By Jim Campanini
Washington State wines are no longer a secret to savvy sommeliers. So why aren’t more bottlings from the majestic Pacific Northwest showing up on restaurant wine lists?
I made this point to a group of 10 friends while hosting a tasting of some of my best Washington State club member wines from the 2013 vintage. It was interesting to hear their comments and watch their faces light up as they experienced for the first time these energetic Syrahs, fabulous Bordeaux-style blends, and powerful Cabernet Sauvignons.
For three hours, we sat around the kitchen island smelling, sipping, slurping, swallowing, comparing notes, and “gnoshing” on platters of food (pulled pork and angus sliders, meat and vegetable egg rolls, Italian antipasto, Asian-style chicken fingers). It was a lot of fun. My guests also learned the value of belonging to a wine club. New direct winery-to-state shipping laws in Massachusetts now make it possible to acquire these limited production wines from the small, boutique wineries where they are crafted.
In my view, the quality of Washington State’s best reds are equal to those of California and France. They also sell for a whole lot less.
Blasphemy or not, it’s evident that Washington winemakers and wines are being taken quite seriously on the world stage these days. Just 40 years ago, the state boasted about a dozen farmers growing grapes and making wines in makeshift production facilities. Today, Washington is the nation’s No. 2 wine producer behind California and has nearly 1,200 wineries.
I’ve been to Washington State twice since 2014 to visit the tasting rooms in Woodinville, located outside of Seattle, and the vineyards and wineries four hours away in Walla Walla. The latter is home to Drew Beldsoe’s Doubleback, L’Ecole, Long Shadows Vintners, Dunham Cellars, and 120 other wine enterprises. With its desert-like conditions, Eastern Washington is lucky to get 8 inches of total rainfall a year. (Seattle, located to the west of the moisture-blocking Cascade Mountains, gets 38 inches.) Still, the vines thrive in the radiating daytime sunshine and cooling night-time breezes. It also helps that the Columbia River Gorge and its tributaries offer boundless irrigation to the farmland.
Here’s our wine list, except for the two gorgeous Amarones that were appropriated in a raid of my wine cellar while I answered a phone call. Hey, we drank them in good spirits.
Dunham Cellars Syrah Columbia Valley, $29.75 – A tasty, luscious treat. Fruit is sourced from four vineyards, including the prestigious Lewis Estate Vineyard. This 100 percent Syrah was released in 2016 and is still a baby. Blackberry, blueberry pie and baking spice flavors satisfy the palate on a silky smooth frame.
L’Ecole No. 41 Syrah Seven Hills Vineyard, $36 – The estate-grown fruit is grown at one of Walla Walla AVA’s oldest and most impressive vineyards that straddles the Oregon line. The Syrah is rich, opulent and flavorful. Secondary traits of chocolate espresso mingle with peppery spices. The color purple in the glass is a sight to behold.
Long Shadows Vintners (LSV) Sequel Syrah, $60 – Each of the winery’s six red wines are crafted by six different globally acclaimed winemakers. Australia’s John Duval, best known for Penfolds Grange’s iconic Shiraz, gives his distinctive touch to Sequel, which is a cuvee from multiple handpicked vineyard sites in the Columbia Valley. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate review described Sequel as a “killer wine” of “blackberries, black currants, smoky oak, meat and spice.” My tasting group flipped over this beauty which will increase in elegance and complexity over the next 6-8 years.
LSV Saggi, $50 – Made by Italy’s Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari, Saggi (it means “wisdom” in Italian) is the winery’s version of a Super Tuscan, combining Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah . While Saggi has received high marks from wine reviewers for its alluring cherry, plum and red licorice traits, this bottle was the lone disappointment on our tasting night. It probably needed to be decanted. Poured right out of the bottle, it was tight and, unfortunately, unappealing. We moved on.
LSV Pirouette, $60 – An exemplary Bordeaux-style blend from outstanding winemaker Phillipe Melka who grew up in France and crafted prestigious wines at Chateau Petrus and Chateau Haut-Brion before settling in Napa Valley at the exclusive Roy Estates. The mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec in Pirouette features bursts of black cherry, chocolate and sweet tannins. This is a serious, full-bodied wine.
LSV Pedestal Merlot, $65 – This is one of my favorites for its rich, voluptuous black fruit flavors and velvety texture. It’s a work of art from renowned French master Michel Rolland, who adds a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot for structure and power. The tasting group labeled it “superb.”
LSV Feather Cabernet Sauvignon, $65 – Made by Napa Valley’s Randy Dunn of Caymus fame, Feather is a focused, mineral-driven, powerful wine. It’s still young in bottle, so watch out when this releases wave upon wave of black fruit, violets and toasty spices over the next eight years.
Doubleback 2011, $89 – This is one of the final bottlings supervised by Drew Bledsoe’s old high school buddy, Chris Figgins, who Leonetti Cellars’ winemaker and has his own Figgins label. (Josh McDaniel, Figgins’ assistant, is now Doubleback’s chief winemaker.) We closed the memorable night eating Belgian chocolates and drinking this rich Cabernet Sauvignon, a gem of Walla Walla fruit delivering persistent dark berry and mocha flavors. The 2011 Doubleback is still evolving in bottle toward future greatness.