Washington Vacation, Part 2This is mostly compiled from memory and the notes I took while in the Pacific Northwest, but rest assured, I had a good enough time that the events are seared --seared-- into my memory. ;-)
Before we get started, beware: this is a mammoth entry.
The Post-Seattle Week
It seems to make sense to begin with the drive from Seattle to Prosser, WA. The drive was fairly uneventful, but the transitions from Seattle's buildings, to the fir-carpeted Cascade mountains, through the wrinkled and brown foothills, to the gold-and-green patchwork beginnings of the northwestern Plains, were all heartbreakingly beautiful. Because I had to meet the Hinzerling Winery's (And Vintner's Inn's) proprietor before 4 PM, however, I had to hustle and couldn't stop for pictures.
One of the Washington State features I wasn't expecting was how lush and beautiful the countryside was around the river valleys that I encountered. Mile followed mile of yellow and brown, only to be interrupted by hedges, trees, then manors surrounded by a few acres of staked vines: in short, wine country. I'm told that Napa Valley looks similar, but it was my first experience with that sort of country. :-)
I did reach Hinzerling just after 4, but thanks to a little cell phone work, all was well anyway. The winery's owner is named Mike Wallace, but he assured me that there was no relative of the newsman. :-) Mike showed me around briefly after getting me settled in, but not before bringing me into the winery's tasting room for some sips of his current and "library" vintages.
Mike's been taking Hinzerling's production more toward fortified-wine (port and sherry) territory than toward standard Chardonnay-Merlot-Cabernet fare, and as such most of the bottles I sampled were sweet and strong. One of the perks of staying at the Vintner's Inn, by the way, is an everfull small carafe of port and covered plate of biscotti by the bedside. Nothing says luxury to me like a comfortable couch, nothing to do, and a glass of his Three Muses Ruby Port and a good book to do it with. I will definitely have to get a bottle or two of some sort of port out here.
Most of the time I spent at Hinzerling/The Vintner's Inn was plain and simple relaxation time--heavy on the sleeping late and the reading in bed. I brought along a number of wine-related books (The Wrath of Grapes and The Wine Avenger, among others) and blazed through them, and also burned off the last 40% or so of Atlas Shrugged, and a copy of Dune that I picked up used in town.
To speak briefly of the town: Prosser is a sleepy place, crisscrossed with streets named Merlot and Chardonnay; there seems to be a steady trickle of wine-tourism traffic (if not brisk while I was there [it wasn't harvest season, and I imagine it gets a lot busier that time of year]), but not a large amount. The town seemed to be just a shade small for its purpose (there was a fair bit of construction on Prosser's main drag, Wine Country/Paterson Road), but not really growing with any rapidity. All in all, a nice, low-key place to spend a vacation.
Columbia Crest Winery
I did make some time in my overfull loafing schedule to get out to some of the wineries in the western part of the state. Columbia Crest is one of the Washington State labels that can be found in Birmingham, and I'd found it through one of its Riesling offerings. Columbia Crest didn't offer any guided tours the day I dropped by, but they did offer a small pamphlet that would let a person find their own way around the place. For the most part this didn't offer anything more than a behind-windows look at the place, but thankfully the path that overlooked the barrel-aging room from a caged-in catwalk still allowed proper enjoyment of that wondrous oak-wine-and-yeast scent I will forever associate with wineries.
Columbia Crest was unlike all the other wineries I visited on the trip (other than Blackwood Canyon, below) in that it was right next to one of its vineyards. I had a chance to grab a few snapshots of the vines and walk a larger portion of the grounds, and very much enjoyed myself.
[I have yet to get this blog entry and my Columbia Crest tasting notes in the same place; when I do I'll either update this entry or post another.]
Yakima River Winery
Yakima River is a small winery, local to Prosser, and it wasn't on my original visitation plan. I saw several signs for it around Prosser, though, and decided to drop by and sample some of Hinzerling's competition. I had a brief discussion with the proprietor and tried a few bottles, but the one I brought home was the "Rendezvous" Lemberger. Lemberger is a spicy, mild red grape I'd never bumped into before, but the Yakima River treatment of it was interesting enough to merit transport of a bottle.
Blackwood Canyon Winery
Ah, Blackwood Canyon. I saved it for the end of the week and the end of the trip because the information out there on it was sketchy, and when I mentioned that Mike Moore (no relation) and his operation were on my agenda, the response was usually somewhere between derisive and embarrassed. Whatever Blackwood Canyon was, its proprietor wasn't particularly popular among the local vintners.
When I drove out to the winery, the directions were good, but when I turned off the main drag onto a long, dusty gravel road I began to wonder what I was getting into. Finally I began to see acre upon acre of grapevines on either side of the road, and felt better about things (does anyone else out there find rows of grapevines a peaceful sight?). Anyway, I saw a sign confirming my route, and eventually crested the final hill and saw the winery: effectively a Quonset hut, with a gravel parking area and signage.
I hopped out of the car, walked inside the dark building, and was greeted by a tattooed twentysomething guy in T-shirt, van Dyke and shorts who asked me (with a distinct surfeit of attitude) whether I was there to taste some wine. I told him I was indeed, but as I began looking around, I was taken aback by the state of the place. The floors were uneven bare ground, with the occasional wide puddle. Fifteen-foot (apparently homebuilt, or at least home-maintained) tanks of chilled and fermenting and/or aging wine stood everywhere; I seem to recall two dozen or more tanks, arranged in little order that I could discern. The place was dark, moist, thankfully cool, but shabby-looking and, well, dirty.
Little did I know that I was beginning the most life-changing wine experience of my trip.
Van Dyke and I chatted for a few minutes as I paid my five dollars for tasting privileges, and he began preparing me for my tasting. Evidently the philosophy at Blackwood Canyon is to make wines the way they were made a hundred or two hundred years ago in France and Germany: extreme amounts of aging "on the lees" (yeast detritus), lots of exposure to oxygen through extended barrel aging. There was also some defensiveness in van Dyke's voice; obviously this was apostasy of a high order. Okaaay then, I thought, unsure what to expect.
"You don't really get it yet. Our whites have the character of most reds you've probably tasted, and our reds, well..."
...Most mysterious. Well, whatever; fill me up. I trusted the alcohol content of the wine to keep me safe from whatever microorganisms might have been floating around, and so swirled & sniffed the "young" Chardonnay van Dyke poured me. It was deep; musty; pungent, but offered little clue what to expect. So I tasted it.
This was a wine bottled when the Twin Towers still stood, when Clinton was president, when Y2K was still an onrushing bogeyman in the process of being declawed. It was a real bar-owning, been-round-the-block, glint-still-in-the-eye fortysomething matron of a Chardonnay. I wasn't sure I liked it; wasn't even sure I recognized it as a Chardonnay. But I knew it was wine done, if nothing else, differently.
I went on to try Chenin Blancs, Cabernet Blancs, and Semillons of varying ages, characters and intensities. They all had that similar mustiness and pungent bite, and I learned to recognize old, familiar grapes among those unfamiliar qualities, and how the grapes' characters expressed themselves amid the new medium. Like paint on stretched burlap instead of finer canvas: the color is still there, but you learn something different about the paint when it has terrain to explore.
By this point, Mike Moore had stopped by and taken over the tasting, and he bears mention in his own right. He's short and stocky--he obviously enjoys his material pleasures. He had a bushy mustache and frizzy gray-brown hair that poked thatchily out from under his baseball cap. He wore shorts and sandals, and like van Dyke, sported a natty T-shirt. He had that glint to the eyes that bespeaks either crank or prophet, and in my estimation, he's both, if much less former than latter.
Mike is a fierce guy, with strong opinions. He's been studying wine for over 30 years, and is of the mind that nearly everything made today in the wine world (on both sides of the Atlantic) is joyless, underexecuted and alcohol-focused, devoid of personality or artistry. Over the course of the afternoon (I spent the better part of three hours there, tasting, talking and tasting some more), he expounded on taxation, wine craft, cooking, politics and technology. He possessed the absolute certainty that defends itself with gusto from all comers, and it wasn't much of a leap to understand that his standing among his fellow vintners mattered to him not a bit. Perhaps he thrived on perceived persecution. But wine and its making are always foremost in his mind (or at least were while I was there), and as we shall see, in that area he knows his stuff.
We tasted some dessert wines next: Eisweins of Riesling and Gewurztraminer, sometimes blended with Chenin Blanc and/or (I think) Semillon, and all aged between seven and nine years. Suddenly the benefits of his long, lees-rich process made themselves clear. Worldwide, wines are most frequently judged by their ability to pair well with food. The most important quality of a wine when it comes to "pairability" is acidity: that tangy bite that stimulates saliva production and allows the tongue to taste its contents better. Rieslings, Gewurzes, Chenin Blancs and the like excel here, and the lees aging that the Blackwood Canyon wines had undergone simply transfigured these sweeter wines. I had (and have) never tasted anything more complicatedly delicious, whether wine or otherwise.
But the afternoon was young. We progressed to reds next, though I use the term loosely: most of them had deepened in color to a near chocolate darkness, and expressed depths and character that, simply, I wasn't aware that wines could offer. Syrah (not the fruity Australian-process variation called Shiraz), Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Pinot, Merlot: all become late-forties, well-groomed-and-sauced gentlemen with stories to tell.
(If I recall correctly, the youngest wine I tried at Blackwood Canyon was five years old. Most were in the seven-to-nine year range, and I actually tried a fifteen-year vintage or two. All marvelous.)
By this time Mike had finished the standard winetasting tour, but he was on a roll, and walked myself and the other taster (one Richard Miller, believe it or not, but one driving a fire-engine-red Porsche Boxster) over to some of his more exclusive aging vessels: some were barrels, some large tanks. We tried a '93 dessert Gewurz (exquisite, even compared to those from earlier) that Mike figured still had another ten years to go before it was "all grown up." The other five or so wines we tasted then were all intensely, symphonically, astonishingly good, and I can barely remember them due to the overload of pleasure my palate underwent that afternoon.
By the time we finished (with a "simple" Chenin Blanc that had the body and character to stand up to an intense, heavily-spiced gumbo, of all things), Mike had inadvertently given us the twenty-five dollar tour instead of the five-dollar one, but I was enraptured.
Sadly, I had completely exhausted my vacation budget. I still taste the irony that the best wine experience of the trip had to be crammed into that final day, and that I couldn't afford a single bottle to take back with me.
Rest assured, however, I will call upon Mike Moore again.
Cherries? Yes, cherries. Chukar (pronounced "chucker") Cherries is sort of a natural food store and confectionary dealer. Their specialty is the chocolate-covered cherry, and they have honed it to perfection. The Vintner's Inn offered small packets of their "Cabernet Chocolate Cherries" as samples, and they were so good that I had to snag a few boxes (Black Forest and Bing, for those interested) for L on my way home. Highly, highly (highly) recommended.
The Drive Back to Seattle
I remedied the 'no-time-for-pictures' problem during the leisurely drive back to Seattle, and when I get them all developed I will post the best-of-breed pix here (whether through my scanner or through a CD from the developer I have yet to determine).
Other Bits & Pieces
One of the things I tried to do whenever I was visiting a winery was to grab a bottle opener or two with the winery's logo on it. I've also been collecting corks from my bottles for the past several months. I figure this will eventually become some sort of display: a assembled-collected-cork board with all the bottle openers pinned to it. Cool, huh?
In any event, I had an absolute blast in Washington State, and will definitely be going back, if only to revisit Blackwood Canyon again, and pick up a few bottles for aging.