Saturday, October 31, 2020

Winemaking, Halloween Edition


Truth be told, the whole year feels like a long stretched-out Halloween, with forest fires and pestilence being the marks of the 2020 vintage. Dozens of family-owned Napa wineries, among over a thousand structures in the valley, were decimated by the most recent Glass Fire. While Washington vineyards mostly escaped unscathed from the forest fires, the pandemic continues to loom over the state as hospitals brace for the fall surge of COVID-19.

It was early March when I placed my grape order. I decided to go with Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Tapteil Vineyard. The vineyard also supplies to Quilceda Creek Vintners, Long Shadows Vintners, and Cadence Winery. It seemed like it would be a slam dunk, and I was going with easy.

I mostly love Red Mountain Cab for its eagerness to please, both the palate and the wine makers. Also, the AVA is often ahead of the others in terms of Growing Degree Days (GDD), which usually indicates an earlier harvest.

WSU Growing Degree Day Chart

Like many things in 2020, nothing went quite as planned.

By late spring, Eastern Washington, the heart of the best vineyards in the state, became a COVID-19 hotbed, with possibly the highest rate of infection from Washington to California. Cultural and political factors strongly influenced the way the pandemic was managed. All that added to uncertainty in the vineyards and the health of their workers.

Then came Labor Day, when high winds blew through the State, downed power lines, and sparked 80 fires. Over 300,000 acres were torched. While not quite the catastrophic Glass Fire, the smoke pool in Washington was ubiquitous and air quality so bad that many were driven indoors. If the coronavirus pandemic was not enough concern to one's respiratory health, the smoke would seal the deal. 

Map of Labor Day fires

The fires and smoke were thankfully contained when harvest rolled around for the red wine grapes. But the Cab in our allocated lot just refused to ripen! In fact, our grapes appeared to go into reverse aging. Sugar (Brix) was decreasing, and acidity (TA) was rising. After a few false starts, we finally went with a different parcel where the grapes were ready to go. A harvest date was selected. 

The fall day arrived and did its round of sunshine, rain, and chill. At the crush site, the winemakers were appropriately masked as we weighed and distributed the grapes before running them through the crusher and de-stemmer. It had been a long wait for the grapes, and I was happy to take the must home.

Pitchforking grapes into totes

Weighing grapes
50 lbs of grapes in each tote

That was ten days ago, and my wine is now in the last stretch of alcoholic fermentation. It may be a time of pestilence, pumpkins, and potions outside, but for me, it is punchdown in my garage cellar.

Have a great time trick-or-treating with your best Halloween mask on and stay safe!

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Tribute to the Notorious RBG

It was a smoke-filled day with forest fires raging wild along the West Coast. I was in back-to-back meetings, dealing with my own "fires" at work. Then I got a Skype message with a crying face emoji, followed by more Skype and text messages.

"RBG has passed away."

I was gutted. At that moment, the problem I was dealing with seemed small and distant. 

2018 Notorious RBG

You may recall that the Notorious RBG was one of my hobby wine labels. When we decided to go with a political theme for our 2018 vintage, we wanted to honor women who have made a positive difference. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a no-brainer. 

The nickname, Notorious RBG, was coined by then NYU law student Shana Khniznik, who started a blog in 2013 capturing the justice's dissenting opinions. Justice Ginsberg spent much of her legal career paving the way for women to be on equal footing as men in decision making and compensation. Though we are still a ways from gender equality, many women of power today owe their success to her. I'd like to think myself included.

RBG's dissenting collar

In honor of the late Justice Ginsberg, I opened a bottle of the 2018 Notorious RBG. The wine is made with Red Bordeaux Grapes or, more specifically, Right Bank Grapes (both fitting of the acronym): 70% Merlot from Les Collines Vineyard of Walla Walla AVA and 30% Cabernet Franc from Chandler Reach Vineyard of Yakima AVA.

Here's my tasting notes:

When first opened, the wine had a lively bouquet of cherries and strawberries. The fruity notes extended to the palate, albeit subtly and with high acidity. It is like taking the tiniest bite of a ripe Bing cherry. The young wine was bone dry and needed to breathe. Decanted over time, the acidity and tannins mellowed out and gave it a fuller, rounder mouthfeel, with more plum notes. It was then more approachable and delicious, with a long-lasting finish. The wine could age at least another 3 to 4 years.

Remembering RBG

In a way, the 2018 Notorious RBG seems to reflect the essence of Justice Ginsberg in a bottle. While known to be incredibly shy, her passion for law and justice was lively and a force of nature. In her old age, she became increasingly comfortable with being loved and embraced by the public. Her death was a great loss to many.

Rest in peace, Notorious RBG! May your legacy live on in our wine and in our hearts!

Monday, August 31, 2020

Not Just Any Wine Labels

One of the funnest parts in hobby winemaking is designing wine labels. I am not creative by myself, but as a group, we usually come up with pretty good ideas. Because our wine is not for sale, we have complete freedom in how we label and commemorate each vintage. I want to share some of our creations here.

Our first vintage was the 2016 Yakima Valley Syrah. We had completed winemaking theory and were excited to get our hands on the grapes. It was a simple wine made in a carboy to demonstrate the primary and secondary fermentation process. As harvest rolled around, my husband got pretty ill with a bad abscess in his throat and was unable to make the crush. Hence, we named the wine Abscession, a play on Calvin Klein's famous fragrance label. 

2016 Abscession Syrah by Alisa Kessel

The next year, we got our hands on some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the famous Red Mountain AVA. A shortage of vineyard workers, a late-day harvest, and an untimely power outage culminated to us crushing 4,000 lbs of grapes late at night. There is nothing like fumbling in darkness with sticky grape juice all over you. That night, Midnight Crush was conceived. The werewolf seemed a natural fit.

2017 Midnight Crush by Olivia Lee

In 2018, we decided to up our game and make a blend; Walla Walla Merlot and Yakima Cabernet Franc. Then things got more complicated when one of our hobby winemakers relocated for a new job. Besides managing the fermentation timeline with two varieties harvested three weeks apart, we had to coordinate the use of equipment in two locations. 

This is the vintage where I wore my project manager hat frequently, and good project management did pay off. By the time we were ready to bottle, we were convinced that we had made four different wines. That meant four labels. We decided to have fun with a political theme.

We were so delighted with our free-run Merlot that year that we decided to have a single varietal bottling. The Merlot was aromatic with cherry and cocoa, elegant yet powerful. We named it Kamala Walla Walla after Senator Kamala Harris. Senator Harris caught our attention during the first Democratic presidential debate. We were thrilled when she was announced the Democratic vice presidential nominee the very same day the label went into press.
2018 Kamala Walla Walla by Reuben Lee

We then separated out a 70% Merlot and 30% Cab Franc blend. On the nose and palate, we got cherry and strawberry. But the blend carried a higher level of tannins and acidity as well as a very long finish. We decided to name it Notorious RBG after every feminist's favorite Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG also stands for Red Bordeaux Grapes and specifically Right Bank Grapes; of which, Merlot and Cab Franc are dominant. 
2018 Notorious RBG by Reuben Lee

The second blend consisted of 60% Cab Franc and 40% Merlot. It was fruit-forward and herbaceous, with a lot of tannins, having spent the longest time in oak. We named it AOC Columbia Valley, after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Despite her youth, AOC is laser focused on her progressive platform, calling out the rich and fighting for the poor. AOC is also a play on the French wine classification, Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée.

2018 AOC Columbia Valley by Reuben Lee

Our final blend was 80% Merlot and 20% Cab Franc, made in our second location. I personally have not tasted this blend and have no tasting notes to share. Following a string of strong well-spoken female public figures, it seems fitting to add a male politician. 

We named this wine Pete after former South Bend Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg. Pete's impressive resume includes a Harvard degree, a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, a high-end management consulting gig, and a military career. For better or for worse, no one else made the news for being in a wine cave!
2018 Pete by Reuben Lee

While the labels for each vintage are varied in themes and designs, the ability to have fun and to commemorate each year of winemaking unifies them all. We are after all not trying to create a brand. Yet in so doing, we are able to express what our wines mean to us. 

For our 2019 vintage, we stepped back to a single variety, Walla Walla Syrah. As we bottled the rest of the wine yesterday, it is time again to start thinking about labels. So do stay tuned because ours are not just any wine labels.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Feeling Snarky About Wine Fads

For better or for worse, a side benefit of being on social media is that I'm kept apprised of the latest wine fads. It appears that there is a myriad of wines that are created in marketing war rooms, rather than wineries, targeting the next generation of twenty-somethings. I am talking about clean wines, paleo wines, sugar-free wines, additive-free wines, wines made by chicks, wines made for chicks, and so forth.

Wine, wine, and more wine!
Now I am not in wine sales or marketing so I can't speak to the market research that goes into these fads. But I do make my own wine and know enough to be dangerous. So here is my snarky review. Take it with a grain of salt and a glass of wine. 

Good Clean Wine

I learned about Good Clean Wine in possibly the worst way. A poorly written advertorial was circulating in Twittersphere, subject to mockery and disdain. The piece contained quite a bit of misinformation and was later updated. Out of curiosity, I decided to google Good Clean Wine. Guess what? More advertorials!

What do they do? I would call them an American negociant of Italian wines. They source wines, slap their own labels on the bottles, and sell them. Good Clean Wine claims to source from wineries that practice sustainable farming and minimal-intervention winemaking.

Good Clean Rose
What's my beef? Their advertorials tend towards fear mongering. One of them suggests that "Good Clean Wine doesn't contain any chemical additives, dyes, fake flavors, added sugars, added sulfites or animal byproducts... ... so that your liver can fully process the alcohol without getting overloaded with toxic gunk." Their website claims that their wine pairs with a healthy lifestyle. No hangover, no headache.

No, really?

The truth is that hangovers and headaches are caused by alcohol and dehydration more so than "toxic gunk." To me, the sin of excessive additives is in the masking of off-flavors in cheap mass-produced wines. A well-made wine also requires a minimal amount of additives to coax its flavors and to protect it from spoilage. So vilifying additives just doesn't do it for me.

Would I drink it? Yes, if it is handed to me, but I won't seek it out. I subscribe to sustainable farming and minimal-intervention winemaking myself. However, I don't care for their marketing. 


Bev is the latest wine ad that has been showing up on my Facebook feed. It has a fun vibe that reminds me of the wine coolers of the 1980s, except that Bev is allegedly wine (with bubbles) and cooler. 

What do they do? They seem like the younger California version of Good Clean Wine. Instead of slapping their labels on wine bottles, they do it on cans. And instead of health, they focus on fun, female empowerment, and, for some reason, cats. 

Bev - about wine in a can and cats
What's my beef? As a female hobby winemaker with a management-level day job, Bev's brand of female empowerment does not resonate with me in either spheres of my life. It seems more Elle Woods than Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The website seems to have more information about cats than wine. We do know that the grapes are sourced from Central California and the anonymous winemaker is female.

Bev has the typical no-additives, no-sugar marketing spiel. Surprisingly, it does not offend me so much as they don't pretend to be serious wine in the first place. Their wines are non-vintage, but no one is fooled into thinking that the bubbles are made via methode champenoise.

Would I drink it? Yes, and I would actually take them on a hiking trip or kayaking. A can is perfect and much lighter than a bottle. And if I somehow empower another female or a cat in so doing, all the better.

Dry Farm Wines

For the most part, I can get along with Dry Farm Wines. Of the three, Dry Farm Wines is the most serious about wine. They have extensive information about farming practice and winemaking philosophy, with which I agree.

What do they do? They are essentially a wine club, targeting paleo/keto wine drinkers who care about sustainable farming and minimal-intervention winemaking. The wines are curated and lab-tested based on a list of criteria and shipped to wine club members. Instead of slapping their labels on the bottles, they showcase the different wineries and winemakers in their portfolio.

Dry Farm Wines' ethos

What's my beef?
 I am not sure why lab-tested is used as a selling point. Most, if not all, commercial wines are lab-tested. Even I get my homemade wine lab-tested. The thresholds set for the three metrics of their lab test are lower than those for the average dry wine, although not shockingly so. One might argue that both sugar and alcohol thresholds are mere matters of taste. The sulfites threshold is also reasonable. 

But I may nitpick on the the statement that "(s)ulfites represent an unnatural way to make wine; we prefer to let nature take its course." At 75 ppm of sulfites, about half of those are not from the grapes. Nature probably will stop at 40 ppm. Again, that's nitpicking.

Would I drink it? Yes, if it is handed to me, but I won't seek it out. The marketing of natural wines is a bit of a turnoff for me. Besides, I already have several wine club memberships with wineries directly. I don't need a middleman.

Well, there you go! Thanks for reading my snarky review! What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Rioja Experiment, Part 2 - Reserva, Gran Reserva, and a Barbaresco?

Last month, I wrote about the first part of the Rioja experiment. The experiment serves to answer two questions raised from the book, Making Sense of Wine, by veteran wine critic Matt Kramer: 

1. Does Rioja age and evolve well?
2. Does Rioja fit your definition of a great wine?

Kramer's point was that Tempranillo, the dominant grape in Rioja, resists oxidation and is therefore limited in its ability to evolve and develop into secondary and tertiary flavors. This transformative quality is found in grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo.

2014 Hidalgo Gran Reserva
To put Kramer's point to the test, I recruited some friends to taste different vintages of Rioja four to five times over two days. The goal was to observe if the wine transformed during an aging process, simulated by increasing oxygen contact in the bottle. After the last tasting, we met on Zoom to share our tasting notes. 

Below is the selection of Riojas in the Reserva and Gran Reserva classifications for the experiment. The corresponding retail prices were for 750 ml unless otherwise indicated.
  • 2015 Bodegas Muga, Reserva ($35)
  • 2013 Marques de la Concordia Vina Alarde, Reserva ($20)
  • 2012 Hidalgo Tradicion H, Gran Reserva ($20-45)
  • 2007 Marques de la Concordia Vina Alarde Gran Reserva ($30) 
  • 2004 Conde Valdemar Gran Reserva ($165 for magnum)


Rioja Reserva classification requires that the wine has had three years of aging with at least one year in the barrel. We tasted two Riojas in this classification. 

The 2015 Bodegas Muga was the youngest wine in the Rioja line-up. It started youthful and aromatic with primary flavors in the form of plum, fig, and black tea. On the second day, it retained its fruit-forwardness with a hint of cherrywood, indicating a bit of the secondary flavor. 

The 2013 Marques de la Concordia started with predominantly dark fruit, such as plum. By the second day, it continued its fruit-forwardness but also picked up some secondary and tertiary flavors with chocolate and tobacco.

Gran Reserva
2004 Conde Valdemar Gran Reserva

Rioja Gran Reserva classification requires that the wine has had five years of aging with at least two years in the barrel. As expected, the three Riojas in the Gran Reserva classification are older vintages than the Reserva.

The 2012 Hidalgo was the youngest Gran Reserva. It started with a lot of fruit, spice, and chocolate, indicative of primary and secondary flavors. By the second day, while retaining cherry and berry in its bouquet, it also picked up more woodiness and tertiary flavors of tobacco from oxidation.

The 2007 Marques de la Concordia was unfortunately past its prime. It quickly lost whatever little life it might have had. The wine turned from lemon juice (not what you want in a red wine) and tobacco on the first day to vinegar and funk on the second day. Prior to its quick decline, we did observe some tertiary flavors in the form of tobacco and leather.

While the 2004 Conde Valdemar was the oldest Gran Reserva in the experiment, the larger format bottle with less oxygen contact allowed the wine to age more gracefully. It was surprisingly youthful for a 16-year-old wine. It greeted us with a concentrated perfume-y bouquet of cherry and plum. By the second day, its liveliness and fruit-forwardness continued with a dominance in dried fruit, such as prune and fig. If there were secondary and tertiary flavors, they were overshadowed by the abundance of fruit and luscious mouthfeel with velvety soft tannins.

And a Barbaresco?

OK, for those of you who know me, I love to sneak in Nebbiolo where I can. And I can! 

Nebbiolo, the grape behind Barbaresco and Barolo, is known for its ability to evolve and transform over time. For fun, we added the 2016 La Ca' Nova Barbaresco to compare with the 2015 Muga Reserva. Both were close in vintage and price range. 

Nebbiolo vs. Tempranillo
When first opened, the Barbaresco smelled like a burnt matchstick, likely from sulfur bi-product. This quickly dissipated and was replaced by a complex flavor profile of plum, berry, pomegranate, tea, vanilla, caramel, and leather - a reflection of primary, secondary, and tertiary flavors. 

By the next day, the flavor profile had evolved to plum, fig, and cherry Jolly Rancho, layered with bell pepper, earth, mushroom, Marmite, and a hint of cocoa. 

The Conclusion

Does Rioja age and evolve well? When well made and in the right vintage, a Rioja definitely ages well and can even go on for 25 years. While the 2007 Marques de la Concordia Gran Reserva was unfortunately past its prime, the 2004 Conde Valdemar was still youthful and delicious. 

Tasting through the Riojas of Gran Reserva and Reserva classifications of varying vintages, it is fair to conclude that Tempranillo makes extremely fruit-forward wine that might overshadow its secondary and tertiary flavors. The primary flavors range from fresh fruit, such as plum and cherry, to dried fruit, such as prunes and raisins. There are hints of secondary and tertiary flavors in older Riojas, like chocolate, leather, and tobacco. 

Food loves Rioja
Does Rioja fit your definition of a great wine? While it may not share the ever-evolving and complex flavors of a Barbaresco or Barolo, Rioja is a delicious wine and is eager to please. It pairs well with many dishes, from a myriad of tapas to vegetable curry, chicken tagine, and even a rack of lamb. It is also a pleasure to drink on its own. Rioja is like the good friend with whom you can go to a big work party, a small family gathering with that awkward drunk uncle, or even just to hang out alone.

What about Kramer?

Matt Kramer revisited his view on Rioja in his article "What Makes a Great Wine?" in the June 15, 2018 issue of the Wine Spectator. He had since relaxed his opinion on the transforming ability of a grape to qualify its greatness. Kramer ultimately conceded that the elegance and smoothness of Rioja were adequate to make it a great wine.

What do you think?

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Rioja Experiment, Part 1

Is Rioja a great wine?

Matt Kramer, a veteran wine critic, once made a bold claim to the contrary. In his book, Making Sense of Wine, published in 1989, Kramer mentioned that the best wines do not age so much as they transform. He also noted that while Tempranillo, the main grape in Rioja, makes age-worthy wines, it does not transform with age.

Reserva & Grand Reserva
Rioja's age-worthiness is a well-known fact. The famous Spanish red is classified by how long it is aged prior to release:
  • Generic (or Joven) - No aging requirement
  • Crianza - Two years of aging, with at least one year in barrel
  • Reserva - Three years of aging, with at least one year in barrel
  • Gran Reserva - Five years of aging, with at least two years in barrel

Generally, the higher quality grapes will be aged longer and are designated for the higher classification. However, Kramer claims that because Tempranillo resists oxidation more so than other grapes, it is limited in its ability to transform and evolve into secondary and tertiary flavors that you would normally find in a Cabernet Sauvignon or my personal favorite, Nebbiolo.

Let's unpack what all this means.

Wine has a love-hate relationship with oxygen. Oxygen at the right level plays a critical role in wine making and maturation. If you think of wine as a living product, which many wine geeks do, oxygen is the catalyst that helps the wine mature and evolve.

Too little oxygen, the wine becomes reduced and develops a skunky aroma. Too much, the wine becomes oxidized, which translates to a sherry-like aroma with a vinegar taste. Like any living thing, a wine may start off young, mature and peak over time, and eventually tire and expire.

Letting wine breathe is allowing oxygen to wake up its flavors

As wine matures with the perfect Goldilocks-level of oxygen, the tannins in wine will become softer. The aromas will develop from primary to secondary and tertiary flavors. A well-made wine with the right grape(s) develops a complex flavor profile as it ages. Some examples of the flavor profile include:
  • Primary flavors (from the fruit and primary fermentation) - Fruit, floral, herb, mineral
  • Secondary flavors (from secondary fermentation and the barrel) - Bread, cream, wood, spice, coffee
  • Tertiary flavors (from aging and oxidation) - Leather, tobacco, nuttiness, mushroom, earthy
So I recruited some friends to help me do a two-day social-distancing experiment to taste through the simulated aging process of Rioja. We each picked a Rioja of our choice that has at least a Reserva classification and tasted it about 4-5 times over two days. Each tasting would be about 6 hours apart. A bottle of Barbaresco was also added to the mix for comparison.

Rioja Experiment

The goal of the experiment is to answer two questions:

1. Does Rioja age and evolve well?
2. Does Rioja fit your definition of a great wine? 

We completed the experiment and are in the process of sharing our observations. We will do the big reveal in the next post. In the meantime, I'd love it if you try this experiment along with us. Feel free to drop me a note with your observations as well. I look forward to hearing from you and sharing our results.


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Washington Wineries Reimagined During COVID

It has been over a month since Washington State imposed the stay-at-home order and a shutdown of non-essential businesses to slow down the spread of COVID-19 virus. This has been a game-changer for wineries, especially when late spring is typically the kickoff of a new wine season with a flurry of tasting events.

While Washington wineries are still open for business, services have been restricted to wine orders, deliveries, and pick-ups. Tasting rooms are closed, and Spring Release parties cancelled. A subdued lull takes the place of the buzz and excitement normally found this time of the year.

Festivities at Spring Valley Vineyard Ranch during 2019 Spring Release


This indefinite pause in wine tourism and large-scale wine events has a significant financial impact on wineries. In response, many wineries have turned up the dial on online sales, offering inexpensive or even free shipping. For consumers who live in close proximity, some wineries have ramped up on curbside pickups and even offered free wine deliveries. 

Some wineries, with the appropriate license, also include meals with wine purchase. Caprio Cellars in Walla Walla offers a $50 winery takeout, which includes a scrumptious three-course dinner for two with its wine.

Sample menu from Caprio Cellars

As for food establishments that serve wine, the shutdown also changes how business is run. As dining rooms across Washington are closed, the state liquor board has made temporary allowance to licensed eateries to sell wine with meals for curbside pick-ups or deliveries. This is a great way for consumers to stay safe and still support local restaurants and wineries.

Giving Back

Despite this being an uncertain time, it is heartening to know that there are wineries that are able and willing to pitch in to help the community out. Here are some creative ways that wineries are showing support to others during the pandemic:
  • Alexandria Nicole Cellars and Genoa Cellars offered healthcare workers 50% off wine purchase in March to thank them for their sacrifice.
  • Betz Family Winery donated $5 per bottle of The Untold Story, a red blend, sold through mid April to the Seattle Foundation's COVID-19 Response Fund. The fund provides emergency assistance to the region's most vulnerable communities, such as financial support, healthcare, and childcare.
  • DeLille Cellars is donating 50% of the sale of D2 Heart, its wildly popular Bordeaux blend, to Seattle Foundation's COVID-19 Response Fund and Lifewire, a non-profit that strives to end domestic violence.
  • Doubleback Winery, owned by former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe, sponsored free meals from Andrae's Kitchen to out-of-work employees in Walla Walla's hospitality industry during the first two weeks of April.
  • Quilceda Creek, a premium Washington winery, recently joined the bandwagon by releasing bottles from its private library to its members with the plan to donate 50% of all proceeds from the sales to Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. RERF was created to help restaurant industry employees who are experiencing extraordinary hardship due to the pandemic.
#QuilcedaCares campagne raising money for RERF

My Verdict: While COVID is a global pandemic that penetrates countless countries and across different societal strata, the human spirit to reinvent, to adapt, and to give back and support our community is what that will get us through this crisis. I am proud of Washington wineries for doing just that. So stay home, stay healthy, and drink good wine (not disinfectant). This too shall come to pass.