Taste From The Barrel

 

First published in the Columbia River Reader March 2017.

I’m looking forward to 2017, but I will never forget the 2016 harvest. This was the year we crushed 20 tons of grapes in a very short window of time, breaking our earlier record of 8 tons. Harvest started out normally, meaning the new normal, with early bud break and a fairly normal growing season. Not too hot but plenty of sun in wine country. In Longview, it was a pleasant summer. Not as hot as 2015. The grape yields were near record numbers in Washington and we got our fair share of those grapes. 2016 proved to be a challenge for most producers. With the opportunity to get amazing grapes, the temptation was too much to resist and wineries were hard pressed to find room in the cellar for the bounty. According to wine writer, Sean Sullivan, “the most shocking growth was in Cabernet Sauvignon, which increased from 47,400 tons in 2015 to a whopping 71,100 tons in 2016. Overall, Cabernet Sauvignon accounted for 26% of the state’s production, an indication that the variety is increasingly seen as a calling card for the state”.

No sooner were the grapes picked and at the winery, that the rains came, and came, and never let up. So began an epic winter here in Longview. We were lucky in that we had room outside under a tent and later under the eve of the winery, to stack bins, 4 high, of fermenting juice. This year we were forced to ferment the juice at a much lower temperature than ever before. I like to get the must (crushed grapes) up to 80 degrees at the peak of fermentation in order to extract plenty of color and phenolic flavors from the grape skins. We did manage to move the bins inside for a few days to warm things up, but we had to move them back out so we could keep the tasting room open to satisfy the thirst of our customers.

The good news about the cooler fermentation is we were able to extend the time that the juice was on the skins which I believe will give us softer tannins and fuller bodied wines. The joy of being a small producer of wine is that our wines showcase the variations of Mother Nature’s work because we don’t have the equipment or technology to manipulate the wine like bigger producers. This is a blessing or curse, depending on how you like your wine. If you like it the same and predictable, it is a curse. But it’s a blessing for those who find it interesting to discover the differences in the vintage.

As Spring approaches, it will be interesting to see how much damage this harsh Winter has had on the grape vines. There are reports of severe damage in some Washington AVA’s (American Viniculture Areas). I believe that we can expect lower yields in the 2017 vintage. Not a bad thing, except there will be more competition for available grapes. However, the fruit we do harvest will have greater potential, smaller more concentrated flavors, a result of the struggle to survive.

Speaking of survival, like nature, it is in the struggle that new life springs forth and with it, new possibilities. Have hope my friends. Without the struggle we become weak and complacent; the full flavor of life is locked in the skin, so the crushing is nature’s way of releasing the best in everything. Longview is a beautiful place to live. We are so lucky to have such distinct seasons because they teach us about the cycle of life, birth, growth, struggle, death, and rebirth—all contributing something valuable to our quality of life, not to mention the grapes.

 


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What is the wine lifestyle?

 

 

Much is written these days about lifestyle. When I was younger, the show everyone loved was called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Until that show, I don’t remember much talk around our house about lifestyle. We just lived our lives, not giving much thought to it. Television was our only window into the way other people lived and even that wasn’t reflective of ‘real life’. Media has taken a larger portion of our time and attention lately and social media has exposed more possible and alternative lifestyles than ever before. Because there are so many lifestyles portrayed wherever we look, it is now common for us, who were previously contented with our lives, to become dissatisfied. This leads us to an array of choices that we either consciously, or subconsciously, take on in the hopes that our lives will be better. So it is a fact of modern life that we are influenced by the abundance of information and visual images. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means that we should examine from time the value of this information and how it influences our particular lifestyle. For me it means that my relationships, my activities, and my values are influenced by a overriding vision of the good life.

We all know someone who is defined by a particular lifestyle. For example, the sports fan. She wears the official sports team jersey at every opportunity. He frequents sports bars, and engages in sports talk at the water-cooler. A large portion of the weekend is devoted to watching sports on the television, retrieving scores on their mobile device, or driving to college games and participating in a tailgate party, if possible. Many of my friends are into this and I think it is a fun and family-friendly lifestyle. There is also the shopping lifestyle, the runner lifestyle, and the foodie lifestyle. Lifestyle is promoted everywhere we look. Our consumer society is fueled by lifestyle promoters. Something to think about the next time you are tempted to buy another Seahawks jersey.

My business is wine, so it is obvious that I would live a wine lifestyle. But even before I became a wine geek, the wine life appealed to me. There always seemed to be a bit of mystery to it in its use as a holy sacrament. Wine drinkers seemed a bit more reserved and thoughtful in their partaking, if not a bit snobby sometimes, but the liquid mostly evokes conversation and discussion— talk about flavors, vineyards, trips to wine regions all over the world. The wine lifestyle is subtle. I don’t see a lot of swag, even among the rock stars of the wine world. What also is enchanting to me is the interconnection between wine and the place where it is made—the vineyard. The wine lifestyle always involves visits to different wine regions. Northwest vineyards and wineries are springing up everywhere, so no matter where you travel you will find a place to taste wine, which in turn leads to an enjoyable experience and meeting new friends. Of course the wine lifestyle includes imbibing in wine often. You are not living the wine lifestyle if you only partake during special occasions or when you go out for a nice dinner. The wine lifestyle demands that you drink often—in moderation of course—because it is good for you. It makes every meal taste better, it slows you down, it’s good for your heart, it encourages conversation, and frankly, it makes you feel better.

 


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Experience wine more

First appeared in The Columbia River Reader

I’m a big fan of learning. I spent twenty years in education and most of that time working with at-risk youth. What dawned on me after a few years in the classroom was that what most kids needed was a guide—someone who would listen to them in order to find out what motivated them. Before that, I spent too much time telling them what they needed to learn in order for them to be happy and successful. I believe everyone wants to learn innately, but natural curiosity is often killed by systems that are tailored to benefit the delivery system, not the individual. But isn’t the goal of education to cultivate individuals who think, grow and develop all life long? So what does this have to do with wine?

In our tasting room, I meet many people everyday. It is really a lesson in human behavior. There are two kinds of people- for sake of this argument. There are those who want to learn new things about wine and those who believe in what they have been told about wine. Past experience also plays into the latter’s mentality. For example, they tried some really bad wine, so all wine must be bad. We are all influenced by media messages, but learners are more resistant to those messages because their education included opportunities to explore on their own. Where I’m going with this is that there is a great need for educators, including wine educators, to challenge each others assumptions about learning. You can teach an old dog to do new tricks if you can partner with them in the learning process!

One of my goals for 2017 is to do more in my role as a wine educator. This means first I must ask lots of questions in order to find out what people think and believe, so I can understand where their curiosity lies and, if possible, offer help in moving them toward understanding (education). So it is my assumption that everyone wants to learn. If it appears that someone doesn’t want to learn, we must find out why and met them at their point of resistance, nudging them, using stories, humor, and knowledge. It is not my job to tell you what wine you should like or buy; it is my job to pique your interest, give you answers to your questions about wine, and to provide a template for understanding and enjoying wine.

Here are some comments that I often hear:

Wine is a drink of snobs, women, and liberals. I only like ………….wine (sweet, white, red, dry) Wine gives me headaches.
Wine is so expensive.
I can’t pick out the flavors in wine
Wine tasting is intimidating

I’m not saying that everyone should care about wine. But if you do care, even a little bit, I can guarantee that your enjoyment of wine will increase if you are open to learning more about it. So the next time you visit our tasting room and say “I don’t like red wine”, don’t be surprised if my response will be “try this anyway-after all, you haven’t tried my wine.” This usually opens the door to further conversation.

I hope 2017 will be a year where you will open your mind and heart to new knowledge and, for wine drinkers, new experiences with wine.

Review: 2013 Passing Time Cabernet Sauvignon $75

Very elegant and focused with herbal aromas. Lots of black fruit that dominates, but well balanced and structured. Aged 20 months in French oak releasing rich chocolate, plum, and black current flavors.

Passing Time Winery is a collaboration of Dan Marino, Damon Huard, and Longview native, Doug Donnelly.


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Wine loves good company

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If I have learned one thing in the wine business, it is that the best wine pairing is the company it keeps. Much is written about wine and food, wine ratings, wine tasting, and wine accessories, but little on the relationships of wine. Most of us don’t really think about why we enjoy wine. When folks come to our tasting room they don’t spend most of their time talking about wine They try the wine and make a decision about which one they like. The more sophisticated palettes may describe the flavors and ask some questions about where the grapes come from or ask about the winemaking process, but this conversation is mostly just cursory and secondary to the pairing that they are really looking forward to, which is the conversation. For example, I love wine and I talk about it everyday from an evaluative, scientific and artistic standpoint. However, when I come home from work and sit down (doesn’t happen very often these days) Nancy and I will invariably have what we call a ‘little repas’—a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers. We recap the days events and as the wine kicks in, we could fly to the moon and back. We talk about how much we love the grandkids, we make travel plans (in theory, of course), and we try to solve the worlds problems if only we were in charge.

We are in the middle the so-called holiday season, a term invented by those who hope to make a killing by selling us things we don’t need. They call it a season because they want us to focus on spending for a very long time. I propose that we counter this emphasis by doing another kind of spending. How about spending the most precious thing we have. Time, of course. And what better way to do it than to pair it with those we love? These days we can get great wine for under $20, and memorable wine for $30. Whether you invite someone to your house or meet them at your favorite hangout, you can be sure that wine will add to the experience, and if it is good, it will stay in the background as a silent partner in your conversation. That’s what it’s all about.

So what makes a good conversation wine? The short answer is one that doesn’t demand attention. Too much of anything can be interesting for awhile, but balance is what makes a good wine. Too much acid, tannin, alcohol, and dryness may get in the way. My three go-to wines for celebrating holidays with friends are sparkling wine like Prosecco or champagne (if you want to splurge), or Washington Merlot, and Oregon Pinot Noir. All three taste good with food. Don’t bring out your fancy older wines that you have been saving for awhile because they may try to hog the conversation. Save those for special wine tastings or occasions. The holidays are for relationships. Here are a few of my favorites all available locally.

Mumm Brut Rosé $24 Soft fruity flavors with just the right amount of acid to taste great with Thanksgiving dinner

Ruffino Procecco $12 Crisp, clean and delicate with fine bubbles. Intense apple and peach flavors slide into floral aromas on the finish. Wonderful addition to holiday conversations.

Columbia Winery Merlot, Columbia Valley $14 Its aromatic profile shows freshness with red-toned fruit of cherry and cranberry backed by accents of blueberry. An easy going wine that will taste great with holiday meals or sipping with friends

Erath Pinot Noir $16 Delicious and approachable! Bursting-with-berries aromas. A silky mouthful of bing cherry and pomegranate are woven together with a smooth caramel flavor. Won’t get in the way of the important things in life.


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Several months ago we hosted the Donnelly family at the winery and were so blessed to meet many of the family members, including loving grandchildren who were so sweet to the elder Dr. Donnelly. Many of you remember this beloved physician in Longview. In the entourage, was Doug Donnely, who was a classmate of my brother, Kirc Roland. I had a great discussion with Doug, and came to find out that he loves wine and to my surprise, was an investor in a new winery called Passing Time.

Passing Time Winery is one of several in Washington state founded by former professional athletes. So, yes, there are a few football players who prefer wine over beer! I can understand the fascination and interest in these enterprises because, after all, they are famous and hopefully still have some of the cash they made during their careers. But for me, I ask how’s the wine taste and how did they learn to make the stuff?

Let’s start with Passing Time. As it turns out the star duo of Dan Marino and Jason Huard are a part of a team that includes Doug Donnelly, Kevin Hughes, and winemaker Chris Peterson. Everybody knows hall of fame inductee, Dan Marino, who led the Dolphins to the playoffs ten times in his seventeen-season career. Jason Haurd met Marino as a player in Miami, but we all know him as a quarterback with Washington. These guys are not in a hurry. Passing Time is committed to cabernet sauvignon, which they blend with merlot and cabernet franc. Their minimal approach emphasizes the fruit, not fancy cellar tricks. They use new oak to compliment the fruit sourced from top vineyards in the state. I’m sure their celebrity has opened some amazing doors for them. I’m not jealous.

Double Back Wines was started by WSU standout Drew Bledsoe. He
played fourteen seasons in the NFL. Bledsoe is best known to us as a standout quarterback for WSU, but he went on to be the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots from 1993 to 2001. Owning a winery has always been a part of his vision because of his love of fine wine. Drew grew up in the Walla Walla Valley and in 2007, he planted an estate vineyard. Here lies the main difference between Double Back and Passing Time. Drew wants to grow his own grapes and follow them through to the finished wine, whereas Marino and company want to focus on the wine and leave the growing to the long established growers. Both are passionate about cabernet sauvignon and both have already won high marks from Wine Spectator. Drew and his wife, Maura hired Josh McDaniels as winemaker in 2007, to assure that only the best viticulture and winemaking practices are followed.

Back to my conversation with Doug Donnelly. When the Donnelly’s were about to leave the winery that night, Doug took me aside and said he would bring to a bottle of the sold out Passing Time wine. Frankly, I wasn’t about to hold my breath at getting a $100 bottle of wine, but sure enough, about a month later, he fulfilled his promise. He not only brought the wine, he brought me two bottles. Haven’t opened it yet. Review to come.


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The Joy of Harvest

 

I woke up late at night, not able to sleep, heart pounding in anticipation of timg_0323he upcoming grape harvest. It may seem strange to most of our readers that someone so far from the vineyards of Eastern Washington would have such things on their mind. But believe it or not, most of the delicious wine made in our lovely state is indeed made here on the Westside. It’s the perfect storm because our climate here on the coast is mostly moderate to cool during the year, making for ideal conditions in the wineries for making and aging wine. I feel sorry for the wineries in Yakima who need to run their air conditioners while the grapes ferment in the fall. Temperature control is always an issue and the energy bills must be enormous. We will be crushing our first grapes on September 14th, Merlot from famed Red Willow Vineyard, and our last grapes the end of October. The ritual of hitching up the truck and trailer, cleaning and loading the bins, and getting up in the wee hours of the morning to head out over White Pass is exhilarating. The ritual is happening all over the Northwest right under your nose. From Vancouver to Linden, small boutique winemakers are bustling around in their rigs, traversing the mountains to the sacred vineyards, whose alluvial soils brought about by volcanic events and spread out over the valleys of Eastern Washington by the Missoula floods long, long ago. One harvest fact that really got me was that 70% of all the grapes harvested in the state are crushed by one winery, the first in the state-Chateau Ste. Michelle. Now that is impressive. All the other grapes go to the other 900 wineries who create an economic impact of over 10 billion dollars and provide 30,000 jobs. The good news is Washington wineries provide us with 16 million cases of wine to drink; well, not just us, but people all over the world who are starting to recognize the quality and variety of Washington wine. People ask me all the time about the crush and especially whether we crush with our feet. They always bring up the infamous crush seen in the classic I Love Lucy episode . The inquirers are alway surprised when I say “we do crush some of the grapes with our feet”. It is still the most gentle form of crushing. Machine crushing is the norm in modern winemaking but there are some famous wineries who still make some of their wine using this method. The only difference is they usually wear hip waders! As for dirty feet and its effect on wine, if you have ever been to a crush, you know that plenty of MOG (materials other than grapes) find their way in to each batch. Not to worry, all the MOG is filtered out through the winemaking process. Plus, our foot crushers thoroughly wash their feet first! I’m finishing this article at home as the first fall rain is pattering down on the deck. It is a magical time for me. I’m so fortunate to be connected with the agriculture of our great state. It harkens me back to a time when all of us were in one way or another living by Mother Nature’s clock, where life was dictated by the ebb and flow of the seasons, planting and then harvesting. A necessity, not just an occasional garden. How life has changed. It’s encouraging to know, though, that someplace somewhere, someone is still doing it.


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