Washington’s Big Chill:
2003 vintage troubles many of the state’s vintners

Every six or seven years, history has shown, Washington State vineyards are hit with a winter blast severe enough to cause significant damage. The weather gods struck again this past January, when temperatures briefly plummeted to the minus-teens over much of the region.

"Nobody saw it coming," says Leonetti Cellars’ Chris Figgins, "but once the temperature started dropping, we knew it was going to be a doozy."

Walla Walla vineyards were particularly hard hit, but parts of Red Mountain, the Columbia Basin north of the Tri-Cities, and the Horse Heaven Hills also suffered. Just how much damage was not immediately clear. Roughly half of Washington’s 28,000 acres of vineyards had been planted or replanted since the last big freeze, in 1996. How would the young vines fare this time around?

January’s arctic storm came in the dead of winter, when vines were fully dormant, and lasted no more than a few hours. But as the spring thaw set in and bud break began, some vineyards were resonating with the sound of chainsaws. Though rootstock survived (and Washington vines are among the few in the world planted on their own roots), not much above ground did, at least in Walla Walla.
Norm McKibben, whose Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills vineyards provide Walla Walla.

Valley grapes to dozens of wineries, believes that he may have lost up to 90 percent of this year’s crop at Pepper Bridge. It wasn’t the January freeze that he blames, but a record-breaking cold spell last Halloween that hit the vines before they were dormant, and made them particularly vulnerable to the later blast.
Pepper Bridge vineyard manager Tom Waliser agrees, noting that the Halloween freeze broke a 40-year record for cold. "Walla Walla’s extended fall growing season can set the vineyards up for greater impact from Mother Nature events occasionally," he explains. Waliser is predicting about half a normal crop at Seven Hills.

In Walla Walla and elsewhere, the Merlot and Syrah vines were the hardest hit. Devin Derby, of Walla Walla’s Spring Valley Vineyard, had to cut down 16 of his 18 acres of Merlot. But all is not lost. Following the ’96 freeze, Derby began burying shoots each year on all 40 acres of his property. "We never knew if it was going to work," he smiles, "but this year we found out that it did." The buried shoots, brought up this past spring, were already full of buds in mid-April. "We’ll have about 3¼4 of a normal crop," Derby reports.

Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards is another Walla Walla vintner happy that he had taken on the trouble, and the expense, of burying vines. "It’s a lot of work and money," he admits, "that’s the cost of a big, brand new car [$1,000 an acre, times 41 acres]. But let’s put it this way, I hope all my fellow winemakers will have some vineyard left alive. It’s gonna be tough for some people."

— Paul Gregutt


Q&A Paul Dolan former Fetzer president, and quite possibly the "greenest" man in California wine

In his 25 years at Fetzer Vineyards—the last 12 as president—Paul Dolan has earned a reputation as the greenest man in California wine. He made all of Fetzer’s vineyards organic, put Fetzer on the road to sustainable practices, is outspoken on the topics of better employee healthcare and housing, and prods his colleagues on the Wine Institute board to follow his lead. In his new book, True to Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution, Dolan, 54, reaches beyond the wine industry to corporate leaders everywhere, urging them to "preserve their environment, strengthen their communities, and enrich the lives of their employees." At press time, the Mendocino Wine Group, of which Dolan is president, had entered into an agreement in principle to purchase Parducci Wine Cellars, a certified organic processor.

Wine Enthusiast: Is there any evidence that organic grapes make better wine?
Paul Dolan: Well, we’ve seen it in the quality of our fruit. The vineyards we converted from conventional to organic farming showed up with better-quality grapes, no question about it.

WE: And the only explanation is that the grapes were farmed organically?
PD: Yeah, just eliminating the chemicals and working with the health of the soil. Now, we’re farming 2,000 acres that way, and maybe I’m trying to justify it, but we really do believe that.

WE: So why has the wine industry been relatively resistant to going organic?
PD: They say they’re open to sustainability. But if sustainability means, "I have to significantly change what I’ve always done," I’m not sure they’re interested. It’s simply a resistance to change.
WE: In the book, you stripped yourself bare talking about your divorce and the spiritual crisis you went through in the eighties. How much of that was responsible for this almost missionary zeal you have?
PD: A lot. I questioned what was really important to me. I came to see there was a whole other way to run a business. When I saw that business was driven by the financial bottom line, that didn’t make me feel very good.
WE: You’re calling for higher wages, health benefits, housing and training for employees. But wouldn’t these things add to the cost of wine?
PD: I don’t know all the answers. I just know it’s something we need to keep in mind and work toward. We don’t want a situation where people are making below poverty-level wages, and don’t have access to schools or decent housing.
WE: So how environmentally conscious are you in your private life? Do you only eat organic food?
PD: [laughs] No. My wife is a real consumer, so it’s a challenge. But you work with what you have. We buy organic produce whenever we can, and I farm organically and biodynamically on our ranches, and we recycle. If I lived where I really wanted to, it would be about so big [shows a little square with his hands] and it would be solar driven and so on.

What do you drink at home?
PD: You mean, do I go out and buy organic wine? No. I enjoy Burgundies, and Pinot Noir in general, because Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are really the best food varieties.

Did you always have a spiritual, philosophical side?
PD: No. I was an obnoxious, corporate arrogant, pushy guy.

—Steve Heimoff


Writing and Wining:
Hollywood screenwriter has hideaway in Sonoma

You may not have heard of Robert Mark Kamen but you’ve seen the movies this screenwriter’s crafted: The Karate Kid, Taps, A Walk In the Clouds, The Transporter. He’s worked with everyone from best pal Harrison Ford to Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. His latest projects are a chick-flick with Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek, and an action thriller with Jet Li and Morgan Freeman. Since 1999, he has also produced a Cabernet Sauvignon from his estate vineyard on the west side of Mount Veeder, above Sonoma Valley.

Bronx-born Kamen lives in a sprawling apartment on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, but visits his winery once a month, where he writes in a small cottage with a sweeping view of San Francisco Bay. The walls are covered with posters of stars he’s worked with.
"I was having lunch with Penelope [Cruz] a few months ago and this black Mercedes pulls up and [Cruz’s boyfriend] Tom [Cruise] gets out, Kamen recalls. "I hadn’t seen him since Taps 23 years ago. He says, ‘I just wanted to thank you. That was the beginning of my career.’ He was a real mensch."

He credits his friend Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (mastermind behind Jean-Georges, Vong, Jo-Jo, and other top restaurants) with inspiring his winemaking career. Kamen was selling his grapes to Ferrari-Carano and Arrowood when the restaurateur visited his mountain property. "He told me, ‘In France, they put you in jail if you don’t make wine from these grapes.’

I didn’t know anything about the wine business, but he said, ‘I’ll sell your wine, don’t worry.’ And Jean-Georges, true to his word, sells tons of my wine" at his 15 restaurants worldwide.

Production of the 2001 Kamen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was a mere 1,500 cases; Wine Enthusiast rated it at 92 points, or Excellent, on our 100-point scale. It’s available in select stores and restaurants, and retails for $50 a bottle.

— Steve Heimoff

What Wine to Wash Down Worm?

It’s been 50 years since this reporter last ate a bug on purpose. However, on April 20 at New York City’s Museum of Natural History, the new IMAX movie Bugs! was premiered, and an opportunity presented itself.

The documentary follows a praying mantis and its future prey, a caterpillar-turned-butterfly, from birth to their fateful encounter in a Borneo rainforest. The film magnifies insects up to 250,000 times once they’re seen on the giant screen.

After the screening, Bill Yosses, executive pastry chef at Citarella in New York, presented a number of foods containing bugs. They included a trailmix of mealworms, waxworms and crickets, a pizza topped with a cricket, and a mealworm tamale. Madagascar hissing cockroaches were displayed but were not served. Most of the bugs consumed at the event were lab-grown.

And what wine would the chef recommend with bugs? A Côte Rôtie. "A tannic wine is needed," he said. "You need the astrigency to cut the proteins." We think he may have been kidding. In any case, tasting notes on the bugs themselves:

80 Mealworm (lab-grown). Though roasted, still retains some moisture. Slight peanutty flavor. Crunchy. Ew.

80 Cricket (lab-grown). Crunchy. Eating cricket, you can feel the limbs and antennae between your teeth and on the back of your throat. Ick.

— Tim Moriarty

A Jewel in Queens’ Crown

A few years ago, James Trent, founder of the Queens County Farm Museum, would never have thought to plant vines on the farm’s 47 acres. But after a discussion with Jeff McKay of Dendor Wine Management concerning apple varieties, he thought otherwise.

The farm museum, which dates back a few hundred years, will soon make history—at press time, the first working vineyard in Floral Park was scheduled to be planted the second week in May. On a little less than an acre, 1,000 vines of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon will be planted. They hope to bottle the farm’s first wines in 2007.

Trent claims that the museum area’s terroir is richer than Long Island’s and, because of its location, will have a warmer and longer growing season. Reed Jarvis, former winemaker of Long Island’s Pindar Winery, has been hired as the museum’s wine consultant. With his knowledge of winemaking and Trent’s background in horticulture and agriculture, they will be a winning combination.

The nonprofit museum’s saving grace is its proximity to Manhattan. Over 500,000 visitors a year flock to the farm for everything from special events and educational programs to apple picking. Trent also has plans for a tasting room. There still is no name for the label but, as he explains, they have "three years to worry about that."

Queens County Farm Museum, 73-50 Little Neck Parkway. Floral Park, NY. Tel.: 718/347-3276;

— Tara Ferdico


The California Cabernet Society, a group of nearly 100 wineries mainly from Napa Valley, held their 2003 vintage "Passport" barrel tasting on April 26 at the Culinary Institute of America, in St. Helena.

The annual event is an early opportunity to gauge the latest vintage. Judging from this year’s Passport, 2003 will present great challenges to Napa Valley vintners.

A cold, wet spring led to a late harvest that ran into heat waves resulting, in many cases, in soaring sugar levels before full physiological ripeness was achieved. This resulted in many lean, tannic wines that are unlikely to age well. The best producers severely limited crop, both in the vineyard and at the sorting table. Overall, cooler mountain estates did better than valley floor and benchland properties. Consumers should be highly selective.

— Steve Heimoff

For reviews of West Coast Editor Steve Heimoff’s favorite barrel samples, see the Buying Guide in the August issue.

Published on July 1, 2004
About the Author
Dylan Garret

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