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.
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.
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.
We lunched at Col Solare, which is a grand estate that represents a partnership between Chateau Ste Michelle and the Antinoris of Italy.
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.
Then we were off to Powers, which is also home to Badger Mountain organic wines, with sales manager Mickey Dunne.
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.
We also tasted a few of the neighbour’s cherries. The Columbia valley makes exceptional cherries.
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.
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.