On Thursday afternoon of that last long September weekend before this school year started, some friends and I drove across the mountains to the heart of wine country for Catch the Crush, the yearly celebration of the Washington grape harvest. (The “crush” starts the process of making wine. The business of stepping barefoot into a barrel of grapes?–That’s one way to do a crush.)
On Friday Denise and Diana went off for a warm-up round of golf, so I was on my own. I first set out for the Bookwalter Winery, but they weren’t open yet (why not?–it was already 10:00 in the morning!). So I walked down the road to Barnard Griffin. The person setting up there explained how the Crush wine-tastings work: to sample the wines they’ve opened for the tasting, you pay a small fee (say five dollars), which usually will apply against any wine you buy from them. Or, for I think $30, you can buy a Catch the Crush Premier Pass passport, a booklet that has a page for each of the wineries taking part in the promotion (38 this year!). At each stop, you skip the fee and get a stamp in your booklet. (Was it a good deal? Probably, given the number of wineries we visited, but some of them were waiving the fee anyway.)
Also, as I learned at Barnard Griffin, for about five dollars you can buy a commemorative wine glass from most of the wineries. I went for it! (–And it was only my first one! By Sunday I had accumulated a glass from almost every winery I visited. In fact, as I click away on this post, I have a full one sitting right here on my desk–a nice stemless model from Chandler Reach.)
At any rate, Barnard Griffin gave me my first wine surprise of the trip–their 2010 Tulip riesling. I’m usually wary of rieslings (wouldn”t want to stray into sweet territory!) but I liked this off-dry one best out of their whole tasting lineup. I also learned a little about how to concentrate on the taste and see how it unfolds as you savor it. (The person pouring for me clearly loved the wines, and knew how to help a novice like me appreciate them!)
After Barnard Griffin (nice folks!), I walked back over to Bookwalter. This winery really exercises the “book” motif. The wines have names like “protagonist,” “subplot,” and “foreshadow.” They have a “book club,” and they offer a “library” of wines. I tasted a couple of outstanding reds, especially the 2008 Foreshadow merlot and 2009 Antagonist syrah-cabernet-malbec blend. (But seriously–completely out of commemorative wine glasses, on the first day of the biggest tourist event of the year?) This is where I also heard the first throat-clearings of what would be a trip-long running conversation about AVAs. I already had a sketchy idea about AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), also called appellations, but now I was right in the neighborhood. That 2009 Antagonist?–mostly grapes from the Columbia Valley AVA, with some from Elephant Mountain Vineyards, on the southern slope of Rattlesnake Ridge, in the new appellation of Rattlesnake Hills. Take Highway 82 up toward Zillah–you can’t miss it.
Next, I made my way over to my old friend Hogue Cellars, one of the largest Washington wineries. (Their red label is a staple on grocery store shelves.) These folks make some really good wines! A standout that was new to me was the 2010 Terroir bII, a Bordeaux-style blend of 90% semillon and 10% sauvignon blanc, made from grapes grown on the Fries Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope AVA. (The Fries family owns the Duck Pond and Desert Wind labels, but also, I gather, sells grapes to other winemakers.) I also really liked the 2008 Reserve chardonnay, from grapes grown in the Yakima Valley AVA; they produced only 100 barrels of it that year. (I know this because the enthusiastic young pourer told me so. This and much, much more.) I usually just grab their chard, but I’ll explore a little deeper on the Hogue shelf after this tasting!
Then, after a couple of false starts, I made my way to the Desert Wind Winery. (It’s right there on that hill!–Why can’t I find my turn??) I sensed that lunch was getting important, so I went straight to the winery’s restaurant, Mojave by Picazo. Good choice! I had the blue crab “cigars”–hand-rolled feather-light blue corn tortillas filled with blue crab, served with a tart fresh tomatillo salsa. (Wait, aren’t blue crabs from the Atlantic coast? What a hike to eastern Washington! But I digress.) The side of gargonzola potato salad was spiked with tiny bacon bits and bright with green onions. Tasty! With it, I had a glass of Desert Wind sauvignon blanc (made from grapes grown in the Wahluke Slope appellation in the larger Columbia Valley AVA). And what a dessert!–molten Mexican chocolate lava cake with a lightly salted caramel drizzle. Had to wait for it to cool a bit!–Not easy.
I caught chef Chris Nokes to ask him about the “cigar” filling, which had been riffling some little edge of a food memory. “Think spinach artichoke dip, but without the spinach, crab instead, rolled up in a corn tortilla. Add a touch of parmesan.” Got it! After lunch, I took in their tasting and found two more excellent whites–a slightly oaked 2009 chardonnay and a 2009 semillon.
Sound like a lot of wine?–Remember: in a tasting, you tilt your nose down into your glass and breathe over the little splash of wine at the bottom, then you tip your glass up and moisten your mouth with the wine and breathe again. Maybe you swallow a trickle–then you dump out the rest into a big jar on the counter. This is wine-tasting, not wine-swigging. Which is why I wasn’t sprawled on the gravel out in the parking lot.
But I wasn’t done yet! After my late lunch I met up post-golf with Denise and Diana and we hit four more tastings. Now that I had the two of them to talk to, my note-taking tailed off, but at least I noted our stops: Airfield Estates (another winery working a motif; we tasted wines named Runway, and Aviator, and Lightning); Coyote Canyon Winery, where my pick was the 2010 Albariño, a Spanish grape that Coyote Canyon was apparently the first in Washington to plant, at Coyote Canyon Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA; Milbrandt Vineyards, with its own fantastic riesling fragrant with fresh grapefruit; and Apex Cellars Winery, where I found maybe my best wine of the day, a beautifully creamy oaked chardonnay. (I tend to choose whites over reds, and this trip was no exception.) Finally, done for the day!
On Saturday, now with reinforcements (friends CJ and John had pulled in on Friday evening), we headed for Red Mountain. The Red Mountain AVA, a triangular wedge just east across the Yakima River from Benton City, is, at 4,000 acres (with only 600 of that in cultivation), the smallest appellation in Washington. Our map showed 14 wineries in the AVA, but we tasted at just two. At the Kiona Vineyards Winery, the tasting stretches out along a couple of intersecting long rooms, each with stations offering several wines. I was taken with a spicy rosé (I believe it was their Mourvédre rosé, though they also have one made from sangiovese grapes; my notes fail me here). I also really surprised myself by loving a late harvest sweet wine! Next we visited Tapteil Vineyards Winery, where the cabernet sauvignon was most interesting to me (also a surprise because of its strong tannin, which I don’t usually go for). The Tapteil tasting room was refreshingly homey and the people were good-humored and helpful.
Then we zoomed back westward to Prosser to take in four more wineries. The three-story stucco villa of Chandler Reach Vineyards whisks you off to Tuscany before you even get in the door, and the wine selections tilt Italian as well, especially their Corella sangiovese blend. But we also tasted a viognier. (Floral; some like it, some don’t. I don’t always, but I did like this one!)
By now, mid-Day Two, I had given up trying to take pictures, and I began to notice a certain truculence in my reactions to the wines I was tasting. I know that we stopped at Hightower Cellars, but my only note, quoted completely, is “cab sauv.” I was already familiar with Kestrel Vintners; I had visited their tasting room a couple of years ago, and had belonged to their wine club for a year after that. They have a great old-vine chardonnay and a very light sauvignon blanc, as well as an array of reds from easy quaffers like Lady in Red to serious high-end merlots and cabernet sauvignons, But by the time we got there, my palate was too exhausted to detect much beyond “red” and “white.” I didn’t write a single note! On the up side, they were serving a cheerful spiced-wine punch that brightened us up considerably. Finally, at our last stop, Mercer Estates, I tasted a 2009 pinot gris that I could rise to “love”–but I can only guess why because I didn’t make a single other comment! And so my wine-tasting shambled to an end.
But now, with the end-of-year holidays finally here, I find myself buying a lot of wine for my friends, and as I reach for this bottle or that, I often let my hand be guided by my memories of these tasting rooms and labels, these helpful people, friendly winery dogs, and lovely golden fields braided with rows of grapevines. Desert Wind, Kestrel, Barnard Griffin, Kiona, Mercer, Apex, Milbrandt. And I still have my slender bottle of First Crush, Kiona’s 2006 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, a liquid-gold dessert wine produced from nearly frozen grapes. Maybe I’ll open it this New Year’s Eve to sip with my own attempt at Mexican chocolate lava cake!
On the Sunday of that long weekend, we got up early to make it to the Prosser airport by 6:00 (that’s in the morning) for the Great Prosser Balloon Rally. Look!–They launched a whole blue sky of ornaments! Happy wine tasting, and Happy New Year!