NW Wines: Not Ready For Prime Time - Printable Version

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- stevebody - 01-07-2003 04:12 PM

I recently wrote a review for a British site called I refer you to that site and their "wines" button. The gist is that, having sold wines here in Seattle for several years - and having sampled about 1,500 wines a year from all over the globe - I am far less inclined to buy WA or OR wines for simple reasons of value. An arbitrary decision was made years ago, by most of the primary WA vintners, to price their wines competitively with California's Medium-Premium tier, even though the quality clearly hadn't caught up to CA's. As a result, we have a S___load of WA wines sporting $40-$50 price tags but will be routinely beaten in a blind tasting by California wines that cost less. Case in point: A tasting of domestic Syrah, last summer, by a group pf fifteen people, all wine savvy, here in Seattle. Among the bottles were McCrae, Glen Fiona, and Cayuse Syrahs from WA and Havens and Babcock from CA, with a French ringer thrown in for perverse reasons. The winner, unanimously, was Bob Broman's Pepperwood Grove cuvee, that sells at retail for $6! This has shown up in Cab tastings, Merlots, blends, you name it. As a result, retailers here who used to just buy every new wine out of WA now are turning down some of the new, boutiquey stuff altogether...and being accused of disloyalty by vintners who should know better than to try to price their first vintage at $38 a bottle.

Our wines are coming of age quicklyut they're just NOT comparable to their CA peers right now. There are notable exceptions, of course: L'Ecole No. 41, Leonetti (sometimes), Andrew Will Merlots and Cabs, and DeLille. But our value stuff is cheap crap and not showing any improvement with time.

One man's opinion, of course...but I'm a long way from alone in it.

- Kcwhippet - 01-07-2003 05:15 PM

Been anywhere near the Willamette Valley, lately?

[This message has been edited by Kcwhippet (edited 01-07-2003).]

- wondersofwine - 01-07-2003 05:19 PM

Glad you list Andrew Will cabernets as an exception as I have just ordered a bottle or two.

- Bucko - 01-07-2003 09:08 PM

Lots of cheap crap from France, Italy, OZ, or any other wine region you care to mention.

Now if we are talking QPR, then it is hard to beat French Rhones, Loire whites, NZ SBs, even many Bordeauxs.

There are good value wines in WA and great top end wines. But as you say, it is my opinion.

- stevebody - 01-09-2003 06:40 PM

Have in fact been through the Willamette, as guest of many of the wineries there, and have tasted through their stuff. Same deal: they're making Wannabe Burgundy and therefore invite comparison. They don't compare well. There are nice wines in Oregon, especially the whites, but, once again, a $80 bottle of Brickhouse Pinot is, to me, overpriced. The Oregonians believe their own press and have started to price their wines at levels that are turning customers off. The same thing that happened to Leonetti last vintage - people turning down their subscription cases because of sticker shock - is happening to the high-end Oregon houses. I recently tasted through the entire vintage of Bouchard wines out of France. I don't really enjoy Pinot, compared to most other reds, but the variety and complexity of the reds was dazzling. I can't say the same for ANY of the Oregons I've tasted and I've tried the ones everybody raves about. As for WA bargain wines, I challenge anyone to sit down at a blind tasting of six of these things from Paul Thomas, Washington Hills, Silver Lake, any of our "value" wines and pick them out one from another or even to tell me what varietal they're tasting. I've talked this over with at least 20 other retailers and they've all agreed that we carry the wines because, under $10, they're simply all we have. Nobody professed to liking any of them. Consensus: Washington's mid-tier Cabs, to use an example, that retail for $35-$45 a bottle are comparable only to $20-ish bottles from Napa, Sonoma, and even an increasing number from Australia. The best Cab I tasted for under $40 in the '98 vintage was the Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley...that costs $18. One man's opinion but a lot of folks around Seattle share it.

- Bucko - 01-10-2003 12:18 AM

Consensus: Washington's mid-tier Cabs, to use an example, that retail for $35-$45 a bottle are comparable only to $20-ish bottles from Napa, Sonoma, and even an increasing number from Australia. The best Cab I tasted for under $40 in the '98 vintage was the Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley...that costs $18. One man's opinion but a lot of folks around Seattle share it.
Sounds like you are really down on WA wines. I do not agree at all, finding WA wines to often be much better values than their CA peers. But as you say, it is just one man's opinion.

- Kcwhippet - 01-10-2003 06:09 AM

It also seems to me that you delight in reporting negatives. I tune out negative people. I don't want to hear about all these wineries and wines that you have found fault with. Tell me something positive. What wineries/winemakers/wines do you like? Which wines are good values that you like. There is enough negativity on the tube and in the papers. I don't really want to see it here on my favorite Wine Board.

- Innkeeper - 01-10-2003 03:25 PM

Another viewpoint appeared in Dan Berger's Vintage Experiance yesterday. Dan, in an edition expanded by 50%, waxed eloquently on Washington State wines in general, and on Walla Walla Syrah in particular. Had some very good agruments to back up his observations.

- joeyz6 - 01-10-2003 05:55 PM

Apart the issue about the negativity, this does bring up again the issue of the price of American wine in general. Roberto, Foodie, and others have all pointed it out on other threads recently. The prices of some of this stuff from Cali and Washington and the Willamette Valley (regardless of its quality) are just insane sometimes. You all know very well the quality that can be EXPECTED here for a 40-euro bottle; compare that to the AVERAGE bottle of Napa Cab or Washington Syrah that costs 40 bucks (I know however that there are some great examples at that price). Now I haven't tasted all that many of those American wines at that price, but it seems to me that inflation has gone too far in these American bottlings. Over time as I am able to taste more expensive Napa and Walla Walla juice, maybe my mind will change, but for the moment I'm content to just ignore the expensive West Coast stuff and enjoy the bargains that are out there.

- dananne - 01-10-2003 06:39 PM

Agree about the prices of NW wines creeping up there into the "can't afford to drink regularly" category, but I've been dazzled by some of the wines I've tried from the NW this year, particularly from Oregon. Just my opinion, but I turn cartwheels over Abacela's tempranillos and cab francs, Rex Hill and Adelsheim's pinots, and Sokol Blosser's whites. Are these worth the prices? Well, I can't answer for others, but they are to me [img][/img]

Regarding Joey's comments about all the bargains out there -- absolutely right. But, I'm pretty sure the Pac NW isn't the place to go for them. I've been mining Spain, Portugal's table reds, Argentina, and Greece, along with the occasional Vin de Pays d'Oc.

- Thomas - 01-11-2003 02:29 PM

Unlike many parts of Europe and elsewhere, American viticulture is not subsidized by the government; in fact, it is the only American agricultural product that enjoys no subsidy.

Prices to some extent reflect economic conditions. It is costly to produce wine in America, which is why comparitive bargains abound from some European places and South America. In addition, in America wine is not a daily food, it is a luxury and, sorry to say, most of the West Coast producers have made a decision to go after the luxury market--indeed, many of the producers are OF the luxury world.

And so, as I agree with Kcwhippet, on a positive note: there remains a volume of good, solid wine at affordable prices from places other than the West Coast of the United States.

Having said all that, I also point out that if one operates a retail establishment one has the freedom to sell what one wants to sell. At my place, we eschew much of the West Coast and a part of the East Coast (Long Island) on the basis of price/quality ratio.

[This message has been edited by foodie (edited 01-11-2003).]

- stevebody - 01-11-2003 03:20 PM

Look, guys, I never said all the wines were bad. I said our bargain class is, which I stand behind. I just said that, dollar for dollar, they're not a great value, YET. We haven't been growing grapes as long as CA. Mature vines yield better, more complex grapes. Simple formula. In fact, we're starting to show signs of making the kinds of transcendent wines now that some Washingtonians have tried to claim we did in the past. The problem is, if you start out at $40 a bottle, where do you go from there? If you don't sell your wine and drop prices, it creates a perception of diminished value. That was the strategic error that a lot of our winemakers made and still make.

As for Oregon, they are the ones who started comparing their wines to Burgundy's and they simply aren't really as good, yet, in the scope of what they are trying to do. Some are GREAT wines. The '98 Archery Summits were among the best NW wines I've ever tasted. Ditto for the Torii Moor. The Drouhins are beautiful but Pinot is finicky, as anyone who has ever grown the grapes will attest. Sometimes it just doesn't work and those off-years DON'T MERIT $80 PRICE TAGS.

We make some spectacular wines here, right now. The L'Ecole No. 41 stuff I mentioned, well, I challenge anyone to show me a winery in this country that makes a better roster of wines, bottle for bottle. The names like Leonetti and Quilceda Creek have earned their big reps and always release at least very good wines. Here is a short list of wines that nearly everyone who sells wine around here sells well and thinks highly of:

McCrae Vineyards Viognier : Even the French couldn't argue with what Doug McCrae is doing with this ill-tempered grape. Flawless stuff.

Columbia Crest, our inadvertent Bargain King. Doug Gore is just a masterful winemaker and even his low-end stuff is wonderful. His Estates Cab, Merlot, and Chard are a few of the best values available in the entire country. The Chard has made the Spectator Top 100 two years running anf sells for about $10.

Snoqualmie Cab-Merlot: An elegant, deep, interesting Bordeaux blend that Joy Anderson taqke a lot of obvious pride in. Washington is awahgs in these C/M things, most quite nice. This is the perennial champion. And it costs about $12!

K Syrah: My pal Charles Smith is buying this juice but he buys damned well. These are cuvee from several of the state's best vineyards and Charlie is showing a surprising skill as a blender, a fact which shocks many of us who have always thought of him as a nice guy but...well...a dork.

Reininger Cab and Merlot: New, polished, beautiful, deep reds, with a ton of varietal character and sane price tags.

Glen Fiona Bacchus Syrah: Reasonable prices for a wine that would do a lot of Northern Rhone vintners proud. Gary Figgins of Leonetti isn't the only vintner in his family. Brother Rusty clearly knows his wines.

Andrew Will: Chris Camarda makes what R. Parker has called "the best Merlots being made in America". Can't argue. Maybe a couple of CA wines are better (Beringer Howell Mountain, maybe) but Chris ain't askin' $100. The single vineyard stuff from Calle Cielo, Pepperbridge, and his Reserve would fetch $400 in a Bordeaux bottle and no one would be the wiser. At that, I like his Cabs even better. The guy just knows how to pamper grapes. The wines are dense, incredibly extracted, and beautifully made.

DeLille: The whole catalog reeks of classy, savvy winemaking. Their Harrison Cab is immense and espresso-tinged and priced sanely enough to make it possible for those of us who didn't make fortunes in software to drink it once in a while.

DiStefano: Amazing Cabs, with few off-vintages. They have a new meritage that is as nice a bottle of $15 wine as I've had in years. They're sort of a boutiquey operation, so finding them in other parts of the country may be hard.

Cayuse: AWESOME Syrah but pricey. I had a bottle about a month ago and I'm not sure the finish is gone yet. They're really new and are not avid attention seekers, so they may be a hunt, too.

Cascade Cliffs: Bob Lorkowski and Andrea Hoolan (probably spelled both those wrong) are making Italian varietals that sing. Their Nebbiolo is damned plausible and the Barbera is THERE already. They also make one of the worst, clumsiest blends I've ever tasted, their Goat's Head Red, but it's a small indiscretion compared to the rest of the stuff. Their Cab is nice AND a bargain!

There are a lot more but enough for now.

Last Point: As a famous reviewer once told me - back when I was writing arts criticism and refused to review anything I didn't like - sometimes the most positive thing you can do for someone is to offer a genuine voice of dissent. Politicallt Incorrect as it may be, sometimes things AIN'T GOOD. Would you get offended at Consumer Reports if they told you a can opener didn't open cans very well? It's all just opinions, folks. Instead of belaboring me with what I regard as a dious, neo-hippie karma adjustment, write me off as a crank and STOP READING. For those who can handle frankness, please cxall 'em as you see 'em. I appreciate a heads up abut stuff you think is over-rated. It at least gives me something to think about.

- winoweenie - 01-11-2003 07:42 PM

Hi SB and a belated welcome to the board. As a young whipper-snapper I loved to play the devils' advocate. As I've aged, my views on everything has mellowed, broadened, and become less biased. Reading thru your lengthy posts I find one of your statements you yourself contradicts. First you say Wa wines are ca-ca on the low end, then further down the tome you point out the obvious P/Q rating of Columbia Crest. Most of the drinkers in my circle mention this terrific vineyard in any discussion of great buys. I think everyone on the board agrees about the price of wine. Don't think Wash vintners have the franchise on high prices. I have 76 Caymus Special Selection in my cellar I paid 25 bucks per clatter for, 82 Margaux that was 45 , 74 Diamond Creek that was 7.50. Insanity in pricing has been around since 1984 and won't be going away soon. Every wine drinker will decide what his perception of P/Q wines are and act accordingly. I, for one, think the Wash-Or. quality is escalating rapidly. WW

- Bucko - 01-11-2003 09:21 PM

WW, IMHO WA blows away CA for top-end wines. The northerly location (similar to France) allows some nice acidity if the winemakers don't screw it up. The potential is here -- it has not been maximized for sure. Time will tell.

- stevebody - 01-11-2003 11:40 PM

Sorry! No contradiction; just major lack of clarity: Columbia Crest is WA's Bargain King purely by default. They make fine wines and originally started bottling the basic stuff as a cash cow. Their upper end stuff is as accomplished as any winery in the NW but they've done such a spectacular job with the Grand Estates line that people routinely think of them as a value house. They're part of one of those major wine conglomerates, of course, so the bean counters are quite happy to have them known as the home of $8 miracles but that's not their main purpose. Doug Gore was named winemaker of the year for the NW in the Seattle Times and could well take that title every year with no complaints. He's a major talent and Crest will eventually, I think, gain that high-end profile he fancies. Victims of their own success, these guys.

- Kcwhippet - 01-12-2003 07:38 AM

Much better.

- winoweenie - 01-12-2003 09:16 AM

Much clearer SB, and Buckinhoosier, so far there hasn't been a wine crafted in Wash at the upper end that "IMHO" can muscle with the big boys of Napa. I personally think Sonoma is ahead of Ore and Wash strictly from a time-frame quotient when compared to the big guns, but I certainly agree that Wash is a potentially major force. Hard to put Leonetti or Quicelda Creek against Stags, Shafer, Ch Montelena, or a dozen others and not expect to get a bloody nose ocassionally. Again their time will come. Even tho some will use some new Nevers barrels and you'll start a tirade agin' them fools. Wood must do something for wine as them old timers at Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Haut Brion, an' Margaux been using it with success fer' meeny yars.WW [img][/img]

- Thomas - 01-12-2003 04:11 PM

...and I thought I was an opinionated S.O.B.

The operative word is opinion. The guy with wads of cash (and no palate) would have his opinion too, on who makes the best upper-end wine.

I am sorry to see that wine has been elevated from a daily food to the Holy Grail.

All I want is my daily affordable wine, and once in a while the nirvana bottle that takes a week's pay out of my wallet, should I ever see a week's pay as a wine retailer...

- winoweenie - 01-12-2003 05:04 PM

From Foodie " The guys with wads of cash and no PALATE ". Hope that wasn't directed at me ole' pal or we'll have to have a taste-off.WW (And iffin' I didn't have my daily wine I'd starve to death)

[This message has been edited by winoweenie (edited 01-12-2003).]

- Thomas - 01-13-2003 10:23 AM

ww, I'll take that taste off, even though the sentiment was not directed at you. Of course, you admitted to having a lot of money, and for that I shall make a trip to the desert for a weekend to relieve you of some of it...

I meant to say that there are a lot of people with lots of money who buy wine based on status rather than on taste. Many of these people do not subscribe to my "wine is food" mantra. Their opinions, however, matter; after all, it is their money and their demand manages to keep prices high, whether or not some of us believe the wines do not stand up to their prices.

[This message has been edited by foodie (edited 01-13-2003).]