Sunday, March 31, 2019

Three Walla Walla Wineries in a Day

The last of the snowfall was hopefully done as the Blue Mountains looked stunningly beautiful in wintry white. We started heading south with a conscious effort to "pace ourselves" on this big day that had been planned for weeks - three Southside wineries before the winemaker dinner

First stop, Vital Wines, a winery that combines my two passions - wine and healthcare. Started by winemaker Ashley Trout, Vital Wines donates all of its profit to fund a free clinic to those in need, especially the uninsured immigrant vineyard workers in the valley. It was a pleasure to sip wines and enjoy the gorgeous view of the Blues from the tasting room. I left happily with a bottle of the 2016 GSM.

Snow-capped Blues viewed from Vital Winery
Next stop, Rulo, a no-frills winery that is fully operated by Dr. Kurt Schlicker and his wife, Vickie. An MD with a BS in Microbiology from Stanford University, Kurt definitely as both the science and art of winemaking down pat. I always have fun geeking out with Kurt about winemaking during my visits. This visit, he proudly showed me his steel barrels which he used to age his Chardonnay from Sundance vineyard, his version of Chablis, which was pretty tasty.

The gang in Rulo Winery's barrel room with Kurt (in the middle)
The last winery of the day was a blast for wine-loving music buffs, Sleight of Hand Cellars. Inspired  by the song title of winemaker Trey Busch's favorite band, Pearl Jam, the winery features a delicious wine line-up with fun labels. The tasting room in Walla Walla is decorated with vibrant colors, framed posters of the wine labels, shelves of music records, and a turntable for guests to pair their favorite music with their wine. There is even a backroom set up with colorful mid-century sofas, inviting you to kick back and lounge around. My favorite from the last tasting was hands down (no pun intended!) the 2016 Psychedelic, which is their Rocks AVA Syrah.

Chilling out in Sleight of Hand Cellar's backroom
It was the perfect to end the winery tour portion of the weekend. Look for the next post when I will share the most amazing Force Majeure winemaker dinner. Mmmmm....

Monday, February 25, 2019

A Different Sort of Wine Pairing

We are inundated with advices, articles, and even classes on how to pair wine with food. You know the drill.

White wine goes with white meat, and red wine goes with red meat. 

And if you want to get more specific.

Sauvignon Blanc goes with fresh oysters with tart mignonette sauce. Chardonnay pairs with poached salmon and beurre blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon can't get better than with the juiciest cut of steak, seared to perfection. And Champagne goes with everything!
Champagne goes with everything

Consider this. What if we pair wine with people rather than food? Would you be able to pick the right wine? Unlike the different rules in food and wine pairing, there is only one rule in picking the right wine for someone, but that doesn't make it easy. That rule is to know the person.

Riesling Rendezvous

Several years ago, I had a late dinner with a colleague after a long day at work. We ordered some hot wings to share. My friend, Ray, was about to order a glass of Merlot, when I asked him if he had tried Riesling. He sheepishly told me that he always ordered Merlot because he really didn't know much about wine and thought that was a safe bet. But he really would like to try something different.

That night Ray had wings with Riesling for the first time and absolutely loved it! The crisp citrus acidity cut through the fatty goodness of the wings while the tinge of sweetness balanced out the spiciness. A few days later, Ron texted me to tell me that he had Riesling again, this time with some Indian food. The man had inadvertently become quite the Riesling fiend.

What Zin?

When our nephew brought his then wife-to-be out to dinner with us, she ordered a glass of white Zin. I frowned and complained to my husband, "No self-respecting Leistner would drink white Zin!"

Sweet or dry rosé?

Of course I just set myself up for years of friendly trolling on social media with photos of white Zin. I had numerous failed attempts to seduce her with dryer Provençal rosés, culminating to a wedding gift bottle of Bandol Rosé from Domaine Tempier. It became clear to me that this Mrs. Leistner would be devoted to her white Zin. And I love her for who she is.

The Ultimate Pairing

In his book, Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr wrote that a "sommelier needs to keep his or her enthusiasm and ego in check." If the table orders Château Latour to pair with the fresh oysters, you happily serve that. The goal is the happiness of the person who drinks the wine.

I can't say I am perfect at this, but whenever I pull something a bottle from my cellar as a gift to someone or to bring to dinner, I often pause and think what my friend or company would love. Nancy loves an oaked Chardonnay. Jeff adores a big red Cab. And Barolo makes Andy's heart sing.

After all, the ultimate pairing is that of the wine and he or she who enjoys it.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Au Revoir, Amber!

"What Bordeaux tasting? Can I go?"

My friend, Siti, had flown into Seattle last minute to attend a private tasting, and I practically begged her to take me with her.

First Cellar Party

That was how I met Amber LeBeau and her lovely wife, Beth, the gracious unassuming hostesses of the tasting. It was the summer of 2016. Despite the gorgeous weather, dozens of people were crowding inside a wine storage facility in Bellevue, chatting and sipping wine. Numbering more than humans were bottles of Bordeaux, arranged by regions with maps and printouts describing the respective terroirs. Amber and Beth were cleaning out their cellar to make room for a new shipment of Bordeaux. Like everyone else, I was happy to help.

Tasting Bordeaux Classified Growths

Amber and the SpitBucket

Amber was working at Total Wine at that time. Her impressive list of credentials in the wine business includes a CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine), a degree in Wine Marketing and Sales/Wine Production at the Northwest Wine Academy, and Level 3 of the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) with distinction. What truly impresses me about Amber though is her curious mind and her open palate. She reads about and tastes through a myriad of wines. Her spirit on inquiry is almost infectious although I did pass on her blind tasting of coffee-infused wine.

A few months after the cellar clean-out party, Amber started where she blogged occasionally about her thoughts on wine and the industry. When a health condition took her out of the retail wine business last year, she began to spend more time blogging while preparing for her last level of WSET.

As a fellow albeit more casual blogger, I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning from Amber's posts. One of my favorite posts of hers is about Jancis Robinson, the Beyoncé of Wine. It is a tribute to the celebrated British wine critic, published on International Women's Day last year. And guess what? Jancis noticed and tweeted about it!

And More Cellar Parties

A few weeks ago, we got the news. Beth has accepted an exciting job offer in Paris, and they will be moving very soon. And just like that, Amber and Beth need help cleaning out their cellar again. Wines that need to be drunk in the next three to five years must go.

"Nothing off limits!" She posted to a private Facebook group page.

A private tasting and dinner with Amber and friends
Also, just like that, Siti flew into town last minute again. This time, we hosted a small intimate private tasting and dinner, before Amber kicked off her cellar clean-out parties. The line-up that night was incredible. A few of us carefully selected a couple of bottles from our cellar, while Amber brought the equivalent of half a case. Nonetheless, it was a good human-to-bottle ratio in my opinion. And below are some notable mentions:

1998 Paul Jaboulet Aine Chevalier de Sterimberg Hermitage Blanc
2013 Ashan Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay

2008 Domaine Taupenot-Merme Corton Rognet Grand Cru
2016 Domain de La Côte Bloom's Field

2004 Betz La Côte Rousse Red Mountain Syrah
2012 Cayuse Vineyards Walla Walla Syrah
2004 Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape

2005 Sandrone La Vigne Barolo
1992 Delille Cellars Chaleur Estate Bordeaux Blend

Wine line-up from the private tasting
It is a month and two cellar parties away before Amber starts her new adventure with Beth in Paris. Even though we will continue to geek out over wine on social media, I will miss tasting with and learning from her in person. That said, I expect that we will meet on the other side of the Atlantic, tasting through different French vineyards.

So au revoir, Amber! Till we meet again!

Monday, December 31, 2018

Save Your Wine!

If you are like me, you'd love to have a glass of wine in the evening. You don't want to chug your wine and clean out a bottle all by yourself in one night or even two. You just want to sip and savor a glass. You do the math. If you get five to six glasses of wine from a bottle, will you finish the wine before it goes bad?

Thankfully the wine industry today is brimming with all kinds of wine preservation gadgets to solve this first-world wine problem. I'll share some thoughts about these gadgets in this post and even throw in one non-gadget solution that works surprisingly well.


Every wine geek with an impressive cellar seems to own a Coravin wine preservation system. I don't own one yet. However, I have benefitted from restaurants that have one, which allows them to serve some exquisite wines by the glass.
Coravin wine preservation system

Introduced in 2011, the Coravin wine preservation system leverages medical device technology to allow wine to be poured without removing the cork from nor letting oxygen into the bottle. The gadget inserts a hollow needle into the cork to extract the wine. Argon, an inert gas, is pumped into the bottle to displace the space left by the wine poured.

When the needle is removed from the bottle, the cork will naturally reseal, leaving the bottle intact. It's almost like watching a sci-fi movie. Needless to say, Coravin does not work with synthetic or glass closures since it relies on the "self-healing" power of cork.

For all its wonders, Coravin is also cost-prohibitive, starting at $200 for the basic model to over $1,000 for the latest offering with all the bells and whistles. And that is before you consider that each argon capsule used to preserve the wine in the bottle costs about $9 and is good for about 15 glasses of wine. It is definitely not for the average wine drinker.

Best for: Savoring that special bottle of wine over time, even years, to observe how it evolves. It also allows you to taste multiple prized bottles side by side without worrying about finishing them all.

Vacuum Seal Wine Saver

For many years, my go-to wine preservation gadget has been and still is the Sharper Image Vacuum Seal Wine Saver. It was a thoughtful gift from my niece, and it has saved many bottles of delicious wine. The wine saver preserves wine by sucking the air out of the bottle and sealing the bottle. This reduces the contact with air, which would otherwise oxidize the wine.

Sharper Image Vacuum
Seal Wine Saver
The vacuum seal wine saver is no competition to Coravin's inert argon. The seal is often less than perfect, and air leaks into the bottle over time. However, my trusty Sharper Image wine saver will suck air out of the bottle throughout the day. On average, it has extended the life of my open bottle to about 5 days without severe deterioration to its quality.

There are a myriad of vacuum seal wine savers in the market with varying abilities to preserve wine. The price range is definitely friendlier than that of a Coravin. You can get a manual version for as low as $10 and an electric saver can go up to $50-60. The downside for my electric saver is that it drains batteries very quickly as it sucks air periodically throughout its use. I can go through about two AA batteries every week with constant use.

Best for: Enjoying a really nice bottle for a few days.


Yes, you can freeze wine and apparently time too! This is probably the least expensive option if you already own a freezer. I actually got this idea from Wine Spectator Senior Editor, James Laube. There is some cred there. Nonetheless, I decided to try it for myself.

Freezing 2015 Pierre More Monthelie
I opened a bottle of 2015 Pierre Morey Monthelie this past Thanksgiving. After a couple of glasses, I put the seal back on the bottle and stick it in the freezer. A week later, I thawed the bottle for a few hours and poured myself a glass.

Viola! The thawed wine has retained not only the freshness of taste but also the aroma. I would not have known that the wine has been previously frozen purely from tasting it. The last glass had quite a bit of fine and almost sandy sediments, that was a bit unusual. But it was otherwise fine! That said, I probably would not freeze the wine for more than a couple of weeks.

Best for: Saving an open bottle when you have to head out of town for a few days or just because you are in a mood for a different bottle of wine but want to get back to this one again.

My Verdict: There is a wine saving technique for every bottle of wine that is worth saving. (Not all are!) And the price ranges from $0 to over $1,000. Consider the different scenarios and options. I think I'm going to use all three!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Cru Who? The Lesser Known Bordeaux

When one thinks of Bordeaux, first-growth châteaux often come to mind: Lafite Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, and the more recently added Mouton-Rothschild. Unless you have deep pockets, these are not your everyday wines. Many Bordeaux geeks seek to buy Grand Crus Classé futures to get some coveted Bordeaux at pre-release prices. That requires an incredible amount of patience and knowledge. If that is what you are into, you should check out My friend and wine-blogger, Amber LeBeau, shares extensive reviews of Bordeaux futures there.

Cru Classés tasting, compliments of Amber LeBeau

Bordeaux for the Rest of Us

If you have a modest bank account and/or limited patience like I do, finding quality Bordeaux at an affordable price point can be challenging. That is why I was thrilled when the West Seattle Wine Cellars hosted a free Bordeaux tasting last month. Now these are not your regular grocery store Bordeaux. Shop owner Tom DiStefano is particular about what he puts on the shelves and tends to seek out the less commercially known but incredibly delightful gems among wines. We knew we were in a for a treat!

A little snack to go with my red
The tasting line-up was poured by the Wine Trust, an importer with a strong focus on Bordeaux. The selection ranged from 2004 to 2013 vintages and included a couple of Crus Bourgeois from Haut-Médoc and a Grand Cru from Saint-Émilion. Sure there were no Grand Crus Classé in the mix, but none of the wines being tasted cost over $50 a bottle! And even I, with my perpetual self-imposed wine-buying moratorium in place, could hardly resist a half-case of these delicious deals.

Over the weekend, I decided to open the 2008 Château d'Agassac, Haut-Médoc Cru Bourgeois. On the nose, I got dark fruit with delicate floral scent, which both surprised and delighted me. The fruit carried through the palate with added layers of earthiness, spices, and nuts. The wine was medium to full-bodied and well-balanced, with ample acidity and fine elegant tannins. The finish was smooth and long-lasting.

For $30, this ten-year-old Bordeaux was delicious! I had it while snacking on some grapes and a piece of creamy blue Cambazola. But I could see see it pairing really well with a nice hearty beef and vegetable stew on a cold winter night.

Crus Bourgeois

Now, let's talk about Crus Bourgeois. As you know, the French like to rank and classify their wines. The most famous of which was the 1855 Classification of Grand Crus Classés requested by Napoleon III. Select châteaux in Bordeaux were assigned from first to fifth growths, with decreasing importance and price points. For châteaux in Medoc, there is another level added for high-quality wines that did not make Cru Classé. And that is Cru Bourgeois. Some would argue that there is a bit of overlap between Crus Bourgeois and the lower-level Crus Classé.

2008 Château d'Agassac
While they might be a good guide on the quality of wine, the different classification systems were and still are influenced by commercial and sometimes political interests. Wineries tirelessly lobby to be rated at the highest possible classification for both prestige and profit. Cru Classé and Cru Bourgeois rankings are no exception. In fact, the Cru Bourgeois ranking was annulled in 2007 and then re-introduced in 2010 with major revisions.

With a two-year lag in wine release, 2008 was the first vintage to be published under the new Cru Bourgeois rules in 2010. This Château d'Agassac was released just in time for that. Unlike Cru Classé, the recently revised Cru Bourgeois is a single level and is awarded annually to the wines rather than to châteaux. This kept the châteaux on their toes to produce high-quality wines.

2018 vintage will yet see another change in the rules of Cru Bourgeois, which will result in three tiers of quality and more stringent criteria. But we will not have to worry about that till 2020.

My Verdict: The 2008 Château d'Agassac was such a steal! It was delicious and sufficiently aged to display layers of complexity typical of a Bordeaux. I always recommend knowing your source with Bordeaux to ensure proper cellar condition before they get to the store. If you see a Cru Bourgeois in a trusted wine shop, scoop a couple up. Try one today and cellar the other for later. Santé!

Bonus Insider's Tip from Amber - Stock up on 2015/2016 Crus Bourgeois!

The recent 2015/2016 vintages offer oodles of great values among the Crus Bourgeois. Like 2009/2010, these are vintages where quality was stacked up and down the ladder. Most savvy Bordeaux buyers who regularly drink the Crus Classés often stock up on these gems to drink while waiting those classified growths to mature.

Unlike 2009/2010 though, 2015/2016 vintages are evident of how much the Bordelais have adjusted to the demands of the American and Asian markets. While traditional European markets that are accustomed to cellaring wines for many years, American and Asian consumers often open up their wines much younger and expect them to be drinking well soon after release. Even among the Cru Classés, many of these young Bordeaux wines are drinking shockingly well with only a little decanting. It remains to be seen if these wines will ultimately hold up in the cellar like their predecessors.

Bottom line is that there are tons of terrific 2015 and 2016 Bordeaux wines at all price points that are on the market now!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Williams Selyem, from the other RN74

I first learned about Williams Selyem by following the celebrated sommelier, Rajat Parr, on Delectable. Raj, an expert on Burgundies this side of the Atlantic, is the mastermind behind Michael Mina's RN74 wine program. (RN74 stands for Route Nationale 74, the old name of the highway that runs alongside many of Burgundy Grand Cru wineries.)
Vineyard along RN74

So when Raj pays attention to a new world Pinot Noir, I do too. And this one hails from the Russian River Valley in California.

From RN74 to SR116

Williams Selyem was founded by its namesake winemakers, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. Thanks to some excess grapes gifted by a grower in 1979, Burt started making wine from his home in Forestville, a small town on California State Route (SR) 116. Over time and with a few vintages of hobby winemaking under their belts, Burt and Ed went commercial in 1983. As fans of Burgundies themselves, Burt and Ed focused on making Pinot Noir.

In 1987, Williams Selyem turned into a cult winery overnight when their Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir beat over 2,000 wines to win the California Fair Sweepstake for the top red wine. With a limited production, the surest way to get Williams Selyem wines was to join the cult winery membership list if you could tolerate a two to three-year wait.

Today, with increased production (although still limited), Williams Selyem wines are a lot more accessible. While I do see the random bottles on retail shelves, they do come at a price premium. 95% of the wines are still sold directly to members. The waiting list has dropped to less than a year with a reasonably low threshold to maintain membership. (You only need to buy at least a bottle in three years.) However, your buying history will impact your future allocation. That allows the more serious collectors to get first dibs on special allocations.

Tasting outstanding New and Old World Pinot Noirs
Russian River vs. Morey-Saint-Denis

Several months ago, we did a side-by-side 2013 vintage tasting of Williams Selyem Bucher Vineyard vs. Domaine Lignier-Michelot Morey-Saint-Denis "En la Rue de Vergy." Same varietal but so different in expressions. The new world Pinot Noir was fruit-forward, perfume-y, and all-around a pretty wine. The old world Pinot Noir was earthy, spicy, and nuanced. Both were simply delicious.

To be fair, Pinot Noir from Morey-Saint-Denis tends to be more powerful and masculine even by Burgundy standards. A more interesting comparison to Williams Selyem Pinot Noir may be Volnay, which tends to be more feminine, delicate, and floral among the red Burgundies. Incidentally, Williams Selyem Pinot Noir often reminds me of a Volnay.

2014 Eastside Road Neighbor
2014 Williams Selyem Eastside Road Neighbor 

Last weekend, as I was dreaming about Thanksgiving, I was inspired to open up another bottle of Williams Seylem. This time, the 2014 Eastside Road Neighbor. (By the way, Pinot Noir is the go-to red for Thanksgiving.)

As usual, the wine was delicately aromatic, full of berries, cherries, and rose petals. The fruit forwardness and floral aromas extend to the palate, accented with some spice and coffee notes. It is medium to full-bodied for a Pinot Noir, with ample acidity and polished tannins. The finish was long and satisfying. As expected, the 2014 Eastside Road Neighbor was a well-made wine that is feminine, elegant, and pretty.

My Verdict: Pinot Noir is an extremely finicky varietal and highly selective in where it will grow well. So oftentimes, a great Pinot Noir tends to be terroir-driven, and the best of them come from Burgundy. However, this stateside version of RN74 is not too shabby either. I would recommend a bottle, if you can find it, for your upcoming turkey feast.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Fall in Love with Chocolate and Nina Lee

Fall is finally here!

The weather is cooling down. The days are getting shorter. The leaves are turning. For wine drinkers, fall also marks the return to red wine after a long summer of chilled whites and rosés. My husband had just returned from Zurich with a bounty of Swiss chocolate by Läderach. And I wanted something that would go well with the delectable treats.

Fall marks the return to red wine
It may be a romantic notion, but picking a dry red to go with chocolate is surprisingly difficult. The tannins in the chocolate sometimes clash with the tannins in the wine. Not to mention both chocolate and wine have varying degrees of fruitiness and acidity that may result in a poor match.

2012 Nina Lee with Swiss Chocolate
In my experience, the dry red that often has a chance to pair well with chocolate is Syrah. In fact, my go-to for that is Spring Valley Vineyard's Nina Lee. And I am not the only one who thinks so.

Nina Lee by Spring Valley Vineyard

If you go to the Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room in downtown Walla Walla, you will be treated with a whole line-up of outstanding single varietals and blends. Saving the best for last, Nina Lee is often showcased with a piece of chocolate specially made to pair with the wine.

From the stash of Swiss chocolate, I picked a dark chocolate bark balanced with the perfect amount of almond and orange bits. And I matched it with the 2012 vintage of Nina Lee.

On the nose, the Nina Lee was fruit-forward with cherries and berries. On the palate, the full-bodied luscious mouthfeel coated the creamy chocolate flawlessly. The tannins were fine and smooth. The earthiness and hints of spice and even cocoa from the wine complemented beautifully with the chocolate as well as the almond and orange bits - the warm flavors that I often associate with autumn.

What wine in your collection would you pair with chocolate this fall? Share your favorites!