Tasting a Slice of History

Twenty-one vintages of Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon demonstrate the staying power of Washington wines.

These days, Walla Walla has become the Promised Land for Washington winemakers. Located in graceful, rolling farm country in the southeast corner of the state, it’s a charming town of Victorian homes and lovingly restored old brick buildings.

It’s almost unimaginable that just two decades ago there were but two wineries and a couple dozen acres of vineyard planted in the entire valley. In recent years those numbers have escalated—the count today is close to 40 wineries and 520 acres of bearing vineyards (with a total of 800 acres planted).

Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon were the two wineries that blazed the trail. Woodward Canyon was founded in 1981 by amateur winemaker Rick Small and his wife Darcey Fugman-Small. Small and his friend Gary Figgins (of Leonetti Cellar) had been drill sergeants together in the Army reserve; when Figgins began commercial winemaking in 1978, Small was there to help. His own move into the wine business may also have been influenced by a desire to do something besides run the family grain elevator; in any event, he believed fiercely in the future of the region, and set out to prove his point. L’Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills and Waterbrook, now also considered pioneers by the grape-stained hordes of newcomers, joined the original two during the middle of the 1980s.

Today, there are new wineries everywhere you turn. Chalone’s Canoe Ridge Winery is headquartered in the old brick Walla Walla Engine House. On the outskirts of town, Washington powerhouse Stimson Lane has just opened a new facility for its Northstar Merlots. Pepper Bridge runs a high-tech, 400-acre vineyard and a thriving winery nearby. There is a splendid tasting room and shiny new winery for Three Rivers on the road leading into town. The shelves of the town’s wine shops are lined with dozens of boutique labels: Buty, Cayuse, Dunham, Forgeron, Glen Fiona, Isenhower, Reininger, Spring Valley, Tamarack, Walla Walla Vintners and Whitman Cellars are among the best.

With all the buzz and ballyhoo about the future, it’s a good time to look back, to see what has already been accomplished and to evaluate the results. This past May, I sat down with Rick and Darcey Small and a half dozen employees and friends of the winery. Twenty-one vintages of Woodward Canyon "Dedication Series" and "Old Vines" Cabernets were lined up on the small counter in their modest tasting room, which occupies the front room of an old wood frame house. The winery had sourced grapes from more than a dozen vineyards over the years; in a single glance, I felt as if I was surveying the prime slice of Washington winemaking history.

The winery’s first release, the 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon "Dedication Series #1" set the tone. On the back label Small had modestly predicted that it "should drink very nicely into the late 1980s." Remarkably, the wine is now in its third decade and is still going strong. The wines were served in chronological order, in three flights of seven wines each. "We’re just gonna go for it," Small announced, looking a wee bit anxious.

His personal agenda? "I’m interested in looking at some of the things I have been doing all along," he explained, "such as no filtering and only very coarse fining. I’m anxious to revisit some of the terroir I’ve used since the early years and still use today, vineyards such as Sagemoor and Champoux."

Following are my tasting notes, along with some of the winemaker’s comments and my scores. The scores reflect both the quality of the original vintage, and also how well the wine has evolved. Vintages 1981 through 1994 are Dedication Series; thereafter they were labeled Old Vines (except for 1996). A final note: The Mercer Ranch vineyard, originally planted in the early 1970s, was renamed Champoux following a change of ownership a few years back. The vines remain the same.

As Small suspected, the tasting showed not only the staying power of his Cabernets, but also the long-term impact of experiments that he tried along the way. The recent run of extraripe vintages has produced more jammy, concentrated sweet fruit, but at the expense of higher alcohol levels. In the case of the 1998, the wine’s long-term potential seems to have been curtailed in favor of near-term enjoyment.

"What we really want," Small concludes, "is to get these kinds of flavors at 24° brix. The next seven wines, from 2002 to 2009, I guarantee will be lower in alcohol than these."

Apart from that, the lesson here is to lay down a few cases of Washington Cabernet (especially from the stellar 1999 vintage) to enjoy in the future. If the current wines age anything like these, it will be worth the effort.

Tasting Notes

1981 Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington) 100% Cabernet; Sagemoor Vineyard. Still holding remarkably well; its color shows a brick edge, while the fruit is moving to flavors of preserves and dried plums, but not turning raisiny. It finishes softly, with persistent and sweet fruit, along with scents of smoke, tar and resin. Drink now. 91

1982 Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington) 100% Cabernet; Sagemoor Vineyard. Very ripe, raisiny fruit, and plenty of rich, chocolaty tannin. It seems to have more weight, ripeness and darker textures than the ’81, though perhaps less elegance. The finish is long and tannic, marked by flavors of chocolate, mocha, leather and tobacco. Drink now. 92

1983 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Kiona (83%) and Seven Hills (17%) vineyards. A marvelous wine, complete and fully mature, with complex flavors of plums, dried cherries, mineral, leather, pencil shavings and roasted coffee. Concentrated and textured, the finish is long and round. A dead-ringer for good Bordeaux. Drink now through 2005. 94

1984 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Balcom & Moe, Graves, Sagemoor, Moreman and Seven Hills Vineyards. Due to a shortage of grapes, "two-thirds was purchased wine blended in with what I made," Small recalls. A popular wine upon release, it lacks the concentration of the earlier vintages. The fruit is a bit tomatoey, and the middle palate and tannins are relatively light. Drink now. 86

1985 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 96% Cabernet, 4% Merlot; Seven Hills, with some Charbonneau and Mercer Ranch. A sharp scent of sweet crackers introduces round flavors of strawberries. A touch of light spice and vanilla, then a bit of alcoholic heat through the finish. "We did a lot more acid adjustment in those days," notes Small, "and it feels a bit artificial to me." Drink now. 88

1986 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Mercer Ranch. Strong, chewy, tannic and tough, with scents of pencil shavings and a powerful core of cassis and black cherry. Though not especially complex, it is in excellent condition and can last another five years. 89

1987 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Mercer Ranch. Somewhat similar in style to the ’86, it is still showing sweet, tasty fruit, plus a fair amount of tannin. It is not as complete through the midpalate, and has some high-toned nail-polish aromas. Drink now. 87

1988 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 82% Cabernet, 18% Merlot; Charbonneau, with some Mercer Ranch and Seven Hills. Raisiny, Port-like aromas and a whiff of volatile acidity suggest that this wine may be moving past its prime. It looks and tastes older than some of the previous vintages, with more blunt, roasted, pruney flavors. That said, it is still a very pleasurable bottle. Drink now. 88

1989 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 93% Cabernet, 7% Merlot; Mercer Ranch, with a little Charbonneau. There is a suppressed quality to the fruit, which seems pushed back. It feels as if there is a hole in the middle, but the finish comes back and lingers. Tart and herbal, with more dried herbs and less ripe fruit. Past its prime. 86

1990 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 84% Cabernet, 16% Merlot; Mercer Ranch. The oak changes dramatically from previous vintages, tasting more broadly of vanilla, with a hint of pickle barrel. The fruit seems less firm and ripe than the ’86 and ’87, but there is some cinnamon spice and a hint of pastis. The power and the focus of earlier Mercer Ranch vintages are missing; this is a phase where the winery was rapidly expanding production. Drink now. 87

1991 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 81% Cabernet, 19% Merlot; Sagemoor, with some Mercer Ranch and Conner-Lee. A freeze year. The inviting nose carries complex herbal, leafy, green tobacco scents, married to some toasty oak. The fruit is not quite fully ripe, but the wine has a pleasing tang, and the tannins are well managed. Drink now through 2007. 87

1992 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 75% Cabernet, 22% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc; Mercer Ranch, with a little Canoe Ridge. A busy year in which experiments with inner staves were begun. The blend now includes some Cab Franc. This is also the year that the Artist Series wines were introduced. The Canoe Ridge influence can be tasted in the light cherry flavors, but the finish is peppery and tannic and throws the balance off. Drink now through 2004. 86

1993 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 83% Cabernet, 10% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc; Mercer Ranch and Canoe Ridge. The winery made a "Special Selection" Cabernet this year which "pulled out the heart of the fruit," according to Small. Still, this wine carries more weight than the ’92. The inner stave experiments continued, as some pickle-barrel scents attest. There’s good fruit, along with dried herbs, anise and leathery tannins. Drink now through 2008. 88

1994 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 84% Cabernet, 9% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot; Mercer Ranch and Canoe Ridge. "This was the first year I saw the ripeness begin to edge up," notes Small. "It was when the concepts of ‘hang time’ and ‘physiological maturity’ began, as people took more control of vineyards." With its smooth, satiny mouthfeel, this wine is definitely a step up in quality. The fruit has a ripe sweetness missing earlier, and the tannins, though rugged, are in balance. The finish has an appealing sweet, toasty brightness. Drink now through 2010. 91

1995 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Mercer Ranch (50%) and Sagemoor (50%). This is the year the "Old Vines" designation began to be used for what were previously Dedication Series wines. The Artist Series was used for wines made from younger vines. A beautiful nose opens with ripe, rich layers of red fruits, mineral and leaf. Fat, meaty tannins blend in seamlessly. With its extra depth and textural interest, it’s a still-youthful delight. Drink 2005-2015. 93

1996 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Sagemoor, Mercer Ranch and Canoe Ridge. The "Old Vines" banner was omitted this year because of the inclusion of Canoe Ridge fruit. It smells a bit volatile, with a core of sweet, almost raisiny fruit. The texture is smooth and silky, enlivened with herbal and anise flavors, and there is a bit of heat in the finish. Cellar it at least another 3-5 years. 88

1997 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Champoux (67%) and Sagemoor (33%). A slightly corked bottle resulted in somewhat suppressed fruit flavors. There is some graham cracker sweetness, fairly rough tannins, and plenty of alcohol. Not rated.

1998 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Champoux. This was a very hot year in Washington, and this wine was absolutely sensational when first released. But the fruit already seems to be cracking up, with hot, sweet, Port-like flavors. There is simply too much alcohol burning in the finish. Perhaps it will recover, but it may be that its best days are behind it. Drink now through 2005. 87

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) 100% Cabernet; Champoux (60%) and Sagemoor (40%). This wine has a nice mix of forward, fat, meaty fruit and satiny tannins. It’s densely packed with a flavor parade of red and black berries, smoke, cedar, anise and chocolate. The balance is exceptional, and the wine should improve over the next five years, and continue to drink well for a decade beyond that. Drink 2007-2015. 92

2000 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) Champoux. Tasted as a final blend cask sample, this not-yet-released wine displays classic fruit showing the cassis and tough berry flavors of Champoux. Tannins are still tight and hard, but there is no hint of weediness or herbal flavors. It is all sweet fruit and rough tannins, needing only time. Not rated.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) Champoux (50%) and Sagemoor (50%). Tasted as a trial blend, it shows gamy, wild berry flavors and very young, rough tannins. I like this wine very much, as young as it is. The fruit has a gamy, spicy dimension not seen in previous bottles.
Not rated.

Published on November 1, 2002

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