Could Washington Redefine Cult Wine?
Traditionally, cult wines are those that are rare, generate high scores and buzz—and are absurdly expensive. Why Washington's high-quality wines at fair prices are changing the concept.
The term “cult wine” came into widespread use in the 1990s, though no single person or publication lays claim to having coined it. Perhaps it was Screaming Eagle or Harlan that was the first wine to earn the tag. In the minds of most people, the term is almost always attached to a pricy Napa Valley Cabernet or Bordeaux-style blend.
What qualifies them as cult wines? It seems to be the magic combination of rarity, expense, high scores and buzz. A wine needs all four to qualify for true cult status, which leaves out such things as first-growth Bordeaux (not rare) and favors new wineries over traditional ones (more buzz). By any standard, these are trophy wines.
In other words, they’re unaffordable, which is just as well since they’re also unobtainable.
Which raises the question—should there be a new model for cult wines? A model that preserves the most desirable attributes of those we already know and love (or hate), and eliminates the least desirable. In other words, keep the requirements for rarity, high scores and buzz, but lose the absurd prices, drop the alcohol levels a bit and substitute genuine terroir for 100% new French oak barrels.
Where are these new-era cult wines found? Start with the world-class boutique wineries of Washington. The best of them deliver all of the above. And even if the Northwest is not your home, if you are fortunate enough to live in a state that allows direct to consumer shipping, many of the wineries listed here will be happy to welcome you as a customer. Some of them may be flying under the national radar, which is an advantage.
Don’t get hung up on the word “cult.” Think of this as a move to New World classified growths. These are all candidates to be named super seconds, and some will make it all the way to first-growth status.
Though rarely produced in quantities of more than a few hundred cases, you can still find them, and, better yet, afford them. These are wines both for cellaring and for near-term drinking.
Washington’s Bordeaux-style wines and blends have the structure and balance to age for decades. Even the Syrahs—especially those from Betz, Cayuse, K Vintners and McCrea—have the muscle to cellar well for 8–10 years. The most expensive Washington Cabs and reserves may reach $135 a bottle, but the vast majority cost less than half that.
The most sought-after Washington boutique wineries fall into three distinct categories: the Old Guard, the New Guard (with closed mailing lists) and the Rising Stars (great wines, consistent quality, open mailing lists).
The Old Guard
Leonetti Cellar, Quilceda Creek and Woodward Canyon are three of the founding fathers of the modern-day Washington wine industry. They began as home winemaking projects, the wines produced in garages and workshops, with the first commercial vintages released in the late 1970s and early 1980s—and they were immediately recognized as exceptional. Both Leonetti and Quilceda are now being guided by second-generation winemakers. These three family-owned wineries, with almost 100 vintages among them, were cult brands before the term existed.
The New Guard
These three wineries were all founded within the past 10-15 years and offer exemplary wines. But the wines are tough to find; they all have waiting lists to join their wine clubs. Look for them on restaurant wine lists or at a few savvy retailers. You can also beg, plead or grovel your way onto the mailing lists.
Veteran winemaker John Abbott (Pine Ridge, Acacia, Canoe Ridge) cofounded this Walla Walla showstopper, set amidst a century-old chicken farm. Estate-grown Cabernet is the mainstay, but smaller amounts of Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier are made and quickly sell through at the winery’s twice-yearly open houses.
New owners are taking possession this summer, but veteran winemaker (and Master of Wine) Bob Betz remains at the helm. Impeccably wrought Cabernets and Syrahs inevitably land near the top of everyone’s annual “Best of Washington” lists.
Christophe Baron was born in Champagne and went on to make wine in Australia, New Zealand and Romania before settling in Walla Walla, where he has revolutionized the region’s thinking about Syrah. Biodynamically farmed, and using time-tested Rhône Valley techniques, these very limited offerings never fail to elicit strong reactions, both pro and con, from anyone fortunate enough to taste them.
Okay, how about some wines that can still be found? The Rising Stars are where the hidden gems reside. Here are a dozen to look for, with a representative wine review from each.
Caleb and Nina Buty Foster founded their modest Walla Walla winery (it’s pronounced “beauty”) in 2000, and they keep alcohol levels in check, striving for balance, elegance and extract. Buty wines, both white and red, consistently show the sort of nuance and depth that mark the world’s best. Seamless flavors blend subtle mineral, herbal and spice components in a style that is clean, a bit lean, polished, complex and powerful.
94 Buty 2009 Merlot–Cabernet Franc (Columbia Valley); $44.
Wide open and seductive, this brings together grapes from both Conner Lee (northern Columbia Basin) and Champoux (Horse Heaven Hills). Muscular, ripe and round, the sweet blackberry and cassis fruit is limned with a granite-like minerality. Great concentration in a layer cake of berries, rocks and tannins.
A decade ago, Michael and Lauri Corliss purchased the rundown, 100-year-old former bakery building that now houses their Walla Walla winery and went on to crush their first grapes there in 2003. Now with a sister winery (Tranche) and rapidly expanding vineyard holdings, they have deep financial resources, well-chosen estate vineyards in prime locations, a highly professional winemaking team and the luxury of taking the time needed to get their wines exactly as they want them prior to release.
92 Corliss 2006 Syrah (Columbia Valley); $55.
Soft entry, with generous aromas introducing supple purple and black fruits. Tannins are substantial, well-structured and slightly grainy. There are light streaks of smoke, coffee, herb and bark; the earthy character of Syrah is evident but seems somehow softened and wrapped in the toasty barrel flavors.
Retired NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe has teamed up with Leonetti winemaker Chris Figgins for this wine project. Bledsoe’s 40-acre McQueen vineyard was planted in the spring of 2008. While awaiting his first harvest, he’s released two vintages with purchased grapes. Doubleback has already proven to be one of Washington’s most important ventures of the past half decade.
94 Doubleback 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley); $87.
This Bordeaux-style blend (86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot) has forward, pretty black fruits, juicy acids and some noticeable astringency. Aromatically, it incorporates a nice herbal note, like green tea. It’s still too young to drink; give it another year or two in the bottle.
Winemaker Brennon Leighton, who cut his winemaking teeth working in Ste. Michelle’s Eroica Riesling project, sources outstanding fruit for his steely, acidic, exemplary whites and potent, tooth-staining reds. Efeste ¯ has been impressive from the very first (2005) vintage, and continues to show dramatic improvement.
93 Efeste 2008 Big Papa Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $49.
This is 100% Cabernet, sourced from old vine blocks at four different vineyards. True noninterventionist winemaking (indigenous yeast, no fining or filtering) yields an inky, immense wine, packed with black and purple fruits, laced with smoke and espresso and finished with fine-grained, substantial tannins. Cellar Selection.
Chris Figgins has essentially taken over the winemaking at Leonetti Cellar, but has also launched his own project. The first release—a single wine from a recently planted vineyard—is set to debut this fall. Given the history and talent of the Figgins family, this is a surefire superstar in the making.
92 Figgins 2008 Estate Red Wine (Walla Walla Valley); $85.
A Bordeaux blend using estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot, this is a delicious wine, powerfully fruity, silky, spicy and seductive. It shows lovely balance and nice threading of anise, cocoa and caramel barrel flavors.
Greg Harrington passed his master sommelier exam at 26, managed the wine programs for chefs Joyce Goldstein, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, and then, inspired by the potential he saw in Washington wines, moved to Walla Walla to begin making wines. Gramercy wines are crafted to his highly trained palate: subtle and terroir-driven, with exceptional finesse and detail.
94 Gramercy Cellars 2009 The Third Man Red (Columbia Valley); $45.
This Châteauneuf-like blend of 50% Grenache, 28% Syrah and 22% Mourvèdre is pungent and spicy, with a bit of menthol in the nose. On the palate, there are supple, luxurious raspberry and black fruits, baking spices and sweet barrel flavors. Powerful and rich, this is a big wine with tobacco and clove highlights and a little heat in the finish. Cellar Selection.
Formerly a dentist in Kansas City, then an enology student at U.C. Davis, Jon Martinez arrived in Washington barely six years ago, and is knocking the ball out of the park. Improving with each new release, he has locked in a stellar collection of vineyards, and made Rhône-style wines his focus.
95 Maison Bleue 2009 Gravière Upland Vineyard G.S.M. (Snipes Mountain); $40.
Gravière is half Syrah, one quarter each Grenache and Mourvèdre, all sourced from the Upland Vineyard in the tiny Snipes Mountain AVA. As with all his wines, Jon Martinez has crafted a wine with impeccable focus and purity—a gorgeous bounty of berries, cassis, rock, earth and licorice, with a hint of baking spices. Editors’ Choice.
The acknowledged godfather of the burgeoning Woodinville wine scene, Mark Ryan McNeilly is a tall, disheveled, gregarious, instantly likeable winemaker, and his wines follow suit. They ride big in the saddle, with jammy fruit, generous oak and relatively high alcohol. With names such as Dead Horse and The Dissident, these are wines with attitude.
95 Mark Ryan 2008 Dead Horse Red (Red Mountain); $45.
Amazing depth, running down through a litany of red and black fruits into veins of earth and tannin and graphite, and finishing with densely textured barrel notes of toast, coffee and bitter chocolate. Beautifully proportioned, deep and ageworthy. Cellar Selection.
Rasa founder and winemaker Billo Naravane already held advanced degrees in applied mathematics and computer science when he abruptly changed gears and entered the Masters winemaking program at U.C. Davis. Ambitious and enormously talented, he has a small lineup of single-vineyard Syrahs and Cabernets that are among Walla Walla’s best-kept secrets.
97 Rasa Vineyards 2008 Creative Impulse DuBrul Vineyard Red (Yakima Valley); $95.
A fine expression of the special strengths of this vineyard. The blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot is pure and juicy, a riot of blueberry, blackberry and cassis. There is a focused thread of fresh herb and as the nose expands, baking spices kick in beautifully. Cellar Selection.
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Syrah are the focal points of this winery, which is located in the southern part of Walla Walla. All Rulo wines show extraordinary clarity and focus and immaculate fruit with bracing acidity. Owner/winemaker Kurt Schlicker—a practicing anesthesiologist—runs a tight ship. His wines are never boring or stripped; they are pristine, and are outstanding values.
93 Rulo 2009 Sundance Vineyard Chardonnay (Wahluke Slope); $20.
The freshest, saltiest, most intense of the Rulo white wines, this lovely Chardonnay bursts forth with sea breeze scents and rich minerality. The fruit is a synopsis of citrus, apple and fresh herb, and the balance is perfect. Editors’ Choice.
Christian Sparkman came to winemaking via an extensive career in restaurant management, most recently at the Waterfront in Seattle. While there, he orchestrated an outstanding series of winemaker dinners, fine-tuning his Washington palate and making the contacts necessary to obtain the best possible grapes for his dream project—his own winery. Vineyards sources include Klipsun, Hedges, Kiona, Ciel du Cheval, Boushey and Stillwater Creek.
92 Sparkman 2009 Lumière Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $25.
Creamy and crisp—a nice trick— this refreshing Chardonnay livens up the palate with a mix of herb, celery, apple and Asian pear, rolling into a finish of caramel apple and toast. It has a light touch despite the 14.5% alcohol, and sits nicely in the back of the throat, inviting another glass.
Located in the tiny Columbia Gorge AVA, Syncline is a hands-on, family-owned project (Owner-winemakers James and Poppie Mantone first met during 1997’s harvest at La Velle Vineyards.) with a portfolio that reaches across Rhône varieties and into such obscure treats as Washington-grown Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir.
92 Syncline 2009 Heart of the Hill
Vineyard Mourvèdre (Red Mountain); $30. A stunning wine, this could be the poster child for the future of Washington Mourvèdre. The aromas are a dappled and seductive mix of raspberries, moist earth, baking spices, mocha and an intriguing suggestion of wet cement. Marvelous definition, length and character. Give it plenty of breathing time and it gains mass and complexity. Editors’ Choice.