art and spare, country house furniture invite lingering. The staff is knowledgeable and attentive (the charming redhead with the pixie hair will make you feel like an old friend) but they let the wines sell themselves. No pushing here. Pick up a bottle and read at your leisure.

Chalkboards, reflecting the schoolhouse across the way, display pricing, availability and a few notes. It’s a comfortable experience that’s as immersive as you want it to be.

The Pepperbridge tasting room next door was a disappointing contrast. The generic space is garnished with lights and ribbons tossed on bare branches that are stuck in pots. The young staff seemed more interested in chatting among themselves than with patrons.

The tasting fee includes three Amavi wines and three Pepperbridge offerings. Pass on the Amavi and the three Pepperbridge pours are still ten dollars. We had to ask to see the bottle, and notes on what we were drinking. A staff member passed a laminated sheet across the counter and returned to her co-workers.

The Merlot was luscious and deep. Our eyebrows shot up in a “wow”. Lovely, intense and demanding a good cut of beef, “right now!” The Cabernets – they were pouring a 2007 and 2008 were interesting to contrast but my palate couldn’t, or maybe didn’t want to, shake the powerful Merlot.

It’s a shame that Pepperbridge can’t reproduce the atmosphere of their Walla Walla tasting room in Woodinville. Mulling the Merlot, we returned to Mark Ryan and scooped up a Long Haul. With a last, longing look at the Indian.