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Greg Harrison, MS

In 1996 Greg Harrington became, at the age of 26, the youngest American to pass the Master Sommelier Exam. After working for Emeril Lagasse, the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dinging Group, and Southern Wine and spirits, he is now a Partner and the Director of Corporate Beverage for New York-based B.R. Guest Restaurants. There he has developed winelists for a number of their restaurants including Blue Fin and Fiamma. Each and every one of the wine programs under his direction has won a Wine spectator Award.

Wine education and training has been an ongoing interest of Greg’s. In addition to developing an extensive training program for B.R. Guest he is also a regular lecturer for the American Sommelier Association and the Cornell Hotel School. Regularly quoted by major newspapers and magazines, you may also have seen him giving wine advice on an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.


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Walla Where?

Sometimes the most cutting edge and exciting developments happen in your own backyard. I was recently invited to a wine tasting. On a Sunday. In Brooklyn. For those who aren’t in the wine business, Sunday wine tastings are highly unusual. Most buyers simply won’t show on a Sunday, no matter what or how much free alcohol is being poured. And in Brooklyn? For a smug Manhattanite like myself, that means a 45-minute ride on the subway to the ends of the earth. But before we get to Brooklyn, let me back up for a second.

I buy thousand of cases of New World wine for my restaurants. But when I’m out to dinner, I tend to gravitate towards earth-driven wines, with crisp acidity, usually from European wine regions. I simply find they work better with food for my palate. At the beginning of the year, I happened to be at a New York City restaurant perusing a very ambitious wine list. I noticed they had many wines from Washington, especially Syrahs, none of whose name I knew. I am a Syrah fanatic, and had heard some rumblings about how great Washington wines are lately, so I picked one – K Vintners Syrah from Walla Walla. Many New World Syrahs are dominated by jammy, explosive fruit, 15.5% alcohol, and 36-month, 100% new-oak aging – so I was expecting a totally alcoholic, over-oaked fruit bomb. This wine, however, was balanced, with alcohol and oak in check – an enlightening experience. What impressed me the most were the earthy components of the wine. Few American Syrahs have that beautiful smoked meat or grilled character found in France, but this wine truly referenced the Rhone Valley. Now I’ve skeptically read thousands of tasting notes that say “tastes like France, blah, blah, blah…,” but I would have called this wine Rhone any day, without fear of having my Master Sommelier pin taken away. It’s interesting: I’ve spent countless hours researching the emerging wine regions around the world, learning names like Naoussa, Novorossisk, and Balatonboglár, and I missed what was going on right under my nose in Washington. Duh!

I arrive at the house in Brooklyn. There are 30 bottles on the kitchen table, all from Washington: mostly Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, with a few whites here and there. People are serving themselves.

No hoards of fast-talking, greasy, suit-wearing sales reps. Hmmm…a serve yourself, no pressure, no-commitment wine tasting? I like that idea. I grab a glass of something I had never heard of – James Leigh Cellars Syrah. Who? Stunning. And again, that beautiful earthy, balanced quality resides in the wine. Terroir already shows in such a young region, not only in Syrah, but in Cabernet, Merlot, Viognier, and even Tempranillo.

For harvest this year, Norm McKibben of Pepperbridge Winery was hospitable enough to let me tag along for a week with his fantastic winemaker, Jean Francois Pellet. Norm convinced Jean Francois to leave the comforts of Napa Valley for wilderness of Washington. Famous Napa Valley winemakers leaving California? The vineyards and winery that Norm put together are truly state of the art, operating at the same level of the showpiece facilities of California.

Many have tasted the fantastic wines of these well-known wineries, but what also impressed me on my second trip were the up-and-coming wineries of the area. I met guys like Eric Dunham of Dunham Cellars, Jamie Brown at James Leigh Cellars, Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery, Chris Johnson of Dusted Valley Vintners, John Abbott at Abeja, Caleb Foster at Buty, and again, for one of the most memorable tastings I have had anywhere, Charles Smith at K Vintners. This was a sense pounding, all encompassing wine tasting experience, complete with a soundtrack of funky Swedish rock. Many of the winemakers I visited spontaneously took me to see another new winery which had just put their first or second vintage in barrel. Even the county health inspector makes great wine here, at Saviah Cellars.

Each time I go, I can’t help but think this is what Napa was like 30 years ago. People in the region are building their brands together, learning the soil, experimenting with winemaking, and supporting each other. They help each other press fruit, take barrel deliveries for neighboring wineries, and go on sales trips together. In fact, the big guys even help the little guys here. A freeze devastated many of the Walla Walla vineyards last year, leaving little fruit for the Walla Walla winemakers. St Michelle Wine Estates and other big growers like Canoe Ridge Vineyard, in a supreme act of camaraderie, sold fruit from some of their best vineyards to a number of Walla Walla wineries so they could produce a quality 2004 vintage. Thankfully, these are smart companies that understand the success of others helps them all.

Therein lays its charm. Everyone realizes that they are in it together. The region is very young and evolving. Many of these wineries operate on a shoestring budget. I heard so many stories of how winemakers were risking it all to make wine there – sleeping on friend’s couches, leaving lucrative corporate jobs, liquidating their 401ks – with total belief in the future of the region. Get it in the bottle and show what the region can do: the market will follow.

Many in the wine industry feel that there aren’t any new discoveries in the United States. I definitely fell into that trap. If you haven’t yet discovered the wines of Washington, now is the time. And Walla Walla isn’t the only premium region in Washington. Other areas have their own established or emerging stars: Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and the Wahluke Slope. Guess I have a few more trips to the backyard ahead.

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Published: November 2004

 

Related Links:
  • Willamette Valley Part I
  • Featured Sommelier
  • Wine-Tasting Party
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