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WBC18: Merlot Deep Dive with Masters of Merlot

October 18, 2018 2 comments

I remember my first “deep dive” into the Washington wines at the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery a few years ago, where I was told about the power of Washington Merlot. The explanation was given on the example of a group visiting Chateau Ste. Michelle from California, who were complaining that Washington Cabernet Sauvignon was too soft and mild as opposed to the Cabernet Sauvignon from California. The group was offered to taste the Washington Merlot wines next, and this is where they found the right amount of “power” they were looking for (or maybe even a bit more).

WBC18 Masters of Merlot tasting

While attending Wine Bloggers Conference 2017, I was able to start the conference experience on a very high note with the deep dive pre-conference session on the California Cabernet Sauvignon, where we learned about one of the most classic California Cabs you can find – Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon. This year, at WBC18, we started on the equal, or maybe even higher note with the pre-conference session on Merlot. Very appropriately for being in Washington, and for the October being the #MerlotMe month, we were able not only taste a line of Merlot wines but to compare side by side the wines made by two of the Merlot pioneers and, unquestionably, the Masters – Duckhorn Vineyards from Napa Valley and L’Ecole No 41 from Walla Walla Valley.

Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

Dan and Margaret Duckhorn started Duckhorn Vineyards back in 1976, becoming one of the first 40 Napa Valley wineries. Even in those early days, it was clear that Cabernet Sauvignon was The Grape everybody wanted to work with. At that time, Dan and Margaret decided to proceed in their own way, and instead of joining the Cabernet Sauvignon movement, be unique and different and embrace the Merlot. Ever since their inaugural vintage in 1978, they never looked back and became known as Napa Valley Merlot pioneers and one of the best Merlot producers in the world, starting with their first release of Napa Valley Merlot in 1979. Today, Duckhorn Vineyards expanded dramatically and now comprise multiple wineries and brands around the USA – however, Merlot is the heart and soul of Duckhorn wines, and it is not surprising that 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Vineyard Merlot was the Wine Spectator’s 2017 Top 100 Wine of the Year.

L'Ecole No41 Merlot

L’Ecole No 41 was founded by Baker and Jean Ferguson in 1983 when it became 3rd winery in Walla Walla, and 20th winery in the Washington state. Today the winery is run by the 3rd generation of the family, and sustainably farms estate Seven Hills and Ferguson vineyards. Merlot is the king in Washington, so it is not surprising that the L’Ecole crafts some of the best Merlot wines in Washington – however, their Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Bordeaux-style blends are equally world-famous.

Now that you know the bit of the history, let’s talk about our tasting. In our Masters of Merlot session, we had an opportunity to taste side by side Duckhorn Vineyards and L’Ecole No 41 Merlot from 2008, 2012 and 2015 vintages, plus a cherry on top (thank you, Duckhorn Vineyards) – 2015 Three Palms Merlot. Before I will leave you with the tasting notes for these beautiful Merlot wines, I just want to share some general observations. The three vintages of Duckhorn Merlot we were comparing had a different grape composition between the vintages while maintaining the same oak treatment for all the wines. As I mentioned in my summary post about WBC18 experiences, Washington weather is very consistent, so L’Ecole No 41 maintained the same grape percentages between the vintages and the same oak regimen – the changing parameters were only harvest dates and the vineyard source composition, which gradually shifted from solely a  Seven Hills vineyard in 2008 to the 50/50 share between Seven Hills and Ferguson vineyards in 2015 (L’Ecole folks are ecstatic about the potential of the Ferguson Vineyard, now introducing more and more single vineyard wines from it).

Masters of Merlot tasting WBC18

Now, it is (finally!) time to talk about the wines. Here we go, in the tasting order:

2008 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $?, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 18 months in French oak)
Rutherford dust on the nose, chewy, dense, tart cherries, needs time! I want more fruit! Would love to try it in 5-8 years.

2008 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $70, 86% Merlot, 9.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc, 16 months in French oak)
Raisins on the nose, very explicit, beautifully dry on the palate, sage, anise, tart, showed a bit of Rutherford dust after swirling, great acidity. Amarone! I want to drink it NOW!

2012 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $30, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 76% Seven Hills Vineyard, 24% Ferguson Vineyard, 18 months in French oak)
Espresso, Rutherford dust (a bit less explicit than 2008). More fruit on the palate, bright, beautiful.

2012 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $65, 88% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec, 16 months in French oak)
Delicate, fresh plums, a touch of truffle notes, plums and lavender on the palate, delicate, fresh, round.

2015 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $36, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 50% Seven Hills Vineyard, 50% Ferguson Vineyard, 18 months in French oak)
Dark fruit, Rutherford dust, dark berries, a bit of bell pepper on the palate, plums, sapidity, interesting minerality. Needs time.

2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $56, 85% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot, 16 months in French Oak)
Closed nose, a touch of mint, however – palate is beautifully ripe, open, clean, fresh fruit.

2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley (14.7% ABV, $98, 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Petit Verdot, 0.5% Cabernet Franc, 18 months in French Oak)
Rich, opulent, caramel, anise, sage, on the palate coffee, ripe fruit, mocha, dark chocolate. Big and delicious.

Masters of Merlot tasting

Were these wines similar, even between the different wineries? Of course. I love the presence of the Rutherford dust on many of the wines we tasted – after tasting best of the best in Rutherford in Napa Valley – the BV wines, I picked up that term and I always use it describe the perceived dusty impression of the wine’s aroma. L’Ecole Merlot was a lot more structured and minerally-driven. I would safely say that 2-3 hours in the decanter would help those wines a lot. The Duckhorn Merlot were a lot more fruit driven but offered an impeccable balance with that fruit. If I have to pick the favorite, it would be between 2008 Duckhorn (ahh, that Amarone-like beauty) and 2015 Duckhorn Three Palms, but there were really no bad wines in this tasting.

There you have it, my friends. Beautiful Merlot wines, easy to love and appreciate, and most importantly, offering lots of pleasure. How is your Merlot Me month going? What are your discoveries or the old favorites?

I have to say special thank you to Constance Savage of L’Ecole No 41 and Kay Malaske of Duckhorn Vineyards for offering this special tasting to the wine bloggers! Cheers!

WBC18: Like A Kid In The Candy Store – Again, or 4 Days in Walla Walla

October 13, 2018 10 comments

walla walla welcome signBack in 2014, I was visiting the state of Washington on business, and my obsession with local wines led me to the small town of Woodinville, about an hour northeast of Seattle. As I parked next to the industrial building and started going door to door, visiting one artisanal winery after another, I really felt like a kid in the candy store – the wines were delicious, and conversations with winemakers and not were even better than the wines – what else the wine lover needs? I was so impressed with that visit that my enthusiasm showed in the blog post, which won one of the Monthly Wine Writing Challenges (we called them MWWC) with the theme “local”.

The timing for the Wine Bloggers Conference 2018 (WBC18) was a little strange – for the most of the time, the conferences took place in August, and October is definitely not the ideal month to take time off (I know that many of the regulars couldn’t attend due to the timing). However, my high opinion of the Washington wines and the memories of visiting the Woodinville became the deciding factor, so I was able to find the time for this trip to Walla Walla in Washington.

Boy, was I not disappointed. After a beautiful ride from the Portland airport along the Columbia River (I wish I would record a little video – the amazing scenery must be shared), I arrived at the Walla Walla. Walla Walla is a home to about 30,000 residents, but it is hard to tell from the tiny downtown. However, when it comes to wine, don’t let the small size to full you – Walla Walla downtown hosts 30 something tasting rooms, plus a number of full working wineries located within the city limits (there are 120 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley overall) – it is definitely a destination for any wine lover out there.

As it always happened so far (this was my fourth WBC), the 4 days of the Wine Bloggers Conference became a non-stop adventure of sipping, spitting and learning, and most importantly, spending time with the fellow bloggers. I can’t tell you how many wines were tasted during these four days – whatever happens at WBC, stays at WBC. But – I will be happy to share with you main takeaways from these 4 days. Here we go:

  1. Washington State produces some magnificent wines (duh) – at least on par with Napa, and often far exceeding the Napa offerings in terms of QPR – and they are predominantly red. All six Bordeaux varieties are doing quite well in Washington, both in the form of the Bordeaux blend and on its own. Merlot might be a king of Washington, but Cabernet Sauvignon can often fight for that royal crown, and quite successfully. The Syrah is definitely a queen, well deserving your attention, following by the other Mediterranean breeds, such as Grenache and even Tempranillo.
  2. Washington whites are much rarer find – but they can be equally delightful as the reds. Rhone varieties do particularly well (Marsanne, Roussanne), but Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and even Albarino can deliver a happy surprise. An important reminder – please, please drink Rhone whites at the cool room temperature – they really taste better like that. Make them too cold, and they become indistinguishable and boring.
  3. Unlike California, where you can find 100+ years old [continuously farmed] vineyards, such as Bechtold in Lodi (farmed since 1886), and 150 years old continuously producing wineries, Washington wine industry didn’t survive the prohibition. What was striving in the 1860s, was completely destroyed in 1920s, and had to be rebuilt in 1960s. This information actually doesn’t have any deep meaning outside of being an interesting (and unfortunate) fact.
  4. I don’t believe you need to pay attention to the vintages for Washington wines, unless something ultra-bad happens, like out of blue frost in May. The temperatures are consistent, and so are the general climate conditions – too hot of a summer can be compensated by harvesting earlier. Well, the summers are typically hot, so the “canopy management” is a hot subject in winemaking circles. If the vineyard is managed properly, and winemaker does the job right, there is a good chance for consistency. In other words, don’t ask “how was that vintage”, just get the wine you want to drink. But – the way a lot of wines in Washington are made, especially coming from the small wineries – with utmost respect to the product at all stages – guarantees that the wines will age well. Give them some time, and prepare to be amazed.

I can probably think of more conclusions, but instead, I really want to tell you how my four days unfolded – just in case you wonder what one does at the Wine Bloggers Conference. Look at it more like the set of highlights as opposed to the detailed report. And then my plan is to convert many of this mentions below into the separate posts, to make my report more detailed – oh well, will see how that will work.

Day 1: After the beautiful ride along the Columbia River from Portland, I checked into the hotel, and then my next immediate stop was a tasting at the Seven Hills Winery, located right next to the conference hotel. After tasting at Seven Hills, next stop was the tasting at the Gård Vintners – with lots of delicious surprises. That tasting was followed with a very short walk back to the hotel to attend the Masters of Merlot session (now part of the official WBC program), presented by two of the Merlot Greats – Duckhorn and L’Ecole No 41 (very appropriate for the October, the #MerlotMe month).

Next was the mingling with the fellow bloggers around so-called Expo, where WBC sponsors poured their wines and offered their products. My last activity for the day was a superb, mind-blowing tasting at the Eternal Wines (more later) in lieu of group dinner. I also skipped all after-hours activities – that was enough for the first day.

WBC18 Walla Walla winemakers panel

WBC18wine influencers panel

Day 2: The actual conference program started. One of the main morning highlights was the panel discussion by the 4 of the Walla Walla winemakers, talking about terroir, canopy management, and stories, their personal, real life stories. I also liked the panel of wine influencers, talking about the wine industry, wine writing, and Dos and Don’ts of wine blogging. During lunch, we had an opportunity to taste wines from the Cascade Valley Wine Country, where one particular wine, WineGirl Wines Red blend left a mark with me – a standout, flawless, round, and beautiful.

After lunch, I went with a group of friends to taste delicious Oregon non-Pinot wines from Troon Vineyards Applegate Valley, as presented by WBC veteran, Craig Camp (I believe Craig didn’t miss a single WBC event). We got back to listen to the keynote by Lewis Perdue, the founder of Wine Industry Insight publication, who was focusing on a seemingly simple concept – Trust – and the tenets of good writing.

Next session was one of my traditional favorites – Live Wine Blogging for red wines, and once that was over, we all left for the dinners at mystery wineries (nobody knew where they are going), with our mystery winery being Canoe Ridge. Do you think this was enough for a day? Wrong. It is never enough – the last part of the program was so-called “after party”, where we tasted lots more wines (attendees are invited to bring wines to share with the others for this late night session). My highlights from this late-night tasting were Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Smith-Madrone and iOTA Cellars Oregon Pinot Noir vertical (2013, 2014, 2015). Whew, time to sleep.

Maryhill vineyards

Mary Hill winery - soil sample and peach trees

Day 3: The day started from learning about the location of the Wine Bloggers Conference 2019 – Hunter Valley in Australia, October 10-12, 2019. This sounds ultra-attractive – and equally impossible (in my own world). After a few of the breakout session, we went out for lunch at the Walla Walla tasting rooms which we had an opportunity to select the day before – my choice was Otis Kenyon Winery. Next was the session called Bubbles and Bites, a sparkling wine and food pairing lesson presented by Gloria Ferrer. Right after that, we had an in-depth lesson about European Cheeses. Up next was the “Lightning talks” session – 5 minutes presentations by the fellow bloggers with the slides rotating every 15 seconds. Wine Live Blogging session for whites and Rosé closed the main conference activities – which left us with the wine dinner with the vintners from Walla Walla. At the dinner, I fell in love with the wines from Revelry Vintners, which were simply stunning, and also enjoyed a few wines from Bergevin Lane. And then … yes, of course, another late night session (someone had to drink all that wine, right?)

fall in Mary Hill vineyards

view from Cathedral Ridge winery

Day 4: The conference was officially closed, but – there were post-conference excursions. I visited Maryhill Winery in Walla Walla, and Cathedral Ridge Winery in Oregon, both offering spectacular views and delicious wines.

The End.

Here it is – my abbreviated report of the WBC18 activities. Speaking strictly for myself, I greatly enjoyed the conference – the place, the wines, people and conversations – everything work together very well to create a memorable experience. If you never attended the conference – do you want to attend one now, after reading my report? If you are a “regular”, what are your thoughts about WBC18 and will we see each other in Australia? Cheers!

Wednesday’s Meritage: Chowdafest, Champagne in Space, WBC18, Losing the Donuts and more

September 26, 2018 1 comment

Meritage Time!

I have a lot of interesting tidbits for you, so let’s get going.

Clam ChowderFirst and foremost, the Chowdafest. Now in its 11th year, one of my all-time favorite fun culinary events keep on going strong. Same as the last year, 40 culinary teams (restaurants, catering, etc) will compete in 5 categories (Classic New England Clam Chowder, Traditional Chowders (Manhattan/Rhode Island’s), Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, and Vegetarian). Even the lobster chowder is expected to be present this year. As usual, the guests will be sampling and judging. To put things in perspective, 40 of 1 oz samples make it for 40 oz of chowder – that is 2.5 lb of chowder combined! I don’t know how you see it, but this is a lot of chowder! Oh well, if you are anywhere within a few hours drive, the event is well worth it, so see you there!

Next one might be an old news for many (for sure my kids are already all over it) – the famed Dunkin’ Donuts is going to lose the donuts! Not to worry, only in its name. As it seems to be popular nowadays, the iconic chain which had been around since 1948, is going to change its name to just Dunkin’ – as my kids said, this is how everybody calls it anyway, so no big deal. I hope this renaming will be more successful compared to the recent failure of the IHOP->IHOB->IHOP attempt – and it most likely will. You can find more details about renaming at the Dunkin’s (can we already call them like that?) website.

The next subject I want to touch on is something I would typically include into my April 1st posts – but today is not April 1st, so this is actually not a joke and not a prank. It seems that in only a couple of years, anyone who has a spare $10M or so will be able to book their hotel room in … yes, space. It is obvious that such a unique achievement have to be properly celebrated – and what else says “celebration” if not a glass of Champagne? Challenge is that it is hard to pour a glass of revered bubbly in space – but have no fear, Champagne house of Mumm set out to solve the problems by teaming up with the designer Octave de Gaulle. The problem will be solved by creating a special two-chamber bottle which will create a foam out of Champagne, which will then return to its traditional bubbly state directly in the consumer’s mouth. For more details, please see the original article here (thanks to my friend Emil for bringing this to my attention).

Now, let’s talk about numbers – can you not like talking about numbers? When we hear numbers, we think we are in the know – if we can measure something, we are now in control, right? Okay, these are obviously wine-related numbers (you didn’t expect me to talk about Prius production here, didn’t you?) – and they relate to the wine consumption in different states in the USA. Well, not even wine – the alcohol consumption overall. VinePair just published a ranking of all 50 states in terms of the alcohol consumption per capita. Want to guess which state leads the pack? I will give you a moment to ponder at it. Ready? If you said New Hampshire, you won! Wait, I don’t have any prizes here. Well, pat yourself on the back, will you? New Hampshire is leading in terms of alcohol consumption in the USA, with 4.76 gallons per capita per year. Washington, DC is second, with 3.85, followed by Delaware at 3.72. At the bottom of the table is state of Utah (I’m sure we could predict that), with 1.34 gallons per capita. When it comes to numbers, I always remember the old adage of “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics” – I have no idea where all these numbers came from – for example, if most of my wines come directly from the wineries through the mailing lists, is that accounted for? Anyway, the numbers are always fun, so for the full report, please follow this link.

Last one for today, and it is not even really the news. The Wine Bloggers Conference of 2018 (WBC18 for short) will start in a mere week, on October 4th, in Walla Walla, Washington. I will be attending WBC18 (I know a lot of bloggers can’t make it, unfortunately), so if you are reading this and will be attending the conference, please find me and say “hi”. The state of Washington makes amazing wines, and Walla Walla is on the forefront of producing those amazing wines, so I’m definitely looking forward to experiencing the wines and meeting all the wine people next week.

And we are done here, my friends. The glass is empty, but the refill is on the way. Until the next time – cheers!