Saturday, November 30, 2019

'Tis the Season to Drink Bubbly!

 I only drink champagne on two occasions. When I am in love, and when I am not. 
- Coco Chanel

Nothing puts me in the holiday spirit more than the whisper when the Champagne cork is gently twisted off. Or for those who prefer a touch of drama, the slash of the saber across the bottle neck.

During the holiday season, you can also expect Champagne tasting at many local wine shops, drumming up the sale of the celebratory libation. So I'd like to take this moment to share with you a few fun facts about Champagne.

NV Louis Roederer
#1 Will the Real Champagne Grapes Please Stand Up?

You have seen them in the grocery store. Those tiny sweet seedless berries of Champagne grapes. Alas! Those are not the grapes used to make Champagne. They are not even *gasp* French.

So what grapes are used to make Champagne?

About 98% of the grapes that go into Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The other 2% allowed are Pinot Blanc, Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Fromenteau), Pinot de Juillet, and Pinot Rosé. Even though both white and black grapes are used to make Champagne, most bubblies are white wine, and about 12% are pink.

Sometimes you will see Blanc de Blanc (white from white) or Blanc de Noir (white from black) listed on the label. Despite the names, both are white Champers. Blanc de Blancs are made with only white grapes, typically 100% Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs are made with only black grapes, primarily Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, but with minimum skin contact. Blanc de Noirs are not to be confused with rosé Champagnes.

#2 NV, MV, or Vintage?

Most Champagnes you see are labelled NV (non-vintage). This means the Champagne is blended from grapes of different vintages or different years of harvest. NV is sometimes marketed as MV (multi-vintage), which more accurately describes the blend. Most NV Champagnes follow a house style, ensuring consistency in taste and quality. NV or MV wine can be released for sale fifteen months after harvest, which provides early cashflow for the Champagne houses or growers.

Dom Pérignon tour in Eperney
Vintage Champagne, on the other hand, is made from grapes that are harvested in the same year. On the label, you will see the year of the vintage. Vintage Champagnes are rare as they rely on a single year of good harvest. Additionally, the wine needs to be aged three years in the bottle prior to release. This is a luxury that small producers cannot afford. 

Dom Pérignon and Cristal are two famous vintage Champagnes. The last Dom Perignon vintage was released in 2009, and the last Cristal vintage 2012.

#3 Does Size Matter?

Yes, if cellaring wine is important to you. Larger-format bottles are usually made of thicker glass and provide better protection from light exposure and temperature variation. Moreover, the higher wine-to-oxygen ratio helps the wine age more slowly and gracefully. The rule of thumb is to drink smaller formats young and cellar bigger formats.

Moët & Chandon bottle sizes
While no one really knows the origin of why larger-format bottles are named after biblical characters, it is always fun to see if you get the names right. To complicate matters, some of the same names are used to refer to different sizes when describing still wine.

Piccolo/quarter bottle = 187.5 ml
Demi/half bottle = 375 ml 
Bottle = 750 ml 
Magnum = 1.5 liters (2 bottles)
Jeroboam = 3 liters (4 bottles)*
Rehoboam = 4.5 liters (6 bottles)*
Methuselah = 6 liters (8 bottles) 
Salamanazar = 9 liters (12 bottles) 
Balthazar = 12 lite4s (16 bottles) 
Nebuchadnezzar = 15 liters (20 bottles)
Solomon = 18 liters (24 bottles)

* For still wine, 3-liter is called Double Magnum, and 4.5-liter is called Jeroboam.

Now that you know a few more things about Champagne, go in confidence to that sparkling wine tasting. Perhaps you want to get yourself a Jeroboam of that NV Blanc de Blanc for the holiday party. 

'Tis the season to drink bubbly!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Winemaking Spooky Moments

Pumpkins and corn, grapes and vines. The final days of harvest are upon us!

Is it any surprise that Halloween and winemaking happen around the same time of the year? This Halloween, it seems apt that I should share three spooky moments of winemaking and the tricks to get out of them.

Halloween and winemaking
Spooky Moment #1: Starving Yeast

Two years ago, I was working on my second vintage. While my first vintage was part of a class, this was the first time I made wine with the training wheels off. I was in charge of the yeast, nutrients, and chemicals to ensure good sanitation and health for the fermentation process.

Healthy starter
It had been a year since I had prepared a yeast starter. (The downside of a once-a-year hobby.) I activated the yeast with warm water and nutrients, paying close attention to temperature control. To the hydrated yeast, I then added crushed grapes (known as the "must" in winemaker speak) diluted with an equal amount of water. The idea was to whet the appetite of the activated yeast several hours before introducing it to the eventual feast of grape-y sugary goodness.

While I thought I had kept good notes from my first vintage, it became clear that I missed some details. Important details. Like how how much must mixture I should add to the starter.

Starving yeast
I returned home from my day job to find the sad state that was my yeast starter. Instead of being round and full with tiny air bubbles, the starter was straggly and almost lifeless. Clearly I did not add enough must mixture. The yeast did not get enough sugar and was starving.

The Trick: Thankfully, it was early in the fermentation process, literally two days after harvest and crush, and this was highly recoverable. As long as there were some bubbles going on in the starter, adding more must mixture should revive the yeast in less than an hour. That was what I did and it worked. Failing which, I would have to get a new yeast starter. I added to my notes: 1 cup of must and 1 cup of water per 5 grams of yeast.

Spooky Moment #2: Rotten Eggs

Why does my must smell like rotten eggs?

H2S compound
You learn about this in class, and you are told not to panic. Still you pray it doesn't happen to you. But if you have been making wine for a while, it is inevitable.

What contributes to the rotten eggs smell is the compound hydrogen sulfide (H2S). By the time you can smell it, it typically means the yeast is stressed. The cause could be inadequate nitrogen, excessive sulfur, and/or lack of oxygen. And I believe we might have hit the jackpot on the trifecta.

  • Nitrogen - Washington grapes are infamous for having a low nitrogen level. This year's particular crop had less than a third of the healthy amount of Yeast Assimilable Nitrogen (150 mg/L) for fermentation.
  • Sulfur - While I had treated the must with the same amount of sulfur every year to inoculate the grapes from wild yeasts. It is possible that the vineyard had also added sulfur to preserve the fruit for the four-hour ride back to Seattle, resulting in a double dose.
  • Oxygen - With the two factors above, weak air circulation and low oxygen contact with the yeast could just seal the deal for H2S production.
The Trick: First, we increased aeration with more rigorous and frequent punchdowns. We even removed the lid on the primary fermenter for several hours to improve circulation and let excess sulfur dissipate. Finally, we moved up the nutrients schedule by a day and beefed up the yeast with diammonium phosphate (DAP) to compensate for the low nitrogen level. That seemed to get the yeast going. By the next day, the rotten eggs smell was gone. Phew!

Spooky Moment #3: Sluggish Fermentation

While we fixed the H2S problem and kept fermentation going for the next few days, the drop in Brix started to slow down again at 11 degrees. (Our goal is to get to -1 or -2, which indicates that fermentation has completed.) Brix measures the sugar content in the must. Yeast coverts sugar into alcohol during fermentation. The slowdown indicates that the yeast might be experiencing stress again and might not be able to complete fermentation.

Hyrdometer to measure Brix
Sluggish or stuck fermentation is problematic. The unfermented sugar could attract bacteria. Additionally, there would not be enough carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation, to provide a protective layer against oxidation. In both cases, the wine would be prone to spoilage.

The Trick: Depending on where you are in your fermentation process (high Brix or low Brix) and your winemaking skills, there are different ways to fix a sluggish or stuck fermentation. Given that we were nine days into primary fermentation and had only reached midpoint in the Brix, our best bet was to re-pitch with another yeast strain, Premier Cuvee, that is known for a fast and clean fermentation. (We normally use Premier Rouge for primary fermentation of red wine.) That was what we did, and we did manage to get the fermentation going through dryness in the next four days.

An added bonus of this second pitch of yeast is that we happened to catch the yeast starter on video, which was pretty neat!


My Verdict: While this is my fourth vintage, I find that I am constantly facing new challenges in winemaking and learning new things. Sure, these are spooky moments. But once you learn the tricks to overcome each challenge, you get a deeper appreciation of the process and you are rewarded with the ultimate treat! So move aside, Halloween, with your trick or treat. This is Hallowine time!

Monday, September 30, 2019

Rocks by Any Other Name

I first tasted wine from the Rocks in 2014, a year before there was a Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA. It was at a tasting hosted by Esquin, with a line-up of Washington great reds, that included Christophe Baron's Cayuse wines.

Cayuse and Quilceda Creek Tasting at Esquin
While he might not be the first to grow grapes in the Milton-Freewater area, the French winemaker was the one who brought that region to international fame. When Baron first set eyes on the terroir, he saw a field of cobblestones, that reminded him of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He planted his first vineyard there in 1997 and named his winery Cayuse Vineyards, after the Native American tribe. Incidentally, the word "Cayuse" was derived from the French word for stones, cailloux.

Terroir or Wine Flaws?

Cayuse tasting room that is always closed
Baron was a controversial winemaker. While many absolutely adore his wines, he has his fair share of skeptics. Kori Voorhees of Wine Peeps wrote a compelling blog post in 2010 on whether Cayuse wine flavor profile was a reflection of a unique terroir or simply wine flaws. She even ran lab tests to prove that it was the latter.

I confess that I went into the Esquin tasting as a skeptic. Then I tasted four of his wines; Bionic Frog Syrah, Cailloux Syrah, Widowmaker Cabernet Sauvignon, and God Only Knows Grenache. It was not hard to pick up the unique flavor profile across the different varietals. What Voorhees would call pickle brine and cooked cabbage, I called kimchi. However, I found the umami in the wines oddly pleasing with a well-rounded complexity.

I was sold! (And yes, I love kimchi too.)

Rocks or Stones?

Fast forward five years from the tasting, the Rocks District was established as an AVA and continues to attract a lot of attention from both wine critics and wine collectors. The number of wineries that offer or increase wine offerings in the Rocks District AVA has also grown exponentially.

Sleight of Hand Cellars, for example, added two Syrahs from the Rocks District (Funk Vineyard's Funkadelic and Elevation Vineyard's Spider from Mars) to its popular Stoney Vine Vineyard's Psychedelic. All three single vineyard Syrahs are offered in the newly formed "For Those Who Love the Rocks" club.

Sleight of Hand Cellars' Single Vineyard Syrahs from the Rocks District
Interestingly, while others are cashing out on the Rocks District AVA branding, Baron did not jump on the bandwagon simply because he didn't like the name. (He prefers "Stones.") Truthfully, Baron didn't need to use the coveted AVA on the label. When people think of the Rocks District, people already think of Cayuse.

Regardless of the AVA listed on the label, the Rocks District produces beautiful wines. I want to share with you three from my cellar that I am super excited about.

Force Majeure's SJR, Rasa's Primus Inter Pares & Reynvaan's ITR Syrah
2016 Force Majeure's SJR Syrah is a departure from the winery's typical Red Mountain offerings. The project paid off when it received 100 points from Jeb Dunnuck of Wine Advocate. I tasted the SJR Vineyard Syrah the past spring at the Force Majeure winemaker's dinner before it was officially released. While every Force Majeure wine that night was incredible, the SJR was the most terroir-driven and interesting for me. It made such a lasting impression that I begged the winery to allocate a bottle to me.

2017 Rasa Primus Inter Pares Grenache is such a fun and fascinating wine. I tasted it during this past Spring Release in Walla Walla. Made with 100% Grenache from Monette's Vineyard, the wine is fruit-driven with cherries and berries and yet savory with the minerality that is typical of the region. International Wine Report gave it 95 points.

2016 Reynvaan Family Vineyards Syrah In the Rocks is just stunning. In fact, Baron sold the Reynvaans the parcel of land that would become the estate In the Rocks Vineyard. A protégé of Baron, winemaker Matt Reynvaan is a star producer of Rhône-style varietals. I tasted the Syrah also during the past Spring Release in Walla Walla. It has well-balanced layers of fruit, meatiness, and umami. Jeb Dunnuck gave it 97 points.

My Verdict: I have definitely been converted from a Cayuse skeptic to a big fan of the Rocks region.  I do not disagree with Voorhees' blog post about the lab test results, and I certainly do not think that the Rocks District wines taste anything like Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I do, however, have a different perspective of what constitutes wine flaws. After all, there is no accounting for taste. I would encourage anyone to keep an open mind and try a wine from the Rocks District. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Vouvray, My Summer's Last Hurray!

Labor Day is around the corner, and the glorious warmth of summer days will soon cool into a burst of fall colors. But today I shall enjoy basking in the sun, sipping a glass of chilled Vouvray Sec, while poring over wine literature.

Vouvray, nestled in the heart of the Loire Valley, is an Appellation d'origine Contrôllée (AOC) that is dedicated almost exclusively to Chenin Blanc. This single grape however is extremely versatile. It is high in acidity and sugar, which makes for a crisp white wine with a nice body and mouthfeel. It can be completely fruit-forward and great for easy drinking. In the right terroir, such as Vouvray, it can also have interesting minerality, adding layers of complexity that is well sought after by wine collectors.

Vouvray in Loire Valley
In Vouvray, Chenin Blanc manifests itself in different styles of wine - from sparkling to still, from dry to sweet!

Sparkling Vouvrays are mostly made in the Champagne method (or traditional method), but you can find a less bubbly version made in the ancient method under the label "pétillent naturelle" or "pet-nat." (The difference between the two methods and among others as well is a topic that deserves its own blog post.) Sparkling Vouvrays are typically Brut (dry) or Demi-Sec (slightly sweet).

Still Vouvrays, which is what I normally drink, can range from Sec (bone-dry), Tendre (off-dry), and Demi-Sec (slightly sweet) to Moelleux (sweet or dessert-style).

2012 Foreau Domaine du Clos Naudin Vouvray Sec
On this lazy summer afternoon, I popped open a bottle of 2012 Philippe Foreau Domaine du Clos Naudin Vouvray Sec. 2012 was a challenging year in Vouvray as fluctuating weather conditions ended in a wet harvest season. Even then, the Foreau Sec was quite tasty.

On the nose, I got pear and honey, a winning combination for aromatics. While crisp and dry, I could taste apricot and honey mixed in with salty minerality. It was quite a pucker with the high acidity but well-balanced with medium-full body. The pucker also lent itself to a lingering finish. It was completely satisfying, and I'd imagine great with seafood or any light meat.

A note about Foreau and Huet...

Normally, my wine club sends me Vouvrays from Domaine Huet, which is known as the gold standard for the appellation. If you have read the book, Wine and War, or my blog post about it, you would also learn that co-founder Gaston Huet fought the Nazis during World War II and was a prisoner of war for five years.

As it turns out, Philippe Foreau is Gaston's nephew. It is no wonder that this third-generation winemaker is a Vouvray powerhouse in his own right. His Vouvray Sec was absolutely delicious and fitting for my summer's last hurray. I can't wait to get my hands on his sparkling wines and Moelleux, which will be the perfect celebratory wine for the holiday season.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Coravin, My First Review (Thank you, Prime Day)

Last year, I wrote about three ways you can save your wine when you can't finish a bottle. One of them is the cost-prohibitive Coravin wine preservation system. Then Amazon Prime Day happened, and I am now the proud owner of Coravin Model Two.

As mentioned in my last post, Coravin allows you to extract wine from a bottle without removing the cork. A hollow needle is inserted into and through the cork. Argon, an inert gas, is then pumped into the bottle through the needle to pressurize it, allowing wine to be drawn out through the same needle. Argon then displaces the space left by the wine. The wine in the bottle maintains minimum contact with air, preventing oxidation. The cork then reseals from the needle hole naturally.

Coravin Model Two Plus Pack

Coravin is best for savoring that special bottle over time, which allows you to experience the evolution of the wine. It is also terrific if you want to taste multiple prized bottles side by side without worrying that you have to finish all of them before they go bad.

So here is my first try at using my brand new Coravin Model Two. I am super excited to extract some wine from my bottle of 2012 Joseph Drouhin Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Cazetiers. The drinking window for this wine is from 2019 to 2040, and I plan to taste it every year or so. (It probably won't last through 2040.)

A note about the instruction manual...

The multi-lingual "Getting Started" instruction manual that came with my Model Two was generally inadequate. It would have been better if it just pointed to the Coravin website, which it didn't. The Coravin website contains a robust set of instructions, both static and video. So if you are using the Coravin for the first time, just go to the website.

Step 1 - Familiarize yourself with the Coravin system

Compared to a regular wine opener, the Coravin system does have more components to consider. It is of course not a wine opener after all. Still the numerous components can be overwhelming at first glance. Take a look at the Coravin Model Two picture (see below) to get the lay of the land of all the components.

Coravin Model Two Components

Start with the needle (4). There should be a yellow needle cover at the sharp point of the needle to protect it from damage during shipping. Remove the cover.

Unscrew the capsule cup (8) from the system, insert the argon capsule (7), and screw the cup back.

Press and release the trigger (1) quickly to test the argon release. You should hear a hissing sound.

When using the Coravin, it should be positioned the same way you see in the picture above. The handle (2) is at the top, and the capsule cup (8) is at the bottom.

Step 2 - Prepare your bottle

While it may be optional, I would remove the foil from the bottle so that I can see the cork. It is important that the bottle has a natural cork. Synthetic corks do not reseal after a hole is punctured through them.

Clamping and positioning the bottle
You can use the bottle sleeve that comes in the box. It was Coravin's response to bottle pressure issues a few years ago. Apparently, the increased pressure from pumping the argon was causing some bottles to break and/or leak.

The instruction manual didn't indicate any of that so I didn't use the sleeve. Thankfully, I did not have any bottle issue. I suspect that Coravin has since figured out how to better manage the pressure increase.

Step 3 - Clamp the bottle and position the needle

While holding the Coravin upright by the handle (2), squeeze the clamp (6) to open it and release to close it. It works very much like a clothes peg or a hair claw. Use the clamp to secure the neck of a bottle.

Release and tighten the clamp as you adjust the position of the bottle till the needle guide (5) rests somewhat in the middle of the cork. This is to ensure that the needle goes through the cork safely without hitting the bottle.

Step 4 - Insert the needle and extract the wine

Once you are comfortable with the position of the needle guide (5), push the handle (2) all the way down firmly but gently. That pushes the needle straight down through the cork.

Pouring the wine

Lift the bottle with one hand and hold onto the handle (2) of the Coravin with the other. Tilt the bottle like you were pouring wine out of it into a glass.

Quickly press and release the trigger (1) to release the pressurized argon into the bottle. Your wine should be streaming out of the pour spout (3) into the glass. Repeat this action till you get the desired amount of wine. If needed, hold the bottle upright to stop the flow of the wine.

Step 5 - Remove the needle and detach the Coravin

Once you are satisfied with the amount of wine in the glass, place the bottle upright with the Coravin still clamped to it. Holding onto the bottle with one hand, lift the handle (2) firmly straight up with the other hand to extract the needle completely from the cork.

Squeeze the clamp (6) to release the bottle from the Coravin. You may see a drop of wine from the needle hole in the cork. This is completely normal. Give the cork time to reseal and then wipe it dry. It took me a few minutes.

Drop of wine surfaces on the punctured cork
After you are comfortable that the cork has resealed, you can test it by turning the bottle upside down. There should be no leakage.

Cork has resealed, and there is no leakage
Step 6 - Be a wine geek

I put a little post-it note on the bottle with the date I extracted the wine. Then I lay the bottle sideways in the cellar. Here's the geeky part - I started a spreadsheet and put down the tasting notes of the wine with the date that it was tasted. I look forward to trying the wine again in a year or two and compare notes.

Coravin Tasting Notes

My Verdict: While the proof is in the next pour a year from now, I expect nothing but stellar results from Coravin. The science is sound, and there are plenty of expert reviews on it. I bought the Model Two Plus Pack. It came with two argon capsules, three types of replacement needles, and a carry case. I paid $229.99 on Prime Day. While the price was nothing to sneeze at, it was a screaming deal compared to the regular price of $349.95. I now can drink that special bottle as and when I like rather than saving it for the right occasion.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Wine Country and Wine Myths

Set in the gorgeous Napa Valley, Wine Country is a Netflix movie about six girlfriends who reunited to celebrate Rebecca's milestone birthday. With a strong cast of SNL powerhouses and Amy Poehler as the director, the movie surprisingly did not deliver consistently on its comedic moments.

Wine Country, the movie
However, getting past the slow start and some of the silly singing scenes, it is a warm and fun chick flick with hilarious stretches. The movie also highlights the strength of female friendships and the new possibilities of life even at 50.

Soppy sentiments aside, I want to share with you my favorite moments in the movie where some wine myths were parodied.

Myth of the Sophisticated Senses

The first winery that the girls went to was set on a hilltop, reminding me of an oasis paradise perched on the base of a Mayan pyramid. Filmed at one of my favorite Napa wineries, Artesa, the opulent outdoor tasting area was surrounded by lush greenery, overlooking an expansive pool. 

Breathtaking Artesa Winery
The tasting room pourer was eager to hear what the girls picked up from the wine. “There is no wrong answer,” he encouraged. He then proceeded to tell Rebecca that every note she picked up was wrong.

The truth is apart from some distinct exceptions (like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), wine taste profile is incredibly subtle. While our taste perceptions are extremely personal, we are also very much influenced by our cognitive faculty. Wine connoisseurs in particular are trained to think certain ways about different grape varietals, and that influences how they taste. This is why blind tasting is so hard. Even Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker may pick up different notes in the same wine.

So if you feel like you lack sophisticated senses to pick up the "right" notes from a wine, just be like Rebecca and confidently proclaim, "Grape!"

Myth of the Sulfites

The movie was not shy about making fun of wineries that are overly zealous in their vinicultural and oenological practices. Morgan Jorng, a fictional winery that the girls visited, prides itself for being solar and organic. As such, they don't use pesticides or sulfates.

The pourer was probably referring to the very much maligned sulfites, often accused of causing headaches among wine drinkers. In fact, sulfites are natural occurring compounds found in all wines and are often added as an antioxidant and preservative to stabilize the wine. The true culprit of headaches is dehydration caused by alcohol. This can be easily remedied.

As a hobby winemaker and a chronic migraineur, I am skeptical when I see a wine that is advertised as being sulfite-free. I am even less trusting when I see gadgets in the market that claim to remove sulfites from wine so as to prevent headaches. Seriously, ditch the gadget, save your money, and drink more water.

Myth of the Sediment

I am thrilled that the movie introduced the topic of tartrates or wine diamonds. Tartrates, a natural byproduct of the wine making process, are often removed from white wine in commercial wineries through a process known as cold stabilization. This is because tartrates can look like ground glass and cause undue concerns to wine consumers. However, tartrates are really harmless and add to the flavor of the wine. Organic and minimalist wineries as well as hobby winemakers tend to skip cold stabilization. In fact, some would argue that the higher quality the wine, the more likely it is that you will see wine diamonds.

Wine diamonds often mistaken as ground glass
However, the movie left out the less glamorous contributor of wine sediment, which is often found in red wine. These are the leftovers from the fermentation process - yeast cells, grape seeds, stems, and skins. Known as the lees, these are often removed during secondary fermentation and aging through racking. It is a fine line how much lees contact you want in your wine. With experience, the right grapes or a particular style of wine, lees can contribute to a certain flavor profile that elevates the wine. However, as a hobby winemaker, I certainly err on the side of racking.

My Verdict: While it may not be the best Amy Poehler movie, Wine Country has some hilarious winery and girlfriend scenes. It is not that serious about wine so don't expect it to be SOMM 4 or A Year in Napa. However, it does bring forth some misconceptions about wine. More importantly, it inspires me to start planning for my big 5-0 wine adventure more than any other movie. Cheers!

Friday, May 31, 2019

My First Spring Release

I had always wanted to do a Spring Release weekend, especially when invitations from wineries started to flood my mailbox. For wine countries in the northern hemisphere, that is usually the kick-off of a new wine season. Wineries are roused from the much deserved rest that follows a busy period of harvest, crush, fermentation, and holiday or barrel tasting. When our vacation home in Walla Walla became available for our personal use this past spring (it is usually rented out), I snagged the opportunity, a couple of oenophilic friends, and a few coveted RSVP's. And off we went!

Here are some of my favorite memories at my first Spring Release in Walla Walla:

Leonetti Cellar

Leonetti Cellar
Spring is simply beautiful in Walla Walla. Vines are slowly awakening from the winter dormancy. Dogwood blooms are in full display. For the special weekend, wineries welcome tasters with a wonderful gourmet spread to showcase the newly released wines. Even wineries that do not typically open to public tasting will throw a party for their loyal wine list members. Leonetti Cellar is one such winery.

Founded in 1977, Leonetti is the first commercial winery in Walla Walla. With a humble beginning in farming back in 1906, Leonetti's shift to winemaking has earned it numerous international accolades. A premium winery, Leonetti is also known for its exclusivity, with a long wait to get on the member list.

The Spring Release weekend is the one time every year that Leonetti opens its doors to its members. This past release, the winery poured its 2017 Merlot followed by 2016 Cab Sauvignon, paired with delicious blue cheese beef sliders and asparagus fries.

Armed with libation, wandering about the winery grounds and then the underground cellar was probably my favorite part of the weekend. I have visited numerous wine caves in Champagne, Beaune, and even the Penedès. But this was probably my first time visiting an underground wine cellar in the United States. Even though the facility is modern in comparison, I felt like I was transported back to a European wine country.

Spring Valley Vineyard

My oenophilic friends with Uriah
On the other end of the exclusivity spectrum is Spring Valley Vineyard. Spring Valley tasting room is centrally located in downtown Walla Walla. It offers a free tasting of an impressive line-up of wines, always ending with my favorite Nina Lee Syrah paired with a piece of wine-infused chocolate truffle.

Similar to Leonetti, Spring Valley Vineyard started as a farm, but it went further back to the mid 1800's. In 1993, they planted their first grapes, and then in 1997, they bottled their first vintage. The winery is incredibly proud of its heritage, and several of their wines are named after co-founder Shari Derby's grandparents and parents. In fact, Nina Lee was Shari's mother.

During the Spring Release weekend, the winery opened up the Ranch for a big party with a spectacular wine line-up and a generous culinary spread of crab cakes, quiches, cured meats, cheeses, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Winemaker Serge Laville also busted open a (very) large format of the 2009 Uriah, an amazing red bank Bordeaux blend.

I have always wanted to visit the Ranch, that is open for tours on Saturdays during peak season. The drive there is breathtaking. Do be prepared to go on gravel road for a bit. But you will be rewarded manifolds during the journey and at the destination!

Breathtaking drive to Spring Valley Vineyard Ranch
Reynvaan Family Vineyards and MTR

Swinging the pendulum back to the more exclusive end is Reynvaan Family Vineyards, the biggest surprise for the weekend!

2012 ITR Syrah
It all started with dinner the night before. Our neighbor, a huge fan of Reynvaan, had gifted us with the 2012 vintage of In The Rocks Syrah. The winery has received several nods from the Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and Robert Parker since 2008. The wine was out of this world, and we became obsessed with it. But Reynvaan is so exclusive that we could not find any info about its Spring Release festivity. We reluctantly left it out of our itinerary.

It was not till our fourth (and what we thought was our last) winery for the day that we ran into a group of fellow oenophiles who had just came from the Reynvaan tasting. As it was getting close to the end of the day, we rushed to the winery just as it was about to lock up.

There might have been some obnoxious begging and groveling, and winemaker Matt Reynvaan graciously let us in. He started us with his other label, MTR, a project with his wife, Lauren. MTR focuses on wine with a longer aging time in barrels and bottles prior to release. Both 2013 and 2014 vintage of Memory Found were plenty tasty and even sexy. He then poured us the latest 2016 vintage of In the Rocks Syrah, which was mind-blowing good.

Fangirls with Matt Reynvaan
We walked out of Reynvaan with half a case of wine plus a free bottle, compliments of Matt. My friend even got on the fast track to be on the mailing list. We walked out as fan girls, pleased with our loot.

My Verdict: I can't believe I waited that long to go for a Spring Release weekend. Whether it is an exclusive access to a winery of which you are a member, or a release party that is open to all, or even chancing upon a tasting that is not published, Spring Release is such a grand time to be in the wine country. There are new releases to discover and winemakers to meet. It is practically the Comi Con for wine geeks. I think I may have to sign up again!