Saturday, January 23, 2010

Washington Reds From Cadence, Mark Ryan

This posting considers two merlot-focused red wine blends from the state of Washington. They are a:

Cadence 2005 "Klipsun Vineyard" Red Wine ($40) and a
Mark Ryan Winery 2005 "Water Witch" Red Wine ($47).

Here's the quick bottom line: these are very, very similar offerings, which is not surprising since they both are made from grapes grown in the Klipsun Vineyard and contain almost identical proportions of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. If you like this style and don't mind the rather steep prices, both are Worth Considering.

The Klipsun Vineyard is located in Washington's Red Mountain appellation, which can be found in the south central part of the state.

Virtually all of Washington's vineyards are located east of the Cascade Mountains in desert-like conditions. Unlike the state's maritine coastal region, where the weather is gray and damp for most of the year, eastern Washingon is characterized by ambundant sunshine and very little rain. As a result, irrigation is the norm and crop quality doesn't vary as much from year to year as it does in regions where vineyards aren't irrigated and where rainfall can arrive at inopportune times, such as during the harvest.

Wines along the lines of the two offerings reviewed here are often identified in Washington State as "Bordeaux blends" -- terminology I don't particularly care for even though I have used it from time to time in other postings. The reason I don't like it is because the phrase suggests these wines might be a substitute for red wines actually made in Bordeaux and they really aren't. Moreover, some Washington "Bordeaux" blends contain small amounts of syrah, which isn't grown in Bordeaux. It is a grape associated with the Rhone region of France.

Red Bordeaux wines from France tend to be lighter in body than Washington wines made from the same grape varieties, less alcoholic, less overtly oaky and, in good years, better balanced between fruit and non-fruit flavors.

Having said that, I should quickly add that many consumers like the bigger, fruitier Washington State reds. If this is what you are used to, a "real" Bordeaux can taste a little peculiar.

Our lastest two-person panel sampled the Cadence and Mark Ryan blends over the course of three dinners, re-sealing the partically consumed bottles in the interim. This allowed us to see how these wines would develop when exposed to more and more oxygen.

Straight out of the bottle, both of these wines smelled and tasted rather overtly oaky. On the palate, they came across as fruity (in a good way), soft, round and mouthfilling. Both featured surprisingly spicy finishes -- much spicier than any Brodeaux I have ever tasted. My guess is that most of the spice is attributable to the oak. The first-day bottom line: too oaky, too spicy.

Things were better on the second day. Flavors associated with the oak seemed better integrated with the dark red flavors of the fruit and the finish of both of the wines had calmed down. This was probably when these two wines were at their best. On the third day, after more exposure to oxygen, both wines were fundamentally still in good shape, but they were starting to taste just a little bit "flat."

OK, this is splitting hairs, but we both liked the Cadence best. It was a touch more elegant when at its best and just a touch more complex in the flavor department. Another difference: over time, the Mark Ryan blend displayed a bit more in the way of noticeable tannin than was the case with the Cadence.

Recommendation: open either one of these wines several hours before you plan to consume it and consider decanting this wine. Both will best accompany full-flavored, robust fare.

The Cadence is 82% merlot, 18 % cabernet sauvignon while the Mark Ryan is 80% merlot, 20% cabernet. The difference doesn't seem significant, but perhaps the extra cabernet in the Mark Ryan offering accounts for the slighly more tannic nature of that wine. As for alcohol content, the Cadence is listed as being 14.4% while the Mark Ryan is said to be 14.3%. Since actual alcohol content can vary from the listed amounts, the different is not significant.

These are expensive wines -- perhaps even expensive for what you get. Consumers interested in Washington red wine blends should compare low-production, artisanal wines such as these with similar or indentitical blends produced in larger volume and offered at significantly lower prices to see if it really is worth paying more.

At present, I don't have enough experience with these wines to make that call.



Mark Ryan Winery


I have met both Ben Smith, the winemaker at Cadence (so named because Ben is a musician) and Mark Ryan McNeilly, who makes Mark Ryan wines, more than once at local wine tasting events. Both are exceptionally engaging individuals and will patiently answer, with commendable candor, as many questions as one cares to ask.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Castle Rock 2008 Pinot Noir

Castle Rock is probably one of the best known and fastest growing "virtual wineries" in the United States, and its highly affordable offerings are very widely distributed. The company takes a different approach than most mass-market winemakers in that it doesn't seek to produce what might be considered homogenized products -- wines that are designed to taste the same every time one purchases a particular varietal. Rather, Castle Rock tries to produce wines that reflect the characteristics of the specific appelation in which the grapes are gown, an approach that arguably makes these offerings more interesting to consumers trying to learn more about wine.

A virtual winery, by the way, owns neither vineyards nor wine-making equipment. Instead, it purchases grapes from growers and contracts to have them turned into wine by wineries with spare capacity.

For 2008, Castle Rock released an almost bewildering array of pinot noir: six from California, one from Oregon and one from Washington. Most are list-priced at about $13  a bottle although one, a Russian River "Reserve" pinot, goes for around $17 a bottle. You may be able to find them for less, however, because Castle Rock wines are frequently discounted by retailers -- particularly supermarkets in states where grocery stores are allowed to sell wine.

This posting considers a:

Castle Rock 2008 "Monterey County" Pinot Noir ($13) and a
Castle Rock 2008 "Willamette Valley" Pinot Noir ($13).

The former is from California and the latter from Oregon.

Here's the quick bottom line: most consumers faced with a choice between these two would probably prefer the more flavorful and mouth-filling "Monterey County," which is rated Worth Considering. The less flavorful, more one-dimensional "Willamette Valley" is Not Recommended.

Now for the specifics.

It's easy to tell these two wines apart before putting either one of them in your mouth. The "Monterey County" pinot has a prominent, slightly earthy bouquet that rises out of the glass. In contrast, the "Willamette Valley" has very little in the way of a bouquet. It just sort of sits there in the glass.

On the palate, the "Monterey County" offering has more fruit and a fuller body than Castle Rock's rather thin, one-dimensional "Willamette Valley" pinot.

Because of all the fruit, the finish, or after-taste of the "Monterey County" pinot is slighly sweet, but also a bit tangy. Too sweet to be good food wine? I don't think so -- for a wine in this price range. In contrast, the finish of the "Willamette Valley" alternative is a little bit sour and somewhat tannic. In fact, as you drink more of this wine, the tannin tends to build up in the back of your mouth.

As usual, one of our two-person panels blind-tasted these two wines over two successive dinners, re-sealing the partically consumed bottles of wine in the interim. While the "Monterey County" offering was little changed from one evening to the next, the "Willamette Valley" pinot had arguably opened up slighly on the second evening. But it still tasted thin and uninteresting compared to the alternartive.

After a very difficult 2007 harvest season, Oregon's 2008 vintage is being hailed by those who produce and sell wine as one of the state's best years for pinot noir in a decade or more. Hopefully, Castle Rock's "Willamette Valley" offering isn't indicative of what most Oregon wineries are or will be offering -- at substantially higher prices in most cases, to be sure.


Castle Rock Winery

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cellar Report: Belle Pente 2003 "Willamette Valley" Pinot Noir

How would you like to have $30 bottle of pinot noir and pay only $17 for it? By that, I mean a wine that really tastes like it is worth $30 or more a bottle -- not just one that costs that much.

OK, it's a set-up question, not a real one. If you answered "no," I suppose the only reason would be that you don't care for pinot noir in any event.

So what's the point?

Cellaring wine, which is to say keepng it in a cool, reasonably humid, dark place for several years, doesn't always work wonders in the sense of turning a less expensive wine into one that is worth a lot more money, but when a wine responds well, the outcome can be memorable.

One wine that has developed exceptionally well in my cellar has been the Belle Pente 2003 "Willamette Valley" Pinot Noir -- a very mostly priced offering by Oregon standards when it was first released.

We first tried this wine almost exactly four years ago and while it was very pleasant and clearly a good buy at the price, it didn't seem to be a stand-out. But as an "entry level" Oregon pinot made in a difficult vintage, one wasn't expecting the sun, the moon and the stars.

Nontheless, I bought a few bottles and we tried another one in July of 2008 -- in a blind tasting with three similarly priced pinots from 2006. The now more mature Belle Pente was noticeably more satisfiying than the others.

Results were even better when a third bottle was opened very recently. While I can't claim the Belle Pente was notable for complexity, is was notable for exceptionally nice overall balance, delighful flavor and a wonderfull feel in the mouth -- in short a wine that provided a sense of well being.

Will it get any better if cellared even longer? I don't think so. My guess this one is at its peak right now. I say that because when the partially consumed bottled was reopened one evening later, the Belle Pente pinot had faded considerably. What I really should have done is to pour what was left into an empty half bottle -- so the entire bottle was filled -- and put it in the refrigerator.

Overall, however, purchasing and cellaring this wine was a great success.

By the way, if you want to try this yourself, here is a review of the Belle Pente 2007 "Willamette Valley" Pinot Noir from Beyond the Bottle, another Seattle wine blog. (Click on the underlined words.) Alternatively, since the 2007 release may be hard to find (it appears to be sold out at the winery), you could wait for the release of the 2008 vintage.

Cellar Report: Latitude 46 N 2002 "Vindication"

This posting considers a:

Latitude 46 N "Vindication" Red Wine ($29)

The wine under review here is what might be called a "Washington State blend" as opposed to a Bordeaux blend in that it combines a bit of syrah (a grape associated with the Rhone region of France) with the two main Bordeaux grapes: merlot (70%) and cabernet sauvignon (26%).  While it would very hard to find such a blend on the open market in France, combinations along these lines are not all that uncommon in the State of Washington.

Merlot, which tends to produce round, soft but sometimes rather bland red wine, is in this case given a bit of tannic backbone and structure with the addition of a substantial amount of cabernet and, hopefully, a bit of slightly spicy complexity by throwing some syrah into the mix. If this wine had been made in Bordeaux, cabernet franc or petit verdot would probably have been added in small quantities instead of the syrah.

Latitude 46 N is a label of Vinamis Ventures, one of a large number of small wineries located in or around Walla Walla, a town in southeasten Washington that has become a major destination for wine tourists. Before boutique wineries sprouted up one after another, Walla Walla was mainly known for sweet onions and Whitman College. "A place so nice, they named it twice," my father, who was born and raised in Seattle, never failed to mention when the town occasionally came up in family conversation. His sister went to Whitman -- way back when.

I've sampled a number of Washington reds in recent years, but haven't written much about them. That's mainly because while I have generally liked the flavors, I have felt that many of them were a little rough around the edges and thus not showing up to their potential upon release. At the same time, however, because most Washington State wineres haven't been in existance for very long, it's difficult to find any really good information as to how long one should cellar these wines.

In the course of rearranging some bottles in my cellar the other day, I came across this Latitute 46 blend, noticed it was from the 2002 vintage and decided to see how it was developing.

The answer is pretty well, but I would probably have been better off leaving it down there for another few years. I say that because while the wine was nice -- pretty much what you would expect from a merlot-focused red -- it wasn't a standout.  As usual, we consumed only part of the bottle on the first evening, resealed it and re-opened it a couple of evenings later. It was better the second time around -- the bouquet was bigger and on the palate, the wine was a bit more lush and flavorful. Like a lot of Washinton reds, which are almost all made from grapes grown in irrigated vinyards, there was a lot of fruit in this offering -- no danger of significant fading anytime soon.

The finish, by the way, was a bit spicy on both evenings, which means this wine can successfully accompany assertively flavored foods.

Despite about five years in my cellar, this wine was still "tight" when first opened. If I had another bottle and planned on serving it in the near future, I would decant it a couple of hours prior to consumption.

There are a lot of Washington State wines to choose from that are very similar to the Lattitude 46 N "Vindication" (a clever name if you are into puns). As such this one is Worth Considering.

The alcohol content is listed as being 14.3% by volume.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Cellar Report: Fiddlehead 1997 Pinot Noir

This posting takes another look at a wine that we last considered somewhat over a year ago: a

Fiddlehead Cellars 1997 "Willamette Valley" Pinot Noir

Visitors to this blog occassionally arrive by way of queries worded something along the lines of "how to drink old wine?"

There is only one answer to that question: "with an open mind."

I say that because when you open an older bottle of wine -- say, age 10 years or more -- you never know for sure what you are going to get. Wine is always evolving, sometimes favorably and sometimes not so favorably. Storage conditions are very important -- wine should ideally be stored on its side in a dark, somewhat humid location at a constant temperature of about 55 degrees fahrenheit (13 degrees celsius), but in most cases, it probably isn't. The biggest problem is heat because it speeds up chemical reactions and shortens a wine's potential lifespan, sometimes very significantly.

When I lived in Washington DC, which has a terrible summer climate for wine, I kept my collection of relatively expensive Bordeaux in a commercial wine storage facility. Here in Seattle, where the climate is much more favorable, I use my cool dark basement for wines that I don't expect to keep anywhere near as many years as I kept the Bordeaux. I consider my storage conditions acceptable to good, but not ideal and the wine will age accordingly.

But even under ideal conditions, bottle variation increases with age. What I mean is that as time goes by, two bottles of wine from the same case opened at the same time may taste somewhat different -- or even radically different if one, for instance, has had a bit of leakage due to deterioration of a cork.

So ... if you want to drink older wine -- a fasinating journey of exploration -- be prepared for anything.

When we last tasted the Fiddlehead Cellars 1997 "Willamette Valley" pinot in October of 2008, it was still showing very well. It tasted mature, but in a very nice way. At the same time, I was a little nervous about it. I described it as "sitting on a plateau" and forecast that it wouldn't get any better with further aging.

Well, a year or so later, this wine -- at least the particular bottle under consideration here -- had definitely fallen off the plateau. Nearly all of the fruit had faded away, leaving almost nothing but non-fruit flavors behind. It now tasted more like Marc -- a kind of wine-related brandy -- than like "wine."  Interesting, but not necessarily good with dinner.

From a technical point of view, this wine had NOT gone "bad." It hadn't turned to vinegar or become undrikable as a result of spoilage of some sort. But it certainly wasn't what I was expecting or anticipating. Nonetheless, two of us drank slightly more than half the bottle and enjoyed it. The rest got tossed out.

One further observation: as fruit fades away, a wine's original alcohol content remains and the wine undergoing such a process begins to taste increasingly "hot." Fortunately, the Fiddlehead pinot started out at a relatively modest 13.0% alcohol so this wasn't as big a problem as it might have been, but the stronger perception of alcohol definitely contributed to the brandy-like aspect of this aging pinot.

Marc, by the way, is the French version of what the Italians call Grappa. When grapes are pressed in the process of making wine, a lot of debris is left behind -- skins, some pulp, seeds and stems. This material is taken out of the press, sometimes aged in oak barrels, and then distilled into a liquid that can be either totally clear or colored reddish brown. Originally rather raw and very powerful, it was a drink of peasants. Most of it is now considerably more refined, however, and can be quite pleasant once one acquires the taste.

A few last words: although my last bottle of Fiddlehead Cellars 1997 "Willamette Valley" pinot tasted rather like Marc, yours may not. Considerable variation is to be expected.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Blog Note: Passing a Milestone

Not long ago, "The Wine Commentator" passed a milestone: the 50,000th visitor arrived, hopfully found something of interest, and departed.

Is that a big number? Well, if I had a cellar containing 50,000 bottles of wine and consumed one bottle a day, it would, in principle, take me 136 years to get through it all.

But in the real world, which is cyberspace, of course, 50,000 is a very, very small number, especially since it took four years of posting to reach that total of visitors. To put it in some sort of perspective, a woman named Jessica Valenti, editor of the blog "Feministing," recently told Deborah Solomon, of the New York Times Magazine, that her blog had 600,000 readers in one month alone. Dealing with them all kept her awake at nights, Ms Valenti said.

Tending to this blog most definitely does not eat into my sleep.

But even 600,000 visitors a month is small in comparison to popular websites that occasionally experience millions of hits in a matter of minutes or less.

So The Wine Commentor is akin to a tiny boutique hidden away in some obscure back alley in a giant metropolis -- the sort of shop one tends to stumble upon by chance and then never find again.

As most reader who have gotten this far know, there are dozens if not hundreds of wine blogs and other wine-related sites in cyberspace. What makes this one different?

First, there is no advertizing on these pages and nothing for sale -- not even a "The Wine Commentator" tee shirt or baseball cap. As a result, this activity generates no revenue. Because of that and because I don't receive any other type of compensation, such as free or specially discounted wine, this blog is free of conflict of interest.

Second, there are no pictures or graphics on this site -- just a lot of text. These postings don't look pretty, but they load quickly and consume a miniumum amount of bandwidth. Might that change in the future? Perhaps, but not soon.

Third, there are no numerical ratings. This is a topic that is too big to go into here. It deserves a posting on its own.

Fourth, most of the commentary here is comparative in nature: two or more bottles of wine are opened at the same time and evaluated on a compare-and-contrast basis, not just at one sitting, but over a period of time, to determine how they develop and whether they will likely benefit from cellaring. I strongly believe that comparative tasting in one's own home over the food one tends to eat day in, day out is by far the best method of discovering which varieties and styles of wine are best for you.

Fifth, bottles of wine that were initially evaluated when they first came to market are from time to time re-evaluated after having spent several years in the cellar. It is very hard to find this type of reporting elsewhere.

Sixth, an attempt is made not just to describe wine and say whether it is good, but also to make a judgement as to whether it is worth the price, compared with comparable alternatives.