Wine tasting with Stephen Tanzer – 2012 edition

I’ve had the good fortune of attending the annual wine tasting with the wine reviewer, Stephen Tanzer (of International Wine Cellar and Winophilia). This is the fifth year running where David Hamilton organizes the event, curates the wine with Steve, and invites us wine nerds to a decadent and entertaining night of drinking the best that our region offers. Every year, I have an idea of what to expect, and every year, I come away with something unexpected. The 2012 edition was no different.

What was once a small intimate gathering of like-minded wine drinkers has now opened up to include winemakers and a few more guests. Thankfully, it’s as intimate as a whisper, but as fun as a party. The attendance of winemakers over the years has made for an interesting dynamic; on one hand, you get insight into the style of wine and how they arrive at their bottle destination. On the other hand, there can be some awkwardness when their wine is voted on by those in the room as the most and least favorite. Even in ultra-polite Seattle, sometimes a local winemaker gets some tough love. But what’s great about having the winemakers attend is that you can speak to them as fellow wine drinkers, chat about what excites them, and hear inside information you wouldn’t get from visiting their tasting rooms or reading about their wines. We were fortunate to sit with Sean Boyd of Woodinville Wine Cellars and had a blast while talking about wine, eating good food from the Tom Douglas Restaurant team at the Palace Ballroom, and soaking in the conversation in the room that typifies this annual event. Continue reading

Washington Wine Tasting with Stephen Tanzer

This post first appeared on Seattlest.

Over the last few summers a wine event in Seattle has flown so far under the radar most wine fans don’t know it happens. And just a few weeks ago, it occurred yet again. Stephen Tanzer is one of the more renowned wine reviewers in the world. His International Wine Cellar newsletter (and Winophilia blog) is required reading for winos. In my opinion, he’s part of the big three with Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker. And he’s part of this wine event that happens the past few summers.

I’ve been fortunate to attend these wine tastings. The first was in 2008 at Art of the Table. The theme that year was the five best Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, in Tanzer’s estimation, that Washington can produce. It was a great event which opened my eyes to the capability of our state’s wines. An added benefit was the opportunity to learn from Tanzer, which has been a bonus to every year’s tasting. In 2009, the event was moved to Tom Douglas’ Palace Ballroom. The theme followed suit, but Tanzer added the wrinkle of one of his favorite Syrahs and Cabs from other parts of the world as points of comparison. 2010 focused all Syrah, showcasing the very best that Washington can produce with this Rhone varietal. In attendance were some of the winemakers whose bottles were being poured that evening. A great night to be a wine nerd.

The theme for the 2011 tasting? To shine the light on 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab blends from Washington. That particular vintage was highlighted because of the class that it showed and also to have some wine with a touch more bottle age. Why Cabernet? To see what this noble grape can do in the vineyards of our state and in the hands of area winemakers. Speaking of those winemakers, they were again in attendance. Always interesting to see the give and take of what Steve tasted, what the winemakers discuss, and how the crowd responds to the wines – all at the same time.

I was familiar with most of the wines; regardless, all of them had me intrigued to see what Steve Tanzer and the event organizer, David Hamilton, had in store for us. What was exciting about the evening was to try all of these wines in an open format with one of the world’s pre-eminent wine critics shepherding us. This was the format of all the past tastings and it made for a rare wine night to learn and try some world class wines.

Here are the wines that were poured in 2011:

The folks that were at the event to represent their wineries were:

  • Bob Betz – Betz Family Winery
  • Chris Upchurch – DeLille Cellars
  • John Abbott – Abeja
  • David Larsen – Soos Creek Wine Cellars
  • Gilles Nicault – Long Shadows
  • Paul Mcbride – Grand Reve Vintners

In going through this horizontal tasting, the first two flights were red blends with a focus on Bordeaux varietals and how they leaned on Cabernet Sauvignon. The last two flights were almost all Cabernet Sauvignon. As we went through the flights we noted that though these wines did have some age, they were still relatively young. One wine in particular was noted as having life through 2030 in its tasting notes. A key to tasting any red wine is to pay attention to the tannins; are they chunky and harsh? Or fine-grained and supple? Tannins are one of the hallmarks of red wine and having a gauge of their context can help in the appreciation of what you’re drinking.

As we went through the flights, I thought back on last year. On Syrah and how this grape shows much promise in Washington. I remembered the high level wine nerd discussion that broke out when the subject of clonal differences came up; how this clone was better than that one. This year, the talk was a bit more straightforward, not quite as geeky, but still plenty nerdy. We discussed the essence of terroir. That magical French notion, where wine exhibits a sense of place and if it exists in Washington. While some of the winemakers say that yes, Washington does have it, but because many of the wines come from grapes across the best vineyards of Eastern Washington, the goal of the best wine is what they aim for.

We also spent time reminiscing on the 2005 vintage. Often considered one of the great recent vintages for Washington, it gave the winemakers grapes to make great wine.  And for most of the winemakers, they spoke fondly as to what Mother Nature gave them and how the conditions were ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon; the Indian summer that year attributed to the structure of the grapes. That 2005 was a vintage where a winemaker could let the grapes shine. One of the things that I consider when tasting wines, can you taste the winemaking? Can you notice the level of oak that went into the wine? As we embarked in tasting, my mind was swimming in how to taste just these components.

Of the wines we had, my personal favorite was the one from Soos Creek Wine Cellars. I didn’t know much about them going into the evening, but it was an elegant and beguiling Bordeaux-style blend of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, and 18% Cabernet Franc. The tannins were like sand with a mid-palate of dried fruits and a rich and fulfilling finish. This wine was great. Even better was that it was unexpected. I’ll be keeping my eye on Soos Creek and the other offerings from David Larsen.

The other winethat stood out to me (note – all of the wines were very good, some just resonated with me that evening more than others) was the Betz ‘Le Parrain‘. We learned from Bob Betz that ‘Le Parrain’ means Godfather, and they don’t make it that often (once in the last 15 years) and this vintage fit the bill to make it. I also really enjoyed the offerings from Januik, Chateau Rollat and Leonetti Cellar. Who am I kidding? All were good.

One of my favorite moments of these dinners is learning about the up-and-coming wineries in Steve Tanzer’s estimation. It was at the event in 2008 where he told us about Corliss Estates. When he was telling us about Corliss Estates, most in the room never heard about it. Now wine nerds all know about this Walla Walla winery. Here are the wineries that Tanzer was particularly impressed by in his recent visit: Kerloo Cellars, Tulpen Cellars (for their Sangiovese), Saviah Cellars, Sleight of Hand Cellars (although their labels leave a lot to be desired), Den Hoed Wine Estates, Eight Bells Winery (particularly the Syrah), Obelisco Estate, Woodinville Wine Cellars, Efeste (white wines were showing particularly well), and Gorman Winery (their best vintage to date). I wonder what Steve’s thought is of Figgins, the new bottle from Figgins Family Wine?

What was exciting and exasperating about this tasting is the exclusivity and scarcity of these wines. It was an honor to be able to taste the high caliber of wines, and exasperating in that they are all probably impossible to get at retail. We’re probably setting sail into the world of wine auctions and the like on eBay, I have no idea how that will work out. So good luck finding any of these.

Key takeaways from that evening; we drank a lot of great wine. The 2005 vintage provides a barometer for how great Washington wines can be. The 2008 vintage is very exciting and quite good. The price and value of Washington wines is amazing. Soos Creek was my winner for the evening. But all of the wines were very good, and some a part of the status of Washington’s new cult wines. And now I’m looking forward to the 2012 edition of this epic wine tasting.

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