Paul Gregutt

 

Could Washington Redefine Cult Wine?

Paul Gregutt  The Wine Enthusiast Magazine

Published:

Traditionally, cult wines are those that are rare, generate high scores and buzz—and are absurdly expensive. Why Washington’s high-quality wines at fair prices are changing the concept.

The term “cult wine” came into widespread use in the 1990s, though no single person or publication lays claim to having coined it. Perhaps it was Screaming Eagle or Harlan that was the first wine to earn the tag. In the minds of most people, the term is almost always attached to a pricy Napa Valley Cabernet or Bordeaux-style blend.

What qualifies them as cult wines? It seems to be the magic combination of rarity, expense, high scores and buzz. A wine needs all four to qualify for true cult status, which leaves out such things as first-growth Bordeaux (not rare) and favors new wineries over traditional ones (more buzz). By any standard, these are trophy wines.

In other words, they’re unaffordable, which is just as well since they’re also unobtainable.

Which raises the question—should there be a new model for cult wines? A model that preserves the most desirable attributes of those we already know and love (or hate), and eliminates the least desirable. In other words, keep the requirements for rarity, high scores and buzz, but lose the absurd prices, drop the alcohol levels a bit and substitute genuine terroir for 100% new French oak barrels.

Where are these new-era cult wines found? Start with the world-class boutique wineries of Washington. The best of them deliver all of the above. And even if the Northwest is not your home, if you are fortunate enough to live in a state that allows direct to consumer shipping, many of the wineries listed here will be happy to welcome you as a customer. Some of them may be flying under the national radar, which is an advantage.

Don’t get hung up on the word “cult.” Think of this as a move to New World classified growths. These are all candidates to be named super seconds, and some will make it all the way to first-growth status.

Though rarely produced in quantities of more than a few hundred cases, you can still find them, and, better yet, afford them. These are wines both for cellaring and for near-term drinking.

Washington’s Bordeaux-style wines and blends have the structure and balance to age for decades. Even the Syrahs—especially those from Betz, Cayuse, K Vintners and McCrea—have the muscle to cellar well for 8–10 years. The most expensive Washington Cabs and reserves may reach $135 a bottle, but the vast majority cost less than half that.

The most sought-after Washington boutique wineries fall into three distinct categories: the Old Guard, the New Guard (with closed mailing lists) and the Rising Stars (great wines, consistent quality, open mailing lists).

The Old Guard

Leonetti Cellar, Quilceda Creek and Woodward Canyon are three of the founding fathers of the modern-day Washington wine industry. They began as home winemaking projects, the wines produced in garages and workshops, with the first commercial vintages released in the late 1970s and early 1980s—and they were immediately recognized as exceptional. Both Leonetti and Quilceda are now being guided by second-generation winemakers. These three family-owned wineries, with almost 100 vintages among them, were cult brands before the term existed.

The New Guard

These three wineries were all founded within the past 10-15 years and offer exemplary wines. But the wines are tough to find; they all have waiting lists to join their wine clubs. Look for them on restaurant wine lists or at a few savvy retailers. You can also beg, plead or grovel your way onto the mailing lists: Abeja , Betz Family , Cayuse

Rising Stars

Okay, how about some wines that can still be found? The Rising Stars are where the hidden gems reside. Here are a dozen to look for, with a representative wine review from each.

Buty, Corliss, Doubleback, Efeste, Figgins, Gramercy,Maison Bleue, Mark Ryan, Rasa, Rulo, Sparkman, Syncline

Syncline

Located in the tiny Columbia Gorge AVA, Syncline is a hands-on, family-owned project (Owner-winemakers James and Poppie Mantone first met during 1997’s harvest at La Velle Vineyards.) with a portfolio that reaches across Rhône varieties and into such obscure treats as Washington-grown Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir.

92 Syncline 2009 Heart of the Hill
Vineyard Mourvèdre (Red Mountain); $30. A stunning wine, this could be the poster child for the future of Washington Mourvèdre. The aromas are a dappled and seductive mix of raspberries, moist earth, baking spices, mocha and an intriguing suggestion of wet cement. Marvelous definition, length and character. Give it plenty of breathing time and it gains mass and complexity. Editors’ Choice.


Syncline Cellars Breaks All The Right Rules

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

2004

In my years of sniffing, swirling, slurping and sleuthing around the subject of wine, I have learned that the accepted wisdom is often wrong. Red wine does go with fish. Washington can grow pinot noir. Bigger is not always better. The most expensive wines are not always the most complex.

The wines of Syncline Cellars, a new producer in the Columbia Gorge, embody the things I hold most dear. They express the purity of the grapes from which they are made. They point to a number of promising new directions for Washington winemakers. They offer exceptional value at reasonable prices. They break the rules in all the right ways.

Syncline’s James Mantone may just be the Billy Beane of Washington winemakers. Beane, the celebrated general manager of the Oakland Athletics, was famously profiled in “Moneyball” as a guy who found value in ballplayers who didn’t fit the mold. Ballplayers he could sign for little money and turn into champs.

Mantone does that with wine grapes. He’s 32, bookish and intense, with wide-set, open, inquisitive eyes. Not shy, but not demonstrative either. A native Midwesterner, he was studying organic chemistry at Purdue University when a professor gave him a bottle of Oregon pinot noir. The wine bug bit, hard.

In the summer of 1995 he backpacked through Oregon, living in a tent, working crush, and eventually hooking up with a custom crush facility making small batches of wine for a wide range of clients. “It was like working at 10 or 12 different wineries, all at the same time,” he recalls, “making everything from Walla Walla merlot and cab to bulk chardonnay sent out in tanker trucks.”

While there, he discovered Rhone wines and tasted some early Rhone Ranger efforts from McCrea and Glen Fiona; wines so good that he started driving up to visit Eastern Washington wine country and meet the growers.

“I started to see some great potential in the land,” he told me. “Everybody was still chasing merlot, which they picked in the first weeks of September, and they didn’t get a frost till November! So I asked myself ‘well what’s wrong with the rest of the growing season?’ And I started looking into some late-ripening varietals.”

A marriage and a move north brought him to the Gorge, to start Syncline Wine Cellars. Ironically, Syncline’s first wine was a 1999 pinot noir, from Celilo vineyard vines planted in 1972. That pinot is still made and arguably proves that the right sites can produce good pinot in Washington. But it is the Rhone varietals that really constitute the heart of Syncline’s portfolio: viognier, roussanne, grenache and syrah, with mourvèdre on the way.

“I’m trying to find unique sites,” Mantone explains. “There’s a bit of the underdog aspect in me; if I wanted to do the easy thing I would have just made the big three — chardonnay, cabernet and merlot — and gone to the big sites. But look, I’m making grenache rosé, viognier, roussanne! Underdog grapes.”

The rap on Washington these days is that the wines are too expensive. That is more false than true. Yes, some limited production, overly confident boutique wineries slap ridiculous prices on their first few releases. Yes, some wineries do the math backwards, expecting that their costs somehow justify prices out of whack with the rest of the market.

But over and over again, lists of the top 100 wines in the leading wine publications show that Washington wines, as a group, claim more places at lower average prices than any comparable wine region in the world. Syncline wines are emblematic of everything that is right, hopeful and promising about the Washington wine industry as it hands over the winemaking reins to a new generation of winemakers.

These wines prove that you can be a boutique startup, with big aspirations but not much cash, and hit the mark with stylish wines that have something important to say, while keeping your pricing realistic. The winery, in a converted beer warehouse in Bingen, is functional, but not a destination. Yet. A new facility, in the Gorge between Lyle and Bingen (“we’ve dubbed it Lyle-a-bama” says Mantone) will be constructed in the coming year.

I expect great things from Syncline in the future. And Syncline expects great things from Washington. “Washington is such a tremendously great climate,” Mantone enthuses. “It’s really quite forgiving. You can get away with a few sloppy things and still make good wines. I want to see what we can get if we cut out the sloppy things.”

Syncline’s wines are made in small lots and are not widely distributed. You may have to do some sleuthing, but you can find these wines at small specialty wine shops throughout the state, or contact the winery directly (509-493-4705). The tasting room is open Fridays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Remember, even when the winery is sold out of a particular vintage, some shops may still have it in stock. You might also inquire about getting on the mailing list for early notification of future releases.

Current releases from Syncline Cellars

Syncline 2003 “Clifton Vineyard” Viognier ($20). On a visit to Condrieu to research viognier, Mantone was told that sand — lots of it — is the key for growing it. “At Clifton,” he notes, “Butch Milbrandt has three feet of windblown sand on top of hundreds of feet of fist-sized river rocks.” Bingo! This is a penetrating, ripe style, big but not blowsy, with nuances of orange peel, citrus, apricot and hints of peach, mango and honeysuckle.

Syncline 2003 Late Harvest Chenin Blanc ($18/375). This is 100 percent barrel-fermented, dessert-style chenin, yet not cloying at all. Lively flavors mix stone fruits, new-mown hay, fermenting apples, butterscotch and candy.

Syncline 2002 Reserve Syrah ($30). Due to be released in about a month, this is a blend of different vineyards, unlike previous single vineyard reserves. Flavors are smooth and creamy, with roasted coffee, bitter chocolate and vanilla cream. As with all Syncline wines, the use of new oak is quite restrained.

Syncline 2002 “Milbrandt Vineyards” Syrah ($20). A sweet, spicy, pungent syrah, with meaty, bright berry scents of white pepper, blueberry and violets. One of the best in the state.

Syncline 2002 “Celilo Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($20). Sturdy and thick, tasting of ripe strawberry, pomegranate and cranberry. Stylistically it sits squarely between Oregon and Burgundy.

Syncline 2002 Subduction Red ($15). The winery’s mongrel red blend might as well be called Seduction Red, for its sensuous blend of cabernet, grenache and syrah. Pretty scents of earth, animal and plant, with layered, tart red fruits.


Is Washington Pinot Noir an Oxymoron?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Anyone with an interest in the history and development of the American wine industry should have a copy or two of Leon Adams “The Wines of America.” The book went through many printings and several revised editions in the 1970s and early 1980s, and its author exhaustively chronicled the who, what, when and where of American winemaking from Prohibition onward. Though Washington and Oregon get few pages, the timing of Adams’ research was spot on – he was an eyewitness to the birth of the modern era of wine grape growing and wine production in both states.

I quote liberally from the revised second edition of the book, which came out in 1978. Bear with me a moment and you’ll see where this is going.

Page 470: “In 1966, I visited the Yakima Valley and saw several vineyards of such pedigreed varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I was amazed to find the wineries were wasting these costly grapes, mixing them with Concord in nondescript port and burgundy blends.”

At the suggestion of Adams, Beaulieu’s legendary enologist Andre Tchelistcheff was invited to Washington, and tasted some homemade wines that were good enough to bring him back in the fall of 1967 to consult on winemaking at American Wine Growers, a precursor to Ste. Michelle. Page 471: “He returned to Washington that September, selected perfect batches of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sémillon, and Grenache, and had them fermented at controlled temperatures. He had the Cabernet stored in American white oak barrels, and the Pinot Noir in new Limousin oak from France.”

Page 472: “In 1961, [the members of Associated Vintners] planted seven vinifera varieties from UC Davis and added Pinot Noir vines from the American Wine Growers’ vineyard. [In 1971] they planted 20 more acres at Sunnyside with Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sémillon, and Chardonnay.”

As it happens, Columbia winery (originally named Associated Vintners) celebrated a major anniversary some years ago and opened some rare older wines, including an AV Pinot Noir from either 1967 or 1969 (my notes, sadly, have been lost). I recall it being quite faint and delicate, yet drinkable and sound, at perhaps 35 years of age.

More pinot noir was being planted in the region now designated the Columbia Gorge AVA, including vines that went into the ground at Celilo in 1972. Miraculously, those vines are still bearing. Yet despite the head start that pinot noir was given here in Washington, it never quite made the cut, and today has been largely relegated to use in sparkling wines. The general wisdom is that Washington can’t make pinot noir.

This ersatz theory was challenged – let’s make that demolished – by a tasting orchestrated by Syncline’s James Mantone. He has been making small amounts of pinot noir from those very same Celilo vines since 1999, and opened a vertical of eight vintages, including 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005 – 2008. All were still in fine form, with a distinctive style that was different from any Oregon pinots I’ve tasted, even those grown just across the river.

From the Syncline website:

“We first became acquainted with Rick Ensminger, the vineyard manager for Celilo, in 1997. We were well aware of the reputation for both Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer produced from this vineyard and were pleasantly surprised to discover the two acre block of Pinot Noir planted there in 1972. Since this discovery, we have given special attention to lower yields and canopy management on this block to create a distinctive and concentrated Pinot Noir. The vineyard sits directly on the crest of the Cascade Mountains on a bluff 1000 feet in elevation overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. This is unique environment where marine, desert and alpine climates intersect to provide weather patterns perfect for distinctive Pinot Noir. Rows are oriented north/south and the vines are trained to a Scott Henry trellis. Clusters are thinned to one per shoot with all shoulders cut off to maintain yields of less than 2 tons per acre. Soils are above volcanic loams and are dry farmed.”

It turns out that those early pioneers had it right, and pinot noir has as much chance to excel here in Washington as any other grape. But it’s a tougher nut to crack, and in many respects, it’s just getting going. More plantings in the Gorge, around Lake Chelan, up in the Okanogan, and in scattered sites in western Washington will hopefully bring a Washington style of pinot into focus in the next decade. Meanwhile, here are the notes on the Syncline tasting.

Syncline 1999 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Washington State 13.2%
Fruit is still very good here; color is a brick/plum. Scents show some chicken manure (brett?), but with it comes plenty of pie cherry fruit. Light streaks of dried leaves, forest floor, good acidity and some alcohol burn. These bottles were moved once. All the others have never been moved. As it opens in the glass a sweet brown sugar scent emerges.

Syncline 2001 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Washington State 13.2%
In just about perfect shape. Round, smooth, with mature berry and vanilla, hints of dried leaf, drying tannins. Soft and gentle, with a finish that fades gracefully away leaving a dried leaf impression, and a faint hint of cured meat.

Syncline 2002 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Washington State 13.7%
More red and less tawny shades, more Bing cherry fruit flavor; a youthful wine. A hint of mint, and pretty, hard cherry candy. It’s softening up and rounding out, drinking very well with plenty of life ahead.

Syncline 2003 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Columbia Gorge 13.7%
Color is deep and true, showing a little brick around the rim. Clean, still primary Pinot Noir scents, with the herbal edge common in Oregon. Well-balanced and a bit softer than most vintages, this is entering mid-life with all components in place, but a hard, slightly bitter edge to the finish.

Syncline 2005 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Columbia Gorge 13.8%
A warm, fruity-driven vintage, nicely expressed in this fragrant, open, seductive wine. Lovely, spicy cherry/berry fruit, laced together with Provençal herbs, breakfast tea, and a streak of caramel running through a clean, dry finish. Really good right now. Re-tasted two days later, it was still drinking very well.

Syncline 2006 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Columbia Gorge 13.8%
The first vintage bottled under glass. It seems noticeably tighter, more firm and muscular and youthful than any previous vintages. Could also be the vintage. Nicely softened but substantial tannins, big cherry fruit, some clove and coffee, excellent depth. Sit on this.

Syncline 2007 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Columbia Gorge 13.8%
Firm, muscular, smooth and supple, with blackberry, cherry, peppery spice, dust, detail. A picture-perfect vintage beautifully expressed. Supremely elegant balance and mouthfeel, lingering into a delicate finish with cherry pit and earth. Best of the tasting, with 2006 and 2005 close behind.

Syncline 2008 Pinot Noir
Columbia Gorge 13.8%
275 cases
First vintage with both Underwood Mountain and Celilo grapes. Fragrant and fresh, loaded with an expressive mix of cherry, cassis, chocolate, cranberry, cherry juice, plenty of acid, but without the complexity of ’07. It stops short, leaving acid and tannin to hold down the finish. This will certainly benefit from additional bottle age.


 

Highlights of New Washington Wine Releases

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 – Paul Gregutt:  Unfined & Unfiltered

We’re rolling into the fall new release season, and it’s especially exciting with my book just out and book signings coming up throughout the next few months. Here are some of the highlights of my most recent tastings with wineries that are featured in the book. I’m listing just one wine per winery, but I could just as easily list almost all of them. Each of these wines will be scored in the 90’s in my upcoming Wine Enthusiast reviews. Many are in very limited supply and may quickly sell out, so I wouldn’t wait.

Syncline 2008 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Mourvèdre; $30
A leader in crafting sleek, at times exotic Rhône varietal blends, Syncline’s brilliantly aromatic Mourvèdre beguiles with exotic scents of plum pudding, spice cake, cherry compote, pipe tobacco, red licorice and raspberry jam. The wine is a riot of fruits and baking spices, and makes a strong statement about the future of Washington Mourvèdre as a stand-alone varietal wine. Just 406 cases made.

Any one of these wines (and wineries) would warrant a stand-alone blog feature, but yours truly is swamped and things are backing up, so I offer these highlights and urge you to taste through the entire portfolio of any (or all) of these outstanding producers.


Syncline Winery

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

April 2009

Syncline’s James Mantone is showing me some vineyard sites in this photo, taken about a year ago, in Washington’s Columbia Gorge AVA. Mantone and his wife Poppie began making wine in the area in 1999. During their first ten vintages, Syncline has rapidly become one of the most essential boutique wineries in this state.

With a determined focus on Rhone varietals (and occasional ventures into equally interesting, non-Rhone varietals), the Mantones have consistently produced well-structured, detailed and highly aromatic wines, priced affordably and crafted for both near-term enjoyment and cellaring. Their business approach, James explains, “has always been based on the European model – small, family-owned, with a little estate vineyard [theirs is biodynamic] – what one or two people could do. You make the best wines you can,” he modestly explains, “upgrade equipment when you can, pay as you go. If we had sunk millions into a winery building and were asking consumers to pay for the wine and the building I’d be a little more nervous. There are always new toys every winemaker would love to have, but I see some of these new offerings and I wonder if I’m paying for their wine or their winery.”

The first of Syncline’s spring releases are in the stores this week, and some will sell out very quickly. All of these wines are highly recommended.

Syncline 2008 Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner ($20) – The first Gru-V for Syncline, and just the second harvest from this Columbia Gorge vineyard. Barely 12% alcohol, this is searingly tart, with sharp lime, pineapple and green apple fruit. Just a hint of white pepper in the nose. Could be a fine oyster wine.

Syncline 2008 Syncline Rosé ($16) – The blend is 44% Cinsault 30% Grenache, 17% Mourvedre and 9% Counoise. As in past vintages, it’s done with the saignée process, and fermented in stainless steel (no malo). Fresh and pretty, with bright and tangy flavors of strawberry and rhubarb, it has a spicy back kick that really pumps up the finish.

Syncline 2007 Celilo Vineyard Pinot Noir ($28) – For me, the most interesting wine of a fascinating flight, because old vine pinot noir is not something generally found in Washington. These vines were planted in 1972, and produce a delicate pinot noir, high in acid, pretty and relatively pale in the glass, with scents of tart cranberry, mineral and pomegranate. It is much like the pinots of Germany, or the Canadian Okanagan, rather than anything I’ve tasted from Oregon, California or New Zealand.

Syncline 2007 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Mourvedre ($30) – A 100% varietal mourvedre from the Horse Heaven Hills; it’s a sharp, edgy wine. It shows a different fruit profile than other reds, highlighting plum, with lots of spice; it’s soft and round, and the tannins are subtle but peppery.

Syncline 2007 Syrah ($24) – Almost every winemaker I talk to these days has a sad face when the subject of syrah sales is raised, but a wine this good should have no trouble finding buyers. From Destiny Ridge, Milbrandt and Coyote Canyon (65% HHH/35% Wahluke), it has simply wonderful aromatics, with carpaccio, olive, violets and more. There is great concentration here, both in the nose and in the mouth. Tannins are ripe and polished, underlying glorious purple fruits, a panoply of berries and plums. Still very young, but perfect texture and balance, with a little white chocolate in the finish.


Syncline stays small to make wine fit for the world

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt  The Seattle Times

June 2009

In the Columbia Gorge, Syncline winery stays small to keep the focus on wine that, as owner James Mantone says, “fits into the world of wine,” where quality matters.

AMONG THE many strengths of the Washington wine industry are the innovations introduced by small, young, family-owned enterprises. As important as the contributions of the larger wineries may be, the little wineries can do some things more easily, and perhaps more persuasively.

Syncline, a 5,000-case winery founded in 1999 by James and Poppie Mantone, has been a leader on so many fronts I lose count. They are one of a handful of wineries on the West Coast using the Vino-Seal glass closures as alternatives to traditional corks. And they have recently joined the handful of grower/producers who are working with biodynamic (super organic) techniques.

Syncline wines have been instrumental in bringing acclaim from outside the region to the Columbia Gorge AVA (viticultural area), which spans the Washington/Oregon border on the eastern edge of the Cascades.

From the start, the Mantones have produced well-structured, detailed and highly aromatic wines. Better still, they are priced affordably and crafted for both near-term enjoyment and cellaring. Their business approach is based on the European model — small, family-owned — “what one or two people could do,” says James. “You make the best wines you can,” he modestly explains, “upgrade equipment when you can, pay as you go. There are always new toys every winemaker would love to have, but I see some of these new offerings (from other wineries) and I wonder if I’m paying for their wine or their winery.”

Instead of buying expensive toys, he keeps the focus on innovations that are cost-effective and that further his goal of making wines that “fit into the world of wine, not just into our neighborhood. There has never been a better time to be a wine drinker,” he believes. “The access to good wine has never been greater. We try to keep our business in that perspective.”

The Mantones’ focus on southern French varietals has placed Syncline among the leaders in the growing ranks of Washington-based Rhone Rangers, as they continue exploring such fascinating grapes as cinsault, mourvèdre, counoise and grenache, along with syrah and viognier. Branching out still farther afield, recent Syncline releases include one of Washington’s first grüner veltliners.

But none of these tops their Washington-grown pinot noir. They have made a small amount of pinot every year since their first vintage, and it has proved to be good enough to make a believer out of me. Washington viticulture is capable of producing a dazzling range of excellent grapes (occasionally juxtaposing grapes — such as riesling and syrah — that grow together nowhere else in the world). But pinot noir has remained one of a tiny handful of truly important wine grapes that have met with limited success here (nebbiolo and tempranillo also come to mind).

Which brings us to the Syncline 2007 Celilo Vineyard Pinot Noir ($28). It’s delicate and high in acid with pretty scents of tart cranberry, mineral and pomegranate. It has a lovely presence in the mouth and a finish of medium length. I find it is closer to a Burgundy or one of the better Okanagan (Canada) pinots, than to almost anything I’ve tasted from Oregon or California.

Other Syncline spring releases include a searingly tart 2008 Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner ($20); a fresh and pretty 2008 Rosé ($16); a ripe and polished 2007 Syrah ($24) with aromas of carpaccio, olive and violets; a 2007 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Mourvèdre ($30); and the 2007 Subduction Red ($18), a southern Rhone blend bursting with every kind of red and blue berry, and a vibrant, juicy mouthfeel.

Syncline (www.synclinewine.com) is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, 111 Balch Road, near the town of Lyle.

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Washington Wines & Wineries.” Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write topaulgwine@me.com.


Seattle Times Wine Adviser lists Syncline in his Top 100 Northwest wines of 2011

Paul Gregutt, Wine Adviser for the Seattle Times, released his Top 100 Northwest Wines of 2011 and we made this prestigious list. Thank you!

#50 – Syncline 2009 McKinley Springs Vineyard Syrah ($30) 93 Points

As you may have guessed we are sold out of the 2009 McKinley Springs Syrah, but don’t fret, we’ll be releasing our 2010 McKinley Springs Syrah in May of this year.


 

The Best Washington Wines of 2008

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

Syncline Number 25 out of 100

With each passing year, my list of the year’s Top 100 Washington wines gets more competitive. We now have nearly 600 wineries in the state, so even limiting it to one listing per winery means that five out of six wineries won’t even appear on the list.

Washington wines do well on other Top 100 lists, and though these are not inexpensive wines, they are far less expensive than most of the wines that show up elsewhere. This list is the only one that focuses exclusively on wines made with Washington grapes — and the only one compiled by a single individual living and working here.

Whether or not you always agree with my choices, I hope they will encourage you to explore many of the wineries (listed from 1 to 100 on page 10), and not just for the specific wine on the list, but for all of their wines. Quality is rarely an accident; if the winery made one great wine, they probably made quite a few really good ones.

Every wine on this list has been scored 90 points or higher by me on the standard 100-point wine-rating system. Within each scoring category, I have listed the wines from least to most expensive, awarding a higher slot to the cheaper wines, because they offer the most value. They have all been released within the 2008 calendar year, but be advised — some are already sold out. Your wine seller can guide you to what is still available, and in some instances he or she may have a newer vintage in stock. (See a list of wine shops on page 10.)

I wish you all a holiday season filled with good friends and family, good health and, of course, good wine!


Toasting the Holidays on a Tighter Budget

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

It’s no secret that consumers are trimming their wine budgets. Many smaller Washington wineries are offering blended red wines that have benefited from the same vineyard care, fermentation practices and even barrel aging as the superpremium wines, but at the time of blending did not make the cut. Most are priced at or under $20 and in general give you far more depth of flavor at this price point than comparable wines coming from California.This wine is highly recommended:
Syncline 2007 Subduction Red ($18):A great bottle of wine, 35 percent syrah, 21 percent mourvèdre, 16 percent grenache, 15 percent cinsault and 13 percent counoise. Bursting with gorgeous fruit mixing every kind of red and blue berry, with a vibrant and juicy mouthfeel that speaks volumes about the quality and clarity of the fruit.


In Rainy Washington, We Like Our Rosés Dry

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

Blink and you’ll miss them. The spring release of Northwest rosé wines has become a much- anticipated event; I’d wager that nowhere else in the country are the new, local rosés so eagerly awaited and given such attention by sommeliers and consumers.

I am putting the focus on dry rosé, which was almost unknown in this country a few years ago, when sweet pink wines (white zinfandel and the like) were the fashion. Times have changed, and now we like our rosés dry, at least here in Washington. Winemakers are no fools. They can sell these wines barely six months after harvest — that’s what we call Chateau cash-flow! They have embraced the dry style with a dazzling variety of offerings.

There are no regulations governing the production and labeling of rosé other than the usual — if they are to carry a varietal designation (grape name) they must be at least 75 percent of the named varietal.

In fact, most local rosés are 100 percent varietal from a single grape (there are exceptions, of course), because they are often made simply by bleeding off juice from a fermenter before it spends more than a day or so on the skins. This concentrates the remaining wine, destined to be a bold, brawny red in most instances, and gives the rosé its characteristic pretty pink or salmon or cherry candy color.

So rosé can be anything — pinot noir, sangiovese, syrah, cab franc, grenache, lemberger, merlot — you name it. Rarely do these wines show any particular varietal character. What you should be most curious about is the vintage (stick with the brand-new 2005s) and the level of sweetness.

Rosés from the new world are meant to be enjoyed when very young; even an extra year will rob them of freshness. And 2005 was an especially fine vintage in Washington. These being the first red-grape wines to be released, they offer the chance to do a quick assessment on the brawnier wines to come.

It’s important that you taste before you buy whenever possible because rosés come in an unpredictable array of styles. Many shops do free tastings, and many restaurants offer rosé by the glass. You want to discover how sweet the wine tastes, an important question if you are trying to match it with food.

Syncline 2005 Rosé ($14)I have been an avid fan of Syncline’s rosés in every single vintage, but this new release is the best yet. A blend of four varietals — grenache, cinsault, mourvèdre and syrah — it has more detail and complexity than its peers. It’s a sophisticated wine with a distinct beginning, middle and finish. Scents of rosewater, layers of fruits and dabs of herbs and spices all contribute to this smartly executed and compelling effort.


Washington’s Columbia Gorge Viticultural Area Offers Great Grape Variety.

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

The Columbia Gorge AVA features some of the highest-elevation vineyards in the state, including Celilo, which sits on a bluff above the Columbia River. Washington’s Columbia Gorge AVA (viticultural area) was officially approved in 2004. This is not the same Gorge as the famous concert venue. This Gorge spans the Washington/Oregon border on the eastern edge of the Cascades. And like the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley AVAs, it includes vineyards in both states. Apart from the striking beauty of the Gorge itself — a four-season, recreational wonderland — the AVA is notable, at least from a grape-growing/ winemaking standpoint, for its diversity of climates and growing conditions.

At its western edge on the Washington side, it includes some of the highest-elevation vineyards in the state, notably Celilo. The Cascade foothills get enough annual rainfall to make irrigation optional for some growers, and the principal grapes are cool-climate varieties such as chardonnay, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, riesling, albarino and grüner veltliner. Some rare Washington pinot noir is also planted, and showing excellent potential.

On the Oregon side, a cluster of vineyards and wineries around the town of Hood River also produces a fair amount of pinot noir, grown at lower elevations in a slightly warmer climate. Then, as you drive east, the landscape rather quickly changes. The evergreen forests and fruit orchards give way to dry-land desert on both sides of the river. The little town of Lyle roughly marks the eastern boundary of the appellation on the Washington side, but the region’s vineyards and wineries continue, occupying the southwest corner of the huge Columbia Valley AVA. Here the annual rainfall is less than a third of the vineyards just a few miles to the west. Hot-climate grapes such as barbera, syrah and zinfandel are the stars.

Most of the roughly two dozen wineries located in the Columbia Gorge region produce wines from other appellations as well. But it is the emerging profile of a specific local terroir that is particularly exciting to explore. Look for wines sourced from the Celilo, Underwood Mountain, Phelps Creek, Oak Ridge and Wy’East vineyards in particular. Wine touring in the region can easily be mixed with a dizzying range of outdoor activities — the Gorge is a sports lover’s paradise. There are plenty of restaurants, B&Bs, spas and museums, and an excellent guide is published by the Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association. For more winery-specific information, visit www.ColumbiaGorgewine.com; be sure to request their excellent brochure (866-413-9463).

On a recent swing through the region, I tasted Columbia Gorge wines from a number of producers, including Syncline, Phelps Creek, The Pines, Cor Cellars, McCormick Family Vineyards and Viento. Here are some of my favorites:

Syncline

At Syncline, James and Poppie Mantone are making a stellar lineup of (mostly) Rhone-inspired wines. But from the neighboring Celilo vineyard comes this astonishing Syncline 2006 Celilo Vineyard Pinot Noir ($25). For the moment, this is the textbook example of what Washington pinot noir should be: elegant, refined, aromatic, svelte and graceful.


Hurrah For Syrah!

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

Whether or not they sample our wonderful Washington merlots, the national wine press has finally begun to take notice of Washington syrah—cutting-edge stuff! But in spite of some positive reviews, they don’t really have a sense of just how good syrah is getting to be out here because they will never taste 90 percent of the syrahs that are being made in Washington.

Why? There are probably (my estimate) between 250 and 300 different syrah bottlings being made annually, and those numbers keep climbing. That’s a guess, but it’s based on the fact that most of the tiny boutiques make at least one, and usually more. If just a quarter of our 400-plus wineries produce syrah, and they average two or three different syrahs each, you can see how I arrived at that estimate. Since these wineries make just 100 or 200 cases of any given wine, very few people will ever taste them. But living here in the Northwest, we are among the fortunate few.

Washington syrahs have gone from being a curiosity to being solid and interesting reds to being world-class. Why? Because the vines are getting older, the vineyard management is improving and the winemakers are approaching their syrahs in particular with a youthful passion that is absolutely riveting.

Want to taste for yourself? Here are six new syrahs from some of Washington’s most innovative wineries. These wines are absolutely dazzling. They light up the palate with a mix of highlighted flavors that California (and for that matter, Australia) can only dream of. These are wines that dance. They express all that is brilliant in Washington: the bright, fresh, tangy berry fruit; the nuances of citrus and spice; and the sharp acids that provide the nerve structure, the definition and the sheer vitality of this state’s wines.

These are very limited releases, but they are not impossible to find. You can obtain most of them from wine shops that specialize in Washington boutiques, or simply contact the wineries directly. For you number crunchers, these are all 92- to 95-point wines.

Syncline 2004 “Milbrandt Vineyards” Syrah Columbia Valley; $22.Another brilliant wine from Syncline’s James Mantone, featuring Wahluke Slope fruit. It’s jammy without being hot, dense but poised, and lovingly detailed with blackberry and black cherry the dominant flavors. A blockbuster, available at specialty shops.


Gregutt’s Top 100 state wines for 2007

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

Once again, in the retrospective spirit of the season, I offer a highly personal list of the year’s Top 100 Washington wines.

There are now more than 530 bonded wineries in the state. If they average just 10 wines annually (some less, some more) that’s more than 5,000 wines. Do I taste them all? In my dreams! But I do taste a significant percentage, and that, along with frequent visits to wineries and vineyards, numerous conversations and tastings with the winemakers themselves, and a depth of reference tastings reaching back a quarter-century, all enter into this ranking.

Many of the elite Washington wineries sell most of their wines to mailing-list customers, select restaurants and wine shops. It is important to recognize them — even if they are expensive and rare — because these are building a quality reputation for Washington state, which I believe to be the most important emerging wine region in the New World.

Included also are some widely available, inexpensive wines — those which offer exceptional flavor and value. These everyday bottles evangelize for the affordability of Washington wines. I try to list just one wine per winery, although many of these producers make a full lineup of outstanding wines. My aim is to be inclusive. Even so, barely 20 percent of the wineries in the state make the list. The competition, needless to say, gets tougher every year.

This ranking is not done strictly by the numbers, although these are all wines that score very well on the 100-point scale. I believe that consistency year-to-year, overall style and quality and relative value (to comparable wines) are equally important guidelines.

18. Syncline 2005 Cuvée Elena Red Wine ($35)


Year’s best Washington wine? Here’s my top 100

Wine Adviser/Paul Gregutt The Seattle Times

Two of the most eagerly-awaited “Best of” lists are the year’s top 100 wines as profiled in the Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast. Thousands of wines from around the globe are reviewed by these publications each year, so to place any wines at all on these lists is a coup. Washington does quite well, especially considering how truly small our wine industry is. But it occurs to me, why not do a top 100 Washington wine list?

In 2006 I tasted more new releases than ever. I was intent on experiencing the full range of what this state has to offer, from the Olympic Peninsula to the Columbia Gorge, from Walla Walla to Spokane and all points within that vast circle. Many of the wines on this list may have been made in very limited quantities, and quite a few are now sold out. Some wineries sell only to mailing-list customers. However, the more widely-available, less expensive wines listed here are just as important, because these are the everyday, affordable wines that best promote the quality of Washington vineyards and vintners.

With one or two exceptions, I have elected to list just one wine per winery, although many producers named here have delivered a full lineup of outstanding wines. The wine listed is the one that I felt was the best.

This ranking is not done strictly by the numbers, although these are all wines that score very well on the 100-point scale. However, I firmly believe that both quality and cost are factors in overall excellence. If a winery charges $80 or $100 for a wine, it darn well better be good! But if the wine costs $8 or $10 and delivers quality flavor, it is every bit as valuable as the pricey juice.

Congratulations to everyone whose work is recognized below. I very much look forward to chronicling your continued success in 2007.

21. Syncline 2004 Milbrandt Vineyards Syrah
25. Syncline 2004 Cuvée Elena Grenache-Mourvèdre-Syrah