A lively session at the 2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, hosted by Jon Bonne and Eric Asimov, inspired a maelstrom of chatter on social media and a verbal boxing match. The session frame was simple and elegant: introduce writers to California winemakers who are experimenting in a “back to the future” movement with old world grapes in new world settings. Reactions spewed all over the place, especially as they reached three and four degrees of separation from the actual event. Were all of the wines outstanding? Perhaps not. Were they all interesting, and an important lesson in exploring possibilities, absolutely!!
To my great delight, I discovered that the innovative and entrepreneurial winemaker movement is alive and well in Washington State. Seattle is the host location for the 38th annual conference of the Society of Wine Educators. So what to do upon arrival from Cincinnati? Take a short walk to the Purple Cafe & Wine Bar for some Washington wines!
Purple Cafe & Wine Bar is well known in the Seattle area (4 locations) for its extensive wine list, and especially for featured flights of wine. My selection, “Washington Vanguards,” included Gruner Veltliner, Aligote and Picpoul paired with a citrusy, floral and suitably acidic Humboldt Fog goat cheese. All three winemakers have been in business less than a decade, quite remarkably surviving the economic downturn during 2008-09. All three wines were vintage 2013.
W. T. Vintners was founded in Woodinville in 2007 by three families, the Whites (two generations) and Thorsens. Winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen is also wine director at the San Francisco-based Mina/Paar restaurant RN74 in Seattle. In addition to stints working vineyards in New Zealand, Burgundy and the Pacific Northwest, Jeff won the 2008 Pacific Northwest Super-Regional Best Young Sommelier Competition and competed as a finalist in the national competition hosted by La Chaine des Rotisseurs International Food & Wine Society (of which I am a member).
Gruner Veltliner is one of four wines made by W. T. Vintners, a notable exception since the other three are Rhone varieties. From the red volcanic/clay loamy soals of Underwood Mountain Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA, the 2013 Gruner was fermented in both stainless and neutral oak. In a blind tasting, this wine could easily have been mistaken for an Austrian gem from Wachau. Notes of green apple, meyer lemon, underripe peach, nectarine, distinct minerality and a spicy vegetal note paired perfectly with the Humboldt Fog cheese.
The Bartholomew Winery is a self-described “Seattle urban winery” launched in 2007 by Bart and Chona Fawbush. With no formal training or experience in the wine business, the Fawbushes decided in 2004 to own a winery. Although this maiden attempt didn’t work out, they applied their learning to create the new winery operation in 2007 followed by a tasting room and wine club in 2010. The fruit for their Aligote — better known as the second white wine of Burgundy (if it is known at all) — came from the Upland Vineyard in Snipes Mountain, a sub-AVA of the Columbia Valley region.
Only 145 cases were made of the 2013 Aligote. On its own, the wine was a juicy melange of stone-fruit aromas and flavors tinged with a hint of melon and chalky limestone. It was tasty, but seemed to call out for a food partner. Indeed, the cheese lifted the flavors of the wine to a new level, luring thoughts of how this particular Aligote might work with other pairing options.
Gramercy Cellars was founded in 2005 by Greg Harrington, MS, and his wife Pam to specialize in Rhone and Bordeaux varieties. Greg is Seattle Magazine’s 2014 Winemaker of the Year. The Harringtons both grow and source fruit. They were buying fruit from a grower who had a small plot of Picpoul on the edge of a larger planting of Grenache. They decided to give the Picpoul a try before grubbing up the vines to plant more Grenache. The Picpoul plants had been imported from Chateau Beaucastel by Tablas Creek (based in Paso Robles). Perhaps if they had known how spectacular the result would be, the Harringtons might have given that plot a second try! Instead, the 2013 Picpoul will be Grammercy Cellars’ only vintage. So sad…
In Greg Harrington’s own words, the “Picpoul is an acid monster” — so true, and totally to my taste — with aromas and flavors of “lemon, lime, grapefruit, mineral, brine, white flowers and green herb.” The Humboldt Fog cheese actually moderated the acidity in the wine, another perfect match.