Thursday, July 8, 2010

Red Mountain Revelation


Blogger types came to Washington in droves this past weekend and went to Walla Walla for three days of the Wine Bloggers Conference 2010. I followed a good deal of it online and from the sounds of it, they had an amazing time. On Sunday the lucky ones, or the smart ones, whichever, hopped on a bus out of Walla Walla and came to Washington's most unique AVA, Red Mountain. Gwynne and I were invited out by Keith, ReNae and Heather from Terra Blanca to take in the event as well.

What happened over the next five to six hours was a crash course in the exquisite terroir that is unique to Red Mountain. The Red Mountain AVA Alliance had organized a tour de force of what makes the soils, the vines, and by extension the wines, so incredible.

The education in the importance of 'Place,' and that Red Mountain is indeed so different, began at Col Solare, the beautiful estate winery that is a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Antinori family of Italy. Col Solare makes one wine; it's damn good. Kevin Corliss, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, talked about making a decision to move to Red Mountain for the partnership between the Antinori family and Chateau Ste. Michelle. Based on the wines that were already coming out of Red Mountain, particulary with regard to tannin structure, the move was a natural choice. Marcus Notaro then took participants through a tasting of the 2006 Col Solare, which was what you've come to expect from this wine. It was an experience of leather, tobacco and deep mahogany. As a counterpoint to the 2006, Marcus had us barrel taste the 2009 Cabernet. This really tripped me up; the nose was like a flashback to the old Strawberry Shortcake paraphernalia, a bright strawberry punch in the nose (No, I didn't own any Strawberry Shortcake stuff, ahem...) and the wine was a mouthful of tannins.

From there Dr. Alan Busacca, geologist and owner of the Alma Terra wines made in concert with Robert Smasne, gave us a quick geology lesson. The bloggers had already heard about the Missoula floods that formed all of Washington's fertile wine growing regions. Alan focused on the variety and diversity of Red Mountain soil, caused by the turbulent eddies over the top of Red Mountain, which stuck up towards some of the shallower levels of the flood. During that flood these changing currents and flows made for differing deposits and tons of various soil ranges, leaving Red Mountain, acre per acre, with greater soil diversity than any AVA in the Northwest.

From Col Solare the bloggers were broken into groups of 5 to 8 and led through the vineyards down to the Hedges Estate. Along the way folks walked beside Red Mountain legends and experts like Jim Holmes, Ryan Johnson, Chris Upchurch and Dick Boushey. I was with Dick Boushey's group and he said, "well these two goofy engineers decided 'let's give it a try' and they struck grape growing gold." After the clif notes version of Red Mountain history, Dick went on to explain that the real challenge for the future of Red Mountain is going to be irrigation. This part of the state only gets 6 inches of rain a year and that allows for a variety of soil not seen in Walla Walla, for example, which gets at least twice as much rain. It becomes difficult to keep the grapes alive without good water options. (Only days after this did Red Mountain get really big news.)

Arriving at Hedges Estate bloggers were greeted by Christophe Hedges, who looks a little like Daniel Craig, you know, the blonde James Bond guy. Christophe said that Hedges Estate firmly believes three things: 1) scores have had an influence on the wines being made; 2) the idea of place is more important than brand because brands will die out, but place will remain even once we're all gone; and 3) the concept and proliferation of non-estate vineyards have shown that people have lost control of place.
I got the first two, and am apt to agree with him; the last, I don't know that I necessarily agree with, and not so sure I even entirely get. We proceeded inside the Hedges Estate, which is beautiful and very French-like. Inside we tasted four different Red Mountain wines against wines of a similar (and high) caliber from the world's famous growing regions; Napa Valley, Cote Rotie and Barossa Valley. This was a great way to show the distinction of Red Mountain terroir and it was interesting to taste the differences and similarities between the varietals.

After the stop at Hedges we made our way to what is perhaps the most famous and sought after vineyard in the winemaking state of Washington: Ciel Du Cheval. Jim Holmes, one of the "goofy engineers" who originally founded of Red Mountain (and who, with John Williams, founded Kiona Winery) met us there. Jim explained the plans he and John had, and how things have changed so much. Jim talked about the wines that come from the various blocks of Ciel Du Cheval, and the idea of how important the 100 point wines made out of this vineyard by Quilceda Creek have been to the development of Red Mountain, as well as Washington as a whole. Jim then led us through some soil testing exercises right there in the vineyard. It was a bit surreal for me to be standing on such hallowed ground playing in the dirt with Jim Holmes, Alan Busacca and Chris Upchurch.

Or final stop was the beautiful facilities of Terra Blanca Winery and the much needed cool of the wine caves there. Winemaker and Owner Keith Pilgrim talked about the structure of Red Mountain wines and focused specifically on ageability. Keith started the bloggers out with a barrel sample of 2009 Cabernet and talked about the size and structure of that wine and how the structure and tannins allowed Red Mountain wines to really age well. At this time something of a vertical tasting of the Onyx blend took place. Wine Bloggers were treated to pours of the 2006, 2001 and 1999 Onyx. The group I talked with were impressed not only with the wines, but with how much life they still seemed to have, even with the 1999. It was a classic case of Red Mountain structure allowing them to age for a good long time.

The education adjourned for the evening and the bloggers were treated to an incredible Grand Tasting and dinner by Chef Frank Magana of Picazo 717. The Grand Tasting had wines from 11 wineries and Jim Holmes was pouring wines that were made from Ciel Du Cheval fruit. These wineries were not messing around, Jim poured the 07 Quilceda Creek, and Delille Cellars poured both their Grand Ciel Cabernet and Syrah. In addition to some of the wineries who played host earlier, wines were poured by Andrew Will, Cooper Wine, Fidelitas,, Goedhart Family and Grand Reve Vintners. Red Mountain originals Kiona as well as Portrait Cellars and Hightower were poured as well. From the Grand Tasting we adjourned to dinner with a glass of Terra Blanca's 2005 Block 8 Syrah, and Frank Magana showed us how he gets down with BBQ. An amazing Tuscan white bean salad preceded a carnivore's delight: ostrich skewers, wild boar sausage and some serious St. Louis style spare ribs. The evening wrapped up with strawberry shortcake, berry cobbler, and some of the best conversation for miles around.

As the sun set on Red Mountain it was clear to these weary travelers that Red Mountain wine is in a class of it's own, and its terroir is responsible.

(I do have to once again tip my hat to ReNae & Keith Pilgrim at Terra Blanca, they are amazing hosts, and great amabassadors of Washington Wine and Red Mountain.)


  1. Sounds like amazing hospitality, people, wine and Red Mountain always delivers. Why anybody wouldn't visit is beyond me.

  2. Josh it has occurred to me why a person would not visit Red Mountain, said person is a jackass. That's the only good reason I can come up with.

  3. That place is wonderful. It has a very cool and fascinating view of nature. Is that beer of barrel? Is it aged?

  4. Great summary Clive. An amazing day on Red Mountain hosted by some amazing people. Glad to meet you and Gwynne at such a neat place.