Check out our state's 'A' lists: 12 cheap treats and a dozen bargain bubblies
In recent years, this annual case studies roundup has included an ever-changing variety of lists; some all-Washington, some global, some offering wines that are exceptional values, a few focused on rare and expensive cult wines — the sort of wines that wine writers call "brooding and hedonistic." So, what's in store for 2007?
To begin, there is a case list of winery clubs, rather than individual wines. It's the "teach a person to fish" philosophy applied to the wine industry. Here are 12 outstanding Washington winery clubs to join right now, before their enrollment closes. This ensures that you will receive rare wines from some of the state's best producers for as long as you wish.
List No. 2 this year is a ruthlessly qualified case of the best 12 bargain wines I could find. The criteria for inclusion are strict and unforgiving:
• The wine must retail for under $8 (less is better).
• It must be clearly superior not only to its peers but to many wines of its type that are selling for more.
• It must be widely available.
• It must taste really, really good.
This is far and away the toughest list to fill. Finding really good, flavorful wines priced under $8 means wading through countless generic and — let's face it — boring wines. Many have clever names and pretty labels, or feature someone's truck or kangaroo. Some benefit worthy causes, and some are just trying to be provocative, with names that can't be printed in a family newspaper.
They don't cut it. The wines on this list may not have a gimmick. But they won't bore you. If they are varietal, they taste like the grape named. If they are blends, they are seamless, sensuous and successful at creating a complete, full-flavored wine. Six whites and six reds, all standouts.
List No. 3 is the most fun of all. I've named it "Bubbly That Won't Break The Bank." It's my favorite dozen fizzies guaranteed to add zest to any table and any occasion. Champagnes we'll do another day; this group of sparkling wines is friendly, unpretentious and just plain fun. Oh, and did I mention affordable? Nothing over $15 here.
Go get 'em!
12 JOIN-NOW! WINERY CLUBS
There was a time, not long ago, when the mailing lists for Washington's best-known cult wineries were wide open. These days you will have to wait years if you want the opportunity to purchase Cayuse, Leonetti or Quilceda Creek (to name a few) directly from the winery.
But the cult wines of tomorrow are already being made, and you can buy them if you are on the right mailing lists. Beyond that, more and more winemakers are offering limited bottlings of rare varietals and special blends to members of their wine clubs. Apart from giving you the chance to buy hard-to-obtain wines, these clubs put on special events and tastings for members, offer discounts on tasting-room purchases and sometimes let members help with the winemaking.
I've scoured the state and found an even dozen that are open (as of early October) and offering rare, one-of-a-kind releases to their members:
1. Alexandria Nicole Cellars
Regular wine club members may buy exclusive bottlings of malbec, petit verdot, tempranillo, reserve viognier, ice wine syrah and more. Case discounts of 25 percent are offered, along with access to private parties, use of the members room in Prosser, vineyard tours and special tastings at the newly opened Woodinville tasting room. Owner/winemaker Jarrod Boyle is also launching a special club, called "The Ridge," with the goal of educating its members on all aspects of vineyard growing and winemaking practices, leading to the production of 10 cases of wine that each person will grow, vinify and take home. For more, check out the Web site or phone Boyle at 509-832-3497.
2. Andrew Will
This Vashon Island-based winery is open just once a year and only to mailing-list subscribers. Apart from early access to regular releases, the club offers members exclusive access to special bottlings such as the "Syrah Box," three vintages (2003, 2004 and 2005) of Andrew Will 'Annie Camarda' Syrah. Some older wines from owner/winemaker Chris Camarda's personal cellar are occasionally offered to mailing-list customers for prices close to original retail. Camarda is planning to add some unique wines that will be sold only to mailing-list members. Call 206-463-9227 for more information.
3. Betz Family
As I was preparing this list, Bob Betz assured me that his list is still open. However, Sunset magazine recently named him American Winemaker of the Year, and that, along with rave reviews in a highly influential wine newsletter, may have tightened it up by the time this reaches print. Begging and pleading is always worth a try! Mailing-list customers get first shot at all the Betz Family wines, and are the only people who can purchase wines such as the 2005 Syrah Chapitre 3 (just four barrels produced). They are invited to the twice-annual release weekends, the only time the winery is open to the public. The owners request that you sign up using the form on the Web site.
4. Bunnell Family Cellar
This new Prosser winery makes a fine lineup of single-vineyard syrahs, and will soon begin offering very limited bottlings of other single-vineyard Rhone varietals such as mourvèdre to mailing-list customers. The 2005 Rosa Bergé Gewürztraminer and the 2004 Boushey-McPherson Syrah are being held in the library for future mailing-list release. The winery also offers mailing-list customers a 15 percent discount on all its wines. To enroll, phone 509-973-4187 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.
One of my favorite Walla Walla boutiques, Buty is introducing a new program this fall called Friends of the Beast. Owners Caleb and Nina Buty Foster call the Beast their "alter-ego wine." It is not sold to the trade, and every year it is made with new varietals (such as cinsault and malbec) from different vineyards. Friends of the Beast members will have priority access and offerings of Buty and Beast wines, including the new Champoux Vineyard red blend, the sixth wine in the Buty lineup, which will be sold only at the winery. They will also be invited to exclusive Beast and Buty winemaker dinners and pourings. To enroll, call Buty at 509-527-0901, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, including your postal and e-mail addresses.
Cadence is one of the South Seattle Artisan Wineries, along with Fall Line, Nota Bene and O• S, and often the four sponsor joint events at the tasting rooms. The Cadence mailing list remains open, and apart from receiving a newsletter and invitations to twice-annual open houses, members are offered the chance to purchase one or two very limited barrel selections. Recent examples are the 2004 Camerata, 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from the Tapteil vineyard on Red Mountain, and the 2005 Camerata, 100 percent petit verdot from Ciel du Cheval. "More stuff is in the works," writes owner/winemaker Ben Smith. Sign on at the Web site, send e-mail (email@example.com) or call 206-381-9507.
7. J. Bookwalter
At J. Bookwalter, the wine club (called "The Book Club") offers members a chance to buy library wines and limited new releases, such as Chapter Two, the once-every-few-years meritage red. Also in the pipeline is a Klipsun/Ciel Red Mountain blend and single-vineyard blends from such growers as Conner-Lee. Other benefits include discounts on food and merchandise, special invites to weekly wine tastings and several different release parties. Sign up online or phone 509-627-5000, or toll free at 877-667-8300. The Velvet Rope club is a limited-membership upgrade available to members of the Book Club.
8. Sleight of Hand Cellars/One Louder
Sleight of Hand Cellars is the new label for winemaker Trey Busch, formerly at Basel Cellars. The Walla Walla tasting room is decorated with reproductions of magic posters from a century ago, and the wines bear names such as the Spellbinder and the Magician. Join the wine club, called the Wine Illusionist Society (509-525-3661), and you will be first in line for small-production wines such as the Levitation Syrah (coming next spring) and the Illusionist, a cabernet franc. Be sure to inquire about the mailing list for the One Louder Wine Company, a joint project between Trey Busch and Mark Ryan McNeilly (of Mark Ryan Winery). One Louder will make just two wines: Rope-A-Dope Syrah and Rockford Cabernet Sauvignon. The winemakers will host an annual throwdown party in Seattle featuring live bands, limited-edition silk-screen posters and other surprises.
Syncline's wine club ships its members club-exclusive wines such as a 100 percent varietal grenache and 100 percent varietal cinsault (just 50 cases made). Other Syncline wines in (relatively) wide release are offered to club members first. The annual members-only club party, hosted by owners James and Poppie Mantone at their stunning winery overlooking the Columbia Gorge, features live music and a retrospective tasting and dinner with rare wines from the library. In 2008, the wines poured will include a new Celilo Vineyard blanc de blanc sparkling wine. Sign up on the Web site, or phone 509-365-4361.
10. Three Rivers
Wine-club members receive five shipments of wine each year, with two different wines in each shipment. They are the first to receive limited-edition and winery-only wines such as the Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Champoux Vineyard Merlot and Columbia Valley Malbec. Three Rivers will release several new wines in 2008, including a Minnick Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Cabernet and a Columbia Valley Tempranillo. Other club benefits include a Three Rivers Winery lithograph signed by winemaker Holly Turner and an invitation to the Three Rivers Wine Club member celebration week in September. Call 509-526-9463 or sign up online.
11. Va Piano
Va Piano's Estate Club offers members exclusive access to small lots of estate-grown wines. These wines will not be sold in the tasting room, to restaurants or through regular distribution channels. The initial release (last month) was a 2005 Estate Syrah. Next up will be the 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in May of 2008. Other benefits include free tastings for members and guests during event weekends, 15 percent off all additional current releases and the chance to buy library wines. For details contact the winery at 509-529-0900 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
12. Woodward Canyon
The Woodward Canyon estate vineyard, set on a spectacular hilltop north of the winery, is surely one of Walla Walla's most difficult sites. The vines struggle mightily, but the reward is wines that are tightly wound, beautifully detailed and distinctly different. Rick and Darcey Small make limited amounts of unusual grapes such as barbera and dolcetto. Woodward Canyon's e-list customers receive first notice of these limited-edition wines, including the Woodward Canyon Sauvignon Blanc and the rarely released Special Selection red. Sign up online or phone 509-525-4129.
REALLY GOOD WINES FOR UNDER $8
Distributors are listed in parentheses (your wine shop can order the wines for you). Actual retail prices may vary slightly.
Columbia Crest 2006 'Two Vines' Riesling; $7. Parent company Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is the country's leading producer of riesling, and the Two Vines bottling is its best buy. Done in an off-dry style, it is bursting with sweet and crisp flavors of green apple, melon and peach, finished with a dollop of honey and orange liqueur. (Young's-Columbia)
Crow Canyon 2005 Chardonnay; $6. I think more chardonnays are in the cheap seats than any other varietal, so I've slogged through quite a few to find the leader of the pack. This California bottling has plump, juicy fruit and some sweet caramel in the finish; it's quite substantial for the price. (Cordon)
Domaine de Pajot 'Les Quatre Cepages' White; $7. This crisp white wine, from organically farmed grapes, is designated a Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne. In other words, country wine, from the French southwest; the sort of wine you would drink chilled from a carafe while gazing across a café table into the eyes of your true love. Then you get home and write the wine guy "where can I find that charming little etc." OK, here it is! Light herb, citrus and a hint of stone. (Grape Expectations)
Viu Manent 2006 Sauvignon Blanc; $6. From Chile's Colchagua Valley come many fine sauvignon blancs, but few as cheap as this. Bone dry and grassy, it's not for those who like their sauv blancs to taste more like chardonnay. But it is clean as a whistle, with lovely dried grass and herb qualities that linger through the finish. (Grape Expectations)
Oak Grove 2006 Viognier; $7. I don't believe a decently made viognier has ever hit this price point, but this California offering shows genuine varietal character and enough concentration to warrant some attention. Scents of lemon oil, sweet nut skin and citrus follow through in the mouth. There's a little bit of heat to it, but overall it's nicely balanced. The 'Reserve' designation seems superfluous. (Unique)
Hogue 2006 Pinot Grigio; $7. Pinot gris (or grigio) is relatively new in Washington. Generally you need to spend twice this much to get interesting flavors, and there are PG's from Italy that cost $15 and more and taste like water with lemon juice added. This widely available Columbia Valley bottling is fresh and crisp, with some nice citrus skin flavors under green apple fruit. (Young's-Columbia)
Domaines Astruc 2005 'dA' Malbec; $8. Even as the dollar hits new lows against the Euro, the budget wines from southern France keep delivering amazing values. This malbec (called cot on its home turf) is from the Languedoc, and it's real wine, not doctored up. By that I mean it's got substance, depth and plenty of tannin; you'll be doing some chewing here. Dark fruits, spice and smoke add to the flavor parade. (Grape Expectations)
La Vieille Ferme 2005 Rouge; $8. Another gem from southern France, this Côtes de Ventoux blend of grenache, syrah, carignan and cinsault is a mini-Chateauneuf-du-Pape at a fifth of the price. Very ripe, raisiny fruit contributes to a rather leafy, port-like character, but you're not going to cellar this, you're going to drink it, right? Probably the same day you buy it. And it's good to go. (Noble)
Castaño 2006 'C' Monastrell; $8. In the Yecla wine zone of southeast Spain, the monastrell grape comprises 85 percent of the total plantings. Most goes into rustic co-op wines, but Bodegas Castaño is widely recognized as the regional leader. This exceptional effort is bursting with sappy black fruits and a mélange of mint, spice, forest floor and truffle notes. (A&B)
Bulletin Place 2005 Shiraz; $7. This is a score — moderately big Aussie shiraz with those concentrated, sweet flavors of bright raspberry syrup. It's got enough acid to hold off the sugar, and sends up whiffs of tobacco, vanilla and smoke as it drifts into a satisfying finish. (A&B)
Lindemans 2006 Bin 50 Shiraz; $7. Lindemans just keeps knocking it out of the park with their Bin 65 chardonnay and this Bin 50 shiraz. OK, you might think, bin there, done that. But when it's good, it's good, and consistency should not be penalized. This is clean, sharp, tight and tart, with a candy-bowl mix of red fruits and zippy acid. (Noble)
Primaterra 2005 Primitivo; $8. Primaterra is a line-priced (all $8) group of five wines from Italy, all decent values, including a pinot grigio, a chardonnay, a sangiovese and a syrah. The primitivo is the best of them. From Puglia in the south, it tastes of bourbon-soaked plums, spicy raisins, baking chocolate, espresso and smoke. (Unique)
BUBBLY THAT WON'T BREAK THE BANK
Good bubbly need not be expensive, as these excellent sparklers from around the world can testify. I've kept them under $15, but prices are often lower during the holidays. In general, the best values are Italy's proseccos and sparkling wines from Alsace and the Loire. If your tastes run to bone-dry, austere wines, the Spanish cavas are right for you.
Delmas 2004 Blanquette de Limoux; $10. This organically grown French sparkler is vintage-dated and priced right for parties. (Grape Expectations)
Henkell Trocken; $10. German sparkling wines marked "trocken" can be brutally dry, but given the right setting — cured meats, hard cheese — they are just about perfect. Here's a good one to try. (Odom)
Tizzano Pignoletto Frizzante; $11. This non-vintage Italian sparkling wine is quite dry and finished at a lower pressure than spumante. Lightly nutty, crisp and yeasty, it's tasty enough to drink as an aperitif, but cheap enough to mix with whatever you like. (Elliott Bay)
Mont-Marçal Cava Brut Reserva 2003; $12. This estate-bottled, super-dry Spanish sparkler is aged up to two years on the yeast. It's perfect for salty appetizers. (Noble)
Saint-Hilaire 2003 Brut; $12. A full-bodied and ripe French sparkler with fruit flavors of green apple, citrus and candied fruits. (Young's Columbia)
Bouvet "Signature" Brut; $13. Yeasty flavors of peach, apple and lemon oil are the signature of this perennial winner from France. (Young's Columbia)
Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace Brut Blanc de Blancs; $14. This is made from 100 percent pinot blanc, and carries exotic flavors of clove, ginger and orange spice. Tremendous quality for the price. (Unique)
Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace Brut Rosé; $14. This elegant, pale copper French wine carries light scents of rose petals, cherries and hints of herb. (Unique)
Louis Bouillot Blanc de Blancs; $14. Bouillot makes an interesting lineup of sparkling wines from Burgundy; as this is being written, the blanc de blancs have been heavily discounted and are a terrific value. (Odom)
Monmousseau Crémant de Loire Brut; $14. This racy sparkler from the heart of the Loire Valley in France is made according to the Champagne method — fermented in the bottle — and accents the chalky minerality of the region. (Alaska)
Adami Bosco di Gica Prosecco; $15. This has more polish and class than most of its peers, with a dry, almost austere mouthfeel that will go well with cured meats and hard cheeses. (Noble)
San Simone Prosecco dei Colli Trevigiani; $15. Dry, with tart flavors of grapefruit, lime and citrus, this works best as an aperitif. (Cascade Trade)
Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column for The Seattle Times and covers Northwest wine for the Wine Enthusiast magazine. Write to him at email@example.com. Susan Jouflas is The Seattle Times assistant art director/features.