Friday, April 25, 2008

What's the Big Deal About Walla Walla?

Walla Walla is the place to be... farm living is the life for me....

It's January. The stubble of the last wheat harvest sticks up like a flat-top buzz-cut across the dun rolling fields as I head toward town down the rural double-lane highway. An icy layer of fog softens the dells like floating ghostly pillows in the shallow depressions. Silos and barns, horses and farmhouses, tractors and trailers, fruit and vegetable stalls dot the roadside and beyond as I cruise this road I have taken many times before. This is not Napa! When it's not winter, looking out over the Walla Walla Valley from any high point is to look at a beautiful pastoral painting. Soft rolling hills sporting changing hues of browns and greens flow off into the distance, etched with patterns of agriculture, punctuated here and there with signs of habitation, livestock and really big sky. It's beautiful American farm land and comes replete with the rich smells and inherent sounds of such a place. That's not to say there isn't a town. As you come over the last crest, the town of Walla Walla is laid out before you looking the very part of a small American farm city that's seeing good times again.

When I first started going out to Walla Walla in the mid-90's there were 12 wineries and a dusty, boarded-up downtown. Everyone involved in this localized wine world, a tight-knit group of friends with an attitude toward sharing knowledge, labor and equipment - a practice that continues. Today there are over 70 wineries in Walla Walla with more on the way. I was on my way to meet up with some winemaking friends to discuss everything from upcoming releases and what's slumbering away in barrels, what new vineyards had been planted and where, and how the oenology program was coming along at the community college. It' s also a damned good excuse to drink a lot of amazing wine, catch up with the recent gossip, cook some great meals with friends and in general have a Dionysian weekend. It was post- harvest, the new wines were sleeping in tank and barrel, and the holidays were but a memory; everyone was looking forward to some quiet time just relaxing without chores, phones and faxes, emails and winery visitors.

But wait just a minute - let's use the way-back machine and visit hell on earth! The Walla Walla region, in fact the entire Columbian plateau, is perched atop massive basalt flows deposited during the Cenozoic era; layer upon layer of lava continuously roiled out of the earth blanketing a vast region over a geologic age, creating the third largest such formation in the world. Things cooled and calmed down for a while but then came the flood about 15,000 years ago during the last ice age, when continental glaciers spanned the region. It was much more than biblical! If you can imagine a flood carrying the water volume of all the rivers on our planet at once, mulitplied by a power of 10 - moving across the landscape at 75mph with a depth of several hundred feet... well it's really hard to grasp that picture but let's just say "surfs up" and you better bring a long board!

What set the stage for such an outrageous event? During the last ice age there was a lake as big as the Great Lakes today. It was held in check by an ice dam. It covered Montana. That is until it decided it didn't like the real estate in Montana anymore and yearned to join the sea. Only one problem: the ice dam and the huge stretch of land to the west that was in its way. Eventually the enormous, continuous pressure of the lake water burst the ice dam and the lake drained over the Columbia Plateau, wreaking havoc and scouring out deep canyons and valleys gouging out deep cuts in the basalt layers. As the waters drained, silty alluvial soils were deposited in deep layers blanketing the region. Then the ice dam reformed, the lake refilled and the process repeated itself every 25 to 50 years. Geologic records show these cataclysmic floods occurred in this region 44 or 45 times over a 3000 year period. With each flood a new layer of loess, silt, cobbles and loam was deposited in varying compositions in different areas, building up layer upon layer of fine and complex soils on top of the basalt flows. Amazing and deep complex soils, perfect growing day conditions, clean water, great drainage, the same latitude as Bordeaux and Burgundy - presto - wine country! You're now an expert!

Walla Walla Washington however - even with a great stage setting, is truly an unlikely place to be pegged as the new Mecca of fine wine in the US. It's really out of the way. There are no major metropolitan cities within hundreds of miles (Seattle 275 miles, Boise 260 miles, and Portland 250 miles) and until recently there was little hospitality industry to speak of. So how did a world-class wine industry pop into existence in such a short period of time? For one thing it has a deep agricultural history that dates back to the late 1850's. The early settlers, who of course double-crossed the local Indians (who in turn had a little massacre party,) planted wheat. For several decades in the early part of the 20th Century Walla Walla was the wheat capital of America, a crop still grown in abundance today throughout the Palouse prairie. Then came barley, corn, potatoes, peas, asparagus, apples and pears, dairy and meat farming, the Walla Walla Sweet Onion and much more.

In 1974 Gary Figgins, an ambitious and all around great guy with an Italian family-winemaking history, got a harebrained notion to plant a vineyard. In 1977 the first wine made from that vineyard was bottled as Leonetti Cellars and Gary's first commercial release - the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon was judged by Wine & Spirits Best in America. Like a firework painting a night sky the Walla Walla wine industry was born. Rick Small, a friend of Gary's decided that maybe he was onto something and Woodward Canyon was born a few years later. These were not some backwoods "I'll drink it cause it's here" wineries. Both Gary and Rick took to winemaking with a dedicated passion, creating stylish and poised red wines that were at once serious and professional. Then along came Norm McKibben. Norm figured that vintners needed grapes. He audaciously planted out Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge vineyards - which today account for nearly 200 acres of fine vines, each showing the unique terroir of their location and orientation. Vineyard planting has continued and increased as new microclimates are identified and now total almost 1,400 acres.

With the success of Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon wineries, and a sudden abundance of vitus vinifera grapes available, others in the valley began to take notice. Roger Cockerline opened Bunchgrass Cellars and Marty Clubb started up L'Ecole No. 41 wineries, the Dunham family started up Dunham Cellars, Gordy Venneri and Miles Anderson teamed up and opened Walla Walla Vintner and Chuck Reininger opened Reininger. Others joined the ranks and all of a sudden people started to notice wines bearing a Walla Walla address popping up all over the state. One of the big changes that occurred though was when a short and very energetic Frenchman appeared on the scene. Funny and personable with a deep French accent, he came to Walla Walla with a deep family history in winemaking from the Champagne region.

Christophe Baron started up Cayuse Vineyards with a dream. From the beginning Christophe farmed biodynamically and started to make single-vineyard Syrahs of profound depth unlike any from American soil. Big scores from Parker soon followed and suddenly Walla Walla was no longer a killer locals secret. All I can say is that the first time I tasted his Bionic Frog syrah I was immediately transported to Hermitage. Big and robust, earthy and gamey, with bold sweet fruit and ultrafine balance - this was a wine to be reckoned with on an international level. It set a whole new standard for what could be done on American land - Walla Walla has never been the same since.

Walla Walla does have its issues though. The area is prone to regular arctic freezes in the winter very 7 to 10 years - which many vignerons take great pains to mitigate. The extreme damage that these freezes incur are fought by burying the canes of the vines before winter, thus ensuring a crop in the coming year. It is an expensive and time consuming chore that nevertheless has to be done. Like a warm blanket, covering the canes prevents a freeze from destroying the canes down to the trunk. This however only works until a really deep arctic freeze sets in; then it will take every bit of equipment and a lot of late nights to prevent the kind of damage that will occur. Smudge pots, big fans, a blanket of frozen water - all will be needed to insulate the vines and save the trunks and root stock when the really deep arctic freeze happens; it's overdue. However enough with the negative - now for the positive: Washington has longer growing days - by 2 hours - than California. The days are often hotter and nights are always cooler than its famous southerly counterpart. This combination makes for ideal conditions for growing grapes. Through this combination grapes come in with perfect levels of sugars and phenolic ripeness at the same time. The really big advantage though is the cool nights: the grapes maintain their natural acidity so the wines show better balance naturally without having to resort to tricks in the fermentation and barrel rooms.

So what are the wines of Walla Walla I hear you scream after all this reading! Sleek, sophisticated, poised, balanced, precise, rich, bold, full of varietal flavor; these are just some of the attributes that have been used to describe the wines of Walla Walla. There is no shyness about the use of oak and yet there is such a deep understanding and sharing of knowledge of how different oak provides differing layers of complexity in a finished wine amongst the brain trust of the Walla Walla wine scene, so it is rare to find a wine that is over-oaked - a problem that other parts of the country seem to have on a consistent basis. The variety of variatals grown in Walla Walla AVA is also astounding: Red grapes are represented by Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Tempranillo, Carmenere, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Mourvedre. White varietals planted are Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, Sauvignon Banc, Marsanne and Roussanne, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Muscat. A rather outrageous line-up of the best varietals known in the world! Couple that with a local desire to make the best wines in America - weather single varietal, single vineyard wines, or Bordeaux and Chateauneuf styled blends - both red and white, and you've got a region that needs to be reckoned with.

Over the long and very cold weekend we hung around the big farm kitchen table, a fire roaring in the corner fireplace, all had a great time playing chef, enjoying many classic dishes that never seemed to end: a rich and satisfying Cassoulet (thank god we made a ton of of it,) duck confit, steak tartare, various dishes of foie gras, braised root vegetables, incredible desserts of every style, and so much more. The wines were superb and never ending even though at some point or another we all threw up the white flag of surrender. We caught up, pondered the future and reviled the past, solved the worlds problems and invented few new ones. The general consensus was that Walla Walla will not be overrun with Napa-esque Hummer-limo tours, hoards of drunken bicycle riders with bottle-laden pannier bags peddling zigzag from winery to winery, those demanding white zinfandel and sparkling shiraz and so much more that is wrong with other wine-tourism destinations. We all raised our glasses in toast to that and treasured the thought that this, at last, in America, is a real wine region producing world-class wine that just by a lucky act of geography will be left intact to do what it does best.

Larry the Sommelier

Why I Love Robert Parker

Ok – I know this is not a very popular position to take these days. After all – Bob and I are not on first name basis – in fact I am damned sure he doesn’t know I exist. Hi Bob! Love your work!

I am a professional wine guy; one who (when I used to own my little wine shop) staunchly refused to stock wines on the basis of high scores or best buy recommendations from anyone. I refused to place number-rating “shelf talkers” on the wines in my shop and didn’t buy wines just because Bob, or anyone else said so. Yet I still say Robert Parker Rocks.

For those of you who don’t know him, Mr. Parker rates wines from around the world, publishing review and scores in his Wine Advocate journal and website. Using a numerical 100-point scale, which his legions of fans eagerly await, he effectively determines how great (or not so great) a wine is by assigning it a number. Bob's fans whole-heartedly trust Bob’s hard-working palate rather than their own - the easiest way to get suckered into buying wines that you never would have touched if you had blind-tasted them yourself. One of the biggest complaints about the wines achieving a high rating in Bob's publication is that many of the wines that come under his scrutiny are hard, if not impossible to find for a wide variety of reasons - small production, limited distribution, regional importation restrictions and more. So why do I say Bob rocks? Read on...

Ok - so here's an antiBob sentiment: New-world wines, of which Bob is a big fan, tend to show huge layers of concentrated fruit, high levels of alcohol and too much oak treatment to lend any elegance or balanced structure. They are known as “big” wines and are all the rage these days - especially with those just starting to learn about wine. They are generally rich and heady with teeth staining color extraction for the reds and thick, almost syrupy textures for the whites. I don’t like these kinds of wines. They are not food friendly and show little in the way of the sublime complexity that I prefer. Bob likes these styles of wines. Maybe his palate is less sensitive than mine.

This must lead you to the idea that I don’t think Parker has a good palate. Not true - but his palate and my palate don’t agree nose to nose. I like old-world styled wines which tend to show more delicacy and finesse, while Bob prefers new-world wines with their bolder, more obvious attributes. Of course there are caveats to all things in life and there are always some elegant surprises that I find in Bob’s recommendations from time to time – but this is the exception, not the norm.
So why do I say Bob rocks? Say what you will about the guy who rates wines for a living – a subjective bit of work if ever there was one. However, Bob has done more positive things for the world of wine than few could ever dream of.

One thing that has always impressed me is that Bob is truly an independent. He accepts no advertising in his publication, “The Wine Advocate” and buys all wines that he samples for rating out of a personal budget. Wines which are shipped to Bob gratis for his work are subsequently donated to good charity cause auctions. His character and mission of absolute independence and honesty without the pressures of indebtedness is exremely honorable. That’s a pretty high standard for any to hold dear and yet Bob does it with élan. By not accepting gifts or advertising dollars, rest assured that Bob actually is independent of and not beholden to producers who may shower others who rate wines in their glossy publications with special bottles, trips, meals, full-page glowing advertisements in their magazines, and more (if you know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink.)

There is lots of info and bio about Bob out there with all kinds of accolades and admiring histories (and of course some negatives as well but c'mon - we all make enemies) but I don’t care about that and won’t parrot what’s already been done – all I care about is the wine. So that leads to "Bob! What have you done for me lately?" After all – being the selfish and cantankerous wino that I am, what’s in it for me? C’mon Bob – where’s the must?

The first major impact that Bobs’ work provoked was the overall quality improvement of the Bordeaux region wines – a trend which continues today. Through sheer exposure and unbiased reporting and reviewing, Bob has literally forced Bordeaux to get over its bad self and pay attention to what they do in the vineyard and the winery. Bob isn’t scared of the entrenched power of the Bordeaux elite and refuses to back down in his demand for better wine. Does that mean that I prefer the new-world style of Bordeaux over the old? In general, no! While there is still an ocean of insipid, thin and vegetal wine that come out of Bordeaux en mass, when Bordeaux gets it right, the elegance and sublime complexity of a great Bordeaux is astonishing and memorable. That is not truly compatible with the new style of wine being made there today by the new guard who listens to what Bob preaches: heavier extraction of fruit harvested later than regional tradition dictated, oak treatment bordering on the absurd, alcohol levels approaching those of fortified wines and micro-oxygenation. Many of these new-world stylized wines are subtle as a falling piano. They also receive 95 to 100 points in Bob's ratings.

Secondly, Bob is also partly responsible for the enormous increase in both the production of fine wine around the globe, and even more importantly the interest and enjoyment of wine by consumers here and abroad. America, partly because of Bob, has finally slipped out of its pathetic coma – induced and controlled by the zealot morons who still, to this day tout abstinence – the prohibitionist absolutists – who kept Americans from fine wine for decades. (If you want proof of this, just look into the history of Pre and post-prohibition wine industry in this country. I can recommend several books and studies on the subject – alas, most are good cures for insomnia, even though the data is pure and damning.) Through Bob’s high-profile, we are finally coming to our senses in this country and embracing wine as part of the good life; a life that includes the deep European tradition of great meals shared with fine friends and family, and a glass or three of excellent fermented grape juice. Life really doesn’t get much better than that folks!

The last thing that I appreciate so much is that Bob is an unabashed French fanatic -a Francophile if every there was one. In the days following France’s refusal to get drawn into President Shrubs Iraqi debacle, some “Mericuns” were seen pouring French wine out in the streets – showcased and spurred on by the idiotic core of our mass media here in the US. How pathetic is that? At my old shop I was called several times and threatened if I didn’t get rid of my French wines (of course the cowards never would leave a name and number for a discussion, or host a visit from the police.) During this period of idiotic psuedopatriotism, I had the extreme pleasure of booting someone from my shop for the insolent demand that I destroy the French wines on my shelves. Through it all, Bob kept going to France, rating the greatest wines in the world and reporting back to us in his unbiased and unapologetic way. Bob’s refusal to jump on the anti-French bandwagon raised my respect for him even more.

So the next time you badmouth Bob, think about what I’ve said and thank him for all he’s done for the world of wine – even if, like me, your palate doesn’t mesh with his. Now if I can just get Bob to embrace the grace and subtle complexity of Burgundy, the Cabernet Francs from Saumur-Champigny and Chinon, or the delicacy and laser precision of the great Rieslings from the Mosel-Saar-Rüwer, we’ll be on the same page so I can enthusiastically back his recommendations. Of course that would mean that I wouldn’t have to taste the wines myself thus passing my own judgment on each wine out there… Hmmm – on second thought – Bob – why don’t you retire!

Larry the Sommelier

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Don’t Be a Cork Dork! Life’s Too Short

© Larry Davidson 2007 All rights reserved!
Warning: Rant ahead…

This is you: you love to collect wine. You spend a lot of time tracking those expensive and rare gems down and now that you’ve got them by hook and crook, by time and money, you’ll be damned if that bottle is going anywhere. Yet you’ve bragged to your friends what you got and shown those ultra-special bottles of wine to only a select few inner-circle confidants that you think are worthy. At least once a month you wonder "when am I going to open that? I need a special occasion to drink it."

True story: a woman talked with me one day about a bottle of old, very rare and expensive Spanish wine that she had just acquired. It was the typical bragging conversation full of details about how she came by the bottle, its provenance and whatnot. I asked when she was going to drink it, knowing full well what the answer was going to be - to which she replied "I’m waiting for just the right moment." Two days later she was dead of a massive brain hemorrhage. Oops!

This Cork Dork problem goes to the extreme when I hear it’s a really old bottle of something that is well past its prime. You waited too long and now that special bottle isn’t even good for cooking. What a waste! You are what I call Cork Dorks! The only out you’ve got is if the wine truly isn’t ready and needs time to come into its own – but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

I can’t tell you all how many times someone like that unfortunate woman would come to me and say something like "I have a couple of bottles of 1961 xyz" with a big conspiratorial smile on their face. Next up are the usual passive-aggressive semi-probing comments like "When the hell should I drink one?" or "who do YOU drink something like that with?" or "what would serve this with?" But none of these probes is genuine because I know you’re not going to drink it. It’s like the millionaire who won’t take his Ferrari out of the garage – just goes and polishes it every Sunday.

Now I know firsthand how hard and expensive it was to obtain such a bottle or bottles of wine. I’ve been there many times myself both professionally and privately. I know how incredible it’s supposed to be. I also know it’s just frigging grape juice, and that is what separates those who live in fear to those who don’t. Seize the day! Carpe Diem!

As a collector myself I know first hand how gratifying it is to track down something highly sought after – after all, it’s a part of the "collector" psyche – coveting something rare and supposedly wonderful, the hunt, the acquisition, and then the hoarding; it is all part of the game. The worst aspect of being a collector of anything is the hoarding – the psychological phase that occurs after the acquisition. This applies to wine in ways that are a little more extreme than collecting other items of desire. After all, you’ve spent all that time and money on those trophies and if you drink it/them, - unlike other types of things collected which can be enjoyed repeatedly, once a wine is opened and drank, it is gone – except for the memory.

That brings me to one extraordinary thing that I love about collecting and drinking wine: the memory of the nuances of a wine drank – one that is worthy of collecting – is what this is all about. After all – that bottle of Cristal Champagne you dropped $300 for is exactly the same thing as that bottle of Korbel sparkling wine sitting on the bottom shelf of your local stop-and-rob – UNTIL you pop the cork and drink the damned thing. It is the sensory thrill of the nose and taste of great wines which is what this is all about. If you’re not willing to pop the cork, don’t collect wine – take up antiques, or art, cars, Barbie dolls, or something that you can enjoy over and over again – but don’t be a cork dork!

So the answer is: It’s Thursday night and the week has been hell but you soldiered through and Friday is going to be a breeze then it’s weekend time. There are people around – your loving family or some really good friends to pass another day that you’re miraculously alive on this beautiful little planet. Hell – ok – in reality you’re a jerk – no one likes you and your family ranks you with cyanide and DDT: NOW is the time to open that bottle. What it’s for is DRINKING and enjoying the message that the vigneron sent out into the world the moment the bottle left the winery.

So get over it - knock it off! Wine is fermented grape juice and that’s it. Granted some are better than others and yet, what it all comes down to is that you have the fermented juice of grapes in a glass bottle with a label glued to it. Period. The real lesson in all of this is if you drink that bottle, it opens up a place in your collection for another search and destroy mission: enjoy the hunt, but leave the hoarding to the scared masses who are unwilling to let go and enjoy the fruits of their collecting labors.

Cheers and good drinking…Larry the Sommelier

Vintage Matters So Pay Attention

By Larry Davidson; Sommelier © 2008 All Rights Reserved.

I read an article (actually several) not long ago which argued that vintage doesn’t matter anymore. The author (an idiot who will remain unnamed) proposed that the quality and technology of winemaking in today’s world is so high and precise that vintage is no longer a factor in producing excellent wine. In fact, this seems to be a new trend in wine writing with many idiots following suit because it is the "new" think – vintage is unimportant. I cry foul, nonsense, bullshit!

This position – that all wines are just fine no matter the vintage - can actually ring true, but only for the insipid mass-produced, mass-bottled wines which are ubiquitous on every grocery and convenience store shelving. You know the ones - boring corporate wines that are always the same, no matter what vagaries Mother Nature deals to the vineyard on an annual basis. When not shamefully hidden on the bottom 3 shelves these wines are stacked up four boxes high, six boxes wide and five deep with a low price and garish shelf talkers to move them out the door quickly. Those wines, (I could name many but would probably be sued for defamation, even though it’s true) while quaffable fermented grape juice, bear absolutely no relationship to the real wines of the world – the handcrafted wines made with passion and respect for what the annual challenges that an agriculture product poses to production.

So what is a vintage wine and why is vintage important? For wine geeks and freaks, vintage is the all-important bellwether. For the rest of us, vintage is a productive nuisance that needs to be dealt with on its annual basis. The quick spin is: the vintage of a wine indicates the year that the grapes were harvested to make that bottle in your hand. There is always a lag of at least a year from the vintage of the harvest (except in the case of Beaujolais Nouveau, Vihno Verde and a few others,) to when you see the bottle on the shelf.

What makes a vintage poor vs. great? You think your job is stressful? Check this out. Vintage has so many elements that it is easy to appreciate what the winemaker and vineyard manager have to deal with every day of the year. Every year the vintage characteristic is created by the land, climate and weather (when you put all of that together it is what the French call Terroir – a term that has no direct translation to English.) Their concerns are not just your average everyday kind of "is it going to rain today?" issues, but each element poses a daily threat or reward. High and low temperatures, moisture accumulation (rain, humidity, frost, dew and more) or lack thereof, air flow patterns in each vineyard, sunshine intensity – too much and too little at any given time, wind factors, storm watches, airborne pests from fungi, mold and bacteria to birds, and more. These all have to be accounted for each and every day.
For a great vintage year when everything goes according to plan the vigneron need only coax the perfect balance of ripeness in each grape – when sugars, acids, and the phenolic tannin compounds of the skins and stems are all in ripe balance. This is a minute-by-minute decision at harvest. When all the stars align, making great wine is somewhat easy.

However, when things don’t work in favor of a good vintage the resulting wine can show many different poor vintage qualities including but not limited to: over-ripeness resulting in a cooked "jammy" tasting high-alcohol wine; thin green wine with herbal and vegetal notes; low fruit – high acid wines out of balance (or vice versa,) and more.

What does all this mean for you, the consumer? As with all things there are caveats!

1. Good producers can and will produce decent wines in poor vintages and you can usually pick them up for a bargain. Seek these out. If you don’t know of any oat the moment, write me and I’ll point you in a good direction.

2. Vintage releases should be used as a guideline and not an absolute – after all, to err is human and there are many poor wines produced in good vintage years.

3. Some regions are more prone to vintage vagaries than others: The extremes on either end of cool and warm climates tend to have harsher quality swings due to vintage attributes.

So where does that leave you – the wine lover who doesn’t want to become an encyclopedia of wine arcana? Remember that vintage charts are helpful but not the total solution (there are many available for free on the internet.) Wine is subjective and one man’s gem is another’s kitchen sink swill. Learn to trust both your palate and the palate and experience of your local wine merchant but only if you know that they taste the wines that they carry – supermarkets are not your best bet because they carry way too many wines to have tasted through even a fraction of them – if they are allowed to taste at all! The most important rule of course is that your palate is your guide – you may enjoy a particular style of wine that others find uninteresting for one or more reasons.

Vintage matters more than most are willing to admit – just ask any winemaker who has lost an entire crop or benefited from a perfect year in the vineyard. Better yet, find identical bottles from the same vineyard and producer (not mass produced juice) but with different vintages and see for yourself how different vintages can be side by side – you’ll "get it" immediately. After all – wine is supposed to be interesting! Don’t let those corporate swill-producers con you into thinking that the wine they make is supposed to be the only vision of perfect wine with each and every passing vintage. If they don’t take the risk of producing a truly great wine at the expense of having an off year, well… they are NOT your friend and they do NOT make good wine – they make a commodity, like tires or relay switches or gum and where’s the romance and excitement in that?

Vintage matters more now than ever; pay attention to it and you’ll reap your rewards over and over again.