A Taste of Walla Walla in Portland

Program guides

The Program. The Walla Walla Visitor's guide. The pen I didn't use and subsequently forgot to return. Hey, free pen!

The Walla Walla Wine Alliance conducts a tasting in Portland in the spring of every year and it has always been one that I look forward to the most. This is the tasting that highlights this strange land to the East, where the big wines dwell. Here in the Willamette Valley, we have soft wines of finesse; delicate like rose petals, softly falling to the ground on a summer’s breeze. Out there they have strong and burly wines like a road-warrior, spikes and leather peeling out in a cloud of fire and smoke. It’s a bit of a difference and a nice change.

The Walla Walla tasting features about 55 wineries, each serving from three to seven wines. At the entrance to the tasting there was a program listing the wineries present and the wines that were to be served, but it was marginally useful and full of misinformation. Some wineries brought their secondary labels instead of the featured wines. Some brought different wines, either from selling out or a change of heart. Some wineries brought an extra bottle or three. Some winemakers got overly excited and bottled something just in time to show at the tasting. But who wants to taste bottle-shocked wine? That’s another story. (And a movie!)

So here we have about three-hundred wines to choose from. That’s a massive amount of wine. If you’ve done a tasting like this, you know there needs to be a strategy; a plan of attack. Realistically, can you try them all? No. Well, yes. But it’s really tough work. You had better be a pretty seasoned (or marinated, rather) wine taster to pull that off. Would that last wine taste as fresh and clear as the first? Probably not. Quite honestly, attempting to taste them all is just impractical. The palate gets tired, the tasting glass gets sticky and disgusting, and then the crowd makes things a bit more problematic.

Many folks with wine shops, wine bars, restaurants, and so on, have their own mission to find selections for their respective venues. On the other hand, there’s the contingent who attend these things with the sole purpose of socializing and drinking wine for free. Okay, we’re all here to drink for free, but some of us have work to do, too. Since I am now on the writing end of the spectrum, and I no longer have to shop for others, what’s my main mission in this gigantic sea of wine? How do I maximize my time here?

Well, when I tour the wine country in Walla Walla, I tend to pick a theme and stick with it, for maximum impact and adventure. For example, one year I sought out all the best Syrah the town had to offer. This was before everybody had a Syrah, and it was harder to find. More recently, I was determined to hit as many places as possible in a day, and I set the goal of finding all the Cabernet Franc in town. I only visited the places that produced Cabernet Franc. And at those places I would limit my tasting to only the Cabernet Franc, of course reserving the right to sample any of the other pleasant diversions I find on the way. A Marsanne/Roussanne? Mais, oui!

The Walla Walla tasting in Portland is no different. Same wineries, same wines. For the most part. If you know anything about the wine industry in Walla Walla, yo know that everybody has a Cabernet Sauvignon. Everybody has a Merlot. And everybody has a Cab/Merlot blend(s) of some sort(s). I know all those Bordeaux varietals have their noble merit, but after time it bores me unless I have a steak in front of me. With this in mind I set out to find at this tasting anything I would consider “oddball” wines, one of my favorite categories. There is plenty of experimentation in Walla Walla these days, and that’s the kind of thing I appreciate and encourage. Sure, I tried some Cabs, Merlots, Chardonnay, and Syrah. They were all fine and good, but nothing worth noting. Here are a few wines that really stood out from the pack and shouted “Look at me!”

QR Code for Castillo de Feliciana Tempranillo

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Castillo de Feliciana Winery Tempranillo
These guys are fairly new to me and one of the newer wineries I see popping up all over the South side of town.  I love I good Tempranillo, but have found very few in the States that hold a candle to their Spanish ancestors. I’d be proud to say that this one actually does compare to a more European style. I’d love to try this side-by-side with a Ribera del Duero. Nice work, I say. I tried the Malbec too, which was good but might not have made the mention were it not for the Tempranillo.

Beresan Winery Carménère
There are very few single-varietal Carménère made in the US, much less in Walla Walla. This one wasn’t just rare and “oddball”, it was fantastic. It wasn’t overblown and juicy like a Cab, but had the spicy notes I always associate with a good Carménère, especially the classic Chilean ones. I’ve been a fan of a the wine these folks produce, and they pay their homage to experimentation, and do it well.

Buty Winery and Cadaretta Wines Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc Blends
I put these two together because, thanks to the alphabet, these wineries were placed next to each other on the same table. I guess it’s kind of like grade school. You had better learn to like the kids on either alphabetical side of you, because that’s who you’re sitting next to for the next four grades. So I hope the folks at these wineries get along, since they’ll be seeing each other at all the other tastings. Anyway, since they both had the same varietal blend, It only made sense to try them together. The Buty came across with the richer Semillon qualities but seemed to lack the crisp acidity it needed. The Cadaretta was just the opposite, featuring more classic Sauvignon Blanc characteristics, European styling, and a more acidic structure. Y’know . . . I should have blended these two together. That might have been perfect! And I’d have made two enemies at once.

Tranche Cellars “Slice of Pape Blanc” & Barbera
Here I found two gems. The first was the “Slice of Pape” Rhone Style white made with the varietals Rousanne and Viognier. The blended Rhone whites are pleasing on so many levels and, in my opinion, should supplant the straight-up Viognier trend of the past decade. This one was juicy and crisp, leaving me wanting more. There was also a “Slice of Pape” red that was good, but left my socks firmly wrapped around my feet in a non-knocked-off state. The Tranche Barbera at least made my socks fall down to my ankles a little. The Barberas in Washington, in general, just don’t speak Italian. But this one can at least speak with an Italian accent.

QR Code for Dusted Valley Petite Sirah

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Dusted Valley Petite Sirah
Really? A Petite Sirah in Washington? When did this happen? Well, it’s happening now. And this thing was fantastic. Who would have heard of such a thing? I’ve had a lot of Petite Sirah in my time, almost all from that land to the South, but none compare to the elegance of this one, yet with a touch of subtlety. I never expected this. A Petite Sirah in Washington that is this good?  “Oh, shit!” says California.

And now for a quadrifecta (or superfecta) of Petit Verdot! I did not expect to see so many of this varietal standing on its own, and I was not disappointed in any of them. This grape, usually relegated to a supporting role here proves that like a shark, it has teeth! Unlike a shark, it also shows that it has legs. Unless, of course it’s a shark that has just eaten a surfer. Then it has legs and teeth and the poetic comparison still stands. On its legs.

Gifford Hirlinger Petit Verdot
The first of four Petit Verdot of the “oddballs and rarities” at the tasting. Gifford Hirlinger winery was another new one to me, also from the South side of town. The Petit Verdot was gripping, with a sturdy backbone and quite a drying quality. I could see some aging potential in this one. Potentially the most complicated of the four. There was also a pleasing Malbec and Tempranillo from these guys.

Saviah Cellars Petit Verdot
I’ve been to this winery a few times and enjoyed their wines a great deal, especially their Syrahs. This, here, was a simpler Petit Verdot, with some toasty oak to it. It was almost too much, but a bit more time and perhaps some food to accompany it would mellow things out. Just like people.

Seven Hills Petit Verdot
I’ve been to the Seven Hills Winery and tasting room often. They’ve been around for quite a while, and they’re easy to find in town. They also create some wonderful and eclectic wine selections. This Petit Verdot was more polished and refined that the other three. Perhaps a bit too polished. Don’t get me wrong; it’s good. A spectacular wine, but it’s starting to lose its varietal characteristics. As such, it could compete with any Merlot at this level, though. A quick note to the lovely gal serving me, though: Don’t tell me what I’m tasting. Y’know. Unless I ask. It could happen . . .

Rasa Vineyards “Living in the Limelight” Petit Verdot
I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It had a better balance of the traditional qualities of the Petit Verdot. It was less tannic than the Gifford Hirlinger, more complex than the Saviah, and more character than the Seven Hills. I only wish I had more time to get to know the wine better. Maybe I could take it out to dinner and a movie some night, and see how things go. I’m sure my current wine wouldn’t mind. I mean, we’re not serious, or anything. There were quite a few other good things at that table but it was getting crowded, so I couldn’t linger.

QR Code for Trio Vintners Mourvedre

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Trio Vintners Mourvèdre
These guys have a lot of interesting things going on, but are one of the few wineries to produce a full Mourvèdre. Of their lineup this is the wine that was performing the best. All the wines on this side of the room were too cold, considering this was the side where the A/C poured out, while the other side was roasting in the sun like a greenhouse. It wasn’t the best room for a tasting, but I’ve seen worse. I took that into account as I tried to warm the wines in my hands. I’ve had a barrel sample of this before and it’s awesome.

Slight of Hand Cellars “Archimage” Red Blend
This is a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, and super well-balanced. Being a huge fan of Cabernet Franc, I was disappointed at the showing of the varietal at the tasting. I missed a few along the way, but the ones I had were being dressed up in Cabernet Sauvignon’s clothing. This one, although half accompanied by Merlot, creates a new wine in its own right, as it should.

If a tasting like this went on for a week I could have made more discoveries and still left wanting. I could use a full day to examine just the Cabernet Sauvignon. And then a day for just the Red blends. A full day for all the Syrah. And then a full day to compare what goes best with the mountain of cheese and crackers in the middle of the room. Okay, we’ll give that the rest of the week.

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Six-Pack of Ammontillado

Cans sealed in a wall.

Why couldn't it have been a million bucks? Or a 1975 Bordeaux?

Years ago the wife and I bought a “fixer” house. At the time we had a need for a band house able to accommodate 7 people, and their respective “others” on occasion. It also had to have a basement for a rehearsal and recording studio. And we had to find it fast since the current house we were renting had been sold and we were being kindly evicted.

The place we found fit all of our needs. It was a two-story, arts and crafts Portland bungalow with a full finished basement. It was classified as a 3-bedroom, but through some crafty remodeling over the years (and a certain amount of disregard to city code) there were 6 full bedrooms, a sleeper-closet, a band practice space, and a room that could be utilized for a recording studio control room. For the post-college band types, it was a dream come true.

As the band entourage numbers dwindled over the years, and it was left to just the two of us, it came time to start thinking on the remodeling of this old place into a home, and not a crash pad. And anyone who has done a remodel of a home, the primary function is to undo the remodels of the past. The deeper we dug into the ways the house had been changed over the years, the more horrifying the story became.

We had some clues, like we all do when we move into a new place, as to how bad the taste of the previous tenants was. When we moved in, there was the traditional ’70s wood paneling everywhere. There was bamboo wallpaper, tattered in spots, and coated with 30 years of dust. The shag carpet, a rancid-guacamole color,thoroughly matted from many years of use, was half-past disgusting on so many levels. The older rooms had so many coats of paint on them that the doors and windows wouldn’t close properly. Or at all. The tackiness of what you find when you move into an old place is natural. The place is old; the times and styles have moved on.

The horror enters in when observing the functional changes made over the years. There were walls where there shouldn’t be walls. Ceilings below door levels. Windows covered by closet space. Bare, live wires sealed behind drywall. Carpeting placed on bare dirt. Carpeting and padding placed on top of carpeting and padding, placed on top of linoleum. And everywhere there are Sheetrock walls where you can count every nail and make out every seam. My theory was that the entire job was done by a friend of a friend whose brother is a contractor, over the course of a weekend, in exchange for a couple cases of beer.

A couple of Blitz Weinhard cans

Oh, boy. I can finally retire.

My theory was validated when, while demolishing another badly-framed closet for a bedroom remodel, we came across a couple empty beer cans sealed in the wall. Two Blitz-Weinhard (a local Portland brand) cans with the old pull-tab style openers. As with anyone who remodels a house, we all hope to come across the stash of money that some nervous person stowed away during the financial crash times. Instead I find physical evidence of shoddy workmanship. I would have preferred the cash, but I suppose I could sell the cans for $10 on eBay.

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Vertical Grange des Peres (plus Bonus)

Many years ago I was working at a wine distributor as a driver and warehouse guy. It’s not a glorious position but gives you some flexibility, if you’re efficient enough, and gives you access to a warehouse of wine at a serious discount. When I left that job for a graphic design position at a software company, my good friend Solo took my place at the distributor and started his journey down the long, sordid road to wine-guydom. A year and a half later I returned to the distributor where I worked with Solo, and for years thereafter we were a wine-guy tag-team, both working various wine industry jobs, feasting, tasting, toasting, and discussing.

Three-Year Vertical of Grange des Peres, plus mystery BarberaSo from these years at varying distributors and in and about the wine scene, Solo and I had acquired fairly sizable wine cellars. Neither of us really knew what we were doing so we filled the shelves with what we were most excited about (and had ready, inexpensive access to). We liked lots of Rhone and Languedoc, Zinfandels, Syrahs, California Rhone-Style, and some Oregon wines, many from when Solo worked at a local winery. We didn’t really put down many of the classic cellar-able wines that one thinks of: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barbaresco, German Rieslings, and so on.

Years later, when I closed my wine shop, thus losing my easy, cheap access to wine, I started diving into my cellar. (That is, after all, one of the reasons to have a wine cellar; the reserve supply for wines when the supply has dried up). I was now discovering, however, that many of these wines I loved in their youth, through time had lost most aspects that made me like them in the first place. Gone was the fruit, and the spicy and lively character had yielded to washed-out and rusty. None of the bottles I laid down were completely disastrous and, thankfully, there were very few corked wines. This did, however, open my eyes about the purposes of cellaring wines, what makes a wine age-worthy, and at what point it loses all practicality.

A couple of Fridays ago I had some friends over for an informal get-together where I was to make a cassoulet: the perfect French dish for a cold winter evening. There were six of us; all wine enthusiasts to some degree or other. For this meal, Solo and I were going to bring out some of the last holdouts in each of our remaining, and dwindling cellars. It was the Grange des Peres: a cult winery from the French Languedoc that has had a high-profile following since its inception in 1992 and has been given the two-thumbs-way-up rating from wine score tycoon Robert Parker. In fact, the guys from Grange des Peres are profiled and interviewed in the movie Mondo Vino, a film that raises questions of the power of critics and ratings in the shaping of the worldwide wine trade. But that’s another story altogether.

Four bottles on the table, and a whole bunch of glasses and food.Solo and I had picked up a few bottles of this stuff back in the day when we worked at the same distributor. We had been holding onto them for some special moment when we would both be around and we weren’t drinking something else. Suffice it to say that it took quite a while for that time to come around. I had a vertical of the Grange des Peres from the vintages 1996, 1998 and 1999, and Solo had a 1998. Solo offered his ’98 so I could save mine for a bit later. Our friend Paul, who was also in attendance at this gathering had brought a home-bottled Barbera from his own cellar as insurance against a possible 3-bottle cellar calamity. That didn’t happen. The calamity, that is. But we opened the Barbera anyway.

Now, whenever I open something that has been sitting in the cellar in the basement for a long time, I am always a bit surprised when it doesn’t turn out to be vinegar. All the wine expert books and magazines can make you fret for sleepless nights, concerned that you’re ruining your wine if the conditions aren’t just right. Has the temperature been consistent enough? Do I really need a humidity controller? It the stuff too close to the furnace? Have they all been torched from the 6 month stretch when the dryer hose detached and was blowing into the room? And other such realizations like: Oh crap! I just left all these bottles sitting upright for the last two years! But things never seem to turn out quite as disastrous as the wine pros would have you think.

On this fortuitous Friday, once we all got gathered and settled and started in on the white wine appetizers (white wine IS an appetizer, by the way), we lined up the bottles for the photo-op. A cassoulet has to stew for a couple hours, which gives a large window of opportunity for wine tasting, comparison, and discussion. So once I got the main cassoulet preparations in good working order we popped the four bottles and fished out enough glasses for each of us to have tastes of each wine.

These wines are predominantly Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon (in what percentages I couldn’t readily find), both varietals that are known to age well when of noble stock and proper vinification and handling. The character of the Grange des Peres features a very concentrated fruit character, some stewed berries, and an aspect to them that I can only describe as “ketchup-y”; flavors I’ve gotten off of a number of Washington Syrah and Cabernet, and some Aussie stuff. Not having tasted these wines in their youth, I can’t accurately say exactly how they were fresh out of the barrel.

The 1996, being the oldest of the trio, had faded quite a bit, as one might expect. The fruit profile had gone a bit towards the flat, cardboardy side and remaining notes of toasted oak was taking over. The 1998 was showing much better, although Solo mentioned getting aromas of brettanomyces, a wine flaw that can add character or ruin a wine. I couldn’t taste the brett, but noticed higher concentarations of fruit that were slowly blossoming as the wine opened up. I thought the ’98 was the best shower of the three. The 1999 did perform just as well as a wine that was one year younger than the 1998. It was fine, had that aged quality to it, but losing a bit more structure than the ’98, and again fading to the secondary characteristics of barrel aging. We compared notes, argued, agreed and all lamented the fact that none of us had grabbed a 1997 to complete the proper vertical.

Cassoulet on a plate, surrounded by a halo of glasswareThe mystery wine that Paul brought was the pick of the bunch when it came to the food. I remember it was a Barbera, but it did not come with a label, so I don’t have the information of who made it or where it was from or what vintage it was. Barbera as a varietal is a spectacular food wine, especially those Northern Italian varieties. If I remember correctly, this one was from somewhere local, and if so, was one of the first American Barberas I have found that holds a torch to the Italians. I remember it stood up to the richer characteristics of the food, as well as soothing over the gamier characteristics of the wild duck that was in the cassoulet.

As with any wine I remove from the cellar, there is the slight feeling of remorse and niggling feelings of doubt about the timeliness of opening those bottles at the right or wrong time; too early or too late . . . or at all. There is some return of the feelings and memories of the time that was when the wines were laid down, like the dust on the bottles. But all this gives way to the proper purpose of wine when it mixes with the present jovial times of sharing these things with good company.

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A delicious shout-out to my favorite Thanksgiving wines!

I know lately I’ve been the champion of budget wines. But that wasn’t always the way. When you work in the business you don’t really think about that $25 wine being a special occasion bottle. It more of a “Mmmmm . . . I’m in the mood for . . . that one!” kinda thing. It doesn’t mean that the under-$10 is what I prefer to drink. If I was in a higher income bracket, or if my ratio of income vs. expenses shifted significantly in the other direction, I’d love to be dropping a lot more on spectacular bottles each week. That’s not the case, but I still remember some of my favorites that are now the “special occasion” wines. This week we do have a special occasion.Brick House Gamay Noir . . . Okay, the bottle is actually Pinot Noir, but I didn't have the other to photograph. It looks mostly like this, but says "Gamay" instead of "Pinot", naturally. Of course at this quality you can't tell the difference so I really could have gone without saying anything. Whoops.

It’s that time of year when many people are thinking of what would make the perfect accompaniment to the Thanksgiving meal. Quite a few people have already decided on their favorites or dusted things off from the cellar. Other folks, for varying reasons, have opted for quantity, depending on their family situations and corresponding holiday arrangements. But then others might still need a nudge in the right direction. Choosing the wine that will go with your traditional turkey or ham can be a task, and there are plenty of resources out there that will dissect it all into a science or try to sell you something.

For this holiday, because it’s a feast, it purportedly about matching food with wine. It can be a daunting task, but it’s not really all that tricky. If you get something you already like, then it doesn’t really matter how well it goes with the food. If entertaining more than just yourself, get something everyone will like. If you and everybody you know want to drink Chardonnay all night, so be it. It’s not uncouth in the slightest, and frankly, white wines do pair well with poultry. However, there are many reasons and situations when it is better to choose the wine to compliment the food and not the guests. And there’s something to be said for adventurousness, too. There are a vast number of classic recommendations, but here are some of my favorites.

The Brick House Gamay Noir, hailing from our own home state of Oregon, is my premiere pick for the Thanksgiving table for the last 6 or 7 years years running. Gamay is the grape used in France’s Beaujolais, and is not very common anywhere else. There is only a smattering of it in Oregon and I love what they’re doing with it. The Oregon climate is apparently comparable to Beaujolais, if a bit warmer. The Brick House Gamay, in particular, is proof of what some attention and love can produce with this totally underrated grape. I heard rumor a few years back that one of the oldest Gamay vineyards in Oregon was going to be plowed under to plant more Chardonnay. I’m not sure which vineyard or who owned it, but to me that’s like razing down a Victorian castle to build a strip mall.

The Brick House Gamay is lush and juicy without being over the top, and features the subtle, delicate flavors appealing in Beaujolais. Many people love Pinot Noir for the turkey pairing, but I’ll take this over the other any day of the week. Especially this week. Unfortunately, it’s a limited bottling every year, and so it sells out quickly. I’ve found that this wine benefits from a year in the bottle, if you’re the patient sort that can wait around for a year. I can’t tell you if it does better after two years since I’ve never seen it hang around that long. As if this delicious wine wasn’t joy enough, any festive occasion with this label on the table will eventually erupt into raucus choruses of that Commodores song. You know the one. No. Not “Superfreak”, that’s Rick James. Don’t make me spell it out for you.

Two more of my favorites from years past hail from the Beaujolais region. There’s the Guy Breton Morgon and the Lapierre Morgon, both brought in by importer Kermit Lynch, whose wines are always a safe bet. Morgon is one of the cru appellations within Beaujolais and is my favorite. If you remember Guy Breton and Lapierre Morgon labels. Borrowed from the Kermit Lynch website. I hope they don't mind. Press is press, at any rate.from two paragraphs ago, the grape involved here is also Gamay, so you may be sensing a theme in my favorites, here. It’s been a few years since I’ve had either, but I remember them both as classic, European-styled (naturally) wines. The Guy Breton had more of a spiced, earthy tones while the Lapierre had lighter, fruitier tones with a more bracing acidity. But that’s coming from memory. If you have a hard time recalling the region’s name for when you go to the store to get it, remember: When there isn’t any more, then it’s gone. Get it? More-gone? Ah, never mind.

Those are my favorite picks, but if you’re still looking for advice, Pinot Noir can be a safe bet, although an expensive one. I also find a great food wine is Italy’s Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba, but tend to avoid the Sangiovese-based Chianti and the like. In the past I’ve had luck with Lambrusco, if you can get over the impressions left on the brand from the 70s. Then there’s the whites. I think most whites would work, but the full-bodied ones seem to work best. Chardonnay, Viognier, and Oregon Pinot Gris are top picks, but there are few places you could go wrong.

I wish you the best of luck, and a happy, or at the very least, tolerable, Thanksgiving Holiday!

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Viva Portugal!

So let’s face it. We don’t really know jack about Portugal, do we? If you had a similar educational experience like me in the American public school system, we all learned about Portuguese explorer Christopher Columbus, right? Well, it seems his heritage may be disputed and by birth he’s actually Italian. So there goes that little bit of Portuguese history we thought we knew. Okay, but I still remember Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. There. Dispute THAT elementary school world history teachers. Other than that, the only thing I’ve learned about Spain’s Iberian neighbor is a bit about their wines.

To say I know their wines isn’t saying much. Portugal, like much of Europe, have been under vine for centuries, thanks to ancient cultures. Yet unlike many others that share the continent with them, we just haven’t had much exposure to their wines. Why is that? I can only imagine it has to do with the decisions of marketing and exporting companies over the years. The better known European wine regions dominated the marketplace, perhaps just by name recognition alone. When any Portuguese wines did arrive on our shores it was often a result of Port houses packing in their regular wines to “tag along” for the ride in the cargo containers with their fortified bretheren.

Things have started to change for Portuguese wines. It reminds me of about 15 years ago when the South American wine boom seemed to really be taking hold of the value wine market. Flooded, rather. New wineries were popping up in Argentina and Chile like prairie dogs. (Insert Chile-dogs joke here). It was mass amounts of bulk-run juice from new vineyards, new producers, and old European producers playing the “flying winemaker” game.

Portugal is a different kind of deal because it has always been there and has always been doing their own thing. The major challenge is marketing these wines for new export. The price may be appealing, but it’s going to be uncharted territory for a good majority of wine shoppers. Most folks know what a Chianti or Bordeaux is, or could point out the regions on a map, or know what grapes make up many regional European wines. But who knows what region Dao is? Or Estremadura? What the heck is a Trajadura grape? Or Encruzado? It’s all new territory and it’s going to be learning more lessons.

All that said, let’s get to the meat of the matter for the day. Here we have the Carim “Terras D’El Rei”, both red and white. We find them around here for $6.99. And they’re both full 1-Liter bottles, so that stretches the value out a little bit. They hail from the Alentejano region of Portugal. The producer and importer’s websites gave conflicting information from what the bottles themselves stated, and the online photos didn’t match the labels.So I’m going to be relying on the information that is actually on the bottle.

The white lists on the bottle the grapes Síria and Rabo-de-Ovelha. Ever heard of them? No? No big surprise there. They’re Portuguese varieties, only used in Portugal, chances are. The wine is dry and light with more herbaceous and spicy characteristics than fruit, so if you prefer a full-bodied white, like the Chardonnays and Viogniers, this probably won’t make you happy. But being light and dry it works great as a simple sipper while cooking dinner or hanging with friends. Or both.

The red lists on the bottle the grape varieties Trincadeira, Aragonez and Castelão. Never heard of those either? Nope? Well, Castelão and Trincadeira are Portuguese, like the previously mentioned white grapes, but the Aragonez is the Portuguese name for Tempranillo, the noble grape varietal of Spain. Yes, just to make thing even more confusing, right? It’s a medium-bodied red, with more spice than fruit, dry and not very showy, and feels oddly thin. I haven’t really enjoyed it as much as the white, but the flavors do seem to be growing on me and it seems to have some hidden complexity to it that still gives it some value.

I’ve tried a vast number of these less expensive Portuguese wines and if I could sum up the general feel of all of them I would list them as dry, subtle, gamey, at times harsh and dirty, and often with off-putting flavors. This makes them sound terrible. They aren’t terrible. They are definitely a different collective entity from their fellow European counterparts and might take a bit more understanding for the American palate to comprehend. It could be that’s the real reason why we haven’t seen much of the Portuguese wines here. Perhaps they’re just too different.

But, hey. For 7 bucks, maybe it’s a pretty cheap way to expand your horizons.

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Don’t tell me what I’m tasting!

I made a comment in the last blog post that created quite a furor. Or, it could have if I had any readers. In regards to not describing all the characteristics of a specific wine, what I was saying is that as a wine “expert” or a wine “journalist”, it is not my duty to tell people what I’m tasting in wine. In actually, I believe this to be somewhat of a hindrance to any wine lover’s palate development. This is counter-intuitive to everything you may understand about the wine industry, and wine media, as a whole. Am I a jerk? Maybe. Wait . . . no. Read on.

What they really mean.We all know the wine magazines. And the wine blogs. And all these wine “experts”. And so on. They all want to tell you what you’ll be tasting in a particular wine. “Oh, you’ll be tasting essence of morning glory with hints of betel leaves, washes of kerosene, finishing with a load of horse dung.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not deriding these wine professionals. I function on the same level as all these people. I have experience in wholesale and retail. I’ve trained with a large, international wine guild, and I’ve tasted thousands of wines. Tasting is important in assessing the wines out there for quality and consistency.

Now where this goes wrong is when reviews are used as a someone else’s road map. If wine is supposed to be an enjoyable personal exploration, then putting any credence into reviews is like taking a vacation without ever leaving behind the guidebook. Or touring art museums with those headphone things on as it shuttles you through the ropes describing what you’re already seeing. Or reading the spoilers for a movie before seeing it. You only end up trying to enjoy someone else’s experience.

Let’s take this scenario. I’m going to a winery and stepping up to the tasting bar. There is someone at the wine bar with a well-rehearsed spiel about all the wines there on the table. “Here’s our Pinot Noir. You’ll notice firm earthy tones with a heady blackberry—” and that’s where I just want to say “Stop!”. There are plenty of psychological studies that indicate that ideas can be implanted. You just told me I’ll be tasting blackberries. Now there’s nothing I can do to not be looking to be tasting blackberries, and so I’ll probably taste them in there, even if I wouldn’t have without the suggestion. My own assessment of the wine has been altered.

Now take, for example, the back labels of wines. There’s all that “Imported by . . .” and “Don’t drink while pregnant and driving heavy machinery into health problems . . .” stuff nobody pays attention to. The rest of the space is a repository for any winery’s marketing genius. This is the area where they try to sell you the wine. If you can read it, you’re probably already holding it, so they got you halfway there.

I don’t mind the “Our winery was founded, blah, blah, blah . . .” or the poetic ramblings that make it sound like this wine saved the immortal souls of mythical creatures. But when it starts rattling off flavors like it’s a shopping list for how to create your own wine with household ingredients, that gets irritating. Let me decide for myself what things I’ll be tasting. Besides, with all the things that can happen to a wine before, during and after a bottling, chances are the labels aren’t accurate unless the wine was tasted and label created a good few months after bottling.

Recently I read a wine blog where someone had written the opposite opinion of these back labels. Their theory was for those who wanted to know what to expect out of the bottle when you don’t know what you’re shopping for. I can grant you that for those who are wine novices, or buying for others, some description is helpful. But you can do that without ruining the experience. How about something like “Medium bodied” or “Drink with roasted meats and game” or “Best for an evening with chocolate and a lover” or “Only drink while already drunk”. None of these will give away what should be a pleasant, or unpleasant, surprise and leave to your own senses what should be a good exercise in assessing the wines for yourself.

But tasting and assessing shouldn’t be just a personal experience; It should be a social one! This is learning and sharing and should be fun. Get together with a group of friends or colleagues or professional wine tasting classes and groups. Taste that wine together and discuss what you’re experiencing. You may get blackberries, but I may get red currants. Your friend over there may not have ever eaten a red currant and so may get hibiscus flowers. And if you’re new to wine tasting, the only aroma and flavor you might get for a few years is simply “grape”. It could be that you will never taste those blackberries in that Pinot Noir at the tasting bar. But don’t let someone else tell you that you do.

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4 More Spectacular Finds

In the continuation of the “what to drink when you can’t afford what you really want” series, I thought I might bring up a few more example of some of my favorite wines that appeared on our dinner table and at our barbecues this summer.


Columbia Crest Two Vines White, Washington State:
My friends and I have been drinking gallons of this stuff. So much, we’ve considered buying stock in the company. When this wine first appeared at the local Fred Meyer sore, I thought it was a good deal at $6.99. Later, when the New Seasons picked it up and offered it for $5.99 I thought it was a great deal. Then I was thrilled when it turned into a fantastically spectacular deal back at Fred Meyer at $4.99. Then I was surprised, and almost a little suspicious when it dropped to the ridiculously insane super stellar deal of $3.99 at Trader Joes. Then it sold out. Naturally. In fact I think we achieved that single-handedly. At this point in the article, here, you’d probably see some wine bloggers talk about all the characteristics of the wine: aromas, mouth-feel, balance, finish. I don’t really work that way. I’m not here to coddle readers; people can figure these things out for themselves. It’s more fun for everyone that way.

 


Hogue Red Table Wine, Columbia Valley, WA:
This is one of the other bottles I kept dropping in the 6-pack carrier with that Columbia Crest white. I wasn’t really paying attention to the vintages since the wineries making these larger-batch wines are pretty consistent. This wine wasn’t particularly flashy, but it wasn’t unpleasant. There are a lot of Portuguese reds at this same price, but a lot of those are like sipping grape juice off a dirty chalkboard through a stale cigar. Although this bottle may be opened and emptied with little fanfare and notice as to what was inside, I’d certainly notice if it sucked. It didn’t suck, and that makes it a winner. I keep getting more of this to see if I can finally pay attention and give it the full tasting report, but then I mostly end up thinking “Eh. Whatever. It goes with dinner. That’s good enough.”

 


Hardys Stamp Shiraz, Australia:
Long known for budget wines, there really is a sea of Australian Shiraz. Here is another. Does it stand out any more than the others? Mmmm . . . Not really. But it tastes alright. It’s not really quite as food-friendly as the red wine listed above, but then it’s not ALL about the food, is it? Sure, it’s not going to win any awards, but then . . . well . . . aw, who are we kidding? We know they hand out wine awards to just about anyone, don’t they? We see bottles all the time with a gold or silver medal from some obscure festival or some other rinky-dink regional wine tasting event nobody has ever heard of. “This wine got 3 gold medals at the Tri-County Wine Tasting and Auto Parts Swap Meet in 2009!” Just like pee-wee soccer: everyone gets a trophy. So in that case, this probably will win some awards. Does it matter to me? Not in the slightest. But it’s under $6, and I’ve had far worse for $20.

 

Iron City Old German Premium Lager: This is a fantastic sparkling wine made with a fine blend of barley and hops in the Old German style of winemaking. It even has an Old German guy in lederhosen on the label! You’ll notice I didn’t pay attention to the vintage again because . . . Okay, I’m not fooling anyone. It’s beer. But at some times, for any wine lover on a budget, it comes a time that rather than stoop to the level of the bottom shelf for that jug of engine degreaser passed off as “Burgundy” or “Chablis”, it’s time to get the fizzy yellow stuff we had in college. As every winemaker will tell you, it takes a lot of beer to make good wine.

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Adult Sized Juice-Box

Unemployed? Underemployed? Living as a poor, underprivileged artist, writer, or musician? I think a lot of us are in that same boat at this point.  This is when the creativity comes out in how to afford wine that falls out of the category of “Decent — ‘Hey, I still HAVE a job, albeit a poorly paid one’” into the “Well, this stuff isn’t bad . . . for the price” category. That’s just a step or two above the “Well, I’ve had it a couple times and I haven’t gone blind” and the “Don’t get it too close to the pilot light” categories. Telling these apart from each other can’t always be that easy, at face value.

Let me switch gears a bit here and talk a bit about bag-in-a-box wine. I’ve noticed a lot more above-average wineries releasing their juice in this way. We all know that box wine has been given a bad name by the 5-gallon swill served up in the ’70s and ’80s. Well, that stuff still exists. I can’t say I’ve honestly tried it in the last 15 years, so I can’t badmouth it in a legitimate manner. To be fair, I’ll do so at some point soon. But I digress.

Point being, the bag-in-a-box method makes a lot of sense, and doesn’t deserve the poor rap inherited from its ancestors. Take, for example, the common 3-Liter boxes many wineries are releasing now. That’s the equivalent of 4 bottles. Subtract the glass material for bottling the juice; that’s extra expense and added weight. Already the box is cheaper to package and lighter and therefore cheaper to ship.

Many restaurants like them because that’s three fewer packages to open for the same amount of wine, and three fewer packages to recycle after the shift is over. Not to mention it’s easier and more convenient to store. This counts just as well at home. The extra added bonus is that once you’re done with the wine, the bag can be inflated into a tiny pillow-for-one, which is great for camping. And “camping” is anywhere you happen to be if you finish the whole box by yourself. Try that with glass bottles!

The stigma of the bag-in-a-box can be shed once you try something that is worthwhile at a decent price. Once you say, “Hey . . . I actually wouldn’t mind finishing the rest of this box” and “Hey . . . this cost me a lot less than bottles would have” and “Hey . . . this fits in my fridge better” and “Hey . . . cool pillow!” then you’re on your way to acceptance. It’s just getting to that point.

So here’s one kind of box wine that has graced the shelves of our fridge a few times this summer. It’s Big House White made by the Big House Wine Company.

Big House White box. "Oh, sweet nectar . . ."Let’s say single-varietal wines are like solo musicians; you have a pretty good idea what to expect from their performance given the limited aspect of instrumentation. From that idea, then let’s say blends like this are like full bands with multiple members; it gets a lot more complicated and unpredictable. This band has 11 members. Now, not all bands can function with that many players, but say, a well-rehearsed ska band could make that many musicians work as a unit. With that in mind, this wine will probably appeal to a larger audience than your average ska band. I’m not trying to be totally disrespecting the ska bands. I’m just sayin’.

The bottom line is that it’s pretty darn good. The perk is that it’s pretty inexpensive. I found it recently for $16. Combine that with another 5 bottles at a place that offers a 10% half-case discount and that brings it down to $14.40. Make the calculations for the 4 bottles this 3-liter contains, and that’s $3.60 per “bottle”. Of course to get it that low, you have to buy the other five bottles, or find a friend to go in on the other bottles . . . or five equally thrifty friends to go in on the whole six. You get the picture. I think that lands it in the Cheap and Tasty category.

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CV 3.0

Time to dust off the old wine blog. It’s been a long while of no writing and seeing as I have a bit more time on my hands, now it is a great time to entertain y’all. I know there’s nobody listening at this point, but we have to start somewhere.

Once upon a time I had passion. I had drive. I had integrity. I had vision.

Alright . . . I didn’t have any of those things. Well . . . maybe.

Really, I just had a wine shop. I kept that thing going for five years until I decided that retail endeavors in a recession was like swimming upstream with gravel in your pockets.

Now the point I’m getting at here, is that after working at a wine distributor for a few years, then as a retail wine shop owner for five more years, you don’t realize how dependent you get on that wholesale wine. I mean, you have access to every variety of wine at costs that can be half of what you pay in retail. On top of that, you get salespeople coming in constantly with samples of wine for you to try. Sometimes they leave behind bottles for you to try at your leisure, or sample for your customers. And even on top of that, you get invited to all the wine tasting events, for free, which is generally an orgy of free wine and tasty snacks. Ah, those were the days.

Now once you unplug yourself from the wholesale wine scene into a civilian life of full retail prices, after suckling at the teat of discounted and often free nectar-of-the-gods, the illusion comes crumbling down in the grand, sobering realization: Hey . . . this shit’s expensive!

The transformation is gradual, after couple months of losing that privilege. That sinking feeling sets in that the $20 bottle you enjoyed so much in the past was no longer in the budget’s forecast. Sure, that $6.50 bottle isn’t as tasty . . . But Hey! We can get three of ‘em for the same price!

That considered, I figured nobody needs a wine writer to rate and review the budget stuff. A friend recently pointed out that I was wrong on that point. Most folks are in the same boat. Sometimes we do need somebody to sort through the junk heap to find the tiny treasures.

My intentions for this space are now to fill it with words. Those words will have something to do with wine, at whatever cost. We still have many more things to discuss. Stay tuned.

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Case Project: Conclusion

The original question was “Is a value still a value if you don’t want to drink it in the first place?”. And the original premise was to get a case of cheaper wine that doesn’t have anything to do with larger-name macro wine empires and see if it’s worth it. So what did we have? The lowdown:

Three Winds 2007 Syrah Vin de Pays d’Oc France, $8.95. Quality? Good. Value? Yes.

Caleo 2005 Primitivo Salento, Puglia, Italy, $9.95. Quality? Decent. Value? Kinda.

Altos las Hormigas 2007 Malbec, Menzoza, Argentina, $9.95. Quality? Decent. Value? Kinda.

Domaine Paul Autard 2006 Cotes du Rhone, France, $10.95. Quality? Very Good. Value? Yes.

Foppiano NV Lot 96 California, $9.95. Quality? Good. Value? Kinda.

Garnacha del Fuego 2007 Old Vines, Calatayud, Spain, $8.95. Quality? Very good. Value? Yes.

Henry’s Drive 2007 Pillar Box Red, South Australia, $10.95. Quality? Good. Value? Yes.

Daniel Belda Fonsalet NV Monastrell Jove, Valencia, Spain, $8.95. Quality? Fair. Value? Kinda.

Vallescoro 2006 Prieto Picudo & Tempranillo, Castille y Leon, Spain, $8.95. Quality? Good. Value? Yes.

Feudo Arancio 2006 Nero d’Avola, Sicily, Italy, $8.95. Quality? Very good. Value? Yes.

Garofoli Farnio 2007 Rosso Piceno, Marches, Italy, $10.95. Quality? Fair. Value? No.

Terra Andina 2007 Carmenere, Valle Central, Chile, $9.50. Quality? Very good. Value? Yes.

  • Case cost total: $116.95
  • After Case Discount: $105.26
  • Average cost per bottle: $8.77
  • Number of “Value? Yes.” bottles: 7
  • Number of “Value? No.” bottles: 1
  • Number of “Value? Kinda.” bottles: 4

I suppose you can draw your conclusions from the numbers here, as they are also just one person’s opinion. But if these numbers mean anything in the vast ocean of wine out there, it’s entirely possible to fill a cheap case with winners, or with duds. This was a mix of the two. But to answer the question of whether or not values really are values, I think the benefit of the experiment is in the question, not necessarily in the conclusion.

But to draw a bottom line, I think the jury is still out on this one, given the mixed results. More research needed. Hurrah!

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