Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Top 10 Walla Walla Wineries

We fell in love with Walla Walla Valley when we first visited it in 2007. The beautiful wine country was a 4-5 hours' drive from Seattle and about an hour by flight. In the hot Mediterranean-like summer, the vineyards in Walla Walla are vibrant with Palouse hills and Blue Mountains in the backdrop. However, the valley can get below freezing in the winter as the vines are wrapped in snow and silent beauty.
Walla Walla vineyards in the summer
Walla Walla vineyards in the winter

Five years ago, we were fortunate to find the perfect second home in Walla Walla, which we also made into a vacation rental. This led to many more trips shared with friends and family, tasting new wines and stocking up old favorites. For this post, I want to share with you my top ten wineries to visit in Walla Walla.

My Top 10 Walla Walla Wineries to Visit (in somewhat geographical order)
  • Woodward Canyon (west) - Second winery in the valley and famous for their Cabernet 
    Woodward Canyon
    Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but my new favorite is the Rhone-style Erratic.
  • LE'cole (west) - Third winery in the valley, you can't miss the school house building next to Woodward Canyon and famous for their Bordeaux-style wines, especially the Apogee and Perigee.
  • Gramercy Cellars (west) - Founded by Master Sommelier Greg Harrison, the winery creates amazing Syrah.
  • Abeja (east) - Rather exclusive, you need to either stay at the beautiful inn or be a mailing list member to taste at the exquisite winery. Abeja makes some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the valley. It will be interesting to see what the 2015 departure of John Abbott (formerly Abeja winemaker who helped launch Abeja) does to future vintages.

    • Revelry Vintners (east) - I discovered this winery through a friend. Revelry was launched by former Whitman grad, Jared Burns, in 2005. My favorites are the Aerial Series that focus on terroir-driven wines.
    • Spring Valley Vineyard (north/downtown) - Free tasting is getting rarer these days, not to mention free tasting of very high quality wines accompanied by the story of the winery and its wines. Spring Valley always ends the tasting with the Syrah, named Nina Lee, paired with custom-made Syrah-infused chocolate truffles. Delicious! Besides Nina Lee, my other favorites are Frederick and Uriah, both Bordeaux-style blends.
    • Rotie Cellars (north/downtown) - Winemaker and owner Sean Boyd makes some of the most compelling Rhone-style wines in the valley. The two popular ones are the Northern Blend (Syrah-Viognier) and Southern Blend (Grenache-Syrah-Mouvedre). I also love the Homage, a Mouvedre-based wine, and the Swordfight, a Mouvedre-Syrah blend that is a collaboration with El Corazon Winery.
    • Amavi Cellars (south) - Probably the winery with the best view from the tasting room and located in the most scenic part of Walla Walla. Winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet also manages sister winery, Pepper Bridge. The wines tend to be big and quite extracted with aging potential.
    • Va Piano (south) - Another beautiful winery in the midst of vineyards, this is also another must-visit. Va Piano owner and winemaker Justin Wylie makes delicious Syrah. The new Black Label wines are vineyard-designated and are my favorites. 
    • Northstar Winery (south) - Also located in the midst of vineyards, Northstar is the winery  hat helped me appreciate Merlot the most. And if you feel like splurging, the Premier Merlot is something else. You can also order the wine and cheese tasting and enjoy it in its beautiful tasting room. 
    Northstar Winery
      Some thoughts on Accommodation
      Accommodation was challenging in Walla Walla when the wine industry first exploded several years ago. Hotels and inns would be booked up way in advance during peak season. Some visitors had to stay as far as Prosser and make day trips into Walla Walla. This propelled alternate lodging arrangements, such as vacation rentals, which work out well for those who travel in groups and who prefer the comfort and convenience of an entire property over a room.
      • Walla Walla Vacation Rentals - We are partial to Walla Walla Vacation Rentals, locally owned and operated by Alexa Palmer. Alexa operates over 30 properties, including our very own Jasper's by Pioneer Park. She is very resourceful and is happy to answer any questions. Look for pet-friendly properties or if you want a pool or hot tub.
      • Fat Duck Inn - If you prefer a room and good food to boot, try the boutique inn. Located in a residential area within walking distance to downtown, Fat Duck Inn is beautifully and lavishly decorated yet comfortable and welcoming.
      If you are looking for hotels, there is the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel as well as the usual chain hotels, such as Marriott Courtyard, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, and so forth.

      My Verdict: Spend a few days in Walla Walla and enjoy the wineries. There are many high quality wines that are considered a steal. Prepare to spend up $10-$25 for your tasting. It is still less spendy than Napa, Sonoma, or Willamette.

      Monday, November 21, 2016

      Raiding the Cellar - Thanksgiving 2016

      Thanksgiving can't come soon enough!

      Besides preparing my favorite dishes, I absolutely love wine pairing. This year, however, I will not be shopping for Thanksgiving wines. Thanks to numerous winery visits, too many wine club memberships, and an excessive wine buying habit, my wine cellar is overflowing. So my challenge is to pick a few bottles from my collection for the big meal:

      Thanksgiving wine pairings - Cava, Riesling, Grenache, Burgundy

      NV Castell d'Or Cava Flama d'Or Imperial Brut 
      (Retail: $10)

      OK, this is an easy one. You can't go wrong with sparkling wines. They go with everything; as an aperitif with cheese and crackers, a complement to the roast bird itself, or even a digestif with pumpkin pie. In addition, you could concoct all kinds of cocktails - a splash of orange juice, a splash of Campari, and/or a splash of St Germaine. It is like a party in a flute.

      I love to indulge in a good grower's champagne or one from a high quality champagne house, like Veuve Clicquot and Möet et Chandon. I love the dry taste of dough and fruit, the weightlessness brought on by a million bubbles.

      However, there are many budget-friendly options: like a Crémant or a Cava. Both are sparkling wines made the same way a Champagne is made, but outside of Champagne: in France and Spain respectively. Known as method champenoise, these sparkling wines go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This is accomplished by adding a mixture of sugar and yeast, called the liqueur de tirage, to the still wine. This secondary fermentation creates the bubbles in the sparkling wine as carbon dioxide is released.

      While I am out of Champagne right now, I do have a couple bottles of NV Castell d'Or Cava Flama d'Or Imperial Brut. The sparkling wine is made of a blend of Spanish grape varietals - Xarel·lo, Macaque, and Parellada. It is probably my favorite budget-friendly Cava, and it will be a great way to start the celebration.

      2013 Brady Cellars Grenache
      (Retail: $37)

      If you prefer a red for Thanksgiving, Grenache is an excellent choice. It is medium-bodied, fruity, and vibrant; a great accompaniment to turkey, ham, and all kinds of Thanksgiving sides.

      Old world Grenache-based wines, like Chateauneuf du Pape and Priorat, have a smokey and earthy profile that make great pairings for dishes that are spiced with sage, rosemary, and thyme. New world Grenache is even more fruit-forward and can be very aromatic and easy to drink.

      My pick for the meal is the first vintage of Grenache by Brady Cellars.  A relatively young winery that has been focusing mostly on Bordeaux grapes, Brady took a stab at making Grenache in 2013 both as a rosé and a red. Both were wildly popular. The red won him a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Very shortly, they were all sold out. I'm lucky to have a bottle of the 2013 Grenache left. Unfortunately, he didn't make a 2014 vintage. But his 2015 vintage Grenache is really promising based on last month's barrel tasting.

      The 2013 Grenache is extremely aromatic, floral, and delivers delightfully on the palate. The blend of fruit and spice is elegant. It is going to be perfect with the meal.

      2008 Joseph Drouhin Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Les Damodes 
      (Retail: ~$80)

      The other red that is often selected for Thanksgiving is Pinot Noir. It is often the no-brainer pairing. Like Grenache, Pinot Noir is often medium-bodied, very aromatic and vibrant with fruit, spice, and earth. A good Pinot Noir also offers a bright acidity that increases its aging potential.

      Famous Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy, where the wines are prized for their elegant and complex expression of the terroir. This is particularly important because Pinot Noir is a finicky varietal. It thrives where there is the perfect combination of climate, soil, and topography. Even within Burgundy, you can absolutely taste the subtle differences in the wines from the different subregions.

      There are also good Pinot Noirs from the new world, such as New Zealand and the United States. In fact, Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon is often regarded as a nod to Burgundy in terms of acidity and flavor profile.

      The pick for the meal is the 2008 Nuits St. Georges Premier Cru from Joseph Drouhin. The Les Damodes vineyard is located near Vosnes-Romanee with an east exposure. With a mix of clay and limestone in the soil, this is a promising wine of great finesse, befitting the special occasion.

      2010 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling 'Rotlay' 
      (Retail: $55)

      Riesling is the Thanksgiving meal's best friend. The high acidity and minerality of a dry Riesling pairs well with turkey and refreshes the palate as it cuts through the rich gravy. A sweeter Riesling is perfect with pumpkin pie topped with a dollop of vanilla whipped cream.

      Known as the noble grape from Germany, the best Rieslings come from the Rhein and Mosel regions.  As one might expect, the Germans have a very organized way of classifying Riesling to help consumers, but sometimes confuse them instead. One of the classifications is based on the increasing ripeness of grapes during harvest; from Kabinett (or cabinet) to Spätlese, Auslese, and all the way to Eiswein (or ice wine). The riper the grapes during harvest, the more sugar will be in the juice.

      Unlike many cheap sweet wines, a good German Riesling is complex, with delicious minerality and bright acidity. You can also find wonderful Rieslings in Austria and in the United States, particularly Washington state.

      This year, I'm picking the Rotlay from Selbach-Oster for dessert. A wonderful producer, Selbach-Oster defies the traditional practice by combining grapes of varying ripeness levels from the Rotlay parcel into a single wine. As a result, this Riesling cannot be classified although it is closest to an Auslese. A few notches below the Eiswein in terms of sweetness, the Rotlay contains just enough sugar to please the palate and make for a delightful finale.

      My Verdict: These are the picks from my cellar. I have updated the notes after opening all of them up. What are your picks? Ultimately, the best wines are the ones you enjoy with people you love. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

      Sunday, October 23, 2016

      First Crush

      It was a breathtaking drive from Seattle to Snoqualmie that sun-soaked September afternoon. I was exhausted and a bit cranky, having to juggle work and taking care of a sick husband and an injured dog.

      However, mother nature had chosen the harvest date, and then we were given but a few days notice to get ready for the crush. I left my invalid family members in the good hands of our house guest, packed the primary fermenter, towels, and rubber boots into the Forester, and headed out to the crush facility. My excitement grew as I approached the facility - my first crush!

      Crush Day

      Our Syrah grapes were picked earlier that day from Chandler Reach Vineyards, technically considered to be in the Yakima Valley, but within close proximity of the Red Mountain AVA. My partner-in-wine, Alisa, and I decided to share 100 lbs of grapes between us, which would make us about two cases of wine.

      At the crush facility, the winemaking class instructor, Steve, showed us how to set up the crusher and de-stemmer. All equipment were rinsed appropriately before we proceeded. Working in a group, we gently dropped bunches of grapes into the machine, which quite efficiently removed the stems and lightly crushed the grapes into the primary fermenter. But just in case, there were two of us who manually picked out stems that were missed by the machine.

      There was a certain rhythm to crushing grapes that relaxed me. It was almost therapeutic! This was the first crush for most of us, and we were eager to learn and to help. As we got the hang of it, we moved faster through the bins of grapes. Our sticky grape stains were evidence of our achievement that day.

      Gently dropping grapes in
      Crushed and de-stemmed

      More stems manually removed
      Must in primary fermenter
      The freshly crushed grapes, also known as must, smelled terrific. Sulfite was added to remove any wild yeast and bacteria from the must. After crushing nearly a ton of grapes (literally) and cleaning up all the equipment, it was time to take some measurements before we took the must home.
      • Brix, which measures the sugar content of the must, was at 26 degrees. It was higher than the desired range of 22-25. A higher than desired Brix might lead to high alcohol content before fermentation could complete. This could result in a stuck fermentation.
      • pH, which measures acidity, was at 3.53 and was within the desired range of 3.5 and 3.8.
      • Titratable acidity (TA), which measures the amount of all the combined acids in the must, was at 7.125g/L and was slightly higher than the desired 4-6g/L.
      The adjustment to the must needed was thankfully simple enough. To correct the Brix without adversely impacting the pH and TA, we diluted the must with water with precise measurements that Steve provided.

      Alisa, my partner-in-wine, and I with our must
      Primary Fermentation

      A full day after the crush, we introduced re-hydrated yeast into the must and proceeded with the twice to thrice-daily punch downs. Punching down is a process to keep the juice and the crushed grapes, particularly the skins, in contact during primary fermentation. As must ferments, the crushed grapes tend to rise to the top forming what is known as the cap. Pushing the cap down into the juice allows for flavor extraction and also prevents unwanted bacterial activities.

      A pack of nutrients were added to the must two days later to feed the yeast, and a second pack was added after another two days. The must was bubbling happily and got hot (around 75 to 80 deg F) with yeast activities. Unfortunately, I never got to the desired temperature range of 80 to 90 deg F. But the house smelled like a winery during primary fermentation so I took that as a good sign!

      Yeast hydrated in must and warm water

      Must bubbling during fermentation
      In less than a week after the crush, the Brix had dropped to 6 degrees. Twice-daily punch downs continued, and four days later, the Brix measured at -1 degree. The must was then inoculated with malolactic (ML) bacteria as we prepared for the press the next day. The ML fermentation process allowed for a controlled conversion of the tart-tasting malic acids to softer lactic acids, which would hopefully enhance the body and flavor of the wine.

      Press Day

      To prepare for the press, all equipment needed to be sanitized. It was not the most interesting part of winemaking but very necessary to ensure that no wild strains of yeast or bacteria would enter the juice. ML bacteria was added a day before the press so that it could benefit from being evenly distributed in the juice during the pressing process.

      There were three batches of must at Steve's house that day, ready to be pressed. Steve pulled out his beautiful press from the turn of the 20th century. It belonged to his grandfather and was quite the treat!

      Our must had been in primary fermentation for about ten days at that time. We poured the must into the wine press and let the juice flow into a container at the bottom of the press. This is what is known as the free run. Following that, we placed heavy blocks of wood onto the crushed grapes and exerted pressure to press the remaining juice out. The unfinished wine went into the sanitized carboys and gallon jugs, that were then air-locked.

      Beautiful wine press and free run
      Pouring pressed wine into carboy

      The day ended with a quick sampling of the three different juices. Within only ten days, you could already taste the difference among them. Some of us (not me) had clearly done a better job with punch downs and keeping the temperature at the higher and more desired range. Those juices showed a bit more tannins and structure. My juice, which was fermented cooler and with less intervention, was more fruit-forward. I can't wait to see how our wines will continue to evolve.

      My Verdict: I was a skeptic when it came to winemaking. Given the abundance of great wines available, there is hardly any need to make my own wine. However, I've been having great fun so far. I've also learned a lot about what goes on in a wine. Stay tuned for my post on secondary fermentation and bulk aging.

      Friday, September 30, 2016

      Épernay, Capital of Champagne!

      Vineyards around Épernay
      A mere hour and a quarter from Paris by train, Épernay is nestled among vineyard after vineyard in the heart of Champagne country. Six of us arrived here one summer day, thirsty for some bubbly but only armed with enough French to name grape varietals.

      In the town of Épernay is the renowned Avenue de Champagne, lined with big Champagne houses, such as Möet et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mercier, and Perrier Jouët. Beneath the streets are over 60 miles of subterranean cellars containing millions and millions of bottles of sparkling wine.

      The tourism office in Épernay is situated on the famous Avenue. Head over there for additional information about the area and its various attractions. Take the Petit Train Touristique Mill'Bulles (Little Tourist Train of a Thousand Bubbles) for a quick tour to learn about the fascinating heritage of the town and enjoy its quirky street art and stately buildings.

      As a bonus, you will almost always find a couple of Champagne houses hosting free tastings at the office. Be sure to have a glass or two before you head out.


      Möet et Chandon

      Tasting Champagne
      Our first order of business was to head over to Möet et Chandon for our cellar tour and Champagne tasting. The big Champagne house is associated with luxury name brands, Louis Vuitton and Hennessy, as well as royalty from Napoleon Bonaparte to Queen Elizabeth II. It is no wonder that the entire estate screams opulence.

      We joined the English-speaking tour (reservation highly recommended!) and were introduced to the history of the house and the Champagne making process from vine to wine. We walked through the underground caves, past riddling racks of sparkling wine bottles, where lees were gradually urged to the necks. The cellar also boasts of a beautifully carved wooden barrel that was once filled with port, a gift from Napoleon. By the end of the tour, the thirsty gang was rewarded with delicious Champagne. Yum!

      Riddling Rack
      Napoleon's Gift of Port
      The most prestigious Champagne brand from Möet et Chandon is Dom Pérignon, named after the famous Benedictine monk remembered as the "Father of Champagne." Although Dom Pérignon did not technically discover the process of making Champagne, his namesake vintage cuvee is definitely worthy of special occasions. Unfortunately, Dom Pérignon did not come with the tasting. We settled for a goofy photo with the Dom's statue instead.

      Picture with the Dom

      Side Note, Special Town - Hautvillers

      We spent the night at a cottage (known as a gite) in Hautvillers. Hautvillers is a cute little commune about four miles north of Épernay and surrounded by vineyards. In this town is also the Abbey of St. Peter, where Dom Pérignon and Dom Thierry Ruinart refined the process of Champagne making. Attached to the abbey is the Church of St. Sindulphe, which is also the final resting place of the Dom.

      Abbaye Saint-Pierre
      You will find info about different gites at the tourism office. It is definitely a wonderful lodging option, especially for group accommodation. The one inconvenience is that you have to figure out transportation, which can be a bit challenging if you don't speak enough French to order a taxi or fancy driving on narrow hilly roads.

      My Verdict: If possible, visit Épernay with a Francophone. A little French goes a long way. However, once you get there, be prepared to be blown away by the beauty of Champagne country. Visiting in the summer poses a challenge as it is prime vacation time for the many small Grower Champagne makers and restaurants. But drink some Champagne and go with the flow. It will still be a trip to remember!

      Sunday, August 28, 2016

      French Wine Country, Beaune!

      A last-minute change in travel plans recently landed us in Beaune, a historic French town and the wine capital of Burgundy. I was ecstatic, and Beaune didn't fail to impress. At the heart of the most celebrated wine country in the world, Beaune also has five Michelin star restaurants. It's a haven for wine geeks and foodies, and a danger to your wallet.

      Allow me to tempt you to visit Beaune with a few highlights of our trip:

      Hospices de Beaune

      As you take a stroll in Beaune, it is hard to miss the beautiful Flemish-style architecture in the town square. That is the Hospices de Beaune, a hospital founded in the 15th century to provide free medical care to the poor. The hospital continued to be in operation in the same building till the 1970's when the services were moved to a modern facility. A tour of the Hospices de Beaune is a treat, where you get to see how it was run several hundreds years ago.

      Hospices de Beaune

      Hospices de Beaune wine
      The Hospices de Beaune is also known by some as the winemakers' hospital. Over the centuries, the hospital has received different donations, including vineyards, to support its mission. Today, the hospital owns about 60 hectares of premium vineyards.

      In 1859, a tradition of auctioning wine from the vineyards to raise money for the hospital was started. The wine auction is held on the third weekend of November (also known as the Les Trois Glorineuses). A portion of the proceeds still go for the care of the sick as well as the modernization and maintenance of the hospital today. The wine will be auctioned primarily in barrels to private and professional winemakers for maturation. Throughout Beaune, you can see bottles of Hospices de Beaune being sold under different winery labels.

      Winery Visit, Maison Joseph Drouhin

      Drouhin cellar
      Because this was a last-minute trip, I didn't manage to arrange for a special winery visit, not to mention that our trip was smack in the middle of peak vacation time for Europeans, even winemakers. Many of the smaller wineries were closed.

      Imagine my delight when I found that Maison Joseph Drouhin has a cellar and tasting tours in the town square. A long-time fan of Oregon's Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir, I could hardly wait to tour the mothership and taste the Burgundian juice.

      The tour started in the cellar of the Duke of Burgundy's Parliament building where we got acquainted with a wine press from 1570. It is apparently still useable although not very efficient compared to modern technology. How cool is that? Maison Drouhin uses it only to mark special vintages.

      Ancient wine press from 1570

      The tour takes you through an elaborate underground labyrinth. If walls could talk, the ancient cellar would have many fascinating stories to share from Roman times to World War II. In some parts of the cellar, there is evidence of Roman presence in the herringbone-style stonework on the wall. You will hear about facades in the cellar which were deliberately strewn with spider webs to hide wines from the Nazis. You will even hear about how Maurice Drouhin (who ran the Maison during the war) hid in the cellar and then at the Hospices de Beaune as he was wanted for being part of the French Resistance. He thanked the Hospices by gifting vineyards, of course!

      Cellar wall with herringbone-style stonework

      The tour ended with a generous flight of six wines. three white and three red:
      2013 Chablis Premier Cru Mont de Millieu
      2013 Chassagne Montrachet
      2012 Puligny Montrachet Folatieres Premier Cru

      2009 Chorey-Les-Beaune
      2008 Nuits-Saint-Georges Damodes Premier Cru
      1996 Beaune Clos de Mouches Premier Cru (a very special treat indeed!!)

      (I lied. The tour truly ended with a half case of Drouhin to be shipped back to Seattle.)

      Tip: If you plan to ship wine back to the United States, you don't have to pay VAT, which is a hefty 20%. Use it to pay for shipping instead.

      Michelin Restaurants and Cheese Chariots

      As mentioned, Beaune has no lack of Michelin star restaurants. It is hardly surprising as they do pair well with the world's most celebrated wines. If you can't partake of the many gastronomic pleasures Burgundy has to offer, you have to at least try the namesake dishes, Escargots à la Bourgogne and Boeuf Bourguignon. The two versions below were from Le Cheval Noir.

      Escargots à la Bourgogne
      Boeuf Bourguignon
      Although technically not a Michelin star restaurant, Le Cheval Noir is granted the status of Michelin Plate, which means good cooking. I have to say that the escargots from Le Cheval Noir were probably the most inventive I've ever had. The shells were so soft and lightly fried that you could eat them, like soft-shell crabs. As for the Boeuf Bourguignon, there are so many different versions out there, all delicious in their own ways, that you may be inclined to try a few.

      Wines served with dinner at Le Cheval Noir - 2012 Domaine Chanson Beaune-Bastion Premier Cru and 2013 Domaine Laurent Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 

      We did however get into a Michelin star restaurant, Le Carmin, on our last night in Beaune. My sea bream with tomatoes was absolutely delicious. But nothing delighted my husband more than the chariot de fromage, from which he got to choose a few ounces of different cheeses to enjoy. (I called that the cheese dim sum.)

      Sea bream with tomatoes
      Chariot de formage

      Wine served with dinner at Le Carmin - 2008 Domaine Michel Mallard Les Renardes Corton Grand Cru

      Saturday Farmers Market

      For a town where good food and wine is so much of its soul, it is not surprising that Beaune farmers market is thriving and extensive. Should you be in Beaune over the weekend, you don't want to miss this.

      Located in the town square and operated on Saturdays only, you can see shoppers chattering excitedly with vendors amidst bountiful produce, fresh and cured meat, cheeses, and breads. In addition to gastronomical delights, there were artisanal and commercially-produced quilts, hats, bags, umbrellas, and clothes to get you ready for French country living.

      Beaune Farmers Market

      My Verdict: Having visited different wine countries in the United States, Chile, Spain, and France, Beaune is currently my favorite. It has a small-town feel and is welcoming of visitors. But it is by no means a tourist trap. People go to Beaune to eat, drink, and have a good time. It will be great to brush up on some French, but there are enough people who can speak English to help you get by. If possible, research the wineries and make contact before you visit. The high-end ones are impossible to get in if you are not "in the industry." But when in doubt, Drouhin is a really good winery to visit. Santé!

      Sunday, July 31, 2016

      Here Comes the Sun, It's All White!

      My wine club loves blind tasting, no matter how terrible we are at it. We would take turn to pick a theme and host the tasting. Like pros, we would hold our glasses up to sniff, swirl, and sip. Unlike pros, we almost never spit.

      White wine blind tasting panel
      It was our turn to host the past tasting. Our theme was "Here Comes the Sun, It's All White"--a terrible Beatles wordplay.

      Well, the sun was barely out in Seattle that fateful weekend. But like all good Seattleites, we grabbed our jackets and sat out in the patio.

      We were blind tasting white wines. Everyone named the wine they brought after a famous white person whose description might fit the wine, and that is the only clue as to the appellations, grape varietals, and maybe vintages of the wines. That was harder than you might imagine even for the ones who had taken all kinds of wine classes to refine their taste buds. And as the evening went on (remember we didn't spit), our judgement became at best comedic! Did I mention that we also had a bottle of bubbly and a couple bottles of white with dinner?

      If you are curious, here's the line-up of what we had that night, with a few hints as to why the names were chosen:

      NV Scharffenberger Brut Excellence

      With Dinner (Thai)
      2009 Pichler-Krutzler Riesling Loibenberg
      2014 Domaine de la Tour du Bon Bandol Blanc

      Blind Tasting
      Penelope Cruz (Spanish varietal) - 2013 Adamant Cellars Gateshead Vineyard Albariño
      Lolita (too young) - 2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc
      Amy Schumer (American, full-bodied, funky) - 2010 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay
      Grace Kelly (American, elegant) - 2013 Clos Pierre White Salmon Vineyard Chardonnay
      Maria von Trapp (Austrian varietal) - 2015 W.T. Vintners Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner

      Experimental (for those who dared)
      1975 Bolla Valpolicella

      Palate Cleanser 
      2003 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne

      2007 Pieropan Recioto di Soave Classico Le Colombare

      Wonderful line-up
      My Verdict: Blind tasting is a lot of fun and rather humbling. However, don't let that stop you from having a grand time! Cheers!

      Here's the score sheet

      Wednesday, June 29, 2016

      Chablis vs. Sancerre

      Seattleites do not take summer for granted. Following the gloom of winter and lingering drizzles of spring, summer days are long, warm, sun-filled with just a touch of humidity. Spring flowers transition into summer bloom with an abundance of assorted berries, stone fruit, and fresh produce. Seattleites live for the summer!

      Summer is also the time when we leave the red wines in the cellar and start breaking into blush and white wines, the perfect accompaniment to a charcuterie spread enjoyed on a boat, in a park or on your deck. My niece and partner in wine, Taylor, and I are having fun picking out white wines from the cellar and tasting through them. This month, I'd like to share our experience with two delicious French whites - Chablis and Sancerre.

      Pascal Bouchard Chablis vs. Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Blanc

      2013 Pascal Bouchard, Chablis, Fourchaume 1er Cru
      I never thought I would like Chardonnay that much till I tasted a white Burgundy. It is not weighed down by oak the way California Chardonnay tends to be. For the most part, I like my white wines crisp and fruity with a nice balance of minerality and acidity. Among the white Burgundies, Chablis delivers that for me. It is summer in a glass!

      The Pascal Bouchard Chablis sourced from the Fourchaume vineyard is classified as Premier Cru (second highest classification in Burgundy, with Grand Cru being the first). The wine is fresh with a nice blend of acidity and oceanic minerality, that makes you want to pair it with some fresh oysters. It definitely works wonderfully with cheeses, cured meat, olives, and pickles.

      Price: $39 (West Seattle Wine Cellars -

      2014 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Blanc
      Most people are familiar with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, especially those from the Marlborough region. However, after a magical encounter with a bottle of 2010 Domaine Etienne et Sébastian Riffault Sauletas Sancerre in New York a few weeks ago, we are going for a French Sauvignon Blanc. (Side note: The Domaine Etienne et Sébastian Riffault Sancerre was creamier, fuller in body, and less fruit forward than what I would expect from a Sancerre Blanc.)

      We opened up this 2014 vintage from Domaine Vacheron, which is more typical of a Sancerre Blanc. It was medium-bodied with high acidity, delicious minerality, and green apple notes. Again, I imagine oysters and seafood by the beach with a glass of Sancerre Blanc.

      Price: $35 (West Seattle Wine Cellars -

      Taylor and I toasting to summer
      My Verdict: After tasting both wines side by side, I am struck by how alike they are despite being from different grape varietals. Looking at the map of Chablis and Sancerre regions, they are really close in proximity. Additionally, they lie on the Kimmeridgian Chain, known for chalky soil with limestone and a high content of crushed shells. It is no wonder that both whites have complexity and crisp minerality that make me want to eat fresh oysters! Still the Chablis has a little bit more body and the Sancerre more acidity. Both are great for summer!

      To that, we raise our glasses to you - santé!

      Friday, May 27, 2016

      Caymus Napa Valley Cab - In Memory of Nancy

      I lost a special friend to breast cancer a couple of weeks ago. It was a long and brave fight that lasted years, but Nancy is finally resting. 

      Anyone who had met Nancy would tell you that she didn't look like a cancer patient. A giveaway might be a high-fashion scarf she used to cover her chemo-induced follicular disruption. Oftentimes, she would wear a really cute blonde bob with the brightest smile and a gorgeous outfit. Her eyes were always full of life, and she would be genuinely interested in your life like she was living vicariously through a healthier body. 

      Nancy loved wine, and I enjoyed having drinks with her. We traded tips on how to avoid bad wines in a restaurant or a pub and dreamed about our favorite wines. I got to learn that Nancy loved a good Napa cab. (Who doesn't?) A few years ago, she gave me a bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon for my birthday. She told me that was one of her favorite wines. It was amazing!! 

      This month's post is in honor of Nancy. I managed to procure a bottle of 2013 Caymus Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which was quite a feat in a city that is saturated with good Washington wines. With determination and a somewhat forced disregard for the price tag, I picked the last bottle off the store shelf. We planned to celebrate Nancy that night with some Caymus cab and the Swinery's boeuf bourguignon and fresh fettuccine. 

      Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon

      Day One
      First, I'd like to give a nod to the label. So elegant and beautiful! The wine was deep purple indicating youthfulness. It was fruit forward, silky smooth, full-bodied with perfect acidity. The finish was long and had a fig undertone, that was delicious. Needless to say, it was a match made in heaven for the boeuf bourguignon and fettuccine.

      Day Two*
      The fruit flavors deepened, and the wine showed even more structure. It was opulent!

      Day Three*
      Hello, leather! My friends know how much I love leather in my wine. The fruit flavors were more concentrated in the background. A touch more jammy. Still full-bodied with a lasting finish.

      My Verdict: If I could only choose one word to describe the wine, it would be "opulent." I am so glad that Nancy shared this wine with me, and I can see why it was one of her favorites. Like Nancy, the Caymus cab is elegant, complex, yet approachable. You can enjoy it with food or alone. My wish for Nancy is that in heaven, God gave her a beautiful room in His mansion right next to the wine cellar. Cheers, Nancy! 

      Price: $60-$90 depending on the wine store. (You can get it cheap at Trader Joe's, but I will not recommend it. That will be a different post for a different day.)

      * I use the Sharper Image vacuum wine saver to keep the wine fresh after the bottle is opened.

      Friday, April 29, 2016

      Kim Brady of Brady Cellars - From Technology to Oenology

      Washington winemakers come in all shapes and sizes! Some come from generations of winemakers like Christophe Baron of Cayuse, some hail from Napa Valley like Todd Alexander of Force Majeuer, and then there are those who have taken a leap of faith from technology to oenology like Microsoft vet Marty Taucher of Avennia. I happen to know a few folks from this last category, and they vary in their levels of success.

      The truth is that being a successful winemaker is no small feat. The Washington wine industry is highly competitive and has over 800 wineries. One of my favorite Washington wines comes from technologist-turned-oenologist Kim Brady of Brady Cellars.

      Our neighbor invited us to Kim's release party a few years ago. Having tasted novice attempts by other technologist-turned-oenologist friends in the past, I was skeptical. But I was surprised and very much delighted by Kim's first commercial release. His 2010 Cab was delicious during the tasting. Over time, it has aged so nicely that I persuaded him later to sell me one of his remaining six bottles, which I still have in my cellar.

      Thankfully, Kim did not turn out to be a one-hit wonder! The vintages that followed the initial commercial release continued to showcase his talents in winemaking. His line-up has expanded to include dry Provence-style Rosés, beautiful Bordeaux blends (called 'Symphony'), amazingly complex Merlot, and my latest favorite, Grenache.

      Kim credits his achievements to experienced winemakers (such as Tim and Kelly Hightower of Hightower Cellars and others), who have advised and guided him even before his first commercial release. He even had a chance encounter with Mike Grgich (famed winemaker of the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the Paris wine tasting) and ended up helping at the Grgich Wine Estates for a day.

      Last weekend was Brady's 2016 Spring Release Party, hosted at the lovely Wingle Residence in West Seattle. (The Wingles are wine club members.) Like prior parties, Tyler Palagi of Radiator Whiskey whipped out all kinds of carnivores' delights, such as charcuterie, brisket with horseradish cream, and pork belly, all of which paired wonderfully with Brady's wines. The line of tasters kept Caroline, the winemaker's wife, busy pouring. Another successful release party indeed!

      Left to right: Tyler Palagi, Caroline and Kim Brady
      My Verdict: While it is not easy to succeed as a winemaker in this very competitive market, I am certainly glad that this technologist has made the transition to winemaking. I don't say that to just anybody. Here's a nod and a toast, and I look forward to more vintages. Cheers!

      Price: $18 (Rosé), $30-40 (Red)

      Tuesday, March 29, 2016

      2009 Obelisco Estate Merlot Reserve Estate Grown - A Wonderful Gift!

      Have you ever felt intimidated about buying a bottle of wine for someone who "knows" wine?

      While I am far from being a wine connoisseur, I have friends who will not buy me wine because I am picky about what I drink. (You know at a certain age, it has to be worth the calories!) I have also received wine as gifts, that proceed to become cooking wine and/or sangria. I may not drink it straight, but I sure hate wasting it.

      Then there is my dear sister-in-law, who doesn't drink. She makes every attempt to know my taste and then works with the local wine shop to pick a bottle that I will like. And she has been spot on each time! Have I mentioned she doesn't drink?

      On my birthday last year, she got me a bottle of the 2009 Obelisco Estate Merlot Reserve. I was thrilled! Obelisco is an excellent winery! I have tried their Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends at a different tasting and couldn't wait to try the Merlot Reserve. Estate Grown no less.

      Day One
      The wine has a ruby hue that seems youngish for a 2009 vintage. When first opened, it has a cherry nose with a hint of tar. The body is structured with soft but firm tannins. There is some fruit, but it does not overpower.

      Day Three*
      The wine is more expressive with more fruit-forwardness. Mouthfeel is also fuller and smooth with nice acidity. Reminds me of my sister-in-law and the qualities for which I strive: a good blend of femininity, character, and strength.

      My Verdict: Delicious with food or alone! Advice to those who are uncertain about buying wine for your wino friends: Find out the preferences and don't be shy to ask your local wine shop for advice. It is also OK to not buy wine either. But don't just grab anything from the grocery store.

      Price: $0 since it is a gift! Retails at around $60.

      * I use the Sharper Image vacuum wine saver to keep the wine fresh after the bottle is opened.

      Thursday, February 11, 2016

      2013 Kevin White Winery Syrah En Hommage for Valentine's Day

      It seems like every other day, a new winery pops up in Washington state. At the encouragement of another wine lover, I got my hand on three bottles of Kevin White reds, all 2013 vintage: La Fraternité Red (a GSM blend), En Hommage (Syrah), and Reserve Red Wine (Syrah and Mourvèdre)

      I've been on a Syrah kick lately and decided to open up the En Hommage despite being in the tail-end of a way-too-long cold.

      Day One
      The wine has a deep and youthful garnet color. The nose is rather light. Perhaps still tight. Or more likely my cold is getting in the way. Mouthfeel is full and luscious. Tannins are structured and well-integrated. Acidity is low. Finish is long with a tinge of cocoa and spice. Ummm... there is something about a good Washington Syrah and chocolate. Why am I out of chocolate?

      Day Three*
      The nose has opened up - some rubber, a hint of plum. Mouthfeel remains full and luscious. Tannins and acidity are more alive. Finish remains long with cocoa, spice, and some leather.

      My Verdict: Great wine under $30 for Valentine's Day, whether with filet mignon or chocolate later. Decant first.

      Price: $28

      * I use the Sharper Image vacuum wine saver to keep the wine fresh after the bottle is opened.