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
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
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.