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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’