Give me people who care

Consider the natural wine movement. I do, often.

It is not perfect, but at least most people who align themselves with this movement care. They believe in something, and it matters to them. It drives them; it motivates them; it underpins their work.

Oftentimes, I worry that I don’t care enough.

I want to be surrounded by people with conviction.

Yes, conviction has its baggage. But lack of conviction is even worse: if you lack it, you don’t do too much wrong, but that’s because you don’t do anything.

So give me people who care. People who are brave, and who act. In the wine world, we owe a great debt to people who, driven by strong conviction, have cared enough to take risks and pursue their vision. And let’s spare a thought for those who have taken this approach and, for one reason or another, have failed. They are the wine world’s unsung heroes.

Wakefield The Pioneer Shiraz and The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon

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Wakefield, known in Australia as Taylors, are a leading Clare Valley producer, and they have recently begun making two very high-end wines: The Pioneer Shiraz and The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon. I tasted the 2012 releases. These are very fine, expressive wines, not just relying on power and concentration. They are fermented in upturned barrels, which are sealed for a post ferment maceration, then cleaned and re-used to mature the wine in.

Wakefield The Pioneer Shiraz 2014 South Australia
14% alcohol. Fresh, vivid nose of pure cherries and plums with some hints of mint and spice, as well as a bit of blackberry. The palate is vivid and fresh with nice precision to the berry fruits and some fine spiciness. There’s a juiciness here as well as good concentration of fruit, and everything is nicely supported by fine-grained tannins. Sleek and refined, and not in any way a monster, with real elegance. This should have a long future. 94/100

Wakefield The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Clare Valley, Australia
14% alcohol. Lovely aromatics: very Aussie with blackcurrant bud, mint, spice and cedar notes acting together in harmony. The palate shows sweet blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with some fine black cherry notes. There’s a nice savoury spiciness here and a real sense of harmony. Great potential for further development. 94/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

Washington State wine adventure, day 6

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Travelling companions Richard Hemming and Treve Ring

The last day of a really interesting trip. The subtle temptation when you are touring wine country is to be nice and like every wine you taste. People love praise, and dishing it out makes you feel good. Besides, even the people who make spoofy wines are often nice humans. But if praise is dished out indiscriminately, then you are a lousy wine writer. Producers might love you, but readers will soon tire of your cheap affirmation of the good and bad alike.

I have tasted some great wines on this trip, but also some fairly lousy ones. If you want to be bad, the climate in Washington State can facilitate your evil winemaking (as can the law that allows you to water back must to 22 Brix: so if your customers have a predilection for sweet fruit, you can pick late – at dead fruit stage – and then correct cheaply in the winery. This sort of manipulation isn’t evil of itself, but it can be abused.)

Columbia Crest

Columbia Crest

Anyway, back to the last day. From Walla Walla we drove along the Columbia River, past the famous Wallula gap, and on to the Horse Heaven Hills wine region, where we visited Columbia Crest, an enormous winemaking facility that’s part of the Chateau Ste Michelle group. They have 100 000 barrels here: this should give you some idea of the scale of the operation. It’s not only the Columbia Crest wines that are made here, but also some of the other related brands.

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Columbia Crest make lots of perfectly good, simple, inexpensive wines, but there’s not much to be said about these bottles. Moving up slightly in price, for $12, I quite liked the H3 Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay and Cabernet, which were decent wines. At the more expensive end ($35) they make a good Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot-based Walter Clore Private Reserve. They are good, but have quite a bit of winemaking to them.

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Then we headed further along the river to the Columbia Gorge AVA. Suddenly, we’re out of the very dry, almost desert-like scenery of most of the Columbia Valley, and we’re dealing with some greenness; some trees. There’s rainfall here, and it’s possible to dry-grow vines in certain spots.

Maryhill

Maryhill

We met with four different producers who are based in this AVA at the Maryhill tasting room, which has some lovely views.

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First of all, Maryhill. It’s an interesting 75 000 case winery making 57 different wines from 33 different varieties, which might be something of a record. My favourite was the Sugarloaf Vineyard Carmenere, with its supple, elegant, rounded blackberry and raspberry fruit.

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Brian McCormick

Brian McCormick

Then Idiot’s Grace/Memaloose, who farm vineyards on both the Oregon and Washington State sides of the border. Brian McCormick makes really elegant, fresh wines here, and I particularly liked his Dolcetto and Cabernet Franc, which are beautifully focused and pure. Viticulture is organic. One to watch, for sure.

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Dan Greer

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COR cellars is interesting. They have a focus on Bordeaux varieties, but also play with some other things. Cor is Latin for heart, but it was also a term that we used as kids as a generally enthusiastic and sometimes crude term of positive affirmation. Winemaker Luke Bradford wasn’t around, but we were ably hosted by assistant winemaker Dan Greer. The Alba Cor, a textured blend of Gewurztrminer and Pinot Gris from the Celilo Vineyard, is stylish and elegant. I also liked the Hogsback Ridge Vineyard Malbec, which comes from a cool site and has really pretty black cherry and raspberry fruit. I’ve had a few interesting Washington State Malbecs this trip.

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James Mantone

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The final producer of the trip: Syncline, with owner James Mantone. Pronounced ‘Sin-Clin’, the wines are a product of the place, where the wetter western Columbia Gorge meets the drier, eastern side. James says that he has ‘a crazy love affair with Champagne,’ and has worked with JL Denois. His Scintillation Brut Rosé, pale in colour, is quite special. I loved his Gruner Veltliner and his Celilo Vineyard Pinot Noir (delicate, elegant), and I was also a fan of his Grenache/Carignan Blend from the Horse Heaven Hills. This was officially the last wine of the trip, and it was lovely.

Washington State wine adventure, day 5

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Day 5. By this stage, our small group of four had begun to develop quite a bond. And there had been no arguments or cross words. Just a lot of banter. In fact, my travelling companions had amassed enough material to take me down, if ever they were to choose to share indiscreetly. But there is a rule: what goes on in the hot tub time machine of a vehicle we were journeying in, stays in the tub.

The day began with a few hours in the company of Kevin Pogue (pictured, top), who is a geology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla. Kevin took us on a tour, showing us the different terroirs, and explaining the large-scale geological events that have formed the various soils in eastern Washington. This was really interesting, and deserves its own post.

Cayuse, Rocks AVA

Cayuse, Rocks AVA

Kevin also showed us the new appellation in Walla Walla, called the Rocks. Or, to give it its full name, the Rocks District of Millton Freewater. He was involved in setting this up, and it became an AVA earlier this year. It is a pretty homogeneous AVA, with 97% of the 4000 acres sharing the same soil type. It’s basically an alluvial fan of the Walla Walla River, where the river leaves the Blue Mountains and enters the Walla Walla Valley. And this is the complicated bit: Rocks is entirely in Oregon, but is part of the Walla Walla AVA, which is shared between Oregon and Washington State. So a Washington State winery making a Walla Walla wine from the Rocks can’t label it Washington State, but because the winery is out of state, it can’t really be labelled Oregon, either. Currently there are 300 acres planted, and as you can see from this picture of Cayuse’s vineyard, it’s a distinctive-looking terroir.

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Basaltic terroir, Ferguson

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Ferguson

From here we went to a very different terroir. Kevin showed us the typical deep sandy/silty sediment that was deposited by massive flood events 10 000 years ago and before. These fine sediments, many of them blown by the wind (loess) are the typical top soils in eastern Washington, and they are very low in organic material: they’re young, and there’s so little rain here. They’re known as exotic soils, because they don’t belong here, and are unrelated to the parent bed rock, which is a huge thick layer of basalt (volcanic origin).

The next stop we were shown was quite different. It was the Ferguson vineyard at 1400 feet, which is a very thin layer of loess over the top of 15 million year old basalt. This was above the flood layer, so doesn’t have the same sediment deposits.

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Finally, we looked at a new, promising area for viticulture, which is the cool-climate south fork of the Walla Walla river. Kevin is working with a land owner here to assess the potential for vines.

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Then, Leonetti. One of Walla Walla’s pioneers, and a real success story. It was started by Gary Figgins (above), back in 1977. Gary had been friends with Rick Small, and the two of them were army reserves together. Trips down to Napa got them thinking that they could grow grapes in Walla Walla, so Gary started Leonetti and Rick started Woodward Canyon.

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We spent time with Gary’s son Chris (above), who now runs Leonetti. He’s a really thoughtful guy who’s working on farming soils, not just vines, and is interested in soil microlife. He also changed the style of the Leonetti wines when he took over, bringing them back a bit from the extremes. They’re now superbly polished but elegant with it. Their deserved success has meant that there’s now a four-year wait to join the mailing list to buy them.

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We were off to fellow pioneer Woodward Canyon for lunch and a tasting, with Jordan Dunn-Small and Sager Small, who are the kids of founder Rick. The treat here was a chance to taste the 1999 Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon, which had aged really nicely. It was noticeably lower in alcohol than the current wines. ‘We want the wines to be full and bright but not overly alcoholic,’ says Jordan. ‘We are definitely working on it, and trying to figure out a good solution.’

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Greg Harrington

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Brandon Moss

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The next visit was super-exciting: Gramercy Cellars with Greg Harrington and Brandon Moss. I was so thrilled by the detail, purity and elegance that these wines showed. Syrah is the real focus here, and the Gramercy Syrahs have an almost Burgundian feel to them. I especially liked the Lagniappe and John Lewis Syrahs from 2012. Pretty much everything is fabulous here.

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Then it was time for dinner. We dined with Marty Clubb and his daughter Rebecca, from L’Ecole 41. They’re quite famous for their inexpensive but tasty Semillon, which sells for just $15, and is delicious. Their Chenin Blanc is also lovely. At 45 000 cases annual production, L’Ecole 41 is the 12 largest winery in the state, which shows how small scale some of the producers are. We tasted two of the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons: the second vintage of the Ferguson Vineyard, 2012, and the 2012 Perigee from Seven Hills Vineyard. Both are dense and vivid, needing time to develop and show their best, but they are very promising.

 

Washington State wine adventure, day 4

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Day 4 of this Washington State wine adventure was full of incident and fun. This is really proving to be an interesting trip, with lots of contrasts. We began at Pacific Rim, with winemaker Steven Sealock (above, tasting tanks with Richard and Treve). The story? Way back when, Randall Grahm did some graduate work in Trier, Germany. Here, he fell in love with Riesling, and then later he decided to make some – these sort of wines just weren’t available in North America. His first Pacific Rim Rieslings blended together fruit from California, Oregon and Washington, together with a quarter of German Riesling. Typical Randall.

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After a while, he realized that the best component to these wines was the one coming from Washington. So he decided to build a winery in Washington, and gradually phased out the German component. While Randall sold a bunch of brands in 2005, he kept the Pacific Rim operation until 2011, and now it is owned by the Marianis of Banfi. It’s a 95% Riesling winery, making around 250 000 cases each year.

The wines are affordable and consistently good, with a real highlight being the 2010 Riesling Made With Organic Grapes. I also liked he 2013 Dry Riesling which represents great value at $10-12.

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Next stop was Gordon Estate, a 100 acre estate vineyard on the banks of the Snake River. Originally named Gordon Brothers, it was established in 1980 by Jeff and Bill Gordon. The claim to fame? This was Washington State’s first estate winery, and at this time there were just 19 wineries in the state, with 5000 acres of vines planted. Bill has since retired from the winery.

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We met with Jeff for a tasting in his beautiful home, looking down onto the river. ‘Washington State has a really good climate for Merlot and Syrah,’ he says. ‘Last year we sold a vintage and a half of Merlot: Merlot is really coming back in Washington.’ I particularly liked the Gordon Merlot and Syrah, but all the wines are pretty consistent here, offering good value for money.

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Next, we visited the impressive, ambitious Long Shadows winery. This is the project of Allen Shoup, who has an interesting history in Washington State wine.

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Originally from the cosmetics business, Allen then worked for Gallo before moving to LA to become head of Max Factor marketing. Then, he was hired by Chateau Ste Michelle and became CEO,  position he held for 17 years. It is hard to underestimate the importance of Ste Michelle to the Washington State wine industry, and although Allen humbly suggests that he merely did what any other fairly smart individual would have done in the situation, under his watch company revenues grew from $5m to $175m, and the state’s vineyard area rose from 5000 acres to 30 000 acres.

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Allen left Ste Michelle in 2000, and began his own venture. Aware from his Ste Michelle days of how much positive impact a joint venture with a leading international consultant could have on sales (Eroica with Ernie Loosen had been a great success), he focused on his Vintners Collection of wines, where leading winemakers joined forces with Long Shadows to create special wines. He’s enlisted the help of Randy Dunn, Michel Rolland, the Folinaris, Philippe Melka, John Duval and Armin Diel as consulting partners for these wines.

The wines here are all very good. There are some highlights: I particularly like the Poet’s Leap Riesling, Feather Cabernet Sauvignon and Sequel Syrah. But they are ripe wines, weighing in with late 14s alcohol (for the reds), and accompanying sweetness and richness. They can carry it, bit I suspect they might be even better picked just a bit earlier. But there’s no doubting their quality, and they fit with the flavour profile that seems to do so well with the domestic market here – and, of course, many of the established US critics.

Allen was a smart and engaging host. After we’d badgered him for his story, he interviewed Treve, Richard and I, asking each of us pertinent questions. A consummate chat show host, I was really impressed by the way he’d researched each of our areas of expertise. A youthful 72, Allen is a really astute guy who represents a real asset to the Washington State wine scene.

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Then we hit Walla Walla, and a beautiful old 1904 building that was previously a cabinet-making plane mill. This is the home to Seven Hills Winery, and we met with owners Casey and Vicky McLellan, and sales/marketing dude Eric McLaughlin.

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‘We tend to pick a little earlier than others,’ says Casey, ‘and use a little less oak. The aim is to let the vineyard personality show through.’ He’s also a fan of Merlot. ‘Merlot is exceptionally suited to Washington State.’

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We tried current releases plus some older bottles. I really like these wines. The Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are both lovely, and the Pentad, a blend of the five best of the six Bordeaux red varieties each year, is quite special. I loved the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was quite beautiful. Small quantities of varietal Malbec and Petit Verdot are also made, and these are really interesting.

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Then Charles Smith rocked up. There has been lots written about Walla Walla’s rockstar winegrower, and I can’t add much to this. The dude that is Charles is quite a presence. He owns seven different wine brands. At the top, we have the 25 000 case K Vintners brand, then the 15 ooo case Wines of Substance, then the 30 000 case Vino, then Secco (Italian bubbles, 35 000 cases), then the more substantial 150 000 case Charles & Charles, the  300 000 case Sixto and the 500 000 case Charles Smith Wines. Many of the larger volume wines are made at the Milbrandt contract winemaking facility.

Charles Smith’s genius is in marketing, as well as his talents as a winemaker. ‘I think  I found my thing,’ he says. ‘I am pretty good at making wine. I really know wine.’ But his real focus is on the large array of single vineyard wines that he makes. ‘I won’t degrade my reputation by being a money-grabbing c*** s****r,’ he emphasizes.

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We had dinner with him at his home. He’s an engaging, charismatic guy. You get sucked in – ‘Smithulated’. But he’s very serious about wine, as a quick walk around his cellar illustratess. We tried half a dozen wines with dinner, and I was impressed. Yes, they are quite rich in style, but the’re not pushed too far. The Wines of Substance Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is really impressive in its intensity. The Boy Grenache 2008 is so beautifully floral and elegant. The K Syrah 2005 is ripe and lush yet detailed and edgy. And the  Hustler Syrah 2009 is wild, exotic, meaty and beautiful.

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Then Charles did some cellar raiding,bringing up some sensational older wines. When we left at 11.30 the evening felt like it had a lot of energy left in it, but sometimes it’s good to quit while you are winning. ‘I can make wine,’ says Charles. ‘It doesn’t make me a good person. I can just make really good wine.’

Washington State wine adventures, day 3

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Day three of this trip began with Butch Milbrandt. A fourth generation farmer, Butch and his brother Jerry began farming together in 1969, and seeing the success of wine grapes in eastern Washington, they decided to take the plunge into grape growing in 1997. Now they have 2500 hectares, and they sell to 30 different wineries. They started making wine in 2005, and now process 12 000 tons a year, most of it for other people, but they also have Milbrandt, a 60 000 case brand.

Their wines are focused on the value for money end of the spectrum, and they are solid. Washington state can deliver very attractive wines in the $12-15 price bracket. I particularly liked the Riesling and Chardonnay.

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Then it was off to Red Mountain, with Jim Holmes (pictured below). We met him at his Ciel du Cheval vineyard, and then toured round the AVA, which has the reputation of being Columbia Valley’s Grand Cru site, capable of making intense, structured Cabernet Sauvignon in particular.

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When Jim arrived here 43 years ago there was nothing here. He was here to research how materials behaved in the core of a reactor at the nearby Hanford site on the Columbia River. He bought some land at $200 an acre, and lucked out: this is now one of the most highly regarded vineyards in the state.

Sagebrush, the native vegetation here

Sagebrush, the native vegetation here

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We lunched at Col Solare, which is a grand estate that represents a partnership between Chateau Ste Michelle and the Antinoris of Italy.

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Daryl Allwine, the aptly named winemaker, was our host. Just a single wine is made here, with a small quantity of second label, and it’s a Cabernet-dominated wine with other Bordeaux varieties and some Syrah in the mix. Polished and powerful, I really liked the 2011, which is from a very cool vintage.

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Then we were off to Powers, which is also home to Badger Mountain organic wines, with sales manager Mickey Dunne.

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It was a really nice visit. The late Bill Powers was a pioneer of organic viticulture in the state, and the Badger mountain wines, which are inexpensive and drinkable, are made without any added sulfites. The Powers wines are conventional, and the regular range is also inexpensive and drinkable. Of the pricier reserve range, I really liked the Red Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and the Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

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We also tasted a few of the neighbour’s cherries. The Columbia valley makes exceptional cherries.

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Dinner was at J Bookwalter, with winemaker Caleb Foster. Caleb has only been here one vintage, so the reds we tried were not his responsibility. ‘Merlot here is the best in the world,’ says Caleb. ‘Our Cabernets are proven but Merlot is mindbogglingly good.’ The Bookwalter reds are ripe and dense with sweet fruit and high alcohol. In their style they are well made, but they aren’t wines I love. To my palate, the Antagonist Syrah is the best.

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This raises a common theme that I’m finding on this trip. Washington State reds can be exciting, but too often the temptation to pick late for very ripe, seductive fruit flavours (plus use of the legal practice of watering back the must) has proved hard for winemakers to resist. The result is lots of wines that lack definition and sense of place. The wines that thrill me are almost always a bit lower in alcohol, made from fruit picked a little earlier. Then you begin to get a sense of what this place is about.

Washington State wine adventures, day 2

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The vehicle the four of us are driving around Washington State is big enough to fit a hot tub in the back. It’s really, really big, and all the doors and the boot (trunk) have electronic buttons to open them. This level of complexity is daunting, and at the moment someone has pressed the wrong button (the key hub has about a dozen of them) and we are unable to open the boot (trunk) and so have to access luggage by climbing over the back seats. Such is life on tour in Washington State.

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We began day two with a three hour drive from Seattle into the Columbia Valley in our rather large vehicle. To access the Washington State vineyards from the city, you have to drive over the Cascade Mountains, and as you do this you pass from a verdant green landscape into a desert. There are no native trees in the Columbia Valley (which for all intents and purposes is synonymous with Washington State when we are referring to wine, because pretty much all the state’s vineyards are here); it is just scrubland. The rain shadow effect of the Cascades is significant. You couldn’t dry grow vines here because there is less than half the rainfall that would be needed as a minimum, and so irrigation is necessary. Fortunately, there is a good supply of water, although this has been threatened a bit over the last couple of years by drought.

Hugh Shiiels explaining Yakima to us

Hugh Shiiels explaining Yakima to us

The fact that all vines here are irrigated, and there is precisely zero growing season rain most years, creates a great opportunity for understanding the relationships among water, canopy size, fruit set, berry size and wine quality. Skilled use of irrigation water can be a valuable viticultural tool.

Our first stop was the Dubrul vineyard in the Yakima Valley, which is owned by Hugh and Kathy Shiels. The Yakima Valley was where the state’s wine industry started, and was the first AVA. The soils here (as in most of eastern Washington) are wind blown loess over the top of volcanic-origin basalt, and they have very low nutrient availability, largely because of the incredibly low rainfall. Organic material is around 1%, which is quite low. Here, there are 300 days sunshine a year, and there are also very large diurnal temperature ranges during the growing season of around 20 C. In some ways, the landscape and soils remind me of Central Otago and Mendoza – a sort of combination of the two.

A bull snake! Not poisonous, one of the good guys

A bull snake! Not poisonous, one of the good guys

We then had a tasting and presentation with a number of Yakima wineries at Hugh and Kathy’s cellar door. It was a pretty diverse and interesting selection of wines, including an Albarino (convincing), a Grenache Blanc (less so), a Riesling and a couple of very smart Cabernet Sauvignons. The presentations really filled in some of the details concerning the geology of the Columbia Valley, which I hope to write at some length about when I do my full write-up of this trip.

Marcus Miller

Marcus Miller

Then we went to visit Airfield Estates in Prosser, with winemaker (and son of owner) Marcus Miller and assistant winemaker Pamela Solis. Marcus’ great grandfather was instrumental in setting up a second irrigation district in the region (the Roza irrigation district). Without this, viticulture in the regions wouldn’t be possible. His family farm 900 acres of wine grapes, and have, since 2005, been making their own wines under the Airfield label.

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They make some great value whites, and also some lovely fruit-driven Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Pamela is pictured above with a super-cute dog.

Sarah and Boo, Hedges

Sarah and Boo, Hedges

Then we were off to Hedges. This was one of the most lovely visits I’ve had in wine country. It was a lovely evening, the energy was good, the wines were fantastic, and we had a lovely dinner with winemaker Sarah Goedhart and communications director Boo Walker.

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I was so impressed by the 2011 Hedges Red Mountain (a Bordeaux blend), the La Haute Cuvee 2012 (the first biodynamic Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon, and a trio of Syrahs – the High Density 2013, the Goedhart Family Bel Villa Vineyard 2011, and (best of all) the Les Gosses Vineyard Cuvee Marcel Dupont 2012.

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Richard Hemming played some piano, we each shared with the others our journey (well, an edited version I guess), and all was well with the world. A good day.

 

Washington State wine, day 1

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So, the first full day of my adventures on the Washington Wine route has ended. I’m travelling with a jolly band – Richard Hemming, Treve Ring and Kate Sweet, and we have a full itinerary that should allow us to get a real feel for this region. We began in the city, and nearby Woodinville, which is where a lot of wineries are located. But all (or 99%) the vineyards are three hours’ drive east over the Cascade Mountains, in the Columbia Valley. The climate there is much more conducive to wine growing, but the people are over on this side, hence the location of many of the wineries.

We had dinner on Wednesday night at RN74 with Steve Griessel, owner of Betz. These are dense, impressive, modern wines. I was particularly taken by the Pere de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, which is from a cooler vintage. There’s no shortage of richness and warmth in Washington wines, because the growing season – while a little compressed – is typically quite warm.

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Thursday was Woodinville time. We began at the large Gallo-owned Columbia Winery (above), which is one of the oldest and largest of the Washington State wineries. As you’d expect, clean, modern wines at very reasonable prices, and a really nice visitor center.

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Next up: lunch with the larger-than-life Chris Upchurch at DeLille. Chris rocks up wearing a Seattle Sounders football (soccer) shirt, and is full of chat. ‘I have a brevity problem,’ he reveals, showing admirable self-awareness. His wines are critically lauded in the US, and I was really impressed with the dense but focused Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 from the Red Mountain AVA.

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Then we visited two brilliant boutique producers in the Woodenville Warehouse district: neighbours with small facilities making very interesting wines. First, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of WT Vintners. ‘We work with extraordinary growers and extraordinary sites,’ says Jeff, ‘and I want to champion these places, usually through the lens of Syrah.

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Jeff makes a very good Gruner Veltliner, but it’s his Syrahs that are just so expressive, elegant and beautiful. By day he’s wine director at RN74, but the way he’s going with the small winery he’s built up, I reckon he’ll be one of the Washington State stars of the future.

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Then it was off to see neighbour Michael Savage. An ex-music industry guy with a love for analog recording and play back, he’s humble and a bit geeky, and clearly a very talented winemaker. His Savage Grace wines are lovely, and include a Gruner Veltliner, a nuanced Chardonnay, expressive Loire-style Sauvignon and a beautifully vivid, drinkable Cabernet Franc.

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Then it was off to the state’s big player, Chateau Ste Michelle. We had a tasting of select group of wines from their portfolio with winemaker Bob Bertheau. I found the wines very well made and polished, but perhaps a little too sweet and ripe for my tastes. But I accept I am not their target market. I did like the Eroica Riesling 2013, though, which is really detailed and fine, and much better than it used to be a decade ago.

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Finally, dinner at Wild Ginger – an excellent Asian small plates joint in the city – with the quirky Chris Camarda of Andrew Will. These wines are just so good: Bordeaux-style blends with sensible alcohol levels and lovely focused fruit. Chris told us how he thought lots of the state’s reds had lost their way with high alcohol and ripeness. He’s a big fan of Cabernet Franc in Washington State. I was particularly impressed by the wines he’s making from his own Two Blondes vineyard in Yakima. Interestingly Chris is another huge music fan, and a big collector of vinyl. It was a good end to the first day.

Artificial intelligence, perception and wine

Part of the wine list, RN74, Seattle

Part of the wine list, RN74, Seattle

I’m on the road again. This time visiting Washington State wineries. Did you know that Washington State is the USA’s second largest wine state, with 20 000 hectares of vines, about double the size of Oregon, and one-fifth the vineyard area of South Africa? I shall be looking for stories, interesting people, worthy patches of terroir and great wines.

But first, some slightly jet-lagged considerations on the nature of consciousness and perception. On the flight over to Seattle I watched Ex Machina, one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. Smart and disturbing in equal measure, it explores the concept of artificial intelligence. It raises a lot of questions.

Is this related to wine? Well, wine tasting is a perceptual process that involves a lot of senses, and consciousness plays a role.

In ExMachina, Caleb, a smart young employee of a Google-like organization is selected to spend a week in a remote hide-away location that’s home to the scary genius who is the founder of the said organization, Nathan. Nathan has brought Caleb here to be the human component in a Turing test to assess whether his latest AI, the stunningly beautiful Ava, possesses intelligence to the level that it can’t be distinguished from that of a human.

So, the questions this film has got me asking are several.

First of all, I’m curious about the central role of language in perception. It is through naming objects and learning about the usual and expected behaviours of these objects that we are able to begin to understand the world around us. We manipulate the world through recognizing and picking out the features of the visual world around us in the form of objects. It is a quick way to compute our environment, because for us to function and survive, we need to be able to process what is around us in milliseconds.

Language seems to be hard wired. We are born with a capacity to acquire it: the structures are all there, it seems, and the actual language we use is the bit the environment provides. Language is fundamental to being human, because we are social beings, and the reason we have these big brains is likely because we need them to compute the really difficult stuff: keeping track of our social relationships, which are fundamental to our success and survival. But to what extent does the specific language we use to think and converse with shape our perception? Does the vocabulary we have shape our experience of the world, to a degree? Does a French speaker see the world slightly different to someone who thinks and speaks English, even though the languages are closely related?

Another thing language does is to permit the oral and written traditions that form the narrative for people-groups. The stories we take on board tell us who we are, where we fit into the world, how we are required to respond and behave, and many other factors that shape our interaction with, and perception of, the world around us.

Language, and this related concept of narrative, are crucial in terms of how we understand wine. Wine on its own is a liquid. It contains chemicals, some of which have tastes and smells. But wine is so much more than a liquid with flavour. And flavour itself is not a result of us merely perceiving these chemicals, but is itself influenced by stuff we bring to the tasting experience, even without us being aware of it.

So, what about consciousness? Is it possible to create an AI with consciousness, as in Ava in Ex Machina? Can a machine have theory of mind? I guess the first step in creating an AI that might be able to do this would be to understand how we do it: what is the neural basis of consciousness? Can it be understood with reductionist approaches? As far as I know, these questions haven’t been answered properly by scientists, so this remains a block for AI.

What am I doing as I am conscious? What is going on? I think that an important perspective here is that sensation is a unity. We tend to break down perception into separate senses, but in truth my conscious experience isn’t modular like this. I experience a seamless, unified perception that involves all senses, plus my memory, plus my internal state, plus the thoughts that come to mind, some verbalized, some not. There’s also the issue of attention: what do I choose to focus my perception on? Some of this is more-or-less automatic; some is under my conscious control. So in one sense, I could say that consciousness is the unity of my sensation.

So, a thought. Would a true AI have a consciousness that comes from experiencing the world through these unified sensations? Could you have true AI just from the processing of words and ideas, or would the experience of the world across a number of sensory modalities, coupled with memory, be needed? Would you have to create an AI with certain hardwired mental modules (just as we are born with) that are then informed by experience of the world? In this sense, perhaps it would be necessary for the AI to start off like a baby, and then grow up, for it to have something that would resemble human consciousness.

Humans are remarkable. In some ways it is reassuring that being human is something that we have, as yet, found too hard to mimic convincingly with a machine.

Penfolds Bin 707 1993

penfolds bin 707

This is a wine I bought back in the 1990s from a UK supermarket for around £16 (it was on offer). How times have changed! Current releases are super-expensive. This isn’t supposed to be a great year for Bin 707, but it has aged very nicely, shedding the new American oak it was raised in, and revealing a core of dark fruits. The 1993 Bin 707 is Coonawarra Cabernet blended with bits from Padthaway and Adelaide Hills. According to the Penfolds website, peak drinking period finished in 2010, but they may wish to revisit this!

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 South Australia
13.5% alcohol. Lovely sweet, smooth blackcurrant fruit with a bit of gravelly grip. It’s perfumed and open with sweetly expressive fruit, leading to a slightly grippy palate with subtle notes of warm herbs and mint. There’s a supple texture here as well as some tannic grip, and it’s a really attractive expression of Cabernet Sauvignon that may well develop further. Dense and full. 94/100