"It's difficult to soar with eagles when you walk with turkeys."--Jack Rollins
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Good Things Come to Those Who Waitsburg
Waitsburg Cellars Wines I’m Using to Write About Me
Waitsburg Cellars 2012 Pinot Gris Old Vines Columbia Valley $15
Waitsburg Cellars 2012 “Cheninierès” Old Vine Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley $17
Waitsburg Cellars 2012 “Chevray” Old Vine Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley $17
Waitsburg Cellars 2012 Riesling Old Vine Columbia Valley $15
Waitsburg Cellars 2011 “Three” Merlot Malbec Mourvèdre Columbia Valley $25
I think most wine bloggers would agree that the one genuinely satisfying aspect of self-publishing on the Internet is the people you meet as a result. It has been the least expected, and best, consequence of HoseMaster of Wine™. Had I never begun this pointless and self-absorbed wine blog, I never would have met the likes of Eric Asimov, Charlie Olken, Dan Berger, Jon Bonné, Lettie Teague, Robert Joseph, Alfonso Cevola, Tom Wark, Thomas Pellechia, Steve Heimoff, and, of course, My Gorgeous Samantha. I’ve also been lucky enough to have received kind words and encouragement from many other distinguished wine writers, all of whom are more talented and more influential than I could ever be. Tim Atkin MW, Robert Parker, Mike Steinberger, Mike Dunne, Chris Kassel, Becky Wasserman… It’s incredibly humbling when all I really do is write jokes. And badly, at that. Every time I think of quitting, I remember all of those kind words from people with far more talent than I, and I press on. I am indebted to all of you.
And I haven’t mentioned Paul Gregutt. Paul has been hanging around this blog for a long time, commenting regularly, and supporting my kind of wine writing. The first time he commented I didn’t really know who he was. It’s been a long time since I read any wine publications regularly. There’s a point where one moves on from the likes of Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. I was tasting so much wine on my own as a sommelier, I didn’t need their reviews for personal use, and, believe me, every wine salesperson alive makes sure you know scores if those scores are advantageous. Though I quickly trained the wine salespeople who called on me not to show me scores. I found it insulting. I’m tasting the wine, I’m qualified to judge its quality and provenance, I know my clientele and my wine list, why do I care what number a critic gave the wine? I just tasted it and the salesperson says, “And Parker gave it 93.” I’d usually say, right after I spit it out, “Wow, he was close.”
Paul Gregutt has launched his own label, Waitsburg Cellars. Many of you will have already heard about it, primarily because of the chest-beating of media gorillas and the braying of wine bloggers, and other folks with nothing better to do, that accompanied its announcement. The wine blogosphere is notorious for its rampant stupidity, and deservedly so, but the notion that it’s some sort of nefarious conflict of interest for Paul to make his own wines while continuing to rate others marks a new low in the intellectual cesspool that is the Internet. The conflict of interest points being made, mind you, by high-minded, ethically sound “journalists” just back from their junket to Greece, on their way to Uruguay, busy writing fabulous puff pieces about the wines of those countries, but taking time out from their hectic schedules to enlighten us about journalistic standards and unethical behaviors. But if you don’t believe those enlightened bloggers, you can certainly trust Hurricane Harvey Steiman, the Category Five blowhard, who makes a nice living off the coattails of that paragon of journalistic integrity, Wine Spectator. Harvey, in a lovely bit of collegial support for a fellow wine critic, took a nice potshot at Paul on NPR. And the Seattle Times shitcanned Paul as its wine columnist as well. All because he wanted to make some old vines Chenin Blanc. As wonderful as the wine business is, and it is filled with amazing and generous and talented people, it still has its share of self-righteous shitheads.
Did I just hear my name?
I’m a fan of Paul’s wine reviews and blog. It’s because of Paul that I “discovered” Gramercy Cellars, Ellanelle, Soos Creek, and Maison Bleue, among others. If those names aren’t familiar to you and you love wine, they should be. A couple of weeks ago I opened a bottle of Maison Bleue 2010 Grenache “Le Midi” Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley, and it was the best bottle of Grenache I’ve had in a very long time, and all of $35 (last I looked, it was still available—really, I mean it, buy some!). It was the sort of aromatic, subtle, restrained, yet powerful Grenache I dream about, a wine rich in red fruit, seasoned with a bit of white pepper, that keeps getting better and more interesting with every sip. I only bought it because I read a rave about the winery on Paul’s blog. If he weren’t making his own wines, I’m sure he would have rated the winery even higher.
But let’s talk about Waitsburg Cellars. Paul was kind enough to send me samples of the first five wines bottled under his new label, four of them white. I take it as flattery that he wanted me to taste them. I’m not aware of ever having tasted a wine from a winery owned by a major wine critic, unless you count the Oregon wines of Beaux Freres, Robert Parker’s winery he owns along with his brother-in-law. I’ve never been a fan of Beaux Freres, the wines are a bit juiced for my palate, as if Jose Canseco had married Mark McGwire’s sister and given birth to Sammy Sosa. Would tasting Waitsburg Cellars wines be an enlightening insight into Paul’s palate preferences? I don’t think so. One wouldn’t want to infer much about Roger Ebert’s film criticisms based on his famous screenplay for Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of The Dolls,” a classic of Titty Flicks. This was a film that had more breast meat than a Butterball factory in November.
As an aside, Russ Meyer, when he was quite elderly and giving way to Alzheimer’s Disease, occasionally dined at Pacific Dining Car, often with Kitten Natividad, a legendary stripper and adult film star. Mr. Meyer, at that point, weighed less than one of Kitten’s surgically enhanced gazongas. After a while, I noticed that if you watched Kitten’s nipples swaying back and forth as she walked, you could trace the rotation of the Earth. Sometimes I miss the restaurant business.
And speaking of pairs (oh, I love a good segue), two of the wines from Waitsburg Cellars are Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc seems to be making a comeback, and I’m much in favor of that. There was a time, back in the 1970’s, when just about every wine list in California included Charles Krug Chenin Blanc. It was enormously popular, and enormously sweet, and everyone assumed that was what Chenin Blanc tasted like. The only serious Chenin Blancs I’m aware of from California in those days were made at Chalone and Chappellet. I loved the Chalone Chenin Blancs in the heyday of Chalone. They were dry, minerally, and powerfully fragrant, like an apple orchard, and they foreshadowed, for me, the great wines of the Loire Valley that are Chenin Blanc--Vouvray and Savennières. Not that long ago, the only dry Chenins from France worth a nickel were made in Savennières. Now there are lots of them being produced, not just Savennières, but also Montluis and Vouvray. These are easy wines to be smitten with.
The Waitsburg Cellars 2012 “Cheninières” is a nod to Savennières. I’m not in love with the cutesy name, but I’ll defer to Paul’s marketing savvy. (I’ll Chenin de-fer, or he might railroad me out of town.) As I sipped on it, I was reminded of a Savennières producer I’m very fond of, Chateau d’Epiré. The Waitsburg does a nice job of capturing the pretty apple blossom and mineral scent of Chenin Blanc in its driest versions. Unencumbered by any oak, the clean, springtime aromas of the grape have the chance to shine, and those aromas are quite beguiling. It’s appropriately crisp, especially at this early stage of its life, and that gorgeous acidity makes it foolishly good with rich seafood. In hindsight, I’d shuck a few million fresh oysters and use this to wash them down. (Every time I think of those luscious bivalves I recall George Burns describing sex when he was 90 years old, “It’s like trying to put an oyster in a slot machine.” Just a great line.) It had more complexity than a lot of domestic Chenin Blancs out there that I’ve tasted, perhaps a consequence of the age of the vines. It is a lot of wine, a lot of pleasure, a lot of refreshment and ephemeral beauty for seventeen bucks, my friends. And I’d bet that in about six months it will really be gangbusters.
I wish I were as crazy about the Waitsburg Cellars 2012 “Chevray.” It’s not the wine’s fault. I’ve just never been crazy about Chenin Blanc that is sweet—probably just bad memories of Charles Krug hangovers. From an objective point of view, this wine is quite successful. In a lineup of Vouvray Demi-Sec (it just occurred to me that Ashton Kutcher is probably really missing Demi-Secs right about now), it would certainly do just fine. The nose was obviously about ripeness, ripe peaches and pears to me, with a dollop of sweet cream (not ML, a truer cream character). Very appealing, honestly. But you need to pair it carefully with food or it will disappoint. I didn’t. It’s quite sweet, and very bold on the palate, a remarkable contrast to the “Cheninières,” and it’s never cloying, which would be the trap. Yet it doesn’t carry itself with the verve I like, and though I’m not familiar with the chemistry of great Vouvray Demi-Sec, I recall them as having better acidity to carry the sweetness. Again, it’s all of seventeen bucks, and if you have friends or family who like sweetness in their wines, this beauty is a certain winner. It most certainly exhibits Chenin Blanc’s ability to carry some sweetness and not be horrid, unlike, say Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay (I’m talking to you, Rombauer).
The Waitsburg Cellars 2012 Riesling is just gorgeous! Buy this. Really. It’s a lousy fifteen bucks, and if I were running the wine program at Slanted Door, the great Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, I’d buy every case I could and sell it by-the-glass. There are wines that are pitch perfect, and this is pitch perfect Washington State Riesling. Hell, it’s pitch perfect Riesling. Everyone knows that Riesling is the least appreciated of the genuinely noble grapes of the world, rivaling even Syrah for being unfairly neglected by consumers. This, however, works in our favor. I loved this wine from the first moment we met, which explains why I removed my pants after finishing the first glass. That may have influenced the corkage fee, but no matter. The Waitsburg Riesling has that dynamic mix of luscious and ample fruit, apricot, pear, sweet lemon and honey, and the kind of tension that comes from a dash of residual sugar harmonizing with wondrous acidity (yeah, wondrous—when you think about it, isn’t wine acidity wondrous?). Damn, where’s my claypot catfish? I dare you not to like this wine. Washington is beginning to make a name for itself with Riesling, think Eroica, on anyone’s list of the world’s best Rieslings, and now think this Waitsburg version. This wine sings on your palate. So many wines just hum.
The Waitsburg Cellars 2012 Pinot Gris was the first sample I tasted. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of Pinot Gris. It’s my least favorite member of the large Pinot family (Noir, Blanc, Meunier, Gris, Tinteurrier)—think Tito Jackson. A color variation of Pinot Noir, it seems to have a tendency to flabbiness—think Tito Jackson. And, at times, it can be flat—yeah, think Tito Jackson. So I bring a lot of prejudice to the glass when I taste Pinot Gris. (I’m ignoring the insipid versions of Italian Pinot Grigio that are ubiquitous—that’s not wine, it’s battery acid for cougars.) OK, all of that out of the way, I liked the Waitsburg Pinot Gris. It does, in fact, lean a bit to flabby, but that seems to be the nature of the grape, at least to my taste. It might also be a result of the high August temperatures in 2012. The aroma reminded me of an Alsace version of the grape, a lot of ripe peach and pear notes, a whisper of residual sugar, and a depth of aromatics that made me think it had spent most of its time on its lees. I liked the texture, that same sort of oily richness one gets in good Alsace wines, and I liked the liveliness of the fruit, but the finish felt unsatisfying, more narrow than I’d expected. And yet, in a tribute to its quality, when I tasted it on the third day, it was surprisingly delicious. And then when I looked at its fifteen dollar price tag, well, it’s worth every cent of that. Sometimes we simply overanalyze this crap and forget that wine that delivers a lot of pleasure for a reasonable price is what we all crave on a day-to-day basis. We just like to hear ourselves talk.
Finally, there’s the red, the Waitsburg Cellars 2011 “Three.” Risky name, Paul. I mean, who liked Star Trek 3, or Die Hard 3, or DUI 3? The “Three” are Merlot, Malbec and Mourvèdre, with Merlot making up 64% of the blend. I liked this wine. It vibrates with life. I kept wondering what I might have guessed it was if I had tasted it blind. I’m not sure. I think I might have guessed it was red wine from Northeastern Italy, something from the Alto Adige perhaps. At first, it’s very lean, but when you taste it you realize it has a long way to go before it opens up. There’s a green tea and cherry character that made me think of Merlot from a cool climate, but as it opened up I thought the Mourvèdre began to show itself with notes of mushroom and blueberry. If you’re looking for oaky, extracted, ripe, powerhouse red from Washington, look elsewhere. The “Three” is nuanced and very pretty, with impeccable balance between the freshness and depth of the fruit, and not like any other wine I can recall tasting from Washington, or California, for that matter. It would seem to have a long life ahead of it, judging from the balance and intensity, and, for $25, it over-delivers.
All of these Waitsburg Cellars wines are produced in small quantities—the “Three” is the largest at 297 cases. The prices are more than fair. The “Cheninières” could easily be the summer quaffer you need, and the sexy 2012 Riesling you need to put in your mouth. Don't forget the "Three," a wine for lovers of red wines with nuance and style, not power and oak. It's unforgettable, and it will be interesting to see what following vintages will bring. Paul Gregutt is off to an interesting start here—not a boring wine in the bunch. And I always say that the cardinal sin in wine is to be boring. Same in wine writing. So, yeah, I’m going to Hell. I’ll meet you at the bar there and we can share some Prosecco…
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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