Thursday, September 25, 2014

A visit to Maison Joseph Drouhin

Bonjours from Beaune!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I found out about Drouhin wines when I was wending my way through Oregon's Willamette Valley last year. So it was with eagerness that I descended upon the stately Maison Drouhin smack-dab in the middle of the lovely medieval town of Beaune.

According to those in the know, the greatest Pinot Noir in the world comes from Burgundy, the part of France of which Beaune is a part. But the Chardonnay grapes do equally well here, too. I hoped to taste excellent samples of both, as well as get a memorable experience for the 35 euros I shelled out for my 10:30 a.m. tasting.

The original press room at Joseph Drouhin
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Now, morning is not my favorite time to start sipping vintages, so I was pleased when our charming and attentive tasting guide, Raphael Febvret, proposed that we first do a walkthrough of the ancient caves that go not only under the maison but the nearby Notre-Dame church, as well. We were a small group -- I was joined only by a young, affluent couple from New York City who could not have been nicer. So our tour took on the cachet of an exclusive experience.

First, we walked across the plaza to a hidden door that led down to the ancient wine press room. It was modernized with photographs and displays showing how a few years ago, Drouhin and some high-rolling wine connoisseurs actually used the press to make a few precious bottles.

Then, we started going through the tunnels. Normally, I am not thrilled with a) being underground b) being in dark, enclosed spaces. But it was such an interesting tour with such a lot of history -- ancient centurion ramparts, Catholic bishops, Dukes of Burgundy, up to the present day -- that I didn't really have time to get nervous. Raphael paced our walk just right, stopping to show us dusty bottles of rare vintages and original Roman walls.

Raphael Febvret lines up bottles for our tasting.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
All that walking was a wonderful prelude to the tasting event itself, and voila -- suddenly we turned a corner and we had miraculously come back to the Maison. While we took a short break, Raphael got the bottles ready for our tasting, and I got to chat with the young couple, who had just come from Art Basel in Switzerland, where the train strike that nearly derailed me in Metzville, France (I had to rebook my ticket through Paris to get to Dijon), saw them renting a car and driving to Burgundy instead. So the poor (rich) guy, as the designated driver, had to spit out all his delicious wine into the bucket. I clued them in on Dijon -- take a pass -- and Nuits St. Georges -- by all means go -- and to thank me, they slipped me their Art Basel VIP ticket once they found out I was heading through there the next day. How sweet was that?

A tuille and some fromage and wine at Le Jardin Des
Remparts, where I lunched al fresco. Divine!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But, to the wine: We went from the Clos de Mouches label through the Drouhin-Vaudon Chablis Premier Cru and Pouilly Vinzelles to the Vosne-Romanee and Puligny-Montrachet Folatieres Premier Cru, I got a real sense of progression, and Raphael was not shy with the pour. But the true hallmark of my time at Drouhin turned out to be the camaraderie of my new amies and the sense of Burgundian history brought to life by the Maison's gracious hospitality and amazing cellars.

Postscript: Afterward, I sprung for an extravagant lunch at the nearby Le Jardin Des Remparts restaurant, which I enjoyed with an exceptional glass of Pinot Noir Entrecoeur Bohrmann 2009.

The old walls, or ramparts, that
give Beaune its magic.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
☻☻☻. Some people say the French are snooty; I say they are elegant and discerning. So put on your best behavior, and approach the Drouhin experience accordingly. The bottles uncorked here are of varying quality and price levels. The icing on the cake is the tour of the caves. Formidable!

P.P.S. They have many different tours available, including wine dinners and vineyard visits. Email or go to their website to book a tour.

My ratings go from one grape (poor) to five grapes (excellent) and are based on accessibility, price, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Idaho Wine Girl goes to France!

Le vin, c'est moi! A bust of the Duke
of Burgundy in Dijon.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
As the train pulled into Dijon, I was deluged with emotion ... and anticipation. Having been living in Asia for the previous six months -- where, let's face it, the wine culture is self-described as "emerging" -- I was like a thirsty camel biding its time in the desert, dreaming of the oasis. Now, I had arrived.

But as I found out, staying in Dijon was a bit of a mistake. Though I found this adorable sushi place called Bento, the city itself is sort of large and underwhelming. Should have gone directly to Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy wine-growing region, an ancient town that lives, breathes and, of course, sells great wine. But I was under the mistaken impression Beaune was in the hinterlands (plus the rail strike going on when I was there).

First glass of vin rouge in France, at a
cute sushi place in Dijon called Bento.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Looking back, though, I'm glad I stayed in Dijon because I got to take the Authentica wine tour down the Cote D'Or, stopping in quaint villages and getting the lay of the land. (The next day, I snuck back to Beaune and did a tasting at the fancy Joseph Drouhin cellars, the topic for my next post.)

First off, Burgundy 101. The Cote D'Or region (or "domaine") is like a snake going down the sides of gently rippling hillsides in eastern central France. Dijon is to the north, Macon to the south, with a million little towns in between, many of which are world-famous. Heard of Gevry-Chambertin? It's here. Pommard? Ici. Ditto Puligny-Montrachet. And of course Romanee-Conti, a wine so heady it's legendary.

A camera-wielding tourist outside the Chateau
du Corton-Andre, rocking typical Burgundy
roof tiles. Photo by Meg McKenzie
The tour only got as far south as Beaune. If I had a million dollars and all the time in the world, I'd have spent a month tippling -- er, tasting -- all the way down the Cote. But I was heading off to Switzerland in a few days and then on to Austria. So little time, so much wine. Arrrgghhh!

But back to Authentica. I booked my half-day "Charm" tour because the price (85 euros) was right and it dovetailed with my schedule. I'm glad I did. Our driver/tour guide Ivan was ... awesome. His gently accented English was perfect, and he dealt with the numerous personalities in the van with grace and panache. There were couples from Canada, California, Australia and even Malta. Et moi.

Authentica tour guide Ivan
gives us the dirt on vines.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Ivan was not only nice, he also knew a lot about wine. We stopped off to look at vines in Fixey, Nuits St. Georges and even Clos de Vougeot, a grand onetime monastery that is now leased to the Chevaliers du Tastevin (world-class movers and shakers who appreciate fine wine). We thought we were going to taste wine there, but alas, it was only our restroom stop. Still, quite beautiful.

Our wine tasting, however, was memorable and delightful. And delicious! The winery that Authentica has hooked up with is called the Chateau du Corton-Andre. It's a little hokey, where you go down to the cellar and stand around a dimly lit wine barrel to sip your way through the six wines. But after a few glasses, it started to become pretty nice. We started with the cheaper stuff and worked our way up to the pricier vintages. Ivan explained how the label tells you where the wine was made and what quality it is.

Lined up for tasting at Corton-Andre. From left: Santenay,
Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Le Cailleret,
Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Monthelie Premier Cru Les
Riottes, Volnay Premier Cru En Chevret, and finally the
Corton Grand Cru. Photo by Meg McKenzie

Although Burgundy is of course known for its red wine, I actually fell in love with the one white wine we tried called Santenay, and got a bottle for about $15 in the gift shop. I then hauled it all the way to Austria, where I finally enjoyed it in a closet-sized room overlooking an alp. But that's a story for another day.

☻☻☻☻☻.Bottom line: Authentica is the real deal, as plenty of Trip Advisor reviewers will confirm. Go. Enjoy! Worth every euro.

Truly delicious wine and a memorable trip down Burgundy lane. Authentica has a variety of tours and are truly pleasant people to deal with.

My ratings go from one grape (poor) to five grapes (excellent) and are based on accessibility, price, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Vintage Olympic Peninsula

Olympic Cellars attracts a crowd for its summer concerts
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Now that Idaho Wine Girl has left the Snake River Valley of Idaho for the Dungeness Valley of Washington, it's time to report on a few wineries that made a big impression on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Technically in Port Angeles, though somewhat closer to Sequim on Highway 101 is Olympic Cellars. Set in a gorgeous old barn right off the highway, it's a well-run place that hosts a lively outdoor Saturday-night concert series of local acts -- ten bucks and you're in. This affords you the opportunity to buy wine and snacks, including Mystery Bay clams and oysters.

Kathy Charlton of Olympic Cellars
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Kathy Charlton, one of the smiling faces behind the Olympic Cellars story -- the others are Molly Rivard and Lisa Martin -- is a former Texas Instruments exec who made a 180-degree career turn. Here, she produces wine made from Eastern Washington grapes -- no one really seems to grow grapes seriously out here. But, among many other labels, her Working Girl white -- a scrumptious blend of Chardonnay and Riesling -- and Handyman Red -- a drinkable Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc mix --  are available not only at the winery but also my local Safeway and stand up to any $10 bottle fom California, in my book. Their winemaker is a French gal in Walla Walla named Virginie Bourgue.

Tempted to stop in? The tasting room is open daily until 6 p.m. through October, and till 5 p.m. after that till March. Five bucks will net you generous pours from a list of selections, and there are generally little bowls of munchies, too. Enjoy!

☻☻☻ Always a positive experience at the big barn at 255410 Highway 101, Port Angeles. 360-452-0160.

David Volmut of Wind Rose Cellars in Sequim
Photo by Meg McKenzi
Wind Rose Cellars is run by an enterprising young couple making a go of it in the quiet downtown area of Sequim. Set back from Cedar Street (just north of the main street, which is Washington), their tasting room is set in a narrow building but is pretty easy to find.

Young husband-and-wife David Volmut and Jennifer States distinguish themselves from the Washington wine-making crowd by sourcing only Italian-style grapes (nebbiolo, dolcetto, barbera and pinot grigio) from Yakima, and some of their bottles (the 2011 Rosado, a dry rose selling for $11.99, for example) are great choices to present to a dinner-party host or simply to enjoy at home.

☻☻☻ David and Jennifer have added tables to the patio next to their tasting room for the summer. While not the most scenic vista on earth (it backs onto low-income housing), it's a welcome addition to the farmer-ville Sequim scene, and it's only five minutes from the highway. Hours are 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays, May through October. Prices vary. On a recent Friday, I stopped in during the monthly art walk and found they weren't offering a tasting but instead sold me a glass of their Brava Rosso for $7 (plus 60 cents tax).
155-B W. Cedar St., Sequim WA 98382.  360-358-5469.

Judith Collins, co-owner of Marrowstone Vineyards
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Marrowstone Vineyards is set on a lovely island just south and east of that bustling Victorian home-laden Puget Sound city Port Townsend. I sort of stumbled upon the winery on a recent Saturday outing -- I'd never been to Marrowstone, though I've been living on the Olympic Peninsula for eight months now. Heading up a hill, I saw a sign stating the tasting room was open.

At the top of the hill, I drove right by the vineyards because co-owner Kenneth Collins hadn't put the sign out yet, but I saw the grapevines and made my way into the tasting room, a clean and lovely former horse barn that's been completely remodeled by a pair of energetic former San Franciscans.
Judith Collins, a cheery blonde, greeted me with a lovely smile, and before long I was telling her the story of my life (that's how friendly she is, and how delicious the five bottles of red were that I got to try for five bucks). Only one was their own vintage, being that they're brand-new: a light but drinkable Oregon-style Pinot Noir. The others were from Richard Sorensen of the defunct Port Townsend Soresnsen Cellars, and boy were they good. I bought a bottle of his 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon for $20 (plus tax). Yumm-oh! as Rachael Ray once said.
☻☻☻ Lovely setting (they host weddings here, by the way), friendly folks and good wine. Give them a few years, and they'll be cranking out cases of their own stuff. In the meantime, enjoy the best a great Port Townsend vintner has to offer. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May to November. 423 Meade Road, Nordland, WA 983658. 360-385-5239.

My ratings go from one grape (poor) to five grapes (excellent) and are based on accessibility, price, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What to like in Woodinville

Welcome to Silver Lake!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
When I was in Seattle a few weeks ago, I made sure to budget some time in Woodinville, which is just east of the city and consists of a lot of wineries clustered along Route 202 (via many confusing roundabouts). It being Thursday, several of the ones I was most eager to visit were closed, which surprised me as it was the week after Thanksgiving. It now being December, many are only open on the weekend, so check ahead before you go (Silver Lake being the exception: It's open every day!).

Of course I hit the huge ones (see my previous post), Ste. Michelle and Columbia, first. But if you've been following my blog, you'll know I tend to view the huge corporate wineries as necessary evils, luring wine lovers to a destination that then offers up its small, delectable tasting rooms for your wine-drinking pleasure.

Silver Lake's holiday display
Photo by Meg McKenzie
And thus it was in Woodinville. 

My first stop was at Silver Lake Winery, which also has a sister winery in Zillah (see my earlier posting on the Zillah Fruit Loop outside of Yakima, Washington). The Woodinville branch is in a handsome, modern building just off Woodinville-Redmond Road not far after you turn off 405; inside, it's clean, nice-looking and dotted with merchandise. I arrived just as a couple was completing a purchase. As I waited for the pourer, a quirky dude named Frank, I chatted up an affable gentleman of Asian extraction who seemed quite conversant on all things Silver Lake and had a pretty good sense of humor (after we both tried 2006 Leone Vin Dolce Cab Franc, he suggested we call the pourer "Cab Frank.")

According to Cab Frank, Silver Lake was started by three professors at the University of Washington and is now owned by 1,200 shareholders. With 60 varieties, it is one of the state's largest locally owned wineries. Its primary source of grapes is in Zillah, in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. 

Now you see him, now you don't: "Cab Frank" ducked
below the counter just as I snapped this photo.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I gave Cab Frank my blogger card and requested to take a picture. And he did something really weird (something I guess he's done before, since it happened in the blink of an eye). As I aimed the camera and pushed the button, he ducked below the counter quick as a bunny, so all I got was my Asian pal leaning against the bar. Ha ha! However, he did give me an industry discount on the tasting, so I guess I'll just chalk it up to quirky Cab Frank's irrepressible hijinks.

The tasting flight offered that day consisted of five tastes for $5 and 12 tastes for $10 -- which, considering you get four measly samples for $10 down the road at Ste. Michelle, is a really good deal. The wines ran the gamut from the gold-medal winning 2010 Silver Lake Riesling (awfully sweet, which Rieslings tend to be) and the 2007 Silver Lake Syrah (really dry but with a nice bouquet). Other choices include several Merlots, a Pinot Gris, a 2006 Sangiovese and the aforementioned Cab Franc.

Silver Lake has a wine club with two levels (Discover, with two bottles, $10-15 each, shipped each quarter from the cask series) and (Voyage, with two bottles, $15-25 each, from the cask or reserve series).

Apple Farm Village
Photo by Meg McKenzie
As this was my first stop in Woodinville, however, I pressed onward, ever onward. And I was glad I did, because my last stop of the day was, in fact, my favorite. I stopped off for lunch and dallied at the big two, then headed east.

Here lay a busy commercial stretch with another confusing roundabout, which shot me north. But as I sped past, I spied a quaint wooden ("woodin"?) building, called the Apple Farm Village Shoppes, that looked to host a variety of different wineries. I turned back and parked, then headed down the steps to the first cute place I came to, which was Cougar Crest. 

As I toured the small but adorable tasting room, a light bulb went on over my head. I had tasted Cougar Crest wines in Walla Walla at their ginormous new tasting room! This was familiar territory, and I was here for new experiences. However, Sam Worden, the handsome tasting room manager, graciously poured me two tastes of their Estate Merlot to test a theory of mine -- that 2007  seemed an incredibly better year than 2006. Sure enough, the '07 Merlot ($35 retail) sang, while the '06 merely hummed. Thanks, Sam!

Zerba tasting room manager Shawn Chandler and Blue
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I took my leave and continued down the steps to the next cute shop I found, which turned out to be Zerba Cellars. I was met at the door by a huge shaggy Australian shepherd-border collie mix named Blue (for his bluish eyes, I guess) and greeted from behind the counter by Shawn Chandler, the personable tasting room manager, whose card says "Family & Manager." 

With its twinkling fairy lights, folksy atmosphere and Adele playing on the stereo, Zerba's atmosphere is like being invited down to the cellar of a (well-off) friend and getting to sample the best bottles they have. Which is my favorite kind of tasting room experience! As I tasted, we chatted. Shawn told me a lot of people think it's Zebra wine and not Zerba wine. I wanted to say, "Maybe it's because there's a zebra on your label," but I wisely kept my trap shut (for once). (Actually, the zebra is only on the bottle I got; the rest have a big, huge "Z.")

Zerba's lineup of tasty wines
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Zerba Cellars, Shawn told me, is actually an Oregon winery located just over the border from Washington in the Walla Walla Valley. It was started by Cecil Zerba. The talented winemaker is Doug Nierman, a UC Davis grad who worked at Pepper Bridge before joining Zerba.

I have to say, there wasn't a wine there I didn't like. The '07 reserve blend ($50 retail) called Equilibrio had a peppery Sangiovese kick to it. Another big seller is their '06 Late Harvest Syrah Port ($30). But the wine I warmed to (and in fact ended up buying a bottle of) was their 2008 Wild Z Red Wine, a Northwest Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot ($20 retail). Thinking about that yummy bottle makes me wish I'd bought two!

Zerba holiday display
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Zerba Cellars
14525 148th Ave. NE
Woodinville, WA 98072; (425) 806-BRIX
Open Friday-Saturday, 11-6, Sunday noon-5 p.m.

Small, intimate, charming -- with a down-to-earth, knowledgeable pourer, and the fluffiest, most disarming dog in the world. All this and delicious wine at reasonable prices. What more could a person want?

Cougar Crest Estate Winery
14545 148th Avenue, Suite 211
Woodinville, WA 98072; 9425) 806-1700
Open Thursday-Saturday, 11-6; Sunday-Monday, noon-6 p.m.

A quaint, charming offshoot of the huge Cougar Crest winery in Walla Walla. Sam, the tasting room manager, is cute and nice. The wine is fairly priced, dependably good with that oomph you can only find from Walla Walla vintages.

Silver Lake Winery
15029 Woodinville-Redmond Road
Woodinville, WA 98072; (425) 485-2439, ext. 109
Open Monday-Saturday, 11-5, Sunday noon-5 p.m. (tastings end at 4:45 p.m.)

Silver Lake Winery is definitely worth a stop if you're in Woodinville wine country. It's easy on, easy off the well-traveled Woodinville-Redmond Road and open daily. A dozen tastes for $10 is a bargain, and "Cab Frank" is a hoot

My ratings go from one grape (poor) to five grapes (excellent) and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Into the Woodinville Wonderland

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville -- or is it France?
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Imagine a city of theme parks -- as if such a thing existed! -- and there were two gi-normous ones right across the street from each other! One would be named Disney World, the other Universal Studios. The two parks are almost identical. Almost. One is the stately original, greeting guests with classic castles and tradition. The other is a brash clone, beckoning visitors with new-fangled rides like Harry's Wizarding World. Oh, and classic castles and slightly less extensive tradition.

Such was my dilemma upon turning onto Route 202 in Woodinville, Washington. Left led to Universal, I mean Columbia Winery, and to the right was the big dog, Chateau Ste. Michelle. Being Idaho Wine Girl meant there were good reasons to visit both: Ascentia Wines owns Columbia Winery AND Ste. Chapelle, the local big dog in Idaho. On the other hand, several of Idaho's best winemakers have made wine at Ste. Michelle, among them Melanie Krause, whose Cinder Wines just outside of Boise have been garnering awards by the barrelful. Plus, with its long, French-looking avenue leading to its large, French-looking buildings, Ste. Michelle had the edge in grandiosity. I turned right.

The entrance to Ste. Michelle's tasting room
Photo by Meg McKenzie
It was a cold, damp day at the end of November when I made my pilgrimage -- great for evocative photos of fog but not so much for hanging out on their impeccably groomed grounds. I scurried inside and what did my wondering eyes behold? A huge hall of merchandise, lavishly strewn with Christmas baubles, and beyond that, the many tasting rooms of Michelle, which was founded in 1934 and is the oldest winery in Washington state, though I guarantee the building is more recent. 

I was there for the wine, not the wine-themed dog sweaters, so I kept heading back, past the wall of single varietals (where I had a cute but rather awkward exchange with a Japanese tasting room employee named Ritsuko) to a barrel room where a tour was just ending at the bar. There were barrels reribboned for the holidays, a glowing Christmas tree and a bizarre yet cool little enclave encased in glass where the Col Solare wines, a pricey collaboration with Italy's Antinori, are meant to be tasted at premium prices.

Holiday-decorated barrels
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Since I wasn't part of the tour, the blonde gal behind the bar just totally ignored me. Finally, a girl sitting at the cash register scared up a person to serve me -- Ritsuko! 
Rit, as I will shamelessly refer to her, ushered me back into the other room, shook me down for the $10 tasting fee and gave me a menu of four wines to try. I opted for their sparkling (2005 Luxe, $23 a bottle retail) since I'd read it had bested France's finest Champagnes in a blind tasting. I have to say, it was fine. 

Ritsuko pouring at Ste. Michelle
Photo by Meg McKenzie
As I was mulling my next choice, a rich-looking couple from California (I knew, because they told Rit, "We're from California!") arrived at the bar, and Rit went over and spent time with them. I heard her mutter something about a Reserve tasting they could sign up for, and they departed. Then she came back to me and poured my next request, the 2008 Indian Wells Chardonnay ($18 retail). No mention was made of Reserve tasting to moi. I felt like I'd just been pre-qualified, like at a car lot. (I would have paid, honest!)

To her credit, Rit was knowledgeable and polite -- she whipped out a huge laminated map to show me where Ste. Michelle sources it grapes (Columbia Valley, out near Walla Walla) and even slipped me an extra taste of the 2007 Cold Creek Merlot in addition to the two reds I tried (the $25 2008 Mourvedre and $30 CSM Red Wine blend, both of which were earthy and jammy and all those good things Washington wines are meant to be). The $30 Merlot was also very good.

The wrap-around porch at Columbia Winery in Woodinville
Photo by Meg McKenzie
However, similar to the feeling you have when departing Space Mountain through the Space Mountain gift shop, I was itching to get onto the next ride, so I took my leave and hightailed it across the street to Columbia. It was equally huge and grand, though a little less French chateau and a little more Southfork Ranch. Outside, a cute chef was cooking crostini at a 600-degree oven, and I stopped and chatted with Joshua, who is getting his degree in sustainable practices and was really nice and friendly. Inside, the tasting room was smaller, but equally as gift-laden as Ste. Michelle. And there at the bar was the California couple! Arrgh!

I went back outside and asked a passing workman what the enormous building next-door was that I could see through the trees. He told me it was the Red Hook brewery which served great food. It being lunchtime, I decided to postpone my Columbia experience and go have brats and beer at Red Hook. Which I did, and it was cheap and delicious. (Word to the wise: the restaurant is way in the back of the brewery by the delivery docks, so don't park in the front and walk a mile through the cold like I did.)

The restaurant at Red Hook - yum!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Returning later to Columbia, after warming myself at their crackling fireplace, I was greeted warmly at the bar, given an industry discount for my bloggery and treated to an assortment of their wines. They were apparently having a case sale for the wine club, because right next to me was a crowd of members who were getting the full treatment from the other bar man -- "This one is going to literally talk to you!" he advised them. "When I come back, I'll find out what it said!"

I tried Columbia's 2009 Viognier, which was almost overpowering in its floral/orange blossom goodness ($26 retail), its 2010 Rose of Syrah (again, a big floral nose of roses and strawberries, $20) and the 2009 Sangiovese, which had the cherry thing going on ($30). They didn't speak to me (in English, anyway) but all smelled and tasted very good.
Columbia Winery display ... there's that California couple!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
So which was the best in Woodinville? Neither of these behemoths, I have to say. They were both very good, but a little lacking in that intimate winery feel I crave. You'll have to wait till my next posting to find out -- coming to the blog soon, I promise!

Chateau Ste. Michelle
14111 NE 145th, Woodinville, WA 98072
(425) 415-3300,
Head winemaker: Bob Bertheau

☻☻☻ Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has all the bells and whistles, including a bit of a snobby attitude, which I guess some wine geeks crave, but not me. It's a lovely destination during the holidays -- all it needed was a dusting of snow to look postcard perfect. They offer a four-grape experience except for that $10 tasting fee -- ouch!!! I guess the pained grimace as I pulled out my ten-spot disqualified me from being asked to join their Vintage Reserve Club!

"The wine will talk to you!" 
Columbia Winery, Woodinville
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Columbia Winery
14030 NE 145th St, Woodinville, WA 98072
(425) 488-2776,
Winemaker: Kerry Norton

 ☻☻☻ Columbia Winery was founded in 1962 and touts itself as Washington's first PREMIUM winery. Not sure what that means, but they welcomed me with an industry discount, which means they'll probably cut a nice deal for most people on bottles and cases of their premium wines. Their tasting room with its wide wooden porch and crackling fire reminded me of a fancy ski chalet. Nice!

Note: My ratings are based one grape for poor and five for excellent and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Walla Walla Bing Bang! Part I

School is now in session (wine school, that is!)
Photo by Meg McKenzie
"I told the witch doctor I was in love with you ... And he said oo ee oo ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang ..." 

So goes the old Doctor Demento song, and so it goes in the wine town of Walla Walla, Wash., which I am in love with, because what other place are there 170 wineries vying for your attention? You heard me right, folks: One-seven-oh. They're down for the count in W-W. Which, incidentally, reminded me a lot of D-W in Orlando, Epcot to be exact. Note to the Walla Walla Vally Wine Alliance: Get a monorail to woosh us along Route 12. It would save a lot of time getting from one amazing wine temple to the next.

Belly up to the bar at L'Ecole
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But I digress. Back in October, I took a little sojourn to the Oregon Coast (where I did make a pitstop in Willamette Valley -- I'll save Pinot World for another posting), but planned an extra day to detour to W-W on my back to Boise. Unfortunately, most of the day was eaten up on I-84 getting from Point A (Cannon Beach) to Point B (the wineries of Walla Walla), so I didn't arrive till about 3 p.m. Which gave me exactly two-and-a-half hours to sample all the wine I could and still stay on the right side of the road. So without even pausing to check in to my room at the Holiday Inn Express, I hit the ground running on my way into town -- and luckily, I was armed with a map. Unfortunately, I had to make it home to my Real Job the next day, so the East Side and South Side tasting rooms will have to wait for another time.

Study your wine before recess
Photo by Meg McKenzie
As it happens so often, however, my first stop was my best stop. Not to say that I'd have missed trying the other wines I sampled after L'Ecole No. 41's wide array of unbelievable vintages in their oh-so-charming converted schoolhouse (which was so picture perfect, it really did resemble something from Epcot) but there you have it: L'Ecole est fantastique.

Not only were the 15 wines-- especially the "white label" ones made from Seven Hills Vineyard grapes -- super scrumptious, but the atmosphere in the second-floor tasting room was convivial yet respectful. I met a charming couple from Seattle who helped guide me through the long list of wines, which range in price from the $49 2008 Estate Perigee -- an intricate blend of the usual suspects: Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Malbec that will make you swoon -- to the $13 2009 Semillon from Columbia Valley. 

L'Ecole No. 41
41 Lowden School Road
P.O. Box 111
Lowden, WA 99360
Phone (509) 525-0940
Owners: Megan and Martin Clubb
Winemakers: Martin Clubb and Mike Sharon


Easy off, easy on the busy Highway 12 (watch out for those speeding cement trucks - yowch!), A lovely, old-fashioned, impeccably redone tasting room with a long bar and seemingly endless varieties of luscious wines. $5 tasting fee. Knowledgeable pourers. Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas). Everything a tasting room should be in this most perfect of wine worlds.

The old farmhouse by the side of Route 12 is really a winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
A little way west of The School of Wine is the more modest Woodward Canyon Winery. Located in an old farmhouse that reminded me of the one that landed on the witch in "The Wizard of Oz," this winery reeks of "the real deal" -- a started-from-the-ground-up, 20-year-old business that earns your respect with their small-batch Merlots, Cabernets, Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. Young pourer Eric was a little taciturn at first, but I warmed him up with my non-stop banter, and he was soon suggesting a restaurant for dinner -- the White House Crawford, which I did go to; more on that later. Their current releases range from the $79 2008 "Old Vines" Cabernet (yummy) to the $20 2008 Nelms Road Merlot (ditto).

Welcome to Woodward Canyon Winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Woodward Canyon Winery
11920 W. Highway 12
Lowden, Wash. 99360
(509) 525.4129

Owners: Rick Small and Darcy Fugman-Small
Winemaker: Kevin Mott

It's the first tasting room you come to after Umatilla, a slightly fusty low-key farmhouse with some seriously good wines sourced from estate and Washington grapes. $5 tasting fee. Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas). 

Next post: I venture along Old Highway 12 to some ornate, new-fangled wineries. (Thar's money in them-thar hills...)
Ratings go from one grape (poor) to five (excellent) and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wine.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A visit to Hell's Canyon Winery

Jocelyn at Swallow's Wine Bar at Hell's Canyon Winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
There aren't many signs to get to Hell's Canyon, up on top of the hill overlooking Ste. Chapelle, Williamson and most of the other vineyards in Canyon County, Idaho. You either have to have a map or know where you're going. So for this reason my visits to this intriguing winery came pretty late in the summer. Intersperse a road trip to Oregon and Walla Walla, the Idaho Wine Competition, and other distractions, and you'll get why my review is coming so late in the season. But better late than never.

The best way to get to Hell's Canyon is to go left on Chicken Dinner Road off Route 55 going toward Marsing. You'll pass apricot and peach trees, and various and sundry farms and failed housing developments. Finally, you'll come to Symms Road. Take a left, go half a mile, and there's the cute little sign (and cute little winery) overlooking a lovely display of grapevines.

The patio at Swallow's Wine Bar
Photo by Meg McKenzie
One thing you'll notice as you enter Hell's Canyon -- I mean, Swallows Wine Bar -- is that this vineyard tasting room isn't the usual tasting room, where you pay a $5 tasting fee -- or hopefully, nothing -- to sample an array of their best wines. No, here it's more like having a prix-fixe dinner at a fancy restaurant. They have a menu of wines they're pouring that day, a set price, and what they pour is what you get. The flight is served, I'll hasten to say, on a cute tray with coasters that give the provenance and tasting highlights of each wine, just in case you need help discerning the top notes. They also have a menu of some wonderful munchies that go great with each wine -- bread, pesto, cheeses, olives, etc. Although the wine bar itself is tiny, the patio is the draw here: in summer, the six tables on the terrace under the shady trees and overlooking the peaceful vineyard is a pretty sweet place to set a spell. And though I've only been during the afternoon, I would imagine the sunsets there are magnificent.

 A display inside the wine bar
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But let me backtrack a little and tell you something about the owners of Hell's Canyon/Zhoo Zhoo/Swallows. The Robertson clan are among the founders of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, Steve Robertson having staked his claim to some perfect grape-growing terroir back in the 1970s. Now, his daughters have joined in the family business, thus explaining the separate brands. Daughter Bijou went out on her own and created the Zhoo Zhoo brand, with its colorful, artistic and rather risque labels. Other daughters Jocelyn and Hadley man the winebar and help out in other ways, no doubt. It's a small outfit, only 2,500 cases a year, but you can find their wines at Fred Meyer, the Boise Co-op, A New Vintage Wine Shop and Ericksons. Their most popular? Retriever Red and Bird Dog White. They recently won three bronzes at the Idaho Wine Competition.

The menu at Swallow's Wine Bar
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Inside the bar/shop is a counter where one of the girls takes your order. You then wait outside for your drinks/eats to arrive. The day I went, back in August, I chose the red flight, and only got to taste the Zhoo Zhoo (three small pours for $7). The middle one was just called Brunette -- 56 percent Merlot, 24 percent Cab Franc and 20 percent Cab Sauvignon. At $10 a bottle it’s the cheapest. My favorite was the first wine I tasted, the $19-a-bottle ’03 Claret, which was 70 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cab Sauv and 10 percent Cab Franc. The final wine was a ’06 Syrah. After a while, though, from going back and forth between the three, I found I was creating my own blend (good thing I took notes!). I didn't feel like ordering an entire plate of munchies, but luckily I got to chatting with a friendly couple from Kuna at the next table. Chris and Diann generously shared tastes of their crackers and chorizo ($7) and pesto and French bread (also $7) with me -- both were really, really good and complemented the red wine nicely.

Hell's Canyon Winery/Zhoo Zhoo Wines
18835 Symms Road
Caldwell, ID 83607
(208) 454-3300;,

Winemakers: The Robertson Family

 ☻☻☻ - Hell's Canyon/Swallows has a charming setting overlooking 40 acres of wine grapes, and the Robertson clan are friendly and sweet. Not a conventional tasting room, but a wine bar with a prix-fixe pouring menu, so I never got to taste the Hell's Canyon label, only the Zhoo Zhoo on the day I visited (and I didn't get to mix and match the reds and the whites). Signage to find the winery doesn't come into play until you're almost on top of the winery, but the wine commission map should aid you in your quest. The appetizers ($5-$7) I tasted were delicious.

My ratings go from one grape (poor) to five (excellent) and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.