Sean Sullivan

March 2014

Paul Gregutt and Sean Sullivan’s take on the rise in popularity of Rhone wines produced in Washington State featuring the Syncline Grenache Blanc from the legendary Boushey Vineyard fruit.

Grenache Blanc

Plantings are currently limited, but that could be changing.

“I think it’s a sleeper grape for us,” says grower Dick Boushey, who has helped pioneer Rhône varieties in the state. “It’s taken me a while to figure it out—what cropping level and when to pick it—but I think it’s the perfect oyster and seafood wine because it retains its acidity.”

91 Syncline 2012 Boushey Vineyard Grenache Blanc (Yakima Valley). Rich without being thick, fresh through the long and satisfying finish. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 14.1%      Price: $24

Sean Sullivan - Washington Wine Report

The past, present, and future of Washington’s Rhone movement

Friday, April 4, 2014

Though plantings of Rhone varieties beyond Syrah remain miniscule in Washington (see chart below), there is no doubt that Rhone wines are on the rise in the state. From Grenache Blanc to Picpoul, Cinsault to Mourvèdre, winemakers and consumers alike are showing an increased interest in varieties native to France’s Rhone Valley. Moreover, these varieties are creating some of the state’s most exciting wines.

Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars was Washington’s Rhone vanguard. McCrea moved to the state in the early 1980s and attributes his interest in Rhone-style wines to the early wines of Randall Graham as well as his upbringing. “Having been brought up in New Orleans, wine and food were inseparable,” McCrea explained.

McCrea made his first wine, a Chardonnay, at his eponymous winery in 1988. The following year he made his first Rhone-style wine, a Grenache from Don Graves Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge. Come 1990, he convinced Graves to plant an acre of Syrah. “I don’t know how much Syrah was in the state then but there wasn’t much,” McCrea said.

Indeed, just four years earlier Washington’s first Syrah vines were planted at Red Willow Vineyard by Mike Sauer, with Columbia Winery’s David Lake providing the inspiration. Acreage was so limited in Washington in the early nineties that it wasn’t even tracked. At first McCrea blended his Syrah with Grenache before making his first varietal bottling in 1994.

While McCrea’s initial efforts focused on fruit from the Columbia Gorge, it was his relationship with Yakima Valley grower Dick Boushey that would hasten the surge in Rhone varieties in Washington.

“I had worked at a winery over in Woodinville,” McCrea explained. “Dick would come over in his truck and a trailer and bring his grapes to French Creek Cellars. I really respected him greatly as a wine grape grower. We just sort of hit it off.”

Together McCrea and Boushey selected a site in eastern Washington that would become one of the state’s signature Syrah vineyards. “If you look at that site, you’ve got about 20 to 24 inches of topsoil,” McCrea said. “Below that is pumice-style lava. A few years in as the roots got further down, we could tell that there was something really special about that location.”

In the ensuing years McCrea convinced Boushey and Jim Holmes (Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Red Mountain) to plant a wide assortment of other Rhone varieties, including Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Picpoul, and Marsanne. “It was almost like a shotgun approach,” McCrea said. This approach continued in the winery where McCrea produce a wide array of varietal bottlings and blends. “It almost got out of hand,” McCrea said. “I think we were making like 12 different wines at one time.”

Many years later, through the early efforts of McCrea, Boushey, Sauer, Lake, Williams and the many people who came after them – most notably Christophe Baron and Charles Smith who elevated both quality and awareness to new heights – Rhone varieties have taken off in the Northwest. Today the area is home to numerous world-class Rhone-centric producers, including Cayuse VineyardsGramercy CellarsK VintnersMaison Bleue, and Reynvaan Family Vineyards to name just a few. One of the most direct parallels to Doug McCrea’s early efforts, however, comes from Syncline Wine Cellars.

Located in the Columbia Gorge, Syncline was founded by James and Poppie Mantone in 2001 (read a previously published article about Syncline Winery in Edible Seattle). At Syncline, the Mantones work with a wide assortment of Rhone varieties, including Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, Cinsault, Counoise, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Syrah. Much like McCrea Cellars, many of these are produced as varietal bottlings, though Syncline makes a number of blends as well.

“The different Rhone varieties are so complementary to each other and you really understand why you grow them all and what role they play in the blend and how important they are,” James Mantone said.

Despite more than 25 years since Syrah was first planted in Washington, Mantone says that it remains early days for Rhone varieties in the state with a lot of experimentation taking place. Which variety is best suited to which particular location and what type of clones and trellising should be used? Mantone says that by and large people are still figuring that out.

“I could take Mourvèdre as a great example,” Mantone said. “The three vineyards on Red Mountain that we work with are all really close: Heart of the Hill, which is cordon trained; Force Majeure, which is head trained goblet; and Ciel du Cheval which is fan trained. They are radically different in the vineyard. They each bring in different aspects.”

Experimentation also continues in the winery where Mantone, along with a number of other Washington winemakers, is now using concrete tanks for fermentation and aging (read a good article by Full Pull’s Paul Zitarelli in Seattle Magazine on the use of concrete in Washington here). “We really love the concrete,” Mantone said. “While stainless steel does a better job of capturing primary berry aromatics, the wines coming out of concrete are a little broader, more textural than stainless.”

What’s does the next 25 years look like for Rhone varieties in Washington? While Mantone said that he’s bullish on the prospects of Mourvèdre in particular, he is also excited about some of the white Rhone grapes as well.

“With Grenache Blanc and Picpoul, all of the sudden we have grapes that we can grow in fairly warm areas that hold onto their acids and deliver a crisp profile,” he said. The Syncline whites bear out Mantone’s enthusiasm and are among the more thrilling white wines I’ve sampled from Washington.

Will Washington come to be defined by its Rhone varieties in the years to come? Quite possibly, at least in part. Syrah has certainly already made a strong case as a signature variety for the state, though the abundance of varieties that excel here makes it more challenging for any one of them to gain more prominence than the others. Which of the numerous other Rhone varieties might take a place alongside Syrah as being particularly distinctive in Washington? That page of the book in Washington’s wine history is currently being written.

Syncline Picpoul Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2012 $NA
 (Excellent) An aromatically fresh wine with tangerine, lemon zest, mineral, the underside of a pineapple, and assorted citrus notes. The palate is full bodied, tart and puckering with a pleasing, steely blast of acidity that carries through to a lingering finish. A thoroughly delicious, must-try wine that is an acid hound’s delight. 100% Picpoul. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 14.4% alcohol. 102 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Syncline Grenache Blanc Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2012 $24
 (Excellent/Exceptional) A moderately aromatic wine with an assortment of high toned herbs, citrus peel, mineral, lemon pith, crème fraîche, and a speckling of spices. The palate is medium-plus bodied with a tight zing of citric acidity and a long, lingering finish. Sample provided by winery. 100% Grenache Blanc. Fermented and aged in concrete. 14.0% alcohol. 181 cases produced.

Syncline Grenache Columbia Valley 2011 $25
 (Good) Brings a bright assortment of savory herbs (thyme, summer savory, sage) and noble fir, along with plum and raspberries in an unusual profile. The palate is medium bodied with a tart, fresh feel and lip smacking fruit flavors. Lingers on the finish. A unique, intriguing example of the variety with a bit of a disconnect between the aromas and flavors. Have it at the dinner table to see it at its best. 100% Grenache. Sugar Loaf (30%), McKinley Springs (27%), Ciel du Cheval (26%), and Alder Ridge vineyards. Aged 12 months in three to seven year old French oak. 14.4% alcohol. 250 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Syncline Counoise Columbia Valley 2011 $30
 (Excellent/Exceptional) Moderately aromatic with high toned herbs, light peppery spices, and plum with a real sense of freshness to the notes. The palate is very fresh in feel without an ounce of oak apparent on the flavors or feel. It’s supple, fruit filled, and flavorful – all about the fruit. 78% Counoise, 22% Syrah. McKinley Springs (61%) and Ciel du Cheval vineyards. Aged 12 months in neutral French oak. 13.9% alcohol. 210 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Syncline Grenache-Carignan Columbia Valley 2011 $25
(Good/Excellent) A moderately aromatic wine with notes of Dimetapp, celery stalk, wintergreen, and mineral. The palate is broad and flavorful, supple in feel with a lingering richness. Love the flavors and feel with some aromas that distract. 55% Grenache, 45% Carignan. Northridge, Alder Ridge, McKinley Springs, and Steep Creek Ranch vineyards. Aged 14 months in neutral French oak. 13.5% alcohol. 265 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Syncline Mourvèdre Columbia Valley 2011 $30
 (Exceptional) A brooding wine with notes of ground white pepper, citrus, mineral, herbs, and a light meatiness. The palate is wonderfully fresh and textured in feel. An outstanding example of the variety with little apparent oak influence to interfere with the directness of the fruit and savory flavors. 100% Mourvèdre. Alder Ridge (42%), Heart of the Hill (29%), Coyote Canyon (19%), and Ciel du Cheval (10%) vineyards. Aged 14 months in concrete (50%) and neutral French oak. 14.8% alcohol. 388 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Syncline Mourvèdre Red Mountain 2011 $45
(Excellent) More fruit driven than its Columbia Valley counterpart with freshly pitted cherries, abundant herbs that lean ever so slightly green but ultimately stay in the savory, and spice. The palate is full bodied, rich and fruit filled with abundant cherry flavors and chewy tannins. The grape’s white pepper note is surprisingly absent here. 100% Mourvèdre. Heart of the Hill (53%), Ciel du Cheval (37%), and Grand Reve (10%) vineyards. Aged 16 months in three to seven year old French oak. 14.2% alcohol. 160 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Syncline Syrah Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2011 $35
 (Excellent) A brooding, fruit filled wine with notes of huckleberry, thyme, and blue spruce. The palate is full bodied, supple and pure in feel with tart fruit flavors and a warm finish. 100% Syrah. Fermented in concrete (50%) and open top fermenters and aged 16 months in older French oak 500-L puncheons. 14.8% alcohol. 362 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Syncline Syrah Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Mountain 2011 $50
 (Exceptional) Locked up aromatically with notes of fresh dark cherry, iron, licorice, and earth. The palate is dense and full flavored with grainy tannins and a lingering finish. 100% Syrah. Aged 16 months in three to four year old French oak. 14.3% alcohol. 145 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Syncline Cuvee Elena Columbia Valley 2011 $40
 (Exceptional) Draws you into the glass with garrigue, blackberry, cherry, and peppery spices on a wine that is still quite closed up at present but plays toward the savory. The fruit flavors show great richness, depth, and texture while retaining a sense of restraint with lip smacking tannins. A lights out beautiful wine that is a perfect assemblage of these varieties with an uber compelling mouthfeel. 37% Mourvèdre, 30% Syrah, 26% Grenache, 5% Carignan, and 2% Cinsault. 14.4% alcohol. 330 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.


Twenty-one Sparkling Wines to Ring in the New Year

Friday, December 27, 2013

Here at Washington Wine Report we like to drink sparkling wines year round and encourage you to do the same. As I am fond of saying, you wouldn’t just drink Cabernet Sauvignon on one day a year, would you? Why should sparkling wines be any different? These wines aren’t just wines for special occasions, they are wines for every occasion. Moreover, there are sparkling wines out there priced to fit most every budget. So if you are not already, make your resolution in 2014 to drink more sparkling wine. It should be one resolution that’s easy to keep!

For those looking to stick to the Pacific Northwest, consider the wines reviewed below from SynclineTreveri Cellars, and Michelle. The Syncline Brut Rosé in particular is a standout. A blend of Pinot Noir (58%) and Chardonnay from Celilo Vineyard, it’s a fascinating sparkler with a warmer climate fruit profile than often seen from Celilo Vineyard with notes of passion fruit and strawberry. As sweet as the aromas are, the palate is dry with a supremely long finish.

Whatever you drink this New Year’s eve, have a great end to 2013 and start to 2014. Happy New Year!

Syncline Scintillation Brut Rosé Celilo Vineyard Columbia Gorge NV $30
Light copper colored, it leaps up from the glass with passion fruit, guava and strawberry. The palate drinks bone dry with abundant brioche flavors and a hyperextended finish. A hugely impressive wine that shows beautiful sense of balance. 12% alcohol. (Wine Enthusiast review to be published in an upcoming issue).


Fresh Sheet June 27th 2012

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Syncline Wine Cellars
The latest releases from Syncline Wine Cellars mark some significant evolutions for this Columbia Gorge winery. Long relegated to wine club members, the winery has released small amounts of its ‘Scintillation’ sparkling wines to local markets. Hailing from Celilo Vineyard, these are beautiful bottles of bubbly. Additionally, several of the 2010 reds below were partially fermented in concrete cubes – the first time these have been used at the winery. Paired with the bright acidity of the 2010 vintage, this gives these wines an incredibly compelling freshness and purity, with the McKinley Springs Syrah and Horse Heaven Hills Mourvèdre some of my favorite releases from the winery to date.

Read previous posts on Syncline Wine Cellars here.

Scintillation Rosé Columbia Gorge 2010 $35
(Excellent) An aromatically appealing wine with floral notes, strawberry, white grapefruit and brioche. The palate is chock full of white grapefruit flavors and bright acidity. A thoroughly delicious and appropriately named sparkler. 12.0% alcohol. Dosage 9g/L. 35 cases produced.

Scintillation Brut Blanc de Blanc Columbia Gorge 2009 $40
(Excellent)A lightly aromatic, appealing wine with brioche, green apple, and spice. The palate has a slightly broader feel than its rosé counterpart with tart fruit flavors. 100% Chardonnay. Celilo Vineyard (1981 planting). Fermented in neutral barrels with native yeast. Bottled for two years en tirage. Disgorged January 2012. Dosage 5g/L. 12.0% alcohol. 200 cases produced.

Syncline Wine Cellars Roussanne McKinley Springs Vineyards Horse Heaven Hills 2010 $20
(Excellent) An aromatically compelling, complex wine with spice, pear, and floral notes. The palate is textured and medium bodied, full of pear flavors. 100% Roussanne. Whole cluster pressed into older French oak barrels with native yeast fermentation. No malolactic fermentation. 132 cases produced.

Syncline Wine Cellars Rosé Columbia Valley 2011 $18
(Good) A very pretty pale salmon colored. A lightly aromatic wine with strawberry, spice, and grapefruit notes. The palate is tart and crisp full of citrus flavors. 35% Cinsault, 32% Mourvèdre, 21% Grenache, 7% Counoise, 5% Carignan. Milbrandt, McKinley Springs, Coyote Canyon, Alder Ridge, Ciel du Cheval, and Heart of the Hill. Whole cluster pressed, fermented and aged in stainless steel. No malolactic fermentation. 13.8% alcohol. 630 cases produced. Recommended.

Syncline Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Washington State 2010 $30

(Good/Excellent) Pale ruby. Aromatics draw you into the glass with strawberry, cherry, light spices, and a foresty note. On the palate, an extremely pretty, nuanced wine with bright acid and strawberry and cherry flavors. Should age beautifully in the cellar and is, once again, Washington’s flagship bottling of Pinot Noir. 100% Pinot Noir. Celilo (51%) and Underwood Mountain vineyards. Aged 11 months in French oak (20% new). 175 cases produced.

Syncline Wine Cellars Subduction Red Red Wine Columbia Valley 2010 $20
(Good/Excellent) An aromatically appealing wine with raspberries, cherry, white pepper, and herbal notes. The palate is tart and textured with fresh, vibrant fruit flavors with a tremendous energy backed by crisp acidity. Just a baby now, give this one some time to open up or a few months in the cellar with a suggested serving temperature of 62 degrees. 31% Mourvèdre, 25% Syrah, 21% Grenache, 12% Cinsault, 7% Carignan, and 4% Counoise. Aged 11 months in French oak (5-10% new) and concrete. 14.14% alcohol. 1,600 cases produced.

Syncline Wine Cellars Mourvèdre Horse Heaven Hills 2010 $30
(Excellent/Exceptional) Wound up very tightly right now with dark cherry flavors, light herbal notes, savory notes, and sauvage. The palate is incredibly textured and restrained with tart fruit flavors and a real sense of vibrancy. This is a wine that will only get better with a few years in the cellar and will fit in perfectly at the dinner table. 100% Mourvèdre. Coyote Canyon (65%) and Alder Ridge vineyards. Fermented and aged 16 months in concrete (50%) and neutral French oak. 350 cases produced.

Syncline Wine Cellars McKinley Springs Syrah Horse Heaven Hills 2010 $30
(Excellent/Exceptional) Locked up tightly right now, this is a moderately aromatic wine with pure dark fruit, light floral notes, and a light peppery top note. The fruit flavors here are incredibly pure with tart, vibrant acidity. Among the more exciting wines I have had this year and a wine that will lay down beautifully in the cellar for years to come. 100% Syrah. Fermented in concrete (80%) and open top fermenters. Aged 16 months in neutral French oak. 500 cases produced.

An inconvenient truth about spring in Seattle: 2010 rosé round-up

Friday, May 13, 2011

There is an inconvenient truth about spring in western Washington. It’s just not very spring like!

A recent look at the daily temperatures here serves as a case in point: high of 50, low of 46. Day after day after day after day. When I asked a friend recently what the next day’s weather was going to be he said, “Raining but it’s supposed to be warmer!” with hopeful anticipation.

Rather than cloudy and overcast with a chance of rain the forecast should just say “Dreary” with an unhappy face. The weather people should all be given nine month furloughs – really.

There is the occasional sign that warmer weather is on the way. One is the beautiful, fleeting emergence of the cherry blossoms. This is, of course, before the rain mercilessly knocks the flowers to the ground like so much confetti. Another is wine store shelves lined with rosé.

To me, the release of rosé always seems like a cruel joke. It is akin to clothing stores selling shorts in the midst of February. Who wants to buy rosé when the heat is still on and the fleece is still out?

Somebody does. But who are these people?

Sure as you’re born, most of the rosé is snapped up long before the weather calls for it. Perhaps there is a mulled rosé recipe somewhere that I am unfamiliar with?

Personally, I tend to think that it is a sign of western Washington’s desperation at this time of year. People think that if perhaps they stock up on enough warm weather wine, friendlier temperatures must surely follow. Poor souls. They have lived here too long. Their brains are permanently rain-soaked.

So here we are in spring 2011 with the weather cold and rainy and a new vintage of Washington rosé upon us, destined to disappear in the blink of an eye.

Before delving into the particulars, let me first say a few words about rosé. Rosé can be made from most any grape. This is not to say, however, that it should be made from any grape. A recent experience on a tasting panel at the Seattle Wine Awards serves as a case in point. Among a flight of somewhat depressing wines was a Cabernet Sauvignon rosé and a Merlot rosé. Yuck and yuck. Another rosé was even oaked. Yuck!

What’s the deal?

There are different ways of making rosé. One is called the saignee method where a winemaker takes the fermenting juice and bleeds some off to make rosé. This has the dual effect of creating immediate cash flow and also concentrating the remaining fermenting must which will be turned into red wine. This is why one often sees rosés with alcohol levels of 14.5 to 15 percent (yuck) similar to the final alcohol of the red wine it is made from. It is also why one sees grapes that are not traditionally used for rosé, such as the aforementioned Cabernet and Merlot. The latter would not be so bad if the wines were priced more accordingly. Most often they are not. Another method – less frequently done – is blending some red wine with white wine grapes.

Some grow grapes for the explicit purpose of creating rosé. The picking decisions come a bit earlier to retain freshness and acidity. The winemaking techniques change a bit. While this isn’t necessary, for me, the best rosés are often created with the grape growing in mind.

One thing to keep in mind is that rosés can have varying levels of sweetness, with some bone dry and others treacley sweet. This is somewhat of a personal preference depending on whether one is looking for your grandmother’s porch pounder (off-dry to sweet) or a mouthwatering summer sipper (dry). Unfortunately there is usually no way to tell the style from the label so caveat emptor (the wines listed below are all dry with the exception of the Kaella).

Perhaps the most exciting thing about rosé is the rainbow of different colors. Of course rainbows require the sun to see them so please look outside of the Pacific Northwest. Rosés range from copper to salmon, pale pink to strawberry red. Note that the color only speaks to the amount of skin contact and not to how dry or sweet the wine may be. Even the aromas can be deceiving with some showing so much fruit that it seems like the wine must be sweet when in fact it is bone dry.

On to this year’s crop. What follows is a list from what I have sampled this year (more to follow). Of particular note is the 2010 Tranche Cellars Pink Pape, a new offering from this winery and the first wine released from the winery’s estate vineyard, Blue Mountain. Only 168 cases of this Rhone varietal based blend were made so it is destined to be short-lived but is definitely worth seeking out.

Syncline Wine Cellars, who often produces a rosé that I dream about – literally, this year created a wine boasting a healthy dose of Pinot Noir. This would seem a sure sign of last year’s cool and challenging growing season. Wait. Or was that this year?

Let’s be clear. 2010 is gone and warmer days are surely ahead in 2011. So stock up on rosé before the warm weather gets here. Because by then, all of this year’s rosé will surely be gone.

Here’s to warmer times and climes.

Syncline Wine Cellars Rosé Columbia Valley 2010 $18
Rating: * (Excellent) Pale salmon colored. A moderately aromatic wine marked by spice, watermelon, strawberry, and sour cherry. Fleshy and full feeling on the palate while retaining extremely crisp acidity on this bone dry offering. This is a red wine drinker’s rose with a level of complexity seldom seen in domestic offerings. 33% Pinot Noir, 17% Grenache, 17% Cinsault, 15% Carignan, 9% Mourvedre, and 9% Counoise. Celilo, Underwood, Milbrandt, McKinley Springs, Coyote Canyon, Alder Ridge, Ciel du Cheval, and Heart of the Hill vineyards.


Fresh Sheet February 2nd 2011

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


With the exception of Woodinville – which is located about 20 minutes from Seattle – most of Washington wine country is located two or more hours from a major metropolitan area. Until recently when areas such as the Walla Walla Valley have gained national cachet, this has made it more difficult to drive enough tourism to allow large numbers of wineries to prosper and amenities to grow around them.

While many Washington wineries have obviously prospered despite this, recently, several emerging wine regions in the state have benefited from setting up shop in areas with built-in tourist industries. Specifically, wineries in the Columbia Gorge, Leavenworth, and Lake Chelan have been able to take advantage of these area’s massive levels of tourism to sell large percentages of wine directly out of the tasting room.

Although these wine regions are relatively young and the quality wines at of some of the wineries is spotty, wineries such as Syncline Wine Cellars, located in the Columbia Gorge, and Boudreaux Cellars, located in Leavenworth, have set the bar high and stand among the best wineries the state. Others seem likely to follow their lead.

Syncline Wine Cellars

Syncline Wine Cellars is the standard bearer in the Columbia Gorge. Located in Lyle, Washington, the winery sources fruit from a mixture of vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, and Columbia Gorge.

Syncline focuses largely on Rhone varietals. Each wine bears winemaker James Mantone’s distinctive style of vibrant fruit aromas and flavors. Reflective of Manton’s hands-off approach, grapes for most of Syncline’s wines are destemmed but not crushed before being pressed. The wines are subsequently aged in minimal amounts of new oak – between zero and ten percent for the wines reviewed below. The result is incredibly vibrant, deliciously fresh fruit flavors.

Among the Columbia Gorge AVA wines Syncline makes are perhaps Washington’s finest Pinot Noir (reviewed here) and what I believe may be the state’s only Grüner Veltliner (I write this only in hopes that someone will correct me and I will find another).

In addition to his work at Syncline Wine Cellars, Mantone is also one of the winemakers for the Grand Reve Vintners Collaboration Series wines.

Syncline Roussanne Horse Heaven Hills 2009 $22
Rating: + (Good) A pretty, moderately aromatic wine with light spices and scents of freshly spun cotton. The palate is evenly balanced with a rounded feel. 100% Roussanne. McKinley Springs (74%) and Alder Ridge (26%). Barrel fermented and aged in neutral French oak. 325 cases produced.

Syncline Subduction Red Columbia Valley 2009 $18
Rating: + (Good) Dusky spices, fresh, brambly berries, and light red fruit mark this pleasing, moderately aromatic wine. The palate is exceptionally clean with fresh strawberry fruit and umami flavors with barely a trace of oak showing through. For lovers of low oak wines, this is nirvana. 39% Mourvedre, 19% Counoise, 17% Syrah, 16% Grenache, 6% Cinsault, and 3% Carignan. Aged for 11 months in French oak (5-10% new). 1,488 Cases produced. Recommended

Syncline Grenache/Carignan Columbia Valley 2009 $20
Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) Somewhat dusty and aromatically quiet with light strawberries showing through along with mineral notes. The palate is dry and tart with a generous portion of clean fruit flavors. A little up front initially, this wine needs some time to full come into its own but offers ample rewards.

Syncline Cuvee Elena Columbia Valley 2008 $35
Rating: * (Excellent) Light herbal and floral notes mix with wild blueberries, raspberries, mineral notes, and a whiff of pepper. The palate is seamlessly stitched together with impeccable balance. Bright acidity and incredibly fresh, clean fruit flavors persist on and on long after the last sip. 48% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 13% Syrah, 10% Counoise, and 5% Cinsault. Northridge, Coyote Canyon, and McKinley Springs vineyards. Aged in 225L and 700L French oak (2nd and 3rd fill) for 16 months. 250 cases produced.

Syncline Cellars Grüner Veltliner Underwood Mountain Vineyard Columbia Gorge 2009 $20
Rating: * (Excellent) A complex but lightly aromatic wine with spice, straw, abundant mineral notes, a hint of tropical fruit, and beeswax. Mouthwatering acidity on the palate with a pleasing, textured mouthfeel. 100% Grüner Veltliner. Underwood Mountain. 12.5% alcohol. 125 cases produced.



In search of…Washington State Pinot Noir

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Among the accomplishments of Washington as a wine region has not just been the ability to produce world-class wine but also the ability to grow a wide variety of grapes very well. The list of grapes that have succeeded in Washington includes Merlot, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc to name just a few. These grapes all grow well and, in some cases, distinctively in the state. The Washington Wine Commission has even utilized the state’s success in growing different grapes in its branding, calling Washington ‘The Perfect Climate for Wine.’

Despite this success, one grape in particular has remained largely elusive in Washington – Pinot Noir. While Pinot Noir has flourished to the south in Oregon, it has failed to gain a foothold in Washington. Recently, growers in the Lake Chelan area have expressed optimism about the grape’s prospects there. Indeed, I have had an intriguing bottle from Chelan Estate Winery and a barrel sample that showed great promise from Hard Row to Hoe which utilized Chelan Estate grapes.

However, much of the Pinot I have had from Washington comes off as citrusy and lacks many of the compelling varietal aromas and flavors associated with Pinot. As the movie Sideways taught the world, Pinot is a thin-skinned grape and finding the right microclimate for it – not too hot and not too cold – is essential to its success.

Two wines I have tried recently show progress for Pinot in Washington. The first comes from Syncline Wine Cellars. Syncline Wine Cellars is located in the Columbia Gorge in Lyle, Washington. The winery – which largely focuses on Rhone varieties – gets its Pinot Noir from Celilo Vineyard and Underwood Mountain. While Celilo is best known for its Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, Celilo also has a two-acre Pinot Noir block that was planted in 1972. The vines are located on a bluff above the Columbia Gorge, which provides both warm temperatures and a moderating influence from the river. Underwood Mountain, where the remainder of the fruit for the winery’s 2008 offering comes from, is adjacent to Celilo. The Syncline 2008 Pinot Noir is bright and fruit-filled with pleasing acidity and extremely restrained oak.

The second wine comes from Kyra Wines. Kyra is located in Moses Lake, Washington. Kyra Baerlocher serves as winemaker. Kyra offers a distinctive lineup of red wines that includes Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Kyra also makes a number of white wines, including a winery favorite Chenin Blanc. Kyra gets its Pinot from several vineyards throughout the state, including Evergreen (Ancient Lakes), Bergh (Okanagan), Blue Lake (Okanagan), and Underwood Mountain (Gorge). The Kyra Pinot Noir is a very enjoyable, clean wine that definitely identifies itself as Pinot Noir and is extremely well priced.

While both of these bottles show promise, it still seems difficult to imagine that Pinot Noir will make significant inroads in Washington any time soon. With vintners focusing on so many other grapes and Oregon having laid such a strong claim to Pinot Noir, bottlings in Washington will most likely remain reasonably rare. However, Washington growers and winemakers love experimenting, so I wouldn’t count this thin-skinned grape out.

Syncline Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Celilo Vineyard Columbia Gorge 2008 $28
Rating: + (Good) A moderately aromatic nose that shows fresh raspberries, strawberries, and a hint of mushroom. A bright, fruit filled wine with a pleasing zing of acidity and extremely restrained oak. Celilo and Underwood Mountain vineyards. Aged in French oak (20% new). 258 cases produced.


Screw It! Part II: The experience of six Washington wineries using alternative closures

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Recently I wrote about why I have come to believe in alternative wine closures. Today I write about six Washington wineries that have made the switch, focusing on what made them decide to use alternative closures, what type of research they conducted prior to making the change, and what consumer response has been. The wineries listed here range from small to large. It is not a comprehensive list but rather is intended as a hopefully representative sample (others feel free to chime in with your experiences).

Syncline Wine Cellars, located in the Columbia Gorge, uses both screw caps and glass stoppers. Winemaker James Mantone says, “We have been proudly cork-free for four years. Sold our corker two years ago, never looked back.” In terms of making the decision to switch from cork, Mantone says, “We were encountering too many purchased wines that were either tainted or had cork failure and were concerned what the consumer reaction might be to a similar problem in our wines.”
Mantone continues saying, “Beyond the TCA issue is the inconsistency in cork. Some great research out of Australia showed that there could be as much as 1,000x difference in oxygen transmission rates in a single bag of purchased corks. How do you attend to this as a producer, or anticipate its affects on your cellared wine as a consumer?”

Syncline Cellars started out using Stelvin screw caps until Mantone came across a glass stopper on an Austrian wine. Mantone did a good deal of research in deciding to start using glass stoppers and screw caps. He continues to. Mantone says, “As (glass stoppers) were so new there was very little research available, only information from the manufacturer and a few wineries that had used it for a year. We began adding the glass stoppers to the trials we were conducting comparing cork to Stelvin. We were measuring SO2 levels pre and post bottling, and six months past and were finding some dramatic results.” What Mantone found was that the SO2 levels – a preservative added to wine – had dropped significantly in bottles closed with cork while levels were maintained in screw cap and glass stopper bottles. He decided to make the change. Doing so also allowed Mantone to lower the amount of sulfites added to the wine.

Mantone continues to taste wines from the original trials and evaluate the closures. He says, “A six year old Subduction Red is far fresher under Stelvin than under cork, and has begun to develop secondary bottle aromatics while maintaining brighter fruit than the cork finished wine.” In terms of consumer response, Mantone says, “When we first introduced the screw cap there was a little resistance from the consumer, but by now it has mostly evaporated.”

Mike Sharadin of Northwest Totem Cellars also uses glass stoppers. In deciding to use an alternative closure he says, “I read about the closure within a week of having a very nice personal bottle of Penfold RWT corked. So seeing it was an elegant solution though slightly more expensive than premium cork, I rationalized stepping up the cost as a cost I did not have to incur later in replacing product or losing customers.”

Sharadin has seen a positive response from consumers. “Consumer response has been amazing!” he says. “They remember the bottle for obvious reasons and have a high stickiness in leaving restaurants with a stopper in their pocket. Additionally, we now sterilize those returned to us in the winery and reuse them. About 3,000 have been returned in our ‘customer loyalty’ program that is simply use, reuse.”

Prosser’s Airfield Estates uses screw caps for its wines. Winemaker Marcus Miller was inspired to use screw caps after talking with winemakers from New Zealand and Australia. Miller says, “One of the first questions I would ask these winemakers was about the screw cap closure. Eventually I was won over by all of the wonderful arguments they put forward.” In terms of consumer response, Miller says, “We have only had a hand full of people that maintained opposition to screw caps after explaining to them the benefits it has over using cork as a closure. Most of these people are cork salesmen.”

Perhaps the largest winery in Washington State to use screw caps is Hogue Cellars. Hogue conducted a multi-year study looking at the effectiveness of various types of closures (see additional information here). The winery concluded that screw caps held fruit and maintained freshness better than cork or synthetics. Hogue brand wines, which account for seventy percent of the winery’s production, are now under screw cap. The winery has not seen any adverse consumer response.

Winemaker Thomas Glase at Walla Walla’s Balboa Winery started out using Stelvin screw caps but recently made a change to conglomerate corks. Glase says, “When we started this little adventure in 2005 we felt that Stelvin closures were the best fit for us. Our wines were early to market and at the time no one else was using them. We never had any problems with them. Last year for the 2008 vintage we decided to go to a conglomerate cork. We bottled half of the syrah and half of the merlot with each. As it turned out the wines with the conglomerate cork sold first.”

Glase’s decision to switch to conglomerate cork was not just based on a difference in consumer response. It was also based on environmental concerns. Glase says, “The conglomerate cork is made from the left over cork bark after the main corks have been punched. They are 98% TCA free and cost half of what a Stelvin closure costs. They also take one-third the energy to produce. We also eliminated the foil. In this business I would say 100% of what we create turns into waste, so we wanted to minimize our impact on the environment, and I think we have.” Glase says consumer response has been positive.

Walla Walla’s Dusted Valley Vintners has been a major advocate for screw caps. In deciding to use screw caps, Corey Braunel says of cork, “It is an organic material with variability in structure which leads to variability in the transfer of oxygen into the wine which could create bottle to bottle differences or destroy the wine completely. We also know that 1 in 20 corks (conservative) will be tainted by a chlorine derived molecule called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA).”

Braunel says, “We were the first winery in Washington State to use screw caps on 100% of our bottlings starting with the 2005 vintage. We’re a small family-owned winery that can’t afford the risk of losing a Dusted Valley convert because of a bad cork. Over 80% of folks don’t even realize they may be drinking a tainted bottle. But, what they do know is they don’t like what’s in the bottle of a tainted cork.”

Braunel says that customer response has been extremely positive – with one exception. He says, “We’ve only had one guy in four vintages give us a hard time about abandoning cork. He said, ‘it took the romance out of it for him.’ His wife was standing there with him and she rolled her eyes at me. So, I said, ‘Forgive me but shouldn’t the romance happen after the bottle is gone? I guess I don’t get what’s romantic about the ‘pop’ of a wine bottle.’ His wife damn near died on the spot and he was a good enough sport in that he said, ‘OK you got me!’ He joined the Stained Tooth Society and purchased six bottles.”


Syncline Wine Cellars

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The story of Syncline Wine Cellars is not just one of fine wine. It is also a love story. James and Poppie Mantone were working at LaVelle Vineyards in the Willamette Valley when they met, fell in love, and decided to start a winery together. In 2001, the couple relocated to the Columbia Gorge and started their new venture – Syncline Wine Cellars. Ava Mantone (pictured in middle) joined the winemaking team in 2004.

Syncline is located in Lyle, Washington, just off the Lewis and Clark Highyway and within view of the winding Columbia River. The winery is situated on a sprawling farm where dogs and turkeys roam the grounds. Syncline is named after a geological formation near the winery known locally as the Coyote Wall Syncline, a series of cliffs rising up from the Columbia River.

The winery’s first offering was in 2001 – seventy-six cases of Celilo Vineyard Pinot Noir. Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah were added in the next vintage. It was around this time that I was first introduced to Syncline’s wines. The first I tried was the Subduction Red, at the time a Cabernet-based blend. Two things impressed me about this wine. The first was the careful touch shown in the winemaking. The second was the excellent price point (I also loved the artsy blue-green labels with the image of a fish). While the winery has since decided to focus on Rhone varietals and has phased out using Cabernet and Merlot (and also gone with a more traditional, white label), the focus on high quality wines at reasonable prices has remained. The Subduction Red in particular, while now a Rhone-style blend, is consistently a standout for the price.

Winemaker James Mantone brings to the winery a background in microbiology and organic chemistry. Mantone shows a restrained touch, going easy on the oak and letting the grapes speak largely for themselves. The results are elegant, food friendly wines with focused fruit aromas and flavors. Syncline uses fruit from excellent vineyard sources including Coyote Canyon, Milbrandt, Celilo, and Destiny Ridge vineyards. Syncline also has a small estate vineyard, Steep Creek Ranch, located next to the winery. The vineyard, which is on the eastern edge of the Columbia Gorge AVA and is farmed biodynamically, had its first estate bottling released earlier this year.

While the Mantone’s have only one acre of their estate vineyard planted, they are planning to expand the site in the future. On a recent visit to the winery, James discussed plans for planting on the south-facing slopes near the winery. The land is angled and rocky, sure to create a number of challenges when planting and farming the land. Due to the rocky terrain, James does not expect they will be able to plant in a traditional, uniform way. “You need to redefine your idea of what you want a vineyard to look like,” he says. The Mantones expect early ripening Rhone varietals to be the focus of these plantings.

In addition to his work at Syncline, James Mantone is also one of the winemakers working on the Grand Rêve project. Look for his Collaboration VI in future Grand Rêve releases.

Syncline Wine Cellars produces approximately 3,000 cases of wine annually.


Syncline Wine Cellars Cuvee Elena Columbia Valley 2007 $35       Rating: *
Fairly closed on the nose when first opened with wild blueberries and currant. As it opens up, still restrained but the blueberry becomes more expressive. Beautifully polished on the palate with abundant smooth fruit, herbal streaks, and barely a trace of oak. An elegant wine that needs time to open up. 70% Grenache, 17% Mourvedre, 9% Carignan, 2% Cinsault, 2% Syrah. Northridge, Coyote Canyon, and McKinley Springs vineyards. 14.3% alcohol. 275 cases produced.

Syncline Wine Cellars Roussanne Horse Heaven Hills 2008 $22         Rating: *
Pale golden colored. A faint, elusive nose when first opened with light tropical fruit. Over time, the nose develops with spice, mineral, and creek aromas. Richly textured on the palate with an exceptional mouthfeel and a beautiful finish. 100% Roussanne (Alder Ridge and McKinley Springs vineyards). 14.2% alcohol. 300 cases produced.

Syncline Wine Cellars Subduction Red Columbia Valley 2008 $18       Rating: +
Fairly light in color. An aromatic nose that is initially Grenache-driven with red fruit, particularly raspberries, strawberries, and red currant, along with a dusting of earth. As it opens up, violets, berries, and traces of game emerge. A light bodied, acid-driven wine that dances along the palate. A slightly saline taste. Almost shockingly restrained with barely a trace of oak. Loses a bit of its rhythm about 2/3 of the way through but comes back together. Lingers a bit tartly on the finish. A lot of wine for the money and a perfect wine to pair with food. 26% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 24% Cinsault, 12% Mourvedre, 9% Counoise, 4% Carignan. Aged in 5-10% new oak. 14.1% alcohol. 1,770 cases produced. Recommended.

Syncline Wine Cellars Subduction White Columbia Valley 2008 $18      Rating: +
Pale straw colored. An engaging nose with spice, apple, and floral notes. Tart, crisp, and acidic on the palate. Sometimes the blend seems to come off and sometimes it doesn’t. Pair this wine with the right food to cut down on the acid, and it will shine. 42% Chardonnay (Celilo Vineyard), 30% Roussanne (Alder Ridge), 28% Viognier (Coyote Canyon). 13.7% alcohol. 385 cases produced.


Grand Rêve

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Grand Rêve, French for “great dream,” was founded in 2004 by Paul McBride and Ryan Johnson. Grand Rêve takes a unique approach to making wine, pairing top Washington winemakers with fruit from one of the state’s top vineyards – Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. Johnson, who serves as vineyard manager for Ciel, selects the blocks to be used for the project. Johnson also manages Cadence’s Cara Mia, Quilceda’s Galitzine Estate, and DeLille’s Grand Ciel vineyards – an exceptionally impressive portfolio.

Grand Rêve begun its Collaboration Series in 2004. Thus far winemakers they have partnered with have included Ben Smith, of Cadence Winery (Release I); Mark McNeilly, of Mark Ryan Winery (II); Ross Mickel of Ross Andrew Winery (III); Carolyn Lakewold of Dondei (IV); and Chris Gorman of Gorman Winery (V). The first three of these wines were released earlier this year. Most recently, Grand Rêve announced Syncline Wine Cellar’s James Mantone would serve as winemaker for Release VI.

At the picnic for the Auction of Washington Wines last week, Grand Rêve provided barrel samples of Chris Gorman’s Release No. 5. This wine, from the 2008 vintage, is 88% Grenache and 12% Syrah. While quiet on the nose at present with Ciel’s tell-tale earth and floral aromas just starting to emerge, Release No. 5 glides beautifully across the palate with well-integrated oak. This wine continues what seems to be an increasing trend in Washington of high alcohol levels – clocking in at a whopping 15.8%. The planned released date is Spring 2010.

While Grand Rêve is currently focusing its efforts on Ciel du Cheval, the winery has plans to use its own estate fruit in the future. Two years ago the winery planted an estate vineyard on Red Mountain, high on the hillside above Col Solare’s facility on Antinori Road. The winery worked with geologist Alan Busacca to determine which varietals and clones would best match the soil. As a result, the plantings are a patchwork that twist and turn. The first fruit from this estate vineyard is expected next year.